A Geology of Media
by Jussi Parikka
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2015
224 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, $87.50; paper, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8166-9551-5; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9552-2.
Reviewed by Gabriela Galati
University of Plymouth
The myth of an immateriality of information; the illusion that electronic technology is only clean, shiny and glossy; the concealing of e-waste: in A Geology of Media Jussi Parikka addresses all these fundamental issues drawing on concepts and the methodological approach of geology and new materiality. The author intends to put the accent on the very concrete material and environmental effects of media and digital culture, and not only on its significance; as he states, it is 'a call for a further materialization of media, not only as media but as that bit of which it consists of: the list of geophysical elements that give us digital culture' (139). With this aim, the book also features diverse examples from contemporary art, presenting artworks that deal with these issues in a compelling fashion. What is most interesting in this sense is that Parikka does not use contemporary artworks just to exemplify his point, but clearly acknowledges that in many cases these artists called his attention on several of the topics addressed in the book (28).
The work is the conclusion of the trilogy that begun with Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007), followed by Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010); it is divided in five chapters, an afterword and an appendix, co-written with artist Garnet Hertz. While the first chapter lays down the methodological approach, the other four are guided each by a leading concept: deep time, psychogeophysics, dust and future fossils respectively.
The work intends to consider a new temporality of media, taking into account that the earth pre-existed humankind, and will possibly extend its existence long after it has disappeared from its surface. The author uses Siegfried Zielinski's concept of deep time to, at the same time, connect time with the earth, and with its depth, and Manuel Delanda's idea of non-linear history to expand the field of research from media art history to a geology of media art history (p.8). In doing this, and all along the book, Parikka spotlights from different points of view, and focusing on one of the aforementioned concepts on each chapter, the devastating environmental effects that the production, consumption and fast dumping of hardware has on the planet; as well as he calls for attention on the not less urgent acknowledgment, and hopefully action, on the use and abuse of labour in the production of digital technologies. In this sense, he especially remarks the pernicious health effects that working with the minerals, metals and chemicals, necessary for the production of our perfectly polished computers and mobile phones, have on the workers dealing with them. The new materialist approach helps put in evidence the fallaciousness of the idea, for a long time fostered by the discourse of the immateriality of information technologies, that hardware generates no waste, that it is, precisely, immaterial, and thus clean and aseptic.
The third chapter uses the concept of psychogeophysics - inspired by the Situationist movement's concept of psychogeographical - to try to delineate an aesthetics from a non-human perspective. As defined on page 61, 'Psychogeophysics argues that we need to extend beyond the focus on the urban sphere to the geophysical for a more fundamental understanding of the modulation of the subject that is stretched between ecologies of capitalism and those of the earth'. The idea is to radicalise the Situationist vocabulary to link geophysics and media, thus thinking beyond human-scale interactions and effects. And here possibly the only objection that can be raised to the book turns up: If the main interest and explicative power of the posthuman is to be able to shift the focus from the human perspective, to accept the breaking of the boundaries not only of the human body, but also of human subjectivity, to accept that the world pre-existed us, and will very likely be there a long time after we had disappeared as species; this approach enters a very different, and highly problematic field, when it attributes agency, sense, and intention to inanimate matter; as for instance in the paragraph that follows:
'[…] how do you measure the objective and physiological thresholds of animals, including humans? But what happens if you start asking such questions from the perspective of the nonorganic? The memory of a rock is of different temporal order to that of the human social one' (p.62).
In this respect, it is possible to discuss, and even agree, for example, about the interest of animal aesthetics as mentioned by Parikka in this chapter (61-67); but the dangers of equalling machines to humans, or as the quote states, the nonorganic to humans, especially from the point of view of agency and sense have already been brought to attention by N. Katherine Hayles many years ago (2001; 2005). It is not so much a problem of thinking that things can do things, which they can, but that they have the intention of doing them; in this process, one is anthropomorphising things, and animals, at the same time that is equalling animals, including humans, to things. Is this not what one is trying to avoid? Acknowledging and accepting difference is also part of displacing the focus from a human-centred perspective.
Having said this, the relevance of the book, particularly for students and newcomers to media studies, is undeniable. In the Appendix, Parikka and Hertz compellingly call the attention on the current political consequences of planned obsolescence, and the related constant production of e-waste and what the authors call zombie media: 'new media always become old' (142), so old media do no just die and disappear, it stays around as 'the living dead of media history' (145). In this sense, Friedrich Kittler's intention of extending media materiality beyond bodies (94) is undoubtedly achieved by this work. In addition to this, the inclusion of works by such artists as the microresearchlab group, Jamie Allen, Katie Paterson, Trevor Paglen and Grégory Chatonsky, among others, which are discussed all along the book, undoubtedly enriches the debate, at the same time that reinforces much desired and necessary connections between media theory and contemporary art.
Hayles, N. K., How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2001).
---. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005).