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  • The Company We Keep
  • Michelle Henning (bio)
Paul Frosh, The Poetics of Digital Media, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019, 220pp, £16.99.

In the early 1990s, I was working intensively on a project on an Apple Mac computer. The command key (now labelled ‘command ⌘’) had the Apple logo on it, so that each time I copied, pasted or deleted, I recited to myself, ‘Apple C, Apple V, Apple X’. At night, I awoke from nightmares shouting ‘Apple X, Apple X’. I was trying to delete whatever monsters were attacking me.

Paul Frosh seems to be unusually attuned to the ways that we live and dream with media, as well as to monsters as means of thinking through media. He commences The Poetics of Digital Media with the opening scene from the film Monsters Inc. This scene, and indeed the whole film, he argues, draws attention to the reality of imagined beings and their effectiveness in shaping our everyday experience. John Durham Peters has written that ‘media are our infrastructures of being’, and Frosh shares this approach.1 But Monsters Inc. also provides Frosh with a means of describing the energy that pulses through this infrastructure: just as children’s screams power Monstropolis, ‘poesis’ drives our media worlds. ‘Poesis’ is a key term here, and Frosh links it to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of poiesis/praxis as a coming-to-light or unveiling. Poesis, for Frosh, both drives and discloses worlds.2 It is also a means to forefront aesthetics and to challenge a tendency amongst theorists to abandon aesthetic questions in the face of digital media.

In his chapter on the selfie, a revised version of a key journal article from 2015, Frosh sets out to revitalise the aesthetic project of photography theory, against the existing polarisation between critiques of photography as a ‘socio-technical practice’ and ontological studies of its essence. This turn to the aesthetic is not necessarily about visual form, but about an attentiveness to the everyday, sensual, and haptic aspects of media. It is a ‘poetics of the prosaic’ (p11). Frosh refutes the view, particularly pervasive in recent writing on networked photography, that digital photographs should be primarily analysed in terms of data and algorithms. The reaffirmation of the aesthetic is also an affirmation of the kinaesthetic, of our proprioceptive engagement with media and the kinds of responsiveness that facilitates.

Using Monsters Inc. to think about parallel or adjacent worlds, Frosh suggests that we do not face media, as an audience faces the screen in a cinema, but live alongside them. Ubiquitous media keep us company, they are our neighbours and companions. The technological infrastructure that is the support system for our lifeworld, he argues, ensures that always in the background is ‘the rustle of media’ (p5). Through media we gain access to [End Page 112] worlds beyond our immediate experience. These media worlds are immanent to our own, and are not necessarily populated by fictional characters: they include people, and other entities, such as digital artefacts (cursors, icons, windows). This challenge to the front-on model of media encounters also entails a rejection of the ‘attentive fallacy’, that is, the assumption of an ideally attentive audience and a discrete and unified text. Against it, he marshalls Ben Highmore’s notion of distraction as ‘a form of promiscuous absorption’.3 Frosh shares Highmore’s interest in inattention and the unattended-to, though he notes that Highmore ultimately justifies distraction for the intensities it produces. Instead, his own concept of living with media describes a kind of mundane cohabitation, with no moment of rapture or rupture. Contrary to accounts in which even the most ‘grey’ media can be dramatised as ‘evil’, or in which boredom leads to revelation, Frosh wants to retain the ordinariness of disregarded objects, even while he pays them some regard. Inattention is not a deficiency to be corrected, nor a resistance to discipline but ‘an ecological achievement of mediated sociality’ (p51).

Frosh does not address the arguments, by Sherry Turkle and others, that mobile devices have won the battle for our attention, to the extent that we relinquish other kinds of connectivity in their favour.4 This is a shame because his own analysis...


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pp. 112-115
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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