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Философия и гуманитарные науки

Building a Discourse of the Medial without Differentiating the Spheres of the Technological, the Natural, and the Human

syg.ma team

The question of media often occurs in the space between the cultural and the technical, suggesting that these opposing terms are categorically equal. They are not, however, categorically equal, because the way they exist in the environment is extremely different. The cultural is something that only offers a certain model of the environment and the interactions that take place in it, while the technical is what is actualized by the environment. It seems useful, therefore, to attempt to approach an answer to this question from a different perspective, turning to what is actualized by this mediality-establishing environment.

“Media” may refer to devices. Interpreted in this way, these devices may lose the integrity of their existence, or what is called the influence of media. We might say that, when a device is singled out as a subject of analysis, mediality is what is retained for their structure. The easiest example of this is the already archaic view of media as “black boxes.” How a “black box” performs its functions is not very important, because it is assigned the role of agent and need not be observed while performing that role. It would be hard to agree, however, that if we assigned some role to a device that role would replace the device itself: imagine if an electron gun firing at a phosphor screen line-by-line or interlaced according to the frequency of the current and distribution of charge “captured” by the antenna during the propagation of radio waves (television receiver) were turned into an ideograph with no dependence on its “infrastructure.” The existence of the television receiver (the television set itself) is not limited to its material substance, because it becomes a “participant” in the distribution of electromagnetic channels passing along copper and air “pathways” dispersed toward the viewer and absorbed by him (i.e., the channel continues into an organic infrastructure). The mediality of a single device extends across the broader vicinities of the environment, so it is already difficult to say that this is the mediality of a single device alone, like the overall broadcast technology or weather conditions. It would be easier to speak of the medial as something that belongs neither to any single node device alone nor to its components, because this may limit our examination. The medial, therefore, involves sequences of interactions, or recombinant flows of any nature. For a more detailed consideration of these flows on different scales, we can use an idea that “emanates” from the surrounding devices themselves: quantization, which in our case will involve quantization of the whole environment. Like Alfred North Whitehead, we will represent reality as differentiated into the smallest elements, only in our case it will be correlated by those differentiations that are already actualized in devices; that is, by those that have undergone its verification.

Some problems may nevertheless occur on this path, because implicit theoretical differentiations often form several arrays that are far from divisible; namely, the technical, the natural, and the human. If they are not further divisible, this means that the division was not made on common grounds, so contradictions and inconsistencies may appear that force us to perform “designations.”

In their theoretical form, these divisions can be considered dichotomous, as in the natural/the human, the natural/the technical, or the human/ the technical. We will attempt to maintain them as unities, but we will use these notations to refer to one area of applicable participants or another, for which purpose we will attempt to find a parameter of difference that organizes the division between one and another.

Anastasia Zhilina. No name

Anastasia Zhilina. No name

To designate a generally obtainable range of differentiation in a form that allows us to examine the potential reunification of medial components with greater freedom, we will use the notion of environment. The environment is the sum of the natural, the human, and the technical. To differentiate unities, we will use those that have been verified by devices; that is, particles, atoms, molecules, and larger established patterns, where each of these levels is composed of elements of the previous. The environment can thus be understood as a multitude of interacting particles located in constant recombination, where their operative activity forms structures of interactions of a different character.

In the first three sections, we will try to locate a parameter of difference to bring these dichotomies into a common ground. To do this, we will look at works that theorize the essence of these dichotomies (G. Simondon, P. Descola, J.-M. Shaeffer, A. Whitehead) and others that communicate these dichotomies with different degrees of articulation (A. Gehlen, F. Rapp, A. Feenberg, W. Orlikowsky). This research often uses the word “sensation,” which in this text is merely a more “anthropic” synonym for the phrase “recombinant interaction with the environment,” and may not, therefore, coincide in meaning with other senses of the word. By “experience” we mean a certain combination of sensations — or interactions with the environment — that may affect the recombinatory potential. After finding these common grounds, we will examine some media-theory approaches using the example of sound research (B. Siegert, C. Cox, E. Ikoniadou), and we will also look at sound as understood on these common grounds.

The natural and the human

We have mentioned that there are ways for reality to “unfold” theoretically, where indivisible arrays of the technical, the human, and the natural take shape. We must understand that these exist only in sign systems decoded in a certain way and have no effect on how interactions occur in the environment.

Sign systems can be taken on common grounds; that is, as they exist in the environment. First, as an ability of the environment toward the kinds of interactions with the organism’s elements that might, even in their absence, provoke an operational transfer of environmental elements and their interactions in a compressed form for communication with other organisms. The possession of a sign system is often considered what exclusively distinguishes man from his overall environment, because other more-or-less formed participants do not engage in these kinds of combinatorics. There is nothing extraordinary about this, however, because even single-cell eukaryotes can form their own channels of communication. Second, language as realized through speech organizes the fluctuations of particles in the environment of propagation, organizing the frequency diversity of small differences. The same occurs with written records that are a combination of “carrier” particles in such a way that, in the vicinity of visible radiation, a recombinant interaction occurs that modulates the specified radiation of the environment. Oliver R. Scholz, asking when a certain representation is pictorial, gives an example of a storefront sign with the name of a Chinese store. For someone familiar with the Chinese. [1]

However, any combination of signs would be only a combination of air vibrations or electromagnetic waves if it were not subjected to decoding. The decoding of both individual characters and their sequences can be done in different ways, each radically changing their essence. This discovery has provided many opportunities. One could retain a single sign, changing only the method of decoding, because it would affect how the “referential and intentional” world of a sign system’s carrier will emerge during the process of sustained decoding. It is possible to actualize this fragmentation and specification of carriers such that their “referential and intentional objects” do not converge at any point, simply by delivering various “objects” through distributive channels. One could project models of vision, patterns of thought, and algorithms of perception and possible experience onto reality such that they would fully “distill” reality.

language, this inscription would be verbal, but for tourists, it might be pictorial. However, for all, it will be at least radiation propagating in the environment. Characterizing it as verbal or pictorial is a distinction specific to the human element, given that it is merely a characteristic of one’s personal (and cultural) way of uploading data among many others.

The German anthropologist Arnold Gehlen described this kind of [2] organization as “second nature,” or culture. His argument goes something like this: because “first nature” has made man “deficient,” man has changed it, thus creating his “second nature,” which becomes his symbolic environment. Because man’s “deficiency” is forever preserved in the form of instincts, he needs institutions to form habits that eliminate these deficiencies. Human “impulses” require cultivation: “They must be developed in order to conform to the facts of the world.”[3] For man, there is no nature in the biological sense, but only a “cultural environment.”[4] This pragmatic anthropology suggests that the projections of symbolic systems on reality must designate a sphere of permissible correlates of experience, while experience, as a projection of the sphere of permissible behavior onto organisms, must be formed, in turn, by nonsymbolic systems. We can see a more equitable “decoding” of the symbolic environment in Gilbert Simondon, who treats the word “culture” as metaphorical when using it to examine techniques for growing grain and garden plants in [5] The natural could also be viewed as something separated from the human (including culture). According to the anthropologist Philippe Descola, the opposition of nature and culture is more a characteristic of modern social organizations, but not unconditional for all societies.

What we may call nature in our usual sense of the word may cover only a small given of the surrounding environment for the Achuar tribe. Their plants and animals have humanoid souls and personalities because they are capable of communicating with man. The “inner world” of the latter is thus imbued with various nonhuman modes. At the same time, many other examples demonstrate the instability of understandings of interaction with nature: humanity is not [6] in search of similarities to human reality. These techniques do not imply a direct impact on the plant but are aimed at a transformation of the environment, whereas culture implies the direct impact of one person on another. Culture, therefore, more closely resembles animal training, which occurs only on the seizure of the animals’ autonomy and freedom. Limited to human beings.

Anastasia Zhilina. Jack

Anastasia Zhilina. Jack

Descola identifies four ontologies based on differences of worldview in how different societies represent the inner (spirit, soul) and physical properties of other entities: animism, naturalism (typical of European civilizations), totemism, and analogism. The centering base of these ontologies remains a certain model of a man or of human societies whose ideas about the internal and physical essentially organize the world, but in this case, the differentiation remains. Descola rightly notes, however, that “one cannot study the interaction of various entities inhabiting the world by relying exclusively on the principles that govern the life of man.”[7]

French philosopher Jean-Marie Schaeffer, who analyzed the genesis of differentiation-inclined European anthropocentric attitudes from what he calls the thesis of human exceptionalism, agrees with Descola. This thesis argues that a “special, unprecedented ontological dimension is inherent to the ‘essence of man,’ by which virtue he surpasses other forms of life as well as his own ‘naturalness.’”[8] This results not only in a dualistic structuring but also in various ways of rhetorically sealing off those zones of the incoherent theory that are problematic for the thesis. Schaeffer criticizes this thesis: this “special ontological dimension” does not at all contradict the natural, but is in fact its actualization. As for culture, we can find that in other species, as well. Cultures in Schaeffer are thus part of nature but are not second-order nature. Because particular species’ specific ways of communicating cannot also be a common means of communication, they must be understood using common grounds.

It appears that Whitehead has presented the best version of this common ground. He criticized philosophy for the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” that manifested in the persistence of a Kantian hybrid of Newton and Hume, [9] have their disadvantages: they deal “only with a small portion of the evidence provided by human experience,” which contains remnants of Cartesian [10] where experience and interpretive systems are divided. Physicalsciencesalso dualism. Because of this, all the valid fundamental factors that constitute experience are excluded from epistemology, but because the body (physical organism) consists of the coordinated functioning of billions of molecules constantly being shed and acquired, the boundary between the body and the exterior nature is lost when we examine the issue of experience with microscopic precision. [11] In quantized nature, everything is in constant activity, constant recombination. Elements in the process of combining can form patterns that become parts of other patterns, and so on, at different levels of scale. Each union or separation has new potential, and the environment is therefore constantly changing.

From this, we can conclude that common ground for the human and the natural requires the unification of “interfaces”; that is, we must reject the use of specific communication systems of a certain type as the designer of an identical reality of the sphere of meanings. To put it more directly, it requires a de-signification of the symbolic environment.

The technical and the natural

The relationship between the technical and the natural could thus be summarized as follows: organisms are embodiments of the natural environment, which together with this environment (as well as with other organisms that are part of it) form operational, recombinatory transformations. Organisms of the same species form structures of similar interaction with the environment until forming a combination whose concrete realization (concretization) has a different operable potential. The first organisms were small in size, but by using their quantity and ability to actualize various environmental parameters, they were able to bring about changes to the environment. The whole multitude of permutations organized the kind of operable potential in which systems of organs penetrated by a large number of constantly updated environmental data, both ontogenetic and genetic, were capable of single-valued processing of heterogeneous data and of communicating that data to the environment through its transformations, which we will call the technical. That is, the technical is a kind of interaction between environmental elements and elements of the organism in which the intersection of the two occur. Many concretizations of this kind demonstrate the ability for interdependent recombinations. In other words, the organism is located in mutual determination with its vicinities, both natural and technical, where the latter is the result of a natural [12] reunification.

As a continuation of the process of environmental concretization to the present-day, the technical is unified, standardized, and calculated. Once again we must turn to culture, because the technical is “grasped” by sign systems. Unification consists of a set of ready-made objects, for the most part typified and limited, in circulation in the environment. There is also circulation of parts for devices that are also unified but offer greater variability when combined with other elements. Some parts can occur in different devices many times over, as is the case, for example, with the KT315 transistor. Standardization is related to the characteristics of electrical networks, lighting, and data transmission. This led to a certain orientation toward the network parameters of devices operating on electricity: in the mid-twentieth century, when television transitioned to a set of unified devices, the difference in frequency in Russia and Europe (50 Hz) and in the United States (60 Hz) led to a different number of scanlines and frames per second, which, among other things, created problems with image transmission (at the initial stages). Electronic devices are designed for the defined parameters of electrical networks; their power is therefore limited, and devices use transformers to reduce voltage to the necessary value. Standardization of lighting involves defining the types of lightbulbs and their parameters (e.g., the color-rendering index, the luminous intensity curve, light distribution types) and means of placement in different rooms. All this is presented in documents whose “emanation” forms the uniformity of environmental patterns. Calculation is associated not only with energy measurements but also with the assumed duration of their use, as marked by the presence or absence of circuits, parsing capacity, replacement of parts, and software “obsolescence.”

Anastasia Zhilina. Water and grass

Anastasia Zhilina. Water and grass

In unified and standardized “environments,” electrical devices are aligned with the power mains that connect aluminum or copper wires from the power source to the device’s contacts. For example, in one device, valence electrons are distributed along the conductive pathway of printed circuit boards, interacting with particles of elements participating in the electronic circuit, and are combined in such a way that, in their distributed organizations, they become the work of the processor, the video card, or the memory, which, among other things, also reacts to input devices and fills the display matrix with radiation whose differentiation we call a graphical user interface; in another, they travel through a terminal jumper connected to base contacts, arriving at electrodes where the tungsten is heated to emit visible light, which distributes in accordance with a room’s design features and the chemical composition of its surfaces (an incandescent lamp); in yet another, they create a magnetic flux through stator windings that may drive a rotor, if the action takes place in devices that contain engines (a washing machine, a fan, a refrigerator). The diversity of activities performed by these same participants is difficult to deny, and we may even add other possible processes unified by the rules and norms of constructing a “microenvironment,” such as those involved in climatic conditions or the distribution of light. Every building is technical and actualizes its environment in a unique way: each is permeated by the usual systems of electricity and heat, and by data-transmission systems that make the building more organic and that participate in the circulation of energy, which is technically recombined in this “microenvironment.” The supply systems, in turn, are linked by networks both above- and belowground that are connected to other nodes and that provide their services both organizationally, by producing calculations and arranging for spot checks, and via mobilization, through the energies of technically specialized organisms. Moreover, buildings are interconnected by transportation networks that, similar to the conductive pathway of printed circuit boards, organize the movement of participants among units of hardware.

Specialized industrial environments where the “reunification” of nature takes place are not so strongly associated with standardization. Here, the equipment and organisms interacting with intensive recombinant flows are subject to wear and tear because they distribute themselves into production.

Technical performance is monitored by individual specialists, a process in which fragmentation of specifications is clearly marked. Specification presumes not so much knowledge as a “technological route” and an understanding of the activity into which the operator is distributed, while the rest of the interpretive system may be occupied with some other kind of cultural data.

A lathe operator may not know how his machine is constructed, but he knows the techniques of turning, threading, and drilling. We could say that he knows the lathe through his experience. If the equipment breaks, he turns to an on-duty specialist. The latter may not know the art of operating a lathe or a specific machine’s devices, but he knows on a schematic level how interactions among the elements of the circuit occur and locates this knowledge among the elements of the devices. In some cases, he may listen to the operator’s experience relating the history of the breakage and convert that into the lathe’s experience. However, while devices are always under scrutiny via experience or “inspection,” scrutiny of organisms is related only to the execution of their activity. Medical experts periodically examine them. They imagine schematically how the organism operates and know how the interactions between medical instruments and bodily structures occur. Based on this, they can conclude whether a patient’s organism meets the parameters required of it for the performance of its activity, which may differ for different specifications. The operator may not know their organism’s “devices,” schematic or concrete, or know it only through their experience. A medical expert can refer to this data in some cases and translate it into a schematic idea of some area of the organism, but because the operator can idealize his experience to fit the parameters, the data obtained by medical instruments merit special attention. When a technical device breaks it may be easiest to replace a part, but the operator’s parameters are not met, he assimilates the details.

An understanding of the factory as an environment can also apply to social engineering, which implies contact-free, spatial management: production must be designed and structured in such a way as to promote “frictionless activity.”[13] A similar “aesthetic imperative” has been marked in relation to nonproducing office organization,[14] but these represent an inadequate approach to the environment because design interacts with bodies differently than, say, dioxin molecules do. Specialized organizations engaged in the study of environmental participants and their potential as operators when released into the organism are attempting to create an infrastructure of recombinant flows that would restrict the organism from participants whose potential as operators would disrupt physiological processes; for example, by use of respirators or gas masks. However, the organism is, for the most part, left to itself. The many tiny particles that are its operable potential recombine the environment from which they are inseparable and interact with other particles that cannot always structure in the same way in different organisms.

It is worth noting that a culturation of the technical is taking place, not in the sense that the technical is becoming cultural, but that the technical is presented in the environment as a uniform ensemble of machines, devices, and their parts subject to certain norms. Alternatively, this is supported by the various means of decoding the technical, where in most cases the nonoperational understanding prevails, and it can be complemented by the referential-intentional potential of the symbolic environment, which in the sphere of the technical is otherwise not very considerable.

There are means of communication with the technical in current use; for example, by specialists and by those who document its “emanations.” These also use sign systems, but they do not refer to a symbolic environment, which means measuring instruments, such as a multimeter or photometer to indicate interactions with the environment’s combinatorial flows in the form of numerical values. As a rule, these “interpretative systems” are not part of an average user’s basic technical equipment, but because they are designed for standardized parameters, the measurements do not differ substantially, although they can tell us many interesting things.

The technical is not, however, available solely to sensory input or the experience of other technical devices, because it has common grounds with the natural and the human that add to its availability. The technical speaks to some possible ways of “decoding” the environment while avoiding sign systems.

Industrial, maritime, aviation, aerospace, military, medical, measuring, and research equipment differ from the more typical selections in many ways. Because more is actualized in them than in more widely available equipment, they are of greater interest to the study of mediality.

The planet itself, as a whole, is a process of concretization of the environment, a process measured in revolutions around the sun and rotations on its axis. The earth, like any organism, is inseparable from the environment and is located in interactions with it. Throughout several billion revolutions, it has been concertized into its present state. We call the past few hundred revolutions the Anthropocene to isolate the human impact on the earth, usually in reference to the interaction of the technical with the environment. In that regard, environmental thought suggests that there exist natural-technical combinations in which their potential is not realized qualitatively, although the possibility of higher quality realizations does exist.

The human and the technical

I should now return to the concept of “second nature” as previously applied to culture. Friedrich Rapp, the philosopher of technology, substituted technology in the place of culture in this formula: “Because of his biological nature, man is dependent on a certain kind of technology to create a ‘second nature’ as the basis and substratum for his physical actions.”[15] The difference in “second nature” in this understanding is small, because there is no common ground here, either. Nevertheless, if we experimented by combining these two understandings into one as if they were the same, then we would get “second nature” as “culture technology.” Since technology could not be used here as a means, but has a broader meaning as culture, it would not provide the usual infrastructures of information distribution aimed at creating a world of acceptable experience. Instead, it would have a direct impact. Mass media could be engaged merely in delivering visible radiation, while culture technology would involve a larger target range of particle combinations, which would also suggest built-in interpretation. If the symbolic environment is projected onto reality, then here reality itself must begin to approach the symbolic. The latter would be dispersed in the environment in the form of a metamaterial dust that would act as a kind of environmental “filter” for the symbolic. However, to be a carrier of culture, one needs to know its sign systems or to have some kind of implant to help the organism decode environmental data in accordance with its specifications. This implant would not be localized but dispersed throughout the organism. Metamaterials would act as a link between the implant and radiation. The implant would modulate the eye in such a way that it receives precisely the radiation from metamaterials that match its specifications. Visible radiation would represent the available visibility, while invisible radiation would contain decoding data in regard to its specifications. For example, a lathe operator would not even have to undergo training, because the moment he sees the lathe and an unfinished part, he would immediately understand what needs to be done. However, an environment in which these kinds of technologies were implemented could not be the same as our own, where these kinds of gimmicks would hardly do. Moreover, even in a version of the technical this invasive, there is a gap in which characterization of the technical tends to describe it as a means. This is inconsistent with the avowed absence of that parameter in it.

Media theory has a similar concept of “cultural techniques,” but this refers only to means of communication that broadcast cultural information. Culture and technology are not equated here, however, as in the antiutopian example presented earlier: “cultural techniques have to be understood as heterogeneous arrangements in which technological, aesthetic, symbolic, and political concepts of one or more cultures of writing, image, number, line, and body interact.”[16]

There is also a mixing of the technical and the human in the philosophy of technology and in science and technology studies. For example, philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg has a concept of “technical code,” which is the “realization of an interest or ideology in a technically coherent solution to a problem.”[17] An example might be the need for driver safety translated into seatbelts and airbags. Wanda Orlikowski, who studies organizational theory, discusses the duality of technologies, which, on the one hand, have an objective nature, and on the other hand, are [18] a socially constructed product of history. However, one can be hardly equated with the other. The seatbelt does not communicate a safety requirement to the driver, only physical pressure.

What can be attributed to social construction is already located beyond the technical. Symbolic projections can be projected onto it. These projections, in the first place, are concentrated on widespread devices that are, in turn, differentiated symbolically and assumed to be cohesive objects. To appear in a wide market and be sold, technology must clearly express its purpose. A model can be tailored to sales and characteristics identified by marketing strategies. Means of advertising are also changing. If, during Claude Hopkins’s time, the text of an advertisement might describe a consumer good’s production methodology, because this was considered important for consumer choice-making, advertising today attempts to generate emotional stimuli. A device’s instruction manual may not contain its schematics or structural description, which is considered proprietary information. The same applies to methods of combinatorial distribution of “informative” particles among a device’s components (software).

Nevertheless, social construction has no impact on how a device operates and how these combinatorial givens interact, nor can it change the ways atomic particles connect, nor the Earth’s magnetic field. The study of social constructionism is, therefore, more often involved in the discussion of “implants.” Imagine two global technologies, A and B: one is decisive for the most immediate development of technology while the other is the recipient of an advantage in the form of greater resources allocated, resources that are valid in the symbolic environment, and allocated for the maintenance or establishment of some social order despite the fact that the other technology was more efficient, economical, and “humane.” In that case we would be dealing with facts related to social construction, even though they have no impact on the operating principles of either technology, A or B. Studies have described what social, political, historical, and aesthetic factors have influenced the development of certain technologies and the ways social construction takes place, but they do not describe what technical capabilities have existed or can exist, how they relate to the technologies that have been realized, and what these already realized technologies “communicate” other than the cultural and the social. These studies, therefore, offer a specifically human means of understanding technology (through symbolic systems) rather than a technical means in itself.

Anastasia Zhilina. Multiple-decker train

Anastasia Zhilina. Multiple-decker train

There is no opposition between technics (la technique) and culture, Simondon argues. Both assume an impact, but via different methods. Culture impacts technics directly through the environment. Culture can be understood in two ways: as man’s cultivation of man, which can occur only in a human microclimate, and as a distributive system in which we realize the benefits of transforming the environment through technics — “the environment is an instrument for propagating transformations, and all human groups are more or less affected by the transformation of their environment.”[19] Even though technics can be used as a means by a particular group of interested people, any technic that has changed the environment elicits a reaction from living species. Simondon examines the technical and the human on a common ground because he sees the fulfillment of evolutionary processes in the technical transformation of the environment, while culture usually tries to maintain stability and, as “an instrument of conservation,”[20] to halt evolution.

“The process of evolution” is not a metaphor here in the sense of discursive changes, but it involves changes of a deeper nature. A technical device can also be understood as an organism. In Simondon’s theory, a technical device’s concretization is always related to the achievement of its unity through the internal resonance of its constituent elements, just as it is achieved in an organism. The latter, in turn, is all the more perfect the more it is filled with solutions regarding the placement of elements, their reactions, and their interrelations, where an element is “manipulable, assimilable… and not the final element of the organism.”[21]

The development of technology as the concretization of the environment in its organization of elements means an actualization of more and more differentiated particles and their combinations to produce new functional combinations. For example, the tools related to the history of electromagnetic research did not actualize quantum effects, while transistor technology did. As for actualization of the organism’s smallest components, this is also not without differentiation potential. There are similarities between technological development and research on the organism. Both may contain common elements and use the same types of energies. The technical actualizes technical similarities in the human organism and creates new, operable responses in it.

Articulating the location of operable responses in history or in the present is part of media theory. The next section will discuss some of its approaches with respect to the re-differentiation discussed previously. As I tried to show in this section, the dichotomy of the technical and the human is already built into some theories, so the authors may have only the human in mind while discussing the technical.

Constructing a discourse of the medial

Now I will examine the problem of constructing a discourse of the medial with respect to the common grounds identified in the previous sections. According to these, there are no essential differences among the human, the technical, and the natural because they are combinations of the tiniest givens, which may reveal some operative potential or another in their combinations. Several approaches to constructing theory will help us clarify what the problem may be. For convenience’s sake, I will consider texts related to the study of sound in media theory, texts that are quite different in their methodologies.

German media theorist Bernhard Siegert examines the influence of bells on cultural context, mathematical and physical acoustics, musicology, and Western music, but he does this in interesting ways. He notes that historians of science rarely examine scientific instruments using methodologies from media studies, and the latter, in turn, do not accept boundaries between the natural and the humanities. He thus proposes looking not at analyses of signals instead of interpretive signs, but at interpretations of signs as or through the analysis of signals: “bells represent and signal a state of emergency in the symbolic order because they are this state of emergency in the acoustic realm.”[22] A thematically related article by Christoph Cox also defends nature from cultural projections, but via examination of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and sound art.[23]

Mediatheory arguments that use the operation of technical devices as a principle have more advantages, because they rely not on interpretation but on readily available facts. Of course, we might also consider Siegert’s mathematical and acoustic descriptions as interpretations, but they are correlated with the operable potential of devices in certain environments.

He notes that when it became possible to break apart sound into harmonics (via Fourier’s transformations and electronic equipment) it turned out that the fundamental frequency heard as a tone when a bell is ringing is not found on its sound spectrum. At the same time, Fourier’s analysis suggests that the human ear is also capable of breaking down sound into harmonics but does not use this ability when perceiving sound. Siegert applies Lacanian terms for his conclusion: the order of harmonic proportions that describe pitch is symbolic; the effect of the symbolic, or of the missing fundamental frequency, is imaginary; what is real is the bell itself, which can only be recorded technically.

Siegert’s article, or more precisely his parable, demonstrates that some elements of models of vision, patterns of thought, and forms of perception can exist for many generations of “carriers.” Certain ideas, representations, or concepts could be somewhat relevant at one time, when they are the only available means of compression and could have some operable potential, but during the course of recombinant processes, the very principle of compression into a sign system might change, and the remnants of past epistemes would therefore introduce dissonance into the carrier’s operable abilities. Symbolic systems do not mark this dissonance, because they are adjusted in such a way that they balance out all the inconsistencies.

The technical is more objective. A tape recorder allows us to hear new sounds, which is how composer Polina Oliveros derived her notion of “deep listening” (in recordings from an open window).[24] The recording provides knowledge about sensations of the environment with its multitude of participants recombining from different vicinities by microphone membrane. These participants, as membrane’s sensations, are preserved on magnetic tape by electron charges. The dynamics of the tape recorder’s membrane can in fact share its sensations/experiences of the environment. Man has the ability to understand the device not only as one that records and reproduces sound, but also in the very way that it exists. This ability can occur from the smallest common ground, where both man and tape recorder are combinations of particles and necessarily contain the same particles, even if patterned in different ways.

Technology, nature (in the narrow sense), and man are united by the fact that they have to rotate around the sun together. They are located among other planets whose radiation they themselves or with the aid of technology have been striving to capture for more than two thousand revolutions. Matters have improved during the past few hundred revolutions, as more and more technical correspondents are reporting on remote combinatorial vicinities. Some things constantly remind us of the enormous (for their system of reference) speeds of rotation in the solar system: the constant changes in the amount of light and heat, the movement of clouds, precipitation, airflow, and gravity. The ease of the operability of air in comparison with that of the structures it fills, its ability to allow radiation to pass through, to shrink, to thin — these are the simple givens that allow for the existence of music, whose essence is the actualization of elastic (mechanical) vibrations. An open window allows air and “noise” to pass through, the latter being the various modulations of the pressure of that air.

The environment’s recombinant elasticity can “ring out” from bells or interact with a membrane, be concretized as a tempered clavier, hold up solid objects (acoustic levitation), determine the focus parameters in camera lenses, actualize in solid matter because of photon decay (spectrometer “observation”), clean metal surfaces, be used to detect seismic waves or defects on various structures, and so on. When examining sound, there should be considered all the relevant interactions associated with elastic waves, because every fugue performed on a keyboard is merely one possible combination of elasticity in a certain vicinity.

Sound should not be reduced to a limited set of frequencies and considered only in its connection to the auditory system, because this causes an artificial fragmentation of experience that reduces any common ground with the environment. Experience is fragmented when we correlate sound and hearing, even though elastic waves are available to experience in different forms, as in the deformation of an object of some sort, or when traveling by vehicle with a suspension system (which can be of different types), or in observations of equilibrium systems, or in the movement of bones in the operation of the vestibular apparatus. Concretizations of the elasticity of the environment in the technical, as I discussed previously, are no exceptions to this list. Because they are of a size less available to experience than the leaf spring suspension system of a bus, they may be wrongly estimated as unavailable to experience. However, because man is a combination of particles that are not discontinuous from the environment and that are “dispersed” element by element across various regions of the environment before they consolidate into a person and various other combinatory transformations during the course of life, any differential representation presumes variability of scale. Technology such as Wilson’s cloud chamber, microscopes, spectrometers, ultrasonography, magnetic resonance topography, acoustic cytofluorometers, laser dissectors, and optical tweezers can all serve to remind us of this.

Media and sound theorist Eleni Ikoniadou has combined research on the interactions of sound and the organism with elements from the theory of perception, the discourse about the nonhuman, and examples from media art. She recounts that Japanese researchers working with Tsutomu Ōhashi discovered through experience a “hypersonic effect”: inaudible sound frequencies that interact with the organism (according to analysis of EEG data) even though the test subjects perceive nothing. This is a good fact for demonstrating the elasticity of the environment and the recombinant interactions among a multitude of particles (and quasiparticles); or, as Siegert would have it, for concluding that perception belongs to the imaginary.

However, Ikoniadou adds a touch of Cartesianism when she notes that the hypersonic effect “enables the detachment of a body from a specific mode of experience and the emersion of a nonsensory, nonconscious, machinic subjectivity.”[25] She also discusses the fluctuation of cells that, once detected by atomic force microscope, initiated the study of sonocytology, although later theorization used media art. In general, even when we identify an organism’s activity in relation to the “unperceivable,” in Ikoniadou’s work there are limitations that can reveal something similar to the specifications of media theory. The authors I have reviewed, Siegert, Cox, and Ikoniadou, have roughly the same idea: modern technology shows us that sound is different from how it is represented in culture. They express this in different ways: Siegert speaks of physical-acoustic processes, Cox draws attention to sound art, Ikoniadou uses examples of research on the organism. All the same, they remain largely within the framework of the usual understanding of sound without expanding its field. In the case of research on the organism, this could expand to mechanotransduction (the ability of cells to convert mechanical signals into biochemical and electrical signals), biomechanics, nanobiomechanics, and biophysics. That is, we can use them to find something to expand our understanding of the elastic environment.

Elasticity is merely one parameter of the environment, but this example has shown how, instead of one or several devices and their impact on the formation of operable reactions of some sort, we can examine something that we can recognize not as media, but as something present in the environment, something medial. This includes a multitude of interacting parties that are not always easy to examine in a localized form. Because the technical is now unified, standardized, and calculated, it can very well be appraised within complexes of interactions. As I have already noted, not everything technical is widespread, although it may also be characterized by higher-quality recombinant effects, and so specialized technology can play an important role. Because its recombinant flows also extend into typically structured vicinities, they can be found even without specialized focus.


Common ground suggest a representation of the spheres of the technical, the natural, and the human in which they are the smallest given, with the environment as “continuous.”

I have shown some difficulties with symbolic systems that are not differentiated on common ground, because they represent a specifically human way of communicating. The given method of communicating is based on the possibility of compressing the actual environment, which is used for mobile communication among participants connected by identical sign systems, as well as the “presence in absence” of many heterogeneous elements for their operative recombination. Symbolic systems are the kind of selective recombinations of signs that are based not on the ability to compress the actual environment, but on the ability to establish a certain set of signs as the actual environment. To bring symbolic systems to the common ground, we had to consider them in the context of the specifically human and the relatively natural and technical. We found that they use a means of combining signs that are not generally relevant or a “gap” in the use of sign systems that allows for projecting them onto the environment by correlating them with patterns of thought, ways of seeing, or forms of perception. Symbolic systems themselves, taken on common ground, can be only what they are for the environment. The main form that comprises symbolic systems is a culture that can stand opposite both nature and technology.

However, the exclusion of symbolic systems is not a reduction, but an extension of the field of possibilities. Man, similar to any other organism, is not separated from the environment, but joins it in recombinant interactions with his whole body. What might be called sensations demonstrate the general capability of a given connection with the environment. Because both the organism and the environment are combinations of the infinitesimals, their mutual re-combinatorics have a large amount of operator potential. This is a general trend for the formation of the Earth as a whole (as a whole of a limited scale) and the formation of its inorganic and organic world in particular. Mutual re-combinatorics of the organism and environment contributed to the emergence of the technical, which we can understand as recombinant nature. When this kind of recombination is carried out, nature changes, and this means that its operator potential changes as well. Before actualizing in the technical and functionally compressing a large amount of heterogenous data into the sign, the organism “processes” these by itself, or by combinations of the tiniest givens, highlighting some specific operator potential for the environment that has similar parameters in different vicinities.

The specifics of organisms represent a kind of symbolic system in which “gaps” are left in the nonsymbolic environment for narrow specializations. The environment in the symbolic system is detached and unrelated to the latter. Symbolic systems are thus phenomenologically attempted to lower the organism’s communicative potential in relation to the environment, but it still remains available, because this does not impact the environment’s recombinant flow. However, this means of access must not have a “technological route” along individual sense organs or programs of perception; it presupposes the free recombination of large volumes of heterogeneous, given combinations of the tiniest givens relevant to the organism.

The medial, therefore, refers to all the environment’s operator potentials, which may have similar parameters in different vicinities. The problem of constructing a discourse of the medial lies in the difficulty of identifying recombinant flows, which may happen when we bind the flow to some specific device or bind it with only a few relevant functionals of the organism. This could be solved by expanding the field of devices and the relevant potential; that is, by directing our attention to similar recombinant flows in the environment.

Anastasia Zhilina is a graduate student at the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences. Master of the Visual Culture «Higher School of Economics» (Moscow). The research’s interests: philosophy of nature, philosophy of technology, anthropology, media. Glitch artist and video maker.


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25. E. Ikoniadou, The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media, and the Sonic (London: The MIT Press, 2014), p. 48.

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