Socio-technical systems and the asymmetrical determination of ‘know-how’

I’m about two thirds of the way through restructuring and rewriting an article on ‘know-how’. This is the first proper publication to come out of my PhD dissertation that I finished in 2007. My goal is to lay the theoretical groundwork to eventually carry out a ‘media archaeology’ of ‘know-how’. It is largely based on Deleuze’s reworking of Kantian metaphysics, but I am using such philosophical concepts in a very applied way.

I define ‘know-how’ as experience-based practical knowledge. ‘Know-how’ is developed in the body through some kind of practice. ‘Developed’ has two meanings here. Firstly, like a polaroid photograph, ‘know-how’ develops as a consequence of exposure to the conditions of experience. Secondly, the differential repetition of experience develops ‘know-how’. Experience does not accummulate, so for example, it would be incorrect to describe someone as ‘more experienced’. Rather, experience is differentiated as the synthesis of memory is founded on the synthesis of habit. Someone only ever has a experience that through its differential repetition becomes ‘keener’ (or ‘duller’). 

The episodic character of differentially repeated experience through which ‘know-how’ is developed I am calling a ‘challenge’. I define three characteristics of ‘challenges’. First, its problematic contiguity, which I won’t go into in this post. Secondly, there is a material ‘kicking-a-rock’ dimension of challenges and, thirdly, there is also an incorporeal or virtual dimension to them. ‘Challenges’ are similar to problems (in the non-Deleuzian sense) because they beg some kind of resolution or solution. But unlike problems, a ‘challenge’ also demands some kind of mobilisation to ‘rise to the challenge’. Hence, the affective disposition of the subject of ‘know-how’ is of crucial importance.

In terms of affect, there are three ways to respond to a ‘challenge’, depending on its character. To be ‘beat’ by the challenge means to be over-awed (or under-awed) and assume a diminutive relation of the ‘passive affections’ of the ‘challenge’. One’s capacity to act is diminished. On the other hand, to ‘rise to the challenge’ and mobilise to engage with an increased capacity to act determined by the active affections of the challenge. In between is a complex relation of active affections in all dimensions of the mobilisation bar one, and that is the capacity to delineate or intuit the ‘challenge’ itself. By inheriting the ‘challenges’ of others, one’s co-assembly of active affects — what I am calling ‘enthusiasm’ — becomes harnessed by whatever agency is positing and valorising these inherited ‘challenges’ as worthy of mobilisation. For example, this is how ‘enthusiasm’ belonging to subcultures becomes harnessed as a resource by the creative industries.

In this article I am primarily concerned with the way ‘know-how’ can be transmitted. The core problem is that experience itself cannot be communicated. My solution to this problem is to engage with the ways the condition of experience (i.e. ‘challenges’) can be transmitted. When a subject of ‘know-how’ begins to develop ‘know-how’ he or she is exposed to what I am calling the ‘visibilities’ (following Deleuze’s reading of Foucault) and ‘tactilities’. ‘Tactilities’ captures a sense of the qualitative capacity to and practice of getting one’s ‘hands dirty’. This is a non-cognitive tactile appreciation of the material qualities of the ‘challenge’, where habits of practise are synthesised in the body as ‘tacit knowledge’.

The best example of the the transmission of ‘know-how’ is the much neglected ‘how to’ article. The ‘how to’ article walks a subject of ‘know-how’ through a ‘challenge’. The subject develops new ways of ‘seeing’ the elements of the ‘challenge’, new ways of manipulating and engaging with the material elements (‘tactilities’), and mobilises through a co-assembly of active affects (i.e. implicit ‘encouragement’). Because of my unique work background I have countless informal examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed, but rather than extensive (and probably boring) examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed (in my dissertation most of a 12k word chapter was spent going through the example of how I fixed a broken fan belt on my car!) I use the actor-network theory concept of ‘black-boxing’ as a way to think through the way subjects of ‘know-how’ engage with socio-technical systems.

The Politics of Affect: Using Anxiety as a Political Resource

There has been some productive discussion on Twitter around Jessica Irvine’s piece in Fairfax publications today Unpicking the Collective Whinge. In this post I shall engage with Irvine’s piece in the context of some of the discussion from Twitter and finish with a bit of an exploration into post-ideological politics. Irvine is working to diagnose a specific problem she identifies in the current Australian political climate: 

I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out how Australia’s economic vital signs can be so good – low joblessness, low inflation, trend growth – and yet Australians can remain so resolutely miserable.


There can be only one answer: we are, as a nation, chucking a full-on, all-screaming, all-door-slamming teenage temper tantrum.

I agree with the problem she is identifiing, but not the diagnosis. My colleague Jason Wilson’s observation is that this diagnosis is typical of (small-L) liberal political punditry and I believe he is writing a blog post on the matter.

Nation of Whingers

For international readers, ‘whingeing’ is a bit like whining, but in Australian culture it has a particularly nationalistic inflection due to the characterisation of ‘whingeing poms’. Irvine is arguing that ‘whingeing’ is the modus operandi of most of the nation.  ‘Whingeing’ in this context means attempting to extract more value from the current composition of arrangements (‘rentseeking’), normally via some kind of government-based dividend (reduction of regulation or increased welfare). She is collapsing two (or more) responses to the current economic situation in Australia, both of which are micro-economic responses to the apparently positive macro-economic well being of the entire national economy. Rather than diagnosing the problem as ‘whingeing’ my suggestion is that the current situation needs to be dissected to separate (at least) two levels social and political anxiety. 

  1. At the level of what Irvine calls ‘business’, she describes how they are “chucking hissy fits about workplace laws and taxation”. Shes notes that “most of the tantrums come from big business in Australia – the banks, resource companies and retailers that generally operate under little competitive pressure and enjoy a captive customer base.”
  2. At the level of ‘consumers’ and Irvine’s deployment of a collective ‘we’ (which I’ll take to mean salaried employees and non-big business owners) and others who have high household debt. They are “complaining about the cost of living and wailing about any attempts to wind back a bloated welfare system”.

Rather than bundling up all responses to the apparently positive macro-economic health of the nation in terms of ‘whinging’ it makes better sense at an analytical level to separate (at least) two responses and critically engage with them on their own terms. In response to Jason’s comments, in my tweets I suggested there was a kind of dissonance being experienced because of the apparent contradiction of the relatively good macro-economic health and wellbeing of the national economy versus the experience of dominant neo-liberal modes of workplace management and performance-based audit culture. In a performance-based audit culture all workplace activity is measured against performance-based indexes. Certain ‘targets’ need to be met: sales targets, satisfaction targets, conversion targets and so on. This is a naked attempt to extract more labour from workers, particularly when the ‘targets’ are not realistic. But it is only own example of the ‘insecurity’ experienced at the level of the individual or household. The pressure experienced by individuals and ‘households’ radically increases once a huge debt burden is factored into the equation. The sloganistic description of this mode of capitalism is to “Privatise profits and socialise risk.”

I’m updating this post 23/5/12 with comments from Ross Gittin, economics writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, who hits the nail on the head with his column about the self-interest of business people who frame changes to superannuation and tax regulations in ways to suit themselves:

David Anderson, the managing director of Mercer, a financial services provider, warns that ”continual changes to superannuation will unfortunately create a wave of uncertainty, confirming the commonly-held view that superannuation is an irresistible honey pot”. ”There is a risk that further complicating and continually changing the rules in superannuation will reduce investor confidence in super and that would be a most unfortunate outcome,” he says. Sorry, but most of all that is self-serving tosh. […]

The media have a tendency to quote uncritically business spokespeople who want to have a crack at the government of the day. But most of them are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They claim to be speaking in the interests of their customers but, for the most part, they are, in the money market phrase, ”talking their book” – that is, offering advice that serves their own interests. Even when measures have been carefully targeted to hit only the well off, they’ll be shedding bitter tears and predicting dire consequences. Why? Partly because they’re very highly paid themselves but mainly because they make more money out of the rich than the poor.

I want to make a further critical point about why it is necessary to separate the two levels and I want to relate to the move from ideologically-based poltical arguments to a post-ideological context. The problems of big business are not ‘our’ problems. ‘Our’ problems are not the problems of big business. Irvine’s piece would’ve been far stronger had she made this explicit distinction in her column.

On the Shared Experience of Anxiety

 The current mainstream media continually produces stories that attempt to forge a connection between the experience of dissatisfaction because of insecurity with the current government or state of affairs. This is the absolute travesty of media reports about the mining tax or the so-called ‘carbon tax’. The Australian newspaper has been particularly virolent in its efforts to forge this connection and then using it to attack the current minority Labor government under the aegis of ‘holding them to account’. The end result is that the very real feeling of insecurity at the level of the individual or household is rearticulated as the consequence of the ‘same’ problems that ‘business’ is using to win rentseeking concessions from government.

In late-1970s versions of Marxist-inflected media studies, this would’ve been interpreted as a classic example of the hegemonic effect of the mainstream media being in the pockets of capitalists. Basically the media is being used to suture over apparent class contradictions. The ‘consumers’ and ‘householders’ have come to perceive the world in ways that benefit the ‘business’ classes. Fear and anxiety are often used as the currency or building blocks of such an approach. If you experience ‘fear’ or ‘anxiety’ then whatever the situation is must be ‘real’ as you otherwise would not feel such emotions. The now ubiquitous ‘moral panic’ is an example of this work. Isolate a ‘folk devil’, represent them as the cause (rather than symptom) of some stuctural tension, and reap the political capital benefits.

The current situation is different. ‘Insecurity’ is experienced as anxiety or even dread about whether or not ‘we’ are able (and importantly continue to be able) to afford the ‘costs of living’. ‘Costs of living’ bundles up a large number of diverse expenditures for a diverse range of people. Does it refer to current costs of health insurance? Or rent and housing? Mobility in the form of ongoing registration and fueling of a vehicle? Time and money costs of public transport? Food and clothing? Irvine reduces all this to a paternalistic and cynical ‘lolly prices’:

True, lolly prices were rising, particularly on consumer sensitive items like petrol, food, education and health. But average income gains were more than enough to offset the rises for most, if not all, Australian households.

‘We’ don’t have a large degree of control over most of these costs. We can ‘choose’ not to have private health insurance or ‘choose’ not to have a car, but the quality of life can change considerably. If this was an ideological move, then the average punter would believe the same thing that the ‘business’ class believes. To some extent they do, but the point I want to make is that this is premised on a shared experienced of anxiety.

Post-Ideological Politics?

In Anti-Oedipus, French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and post-Lacanian psychoanalyst, Felix Guattari, (in)famously declared: “There is no ideology and never has been” (4). They were discussing literature, describing it as a ‘machine’. They were primarily concerned with the way ‘desire’ is invested throughout the social field and developed the concept of ‘machines’ to reframe the problem.

The ‘literature machine’ is an assemblage of books, people, cultural events, language, logistical apparatuses of the publishing industry and so on that cuts off or opens up flows of desire; using ‘desire’ as a resource, such ‘machines’ produce the social field itself. Desire is in ‘scarequotes’ because Deleuze and Guattari modify the classic neo-Freudian conceptualisation of ‘desire’ as a ‘libidinal force’ to argue that ‘desire’ has an ontological valence actualised as the ‘social reality’ encountered as the product of ‘machines’.

In more recent developments engaging with similar problematics this ‘desire’ is more often discussed in terms of ‘affect’. This was also the trajectory of Deleuze and Guattari’s own work developing from Anti-Oedipus to their follow up volume A Thousand Plateaus.

What I find fascinating about Irvine’s latest column is that it is an example of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘Oedipalization’. The social field is described in terms of being a ‘family’ with the paternalistic government trying to deal with the ‘teenage tantrums’ of both ‘business’ and ‘us’. It is up to the government ‘parents’ to intervene:

In the teenage economy, the returns from rentseeking – or seeking special treatment from mum and dad – are higher than the returns from productive pursuits, like actually innovating business practices. Business chucks a tantrum because it’s easier to manipulate mum into given you $20 than going out and getting a job and earning it yourself.

What then of the character of post-ideological politics? There has long been an anxiety about post-rational politics. This means thinking about politics as involving emotion, feeling and ‘affect’. Some authors describe this in terms of the aestheticisation of politics and turn to the great facist movements of the 20th century. I don’t think this is the case here, however.

To feel this level of anxiety about the current state of affairs means ‘you’ are thinking through a range of issues, calculating household budgets, contemplating how various macro-economic indicators will affect your micro-economic wellbeing. Rather than affect being purely autonomous, the current political discourse locates it within a framework of macro-economic wellbeing. For example, within the machinery of political commentary ‘interest rates’ function as a thermostat of anxiety and the affective contexture of the nation more generally.

Interest rates and commentary about interest rates are used to ‘modulate’ the affective state of a large group of anxious people. As Brian Massumi notes if you take seriously the colour-coded terror alert system developed to inform US citizens about possible terrorist threats, then you should always be in a state of alertness. There is no ‘safe’ setting. As Massumi puts it: “The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety.”

Using Anxiety as a Political Resource

The contradiction between macro-economic wellbeing and micro-economic anxiety is being used to fuel a politics of frustration.  What Irvine misses in her column is that most of the activity of ‘us’ that she describes captures those things we are meant to be doing as fully functioning members of society. Having families, buying homes, trying to maintain a career and so on, yet the anxiety around future micro-economic conditions is still apparent. What if a general anxiety about ‘costs of living’ was precisely the point of the current neoliberal machinations? What if the duopoloy of Coles and Woolworths benefit from an anxiety about fuel and food costs? What if banks and other loans and credit card providers produce anxiety about ther products (intentionally or not)? Who benefits from this politics of anxiety?

News Ltd moving to Methode CMS

News Ltd has anounced they’re moving to the Méthode content-management system. Méthode seems to be the favoured newsroom CMS for a number of publishers. A part of the News Ltd announcement focused on the integration of social media streams into the newsroom. This is possibly the least interesting feature in the rollout of Méthode. In most circumstances Méthode is an attractive CMS for large cross-platform publishers (newspaper, magazine, web, app, etc.) because of the way it deals with content.

What is Methode?

I’ve come up with a list of features of Méthode largely framed in terms of how I have taught my ‘Online News’ journalism unit this semester. My main focus for part of the unit was to introduce students to using a CMS for editorial production purposes. (The other focus was ‘data-driven journalism’ and presenting students with the challenge of finding, assembling, analysing and incorporating ‘big data’ into their set of practical journalistic skills.):

1. Integrated cross-channel publishing platform.
This is the “One CMS to rule them all” approach. In LOTR there was a single ring of power; in publishing land, there are integrated CMS packages that bring together all publishing channels into a single integrated production flow. Méthode is produced by Eidos Media. Eidos calls this cross-channel publishing. A properly integrated cross-channel publishing has been the ‘holy grail’ of publishing:

The holy grail of the CMS producers has been creating a onesize-fits-all solution; something which seamlessly integrates the reporters producing the content, the production journalists, and the website and print production software and hardware.

This has a few practical implications.

2. All staff engage with the same production process interface.
Everyone is (or at least can be) working through a CMS. Copy is not ‘filed’ as much as it is copied and pasted into specific fields. I am currently typing in the ‘body’ field of a ‘new post’ in WordPress. There is also a title field and various SEO fields. (I experiment with new SEO plug-ins on my site for teaching purposes.) I also have access to my site’s media library for inserting multimedia files. Méthode is integrated with industry-standard Adobe software for the designers to do their thing. Eidos even treats advertising the same way with advertising copy and so on entering the production work flow. It is not surprising that the most advanced in-house or custom content management systems I’ve seen are normally organised for advertising sales and placement.

3. Every editorial element in Méthode is a database element.
‘Data-driven journalism’ normally refers to stories produced by critically engaging with a dataset. Méthode transforms all editorial copy (and other elements) into database elements. A good example is the way Méthode handles images:

When several channels are being served from the same content base, images will be required in a wide range of formats and resolutions, both during the workflow process and for final publication. Wherever an image is published, in a print page or an online channel, it must first be tailored to the resolution and ‘colour space’ requirements of its destination.

When an image is uploaded to the CMS it auto-formats these images to be used according to the necessary standards of each page template of each publishing channel. There is a single content base which is repurposed across multiple channels. Every different element of a story/package can be published in a number of different ways, including body copy, standfirsts/ledes, headlines/titles, captions, etc. The same headline may exist as a print headline, website post title, email newsletter subject line and so on. Eidos calls repurposing of editorial elements and republishing of stories across channels ‘compound stories’:

4. Automation.
I don’t know if News Ltd print designers use templates and if they do to what degree, but Méthode enables the sophisticated use of CSS templates, which will save a great deal of time. This means copy can be posted and the formatting and design work is already done at the template stage. I imagine that some competent journalist/editors will be given responsibility of some sections without any design input (beyond the template stage) whatsoever.

Not everyone thinks that the use of templates is a good idea, however. A few creative directors will be very unhappy if the level of customisation possible from non-template design was ever completely removed from the production process. As one CMS developer told the Press Gazette a number of years ago:

The efficiency of any technological publishing solution is dependant on the amount you are willing to use templates. The CMS companies can provide this – but editors are generally unwilling to make too much use of templates on newspaper and magazine pages because they want to have the creative freedom to display stories as they see fit, so this is where the idea of having a fully integrated system breaks down.

Even in the design-heavy world of magazines, the use of templates in some parts of he production process would surely free up valuable time. There are many staff writers who have been given the unenviable task of preparing copy for email newsletters by hand normally using the editorial copy of magazine ‘contents’ pages and simply copying and pasting the headlines and standfirst/extracts that reside in the contents descriptions. Contents pages, email newsletters and other regular sections of magazines (‘Coming next issue’, ‘News’, etc.) could easily be based on templates and only require very minor tweaking.

5. Future-proofing the production process?
Méthode is an XML-based system. Basically, this is the web designer/developer/engineer way of saying that all the editorial content is being translated into an XML database. Through the use of filtering with appropriately categorised data (editorial) elements, any piece of data can be repurposed for any given XML-friendly platform, even those that do not exist yet. Eidos has already produced an iPad version of the CMS editorial interface, which basically turns the iPad into a mobile mini-newsroom.

CMS Thinking? Journalism Education

Perhaps the introduction of an integrated CMS will see other changes at News Ltd. Amy Gahran argues that “tools embody mindsets” and she suggests that journalists need to develop a ‘CMS thinking’:

Content management systems have become the core tech tool of the journo trade. These days, journalists absolutely need to know how to use a CMS — not just to file stories, but also at least the basics of how to set them up for projects, integrate stylesheets and themes with them, choose the right CMS tool for the job, integrate content from a variety of sources (including feeds, databases, and XML), and creatively distribute and promote their stories.

Gahran further develops this line of thinking in the discussion around her original post:

Think of content as modules that can be structured, mixed, mashed, and reused — rather than thinking strictly in terms of narrative stories. This is a key point where hands-on experience with a CMS affects journalistic practice. When you start thinking of your end product as a series of modules that can be configured in a story but that can also be used and distributed in other ways on your site and beyond your site, that can affect how you go about doing the reporting.

We’ve decided on using WordPress in class. It is a cheap and relatively powerful system. It does not really allow for a properly integrated approach across non-online channels, but it does present the opportunity for students to begin developing their ‘CMS thinking’. I use the Edit Flow plugin to transform the blog-based CMS into something closer to an actual newsroom CMS. As part of the changes to the UC Journalism course we are creating a final year ‘Newsroom’ unit that is designed to provide students with the experience of using a CMS in limited ‘newsroom’ conditions. We are gradually going to incorporate greater functionality into our WordPress-based publishing platform.

As a sidenote, the font I’m using in headers does not render accents above letters (the é in Méthode) and apparently neither does The Australian’s font package.

Contemporary Nihilism

“With the emergence of a privileged mediocrity, the innocent life became accessible to the masses.”

One of the more interesting essays in the Media Archive collection is on Contemporary Nihilism: Innocence Reorganised. I have elsewhere described a quality of this as ‘performative stupidity’. From ‘Contemporary Nihilism’:

The innocent thrive on everyday ritual; it’s what makes them happy. A failing washing machine suffices to drive one up the wall: The bloody thing simply must function. The plight of materiality is that it’s always breaking down, failing, malfunctioning and generally behaving in odd ways, and that it cannot be quietly replaced. Untrammeled consumption holds a promise that from now on, nothing will ever happen.

Foucault points out how the neoliberal mode of governance seeks to control events (plague, recession, etc.) more than it attempts to control a population. Contemporary anaesthetics sets up populations on autopilot (or perhaps alienpilot) so the aggregate system (and constituent distributions of greater access to opportunity for some over others) reproduces itself. ‘Innocence’ is this anaesthetic nexus; an assemblage of human and alien being.

[Desire] is tempted by the offer of a secure existence. By displaying good behaviour, one is assured that the ongoing changes in the vast world outside will not cause any catastrophes. Rebellion is punished and virtually pointless.

Rather than rebellion, my response is to always accelerate beyond the current implicit demands for productivity to the space of opportunity that exceeds the requirement to be functional: I’ll do my 8 hours of work in 6 hours, then do 4 hours of my ‘own’ work. I do this because I am a child of neoliberalism and because I can. It is all possible, if you are a freak (and childless, familiness and even friendless in extreme circumstances). There are other ways to accelerate beyond the structural demands of the system, however. For example, harness the surplus value of others to maximise the freedom from the burden of maximal-productive functionality. This is a neo-marxist rearticulation of the neoliberal discourse of ‘opportunity’ that properly locates entrepreneurial-nodes in their place. Hence, the ideological function of The Pursuit of Happyness. The maximising-functionality mode of anaesthetic control is failing however; as the modulating system of constraints continually accelerates and individuals and class cohorts reach to the future to free up time in the present with credit and so on, or despair.
As I’ve witnessed in various workplaces, those incapable of accelerating beyond the system of control, or keeping up with the increased demands for functionality, are therefore attacked on two fronts: 1. from within the system for “rocking the (anaesthetic) boat” and 2. by those that are capable of accelerating beyond the system of control. “Tolerance means envy of the other’s simplicity.” Is there a tactical anaesthetics? A return or reversal, to revel in the dynamic cell you’ve been given? Acceleration-beyond is too hard to maintain, it lapses into a resolute ironic accommodation and becomes absolutely cynical. The use of revolutionary soviet era motifs by creatives in the advertising industry is a deployment of irony so as to cope with one’s intimate implication in the anaesthetic mode of control. Witness Twitter.
Hence the travesty of contemporary journalism. Journalism is a profession organised around always-already reaching beyond the anaesthetic status quo. It needs to get the ‘story’. Yet, contemporary news-based media have very little interest in disrupting ‘innocence’. Scandal is a resource for reproducing the anaesthetic conditions that delivers an audience cohort for media to sell to advertisers as much as it delivers a voting-bloc of citizens to politicians.

The others are scrutinized distrustfully, in a form of surveillance which it is impossible to sanction since there no longer exists any common exchange to define a norm. Normality can no longer define any aberration. Only drug-related nuisance, streetwalkers’ districts, travelers’ sites and refugees’ centers may now temporarily unite citizens in mobs, for fear of declining property values.

The Alien and Its Media

When I teach journalism students how to do SEO (and the tensions around it etc) I begin with Google’s Adwords Keywords tool so they get a sense of how the ‘Google algorithm’ indexes (‘experiences’/’perceives’?) the language we use in keyword searches. I want the students to understand that when a journalist uses SEO they are basically making allowances for how a machine will ‘read’ their text. Of course, the ‘reading habits’ of the Google algorithm are assembled from aggregated user data, etc. so ‘read’ is the wrong word here, but it is a necessary word to bridge different comprehensions of how human text is perceived. As a sidenote, much of the research in contemporary newsrooms has found that most practicing journalists experience this as an unwelcome intervention in their journalistic practice. Experiencing the intervention of ‘Google’ as ‘alien’ (or similar to what I believe you call the ‘strange stranger’). [A good example of this is the SEO friendly insistence on the removal of ‘stop words’, which can radically change the meaning of a title or headline.]

Tim Morton left a few clarifying comments to my post about Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. Part of my response is above and it got me thinking about previous engagements between the ‘alien’ and media studies. It reminded me of the Autonomedia volume Media Archive and the short essay The Alien and Its Media by Adilkno. From Charlie Gere’s brief MetaMute review of Media Archive:

ADILKNO, an English rendering of the Dutch acronym BILWET, denotes the ‘Stichting ter Bevordering van de Illegale Wetenschap’, or ‘Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge’, a group of ‘non-academic theorists’ who came together out of the Dutch squatter and autonomous movements of the early 1980s.

I have the print version of Media Archive and it is a fantastic collection of polemical essays. The Alien and Its Media is a very brief essay and I want to suggest that the ‘alien’ of Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is very similar to (if not the same as) Adilkno’s ‘alien’ albeit with different nuances. Adilkno’s ‘alien’ is derived from McLuhan’s early work on the ‘extension’ of the human into media as an alienation of the human (see the relevant sections in this essay on The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory). The ‘alien’ as it figures in The Alien and Its Media is a rearticulation of this processual relation of alienation, but where the ‘alien’ has its own agency.

Media as Hybrid of Alien and Human Being

The opening section of the essay characterises media as a “battle for significance” between and “unholy hybrid… sum” of “alien and human being”. The essay opens by identifying three strategies for the neutralisation of this battle, which I’ve summarised below with some quick examples:

1. Media is civilised. This is basically a kind of ‘(ex)communicative rationality’ response. It is a form of censorship whereby the alien is exiled, but returns with a catastrophic vengeance as a kind of Virilioian ‘integral accident’ (i.e. glitches, crashes), such as the fantastically imagined as the ‘millenium bug’. See Adilkno’s essay from Media Archive on Communication Catastrophe.

2. Defect to the alien. This is the OOO/’new aesthetic’ response. It is a “demand on modern media to become appallingly strange”. Or, as Bogost puts it in th context of the ‘new aesthetic’, it needs to get ‘weirder’. This is a kind of celebratory mode of engagement. “The sublimation of evil into the sublime intends to confine the alien’s dangerous unpredictability to the aesthetic experience of the uncodable, to be consumed within an institutional framework.”

3. Symbiotic/parasitic banalization of the alien into everyday life. This is the everyperson’s ‘coping mechanism’ response; I suspect this is what Morton was working to disrupt with his Nonhuman Turn plenary performance/paper. What Adilkno’s calls the “alien high” (experiences of ‘speed’ or the ‘void’ produced at the level of the ‘machinic’) is “treated as a spiritual initiation”. Think about the first time someone showed you how torrents worked. I’d suggest that the character of the banalization is situated in a specific cultural context. There is a whole genre of person-out-of-time/space films that works to explore this problematic. For example, the Back to the Future series of films are based on the premise of the main characters negotiating between the constraints of competing banalities. On banality see Greg Seigworth’s excellent essay (written as a response to Meaghan Morris’s warning to cultural studies)

Media as ‘Alienation’

“The new media launched by the alien will absorb so much enthusiasm that the bizarre alienating effects of the previous media’s terminal phase are promptly forgotten.”

Adilkno develops a quasi-Marxist/McLuhanist engagement with media, which is entirely absent from Bogost’s book and therefore it would not be fair to compare the two. Closer to Adilkno’s discussion of alienation is the work of Beller. There are various combinations of relations that produce viewership for coordinating the labor of looking. Beller on alienation (bold added):

Though today it may appear that images are the cause of “man’s intellectual confusion,” the alienation of our senses; they are really its consequence. Such is the reason, for example, that Americans do not know or did not see or did not feel the deaths of all those Iraqis, do not dwell on the poverty and prostitution of Asia, do not rise up to help ameliorate the disease and famine imposed upon Africa, do not reckon the consequences of their intervention in Latin America. Images are the alienated, objectified sensuality of humanity becoming conscious for itself through the organization of consciousness and sense. They are an intensification of separation, capital’s consciousness, that is, human consciousness (accumulated subjective practices) that now belongs to capital. Because our senses don’t belong to us, images are not conscious for us. Or rather, they are conscious “for us” in another sense, that is, they are conscious in place of us. As the prosthetic consciousness of the world system, these new sites of sensuous production serve someone or something else. […]
Thus, cinema is an alienation effect, a result of the increasing quantity of historically sedimented labor creating a shift in the quality of capital itself. Mediations which formerly appeared as ontological (seeing, desiring) now appear as technological (viewing, producing).

The Adilkno essay argues that the hybrid character of media is elided for as long as the focus is on the “human factor”. Similar to OOOers, the point is that they are emphasising the ontological dimension of what Beller is calling the ‘technological’.

Media Genealogy

“Media genealogy is to be interpreted as the chronicle of the coming-out of the alien.”

The neo-McLuhanist approach of Adilkno is fully apparent in their account of the manifestation of the ‘alien’ as a historical signature of media development. Awareness by producers and users of the hybridity of media prompts the development of new media. Aliens “arrive everyday at the push of button” and they “steer humanity toward new media techniques”. The media archaeology movement has a very thorough appreciation of this manifestation of the alien-as-agency that subsumes and coordinates human sensory apparatus. Traces of the alien are found in nineteenth century literature as the experience of a foreign body within the body: the “poetic mechanism is a vehicle for ‘outside powers’.” The alien taps into the human subconscious in the form of images of the supernatural. At stake is the erasure of the distance between the image and the experience, or the experience of the ‘image’ itself. “The alien follows its own trajectory.” This account of media archaeology is preoccupied with the alienation of human experience that transforms media into a conduit of dissassociated ‘(im)personal’ charisma. Manifestation of celebrity worship is not the dialectical subsumption of desire into the ego via the image, but the condition of possibility for belonging itself.