Understanding Media: Craig Dworkin’s “No Medium”

By Johanna DruckerJuly 9, 2013

Understanding Media: Craig Dworkin’s “No Medium”

No Medium by Craig Dworkin

THE TITLE of Craig Dworkin’s book, No Medium, suggests a paradox. And so it should. To some extent, the book embodies the polarization in current approaches to the study of media — between attention to the literal materiality of inscription and to the idea that a medium is a set of nodes in a distributed system of relationships and dependencies, or, in other words, a medium thought of as a thing (newspaper, recording) or a medium seen as a complex social practice. “It would be a mistake,” Dworkin insists, “to think of media as objects.” Instead, they are dependent on acts of reading and retrieval in “specific social settings.” While some aspects of network theory and the “performative” dimensions of reading are already familiar, something else is afoot in this book.

Dworkin’s argument is provocative partly because it is in dialogue both with media archaeology, a field associated with German media theory, and a new wave of scholarship emerging from digital humanities and literary studies. Placing Dworkin in relation to these developments can help us track a major shift in our understanding of what constitutes “medium” and “materiality.” The problem of understanding media can seem as intractable as those of the wave/particle distinction in physics: the phenomenon under scrutiny changes its character depending on who is doing the observing, where, and for what purpose. Is it better to understand media as having inherent properties or as a distribution of contingent relations? The question requires not so much an either/or decision as a recognition that the ways we think about media have been challenged by theoretical principles derived from the study of literature, archives, information, and history.

Dworkin focuses less on media or media studies than on a whole array of fascinating — some would say extreme — interventions in literary form, acts of erasure, obliteration, paratextual play, reflexive games at the level of language and media. Dworkin takes scraps, conceptual practices, the ghostly palimpsests, and barely-there remnants of once-extant, radically altered, or never-realized works, and turns them into points of departure for elaborate and well wrought turns of argument. Poetry and media studies have rarely had so much to say to each other. Experimental poetics has generated plenty of attention to materiality — the form, format, shape, and sound of performance, on and off the page — but usually outside the context of the history and theory of media. And students of media have almost never turned to theoretical poetics, drawing instead on variants of close reading and analysis derived from film and television, cultural studies, or from the history of science and technology. This makes Dworkin’s book all the more welcome because it fosters an intimate dialogue between theories of media and poetic, artistic, and musical experimental practices.

Extreme cases form the core of Dworkin’s study. For the skeptically inclined, blank pages, a book with everything gone but the footnotes, a musical composition of a single chord or the noise of computer feedback or other acts of obliteration and obscurity test the credibility threshold.

Such performances seem like a dare to declare the lack of clothing of the conceptual emperor. But experiments with form have been a part of poetic traditions for more than a century. Many critics justly mark the start of formal manipulation with Stéphane Mallarmé, whose own theoretical writings were generated in response to the posters, newspapers, and visual glut of typographic print media of his day. Mallarmé was keenly aware of the increasingly tenuous hold aesthetic work had on the popular imagination and of the threats posed by the economic pressures under which (especially literary) book publishing had come in his lifetime. The French poet of the 1890s, in his salon gatherings and published essays, engaged with these matters even as he created the most radically innovative graphic poem ever produced at that time, a work so without precedent that it almost did not register as poetry in the eyes of the readers of the May 1897 issue of the English magazine, Cosmopolis, in which it was first published. The stuff of headlines, display fonts used in advertising — Mallarmé’s typographic scoring of Un coup de dé jamais n'abolira le hasard found its full audience a generation later, in the 1910s, among the Italian and Russian Futurists and the poets of the international Dada movement, for whom the public relations business was integral to the production of artistic work and whose journals and posters flaunted their love of eye-catching, rule-breaking composition.

Dworkin begins the first section of No Medium with a study of Nudisme, a book comprised of bound blank paper, which appears in the hands of the character, Jacques Cégeste in the opening scene of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film, Orphée. Dworkin describes the binding and dimensions of Nudisme as it appears in the scene in the Café des Poètes, emphasizing the ability of the substrate, paper, to signify by virtue of details like trimming “to accommodate lyric verse with a sufficiently luxurious and aestheticized margin” and heft. Small enough to be carried, large enough to matter, suited to private reading and public display, it was the perfect form for an object that works “in the social network of the café.” Dworkin’s close reading demonstrates the inextricable dependence of object and circumstance, identity and circulation. The specificity of the object, Nudisme, is also an effect of the many sites and situations through which it moves. This reciprocity — of media artifact and mediating conditions — is the crux of Dworkin’s argument, the meaning of the “no” in his title, and its link to the principle that “one can never locate a medium in its isolation.”

These “empty” sheets, which bring to mind nudity as revelation and as metaphor, become the thread Dworkin follows from the French society of jealousies and literary cross-currents to the theoretical ruminations on nakedness in Jacques Derrida’s discussions of figuration and Jean Baudrillard’s considerations of the visible/invisible aspects of obscenity. Nudisme was recently remade by two designers, Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin, Dworkin tells us, noting the specific changes in the text of the paper “dandy rolled for a laid texture,” its cover saddle-stapled, and so on, to produce a version rather than a facsimile of the original. Such attention to detail continues as Dworkin shifts to the late 1960s and the world of New York’s literati, including works produced in the New American Poetry series and the magazine Kulchur thanks to the patronage of Lita Hornick. Here Dworkin describes Aram (son of William) Saroyan’s (perhaps) oedipal games in a dare to patron Hornick to “publish” reams of unsullied typing paper with a copyright notice on the wrapper. He considers artist Tom Friedman’s 11 x 22 x 0.005, whose title is simply a statement of dimensions, though the “work” includes two symmetrical folds and a thumbtack, and another “blank” project, 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997), by the same artist. These conceptual works that play with “nothing” or absence, withdrawal, refusal, and other gestures of un-inscription are marshaled into a finely wrought discussion, erudite and elegant — a highly specific study of blankness, paper in its purity and freshness, the tactile sensual smell and softness. The sections that follow focus attention on issues of signal and noise, translation, and manipulation, among other self-conscious media practices. The tension between material and its discourse networks creates the warp and woof of argument.

Dworkin has been a major critical voice for conceptual poetry — idea-based and procedurally driven compositional practices that correspond to the activities in the 1960s art world as well as associated with a new, neo-conceptualist, generation of younger writers. Whether reading the vestigial remains of obliterated works, or monochrome, monotone, supremely conceptual music-less sound works that originate in John Cage’s 4’33” he draws on his knowledge of experimental literature, and literary work that intersects with the visual arts. Dworkin’s historical milestones — such as Robert Rauschenberg’s act of erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning — are in dialogue with a range of very different contemporary practices, such as Nick Thurston’s erasure of Maurice Blanchot. The book also contains an extensive, annotated list of sound works in the same conceptual vein, for the reader interested in further “listening.” Dworkin’s repertoire of examples is surprisingly large, given the esoteric-seeming nature of the processes he’s looking at. (How many erased or obliterated works can there be? Lots, it turns out.)

All point, however, towards Dworkin’s thesis, shared by a handful of information and digital humanities theorists, that media no longer “exist” in a traditional sense. These works have to be understood within the networked environment (technical, material, cultural, or conceptual) that sustains their existence. While ostensibly countering the long tradition of close reading through attention to the specificity of media that was the hallmark of mid-20th century high modernism, Dworkin’s approach still attends to the formal qualities of the works he analyzes. As he says, the “more conceptual [the work] the more specificity” it requires in its reading. Another paradox? Is the very absence of inscription more fraught with potential and more resonant than literal writing on a sheet? Text, it turns out, is too bounded and defined when it is present, subject to familiar reading habits, and thus subsumed into its content. By contrast, problematic works that self-consciously play with media formats open new dimensions of reading.

Our capacity to “read” blank sheets of paper, and the fact that each kind of blankness requires a distinct way of reading and attention to the specific medium, demonstrates Dworkin’s argument about the performative acts that produce the “text.” Similarly, Dworkin insists that “media” be understood as “nodes of articulation across a signifying chain,” or “thresholds between languages” that exist at the “limns of perception.” At first, this distributed model of media seems to trouble Dworkin’s emphasis on materiality, until we realize that the richly attentive study of material specificity is compatible with a systems-based approach to media networks.

Many of Dworkin’s questions can be phrased within more traditional critical and bibliographical studies, where concepts of the fluid text, circulating economies of meaning, and other metaphors of production across related “nodes” can be derived from analog, print, broadcast, or communication systems. But the provocations posed by digital media have given the discussion a new emphasis. Dworkin refers to Matthew Kirschenbaum, Lisa Gitelman, Mark B. Hansen, and N. Katherine Hayles, all of whom have brought discussions of materiality into the digital humanities. Software studies, platform studies, network and hardware analyses have sprung up in the last decade, arguing against the mythic misunderstanding of digital media as “immaterial.” Among the most substantial and lucid discussions of the material properties of digital media is Kirschenbaum’s justly renowned Mechanisms (2008). Kirschenbaum, like a number of his colleagues (such as Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort) is keenly focused on how textual close reading must be extended to digital hardware (or software code). Kirschenbaum’s bibliographical background and literary training are evident in his method and his sources, but his emphasis is on the forensic properties of physical evidence, rather than the figural expressions of content. This micro-, even nanoscale, of attention is an interesting balance to the “distant reading” methods that characterize another wing of digital humanities practices (see McKenzie Wark, LARB, June 5th, 2013).

The touchstone figure for media archaeology, Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011), who never adopted the term as his own, was a literary scholar interested in how the material of media shaped the very conceptions of literary forms and formats. As David Wellbery says in his “Foreword” to Kittler’s influential Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1992), “materiality is the general condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like ‘poetry’ or ‘literature’ can take shape.” Kittler’s influences were Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and, underlying them, Friedrich Nietzsche. Kittler’s interest in media was not technological, but conceptual. The ground on which forms of literary expression can be conceived is imprinted by media formats. His point is not to give a techno-determinist reading of literature, but to proffer a highly literary reading of the technologies of inscription as texts. Kittler’s brilliant style is topographic rather than narrative, and his descriptions of intellectual formations begin with the discussion of Nietzsche’s scathing critique of the school essay as the template on which much of German literary writing was based. The image of Nietzsche’s incomprehensible madness permeates Kittler’s text; his refusal of dominant norms of writing and speech was so violent that it completely destroyed him. These hyperbolic formulations are combined, in Kittler’s writing, with an emphasis on gender and language in Lacanian terms. Though he sometimes takes pains to describe actual media apparatuses or techniques of writing, decipherment, or composition in terms of their material processes, Kittler is not a media historian, but a literary scholar concerned with the formative conditions of cultural expressions. Depending heavily on Foucault, his study of historical materials is posed within an archaeological frame, with metaphors of sedimentary layers and strata of evidence rather than as an arc of progress. Discourse, rather than narrative, organizes his evidence into a coherent configuration. The tropes of space and order, not sequence or causality, are central.

What media archaeology has done under Kittler’s influence is more reductive, but provides a pushback against the techno-deterministic and highly teleological narratives of media associated with Marshall McLuhan, (as well as providing a much-needed alternative to the vapid moralizing of cultural studies, with its emphasis on content analysis as naïve ideology critique). The longer history of media studies, in which the distinction between American sociologists and Frankfurt school critical theory can be traced, disappears for the most part in these new theoretical expressions, though Walter Benjamin remains the figure most cited by all parties. Media archaeology’s strength — particularly in the work of Wolfgang Ernst, Jussi Parikka, Erkki Huhtamo, and Lisa Gitelman — is its rejection of historical narrative in favor of attention to the material conditions that produce historical evidence from inscription. The historicity of production, rather than the production of history, is the focus of media archaeology. The grooves of a wax recording or vinyl record are conceived and understood as writing, thus embodying an epistemological model, and reading that model from the physical artifact, rather than reading the artifact for what it contains, is a typical media archaeological move. Gitelman’s own brilliant Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines (2000), shows how much can be read from the inscriptional trace and conceptual framework within which an artifact’s capacities were imagined. The social imaginary plays a large role in these works, echoing Lacan, and the work of Kittler and Gitelman, at least, recognizes that “real” objects are an expression of cultural constructs and concepts.

Because media history has been so intimately bound to the history of technology, rethinking how the technics of media can be read is a game-changer. That media formats are expressions of epistemological models is easy to grasp conceptually, but harder to get hold of in application. An example is photography, which presents its technological capacities as a “real” record of the indexical trace of light from a scene. But of course, the optical conditions of seeing are quite different from the technical inscription of a camera and substrate, and the “real” spectrum of light has many areas we do not see. We become trained by the photographic image to imagine the real on its terms, a media archaeologist would insist, rather than “recognizing” the quality of the image in any direct, untutored way. The major intellectual movements in modern media studies have been sociological and quantitative, critical and theoretical (Frankfurt school), technological (Canadian media studies), and historical (particularly the contributions of cultural studies, arising from the Birmingham group and writings of Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and others). Media archaeology therefore has the advantage of both a legacy of literary and cultural theory as well as the perspective of science and technology, and therefore materiality not only matters in media archaeology, it is the very subject of study.

Here is where digital humanities comes into play, and with it the training in close reading that Kirschenbaum brings to bear with equal acuity on hard drives and William Gibson’s Agrippa, a work of disappearing art that would fit perfectly in Dworkin’s pantheon. Digital humanities began with the work of Roberto Busa, a Jesuit scholar interested in producing a concordance (word list) of the work of Thomas Aquinas. A conversation with Thomas Watson of IBM made clear that Busa’s task could be automated. Even in the 1950s, mainframe computers were good at tasks that were hard for humans — sorting, matching, finding all instances of a word or string of characters within a multi-thousand page corpus. Issues of scale have been part of digital humanities for a long time, but along the way digital humanists became interested in critical editing, repository building, and the development of tools for annotation, visualization, mapping, and other activities; these can then process digital data and metadata (descriptive information about data) to extract patterns of information that can’t be readily perceived in the normal manner of reading or viewing. In the 1980s, media theorists deliriously celebrated the “immateriality” of code, as if the binarism of a computer’s on-off switches were some holy grail of Derridean différance; popular theories of the era wished away the physicality of the material substrate in which electric charges were stored. Even today, the metaphor of the “cloud” has not corrected this misperception, and as Jean-François Blanchette has pointed out, the immaterial tendency and interests it serves have persisted. Whereas commodity fetishism conceals the social character of traditional production, treating digital media as immaterial whisks from view important questions of investment, ecological impact, social costs, control, and access.

Media archaeology in its less theoretical and more descriptive modes, such as the work of Wardrip-Fruin, exposes the complicity of materiality with the historical circumstances of production. In his study of an experiment by Alan Turing and his collaborator, a project for automatically generating love letters, Wardrip-Fruin weaves a careful set of connections between the oppression of homosexuals in mid-20th-century Britain and the specifics of the code used to simulate affection. Performativity serves multiple roles in Wardrip-Fruin’s analysis, including a discussion of masquerade within the very operations of the computer, and the computer as a site for manipulation of symbolic systems. Neither narrative nor deterministic in their model of history, the archaeologists offer the digital humanists a way to reconcile close reading and performative approaches while bringing the inscriptional trace of media artifacts into view.

In network analysis, objects are constituted by the codependent and distributed condition of circulation, flow, exchange, and relations. Is this an essentialist or relational vision of identity? Either way, the dynamics of reading always intervene, the act of retrieval, the engagement with an object, file, image, text that makes it happen in each instance. This poses questions about how we understand information, how it is constituted, used, conceived, made present in and part of actual systems, networks, and media. How do we distinguish materiality and media? Is the first a property of the second? If something is characterized as

a medium, then it is reified and its singularity suggests a thing-ness, physicality, that leads to discussion of properties and capacities. If media is the between-ness that permits relations themselves to exist, then mediation has no need for terms like “flow,” “exchange,” or “transmission” — all of which are grounded in a model of delivery. A fully relational model of media and mediation does not depend on exchange, but on a cycle of differentiation as relation, the constitutive between-ness of configurations. We have to be careful here or we will fall into an ever-increasing language of abstractions, but the performative and distributed understanding of networked media — which includes analogue and broadcast media, not just digital — is fundamentally anti-essentialist. Media cannot be read by simply looking at their material existence, as if properties of technical production have a stable, absolute value independent of conditions of use. A medium is always subject to material conditions (however stable or unstable, permanent or contingent), to flow and exchange, to inscription, to state change, or at the very least, to different observed states.

Poetry and media studies have rarely had much to do with each other. The work of bibliographers and critical editors may have led some, materialist literary scholars to attend to the forensic details of print production, but media studies has for the most part paid little attention to close reading of material texts or their means of production. However, media studies is increasingly informed, wittingly or not, by theories of poiesis, of making, a term that recognizes no conflict between analyzing formal qualities and active performances. Dworkin demonstrates that poetic formats, even in their ghostly states in these erased or barely-present palimpsests, are cultural templates as much as physical ones. Their persistence allows us to read the suggestions, implications, and referenced absences of matter in, paradoxically, their materiality. Poiesis can be a critical, interpretative act, fully conceptual, and materially instantiated, as it is in the projects at the heart of this book. If Dworkin’s engagement with media theory can be taken up by the broader field in which its archaeologies, forensics, and insights are at work, then the promise of a serious engagement with poetics could come into view. In the meantime, Dworkin’s study of apparent anomalies that turn out to be representative exemplars rather than quirky curiosities is well worth attention.


Johanna Drucker is an author, book artist, visual theorist, and cultural critic. 

LARB Contributor

Johanna Drucker is the inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.


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