Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James J. Hodge reviews Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward

Mark B. N. Hansen. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 320 pp. Paperback $27.50.

Reviewed by James J. Hodge

In recent years the increasing emergence of mobile and ubiquitous computational media have occasioned a massive shift in digital media. Consider a next-generation search engine such as Recorded Future. Instead of sorting relevant data via existing links (like Google), Recorded Future makes predictions on the basis of networked data. As fantastical as it may sound, Recorded Future’s strategy of predictive analytics is not so dissimilar from the ads that appear in the margins of gmail or social media feeds, which are based upon corporate data-mining of personal and collective information. Generally, the future orientation of such media capitalizes upon the massive amounts of data largely captured by means of passive sensing, that is, data gathered without any deliberative action on the part of a human subject. The growing preponderance of GPS, embedded sensors, RFID, and wearables evince this larger shift.

Mark B. N. Hansen confronts the media theoretical implications of this emerging world in Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First Century Media. Through the analysis of a host of cultural artifacts from social media to experimental digital media art and neuroscience, Hansen endeavors to re-frame the experiential implications of digital media’s migration into the environment through a sustained and rigorous appraisal of the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Feed-Forward is a major entry in what Hansen himself terms the “Whitehead renaissance” currently underway in the past twenty or so years through the work of scholars such as Isabelle Stengers, Steven Shaviro, Brian Massumi, Erin Manning, Luciana Parisi, Steve Goodman, and others. Building on the work of Whitehead scholars Didier Debaise, Judith Jones, and Jorge Nobo, Hansen consciously follows a non-Deleuzean reading of Whitehead that allows him to undertake two large and related claims. First, Hansen proposes Whitehead as an unlikely but remarkably rich philosophical resource for theorizing “twenty-first century media,” or media that do not properly mediate human perception so much as the more general category of sensibility itself as a worldly capacity for self-sensing. Whitehead’s expansively non-anthropocentric notion of experience furnishes the basis for Hansen’s interest in the novel capacity of computational media to access, act upon and present data about experience to which we would not otherwise have knowledge. Or, as Hansen notes, Whitehead provides a productive framework for considering computational operations that never properly accede to the level of conscious awareness but nonetheless impact experience all the same. In other words, Whitehead serves as the catalyst for Hansen’s efforts to forge a non-anthropocentric, non-representational, non-prosthetic media theory trained upon 21st century media’s increasingly environmental character. This move signals a singularly challenging methodological departure from the tendency within digital media studies (and the humanities more broadly) to orient investigation around discrete texts, objects, or bodies as case studies.

Hansen’s retooling of Whitehead also occurs as part of a larger theoretical effort to adapt the phenomenological tradition for the 21st century. Readers of Hansen’s past work (New Philosophy for New Media, Bodies in Code) will be already familiar with his role in reviving phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty) and its fellow travelers (Bergson, Simondon) as robust resources for analyzing contemporary culture. While it sometimes seems as if phenomenology and the phenomenological subject frequently serve as something to be disavowed or overcome by many writing in the diffuse theoretical modes oriented around “speculation,” Hansen again and again shows how the phenomenological tradition allows for a rich rethinking of subjectivity and agency in concert with non-human phenomena. For Hansen, stunningly, it is the later Husserl’s work on time-consciousness that emerges as the starting point for considering the demotion of human consciousness in 21st century media culture. Husserl’s work on time serves to amplify certain aspects of Whitehead’s process philosophy, which itself holds onto the singularity of human consciousness while admitting of a radically expansive and environmental conception of the world. In this new world networked computation senses, tracks, and records the present in order to predicts and shape the future in large part independently from human action. In the face of this emergence some may be tempted to abandon the human altogether. Some may, in knee-jerk fashion, urge us to re-discover our essential humanity. Feed-Forward teaches us a third mode of response, namely, how to encounter 21st century media as a reorientation of human experience that more properly implicate us in within the spectrum of nonhuman and human experiences that continually make and re-make our world.