Living Mediations: Biology, Technology and Art

Living Mediations: Biology, Technology and Art

First exhibited in Tokyo from 1995-1997, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits have since been shown in over 50 venues throughout Asia, Europe, and North America, making them among the most successful traveling exhibitions ever. Von Hagens, who patented the plastination process used to preserve the bodies in the exhibitions, has commented that Body Worlds has been so popular "because it fills the longing for the authentic in a time of practically unlimited reproducibility." The exhibits feature plastinated human and sometimes animal bodies and body parts arranged around a central theme - see, for example, the current exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry - and, as such, Von Hagens's dead bodies highlight the ways in which media and mediation can be brought to bear on the biological.

"Medium" is a fraught word. In media studies, media are traditionally understood as that which transmit and/or store information - technologies such as books, radio, television, computers; in biology, a medium is a surrounding environment in which something functions and thrives - the broth in which E. coli bacteria grows in a laboratory; in art, the medium or media refers to the substance an artist uses to create his or her art - oil paints, marble, ceramics. Von Hagens's exhibits activate all of these understandings of medium in problematic and interesting ways: Where does von Hagens get the "materials" for his medium of composition? Do dead bodies store and/or transmit information? Do they provide an environment of sorts? How are they, as von Hagens maintains, examples of "authentic" rather than "reproducible" media? In activating these questions, Body Worlds nicely encapsulates the central theme of this forum: the mediation of life, death, and all matter(s) in between.

Much contemporary scholarship is interested in how the biological body, on many scales,becomes a site for political, technological, scientific, and critical engagement. The founding of the Human Genome Project in 1988 marked the life sciences as a major cultural paradigm of the late twentieth century; the first decade of the twenty-first century has continued this proliferation of the biological, initiating the increased funding and visibility of such phenomena as biomedia, biotechnology, bioinformatics, biometrics, and other technological engagements with the biological. The phrase "life itself," referenced by philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikolas Rose, Michel Foucault, and Georges Canguilhem and taken up by many contemporary scholars, is suggestive of both the essence or foundation of the biological (life at its core) and of the ways in which the biological has influenced and infiltrated modes of thought in many other disciplines (from cybernetics to political theory).

Mediation is at the heart of such influence and infiltration, and media studies has taken up this discourse. Emphasizing the ways in which the biological mutates and evolves across various media forms, theories, and contexts and the ways in which media themselves are changed through such transformations, media studies has investigated in recent years certain "biological" phenomena and practices such as media ecologies, outbreak narratives, genetic databases, disease surveillance networks, and entomology.

This forum aims to engage the biological in its many dimensions through the critical lens of media studies while simultaneously examining media through the biological. Our goal is to investigate and interrogate the contemporary understandings of life itself in its widely varied mediated forms. Such interrogation is at once metaphorical (DNA as the code of life, the metaphoricity of science, viral media), rhetorical (the appearance and development of outbreak narratives in films, digital art, and the popular press), and material (disease surveillance networks, media ecologies, forensic media practices).

It is also interdisciplinary in scope; this forum centers on a nexus of two large fields of interest in the humanities: mediastudies and science and technology studies (STS). From foundational works by Marshall McLuhan and Thomas Kuhn, to more recent work from Friedrich Kittler, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway, to the contemporary work of scholars like Lisa Gitelman, Jussi Parikka, Adam Zaretsky, Rob Mitchell, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Priscilla Wald, Sandra Harding and Eugene Thacker, the questions that scholars in these two fields tend to ask can be remarkably similar. By pointing to the ways in which these two large fields have been and can be brought together through the lens of life itself, we hope to emphasize important developments in interdisciplinary humanities scholarship and to create some of our own. We offer some initial questions and objects of inquiry to get everyone thinking and exploring, and we encourage you to add your own thoughts, questions, and examples over the next few weeks:

What does the intersection of media studies and science and technology studies bring to the humanities? What do the humanities do for these disciplines?

What are the roles of media archaeology and/or the history of science and technology in this intersection?

What is "biomedia"? How can we understand life as the transmission and storage of information?

From Bruno Latour's actor-network theory to embodied experience and distributed cognition, media studies and science and technology studies continue to understand life as extended, networked and connected. How do digital technologies and media change our understandings of life? Of death? Of the neither living nor dead - the viral?

How do networks harness both biology and information technology? How can we understand the movement of viruses (both biological and computational) through networks? How can we understand networks themselves as viral? As living?

What understandings of materiality are at play in the mediation of life itself? 

What is the role of the human in these intersections? Of the animal (or insect)? Of the non-living?

How can we incorporate the intersections between media studies and science and technology studies into the classroom? What texts and methodologies should we teach?

Some productions and objects of inquiry include but are not limited to:

Many thanks to the guests who will be joining us:
Hosted by HASTAC Scholars: 

Please join us! Register at HASTAC and join the conversation.


My interest in mediation and  the biological stems from a larger interest in the intersections between media studies and science and technology studies (STS). It seems that similar questions are being asked in both fields; or, rather, that many STS scholars have turned to the varying processes of mediation in the history and practice of science and that many media studies scholars are thinking about media as scientific and technological objects. Especially in media archaeology and media forensics, it has become difficult to completely separate the two fields (if such a thing was ever possible). This is certainly true for those media technologies involved in the investigation, proliferation, transformation, and management of the biological, and this forum provides a way of explicitly bringing these two fields together.

One issue I am especially interested in is the organization and management of populations. For example, as a student interested in media studies, I want to explore the different forms of governmental public media - like departmental reports, brochures, press releases, videos, and plans for action - that undergird and document the operations of governmental agencies and institutions. Many such governmental agencies and institutions, like the Department of Homeland Security, for example, produce discourses of securitization through this public media that directly involve the management of life on a large scale. As a literature student, I am interested in science fiction and contemporary experimental print fiction, much of which is concerned with the mediation and organization of the biological in this way. What ideas are produced through the public media described above? How might these ideas or discourses relate to those produced in contemporary literature?

Questions like this open up larger questions about the place of literature in the intersections between media studies and STS. What does the study of literature bring to the investigation of disease surveillance networks, for example? What is gained and/or lost in thinking about literature as a form of media? What are the appropriate methods for doing research at the intersection of all of these fields? How can scholars doing interdisciplinary work maintain a sense of disciplinary identity and rigor while pursuing these incredibly interesting intersections?


Thanks so much, guys, for hosting this amazing forum!

Though science and technology is not really my area of study, your comment about populations strikes a chord with me and makes me think of the novel Transmission by Hari Kunzru, which deals heavily with the containment of people, primarily immigrants and temporary or guest workers, and what those individuals (often objectified and criminalized) do in order to stay in their host countries. The novel features a South Asian temporary worker, Arjun, in the tech industry who releases a virus, the Leela virus modeled and named after a Bollywood star, that corrupts and brings down major national institutions that cause major problems to nation-states in controlling populations, resources, etc.

This narrative, your comment, and the forum itself prompt us to question media--artistic, biological, technological, etc.--and the roles they play for larger institutions, often specific to/for nation-states in constructing and controlling populations. The controversy surrounding Von Hagen's exhibit, the example of Arjun and the Leela Virus, even the genome project, point to the processes of gendering, racializing, and othering, that occur despite the arena of discourse. Of course, lots of other factors play important roles here, but I wanted to just bring up these examples and maybe see how we might critically look at how governments and institutions use these technologies to construct groups of people (citizens, non-citizens, refugees, criminals, etc.) and to contain them. I'm particularly interested in mobility and migration, but this can apply in numerous ways.

Well, I hope that made sense...


Thanks for your comment, Anne!

You mention some really important ideas that our forum hopes to address--that oftentimes it is the tendency to contain "the sciences" and "the humanities" and "the arts" in separate containers. However, DigHum people like us don't see it that way--we see a blending of boundaries (or even a dissolusion of boundaries) between the different disciplines. New technologies are encouraging groups of people to meld in different ways (would we be conversing right now if we didn't have HASTAC?), and they are also enabling a rethinking and reformulation of disciplinarity itself. Will new technologies allow us to abandon "the sciences" and "the humanities" and "the arts" as separate insitutions? I think they will, and I think that this forum is proof positive of that (ok, it's still early, but a girl can dream, right!?). I'll keep these ideas in mind over the next few weeks!

And thanks, too, for the book suggestion--I hadn't read this, but I think I'll scoop up a copy this weekend!



Hi Anne, 

Thanks so much for your comment.  This definitely makes sense and brings up a lot of really interesting issues.  I think the "racialization, gendering, and othering" that you refer to are part of a broader ongoing process of categorization/classification that has been ongoing in the sciences for some time.  With the advent of biotechnology (genetic databases, genetic engineering, etc.), "population construction" and "control" seem to operate on an entirely new scale.  I think the Kunzru novel is a really interesting example. I'm definitely interested in texts that treat alterity through the lens of biotechnology and introduce new types of othered subjects (i.e. clones, mutants, hybrid subjects).  I think the points you introduce about mobility and migration are particularly interesting since there are so many examples of subjects whose otherness is compounded by multiple factors; there seems to exist an overlap in fiction between those who are altered biologically and those who are already marked as outsiders (immigrants, minorities, class membership, etc.). I would be interested to hear what you (and others!) think about this overlap as it is played out in reality (as well as fiction). 


Like Lindsay, I am interested in both STS and literary study, and, like Lindsay, I am interested in locating and amplifying those vectors that will encourage crossovers and hybridizations of these two discourses. My own recent work on the history of the concept of media is in part an attempt to encourage such crossover and hybridization. In this work, I emphasize the common origin of both the humanities/social science understanding of “media” (as “means for communication”) and a biological understanding of media (as “means for encouraging growth”). However, I also stress that around the middle of the nineteenth century, the term medium seems to have undergone a disciplinary mitosis, one that parsed out “life” and “culture” to different fields of knowledge production. Thus, mid- to late nineteenth-century biologists appropriated what I would describe as a “vital” understanding of media, using the term to describe the nutritive fluids or solids that they employed in experiments to isolate and keep cells and organisms alive, while those in what would come to be called the humanities increasingly came to think of media as solely a cultural phenomenon. (That is, we in the humanities came to use the term medium to refer to the material substrata--for example, printed paper, photographic film, or television signals--by means of which ideas, images, and sound were stored and transmitted from one place or time to another.) I’m thus especially interested in sites and things in which these two sense of media cross--hence, my interest in bioart, which draws and depends on both senses of the term medium.

It may be worth stressing that while I have long been interested in media theory (in the humanities/social science sense of the term), I only became interested in the term “medium”—and its history—as a consequence of actually going into biological laboratories. As part of the work for a DVD-ROM entitled Biofutures: Owning Body Parts and Information (co-authored with several of my colleagues), I spent a long time filming basic “wet” lab procedures in biology labs and asking biologists to explain these procedures for me. In listening to their descriptions, I was immediately intrigued by the fact that biologists kept referring to their use of “media” (always in the plural). So, for example, a biologist would say, “Well, once you have the cells separated, then you need to place them in media”--and he or she would show me an orange bottles of fluid (or, sometimes, a semi-opaque layer on the bottom of a petri dish). It was this use of the term media—or rather, the apparent difference between this understanding of media and my own, humanities/social science understanding of media—that initially encouraged me to investigate the history of the term. All of which is a long-winded way, I suppose, of encouraging scholars in the humanities to step, at least briefly, into scientific milieux, rather than simply viewing such milieux from afar.

As an aside, the last part of Lindsay’s comment reminds me that STS scholars arguably have been better at locating what we might describe as the “literary” dimensions of science than literary critics have been in locating the scientific aspects of literature. Or, to put this another way, STS scholars have attended more carefully to the formal dimensions of the science/literature connection, whereas literary critics have generally focused on the way in which science appears in the content of novels (and poetry, plays, etc.). If we think of, for example, Shapin and Schaffer’s discussion of what they describe as the “literary technologies” by means of which members of the early Royal Society communicated the results of experiments to one another or Bruno Latour’s striking and counter-intuitive representation of the laboratory as a place that produces texts, we see that what is at stake here is less “literature as a medium of representation or communication” than “literature as a medium that for incubating change and transformation.” Shapin and Schaffer are interested in a different kind of transformation than Latour—Shapin and Schaffer are interested primarily (perhaps exclusively) in changes in social groups, while Latour is interested in changes in ontology (e.g., what new things/agents (including social groups) are produced as a consequence of science?)—but both see “literature” as a vector for transformation. Lindsay’s question—“What is gained and/or lost in thinking about literature as a form of media?”—is thus to my mind the right kind of question to ask, provided that we take media to mean not just a means for communicating something from one point to another, but also a means for cultivating growth and transformation (which, as Adam Zaretsky has reminded me, also means cultivating death, for a medium is always a means for selecting some things over others).


Thank you for this fascinating comment, Rob. I think you are right when you say that STS scholars have been better at attending to the literary dimensions of science than literary critics have been at attending to the scientific aspects of literature. In some of Latour's work especially (e.g. What Is the Style of Matters of Concern?) there seems to be an overriding concern with aesthetics as a way of understanding the work of science. Or rather, aesthetics becomes important when we think about science in the ways in which Latour asks us to. Like media, the word "aesthetics" is one of those that can link the sciences and the humanities, especially when we consider that aesthesis "originally" referred to the organization of both sensory and intellectual perception. At any rate, Latour's concern with aesthetics goes far to emphasize the "literary" aspects of science.



The history of the term “media” that you outline, Rob, is fascinating. This idea that biologists/scientists use the term ‘media’ to “describe the nutritive fluids solids that they employed in experiments to isolate and keep cells and organisms alive” adds complexity to my thoughts about viral media and memes that circulate on the internet. Coming from a humanities point of view, I was thinking of digital media as the ‘devices’ that transmit and pass on memes from one person to another. I see, however, that we can also talk about memes and digital media using the scientific usage of ‘media’, because it is the digital media that are used as a 'nutrative substance' to ‘nurture’ memes and keep memes ‘alive’ and ‘growing’. So when thinking about memes, the term ‘media’ works in both the scientific and the humanities sense of the word.


This does look like fun... and its just warming up...

as an artist who works with the wet-lab as a creative platform, deprived of the myth of use value...

I wonder about aesthetics (even with pretentions of politicality) of experimental sculpting of life form

without the shield of causality or socially redeeming knowledge production? I drop the following to stir the pot...

Red in Blue Tooth and Claw

Much bioart is a refusal of the abstraction of life as mere digital code and a stronger rejection of the electronic ethers as an art of gummy, toothless enchantment. A sort of tearing through the screen of 1990’s VR-philiac, simulationist, techno-utopian, ‘upload your consciousness’, extropian, body rejection cults. It is quite true that Bioart is a still only partially grounded neologism, which tends to be lumped under the umbrella of art and technology, hybrid art and new media art. Much bioart needs a life support system to be exhibited due to the tendency to use life, living being, or chunks of still metabolizing parts of beings (tissue and organ culture) as a new media (or Moist media as Roy Ascott has dubbed it). We are also often performance ethnographers and STS friendly theory heads but are we playing with biopolitics without the artifice or analogical distance that art requires?

Is the art-in-question defined by the life support medium employed?

By comparing the new media employed to present a biologized subject as art, Bioart does a fine job of emphasizing both the blatant politics and the infectious discomfort these arts target towards a mediation of human cultural interface (relational, transformational, refolded or otherwise.) And if the medium is the social, what of the antisocial or sociopathic media, [couched and cozy :: military-utilitarian-critical] all of which seems to be so replicative/mimetic?

Is the storage of cultural icons (in the flesh) really the focus of bioart (as a new media) either?

If live life is dubbed a signature pigment, sculptural clay or time based new media art; the being on display is the medium and the message.  An art which is potentially unframed, infectious even, is neither defined by the cultural media of spectator voyeurism nor the containment provided by the artist. I myself am a student of blood lit. and it’s not pretty. Exploring and remixing the split between the life support media of the lab with the storage media of cultural accruement has no known quantitative arts benefit. So the risk, to the sentient-ish beings of/in bioart, and the ecologies they invade, beyond the media of display and the media of anthropocentric cultural interaction/reaction, have their own existence as a potentially unbridled media.

Carnal Carny Vitalism: Fucking in an Effable World or just Putting the Mania back into Homicidal Mania?

There is some credence to bioart’s re-imagining of elan vital, a relatively special force of life as an affront to reductionist, objectivist, materialist, atomization of existence. As Robert Mitchell's book, Bioart and the Vitality of Media makes clear, vitalism’s conceptual resultant has had its unseen hand in many camps including religious, fascist and superstitious movements. These biopolitical prides, recently re-emergent under the rubric of population genetics, belie feigning equality or even the chance for difference commensalism: post-racial, migratory, tribal, blood-gene satellites are now new identity. Why is are so many chomping at the bit for any sign of elite privilege by aligning with traits in the post-race arena (i.e. Genghis Khan red star-cluster haplotypeSaxons, Vikings and Celts @ Odin Ancestors and Yo Abraham Subpopulation Cluster Study.) 

What if life itself is fundamentally: flappy, viscous, flowing erect and deflating. It is hard to imagine an organism defined as an orificial metabolic punctuated equilibrium without concluding that aspiration is merely allowed play? The jury is still out, life may not be an elegant machine nor comprehensible as a biological system (esp. steeled from within the orders of physics and chemistry.) The jury on bioart is still out as well. Considering the control most bioartists exercise over the alpha and the omega of our pet mutant media-messages, the torture of forcing a generative life art into a transgenic surgical theatre and the use of these often readymade, display beings in artist paid public exposures on the obscurely culture environment of a pedestal... aren't bioartists just pimp producers, makers of nature-snuff torture-porn?



Mary, I like your connection between memes and digital media as "nutrative substances" but to me it seems like there might be something more to it. Does the media itself keep the meme 'alive' and 'growing' as you say? It might be a host substance, but it doesn't seem (to me) to be the generative source of meme content. There is something outside of the nutrative substance that acts as the catalyst for growth potential. But here's where I have a hard time drawing that line--is digital media-as-nutrative substance the catalyst? We don't 'need' digital media for memes to exist (although they certainly thrive and grow more rapidly with it). Is the digital meme a perfect storm of nurturative substance, feeding, and growth potential? Interesting ideas...


Kim, thanks for the feedback, and I completely agree with you that memes do not need digital media to exist. As you rightly said, memes can, do, and have for hundreds of years, existed without digital media. My work deals with viral media, and so I think what is so fascinating for me about memes and the digital is that, like you mentioned, memes can thrive/grow/be passed on at a breathtaking pace, becoming viral epidemics, if you will.

 What is also interesting to me about memes and the digital is both the types of memes that can exist, as well as who does the ‘passing on’ or ‘infecting’ of others. Multimodal memes thrive in a digital medium in a way not really afforded in any other medium. Additionally, those who pass on memes has changed with the digital. Certainly any human brain can house, grow and pass a meme on. But before the digital, and before the explosion of social media that is Web 2.0, it was Hollywood or advertisers that had enough influence to really cultivate and spread memes on a global scale.

 I think your idea of digital media being a “perfect storm of nutritive substance, feeding, and growth potential” for memes hit the nail on the head. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but to me that is a brilliant way to think of the way memes inhabit digital spaces.


Mary et al: have you ever visited Know Your Meme? Take a look--a pretty cool site that has aggregated memes over the past few years.


As we were planning for this forum, I kept thinking about how we were trying (in the best and most interesting way possible) to "squish" everything together--art, humanities, science.  I am always drawn to the ways different disciplines borrow from each other. For example, my recent research has been in the study of memory and I'm constantly grappling with the limits of metaphor.  Can we in digital humanities effectively borrow a neurological term like memory to represent digital memory?  With a term like "memory," where do the limits of metaphor end and where does the change (if there is one) occur to represent or signify something different with external digital memory and internal biological memory?

I'd like to suggest that it's a mashup (to borrow a term from computer studies). The combination biological and digital data mixtures are not limited to metaphors like "memory," but bio-mediated creations—like Body Worlds or VASTAL—force us to reconsider the (bl)ends of these disciplines. The idea of blending science and art is so interesting to me.  In certain cases, an artistic expression isn’t just "life-like," but can it is "life itself" (or has been life--plastination, or is life--VASTAL).  Do you think that digital media is spawning new "life forms"?  What is the value of looking at art or humanities through a scientific lens or vice versa?


While I do understand what Kim means when she describes memory as a "neurological term," I'm not so willing to give this term away to that particular, and quite contemporary, science. Neuroscience is a very recent field--definitely no older than the mid nineteenth century, and arguably (in its current configuration) not much more than 30-40 years old. "Memory," by contrast, is a term that is very old, and which has been central to a number of different intellectual endeavors (only a small portion of which should probably be described as "disciplines"). So, for example, the topic of memory was essential to Greek and Roman rhetorical treatises; to seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical discussions of personal identity; etc. Thus, while neuroscience has one (or more likely, several) very interesting approaches to memory, I don't think that its particilar approach(es) sublate or trump the variety of other past and present approaches to memory. And in this sense, I'm not sure that I agree that when the term memory is applied to say, computing, it is a metaphorical usage of a term that is primarily and fundamentally neurological. (In fact, the actual history of cognitive psychology and late 20th century neuroscience suggests that if we're going to think in terms of the source of a metaphor, it's actually computing that serves as the origin of the understanding of memory used in cognitive psychology and late 20th century neuroscience.)

With those provisos, though, I fully agree with the points in Kim's second paragraph, for I too think that these kind of artworks are the sites at which we can begin to produce new concepts of (say) memory, in latge part because these projects bring together and mashup quite different concepts of memory from different areas of intellectual endeavor.


Thanks for the comment, Dr. Mitchell!

Rereading my earlier comment, I relize that I have some (major) slippage between the development of the study of memory in its many changing forms throughout its long history. Perhaps by suggesting that "borrowing memory" for digital studies might, in fact, be the opposite. For example, might the neuroscienences have adopted its use of the term from the ancient rhetorical mode of placing memory in certain locations and going back to fetch the stored ideas during a speech? As I've been thinking more about this forum, I am becoming more interested in that idea of borrowing terms, although as you suggested in response to Lindsay's post concerning "media," that these borrowed terms might be misinterpreted or come to mean something completely different from one endevor, or even discipline, to the next. On the one hand, I think it's fascinating to map these linguistic developments (if that's, in fact, what they are) of such cross-bred terms, but on the other hand it might be a destructive or counterproductive action because of their differences. Are we only solidifying the "divide" between arts/sciences/humanities/etc. by looking at a term like memory's development? Or, is it more a genealogical move to see how these distinctions inform and bolster each other?


There is the idea, forwarded by Marshall McLuhan and others, that the digital is an extension of the biological. For example, radio is an extension of the ear, television is an extension of touch, and the internet and "electric technology" are an extension of the nervous system. There is also the idea of the blurring of the line between 'real life' and 'virtual/digital life'. As David Weinberger points out, we constantly use physical terms and ideas to describe how we interact with the virtual/digital. We "go" and "visit" the "home" page of a website. Also, more and more online sites are popping up that allow us to create "lifelike" avatars, and site where we can live online, such as the site Second Life.

The most interesting thing for me about this intersection of the biological and the digital, however, is in the way that we use biological metaphors to describe how digital media works. For example is the term "viral" or "virus", a concept borrowed from biology that can only exist and propagate in a digital environment. We talk about viral media, such as viral videos, internet memes and computer viruses, "infecting" people and computers alike and spreading like contagious epidemics. Can the biological be infected by the digital, or perhaps as Richard Dawkins might ask, can a digital meme be carried by a biological host, such as the human brain? And how does thinking about digital technology through biological metaphors color our reception of and interaction with the digital? How do these biological metaphors both shape, and are shaped by, the digital phenomena they refer to?


My fascination with biotechnology, a phenomenon that forms a linkage between the biological body and various types of technology, stems from its ability to blur the boundaries between its constituent components. Though these boundaries were arguably always blurred, biotechnology, or the technology of "life itself," confuses these boundaries in distinct ways; biotechnology both conceives of the biological body as technology and applies technology to the body. The biological (human) body is thus the origin and endpoint of biotech.

From genetic engineering and DNA computing to biotechnological metaphors and bioart, I am most interested in the ways in which the biotechnological manifests itself in popular culture and, more broadly, in the public realm in general.  What types of anxiety are produced when the biological human body becomes a site of technological manipulation or augmentation? This is an old question, but it is complicated by the scale at which contemporary technology engages with the body (i.e. the nanoscale, the genetic level, etc). What is at stake in the application of biological metaphors to nonbiological phenomena? Further, how is the biological transformed when conceived of as biotechnology? How are these anxieties and transformations treated in popular culture, films, novels, etc., and how have these treatments evolved or changed with the advancement of biotechnology?


First of all, thanks to organizing this forum and inviting me to participate – it goes without saying that the topic is exciting, and I am looking forward to some of the discussions (which have already kicked off).


I feel positively overwhelmed by the possibilities of where to go with this theme, as already the starting text outlines so many crucial directions that I have tried to address in for instance Digital Contagions and of course now with Insect Media: theoretically, the links between art, science and capitalism seen through the prism of the body (and extending it outside the human, or in the molecular, inside the human); methodologically, for example through such approaches as media archaeology that could point some interesting connections to for instance the 19th century regimes of coupling of forms of living, media and political economy (of capitalism).


For me, a key interest in recent years has been the need to expand our notions of “media”, from the usual checklist of media studies curricula of mass and digital media towards processes of mediation – something that is well mentioned in the opening text. This is one of the core things that is (and needs to be) happening for Media Studies – from a UK perspective where Media Studies is constantly dismissed by rhetorical gestures as not a proper academic subject, this is even more crucial. From an intellectual perspective, it has to do with the de-facto widening of areas having to do with mediation – registering, transmitting, and reproducing processes that are fundamental to sensation, perception and, indeed, for instance memory. (The bodily grounding of affect, I would say). The biological opening itself as “media” is an apt example addressed the recent years by a wide field of biomedia and bioarts works, but also the expansion of media into what I myself like to call “milieu” studies – the wider interactions of objects and processes defined by their intensive relations. Hence, the enthusiasm for thinkers such as the 20th century ethologist Jacob von Uexküll is emblematic of such ideas, as are the writings of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, as an alternative to the American cybernetics since the 1940s and 1950s.


So “biomedia” is not solely about a substance in which processes of mediation take place – the body, the biological becoming a source and a ground for processes of value creation, modification of its potentials, and such – but that media itself is an assemblage that is a mixture, a bios and a zoe in the sense of dynamically living, fleshy but also non-individual force that is already in an introjective relation with “things”, with natures, with animals and more. Media are frameworks for perception, memory and so forth (and McLuhan has already been mentioned), but in the sense of not only extending from Man, but as dynamically non-human forces too. Media are quicker, slower, more durable, intensive, and often in their processes just different to the phenomenological life worlds of human beings, which testifies to their alien quality. This is why I found recently the conceptual mode of thinking through the animal and the insect useful in this context.


Media are also material – and not necessarily only in the Marxist sense of relations and modes of production or in the technological sense that for instance German media theory has promoted. To me, the material specificity of mediatic processes expands to various directions: from labour and technologies, to fleshy materialities of our potentials as perceiving, sensing beings, intertwined and framed by such media. In other words, media themselves are material assemblages (and for instance scientific apparatuses are in this sense “media”) but they also give birth to a material epistemology about how we inhabit the world as aesthetic – ie. perceiving and affecting – beings. The 19th century birth of modern media culture was conditioned and catalyzed by the various apparatuses, institutions and practices concerning measurement of perception – thresholds of perception, in the sense of “psychophysics” (referring to works by Friedrich Kittler and for instance Jonathan Crary) – and this is one specific material intertwining of bodies and the mediatic, as well as an example of why “bio-media”-coupling is not a recent invention, but part and parcel of birth of modern technical media culture.


Furthermore, why expand media towards the biological – or lets just say “living” – is because that process is underway already. I am here referring to the “cognitive capitalist” stream of thinking about an increasing amount of cognitive and affective, involuntary processes of our bodies becoming the material for value production. Whether data mining of our habits as consuming individuals and groups, to  marketing in the neuronal, or affective HCI, all such refer to processes in which the interiority of the body and individuality is being opened up, analyzed, and fed into part of for instance media design.  This is the next step from what Crary analyzed as part of the 19th century culture of registering “what the body can do” and capturing and reproducing such capacities in terms of the birth of capitalist media culture. Now, the various disciplines concerning the cognitive and the affective are extending the reach of measuring capacities and thresholds for capture (for instance attention capture of course) to for instance the brain, or the wider involuntary processes which constitute our “embodiment.”


So in short I am interested in this intertwining of the processes of political economy and the mediatic affect: the processes of biological and social nature for their possible use for value creation, and the circulation of both discursive themes of "life, the living, but also death and the living deads" as well as the material structuring that produces lives and deaths (but not only of humans, also nature, animal species, etc).

What is important for me is to understand that not only as a process that has just started to take place, but look at what for instance was happening in the 19th century with the emerging links between experimental sciences about the body, emerging capitalism, and the emergence of media in its modern form. The birth of cognitive capitalism extends way back, and similarly our enthusiasm for notions such as affect – which for instance is good in terms of getting us to think about the material, the involuntary, the shared nature of embodiment and subjectivity – is something we can track back to earlier considerations and concerns for the link between bio-media.


I find thinking about media as "dynamically non-human forces" extremely intriguing; in that vein, the novel Prey by Michael Crichton provides an interesting example of the many intersections between the human and the nonhuman, media and insects. While Prey certainly depicts the horror of "nanosplatter," as Colin Milburn has discussed, it also stages interesting ways of thinking about the nonhuman aspects of media. The novel concerns nanobots originally engineered for medical purposes that escape the confines of their production facility and start to rapidly evolve complex behavior. They are able to perform complicated tasks like imitate, stalk, and anticipate the movements of prey because they are programmed to follow very simple rules. These rules - move in the same direction as your neighbors, remain close to your neighbors, and avoid colliding with your neighbors - cause swarm behavior to emerge. In the novel the nanobots are an experiment in insect/viral-like distributed cognition and paralell processing gone wrong: they hunt and kill humans and some evolve to live parasitically with humans, using human bodies to reproduce.

While in many ways the novel works to produce anxiety about and horror at the capabilities of the nonhuman nanobots - they are science run amok, the inventions of humans turned against them - the novel also stages the collision of the computational and the biological, the human and the nonhuman, and the different aspects of the word "media" we have been discussing here. Although by the end of the novel the nanobot swarms have been (mostly?) eradicated, Prey also makes visible, however briefly, the potential for thinking about the unhuman aspects of many different understandings of media.


I think it's a good point you are raising; I have not read the novel (I also need to read Transmission by Hari Kunzru, that Anne mentioned earlier). Indeed, the novel and the themes you point to relate to the fundamental question of how machines talk to each other before they talk to us -- this is something that F. Guattari raises, later picked up by Wendy Chun, and in a way bubbling under with a lot of the work of German media theory such as Kittler of course. On a philosophical level, it refers to how we need to think outside the human bubble, and all the inhuman forces (animals, and technological, for instance) that constitute our milieus. More concretely, it refers to the increasing need to understand the specifics of technical media: where so much of what takes place is outside our view, or even understanding. Before our interacting, there is a huge amount of processes going on in the network already (as Chun points out), and it is increasingly this level of "technological unconscious" that is in need of our theoretical attention. To me, it refers to a passage from phenomenological perspectives to radically non-human, as it is this non-human that constitutes our worlds nowadays. What makes this more intriguing still - from science fiction to for instance our ubiquoutous media culture - is how such technological processes quietly slide away from view...there is a wonderful quote by Katherine Hayles, and elaboration of this theme of "technological unconscious" or the software non-conscious to be more specific and move further away from the psychoanalytic connotations:

"The technological non-conscious, impacting human cognition for millennia before the advent of the digital computer, now has a stronger cognitive component than ever before. Human cognition increasingly takes places within environments where human behaviour is entrained by intelligent machiens through such everyday activities as cursor movement and scrolling, interacting with computerized voice trees, talking and text messaging on cell phones, and searching the Web to find whatever information is needed at the moment. As computation moves out of the desktop into the environment with embedded sensors, smart coatings on the walls, fabrics, and appliances, and radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, the cognitives systems entraining human behaviour become even more pervasive, flexible and powerful in their effects on human conscious and non-conscious cognition." (Trauma of Code, p.27-28, in Critical Digital Studies. A Reader, eds. Kroker and Kroker, University of Toronto Press 2008).

And what is also constituted - and where science fiction is really good - is the frightening possibility of life after the human - not only in the sense of apocalyptic future where we do not exist, but already now, in parallel worlds, where we realize that we are not needed, not talked to, that there is a lot of things going on that is ignoring us. The communication between machines before they talk to us might actually just be a sign of the realization that they do not need to even talk to us anymore.Yet, as crucial is to think about the machines that escape from view, swarm inside architectures, and are there invisibly, too smoothly for our critical capacities.

You also touch on a very fundamental point of my Insect Media - that the figure of the simple life form of "insect" is actually a way to investigate a whole range of simple, but in concert, in interaction, in emergence complex processes that are constitutive of our worlds.


I really appreciate the final point you raise here Jussi, regarding the potential realization that we (as humans) "are not needed, not talked to, that there is a lot of things going on that is ignoring us. The communication between machines before they talk to us might actually just be a sign of the realization that they do not need to even talk to us anymore."

This seems to fit very well with recent work that has been done on the materiality of the digital or the biotechnological. I'm thinking here of texts like Matthew Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms and Eugene Thacker's Biomedia. These works succeed in many ways at revealing the underlying materiality of processes that are otherwise thought of as immaterial, instantaneous, or operating on such a micro scale that they do not register, i.e. digital communication, genetic manipulation, etc.  I think, as you mention in your Insect Media, the "insect" is indeed a fascinating lens through which we can engage with background processes that otherwise go unnoticed.  Examining the notions of emergence, distributed agency, swarm behavior, etc., is a useful strategy for critique in the contemporary moment, one strongly influenced by the fields of digital communication and systems biology.  


I think it's a good point you are raising; I have not read the novel (I also need to read Transmission by Hari Kunzru, that Anne mentioned earlier). Indeed, the novel and the themes you point to relate to the fundamental question of how machines talk to each other before they talk to us -- this is something that F. Guattari raises, later picked up by Wendy Chun, and in a way bubbling under with a lot of the work of German media theory such as Kittler of course. On a philosophical level, it refers to how we need to think outside the human bubble, and all the inhuman forces (animals, and technological, for instance) that constitute our milieus. More concretely, it refers to the increasing need to understand the specifics of technical media: where so much of what takes place is outside our view, or even understanding. Before our interacting, there is a huge amount of processes going on in the network already (as Chun points out), and it is increasingly this level of "technological unconscious" that is in need of our theoretical attention. To me, it refers to a passage from phenomenological perspectives to radically non-human, as it is this non-human that constitutes our worlds nowadays. What makes this more intriguing still - from science fiction to for instance our ubiquoutous media culture - is how such technological processes quietly slide away from view...there is a wonderful quote by Katherine Hayles, and elaboration of this theme of "technological unconscious" or the software non-conscious to be more specific and move further away from the psychoanalytic connotations:

"The technological non-conscious, impacting human cognition for millennia before the advent of the digital computer, now has a stronger cognitive component than ever before. Human cognition increasingly takes places within environments where human behaviour is entrained by intelligent machiens through such everyday activities as cursor movement and scrolling, interacting with computerized voice trees, talking and text messaging on cell phones, and searching the Web to find whatever information is needed at the moment. As computation moves out of the desktop into the environment with embedded sensors, smart coatings on the walls, fabrics, and appliances, and radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, the cognitives systems entraining human behaviour become even more pervasive, flexible and powerful in their effects on human conscious and non-conscious cognition." (Trauma of Code, p.27-28, in Critical Digital Studies. A Reader, eds. Kroker and Kroker, University of Toronto Press 2008).

And what is also constituted - and where science fiction is really good - is the frightening possibility of life after the human - not only in the sense of apocalyptic future where we do not exist, but already now, in parallel worlds, where we realize that we are not needed, not talked to, that there is a lot of things going on that is ignoring us. The communication between machines before they talk to us might actually just be a sign of the realization that they do not need to even talk to us anymore.Yet, as crucial is to think about the machines that escape from view, swarm inside architectures, and are there invisibly, too smoothly for our critical capacities.

You also touch on a very fundamental point of my Insect Media - that the figure of the simple life form of "insect" is actually a way to investigate a whole range of simple, but in concert, in interaction, in emergence complex processes that are constitutive of our worlds.


You bring up an interesting point here about computers talking to other computers before they talk with humans, and that perhaps that is a “sign of the realization that they do not need to even talk to us anymore.” Wachowski brothers in the film The Matrix took this a step further to the point where the computers/machines developed a fully functioning society devoid of humans, except to use humans as a cheep source of power.

Several literary texts have been raised that look at the intersection of the biological with the technological, and I keep thinking of the work of Philip K. Dick, of his fascination with the co-mingling of the technological with the biological, of his constant blurring of the line between human/biological life and artificial/mechanical life. In his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which later became the movie Blade Runner), Dick goes the almost opposite direction from The Matrix, and looked at the question of machines/androids who fully believed that they were human, believed that they were biological and not mechanical.

This then in turn reminds me of Bicentennial Man, a movie staring Robin Williams, of a robot who gains sentience and over the course of 200 years, literally replaces every technological part of his body with biological ones. So, my point in all this? All these texts try to parse out the human and social consequences when technology and biology become so intertwingled that they erase the line between the two.


I find Jussi's post very helpful, and second his call for more work on milieu studies, on Uexkuell, and on Simondon (and on historical and potential relationships between these three). At the same time, his post also suggests to me the possible utility of making distinctions between several key terms: milieu, medium, and environment. (My apologies for the unusual spelling of Uexkuell's name here, but the HASTAC editing interface doesn't seem to allow me to add umlauts.)

Drawing from Lamarck, I see “milieu” as the term that most emphasizes the alien nature of that which conditions a living being. As Georges Canguilhem so brilliantly put it, for Lamarck, the milieu is indifferent to the living being, even as the living being bears an intense relationship of need to “its” milieu (my use of the possessive pronoun is probably not the best way to put this relationship):

The life and the milieu that is unaware of it are two asynchronous series of events. The change of circumstances comes first, but it is the living itself that, in the end, initiates the effort to not be let go by its medium milieu. Adaptation is a repeated effort on the part of life to continue to ‘stick’ to an indifferent milieu. (Canguilhem, “The Living and Its Milieu,” p. 12)

Canguilhem's gloss highlights the deep pathos of Lamarck's account of milieu, for his story of the interaction between milieu and the living is one of needful, desiring beings forever bound, through series of picaresque variations, to try to adapt themselves to media that can never be anything but indifferent to them.

On the other hand, and drawing from Uexkuell, “environment” (Umwelt) is the active imposition of perceptual form on the world by the living being . For Uexkuell, each species has its own Umwelt, and even within species, Umwelten often differ: the Umwelt of the human child, for example, is different from that of the human adult. From this perspective, “milieu” and “Umwelt” are fundamentally opposed terms: the former refers to a kind of conditioning by alien forces that have no fundamental reference to the living being, while the Umwelt is a “surrounding world/environment” that has nothing but reference to the living being that creates it. (My awareness of the importance of the distinction between milieu and Umwelt is indebted to the work of Inga Pollmann, who has documented the importance of this distinction for early twentieth-century German philosophy and social theory, and especially for Walter Benjamin's approach to mass media technologies such as film: for Benjamin, film can enable freedom from the determining forces of the social milieu by creating new, technologically-mediated Umwelten. For those in the Chicago area, Inga is presenting some of this work at the end of next week at an event entitled Science/Film: A Symposium )

“Medium,” then, would be a term that occupies an uneasy and probably shifting position between these two extremes. Like milieu, media refer to material dynamics that occur at scales that not only are alien to our phenomenological experience--i.e., scales that are too fast, too slow, too small, or too big to be grasped by consciousness--but also seem to condition that experience itself. Like Umwelten, though, media--unlike milieux--contain a reference to a living being, and living beings contain references to media. The milieu of the sea, for example, only becomes a “medium” for fish when fish actually live and grow within the sea, and fish live and grow only when they are surrounded by their medium. This fact of reference is captured especially well in the way in which contemporary biologists use the word “media,” for they use the term to refer to standardized, pre-packaged collections of nutritive fluids or solids: that is, collections of fluids and solids that have been organized in such a way that everything in this collection refers to--is there for the sake of--promoting a specific activity (generally, the growth of a certain kind of cell, though media can also be used to differentiate one kind of cells from another kind, allowing only the former to live).

The trick, then, with the term “medium”--but also what makes it exciting--is to figure out ways to use it without falling into a neo-Hegelianism, in which the fact that media contain “references” becomes the starting point for concluding that there is nothing but mediation; that mediation requires a subject that is able to grasp something _as_ mediation; and that, therefore, there is nothing other than subjective self-mediation, though this subjective self-mediation has both its unconscious and fixed forms (nature) and its conscious and fluid forms (human culture). (Not surprisingly, Hegel wanted to displace the word “medium” (Medium) with “mediation” (Vermittlung), for he viewed “medium” as an unwarranted objectification of what was actually a process which required a subject to grasp it.)

My own sense is that one can avoid such neo-Hegelianisms by understanding media in terms of populations and fields of variation (an approach I outline briefly in Bioart and the Vitality of Media), but I would love to hear what others have to say on this topic.


Thanks Robert - a very useful elaboration of the differences between the three concepts. Just a quick note, how for me, I admit, I have filtered much of my understanding of such concepts through Simondon. As such, I have become interested in the potentials of thinking through "individuation" presents for our concepts of milieu - and where the difference to "environment" (for Uexkull Umgebung) becomes of special importance. The milieu as "Umwelt" is always a worlding, and much more than Heidegger's indeed, who despite intensive interest as we know was not ready to think through how radically temporal and in the world animals can be...

In the Simondon perspective, the milieu as such is always associated, and works as the energetic force in individuation, as such the "media" of individuation, but always participating to an extent that its partly internal to any individuation/individual.Perhaps milieu as understood by Simondon - and of course, his way of not being afraid to talk of animal worlds and technical worlds in the same manner - is already very close to relevance for media technologies too...

Your Bioart and Vitality of Media is definitely on my reading list, as what you flag as "understanding media in terms of populations and fields of variation" sounds exciting and I believe apt.



Simply fabulous prompt to start us off! Wow, Im truly provoked and excited about this forum, love the topic and have been fascinated with Body Worlds particularly through a feminist STS lens! Really loved reading Hsuan L. Hsu and Martha Lincoln's article, "Biopower, Bodies...The Exhibition and the Spectacle of Public Health' which elaborates on the issues of race and transnationalism, and class, of the politics of the bodies from China. Much appreciation for all the vital work in creating such an exciting forum! I look forward to engaging more with the ongoing conversations, soon! 

(Apologies for my typos I missed in the previous version of this post!) 


Last night, when I read the forum prompt,  I was incredibly tired because I just came back from campus, conducting a new media art workshop for undergrads, but was incredibly thrilled about the provoking and thoughtful prompt and forum, and had to post a note of congrats! Apologies as I came back to visit the forum today, and realized there were some typos, but technology and our brains late at night, esp when filled with excitement to read about media, biology, and art, sometimes always fails us...

Like others have commented, this forum is truly exciting in the complicated and fruitful collaborations media studies, humanities, and STS when engaging with the biological/biopolitical. I appreciate the rigorous untangling of the term, media in "media studies," and in "biology" and in "art" which to understand, comprehend an exhibit like Bodies, must grapple with, as you all have so aptly provided.

I want to respond to the following prompt below engaging with also Hsuan L. Hsu and Martha Lincoln's article, "Biopower, Bodies...The Exhibition and the Spectacle of Public Health' and Katherine Park's Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection:

"Von Hagens's exhibits activate all of these understandings of medium in problematic and interesting ways: Where does von Hagens get the "materials" for his medium of composition? Do dead bodies store and/or transmit information? Do they provide an environment of sorts? How are they, as von Hagens maintains, examples of "authentic" rather than "reproducible" media? In activating these questions, Body Worlds nicely encapsulates the central theme of this forum: the mediation of life, death, and all matter(s) in between."

In response, I want to discuss the question of "materials" specifically the bodies, which Hsu and Lincoln outline in their essay. And the issue of gender and race, imbedded in questions of art/technology/science via media.

I cannot help but to also place in connection Body Worlds with early depictions of anatomy. Katherine Park's book Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, examines the cultural practice of dissection which begins in the late 13th century to the later half of the sixteenth century, where anatomical dissections was accepted as the common basis of medical knowledge. Exquisitely narrated through case studies and close readings of text and visual imagery, Park demonstrates the understanding of women’s bodies were not simply a medical practice, but one that illuminates the cultural discourse that surround the practice. In particular, Park outlines how important gender is, when examining these visual depictions. Thus she outlines, how the male body was the generic body, while the female symbolized the reproductive system. The uterus itself “aquired a special, symbolic weight as the organ” that was “secret.”  Accordingly, the female body was reduced to “and identified with its interior.” (13) These corporeal understandings of women were closely intertwined with religious practices, and political discourse of patriarchy, the desire to understand "the secrets" hidden in her body.

Along with Park's articulation of gender within anatomy, understanding issues of  race, and transnationalism seem vital in deconstructing Body Worlds. When I first saw the exhibit, in 2004/2005 I was struck at the racial composition of the bodies. Where did the bodies come from? To me, while stripped of layers of skin, exhibited as natural medical bodily phenomena, I looked closely, at the "bodies" faces, realizing the they looked Asian to me. Later I found out they were from China. And as a qualifier, when I write Asian, of course I mean what we now consider Asian comes from the very racialization of particular physical characteristics, whose origins were highly constructed in the close kinship of art/science/race. ie taxonomies of racial groups and physical characteristics, eyes, skin color, noses, body.

It is only recently I read scholarship outlining the racial intersections and the background of the Chinese bodies, and thought Hsuan L. Hsu and Martha Lincoln's article, "Biopower, Bodies...The Exhibition and the Spectacle of Public Health' does a fantastic job outlining the transnational politics of Chinese bodies as art.

As Hsu and Lincoln begin their essay, they write:

"From racial science to the freak shows, the visual display of bodies has often been associated with objectification, biological essentialism, the discursive instription of racial characteristics, and exoticizing representation of the 'other." This has been particularly true of the anatomical gaze, which has quietly reproduced disciplinary, biological essentialized categories when directed at racialized, gendered, or criminalized bodies. In the past century however, racism has taken a more subtle turn, often operating via a logic of "colorblindness" that disavows the perpetuation of structural inequalities. A biopolitical gaze has arisen that functions not so much to inscribe difference and discipline, but to universalize bodies in the service of managing biological life." (1) 

Through engagement with public health and discourses of exceptional bodies, medicalization the exhibit provides, engaging with Arendt and various theoretical frameworks, the article offers a poignant reading of the exhibit, that I found extremely provoking.

Moreover, Hsu and Lincoln outline the politics of the speciman, and the question to "where do the bodies come from?" The bodies are unclaimed bodies of the Chinese state. However, by being exhibited, these Chinese unclaimed bodies, are stripped away not only "their skin, but also their personal history as well..." "in doing so, it produces a category of beings who are bearers and exemplars of humanistic qualities and values, but undocumented and physically unidentifiable. tenuously grounded in time and space..." (11)

Hsu and Lincoln provides the background of the many Chinese young men, executed prisoners, migrants, uncultivated citizens, whose lives oscillate precariously between life and death, and "live" only when exhibited in Bodies/Body Worlds.

As an Asian Americanist, with interests in diaspora, I also want to understand the 'necropolitics' of the bodies, who are somehow on the very soil of America, as "dead" but "living bodies" whose race is literally stripped away, here because of transnational capitalistic flow and need, what does it mean that Asian Americans, and (can we consider the bodies now Asian Americans) are exhibited?

Recently, I was at a talk on Native American settler colonialism, which the speaker had expressed, Native American culture can only be considered 'living' in a museum. I think about the various ways racial groups are comparatively structured, and I wonder, what does it mean if your body can be only found in an exhibit? Im interested in how these questions of race, transnationalism, gender, blend and intersect with our questions of technology, science, and media, particularly in regards to the body.










Margaret, your post raises some very interesting questions, questions that are quite important to any discussion of Body Worlds. To me, the necropolitics of these bodies circulates in some ways around (the lack of) skin. Body Worlds has been extremely successful, which, if we think about it, probably seems odd: millions of people, according to the website, have paid money to stare at dead human bodies. Why this ceases to shock, disgust, or even bother many people, it might be argued, is because none of the bodies have skin; unlike taxidermied animals (which aren't necessarily shocking but we can assume taxidermied humans might be - this is another issue altogether), the plastinated bodies used in von Hagen's exhibits are skinless. They remind us more of anatomy models than of humans; although of course still recognizably human, their insides are exposed to the outside, distancing the dead plastinated bodies from the living - and dead - bodies we see every day. On the other hand, the bodies' lack of skin does not prevent them from being recognized as "Asian," a classification that, like other racial classifications, historically has depended very much on skin color. Skin, through its paradoxical presence as a maker of race - even though the bodies it marks are skinless, dead bodies whose tissues have been filled with plastics - becomes important when considering these exhibits.

Another necropolitical aspect of these exhibits seems to center on is the fact of exhibition itself and the old political problem of representation. These bodies are only able to be exhibited because they are preserved: the plastination process keeps these bodies dead effectively forever, frozen against the processes of decay and decomposition. In this way, they are at once representations of human bodies or of some idea about human bodies and re-presentations of these bodies. The bodies themselves continually vacillate between these two poles, one in which they claim to or can be made to represent - or speak for - humans or, importantly, certain groups of humans in general and one in which they represent - or stage - human life (and death) in some way. This double articulation makes visible the issues surrounding these bodies: once living people, the now frozen and inorganic bodies confront us at once as vibrant representatives of particular races and as inert representations of human life.


Lindsay, I like that you phrased plastination as a "double articulation" and I am finding some interesting connections to Dr. Parikka's suggestions above and the idea of what happens behind the scenes or even happens w/o our involvement.  It's hard for me to claim that these plastinated bodies represent something foreign to us--it is, in fact, an out of body experience for those who have seen the exhibit. We don't think we'll be surprised to see these bodies--they are human and we recognize the body type because these bodies are like ours. By removing the skin, the necropolitics seem more contested--these bodies have agency even without skin or identification as anything except a plastinated body. What this exhibit indicates is that these bodies are capable of 'doing something' without adding a subjective layer to the body-as-baseline. For instance, by looking at the muscular structures (which, as Lindsay points out, seem more like anatomical models than anything), we are, in a way, forced to accept that our bodies are capable of doing (I really hesitate to say "being") without "us"--the body is represented as a self-regulating machine that we rely on even though its maintence is somewhat involuntary (involuntary to a point, right?--if we need a breathing apparatus after injury to 'breathe' for us, then this is a moment of rupture). These bodies that we have paid an admission price to gawk at are so foreign and kinda scary because of that "double articulation"--they body itself can perform on its own. At the same time, however, by viewing these plastinated bodies, we can recognize a split between the spectatorship of the body as constant performance (w/ skin) and the body as involuntary machine (w/o skin).



It's interesting. Her we are-- 4 decades later-- trying our best to detail "recent" intersections between STS, media studies and the humanities; and to imagine productive junctures for the future. Yet, media studies (of the media ecology or media archeology variety) and STS both emerged in the same moment, both in response to the same set of circumstances, and both within humanities disciplines. Perhaps much can be gained by looking back to their point of origin.

One cannot deny the wide variety of methods, concerns and attitudes toward technology taken up by Innis (history), McLuhan and Ong (English) and Postman (English Education) in the realm of media; and Ellul, Mumford and Marcuse, the three authors perhaps most assigned in early STS courses. But neither can one deny the basic humanistic question animating all their concerns: how does technology structure human experience?

Also, I cannot help notice the degree to which all these early practitioners were activist in their aims. McLuhan, Ong and Postman all endeavored, rather extensively, to guide attitudes towards technology in education (educational media) and society, generally. On the other side, all the first STS programs, Cornell (1969), Stanford (1970) and Leigh University (1972) all emerged largely in an attempt to "get values back into the system" by instilling those values in engineering students. 

The point I'd like to make is this: Among other opportunities today, media studies and STS can--foremost--offer a vital avenue for "broadening the humanities" beyond the university. Let me give one example. Both media studies and STS have on offer a number of compelling models demonstrating the constructed and contingent nature of technologies. For instance the social construction of technology (SCOT) model in STS is in many ways analogous to the recovery of "emergent media" in media archeology. But as Langdon Winner has pointed out ("Where Technological Determinism Went"), at the exact moment when constructionist views of technology have gained supremacy in scholarship, the public, by way of popular digital enthusiasts and science and technology journalism, are more and more under the impression that technologies like the internet are inherently unstoppable and move forward of their own internal logic. Who better to offer a humanistic (that is, critical) corrective to this reflective technological ideology than humanists informed by STS and media studies? And what better way for the humanities to reach outside the academy--to become digital--than to first, make science and technology a more central area of investigation and second, to (once again) broadcast widely their views on the relationship between technology, culture, values and individual agency.


Boczkowski provides a good overview of the connections between media studies and STS in "Bridging STS and communication studies: Scholarship on media and information technologies," HERE.





Adigitality: we are through being cool.

I want to emphasize that bioart ‘proper’ is a showcasing of living being in biotechnological bondage often for the sake of public debate about the engineering aesthetic and the role of anthropogenic need/desire to control all aspects of the lifeworld. These living beings can be from any phyla (fungal, insect, animal, etc.) but they are not just plastination applied to corpses (though they may end up that way by the time of exhibition.) So, Van Hagens is a necropolitical artist yes, but a bioartist, a biotechnological life pusher, no. Those cadaver-people were dead (some might say that decomposition is a life form and then I would agree) when he got his hands on them and the only life on them during display is the airborne, plastic-eating bacteria whom have found their way to his display sculptures to feed. You purview can some examples I have written about living biotech art, displayed live in The Mutagenic Arts.

This distinction is meant to emphasize the disjuncture between media studies as a becoming digital movement of viral memeology and, alternately, biomedia studies which need to include a vital return to fleshy yuck factors for the sake of transpecies enigma. I find reference to avatars dangerously eugenic in this area of showcased biopolitics. Bioart often does not necessarily grant dignity to those non-humans used for creative interpretation of complex life world relations.  But, I would hope that we could at least talk about ‘how unlike’ digital media biomediated flesh hacking actually is. Some of the attraction/repulsion to Von Hagens is about the frivolous usury of dead which we generally like to think of as deserving some respect. Honestly, if his art was as good as his craft I would personally find it a respectable honor to be preserved as a Von Hagens' kitsch plastic art sample. The samples are carved nicely but the irony is only skin deep.

I think Jussi Parikka hit on the crux of the rift when speaking on embodiment and subjectivity in terms of the radically non-human (and radically human alike.) Which is to say, through F. Guattarian J. von Uexkllism, today's ethology can be gotten the gist of as: living while involuntarily decaying, loving and destroying, parasitizing, genetically drifting and generally gallivanting. This is not easily reduced to a technological unconscious. Whatever a lifeform is inborn with, it is not code or software, but slime folded in a yoga of time: a feeling, unstable, responsive body.  The attempt to give the genome a linguistic turn (turning flesh to word) was lame enough, but the hyped up synthetic biology concept of modeling life on the integrated circuit gets a retrograde. The mistaking of all this gooey for AI, VR, genetic algorithms, bioinformatics or web traffic is a reaction formation to the chaos of heterogeneity and an industrial analogy, which needs a haptic repacking. 

Sensors and RFIDs emulate phenomenological experience, not the other way around. The being of slime molds and condors is not a simulation (even if their internal experience is qualitative alone and somewhat never penetrable.) [Mention of Condors wouldn’t be complete without a link to help us think about the potential art of retrofitting power lines to prevent condor electrocutions.] There are dangerous sociopolitical/aesthetic choices being made for non-human (and human) enrichment based on screen life bias. The digital gadget love just adds to the oppression of new world rewilding. We are all already stuck in house/park/captive-breeding programs for endangered species rehabilitation.

So perhaps some respondants can weigh in on the ethological in terms of the inability to reduce life to digital information, (unless this is a sincere animistic inclusivity… I brake for animism.) We might expand our reach around the issues of diversified gender, post-race, enhanced disability and class (same as it ever was) by embracing the irrationality of the humanities (seemingly not bent on instrumentalizing all life under the umbrella of biocapitalist intensives.) Non-Artificial Life as Art is a wry celebration of a hot, new medium, the be-in of gut trickles, after some very cool years of relegating life and theory to cool, dry, [pardon my Hayles] computer science based, simulationist metaphors?  This is the other half of posthuman, cyborg politics, without which Donna Haraway would have never bet on technoscience.



Perhaps we can think about Adam Zaretsky's post above and Robert Mitchell's post "Milieu, Medium, Environment (and Mediation)" together via capture: that which is captured and that which escapes it. Zaretsky's emphasis on the inability to reduce life to digital information points to that which escapes the capture of a kind of "digital" rationality; his emphasis on the goo, the slime, the involuntary decay and muck of life-forms embraces this irrationality ("irrationality" precisely because it escapes this capture?). The dichotomy set up here between metaphoricity/simulation and - what? "the be-in of gut trickles," life in the living - is interesting and seems to point to the tension between what can be captured and what cannot (or is not). Bioart itself, as he suggests, seem to prey on this tension. If art is a capturing of something, some life, so that it can be presented, how then does art suggest that which escapes its capture? Or does it? Perhaps Robert Mitchell's suggestion that we think about media in terms of fields of variation provides a clue of sorts. It also seems to draw on this tension between capture and that which cannot be captured: ever-shifting, uneasy media as media fields that are at once indifferent to and referenced by the living...




Well, this discussion is blowing my mind. I was particularly taken with this phrase in the original post:  "the metaphoricity of science," which implies a relationship to metaphor beyond merely being a source of language for the expression of metaphor, but an inherent metaphorical life in science and research processes. I confess that in my own work, which is strictly that of an artist and writer, I have often relied on the language and conceptual frameworks of science (especially invasion and disease) to to help me construct figurative systems particular to the work I'm creating. I hope, therefore, that I've stumbled into the right forum; I'm interested in exploring the reciprocal relationship between scientific inquiry and metaphorical invention. 


Twice, recently, I've taken up these ideas in creative work:


"The Swarm,"

"The Meat Horses of Serbia,"


I'm looking forward to this discussion. Forgive me if I listen more than I contribute.








A lot to think about in so many comments! Just briefly to Adam's points,I too think that Von Hagens is probably more justifiably described necropolitical artist - which of course has its own connections to our themes of "bios" and "zoe".

I find it almost amusing that von Hagens justifies the popularity of his exhibition by “"because it fills the longing for the authentic in a time of practically unlimited reproducibility." Things taxidermic (or can Hagens' corpses called that?) becoming a guarantee of “authenticity” is besides an interesting statement that could be analyzed even more, but it can be used as emblatic of the figures through which our border-crossings between arts-sciences, living-deads, etc. take place: the dead is never just dead, but filled with life: have a look at any dead corpse, and it is dynamic, smelly, filled with processes that besides being “decay” are actually about life…even if this case, even that microlevel of life after death is removed...

This decay – and related notions such as obsolescence – need to be used towards understanding dynamics. Besides celeberations of “Death”, or romantics of death that we find in (post-)heideggerian emphases and extending perhaps even to Agamben, I want to think deaths in the plural and in the affirmative sense such scholars as Rosi Braidotti do. Deaths are only passages towards other forms of living, wider, radically non-human at times, pointing towards the various scales on which life takes place – the speeds that are quicker, or much slower than us. From existential angst, there is a need to turn towards ecological, and ecosophical (Guattari) emphases that are able to think across timescales and regimes of signification: the social and the ecological, the economic and the mediatic, the individuating/psyche in connection with the artistic, and so forth. Life feeds on the transversal.

Adam also raises interesting points concerning the relations of the digital and life. Too often the digital acts stil as a shorthand to forget the fleshier materialities we are still dealing with -- and yet, we should not perhaps impose too rigid binaries of flesh vs. digital. The digital is quite material already, and the flesh itself is flexible, to put it a bit metaphorically. For me, thinking through such notions as "assemblages", or even milieus/environments (recognizing that Robert Mitchell raised good specifications in terms of such concepts) is exactly to work around too rigid binaries - and understand how these become intermingled - whether in laboratory practices, or in later discursive mobilizations of how their relations are being negotiated. Adam writes: "Sensors and RFIDs emulate phenomenological experience, not the other way around." I would perhaps from my point of view say that its a two-way street: sensors and RFIDs have to of course partly work in our worlds if they are to become effective parts of the consumerist assemblage -- but they are at the same time effecting new regimes of sensation and cognitive exercises for us that is much more than the phenomenological level. The possibilities of ubiq. media to tap into involuntary processes - sensors sensing what our skin does, perspiration, pupils, etc - is an example of such (in the context of security).


Ok this is slightly rambling on without a good punch line, but wanted quickly to respond - and when more time, want to gather my thoughts more - so many great ideas coming up.



The "necropolitical" turn of the discussion seems quite seductive, and it certainly opens several powerful ways of conceiving the relations between media and life, scientific practice and cultural representations, technology and art. Jussi summed the situation up really nicely: "the dead is never just dead, but filled with life."

To what degree, then, can we consider the scientific capture of death - or at least, the cultural fascination with the potential of technoscience to capture death, to control, to animate or reanimate from the space of death - as a "baseline" or enabling condition for the mediation of life and its potentials in the contemporary world? Mbembe famously suggested that necropolitics would describe a horrible new way of living - a living in death, becoming undead. Yet we see this idea of death as a new way of life (or at least, the allure of such an idea) indexed everywhere today, not only in the Body Worlds and related exhibitions - already excellently anatomized in this thread - but also in the ongoing surge of zombie narratives across every possible medium. (And it’s worth repeating the common observation that zombies from the 1960s onwards have become ever more hyperbolically biological or technological).

At the same time, many of the so-called emerging or converging sciences - especially synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and tissue engineering - have been extensively invested in discourses of reanimation, fantasies of resurrecting the dead, creating life from dead material, or even using dead matter as the "medium" for new technological tweaks or hacks. Some of this stuff is very visible - the cult of transhumanism and cryonics that persists in the research communities of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, the obsession that some researchers in these areas seem to have with the conquest of death, the prospect of raising the dead, etc. But there are more subtle examples, as well. For instance, the problem of the so-called "dead layer" in molecular electronics, which has for a while seemed a natural limit for effective capacitance at such small sizes, has recently been solved - not by removing it or working around it, but instead by using it as a medium, taking advantage of its physical properties. In other words, turning the electronic "dead layer" into a feature, now enabling the molecular electronics to function better than before. Using these new tweaks, some researchers in molecular electronics have started calling it the "undead layer," because it now reanimates the whole system. There are many other examples, of course.

I would be tempted - hazardously - to diagnose all the "speculative necropolitics" in science and art today as consequent to the pervasive speculative practices that define our contemporary technoculture, in other words, the political economies of hype and promise that everywhere today drive innovation and investment in the scientific future. In any case, many of technoscientific fields - and investors in these fields, whether scientists or politicians or corporations - now regard the present already from the perspective of an already inevitable, high-tech future: a technological afterlife, as it were . . .

Indeed, I’d like to suggest that the thing several people in this thread have already identified, the "necrotizing" logic of much biomedia, bioart, biotech, etc., perhaps points to a general condition of technoscience today, caught up in the flows of global capital, mobilized by speculative practices that are less concerned with the management of life and living populations - biopolitics - than with the precision control of death and the animation of the dead in the service of technoscientific sovereignty - necropolitics, of course. But moreover, the scientific capture, or animation, of death as the proleptic condition for biomedia . . .


Your attention to the "speculative necropolitics" is quite interesting, and I would simply like to point out that such necropolitical speculation is not, of course, limited to science and art. As you make clear, such activity is part of "the pervasive speculative practices that define our contemporary technoculture," and these practices extend to the realm of national and international security as well. Andrew Lakoff describes the rationality of preparedness that has informed the logic of security in many US governmental instutions and agencies since the beginning of the Cold War. Born out of civil defense practices, this rationality calls for the imagination of inevitable future catastrophic attacks on critical infrastructures - the electric grid, financial systems, water distribution systems, the Internet itself - as a way for those policy makers and infrastructure owners who would be involved in the event of a real catastrophe to practice making important decisions in real time. These experts thus prepare for this future catastrophe - which cannot be predicted, which could happen at any time - by enacting simulations of the catastrophe itself in order to discover failures and weaknesses in the system so that they can be corrected and the system made more resilient (one example is the DHS's Cyber Storm exercises). What becomes important is not the future catastrophe itself but rather the actions taken in response to the catastrophe (which will surely happen). 

As with technoscience, this logic of security is less concerned with the management of life than it is with the control of a certain kind of emergence (which is always catastrophic, which always brings death). This emergence remains ontologically mysterious: it is heterogeneous , forever inaccessible to preparatory knowledge. Furthermore, the catastrophes for which experts must prepare are situated in the crosshairs of the human and the nonhuman, life and nonlife: natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, terrorist attacks - destruction caused by human and nonhuman forces alike - all are brought under the same rationality of preparedness. Ontology gives way to operation. In many ways, then, this logic of security points not only to the importance of speculation but also to the ways in which the human and the nonhuman are being thought together.


Over the past few days, I keep considering some of the 'cultish' transhuman possibilities for the techno-capturing of death. I feel a little hesitant to use the term capture, especially since I see a lot of flux in terms of the stop-and-start nature of digital conversations. With digital conversations, for example, we might be able to consider these spaces in suspension, in progress, or restarted ad infinitum. Such spaces (like this forum or any conversation platform, for example) are constantly frozen and reactivated with each new comment. The cryogenic body will also be reactivated (supposedly--as long as the technology catches up). In these two forms of cryogenics, there is an implied reactivation. In digital spaces, we would like someone to comment or continue the conversation; the frozen body iteself remains hopeful that it will be reactivated in an unknown future. Can we consider a connection between the cryogenic body and thinking of digital media storage as a cryogenic technology?


While I'm thinking about it, I'd like to introduce you to the work of painter/animator Marina Zurkow, whose work is deeply concerned with the intersection of art and science. At times she's created interspecial portraits, and huge, animated installations portraying the natural and anthropogenic history of the Gulf Coast. This piece, called "Northumberland," uses animation and drawing (with appropriation from Francis Bacon), driven by a sophisticated algorithmic engine that populates the scene, during the course of 144 real days, with flora and fauna native to the area, as well as mythical figures. Each appearance of a creature is tied to an algorithm that populates the scene based on the probability that any creature would be in the scene at any given moment. The piece, during the course of those 144 days, cycles through the four seasons.

Have a look! (Zurkow and I met at Yaddo, and are currently collaborating on a project involving immigration, geological time, and oil extraction.)


Duncan, thanks for the link to Zurkow’s work. It was fascinating to view/watch her art. What caught my attention as I viewed the work was the way that many of the animals she incorporated into her central image started from outside the image itself; walked into the picture after having traveled across the image’s thick black frame.  I came to this piece after having read the above forum discussions about milieu vs medium, and about the suspension of life/digital communication (/time?) through cryogenics. If the animals have simply walked into view from the edge of the image itself, I don’t think I would have paid them so much attention. In TV, movies, etc. we are accustomed to beings and objects entering our view as an already-integrated part of the larger image. By having the animals move through the blackness into the central image, it foregrounded for me the way that milieu becomes Umwelt becomes milieu as living beings pass through an environment. I also connected with me in regards to the idea of cryogenics suspending life, that although they may not be ‘living’ in a way that interacts with the conscious world, still they are alive and have existence.


I'm overwhelmed by the number of fascinating topics this forum has generated. I'll keep this brief. One thing that has been occupying my mind lately is the potential of synthetic biology to rise above the whirlpool of current studies in media and STS. The field is primed to be a complete game changer. It can redefine the man vs. machine debate by simply erasing the machine from the equation.


One example are the burgeoning experimentations involving biostorage ( Scientists in China have turned E. coli into hard drives. One gram of the bacteria can store up to 900 terabytes of information, including text, music, images, and video. And the information can be easily retrieved. When biological organisms become repositories of non-human data, or rather, of data that is not native to the biological system of the organism, this is biomedia in a true and literal sense. I wonder: is it likely that the capture, storage, and retrieval functions being performed by media today will one day be performed by single-celled organisms living in our bodies? Or a more important question, how many ripped DVDs can my large intestine hold.


Bread and Politics

I do agree that either/or is not the best tact for so complex an issue of the academic biomedia theory merely mirroring trends of commercial instrumentalization.  Life is probably mere vital material and along the lines of Manuel De Landa, all material may have a worlding of it’s own.  The issue of necropolitics is morbid and interesting, but in terms of the yet to be euthanized, I am just trying to counter weight the technology metaphor with alt-quizzicalities rather than merely approaching the quality of life issue under the bioethics of technological use regimes (risk to human cultural backlash vrs. benefit to economic interests.) 

For instance, a slice of wheat bread is dead fermented yeast byproduct, cooked until lightly brown on the outside and yummy to eat (if you are not glutenphobic.)  The yeast is used as a metabolizing factory to produce a richer, predigested gastronomic sculpture of necropolitical aesthetics. But, the quality life of wild yeast, as it is converted to bread starter is alterity for the yeast first and human delicacy second. 

I use yeast as an example simply because most people don’t consider yeast cultures to have a worlding worth consideration.  Although any lite study of their sex life (asexual, sexual and budding all in one) would include potential affects that defy human hedonistic conception. After tedious, posthumanist training, one might make a near Jainist leap to intuit yeast ethology as a complex, worthy gaggle, most capable in it’s own niche and having a habitus of their own. But, as we apply technological aspects to yeast, through genome sequencing and bioinformatics, yeast artificial chromosomes for genetic cassette inserts, secondary metabolite production (i.e. vitamin, pharmaceutical and/or industrial solvent production), and bakery tech, we enter into the realm of Flesh Machinic.

“Training can only take a body to the limits of its predisposition. Pancapitalism has realized that the body must be designed for specific, goal-oriented tasks that better complement its interface with technology within the real space of production. Human characteristics must also be rationally designed and engineered in order to eliminate body functions and psychological characteristics that refuse ideological inscription.” (Flesh Machine, CAE, Pg. 30)

Know Your RItes

And it is here that I am trying to allay the trend to call on technological metaphor alone when referring to biomedia. The simplistic ‘optimism’ of we can build you DIYBIO, Humanity Plus futur-luv naiveté and supposed integrated circuit bending of the flesh (hemmed and hawed under the manufactured watch of Synthetic Biology trends) are really gumming up any difference massage a playful theorist might want to give biomedia as transpecies relatedness. So, yes, if people are starving we can let them eat their transgenic loaves of hard drives. But, shackling all global bodies to the rational ascension of land mass utilization, drives home a questioning of the implied necessary sacrifice of dissident, chaotic, orificial metabolisms. Whom are these free-living divergences and what does it mean to be the uber-ding beyond geoengineering’s capabilities?

“Digital flesh is significant in the mapping of the body, but its value depends upon the practical applications that are derived from it; these, in turn, can be looped back into the material world. The body is here to stay. Unfortunately, the body of the future will not be the liquid, free-forming body which yields to individual desire; rather, it will be a solid entity whose behaviors are fortified by task-oriented technological armor interfacing with ideologically engineered flesh. Little evidence is available to indicate that liquescence is different in postmodernity from what it was in modernity—the privilege of capital- saturated power vectors.” (Flesh Machine, CAE, Pg. 31)

Even at the level of the invisible gene or metabolic pathway, industrial knowledge production inhabiting or rehabituating life is an art of minimalist, utilitarian, conceptual bondage. How can this be actuated with hardly an art critic’s involvement? We can surpass marked debate by raising the anthropocentric ante. Where the integrated circuit bending of DIY Synthetic Biology trends meets LSD inspired Humanity Plus is on the level of the torn screen of I-GMO (Intentional Genetic Modification of the Human Genome Orgiastics), the trapped naked ape, the culture of patch-clamped inbred fate, mapped over anatomy should be an orgy of collage.  And, as we approach the realms of the mammalian, the collateral damage of short range enhancement strategies, eye to eye with the luddite, wild type, non-optimized human genome, it would do us well to diversify our analogies to encompass more than cybernetic signals over a flat plane of noiseful creatures. Perhaps race, gender and class, though applicable, might take a backseat to disability studies and the differently-abled politics of being on the serviced end of a positive eugenic soft-genocide of time based fashion? 



dear all - a bit late to the game, but deeply appreciative nonetheless for this debate and HASTAC's initiative. not sure whether i fully grasp everyone's comments - a lot of profound work gets done here! awesome.

the topics addressed here - dissolving metaphoric boundaries between "the sciences" and "the humanities" and "the arts" in service of theorizing and operationalizing media, technology, information, naturecultures (in Donna Harraway's sense), the body, and life as one - are indeed epic. ripe for a Mel Gibson movie.

my 2 cents: in our work at Indiana Unversity, we explore the implicaitons of a simple proposition: media = life.

this not only means that media are alive, nor that human life increasingly, perhaps exclusively, begets itself in media. it also means that to discuss media, one inevitably talks about a metaphysics of life - and vice versa.

so on the one hand, i'd agree with Jussi - I'm a fan! - that "we need to think outside the human bubble, and all the inhuman forces (animals, and technological, for instance) that constitute our milieus". on the other hand, we need to think about all of those things at the same time - about the less-than-clear and increasingly dissolving boundaries between polis, physis and techne: the human world, the green world (i.e. nature), and technological world (as referenced in Sean Cubitt's EcoMedia).

as remarkrd: the milieu is indifferent to the living being. Silverstone in the same vein offered that technologies don't care. on the other hand, our media are (as Miller puts it) 'technologies of love', of profound intimacy and longing, of experiences with (and experiencing) love/sex/death.

i love the reference above to 'rewilding', to the speculative turn in philosophy, to Wendy's new marketing slogan since 2009: "You Know When It's Real."

yes we do.

hey, did anyone see the new Situationst iPhone app? see:

I think it really captures some of our discussion, in terms of realizing something real about reality only through/because of media.

not sure whether any of this made any sense. but its both fun and a privilege reading through all of these comments and thoughts.



Mark is completely correct here! It's about *all* of such levels, which of course demands a lot from any writer/analyst, but is a necessary horizon that we need to chase. As Mark says, it's not only about the non-human (which has been my interest recently), but how the various levels tie together - the assemblage nature of media life.

Media archaeologically this theme relates to birth of modern media cultures too: media as alive, our life mediated, but also how media becomes a framework for a wider metaphysics of life -- to an extent that since 19th century at least we have turned to the occult, the paranormal and borders between life and death to think what technical media are doing. As we know from such great studies as Jeff Sconce's Haunted Media and others, since the 19th century we have tried to make sense of these processes by referring to communication with the dead, mediumship, the other-wordly (remember Tesla convinced of receiving alien signals!), and more recently such often metaphorized examples as worms and viruses...

What interests me in what I am currently writing is how such "imaginaries of media" that have been part of the popular culture of new media reception are shorthands for the fact that technical media is reaching towards the non-phenomenological. Its too quick, invisible, and just weird (challenging such age old ontological principles that you cannot be in several places at one time -- but think of tele-media!). So the link to the paranormal worked through this link, an epistemology to understand this change. Hence I am happy in the midst of the general discussions here turning towards the dead and necropolitics that projects such as Micro Research Lab's still invoke the same imaginary - and connect it with mediatic epistemologies of "detection" and signal tracking: .


ps. nice remarks on the indifference / love, desire question. Again - as Mark flags, we need to be able to sustain and tolerate the various pulls, even contradictory, that media cultures are about. Media might be non-human and indeed indifferent (an ethernet cable does not care about you, but it is crucial for your internet communication; Shannon and Weaver's non-semantic model of communication remained indifferent to whether you write love letters or resignation to your boss, and focused on the signal-as-such) and yet our worlds of desire, and perversion, are completely formed through them. (I was earlier, before deciding to write Insect Media, toying with the idea of writing a cultural history of technological perversions - how modern sexual perversions are intimately entangled with our mediatic regimes...but that's another story!).


What a rich and absorbing conversation!  I have not participated yet because this is not an area I know well so I've been the classic lurky, sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the party without getting up to dance.  


But yesterday in my class "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," a student-run, peer-assessed, peer-led class, two students chose AI as a topic and we had a terrifically intersting conversation about the Turing Test and its lack of a body. So, at risk of switching the music, I'll join in, or throw this out there, and see if anyone is interested in moving in this direction.


So back to the question:  Does the Turing Test have a body, a biology?  When we distribute cognition, do we divide it up among other minds or are those minds connected to bodies?  When we discus virtuality, do we also think in terms of sensations other than the visual?  


Our AI conversation in class turned on the restrictions and almost quaint ideas of the "brain" intrinsic to a lot of AI and roused again this month by IBM's Jeopardy-defying Watson.  Does Watson have a body?  Does he perform? So much of the conversation post-Jeopardy made it seem as if Watson's main attribute was rapid search and many people were convinced that is a form of intelligence, along with that literally disembodied (albeit very pleasant) voice.


In other words, we know from contemporary neuroscientific theory that the brain doesn't just "think" but is also a biological organ that responds to all the world's sensations, including the body's owns.    Yet discussions of AI still tend to think of intellingence as logic (beyond the Chinese Room quandary but not much beyond it) and/or language, not as sensation, the senses, proprioperception, and so forth.   In bioart, what is the role of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, that is precisely physical? 


I'm also interested in deconstructive answers to the Turing test.   If we know, from Dan Ariely and others, that humans are predictably irrational, is the real way to tell the computer from the human behind the screen (Turing-like), that the computer is predictably rational?  


(As an aside to this aside, and I won't go into it now, but I'm of the cognitive school that sees all perception as memory, and vice versa, all knowledge as memory, all imagination as memory, all memory as imagination:  in other words, I believe in recombinatory time, recombinatory memory, all the time.  I don't believe in an "out there" or in a "photograph" of what is out there but a constantly compelling redaction of past redactions, including the first moment of experience with its extreme, hyper selectivity, sometimes called attention blindness or selective vision or inattentional blindness:  i.e. what you see means there is a lot you do not see, but what you see does not mean that the unseen is not there.)


I've invited some of my undergraduates to read this rich, compelling, thought-provoking dialogue and contribute.   I don't know if they will but, if they do, this entry, that comes into the conversation slant, might be a point of entry for them.  


In any case, whatever you think of these animadversions on AI (my first field, my lost love!), thank you for letting me be a lurker in a very provocative conversation. 




Hello Cathy, and hello and welcome to your students who may be lurking!

My thoughts are in regards to your comment that the brain (the seat of intelligence) “doesn't just "think" but is also a biological organ that responds to all the world's sensations, including the body's own. Yet discussions of AI still tend to think of intelligence as logic… and/or language, not as sensation, the senses, proprioperception, and so forth”. I guess I don’t have a specific point or question, so much as I keep coming up with things that complicate this idea of the connection between intelligence, sensation responses, logic and life.

 What sprung to mind first was my kids’ Zhu-Zhu pets. These are seemingly intelligent mechanical hamsters that ‘sense’ their environment and back up from an obstacle in their way, so appearing to have intelligence. Here the machine is sensing it’s environment, taking in input that is not aural, and acting based on this. It appears intelligent because of it’s ability to navigate it’s environment, changing direction when presented with obstacle. The Intelligent Vacuum cleaner is another example. What sets these two objects apart from regular toys/vacuum cleaners, is their ability to process sensory data from their environments and act accordingly.  But we wouldn’t call them artificial intelligence; they wouldn’t fall into what we understand as AI.

Then there are living entities that live (only?) through sensory input, not logic. Plants for example grow and thrive in response to sun/water/etc, but we would not call them intelligent. Yet, we would call them living; we would call them a form of life. As I said, no real question here, just ponderings on complications stemming from your thought-provoking post.

To Cathy's students who might be lurking but hesitant to post, what were your conclusions about Watson? Does he have a body? True intelligence? What credence does the addition of a very pleasent, very human-sounding voice lend to the machine's intelligence? To the way the machince seems to embody life? What were, if any, your thoughts about the connections between life, intelligence, and technology?


Thanks, Mary.  Yes, I think the new world of AI includes all kinds of robotics (I used some in rehabbing an arm after a severe injury) but it is interesting that our theories of AI often are limited to logic and language, not to "learning" machines that accommodate to our own physicality. 


I'm also excited by a number of virtual duets I've seen where dancers interact with robots, virtual machines, projections of one another and their own bodies transform in shapes and rhythms in tandem with these intelligent actors.  We did one here many years ago, maybe eight or so years now, with a virtual marionette.   Sadly, the marionette was effective only about 90% of the time and the dancers were suspended 30 feet above the ground and could not put their own human bodies at risk for a virtual body that was not reliable . . . they banned the virtual marionette from the performance after the dress rehearsal, much to the disappointment of the engineers who had created it.   Lesson learned for all, though, about performativity and real v. virtual bodies!


One final point:  THANK YOU for the very human invitation you have extended to my undergraduate students in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet."  I hope they take you up on that.   (Question:  where do confidence, modesty, shyness, hesitation, self-consciousness, courage, boldness, and other affective qualities fit in the mediated minds and bodies conversation?)


I am more or less of the same strand of thinking - interested in the moments when robotics started to become really embodied - something i track in Insect Media to for instance the still very simple Grey Walter tortoises - despite simplicity embodied agents that lived (functioned) of/in milieus of interaction, and hence were already partly emblematic of what later became part of the more "worlding" models of AI, as well as robots. Such developments resonate with the work on radical empiricism in philosophy and cultural theory - what has been more recently identified to the work in Montreal by eg Erin Manning and Brian Massumi of thinking through the primacy of relation, and of movement. This is what I would relate to a wider ethological strand of thinking through relations, from von Uexküll's animal worlds to embodied robotics, and more. (Was reminded of this because of you mentioning dance - which plays such a privileged place for a range of recent analyses into movement and sensation, and in-movement embodied intelligence. And of course, when we move, we always move with non-humans. The floor that affords my steps, escorting them, to other relative stabilities which form part of the dynamics of space which is my affordance - ecologies of movement, ecologies that could be branded as "affect" as well - as long as we understand affect as more than emotion, and closer to the wider relationality, milieus, in which "I" is born).

However, one of the most interesting things I read recently was Elizabeth Wilson's Affect & Artificial Intelligence (my review forthcoming in Leonardo Digital Reviews). Wilson articulates not only the critique of the narrow models of intelligence that early AI promoted, but actually tries to meticulously track the wider contexts and drives in which the 1950s and 1960s thought worked. What she argues is actually the contrary -- that the worlds of even early AI were full of affect, of relations, of desires and sexualities. Such a mapping is good also to counter some of the continuing arguments against the worlds of technology as impoverishment of affect, vs. the fully embodied affect worlds of human interaction. Worlds of affect emerge in such situations, circulations, where we are introjected not only by humans and other living beings, but as much non-humans, and technologies too. It's a good read in the context of these discussions and forces us to rethink our binaries of narrowly rational early AI vs. the later embodied AI.


After the Watson showdown in February, I read the book Final Jeopardy which details the process of building a computer powerful enough to "think on its feet." What is most interesting, however, is that the author and the programmers are very assertive in noting that Watson doesn't know anything--it just analyzes and chooses the best answer based on probablility. I found that very interesting, especially since there was a some of hype (fear?) that Watson was the representation of the beginning of human extinction. If we think a bit more deeply, Watson actually represents one of the most perfect systems of human-computer interaction we've seen. For example, the programmers suggest that Watson could "read" all the medical journal articles published throughout the year, something that is impossible for any human. By "reading" all the material, hospitals would each have their own "Dr. House" on staff--by analyzing and suggesting the top three possibile diagnoses, Watson would complement human knowledge while still relying on human knowledge to make a final decision. It would beef up the brain power, so to speak, in a hospital setting. To me, these combinations are the most impressive and exciting developments in AI!


pls forgive me for copying and pasting, but i'd like to share a quote from Humberto Maturana (one of the folks who introduced the concept of autopoiesis and crossed the boundary between biology and cognition back in the 1970s), and ask your thoughts...

because it seems that by all of asking 'what is the matter' with less-than-clear boundaries between media and life, between dead, undead, and living matter, between nature and culture, between materialities and the immaterial, and so on...

it raises the spectre of ethics and aesthetics: what can we do with such questions that would lead to (us co-creating) a better & more beautiful life?

"I think that the question that we human beings must face is that of what do we want to happen to us, not a question of knowledge or progress. The question that we must face is not about the relation of biology with technology [...] nor about the relation between knowledge and reality [...] I think that the question that we must face at this moment of our history is about our desires and about whether we want or not to be responsible of our desires."

from "Metadesign":


Thank you for the link to Maturana’s fascinating article! After reading it, what was intriguing for me was how Maturana argues that the creation of technology stemmed purely from emotion, e.g. someone has compassion for the sick, so s/he creates a piece of technology to help in diagnosis, or ease suffering (like x-ray machine or dialysis machine). Or as another example, a person is filled with curiosity, and so creates a machine to go into outer space, a huge “unknown” territory. I had never thought about this kind of connection between technology and emotion, and  I am persuaded by his argument; however, I can’t help thinking at the same time that it’s not that simple, but I can’t quite express why yet. Need to mull that one over some more.

Maturana’s discussion of emotion being the impetus of technology made me think of Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick introduced the idea of a machine that can control someone’s emotions. You can ‘dial’ whatever emotion you want to feel, including what intensity of the emotion and how long you want that emotion to last. So you would both control your emotions and render control of your emotions to the machine/technology at the same time. In light of Manatura’s argument that people’s emotions lead to technology, Dick's emotion machine presented an interesting paradox for me: emotion creates technology creates emotion.


Firstly, I must also apologize for being a lurker and for taking more than I try and give. Life circumstances have prevented me from more actual engagement but thankfully things are changing for me and I am grateful to be able to comment now, and in particular, at such a fascinating juncture in this discussion.

I just finished reading Maturana's Metadesign essay via Mark's post "...the road ahead" just above, and I can't help but think of those people and particularly children that now must live in the direct fallout of Fukushima. Here we have an instance of technology still leaking out of our control and the question a few more people are now asking is whether such technology is responsible, if in fact we cannot ever be completely responsible for it, not to mention its increasingly and still haphazardly stockpiled waste.

In today's paper version of the NYT there is a front page article in the business section, which profiles India's nuclear industry and parallel push to build a plant along Jaitapur's biologically productive coastline (allegedly 20,000 people are currently employed here as farmers and fishermen). The article spills over to the next page, and neatly tucked next to it is another article that suggests that if India is to proceed with its ambitious plan to build 44 nuclear plants over the next decade, its university system needs to produce 1,000 to 1,900 nuclear specialists a year. But, according to the article, and for market-driven reasons, India’s top universities are graduating only about 50 nuclear specialists a year.

Yesterday I attended a talk on my campus whereby a nuclear scientist enlightened me to the notion that when it comes to nuclear disasters, the most knowledgeable nuclear engineers must be carefully managed such that the knowledge itself is not over-radiated, too quickly. That is, as I write this, the most knowledgeable engineers are accompanying less knowledgeable workers into the ravaged Fukishima plant for only moments at a time, somehow sparing their bodies (over others), as carriers of precious information for the alarming purposes of being able to tend to the disaster over its entire duration, which of course remains dangerously unknown.

I am struck here, by what seems to be a mounting technological burden in the face of a dwindling supply of fragile knowledge (at least in India's case). As everyone here knows, upon the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a human desire to harness nuclear energy for good, as opposed to war, launched a rapid expansion of a now global nuclear industry and what seems relevant to this discussion is indeed of ethical concern, namely what does it mean to commit to energy sources that will increasingly affect -if not destroy- our human biologies, be it coal via the air we breathe, natural gas through the water we drink, or nuclear power via the radiation consequences of fallout? And to what extent will information networks create pockets of resistance or survival and to what degree will these pockets be a function of wealth and access to critical knowledge about the dangers of environmental demise?

At the risk of sounding alarmist, it's as if we have already passed some sort of threshold and what lies ahead is only the all too late awaremess that there is no turning back. We are our own destruction. Our species is indeed, mortal.


continuing this line of discussion: i do think the relationship between human beings and technologies - as between our sense of humanity and the degree of 'technology-ness' in machines - is recursive, symbiotic, and - in terms of Maturana and Varela - structurally coupled.

an additional layer can be added in that people are not the only ones creating technology - as Brian Arthur notes in his latest work, technology begets technology as well.

so what i'm particularly interested in, is in taking the debate about man/machine (media + life) beyond its distinctions and consider the ethical and aesthetical dimension of a fused existence.

a blunt way of stating this question: how can we relate to a machine that farts, bleeds, and sweats?


Sorry to jump into the conversation at its dwindling, but I have a few primary materials to offer up and my own thanks for the discussion thus far. I admit, the term "media ecology" has drawn me like the proverbial moth, but I've always had trouble pinning it down far enough to be useful (especialy after reading Matthew Fuller's Media Ecologies and Joel Slayton's foreword to Fuller). The ongoing conversation over the term "medium" implies that "media ecology" could be read as either so tautological or so inclusive as to be nearly useless, depending on your definition of media.

Anyway, the more recent comments bring to mind Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, a potential must-read for those interested in narratives of environmental disaster, disease, genetically modified organisms, and the porousness of life/non-life. The novel takes place in Thailand some centuries into the future, and features biotech companies ("calorie companies") that have superseded national governments through control of the food supply via seedbanks and "gene-hacked" staple crops and pests. The protagonist, if there is one, is the Japanese GM-servant-turned-sex-worker Emiko. This is a world that has lost its sense of surplus, fuel, and climate stability, that now thinks religiously in terms of calories and joules, where human and animal exertion has necessarily taken the place of machines.

One other piece worth referencing is Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick's (known as Double Archive) Art After Death recordings, made during sessions with human spirit "mediums" (one medium we haven't mentioned!) asked to make contact with such figures as Joseph Cornell, Yves Klein, and the Countess of Castiglione through their historical objects. A kind of "medium archaeology," if you will.


Hi, just to add to that line of thought - could not resist as this is out just today: The Fibreculture-journal special issue on Media Ecology (the revision of the concept after Matt Fuller's work). "Unnatural ecologies" issue focuses then a lot on the practices of media ecology - which range to art and activism. Hence, the question becomes a mobilization of the concept, but also a mobilization of the focus on energies, interchanges, and more - not all of that having to do with biomedia and high-tech, but the perspective into the dynamics of life, the living, technology and so forth.

From our intro:

"What was demonstrated already in Fuller’s take on the concept was a special appreciation of material practices involved in establishing the regimes of media ecologies. Media ecologies are quite often understood by Fuller through artistic/activist practices rather than pre-formed theories, which precisely work through the complex media layers in which on the one hand subjectivation and agency are articulated and, on the other hand, the materiality of informational objects gets distributed, dispersed and takes effect. Media ecological platforms can be seen to range from network environments for philosophy and media activism as in Rekombinant ( to art platforms on the net such as ( Related themes can be detected in the various negotiations of nature being remixed, resurfaced, revisualized or sonified through media environments. Examples include  Natalie Jeremijenko’s work, the Harwood-Yokokoji-Wright Eco Media collaboration (featured in Parikka -this Issue), biological art projects such as Amy Youngs’s The Digestive Table (2006,, the work of activist/artistic groupings like Critical Art Ensemble, the Yes Men or the Wu Ming foundation and various bioart projects of recent years. In all these cases a dynamic media ecology is generated, incorporating natural, technical and informational components and giving rise to singular processes of subjectivation that are equally an essential part of the media ecology."


Another thing I have been meaning to mention is the exhibition curated by Jens Hauser: Paul Vanouse's Fingerprints (a short text here and a book edited by Hauser out too). For me, media ecologies are about carving out such metastabilities which are a demonstration of the activity of matter - whether biomedial sorts, or just embedded in what we more easily recognize in "human praxis".


Yes. I guess all I have been trying to say (in not so many worlds at once) is that the economy of care tends to be relinquished completely when the life world is reduced to gadget love mecha-talk.  I am fully accepting of the fact that biotechnology underscores the uncanny position of our being machines made out of meat.  And most Bioart does have a technological life support system composed of technics (often as a boring, pared down, art and tech, habitually protestant aesthetic touted as DIY agitprop but actually scientism’s mutant love child.) But, I think it is early in ethological or even human history to determine meat as made out of machiness.

Not that the force of life is something special, sacred or worth preserving (for whom and why?) A goddess dressing up of life bodies with romantic versions of holism (like the noosphere yab yunk out there) or unsullied virginity (unfertilized eggs are only good for usury) doesn’t improve the debate or make for interesting response patterns. But, conceptualizing the mind as wired or heredity as a hard drive is just too much like channeling commercial television. Pop culture is the most kitsch way to annihilate care.  If the machinic metaphor is meant to be ironic, then it is at least informed. But, if it is just the lowest common denominator crutch of a technophiliac culture, even unto the intelligentsia, then we are just slouching into more penitentiary led eras of borg interface instead of truly open source, unscreened life tech. "Long live the new flesh"

Hot example: Amy Youngs (mentioned Above by Jussi) in Creating, Culling and Caring, a superb essay from The Aesthetics of Care? (free PDF book online, just a mouse click away!) wrote about her experiences breeding show rabbits and how it influenced her read on the actual bioart medium, which is the organisms on relational display. The troubled role of care in biotechnology is, hopefully, still an issue for those who claim: insight into embodied analysis, reflection on animal studies, chin scratching when pondering the biopolitics of university AICUCs (animal care and use committees) and unsuturedness in life art aesthetics.