The Anthropoid Condition

By Brían HanrahanJuly 10, 2015

JOHN DURHAM PETERS is a rare animal in the field of communication studies: a wide-ranging intellectual with a graceful prose style, a talent for synthesis, and a way with aphorisms. Perhaps best known for Speaking into the Air, his 1999 history of the idea of communication, he also has a considerable reputation as a teacher and lecturer. But even those who know his work may be surprised by the audacious scope of his new book The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. The book is, on one level, an ambitious re-writing — a re-synthesis, even — of concepts of media and culture. On another, it is a rich and entertaining compendium of arcana, covering everything from shipwrighting to planetary motion, from bone evolution to calendrical design. Ultimately, it is nothing less than an attempt at a history of Being, from an unusually brisk, cheerful and pragmatic Heideggerian. The following interview was conducted by email this summer.


BRÍAN HANRAHAN: What distinguishes your understanding of 'media' in The Marvelous Clouds from other, maybe better-known uses of the term? 

JOHN DURHAM PETERS: 'Media' is one of those terms whose meaning is as imprecise as a plate of spaghetti. And like 'spaghetti,' few can tell if it is a plural or singular noun. My academic preference is to say “media are” with a plural verb in order to underline the diversity of media forms and formats, but most people are happy to talk about media as a mass noun and use the term to refer to everything from journalists and publicity to furnace filters and hard drives. In the field of media studies, media typically are more clearly defined as a cluster of institutions, audiences, and programs (e.g., Disney, BBC, or Google), but there is a minority tradition I favor that sees media more broadly as staples, environments, and data processors of all kinds — as elements in the middle. Some of my critics say this view stretches the concept beyond its breaking point, but I believe ubiquitous computing has already stretched media more than our concepts have: thanks to digital transformations, media are so environmentally pervasive that we need an encompassing definition to match. Theory is usually playing catch-up.

The book delves into innumerable subjects, skipping through dozens of disciplines: anthropology, zoology, theology, astronomy, the history of technology, cultural history of many kinds, philosophy and literature and more. But if there is one term that you seem to identify with, it is 'media theory.' On the face of it, that might seem a modest label for such a broad vision. So what is “media theory,” as you understand it, and what can be learned from it? 

Glad that you think it is a matter of skipping rather than skidding! The book presupposes a view of knowledge and research that it doesn’t spell out at any length. What would the university look like if we took seriously the mortality of the human knower and the responsibility to speak to the species rather than only to one’s peers? I believe it would be a less turfy, more humble, and more interdisciplinary place, one less focused on the newest thing and more open to long stretches of time.[i] Labeling fields of study often amounts to little more than a branding exercise, so my unpretentious choice of “media theory” is, among other things, an indirect comment on academic tribalism. Media theory has almost no barriers to entry — you’d be amazed at how readily some people opine on media without any sense of the field’s traditions or concepts — and almost anyone can call themselves a media theorist; as beings who live in the middle, in medias res, I think that every human being is potentially such a creature. Media theory, at its best, is a means of seeking greater awareness of the basic conditions in which we live.

Clouds, unlike fire, sky, and sea, don’t get chapters to themselves in the book, but they are in the title, and they are a recurring motif. What is so interesting about clouds for a media theorist and historian?

Clouds are interesting because they bring together so many great questions. It’s hard to boil down something I’ve thought so much about, but here goes.[ii]

First, clouds raise very fundamental questions of where significance lies. Clouds are often thought to be blank and meaningless, the playthings of whimsy. Hardly. Few things are so packed with meaning. Once you start looking at clouds, you see them everywhere in art, literature, religion, and popular culture, and of course in the sky. The question of what clouds mean is a deep one; reading clouds is the paradigm case of how to interpret nature and how not to. Clouds tell us about the weather and the future, and reading the sky is a basic human task; in Iowa, where I live, like many places, clouds are among the most spectacular forms of natural beauty. Of course, there is a long tradition of scorn starting from at least Aristophanes aimed at anyone who finds meaning in clouds, but it is just as foolish to say clouds have no meaning (ask a sailor, pilot, or farmer if clouds mean nothing). The meaning that remains once you subtract human intention turns out to be rich, and I argue that media theory should take this abundant zone of meaning seriously. 

Second, from the poison gas clouds of World War I to the mushroom cloud of World War II to the data cloud today, clouds are telling historical markers. While writing the book, I would tell people I was writing about clouds, and they’d sometimes respond, Oh, I work in IT too! (The cloud metaphor, with its hints of benign oversight and calm flow, richly serves the ideological interests of the IT industry.) That the default meaning of “cloud” has become “server-based data storage” is a symptom of nature being absorbed by technology and technology becoming second nature. It is remarkable how casually we accept this monstrous hybrid of atmospheric aerosols and computing infrastructure without a second thought. Clouds are thus a symptom of what it is fashionable to call the anthropocene, the geological epoch in which human agency alters nature radically. 

Third, clouds are an elemental background that surrounds us — and unnoticed environments are prime territory for media theory. A central point of the book is that if we define media as carriers of significance then media should include natural elements; studying aerosol clouds and data clouds side by side gives me a way to make this point.

Fourth, clouds raise two fundamental problems in media theory: how to record phenomena that exist in time and how to represent ones that do not conform to a symbolic system.

Regarding recording, the book is a meditation on how media capture and fail to capture time, and clouds are a good example of entities whose nature is to vanish. Clouds illustrate media ontology. Like sounds and music, clouds exist by disappearing. They exist in time. Clouds are highly material — just this morning so much rain dumped on southeastern Iowa as to trigger flashflood warnings again — and their dynamic materiality is suggestive for media under volatile digital conditions (probably one reason the cloud metaphor took hold so readily).

Regarding representing, clouds bear significance, but without any code to clarify what they mean. Their meanings are essentially vague. The history of cloud media, in painting and photography, is the struggle to capture sensuous objects that are also abstract. (The sky was painting abstract impressionist images long before humans did!) Clouds are the original white noise. Well before analog media such as film and sound recording broke the stranglehold of the symbolic in the late nineteenth century, painters struggled to depict cloud colors and forms, often with stunning results. The ability to represent the indefinite is one of the great achievements of modern mathematics and media, and clouds were at the vanguard here too. If you want to understand how meaning works, you have to understand vagueness, and clouds are a chief example.

Finally, clouds have long been associated with thinking, philosophizing and ultimate things, so they fit my atmospheric interests well. I know the title opens me up to wisecracks about academic loftiness. But in a world run by data-analytics Luftmenschen, it is good to get reacquainted with clouds and other kinds of sky media.

Why does the media culture of cetaceans, as you imagine it, play such a large role in your history of planetary technics? And what distinguishes your approach from previous thinking about the cetacean world? As you point out, dolphins and whales have long been subjects of utopian fantasy, as well as scientific communications research.

Cetaceans, the family of whales, porpoises, and dolphins, are often considered among the most intelligent animals on earth (especially dolphins), but they lack the infrastructures that anchor human existence such as feet, hands, fire, clothing, writing, right angles, celestial orientation, and all other forms of technology. Cetaceans thus present a kind of thought experiment about what it might be like to live in a technology-free habitat. Cetaceans could have techniques — say, of dancing, fishing, or communicating — but they could not have technologies, i.e., made materials that shape other materials, including their environments and minds. They live in habitats immune to fabrication, and thus offer a stark contrast to the human “technosphere,” our domesticated bubble of carbon and silicon, GMO crops and insulation. Intelligent marine mammals offer a radical alternative, at least in thought, to our essentially and externally technical history, and show us how much of what we take to be human depends on our technical supports.

In conducting this thought experiment, I try to tack between, on the one hand, the New Age Jell-O that makes dolphins and whales utopian images of alternate modes of being and, on the other, cetacean science. Pity the scientists, who do such respectable and interesting work and repeatedly find themselves beached on popular fantasy! While writing the book, I wrote to two prominent scientists of marine bioacoustics and dolphin neuroanatomy with specific questions, and never got a reply from either one, and I wonder if my having mentioned that I was a professor of communication studies might have put them off. Who knows how many cranky emails they must get from dolphin fantasists! In the book I aim to engage in a kind of empirically colored speculation, a study of What-ifs that builds upon the latest research without staking the validity of the thought experiment on its details. My treatment of cetaceans represents my modus operandi in general: to try to be as precise and informed as possible while also taking metaphors seriously as paths to insight. For me the metaphors used to describe dolphins are also markers of media history. The history of inquiry into dolphin communication is also a history of postwar media, from tape recorders to the internet. The latest innovation in dolphin communication research is predictably the use of Big Data techniques for discerning patterns among their high-pitched vocalizations; the technology used in Google Glass is also now used in human-dolphin communication devices. Dolphins are one of several biotechnical frontiers today (including humans). 

Although the book is consistently good-spirited and generous, rarely if ever going on the attack, you do repeatedly warn against the idea that technology violates a pristine pre-technical human condition. You insist that humans — and much of what we think of as “nature” — are formed by technologies and techniques, all the way down to our bones, all the way back to our deepest prehistory. Why do you think this is an important point to get across?

The philosophy of technology is often infected by a romanticism that sees technology as a loss of an elemental relation to the cosmos. One of the key stories in the modern world, told by very different figures in diverse accents, is technology as a fall from grace. One of William Wordsworth’s last poems complained in 1849 that illustrated books and newspapers were displacing the ability to speak, pushing us back to the retrograde stage of cave paintings! I understand why such stories continue to be told about fearsome novelties (though none of us would count illustrated books as such today); certainly we need to be on guard against having our lives hijacked by forces out of our control. We urgently need critical counterweights to the promises of technoliberation spewed forth from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. (The job of the media historian is to puncture hype.)

But I fear tossing the baby with the bathwater. Technical infrastructures are not limits on our humanity, but its conditions. We can debunk silicon salvation without resorting to deluded conceptions of original purity. It is a weird side effect of new media to produce florid opt-out fantasies — you could spend hours watching beautiful videos on YouTube showing life off the grid. The urge to unplug is a real one, but often the cure and the disease are in cahoots. If you let the technology tell how to get out of it, you get all the more embedded in it; this urge to check out from but via technology is like a con artist that lulls you into trust by telling you he is conning you. The promised cure of being free of technology is usually just another technology that isn’t recognized as such. The choice is always the much more difficult one of which technologies and techniques to engage, not whether to abandon them altogether. 

The book argues that media theory (like science fiction) is often theology by other means, and my insistence on deep technicity, like all basic visions of the human estate, inevitably has religious resonances. Theologically, I hold to a felix culpa, a fortunate fall. I do not place dolphins in Edenic bliss but somewhere between smart sea hippos and cyberspace surfers; they miss out on most of the powers that we technically inventive and immersive bipedals enjoy. Why would we want to go back to Eden? Living in a world rich with objects and subjects is a step forward, an opportunity, especially if we embrace the covenants that moor our sometimes errant ship. (Covenants are media that bind space and time.) Here my Mormonism, with its materialist metaphysics, media-friendly theology, affirmation of this-worldly embodiment as a step toward divinity, and rigorous sense of responsibility for choice, surely shines through my philosophy of technology.

You write about fire as a historical phenomenon, a human artifact, but also about the history of humans as fire creatures, made in and with fire, down into the cellular level. Central to that analysis is the phrase “vestal fire.” Can you say what that means and why the phrase is important to you? 

I take the term “vestal fire” from the historian Stephen Pyne; it is the title of one of his many books on fire. For Pyne, vestal fire is the characteristic kind of fire in European history. (He shows that fire is as culturally and regionally variable as any other domain of human craft — cuisine, religion, medicine, farming, etc.) Vestal fire is domesticated and hidden; it dwells in the home and in the hearth. Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and of virginity, was never represented in statuary: she was off limits, not seen. I take vestal fire as those forms of burning whose ravenous consequences are veiled and thus are symbolic of our environmental fate: the planetary well-off produce more carbon than ever, but rarely directly experience fire itself, which is hidden away in our cars and computers. Vestal fire thus serves as a parable of domestication, of alienation from the effects of our actions, and of the ties between carbon and data overload. (I doubt that Pyne would endorse this elaboration of his more focused concept.)

One key argument, late in the book, is that while Google’s search algorithms and storage infrastructure are astonishing achievements, they have a darker side. But the danger is less cognitive deterioration — Is Google Making Us Stupid? etc. — but something more insidious, a kind of existential de-orientation, in which presumptions of universal storage alter our relation to loss and death. Is this is a fair summary, and if so, how might humans counter this infrastructural shift?

Your summary is spot on. The great bulk of research on the effects of media focuses on superstructural factors. The long tradition of effects research studies how and under what conditions media messages change attitudes, behaviors, cognitions, etc. You can learn a lot from this kind of research, but I am more interested in media as hardly noticed infrastructures (such as vestal fire). Google, as the most prominent among an array of big-data players, marks not just a change in how people think but a disruption of being, if you’ll forgive the pretentious term. Google’s Faustian ambitions, of course, have a long ancestry, but dumbing down is the least of our worries. (Google in fact is a potent cognitive enhancer.) To make dumbing down the chief focus of our critique of the digital shift is like unplugging by watching nature videos on YouTube. It is in Google’s interest to spread the rumor that its business is all ethereal stuff in our heads and to keep our focus on information and cognition. Google is too smart to fall for that claptrap and knows that real power consists in weightier stuff, in birth and death, real estate and profits. The corporation’s air campaign is part of a ground strategy. The control of “bits” is ultimately about the control of “its.” Why else would Google and so many other IT companies be so interested in drones and robotics? In this I like the ever-relevant saying, usually used in a very different context: being precedes consciousness. 

Writing and inscription play a large role in your account. You emphasize that the invention of writing prompted a transformation comparable to our ancestors emerging onto land: inscription brought extraordinary practical gains, and a crucial re-constellation of time and space. But you spend noticeably less time on images. I know you can’t cover everything, but it seems striking. How do images fit into your broader evolutionary-technical history? Are they a kind of inscription too?

Part of this emphasis may be simply the tendency to glorify one’s own craft: I write, therefore it must be important! But my treatment of inscription is not at all image free. Writing’s history, as discussed in chapter 6 especially, is deeply tied up with both images and sounds. My discussion of semasiography, which must win the award for ugliest term in the book, argues that the earliest kind of writing was images that held meaning but did not denote words or sounds. The breakthrough came with the rebus, a picture that suggested a sound, and thus enabled phonetic writing. So images sit at the very beginning of writing (André Leroi-Gourhan uses the “graphism” as an expanded term to cover both text and image). Why humans were able to record pictures so many millennia earlier in technical history than sounds is one of the central puzzles of the book, and my answer is the nature of time. Pictures can represent things that more or less stay put, but sounds exist essentially in time and do not survive the moment of sounding, so recording sound had to await for relatively late analog devices that capture temporal processes. (Cloud painting since the Renaissance is a forerunner of this breakthrough.) Sound, I believe, is a deeper mystery than image for the media theorist to solve, and I personally regard music as the greatest artistic medium, though painting and literature come close. In this respect, your observation that the book does not privilege images is correct, though I will add that I am slowly trying to finish a co-authored book on images with the late historian Ken Cmiel.

One of the many good jokes in The Marvelous Clouds is also a key thought on contemporary ideas: you suggest “infrastructuralism” should supersede — maybe is superseding — “structuralism” and “post-structuralism.” Taking the suggestion seriously, what are the historical and intellectual gains of that shift? 

Whatever its excesses, structuralism sought to explain the world. There’s nothing better than Claude Lévi-Strauss in full flight, even if you get the feeling he is making a lot of it up. Post-structuralism, especially Jacques Derrida’s version of it, served as a bracing ethical and political conscience-pricker pointing to all the corruptions inherent in the will to knowledge but had the side effect, one that Derrida eventually sought to counteract, of paralyzing critique or learning. For a couple of academic generations in the humanities many scholars gave up on knowledge and decided that the job was to expose the deviltry of texts or to affirm the resistant politics of personal experience. (Ironically, some styled themselves followers of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Jean-François Lyotard, who were all uncommonly dedicated learners and voraciously curious about the strangeness of things.) This turn away from explanation came at the price of relevance. 

By infrastructuralism, I mean an attitude that counters such cognitive dejection. Never in history has so much knowledge been so widely and easily available. Since mortals cannot read (or write) very many books, I think an author should thank the reader for choosing your book by not wasting their time. (Derrida, for all his genius, never got this point.) Science is no longer, thankfully, a dirty word among most humanists, though the jury is still out on “nature.” Rather than the structuralist hubris that you could discover the inner laws of human thought or the post-structuralist despair (or celebration) that knowledge was impossible, infrastructuralism (this jokey term) is humble, diligent, and eager for refutation — a friendly synthesis of its two predecessors. It is the scholar’s job to know stuff, but knowing stuff is very hard work. It does not take much intelligence to show that canonical text X is ridden with self-contradiction or that lofty ideal Y is prone to corruption. Such findings should be the obvious starting point of your inquiry, not the surprising conclusion. You don’t need to do much research to know that humans and their works are frail and fallible. Among its second-rank practitioners, post-structuralism often seemed to me the obsessively revisited revelation of supposedly scandalous things that are, in fact, utterly ordinary. I am shocked, shocked, to discover that human projects outstrip themselves! Forgive the rant. The vogue of epistemological hypochondria fortunately ended many moons ago, and infrastructuralism is a new and an old encouragement to get back to work, to dig, to learn, to be wrong and try again, and to pay attention to the basic and not necessarily glamorous things that shape our worlds. 

You have some sharp, precise critique for the male bias of the history of technology as long practiced. What are some of the feminist implications of the infrastructuralist imagination?

Revealing the invisible supports that hold up the world, a chief aim of infrastructuralism, is clearly allied with the feminist project of revealing unpaid and unappreciated labor. (I will resist the temptation to join the current controversy about “wife bonuses” for rich stay-at-home moms!) The infrastructuralist imagination — nice term, by the way — seeks to appreciate all that is essential and off the radar. Without reinforcing a gender binary, the book points to the vast realms of technical history made invisible by the masculinist view of technologies as artifacts that work on matter rather than practices that shape bodies. Technology, as I wrote about one of Google’s more outlandish moves, is womb envy.

The history of media theory from McLuhan to Kittler was always also an implicit theory of gender. What if the philosophy of technology focused on birth as much as death? What if we appreciated container technologies as much as power technologies, or labor on life as much as work on things? What if we took domestication not as lost vigor but as the site of the hardest and greatest work? The book doesn’t answer these questions at length, but suggests they are essential to any future philosophy of media. 

The Marvelous Clouds is clearly a work of a great intellectual ambition, and surely a lot of confidence too. You characterize the project as “an experiment to see whether a single person could get a view on the anthropoid condition.” What drove you, as that “single person,” to undertake a project on this scale? Did you have doubts along the way? Were there moments when its scope felt too much, the material overwhelming, the questions too vast?

I wrote this book with fear and trembling. I am sure it has embarrassing mistakes of fact and interpretation, but I don’t know where they are (yet; I trust readers to oblige). There are limits on how much you can impose on others for expert advice, though I obviously did so a lot. A super smart doctor friend of mine who chose a career first in family medicine and then in the ER says that general practitioners have to have great self-confidence that you can figure things out on your own. I took her analysis to heart. Specialties are both necessary (because life is short) and destructive (because they form barriers to entry). Early statisticians had a motto about the heaps of data they piled up: “aliis exterendum,” to be threshed out by others. Much academic research perpetually postpones the synthesis to someone else who never shows up. It’s the sheerest folly to try synthesis, but also a betrayal of learning and opportunity not to. (The encyclopedia, as Jorge Luís Borges knew, is an absurdist genre.) Though there is a certain defiance in wanting to know what holds the world together at its core, it would be a moral and intellectual defeat to give up. (The heart of the university, I believe, is not the specialties, but general education.) If we accept that life is short, knowledge is more abundant than ever, and it is an enormous privilege to have time to read, write, and think, then what kind of work should we do? The book is one answer to that question. 

Can you say something of your own research techniques? What are your favored tools and media, and what is your relation to them like? Are you on good terms with them?

It would take a lot of thought to detail my research techniques but they include the following imperatives: write early in the morning, cultivate memory, reread core books, take detailed reading notes, work on several projects at once, maintain a thick archive, rotate crops, take a weekly Sabbath, go to bed at the same time, exercise so hard you can’t think during it, talk to different kinds of people including the very young and very old, take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries), step outside of the empire of the English language regularly, look for vocabulary from other fields, love the basic, keep your antennae tuned, and seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt). 

As to tools, the body is the writer’s essential tool, and I have not quite resolved the question of how to write and read and have a body at the same time. I have a chair I’ve used for years, and a nice window to stare out of, and swear by ergonomic keyboards, but otherwise I find writing and reading constant lessons in labor. Though I am right-handed, I mouse with my left hand. I write on a desktop that is not connected to the internet, and generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later, if I can help it. I am still largely paper-dependent for any serious reading. I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package. Because of back and neck pain, it is hard to sit a long time while writing, and even more so, while reading.

These, of course, are petty and common side effects of letters — nowhere near the colossal difficulties Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, suffered and that made him so perceptive about the media of thinking. Kant wrote of “asocial sociability” among human beings, and that is probably a decent term for my relation to tools and media. Friction gives rise to thought. You wouldn’t think about media if they always vanished smoothly into the background. The simplest tools are wonderfully challenging, and I think the world would be a much better place if we thought more flat-footedly about what we are doing with our bodies when we do mental work or play. I hate the pseudo-disembodiment so vigorously marketed by digital media of all kinds. A colleague of mine who teaches singing reports that recent years have brought him new challenges with students whose posture has been wrecked by constant attention to their smartphones. Media studies should illuminate, not obscure, the most basic facts by which we live: such as our spines and feet. 

You pay homage to numerous media-theoretical forebears, Leroi-Gourhan, McLuhan, Kittler, Heidegger, many others. But within that constellation, you seem to reserve special warmth for transcendentalists and pragmatists: Emerson, Peirce, William James and so on. Do you feel a particular affinity there? And — a subsidiary question — do you consider yourself an American writer?

I probably travel to Europe more often than in the US, which is, of course, a sign of my profound Americanness. An orientation to Europe is a sure indicator of an American intellectual. (In the same way, that Europeans think themselves heirs of the Greeks shows that they are really heirs of the Romans, who invented this imagined lineage.) It’s not news that American culture is complicated, but a strand that I deeply identify with is its global, hungry, polyglot vision, the sense that to be an American is to belong to the world, one in which new community and life are possible. Obviously it’s a vision that can go with military and other adventures (whaling, as in the case of Moby-Dick), but American cosmopolitanism need not be only privileged and oppressive. Democratic vistas are a critique, not an affirmation, of the United States. I grew up in the vicinity of Cambridge and Concord, Massachusetts, and confess to having a deep, elective sense of ancestral affinity with the nineteenth-century prophets of New England, including the ones that moved west.

You mention that, for the Ancient Greeks, poetry was the highest form of technē. How does poetry affect your own writing and thought? I ask because poetry suffuses the book, making its presence felt in the many direct citations (Milton, Hölderlin, Eliot, Dickinson, also numerous contemporary poets), but also in the precision and pregnancy of the aphorisms, and in the cadences of the language.

Poetry, in the Greek term poiēsis, means making, and so any inquiry into how the world is made, and what role techniques and technologies play in that, is inherently poetic. I would resist the idea that poetry could “affect” thought or writing, as if it were something apart: both thinking and writing are essentially poetic in the broad sense. Poetry is not an alternative to cognitive truth about the world, but one of its leading forms. Perhaps prose is for poets who haven’t mastered forms larger than a single line. (The observant reader will find bits of blank verse scattered in the book, not unusual in English prose.) 

Have you considered going beyond the book form to other media? I ask that, first, as a media-theoretical question: if you ever feel a methodological need to supersede the medium of writing. But also in a more worldly sense, if you are tempted to adapt parts of it for some kind of screen medium?

As a matter of routine production I am much more busy with visual and oral forms than with writing or books. I probably give 30 to 40 lectures per year, mostly in class, and a few on the road. These are usually illustrated lectures, accompanied by PowerPoint images bearing as few words as possible, a usefully constrained medium if you use it as wallpaper, not as foreground. I usually toss my notes after talks, as befits the medium of oral performance. The truth, as Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus knew, is in the wind. Working with video-savvy grad students, I’ve made a couple of screen stunts for class, such as staging a Skype conversation with myself, and have long considered, but not yet found the time for, learning to make films. (I almost bought myself a GoPro camera the other day and may yet do so.) Almost everything I do supersedes the medium of writing and as a philosophical principle, I think life should always do so! Books are rare and exceptional. If I have the chutzpah to impose on a durable medium and speak out of the grave, what I say had better be worthwhile in some way. But books are not life.

You are totally right that the question of media is not only theoretical but practical. The choice to write books is to put money on old media. If, as I argue, the most basic forms are the richest, old media remain a sound investment. Clearly there are fantastically cool digital possibilities for knowledge making and sharing, but we desperately need counter weights to the high-speed presentism that governs online discussion. In late August I’ll face an auditorium of 200 19-year-olds (more or less), and I will have little clue of the details of their everyday media habitats. I sense they have not superseded the medium of writing, but have rather embraced it with all of its rigidity and dangers. Social media are, if nothing else, a jungle of writing, and most Americans now produce more words every day manually than they do orally. I see my task as to help my students to supersede the medium of writing and to embrace the older medium of speech, which was always the well of life and learning. (But I’ll be a writing stickler as well.) Writing is only a rare island amid the much more fluid media in which we live, most of them much older than writing, and a few of them much more recent. I’d be game for collaborating on screen, sculptural, or musical experiments. 

The book mentions, as a subsidiary aim, the hope of broadening the horizons of mainstream US media studies, beyond its preoccupation with content, messages, actors, institutions, policies. If that wish came true, what sorts of innovations might we see in American communication studies?

Why stop at the US? J I have always thought that the field of communication studies is a case study in the ironies of academic production: here’s a field that claims to embrace something fundamental to all domains of life, and yet the field is often narrow, fractured, and marginal. As communication studies goes, so goes the university. Communication studies is a bellwether for any hope of interdisciplinary reorganization in intellectual life, and though the prospects remain pretty futile, I will persist in my unreasonable utopianism. This book at some level is an effort to demonstrate what I wish my field, and thus the university, could be — more integrative, expansive, and historical, more attuned to the urgent crises that surround us, and more interested in speaking to the species. More specifically, a broadened media studies would engage with an increasingly wide variety of forms and formats; would be both more environmentally and existentially reflective; and would expand its already voracious interdisciplinary appetite. It would defy the border between humanities and science and look for knowledge in any form. Media are not the world, but we have access to the world only via media: thus media studies should embrace its fundamental role as a student of ontology.

To speak of my own reading experience, The Marvelous Clouds was exhilarating and exhausting in turn. The opening chapters: thought experiments on a breathtaking scale, teeming with information, but light and audacious, so full of joy in thought and knowledge. A “passacaglia of fact,” to use Glenn Gould’s phrase. Reading your account of clocks or ships or container technologies, I felt, to use one of your key metaphors, the “moorings” of my anthropological self-understanding shift beneath me. In the book, you speak of the “giddiness of infrastructuralism” — that was exactly it, a kind of revelatory sense of evolution and technics, palpable even in my own body, gestures, habits, capacities. But by the final chapter, as we near the present, I experienced a terrible weariness. I began to think of Faust, to feel like Faust, in fact. Burdened with an irredeemable knowledge. At that point, in your reflections on omniscience and media theology, you turn to the consolations of death and the blessings of loss, ending on a melancholy scene that could be a rewriting of “Dover Beach” for the Anthropocene era. Is that a trajectory that you recognize in the book, and if so, did you have a sense of that dynamic when you set out to write it?

I do recognize that trajectory, and the relevance of “Dover Beach,” which brings together many of the book’s central themes, though I had not thought of the book as moving toward the present (which it obviously does). I also recognize the sense of exhaustion! While writing I liked to imagine the book as a cross of Being and Time and Moby-Dick, with Technics and Civilization and The Human Condition stirred in for good measure. Moby-Dick ends in shipwreck and so does this book. But Ishmael survives to tell the tale, and as long as we are around, let us rejoice in the breathtaking improbability that we exist at all! Let us be true to one another!

Given the urgent state of our anthropoid condition, what on earth can be done? 

My close friend Ken Cmiel, who died in 2006, liked to tell the story of a conversation between Philip Roth and Milan Kundera. (I don’t want to check the original, since I assume Ken’s version improved it.) Kundera is complaining about modern civilization. Roth tells him that it sounds like he thinks the world is going to hell. Kundera replies, People have been saying that for thousands of years. Roth says, So you don’t think we’re really in that big of a mess? Kundera answers: Au contraire! If people have been saying it for that long, it must be true!

No doubt, we deserve an apocalyptic sense of doomsville. But our anthropoid condition has always been urgent. A glance at the past century shows how many apocalypses our species (but not all of its members) has managed to survive already. Kundera suggests a kind of crisis that is always there, and I’d sign on to that. This doubleness — that the crisis is now, but it has always been there, makes for ambiguous political implications, since the task is always to figure out what the particular contours of the crisis are right now. Some will find the book quietist, others will find it alarmist. For my part, I think the book is part of a larger argument about the need for democratic governance, one so radical that it would reach into nature. Clearly much of the problem of the planet is a political one of justice, and like John Dewey, and Emerson before him, I think we need a far deepened sense and practice of what democracy could be. Of course the problem is that liberation as we know it costs a lot of carbon, one reason why governance needs to be both local and planetary. (The absurd boondoggle of ethanol production in my state of Iowa, for instance, is a political problem with enormous consequences for life, land, and soil.) As Marx sort of said, but many have since, emancipating nature and people from exploitation is a single task. Abundance without abuse — that’s the horizon to seek!

Your question reminds me of Martin Heidegger’s famous answer to a similar question: “Only a god could save us.” What he meant is debated, but it can sound flip, mildly ironic, or deadly serious. I’d sign on to that answer too, since you can’t think about what on earth can we do without also thinking what in heaven we can do. But I belong to a religion that believes we should be working our buns off to bring heaven about. Given the enormity of our human and environmental troubles, it is tempting to give up, or dismiss small things as not making a difference. But my epigraph holds that small things bring about what is great — the first principle of infrastructuralism. We cannot give up on small moves just as we cannot give up on big moves either. As individuals we can eat low on the food chain; practice home cosmography; be sober about technical choices; not ennoble lifestyle choices as saving the planet; cultivate plants; and love those close to us. I wish I knew how to have a market economy that produces abundance for all and does not exploit people and nature, how to cancel the enormously tempting pay-offs that waging war has always had for industrialists and politicians, or how to build a global and local media system that would treasure truth more than scoring points and love honesty and art. Such deep change will have to be infrastructural, no doubt.

The philosopher Karl Jaspers famously wrote of an “axial period” in the history of civilization around 800-200 BCE in which a variety of sages and thinkers independently converged on a new ethics of how to live in cities, one based on care for the other and the golden rule. I hope we are in the midst of a time in which we would figure out how to live under the clouds together with both each other and a precious and finite Earth. My fondest daydream for this book is that it would be one of many voices contributing to an ethics for a new axial period.


[i] I develop this argument at length here:

[ii] On clouds also see: Culture Digitally


Brían Hanrahan teaches and writes on media and film history. He lives in California.

LARB Contributor

Brían Hanrahan teaches and writes on media and film history. He lives in California.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!