The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think
by Alexander Klose
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
400 pp., illus. 96 b/w. Trade, $29.95
Reviewed by Jussi Parikka
Winchester School of Art/University of Southampton
Tell me how you store things, and I will tell you what sort of a person you are. And increasingly, we do not keep things only close by in personal collections -whether drawers, boxes and chests-but transported as part of global logistics that ensure that whatever data finds whatever address. Containers stand as a historically crucial reminder of the point at which storage and transportation start to define both human culture in a rather significant anthropological sense from ceramics onwards and, then, also the logistical culture that ties our age to the standardised formats of size, movement, and address spaces. Such space does not merely cross the planet but defines it as an epistemology. The container ship is one obvious reference point in terms of the visual culture of this planetary condition but not the only one in what one could claim to be the containment culture of our era.
Alexander Klose's The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think is an alternative media and design history of the seemingly simplest and most formal of principles. And yet it also becomes a material history of what defines the container space: It's not just nothing in the hollow space but the framing of something where the frame becomes a material epistemology. Indeed, it is a question of the materiality of frames whether the containers are empty or full - in either case, boxes and containers are formative of thought and cultural practices.
This function as storage and transport is both a technique as part of hominization (such as in understanding how wine becomes possible with containers used in the making, storing and transporting the liquid) and also part of, well, post-hominization: the post-human worlds of global logistics as a world of software transactions in which the circuit is what defines agency, not the human actant. Furthermore, as objects, the container is one of constant mystery and, hence, mythology: it's the enigma of not knowing the inside of a container that produces the projected meanings that feature also in popular culture and the various representations of containers. Containers are opened only at certain points; otherwise, they have to remain black boxes.
Klose's background in certain areas of media theory and studies represented by the Weimar IKKM (The International Research Institute for Cultural Techniques and Media Philosophy) is visible in his methodology. He is basically writing about the cultural techniques of containment from the physical to the normative, from the legal to the material. It's no surprise that a major part of the book is about the modern 20th century formation of container standards and their way of impacting the understanding of sea-land relations, and the ground of transport. His philosophically tuned approach is made very readable by not burdening the text with too many academic references to sources. Despite the book being clearly very well researched, the references are not always visible, which to some readers actually might be slightly problematic. In either case, the arguments offered are good food for thought when considering the intersections of infrastructure, media and design.
It's also the cross-sections of physicality and data that define Klose's argument about the container principle. Indeed, not merely the physical form but its relation to standards--and not merely the formal principles but the way in which they take place across the vectors of the real world as well as sites of storage is what defines this junction. In his words:
"As both symbolic and physical media, they work in two directions. On the one hand, they are agents in the digital in the physical spaces of transport, in which everything is subjected to their logic of the processing of standardized, clearly separate (discrete) units, and in this respect the computer-driven control is double. On the other hand, they operate as agents of materiality in the symbolic spaces of data processing, where containers implement a specific kind of physical spatiality and where metaphors from the realm of transport (and architecture) play a central role in the construction of the systems." (201)
Klose's book is a good take on media infrastructures that define the media culture beyond the usual objects of focus. It's the sort of media scholarship that speaks strongly to design and architecture, too. With a range of recent books such as Nicole Starosielski's The Undersea Network, Deborah Cowen's The Deadly Life of Logistics, Shannon Mattern's Deep Mapping the Media City and Ned Rossiter's forthcoming book Software, Infrastructure, Labor, it contributes to what might seem the greyest of areas to write about - boxes, containers, cables, standards, and such-but is still at least for this reader one of the most interesting themes that runs through contemporary design and media scholarship.