Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Spring 2023

Volume 49 Issue 3
    • 315Francesco Casetti
    • The screen is not a preestablished object: it becomes a screen—and that screen—when it interacts with a group of elements and relates to a set of practices that produce it as a screen. In this process of becoming screen, a crucial step is played by the space in which the screen is located and where spectators gather. The confluence of screen and space changes our perception of both: the screen displays the situatedness of its action, and the space its nature of medium. The landscape becomes a screenscape, in which individuals access images through which they negotiate with reality and others. Eventually, the insistence on becoming screen highlights the role of contingency and conjuncture in the process of mediation: screenscapes emerge according opportunities, conflicts, and potentialities. Hence a media archeology that, far from being linear and teleological, follows unpredicted paths and creates surprising links—a rhizomatic media archeology.

    • 337D. Cuong O’Neill
    • This article traces the emergence of ecomedia in Japan’s nuclear exclusion zone. I take this emergence as an opportunity to think through the relations of sensing technologies and animals as well as the transformative potential of these relations for critical thought. I turn to the camera trap and the Geiger counter first to understand how these sensor-based media are used to generate data around environmental inquiry as well as how they may be reassembled to help us take measure of the aftereffects of the 3.11 disasters through and with located relationships and encounters among species, human and nonhuman. By exploring how ecomedia invite nonhuman makings to enter the analytical frame, I hope to arrive at an understanding of environmental harm not as a futurological threat but as an ongoing event that calls for new forms of agentic thinking and enactments of multispecies struggle and collaboration.

    • 359Reinhold Martin
    • This article considers the expropriation, description, and cultivation of land as a central problem for media history and political ecology. Recent work in the history and theory of media has posited the cultivation of land as a primordial cultural technique or a material operation that underlies signification. Such work stops short, however, of considering that operation—which begins with the drawing of lines on the ground—as a form of labor and hence a dimension of political economy comparable to Rousseau’s account of the origin of property. John Bellamy Foster has shown how Marx’s early development of a neo-Epicurean materialism led, when informed by mid-nineteenth-century scientific agriculture, to what Foster calls Marx’s theory of “metabolic rift,” the disruption of the metabolic interchange between nature and society mediated by human labor. This article returns to the unfinished business of critical theory that rejoins the critique of culture with the critique of nature, by showing how a mediapolitics of land governs the dialectical processes described by eco-Marxists like Foster. Specifically, the article considers the material production of land for both agriculture and industry, informed by scientific agriculture and with plantation slavery as a limit case, through the work of Henry Charles Carey. Rethinking the political economy of land in this way extends the cultural materialism predominant in media history and theory into a more fully historical materialism adequate to an ecological situation in which all that may once have been solid has truly melted, or burned, into air.

    • 384Antonio Somaini
    • Often presented as a new form of materialism, theories of media have been repeatedly fascinated by the idea of dematerialization—more precisely, by a vision of the history of technical media as a process teleologically oriented toward a future characterized by the overcoming of the weight, the opaqueness, and the resistance of materiality and by the advent of new, pervasive forms of instantaneous communication. Light, be it natural or artificial, has often played a key role in this historical narrative. With its diffused presence, limitless plasticity, ultimate speed, ambiguous status between infinitely small particles and electromagnetic waves, and crucial role in the transmission of images and signals, light has often raised the question of the materiality of media itself, pointing to the possibility of immediacy—of an immediate, instantaneous, immaterial transmission. In this article I analyze the presence of this idea of dematerialization as the end point of media history in the writings of László Moholy-Nagy and Marshall McLuhan, whose thinking about media is centered on the assumption that light is the most fundamental medium, one that leads the entire range of technical media to gradually dematerialize and merge within the environment or even dissolve into the atmosphere.

    • 406 Florian Sprenger (translated by Erik Born and Matthew Stoltz)
    • At this historical moment, few terms are as charged and powerful as the omnipresent term environment. It has become a strategic tool for politics and theories alike, crossed the borders of the disciplines of biology and ecology, and left the manifold field of environmentalism. This article explores the first steps on this path of expansion, in which the term becomes an argumentative resource and achieves a plausibility that transforms it into a universal tool. It is not self-evident to describe ubiquitous media, cinematic spaces, or augmented realities as environments. To understand how the term gained this plausibility, it is necessary to distinguish it from two other terms: the French milieu and the German Umwelt. When these three terms substitute one another and are used as translations, they lose their historical specificity and depth, and three different theoretical and philosophical traditions merge into indifference. Consequently, a conceptual history of the term environment and its relation to milieu and Umwelt—as well as terms such as medium, atmosphere, ambiance, and climate—can help us to understand the potentials and dangers of the term’s plausibility. In this sense, the article argues for a new perspective on epistemologies of surrounding that relate that which surrounds to that which is surrounded.

    • 428Weihong Bao
    • In this article, I explore the promise and pitfalls of medium as environment by tracking the twin developments of environmental thinking and set design in China, considering it as a problematic of epistemology, technology, and aesthetics. I treat huanjing (environment) as a neologism, a new episteme, a dispositif, and a mode of power, taking set design as the companion medium that reconnects art and technology, aesthetics and politics. Reconceptualizing set, design, and environment at the intersection of industrial design and progressive education, I focus on modernist and propagandistic practice of set design in China in the 1930s and ’40s, moving from set design in film and theater to the design and practice of human/environment that constitutes the landscape of the social. How these aesthetic and technical experiments rework the social will help us reconfigure the human in the reassemblage of our medium/environment complex.

    • 462Rahul Mukherjee
    • In the late nineteenth century, Jagadish Chandra Bose devised millimeter- and micro-wave experiments to record responses of plants to electromagnetic stimuli. Based on these experiments, Bose conceptualized his thesis of the unity of living and nonliving entities through their different sensitivities to electromagnetic vibrations. By relating Bose’s thesis of the unity of life based on electromagnetic vibrations to Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy and N. Katherine Hayles’s work on the cognitive nonconscious, I argue for a processual media theory that connects both human and plant intelligence to electromagnetic signaling. In doing so, I examine how discourses about different living bodies (plants, animals, humans) variously sensing their environments are formulated into claims about which species have what degree of cognitive capability and intelligence. I trace the influence of Bose’s work on the ecological thinking of the 1970s espoused by cyberneticists and countercultural environmentalists and on contemporary plant neurobiologists who are closely working with Internet of Things designers and researchers. This enables me to emerge with an understanding of electrosensitivity that acknowledges that there is more to the intensities and energies of signals than mere data and that such infra-informatic signals can create both capacities and incapacities, capabilities and debilities, in bodies.