Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Sociology

Excerpt: Excommunication

9780226925226An excerpt from Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation by Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark


From the editors’ Introduction:

The field of media studies today generally understands media along two interconnected axes: devices and determinacy. On the one hand, media are understood as synonymous with media devices, technological apparatuses of mediation such as the phone, the file, or the printing press. And yet such technological devices are imbued with the irresistible force of their own determinacy. Media either determine a given social, cultural, or political dimension, or media are themselves determined by the social, cultural, or political. Media makers affect media consumers and thus establish hierarchical relationships with them, or media-savvy individuals express their own desires by way of the tools and machines that extend their will. For media studies generally, media are, in short, determinative devices, and they are thus evaluated normatively as either good influencers or bad influencers.

Consider the major traditions that continue to inform media studies today. With the Frankfurt School and Adorno and Horkheimer’s theses on the culture industry, one finds an emphasis on media as technologies of domination. The extorted reconciliation of the pop song or narrative is determined by the apparent equivalence of commodity exchange. On the other hand, Walter Benjamin stresses not so much the raw commodity form but the technical form of reproducibility, through which media escape property and become the perceptual apparatus adequate to the revolutionary tasks of the working class.

Likewise consider the media-ecological approach of the Toronto School, which oscillates between the categories of bias and synthesis. For Harold Innis, media forms are biased either toward being space-binding or time-binding, and the relative spatial integrity or temporal longevity of a social formation is determined by its mix of media forms. For Marshall McLuhan, the questions of bias and integration operate more at the level of the individual sensorium. The bias of print toward a fragmentary rationality destroys the sacred synthesis of the senses and of logical and analogical thought.

The tradition of British and French cultural theory tries to synthesize culture, language, and ideology. Raymond Williams’s subtle readings of English culture as a domain of struggle combines with Roland Barthes’s extension of the linguistic turn into cultural practices, which themselves combine with Louis Althusser’s notion of the ideological as a relatively autonomous “level” (which like the economic and the political levels is subject to its own specialized methods and tools). In attempting to generalize the category of the Barthesian text beyond the literary, cultural studies came to emphasize the oscillations between writing and reading, or between encoding and decoding. A theory of polyvalent reading thus became sufficient for explaining the transmission of ideological or creative acts.

Finally, continental philosophy, and phenomenology in particular, have foregrounded the imbrication of the human in a world that both envelops it and appears (or is given) to it. Martin Heidegger’s famous claim that “the essence of technology is nothing technological” not only seeks to unearth the primal processes of technological enframing, but also make possible an entire analysis of technics, or what Bernard Stiegler calls “organized inorganic beings.” This bleak view finds again its optimistic double in Félix Guattari’s mapping of the virtual domain of the machinic.

We applaud these traditions for endeavoring to abandon the plane of the text, turning ninety degrees and pursuing a line of flight through media and technology. Yet in each of these traditions a normative approach holds sway. EAch of these traditions considers media in terms of their capacity to change, alter, or intervene in the world as it exists. This often results in discussions of media determinacy, and promotes a rhetoric of danger. Likewise it often corrals the discussion back toward talk of devices and apparatuses—often rather obsolete ones—disallowing more broad discussions of modes of mediation.

Ultimately uninspired by these various options, we are tempted to join Geert Lovink in his “declaration of independence” for media studies, unlinking it from the other traditions. But in the long run even this gesture might simply reproduce the same old problems stemming from the legacy of media theory: it conspiratorial sleuthing for breaks and continuities, its obsession with devices and determinacy, its bipolar enthusing and denouncing of media as form. Indeed these symptoms are already present in so-called new media theory. What we need is another tactic. Not so much a tactical media as a tactical media theory, one which poses just enough questions to gets us going on a new path.

Have we not forgotten the most basic questions? Distracted by the tumult of concern around what media do or how media are built, have we not lost the central question: what is mediation? In other words, has the question of “what” been displaced by a concern with “how”? Have the theoretical inquiries been eclipsed by the practical ones? Is it sufficient that media be understood as simply bi-directional relationships between determining apparatuses? Is it sufficient to say that a medium is always a tool for influence at a distance?

This book directly targets such assessments of media. We target the Achilles heel of media theory, the one aspect of mediation that is so hard to accept, the insufficiency of mediation. Horror author Thomas Ligotti puts it thus: “In a world without a destination, we cannot even break ground on our Tower of Babel, and no amount of rush and hurry on our part will change that.” For there exist modes of mediation that refuse bi-directionality, that obviate determinacy, and that dissolve devices entirely.

Does everything that exists, exist to be presented and represented, to be mediated and remediated, to be communicated and translated? Of course, we know that the fact that one can communicate doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something to say, but at the same time one cannot help notice in our media cultures the seduction of empty messages, flitting here and there like so many angelic constellations in the aether. Do we not always assume that communication is possible and even desirable—or better, do not our attitudes toward communication always presume the possibility of communication, that “there will have always been communication,” even before a single word has been uttered? A common language, a common ground, an agreed-upon topic and rules of engagement . . . so much has already taken place prior to the first words being uttered or the first message being sent.

There are mediative situations in which heresy, exile, or banishment carry the day, not repetition, communion, or integration. There are certain kinds of messages that state there will be no more messages. Why? The reasons may vary, from the paradoxical lyricism of the ineffable (“it can’t be put into words”), to the refusal to engage (“I prefer not to”), to the contentiousness of apathy (“some things aren’t worth saying”), to the enigma of silence (and its impossibility).

Hence for every communication there is a correlative excommunication. Every communication evokes a possible excommunication that would instantly annul it. Every communication harbors the dim awareness of an excommunication that is prior to it, that conditions it and makes it all the more natural. Excommunication—before a single words has been said. Excommunication—when there is nothing more to say. We aim, therefore, to craft not so much a theory of mediation in terms of communication, for which there already exist a number of exemplars, but a theory of mediation as excommunication.

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