Labor

In Electricity Made Visible, Batchen builds off of Manovich’s Language of New Media, which argues for a genealogy of ‘new media’ that goes back to the development of cinema and early computational machines. Extending this history, Batchen attempts to tease out a new history between the development of photography, the telegraph, and calculating machines. Sketching out a Victorian era saga of ‘inventors’ like William Henry Talbot, with his “photogenic drawings,” or Samuel Morse who as a painter (later turned photographer) developed a telegraphic system for transmitting images and text onto chemically prepared paper. Batchen illustrates a social context of thinkers who’s minds and work would not easily fit within today’s tightly defined boundaries of expert-specialists.  Whether we are trying to re-negotiate the perceived boundary between the sciences and arts, or broader social issues that stem from the division of labor, Batchen argues that the ‘formal’ developments of new media (photography, telegraphy, and computing) we never ‘separate’ but “in fact had a common chronological, philosophical and representational trajectory (and of course, a common social, political and economic context).”

“What this suggests is that new media has a surprisingly long history, a history as old as modernity itself. The “new” in new media might therefore best be sought, not in formal qualities of its “language,” but in that language’s contemporary reception and meanings. This would shift our history from a concern with how images are technically made and transmitted, to political and social questions about their past and current contexts of production, dissemination and interpretation. What world view, what assumptions about the way life ought to be lived now, are embodied and reproduced in the visual culture of today’s electronic media? How can we engage, and if necessary, contest these assumptions? These sorts of questions bring us back to the “archaeology” that Manovich seeks to construct for new media, for history is, as always, a good place from which to begin any answer. But now the word “archaeology” must conjure, not so much a vertical excavation of developments in imaging technologies, but rather Michel Foucault’s more troublesome effort to relate particular apparatuses to “the body of rules that enable them to form as objects of a discourse and thus constitute the conditions of their historical appearance.” The identification of these “rules,” of what Foucault calls “a positive unconscious of knowledge,” turns such a history into a necessarily political enterprise. For identifying new media’s various rules of formation, our history must also identify its (its subject’s, but also it own) imbrication within broader social issues, and thus its relationship to particular deployments of power.”
Thus images making, and the currents of its transmission become an ideological expression. The question I have for Batchen is what is the “common social, political and economic context” of such developments in relations to other social and political contexts? Why does the computer’s desktop and trash bin, directly reflect the bureaucrat and manager’s desktop of the mid 1800’s? This is more of a rhetorical question, but Warren Sack’s essay on Memory in “Software Studies a lexicon” unpacks these issues through the metaphors used to design computer memory systems. My general interest lies in Batchen continuing to unpack the last page and half of his essay, as a way of understanding the fuzzy “deployments of power” his points towards. But if his Victorian era heros have taught us one thing, it would have to be the DIY quality of making what you want to see in the world.

  • Readings:
    • Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.  (Chapter 1: The Beginnings of Digital Culture) [Course Reader]
    • Batchen, Geoffrey.  “Electricity Made Visible.” Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Thomas Keenan, Editors. New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. (Chapter 2) [Course Reader]
    • Grier, David Alan. When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. (Chapter 1: The First Anticipated Return: Halley’s Comet 1758 & Chapter 2: The Children of Adam Smith) [Course Reader]
    • Terranova, Tiziana.  “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.”  Electronic Book Review, 2003.http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/technocapitalism/voluntary
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