Infernal Machine   /   December 2, 2015

Media are Elemental: The Life Aboard

Guest Blogger

The Whale Fishery ("Laying On"), Nathaniel Currier. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We study the sailor, the man of his hands, man of all work; all eye, all finger, muscle, skill and endurance; a tailor, carpenter, cooper, stevedore, and clerk and astronomer besides. He is a great saver, and a great quiddle by the necessity of his situation.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an 1833 journal entry titled “At Sea”

The integral connection between media and human life is an assumed condition of John Durham Peters’s theory of elemental media in The Marvelous Clouds. We don’t often think of our relationship with the natural world as mediated. But when we are tossed by the waves, we need tools to intercede between nature and ourselves. Media become a matter of life and death. In these moments when the balance between humans and nature is disrupted, our need for mediation becomes all too apparent.

Peters sees these tools of intersession, these “means by which,” as he calls them, as always a matter of life and death. In fact, they are the components and substances of which all human experience is designed. To illustrate this, Peters spends some time studying cetaceans, a species of water mammal that includes dolphins, narwhals, and some small whales.

Cetaceans have near-human levels of cognition and communication, but they split from early homo sapiens by returning to the sea and adapting to that environment. Peters argues that the sea is an elemental media that shapes every part of cetacean existence, just as “fire, language, or celestial bodies” does for human beings. Because their experiences are mediated through the sea, cetaceans have techniques (such as communication and memory), but not technologies (such as documentation and material construction).

Human beings, on the other hand, have technologies (which Peters calls “the ability to profit from distance and absence”) in our everyday lives. “Mundane” tools like our physical bodies, our ability to chronicle and archive information, and the ability to structure social organization through quantifying and regulating time are all ways we have built our existence through mediation.

Cetacean experience comes into being because of their mental and physical capacities interacting with their ecological environment. However, when placed in the oceanic environment that cetaceans naturally inhabit, a human being’s “radical dependence” on these infrastructures become particularly palpable. The sailor, as Emerson’s entry notes, utilizes all of his physical and cognitive resources to move through an oceanic environment. We understand the ocean through our use of ships. Questions about being and limitation and knowledge and meaning are best investigated by noticing the technologies and techniques that allow humans to navigate their environments.

I have been thinking about media lately in terms of limits; where do we see the boundary of what art or technology can or cannot do, however real this boundary may be? What are we reaching for, and what weakness of the human condition are we seeking to expand? At these extremes, we often find indicators of our assumptions about the relationship between our reality and its mediated or represented counterparts. But Peters focuses on the intermediary rather than the limit. He invites us to consider the ship and the sailing, rather than the edge of the world. When we begin in the middle, we can see that there is as much emphasis on suppressing the environment as there is on expanding human capacity. The impact goes both ways.

There is much work to be done to sharpen our understanding of the transition points in how humans use particular media, or how our relationship to certain elements is altered. A project on the everyday manifestations and meanings of these elemental media would be a compelling parallel to The Marvelous Clouds. Greater attention toward the design, construction, and use of media artifacts (the human element of which techne is an enactment) along with Peters’s attention to the natural world (the equally active physis), would yield even more sophisticated understandings of mediation. The way we build ships to carry us speaks of both our tactic theories of the ocean and our desires to overcome mnemonic, temporal, and physical limitations.

The sea is an environment that throws these limitations into sharp relief, but this is no small observation. Peters explains that media can be found whenever we humans face the unmanageable mortality of our material existence: the melancholy facts that memory cannot hold up and body cannot last, that time is, at base, the merciless and generous habitat for humans and things.

Rather than thinking about the relationship between reality and representation, Peters’s theory asks us to see reality itself as mediated. Peters’s great contribution is that our lives are always lived aboard. The ship represents the intertwining of human being and material environment, ever ebbing and flowing.

Katie Bruner is a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studies rhetoric and media, particularly looking at film as the chief intersection of art and technology in the twentieth century. Follow her on Twitter at @katiepbruner.