Objects of Media Studies
Design by Raegan Kelly
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes, “We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales”(88). Of course Barthes himself works to break such a “silence,” giving voice to the histories, social relations, metonymic and metaphorical functions of things. One aim of “Objects of Media Studies” is also to articulate — to make audible, visible and palpable — this silence, through the specific project of looking at material things in tension with, contrast to, and accompaniment for mobile media forms. The object — a thing, at first glance, that might seem motionless — allows us to halt the fleeting time, the ephemeral nature, of the moving image and other transitory media in order to dwell on histories, theories, and disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, dwelling on objects and their complex relations to ephemerality enacts what is in part constitutive of media studies — the very halting of the ephemerality of media forms.
This project originated out of a research group convened at the University of California Humanities Research Institute which gathered together nine scholars to study the place of material objects in media studies and, through an emphasis on material things, to consider how we might extend the boundaries — or “objectives” — of this discipline. As the convener I asked each participant to “bring” a particular material object to the seminar that represented their interest in the field and their research for the course of our twelve-week gathering. Reading across fields and focusing on particular objects of interest to each of us, we therefore sought to observe, locate, and design the growing practices of media and material studies that an otherwise seemingly disparate body of work has built (in cultural studies, anthropology, communications, media histories, visual culture studies, and so on). Our research was based on the notion that an emphasis on objects and material forms in relation to representational and time-based media might enable a delineation of the social and economic circuits of exchange in which we — and visual culture, in its various forms — participate. Through an examination of the uses of these objects and the practices into which we put them, we attempted to define those epistemological economies that structure these circuits of exchange. That is, we hoped to consider how these objects and our practices in relation to them might suggest how we know media forms, time-based texts, and their histories.
“Objects of Media Studies”therefore displays how participant-contributors approached the discipline through a particular object: a powder compact (Mary Desjardins), the Ms. Pacman video cabinet (Raiford Guins), the movie ticket stub (Amelie Hastie), video cassette cases (Laura Hyun Yi Kang), the media screen (Kate Mondloch), the condom (Nguyen Tan Hoang), antennae trees (Lisa Parks), and the flip flop (Anna Scott). Each writer combines histories, reveries, images to tell the story of the thing they chose. This story is a kind of biography — giving life to something material yet inanimate — and it is more particularly an object-ography, particularly as each narrative combines written, visual and tactile forms: an object moves from the material to the graphic to the visual and back again. Each story in turn displays multiple processes of exchange, not only between time-based media and material objects but also between those subjects who put objects to use. These narratives are therefore also descriptive of social relations between subjects with one another and with the things that define us. Some objects about which we write are ones we “prefer not to see,” as Lisa Parks muses, perceptible only in the moment they break down (as Guins, Mondloch, Ngyuen and Parks all note). Objects can disappear, be concealed, become something else. They might stand in for another thing as well — a body, a subject, an infrastructure, a history. In the case of every piece about an object, the contributor hopes to make something perceptible. Woven together, the narratives tell also the story of media studies, sketching the objectives of the discipline and expanding the boundaries of what the discipline defines or even conceals.
Originally conceived as an on-site exhibit — for which contributors would write “catalogue essays” for their respective objects — the opportunity to bring the show to virtual space allowed me, as curator and convener, alongside the contributor-participants, to stretch tensions between ephemeral and material forms that much further. On the one hand, we are able here to de-materialize our objects in order to reconstitute them theoretically and conceptually. But rather than lose their sense of materiality — their thing-ness — we are able to perceive of their matter and meaning from manifold angles, most particularly in relation to one another. My work as curator was to reveal these relations, borne out of our conversations in our seminar. Ultimately, the “objects” I “curated” for this exhibition are not just material things set in a space alongside one another; the “objects” in this collection are also the discursive and visual texts designed by the contributors. This analysis accompanying the material things therefore seeks to offer a sense of “permanence” to what might be perceived as the “impermanence” of the online world and of mobile media forms overall.
To set these ideas, texts, and things in relation to one another, I imagined my work in other material, visual forms: akin to piecing a quilt or to wandering through a swap meet at a defunct drive-in (the latter of which was one of the group’s original models for this site). Experiences of piecing and wandering enable a particular reading, structured by dialectical exchange and the invocation of conversation. The space of this project is therefore also the space of a collection: a kind of “chaos,” according to Walter Benjamin, a non-linearity according to Jean Baudrillard and Susan Stewart. Its space, furthermore — like the space of a collection, which allows for multiple sensorial engagement — is also modeled after what Laura Marks calls “haptic cinema,” itself constitutive of an “embodied intelligence.” As Marks writes, “In the dynamic movement between optical and haptic ways of seeing, it is possible to compare different ways of knowing and interacting with one another.” For Vivian Sobchack, this is the activity of the “cinesthetic subject,” whose knowledge comes from the conjunction between what one sees on screen and how the body responds to the sights. The digital format is partially responsible for this way of knowing — or at least it enacts what Marks sees on a video screen or what Sobchack sees through film — as it requires movement with our fingers and hands in order to see and read. In this way the reception of this project returns to its process of production: haptic, tactile, visual, conversational.
While the project largely originated through the engagement of eight scholars in a seminar, its enactment came through the collaboration between designer and curator. The collaboration between Raegan and me was therefore the best possible form of exchange — so fluid that I cannot discern conceptual boundaries between our contributions yet so palpable that it was almost like wandering between or piecing together one another’s thoughts. In this way, I see the collaboration between us to enact the very ideals of this project — a realization that I hope will also be possible for our readers.