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  • On Media and Mortality. A review of Marcel O'Gorman, Necromedia
  • Carol Colatrella (bio)
O'Gorman, Marcel. Necromedia. U of Minnesota P, 2015.

My engagement with information technology encompasses necessity and distraction. Times I am frustrated by my inability to stop engaging with social media alternate with periods of appreciation for technical capacities to increase my productivity and to be aware of unfolding events. Most recently, I learned from Facebook that a college classmate has a friend who inherited a Miele vacuum cleaner from Jean Stapleton; my former classmate posts amusing collages of the deceased actress, his dog, and the vacuum. His creations prompted me to think about whether my household's Miele vacuum will last beyond my death: "will I take care of my vacuum so that it has a life beyond mine?" This question bedeviling me is a quotidian, overly personal, and rather morbid version of the one posed in the publicity release for Necromedia: "Why does technology play such an important role in our culture?" Marcel O'Gorman's latest book falls in a genre of critical theory works that consider how technology and cultural anxiety become linked in digital and material objects and theories about them.

Examples of similar critical works include Mary Anne Moser's and Douglas MacLeod's Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments (1996), Peter Lunenfeld's Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures (2001), Margot Lovejoy's Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age (2004), Richard Rinehart's and Jon Ippolito's Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory (2014), and Melissa Langdon's The Work of Art in a Digital Age: Art, Technology and Globalisation (2014). These texts, some anthologies and some monographs, look at the ways in which digital technologies and art are enabled and constrained by their technological and social legacies. Other recent works in media studies discuss the convergence of media technologies--computer, television, mobile phone, e-reader, printed book, video game--in identifying design conventions and opportunities such as Janet Murray's Inventing the Medium (2012) and in distinguishing specific products within the field of media archaeology such as Augusta Rohrbach's Thinking Outside the Book (2014) and Lori Emerson's Reading Writing Interfaces (2014). These critical texts provide systematic considerations of digital media, explaining the interrelationships of design aesthetics and cultural values and referencing humanistic debates about the evolution and immortality of technology; however, they skirt the central topic of Necromedia, which provides a distinctive account of digital technologies related to human fears of death.

O'Gorman's book focuses on technology's abilities to distract us from mortality and to help us withstand its blows. A volume in the Minnesota series Posthumanities, Necromedia alternates the author's accounts of diverse digital media projects, including his own, with his careful theorizing about how technology and culture are intertwined in our own day around our interest in death. Chapters in Necromedia build on concepts from media theory, posthuman animal studies, and the philosophy of technology, including object-oriented ontology, to pay "close attention to two universal and inevitable elements of human being: death and technicity" (4). Although O'Gorman explains that technology falsely promises us "immortality," a state "facilitated by our technologically mediated ability to vanquish time and space" (10), he also offers diverse examples of how technology enables humans, consumers, to manage the finitude of human life, at least virtually.

Since popular culture's fascination with death and the after-life serves as the basis for many narratives, O'Gorman discusses popular television programs looking at death. He claims that "on any given night I could watch a death program on cable television" (38). He sets aside gangster shows like The Sopranos, pointing instead to shows that depict the business of death: Dead Like Me (2003), a Showtime series about "a lovable grim reaper"; Six Feet Under (2001), a HBO 2001 show about "a terminally dysfunctional group of undertakers"; Family Plots (2004), an A&E series about "a quirky and lovable family of undertakers"; and the HBO mini-series Angels in America about the AIDS crisis in New York (38). O'Gorman also notices a broader set of...

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