Environing Media | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Environing Media

Environing Media
Adam Wickberg and Johan Gärdebo, Editors

Routledge Press, London & New York, 2022
198 pp., 10 illus. 10 b/w. Print: £27.99
ISBN: 9781032253824.

Reviewed by: 
Jussi Parikka
February 2023

Environing Media is one of those smart books that presents interesting case studies while offering a platform for a broader discussion converging with environmental media studies with a dose of history of science thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, this is an exciting combination of disciplines and methods that is driven by the realization of the centrality of technological infrastructures, scientific instruments, and mediating discourses for understanding climate change (and related issues from fossil fuel cultures to air pollution). The editors Adam Wickberg and Johan Gärdebo have firm links with the KTH (Stockholm) Environmental Humanities Laboratory in the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment (either as graduates or current affiliated researchers) that itself has been a central institution in developing the notion of “environing” in relation to technological cultures. Here a nod to Sverker Sörlin and Nina Wormbs is in place. According to their earlier work on environing technologies, the environment is “also increasingly a word to signify the knowledge-based representation of the material world in which humans and their actions are embedded.” This underpins the role of environing technologies as not just mediating already existing environments, but actively creating, materially and symbolically, such environments. Such terms, clearly, point to the central context of the Anthropocene (or more specifically, the Great Acceleration) which then becomes operational in such concepts and the methods they imply. In more specific terms, this is picked up by Sörlin: that besides the quantified definitions of planetary boundaries, particular environmental humanities or media approaches like in this book are needed as “boundary digits themselves, however carefully calculated, offer little advice on how the leap from the ontological insight, in itself so intuitively compelling, to the normative program for the polity could be conceived, or, even harder, pursued in empirically existing societies.” (36) In short, we need critical, self-reflective, and cross-disciplinary humanities that also can tackle key questions of mediation and technology.

As for the “application” of the notion of environing, Wickberg and Gärdebo focus on questions of media but in a very similar key as the earlier uses of “environing technology.” Indeed, here such techniques as modelling (Wormbs’ chapter) or sensing and datafication of ocean floors (Susanna Lidström, Wickberg, and Gärdebo as well as Erik Isberg in their respective chapters), perspectives as planetarity (Giulia Rispoli), or “colonial media” (John Durham Peters and Wickberg) relate to historical source materials while they participate in defining the scope of notions of environing.

The editors’ introduction does a lot of the work of contextualization that glues together different case studies. They define the scope of mediation as both about knowledge and interventions into the environment, while outlining that many of the biogeochemical contexts, or even concepts (e.g., biosphere) should be considered as part of this expanded media studies investigations. Many of us who have worked on “elemental media” would wholeheartedly agree. The definition of environing and media through the “middle ground” or “the middle voice” to echo cultural techniques theorists such as Cornelia Vismann: The subject of the action is also shaped by the very same action. All the action is in the middle. It is in the verb form where we find media but also planetary scale processes of so-called nature. Humans environ in contexts that are not solely environed by themselves.

The introduction does a good job in opening up the scope of the book, although it could have been much more comprehensive in its overview and expanding on the links to earlier work in media theory and beyond where similar notions as “environing media” have been discussed. In general, it’s at least the connections to “environmental media” that are here the most relevant while “environing media” is interesting in how it also ties to some questions and methods in history of science and thus include all sorts of techniques and technologies in its analysis that media and communication studies would not (normally) do. No surprise that Bernhard Siegert features on several pages of the book.

In any case, the chapters and the expertise of the writers are delightful. Rispoli’s historical take on the biosphere from Vernadsky onwards gives insights to the different scaling operations of the planetary as this figure is operationalized in different bodies of knowledge (e.g., cybernetics), in diagrams (e.g., the Bretherton diagram), or in such broader stakes such as Cold War nuclear militarism that Rispoli sees as creating “a new environmental and geophysical globalism that consolidated images of the Earth system”. Similarly, Christoph Rosol’s cross-section of “1948” as a central hinge for many kinds of knowledge, geopolitical, and material processes works well in the spirit of “environing”. From cybernetics to Middle East Oil (e.g., the Kirkuk-Haifa pipeline), to different other scientific, bureaucratic, or literary (George Orwell of course) examples, Rosol paints a picture of 1948 as “a historical magnifying glass of the present”. In this chapter like in many others, the notion of scale comes to the fore as a particular theme that seems to underpin “environing media”: that they jump across different scales and not only scales understood in the measured sense of spatio-temporal points across a pre-defined matrix but as diffractive lenses. The in-mixing of different types, classes, and scales of agency that also the Afterword by Bernard Geoghegan seems to be pointing at is a case in point.

As already mentioned, Environing Media is an enjoyable read with several case studies but also methodological cues that are of interest; to read models, graphs, deep sea cores, autonomous floats (the Argo program), and other scientific examples as media is among those. Similarly, it is always refreshing to read examples beyond the usual Anglo-American world – in this case from Mexico to Sweden – that are not treated merely as exceptions to the rule but as integral components in the planetary histories of environmental data. Indeed, at least for this reader, “environing media” helps to figure out how to read environmental data as a recursive concept that both defines a particular process of datafication while itself participates in the transformation of its own referent in that process.