John Durham Peters's The Marvellous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media and Jussi Parikka's A Geology of Media destabilise our conventional conceptions of the Earth and media. Their arguments are ontological in nature, that is, broadly concerned with describing what Earth and media are, and they are of a vast range, exploring ground and sky, the edges of geological time-scales, through the minds of whales and into the rocky composition of our skeletons and lungs. The anthropologist Jacob Metcalf once described the feeling of ontological whiplash when learning that we are mostly composed of bacteria. It is a phrase that nicely captures the respective methods of Parikka and Peters. Through their arguments, the immediacy and ubiquity of our media devices and mediated lives are projected into 'deep time', the incomprehensibly long durations required to form the material basis of our everyday humble media objects. It becomes difficult to distinguish between nature and technology, media and the morphology of the Earth.
Let me first outline what, according to them, is at stake in their arguments, then how they pursue destabilisation as a method, and finally what it all means for understanding media and the Earth. Peters and Parikka are dissatisfied with the current state of media theory, a discipline broadly [End Page 281] concerned with how culture and media intersect in a range of artefacts and artworks, because it has remained aloof from the pressures of ecological crisis. Its conventional focus on meaning and culture, even when concerned with the human mediation of environmental catastrophe, has been ineffective for understanding the material stratum of media, the nature from which it is wrought and is always in relation to. It is at this level that their arguments intersect and prove valuable for other disciplines concerned with processes of human meaning-making: how is meaning material while being constructed and historically contingent? Peters calls this project infrastructuralism. And they broadly belong to the turn across the humanities towards a reconsideration of materiality, a push beyond representation and cultural construction. It grounds processes of meaning, perception, and perspective in the world as literally built and held together by a fragile, contingent world.
The infrastructuralists have other targets too. They go against the grain that new media are immaterial, increasingly light and ubiquitous, and that contemporary culture is more media-saturated than ever before. Think, for instance, of consumer media hardware and software framed as nature itself, such as Apple's Cloud, Air, and Yosemite. They also take issue with new media everywhere heralded as, well, new, as if it fomented into the world from Silicon Valley offices replete with swings and slides, and as brand new to the world as the latest app. Claims to newness, radical uniqueness, and everywhereness, elide the real stuff of media, stuff that is deeper, dirtier, ground stuff. Both authors nod to the influence of Bruno Latour's lessons about the necessity of redistributing agency beyond the human to all sorts of mediators, including speed bumps, door stoppers, and office pigeonholes.
The point, according to Parikka and Peters, is that humans do not have a monopoly on meaning and that the Western convention that declares the human to be an exceptional creature on the planet has been one with the desire to dominate nature. Their argument tempers our sense that meaning is 'for us' or nature is endowed with its meaning by us. The methodological problem is how to get beyond the human while remaining in the humanities, that is, not becoming biologists or Earth scientists with their well-developed conceptual apparatuses for understanding the non-human world. Instead, they seek to develop a conceptual repertoire capable of dealing with both sides at once. This is where the creativity and radicality of their projects rest and falter.
Foremost, they seek to achieve this balance by foregrounding the material stratum of the media...