Mediating vol. 11 (2010) Creative Media, edited by Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska
Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska conclude their the introduction to Culture Machine’s volume 11 on the topic of ‘Creative Media’, with ‘an open invitation and an injunction – to keep inventing well, that is to say, creatively and critically, forms ever new’ (2010: 5). In this project, which finds a more thorough articulation in their subsequent book, Life after New Media (2012), the authors challenge us to think creativity not through its present-day attachment to the agenda of post-industrial capitalism, but rather through the ‘processes of mediation’ of ‘our being and becoming with the technological world’, that is, through ‘the acts and processes of temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations, and networks’ (2012: xv). But what is at stake when we are invited to invent well in this way and what might it mean in practice? While the project of Creative Media problematizes clear distinctions between ontology and epistemology, politics and ethics, my intention here is to deepen the project’s critical and analytical rubric by focusing on matters of ontology and, on this basis, explore the politics of ‘inventing well’.
My starting point is a reflection on the methodological and analytical sensibilities of the ontological investigations that lie at the centre of various projects within the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). While the claim of a recent ‘turn to ontology’ in STS has been critically scrutinized and assessed by theorists1 in the field, the attention to the ontological productivity of practices does underpin prominent work in STS, including Actor-Network Theory and feminist techno-science.2 In particular, the work of philosopher Annemarie Mol in her book The Body Multiple (2002) suggests ‘that ontology is not given in the order of things, but … instead, ontologies are brought into being, sustained, or allowed to wither away in common, day-to-day, socio-material practices’ (6). If realities and objects do not bear essential characteristics but are ‘enacted’ or ‘brought into being’ in specific sets of practices, then in principle they might be ‘enacted’, or ‘brought into being’, differently. This gives rise to what Mol (1999, 2002) calls ‘ontological politics’. Therefore, the study of ontology-in-practice can be followed by questions about the varied and co-existing enactments and realities of inventing well: which version of creativity do we want to live with and which version(s) of creative media do we want to enact?
With such an ontological question in mind, I shall develop my argument in two steps. The first addresses the significance of the concept of enactment in the Creative Media project. The second step of my argument has to do with two particular instantiations of the ontological politics of creativity. David Penny’s contribution to the Creative Media issue, titled ‘Devices for Progress’, provides an opportunity to argue that invention can be understood as an effect of multiple, precarious and heterogeneous practices and relations, rather than as a product of technological progress and material innovation. The second instance draws on my current research in Mexico on pirate film distribution, which emphasises a specific set of practices, namely, pirate film copying, distribution and sale. These practices are considered illegal by the Mexican government and by the copyright industries, and thereby assumed to be black-boxed and finished. Yet, within the everyday socio-material context in Mexico, pirate film commerce appears to be productive and formative of socio-technical transformation in the terrain of film distribution. Drawing attention to the practices of a specific vendor who illegally copies and trades films in Mexico City, I am aiming to examine the effects of his practices and ‘think with and through them about change, invention and sociocultural transformation’ (Kember and Zylinska, 2012: 177). What does it then mean to attend to the specificities of practices such as these and how can the concept of enactment help us think about them in a political way?
Enactment and Ontological Politics
In ontological investigations within STS, critical attention is drawn to objects and realities that would appear to be black-boxed or finished (Woolgar and Lezaun, 2013). These investigations primarily invite us to question and undo the assumption that realities are ‘out there’, coherent, singular, independent and preceding our actions and attempts to know them (Law, 2009). Thus, at least from this vantage point, ontology does not assume that there is a reality out there to be reached. Instead, it inquires how objects and realities come into being through practices, namely as contingent effects of socio-material practices and relations. In spite of having developed through a series of empirical studies, ontologically-driven STS does not perpetuate the old dichotomy between the empirical and the theoretical. Instead, as John Law argues, ‘theory is embedded and extended in empirical practice, and practice itself is necessarily empirical’ (2009: 141). The empirical is therefore not made to stand in opposition to the abstract and the general (Law, 2009). And, unlike the dominant Western philosophical tradition, in which ontology is regarded as something stable, singular and out of reach, the philosophy I am concerned with here considers ontology as an empirical phenomenon. It proposes that ontology ‘is not given in the order of things, but that instead, ontologies are brought into being, sustained, or allowed to wither with in common, day-to-day, sociomaterial practices’ (Mol, 2002: 6).
In line with a strong tradition within STS, Mol suggests that practices are constitutive of reality and objects. She emphasises the generative role of practices in the constitution of subjects and objects, as well as texts, representations, ideas, organizations, humans and non-humans. Alongside Karen Barad (2003) and Bruno Latour (2005), Mol (2002) employs the notion of ‘enactment’ in order to situate objects as ‘parts of events’ and ‘plays that are staged’ and to participate in the heterogeneity, fluidity and temporality of these plays and events. For Mol, the examination of how objects are enacted in practices instantiates a shift from searching for knowledge not ‘in subjects who have it in their minds and may talk about it. Instead, it locates knowledge primarily in activities, events, buildings, instruments, procedures, and so on’ (2002: 32). The notion of enactment guards us from essentialism, in which entities, phenomena or realities have given qualities and pre-exist our knowledge and understanding of them. Enactment keeps the practicalities and specificities of practices always foregrounded, treating knowledge as a matter of practice which interferes with other practices and of manipulation, rather than a matter of reference or representation. By foregrounding the practices in which objects are situated and handled, objects appear to be different from one practice to another and from one situation to another. For Mol, this has far-reaching effects: ‘reality multiplies’, as she puts it. Thus, attention paid to ontological multiplicity interferes with the assumption about a single world and single and stable realities and objects. What comes into being instead is an effect of possible patterns of relations, which is ‘assembled, materially and semiotically in a scene of analytical interest’ (Law, 2009: 141).
By following the thread of ontological arguments within STS I am aiming to imply a shift. If media are taken to be discrete, stable and singular objects, examined and understood as the central focus of different representations and theoretical perspectives, then valuations of inventions (as ‘good’ or ‘bad’) become directly redundant. If, however, we take heed of the processes of mediation and use them as lenses to examine the adaptability and multiplicity of media, then the question of inventing well acquires a more complex significance. Mol argues that the questions that are most relevant to empirical philosophy are not philosophical in character but rather political. She explains: ‘They have to do with how to value contrasting versions of reality. Which versions might be better to live with? Which worse? How and for whom?’ (2013: 3). Through these sets of questions I would now like to explore Kember and Zylinska´s political intervention ‘into the technicist and industry-led discourse of creative innovation – which, arguably, produces more of the same’ (2010: 4).
Inventing in Practice
The politics of Creative Media appears as a ‘call to arts and arms’ in order to engage with the different ways in which problems are framed, the media are shaped and the realities are enacted. If, as empirical philosophy suggests, creativity is mainly about multiple sets of practices, it is pertinent to inquire about practices within specific sites and situations. Within the Creative Media issue we can draw attention to realities and objects that might be useless (David Penny), have unexpected consequences, failures and errors (Federica Frabetti), reveal invisible parts of ‘an anatomical body’ (as in the case of Nina Sellars’ installation Anatomy of Optics and Light) or bring into light the ‘cards index´ as constitutive technology of Barthes’ textual productivity (Rowan Wilken). An analytical emphasis on relations can foreground what is at stake in the practicalities of the relation between the analyst and the object of research (Sarah Kember), and what the questions that need to be asked in order to take a ‘responsible political decision’ are (Gary Hall, Clare Birchall, Peter Woodbridge). By attending to practices as constitutive of humans and non-humans, we can interrogate human becoming ‘through the constitutively technical milieu of a technology (in the case of Patrick Crogan´s analysis of Nintendo Wii) and explore the actualized and non-actualized processes of interactivity between different elements, such as the human body, the digital code or the ambient space (in the case of Eleni Ikoniadou’s design of the ‘Rhythm – House´). Attending to the enactment of realities and objects implies that certain relations between textual (and also argument-based) and artistic (photographic and other) practices can be undertaken in order to enact and explore the relationship between cinema, photography and desire (Joanna Zylinska). All these realities come to being in the journal’s special issue. And all of these contributions have encouraged me to think that creativity and criticality are not singular attributes or mere aspirations but rather manual, artistic, textual practices that are enacted in specific ways.
Thus, enacting objects and realities is a practical matter. Through textual, material and technological practices realities are accomplished, explicitly or quietly, and along the way. Similarly we can argue that Penny´s ‘Devices for Progress’ are not located just in the photographs. They find themselves at a crossroads of practices material (photographic and technological), manual and crafted, but also argumentative and textual. In this project Penny’s attention shifts from final products towards the production of technical objects. Although, in their photographic representation, these objects might appear black-boxed and finished, and thus lead to an assumption that they are functional and useful, in their crafted and technological version they are actually make-shift, imperfect, unstable and indeed useless. Moving the practice of innovation from the laboratory and the science museum (sites in which new objects and realities are assumed to be enacted) to a photograph itself, Penny lets us assume that invention cannot be contained as just a product of industrial and institutional practices. Moreover, as a critique of the imaginary of functionality and of the desire of perfection that underpin contemporary media technologies, Penny’s project questions the viability of marketing and the rhetorical and persuasive goals of advertising that present machines as self-evident to use, and moreover, as functional and novel. Penny´s creative media remind us that photographic representations are also enacted in sets of practices. As Donna Haraway has put it, ‘there is no unmediated photograph’ (1988: 583), because any photography always selects and frames things to enact a certain version of the real. In its material, manually crafted reality, Penny’s project appears to be anti-teleological; it does not point teleologically towards the present desired condition of media perfection and novelty. Instead, it problematizes an analysis of new media as all-encompassing and timeless by pointing to an enactment that is precarious, and prone to failure and obsolescence. In favor of attention to ontological enactment, ‘Devices of Progress’ come into being in virtue of their articulation and material practices. In this way, they foreground the relevance of materiality both in their photographic and technological version. At the same time, they make it possible to convey differences and alternative modes of enacting invention that escape the confinements of ‘an ideology of progress through consumption’ (Penny, 2010: 106). Penny’s project illustrates that there is no singular, definite and teleological version of invention to be enacted. Instead, through his analysis we discover that there are multiple versions of invention and indeed inventing well can be performed within various materials, situations and sites.
Attending to the productivity of practices lets us see that invention emerges from heterogeneous materials, concerns and sites. Moreover, the acceptance that objects and realities are an effect of multiple situated, socio-material practices directs our attention to situations and sites that would be taken for granted within a more conventional analysis. Thus, if we move our attention to the practices of pirate film distribution in Mexico, invention could be related to their productive and formative role in providing new trajectories and new spaces of film circulation, which stand outside the existing models of distribution. Pirate film distribution in Mexico can be identified as a mundane, systematically-driven infringement of copyright laws. Yet a close attention to specific, localized practices presents completely different actions, processes and results of film distribution. To this end, I would like to introduce a specific vendor who works autonomously and runs a small scale trade business of pirate film copies in a central location in Mexico City. My informant’s activities are not related to organized crime or large-scale pirate enterprises, an assumption that often underpins the analyses of film piracy in Mexico. A close empirical investigation of his mundane socio-material settings and networks that shape his distribution work shows that his practices are informed by meticulous labor and customary knowledge about distribution and films, and that they are also mobilized by a small social network of family and friends. We can identify an array of different practices in his routinely based work: he transfers films that can only be found in the VHS format into the DVD format. He seeks out, copies and sells films that have not been selected for circulation by the formal circuits of the film supply chain. He carefully and expertly uses digital technologies to improve the image quality of the films that he copies. My informant’s practices are not merely redistributive but also generative (Lobato, 2009); they contribute to the shaping and maintenance of film culture in Mexico. Thus, outside the practices of distribution as enacted in formal circuits and their distinctive platforms of circulation and exhibition (movie theatres, television or video-on-demand services), or in informal circuits that run on large scale and with highly organized technological and physical infrastructure, there exist ‘more or less shadowy alternative’ (Law and Lien, 2010: 11) practices and realities of film piracy. In the reality enacted by the socio-material practices of this particular vendor, film distribution can be achieved as an effect of heterogeneous materials and relations, rather than as predominantly a product of systematic, macro-social forces.
Inventing well, like ontology, is multiple; it comes with various concerns, materials and practices. And although inventing well comes in different versions and shapes, which are not reducible to any one idea or template. My investigation of practices and enactments of pirate film distribution in Mexico leads me to the following conclusion in relation to the Creative Media project: the practices of those who work with media, in our case the pirate vendor in Mexico City, and do not explicitly seek creativity, can nevertheless enact a creative transformation in the sociocultural and material context in which they operate.
1 See, for example, the ‘Special Issue: A Turn to Ontology in Science and Technology Studies’ in Social Studies of Science, June 2013; 43 (3).
2. For some exemplary resources see Callon (1986), Latour (1988), Barad (1997, Haraway (1997).
Barad, K. (2003) ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter comes to Matter´, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 28, No. 3. (Spring): 801-31.
Barad, K. (1997) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Callon, M. (1998) ‘An Essay on Framing and Overflowing: Economic Externalities Revisited by Sociology’ in The Laws of the Markets (ed.), M. Callon. Oxford and Keele: Blackwell and the Sociological Review: 244-269.
Haraway, D. (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_Oncomouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge.
Haraway, D. (1988) ´Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective´, Feminist Studies, Vol 14, No. 3 (Autumn): 575-79.
Kember, S. & Zylinska, J. (2010) ´Creative Media Between Invention and Critique, or What´s Still at Stake in Performativity?’ Culture Machine, Vol. 11: 1-6. (Accessed 17 February 2014)
Kember, S. & Zylinska, J. (2012) Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Latour, B. (1988) The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Law, J. (2009) ‘Collateral Realities’, version of 29th December, available at http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2009CollateralRealities.pdf, (Accessed 10 March 2014).
Law, J. (2009) ‘Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics, in B.S. Turner (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory. Oxford: Blackwell: 141-58.
Law, J. & Lien, M. (2010) ´Slippery: Field Notes on Empirical Ontology´, 28th July 2010, available at http://www.sv.uio.no/sai/english/research/projects/newcomers/publications/working-papers-web/Slippery%20revised%2013%20WP%20version.pdf (Accessed 14 May 2014)
Lezaun, J. & Woolgar, S. (2013) ‘The Wrong Bin Bag: A Turn to Ontology in Science and Technology Studies?’, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 43, No.3 (June): 321-40.
Lezaun, J. & Woolgar, S. (eds) (2013) ‘A Turn to Ontology in Science and Technology Studies?’ (special Issue), Social Studies of Science, 43 (3).
Lobato, R. (2010) Subcinema. Mapping Informal Film Distribution. PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne.
Mol, A. (1999) ´Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions´. In J. Law & J. Hassard (eds), Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford, UK/Malden, MA: Blackwell / The Sociological Review: 74-89.
Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mol, A. (2013) ´Mind Your Plate! The Ontonorms of Dutch Dieting´, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 43, No.3. (June): 379-76.
Penny, D. (2010) ‘Devices of Progress’ Culture Machine, Vol. 11: 102-6. (Accessed 12 January 2014)