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.

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