My roundtable panel on “Objects of Global Media” has been accepted for MLA 2016 in Austin! I’m really excited for what I think will be a great conversation with some really interesting presenters, and particularly for the session’s pecha kucha format as well.
I posted the initial cfp earlier; the full accepted proposal is below, and I’ll post scheduling information when it’s out later this summer. Join us in Austin this January!
Our culture often imagines global media as immaterial, defined by the placelessness of mobile technology and the intangibility of the cloud. Yet these rhetorics serve to conceal the physicality of the web and its contexts: as recent work in media studies has shown, the digital consists not of air and vapor but rather of a wide range of specifically situated objects, each with its own historical, discursive, economic, and geopolitical dimensions. Taking as its focus the importance of such material objects for media studies, this special session builds on recent research in media archaeology by scholars including Matthew Kirschenbaum, Lisa Gitelman, Jonathan Sterne, and Nicole Starosielski and on recent conversations at the MLA convention, including 2015 panels on “Artifactual Interpretation” and “Media for the Anthropocene,” to offer a context for critical consideration of the technologies of global capital at a local scale. Each speaker will deliver a pecha kucha presentation on a single technological object, situating that object as a synecdochal artifact within the larger global media landscape.
Grant Wythoff begins our discussion with a consideration of a cryptic object from the predigital moment. Wythoff traces a history beginning in 1915, when a wireless telegraph station on Long Island was caught sending covert commands to German UBoats patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. Among the objects confiscated from this station was an artifact that has since come to be known as “Mystery Object 40.9.11,” a lighttight wooden box containing a neon yellow, paper tape reel. Offering a methodological framework for the rest of the panel, Wythoff traces the ongoing efforts at the Columbia Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities to understand the provenance and function of this mystery object through archaeology, ethnography, and archival research.
Brian Thill explores the touchscreen as an omnipresent space where flesh and technology come into contact. Thill suggests that we have entered a period of media engagement where the contact point for our enmeshment in media forms is understood as a radically dematerialized and oleophobic zone. The unavoidable residues of secreting human bodies constantly smudge the touchscreen’s surface, tainting its pristine, “proper” state and threatening to dirty the interfaces between human and machine. Tracing our cultural anxieties about the dematerialized sleekness of these new and savvy surfaces and the ways in which those surfaces work to erase their own equally dirty and organic labor histories, Thill imagines the touchscreen as part of a smudgeological field, placing it in conversation with a longer history of grimy, handworn media objects.
Jaime Lee Kirtz offers a media archaeology of the image scanner in order to understand how it engages with shifting forms of authority and archival practices in the global community. Approaching scanning as a form of archive fever that reveals larger fears about ephemerality in the face of globalization, Kirtz considers the scanner’s global condition as an object built from multinational parts and capable of circulating documents in a way that is impossible in the case of paper textuality. Through a thick material archaeology of the scanner—disassembling product units, comparing file resolutions, and analyzing manufacturing documents—she considers how its global parts alter authority and how different types of scanners and methods connote alterity in a global archival context.
Keegan Cook Finberg considers the selfie stick, a ubiquitous and permanent part of many global tourist sites. Finberg argues that this object has much to show us about patriarchy, neoliberalism, and the possibility of community within digital culture. The selfie stick figures an image whose value is premised on the idea that one is present at the site with someone who snaps one’s photo. This global community, like many others, is reliant on a technological extension of the self. Yet unlike other objects of global community, the selfie stick serves to literalize this extension unabashedly, publically, and in physical proximity to others. Tracing how the selfie stick illuminates cultures of global capital through visual materiality, Finberg considers the possibilities this object presents for sustainable and sustaining global community.
Paul Benzon reads the airline flight data recorder—the device commonly referred to as the black box—as an archival and historiographic crucible of global media culture. In a moment in which global air travel is increasingly marked by disappearance, crisis, and irretrievability, the black box occupies an uncanny position as both relic and record. Existing anachronistically outside of satellite coverage and wireless networking, it mirrors the contemporary circulation of digital information, yet diverges from that circulation in its most traumatic and crucial moments. Discussing the device’s early history as well as recent debates about its integration within satellite systems, Benzon suggests the black box as a textual aporia within global media culture, an object whose materiality illuminates both its own forensic limitations and the gaps and blank spaces in the network that surrounds it.
Jinying Li closes our panel with a presentation on The Great Firewall of China. The Wall is one of the world’s most sophisticated and effective instruments for state censorship and geoblocking, a practice that restricts access to selected media content based on a user’s location. As both a metaphor and a technique, the Wall is a symptomatic object of the global media network, shattering the myth of borderless global access and foregrounding the regulatory power of nationstate. Yet what makes the Wall more meaningful, Li argues, is the practice of “wallcrossing,” by which both Chinese users and those outside the Wall bypass restrictions in media distribution in order to access otherwise unavailable media content. Tracing both sides of this complex interchange, Li shows how the battle around the Wall becomes the lived experience of (dis)connected global media flow, marked by the constant struggle between restriction and access.
Composed of short, highly visual presentations, this panel offers a formally appropriate exploration of the material dimensions of global media, and allows ample time for openended conversation driven by the interests of both speakers and audience members. Bringing together a range of approaches, it will appeal to MLA members interested in media studies, material culture, and global culture.