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Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture

Author: Matthew Fuller
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: June 2006

 REVIEW 1: Virgil Moberg

Matthew Fuller sets out to explain what happens when media systems interact. A biology metaphor such as media ecology seems suitably complex to capture the subtleties and complexities of these interactions. However, in Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture, the author uproots this increasingly popular term and transplants it in continental soil where it seems out of context with the existing literature on the subject. Fuller's contribution resides not so much in his reworking of the term as it was originally defined in the literature, but more so in his grafting of a politically challenging aesthetic to it. He adds an important forum for discussion to the already rich mixture of perspectives on media ecology.

A Reader in Media Design at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, Fuller adopts a transdisciplinary framework through which to elaborate and extend his earlier writings about software artists and socially engaged media designers. Drawing heavily on the theory and concepts of memes, genetic phylum, and surveillance, the author constructs a multifaceted lens through which to examine media ecologies. The author's specific purpose is to conceptualize innovation, and the author's basic premises are as follows: a) self-organizing processes in nature, or what philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) called "machinic phylum," spontaneously self-assemble machines when matter and energy are allowed to flow in a nonlinear fashion; and b), the concept of machine phylum provides a way of thinking through how elements of complex media systems attract each other to produce something more than the sum of their parts.

The machinic phylum seems reasonably well suited to his purpose of theorizing media ecology. Fuller claims to have constructed a framework through which to show the reader how each media system interaction or layer "undergoes treatment and filtering by specialization of interests" (6). His approach to analyzing media, which looks at the interplay of media and use of elements in a "dynamic multiplicity," would have investigators focus on "dynamic systems" in which a part is "always multiply connected" and then seek to discern the patterns of action within layer upon layer of technology, government regulations, software designs, ratings systems, and so on. He prefers his approach to cultural studies, which he describes as reducing a media environment to its component parts and then applying a "shared predisposition to an uncomplicated but rather more spiritually troubled technological determinism" that he associates with Neil Postman (3).

How was media ecology defined before now? According to the Media Ecology Association, the study of media ecology first arrived on the North American scene from the New York and Toronto schools. Media ecology is a concept that refers to the study of complex media systems as environments and not merely as machines. Modes and codes of communication play a more or less technologically deterministic role in society. Traditionally, media ecologists have defined a "medium" as a form that constructs ways of knowing, seeing, and doing; every time a medium or form is used it functions as a model for shaping the world. In spite of its lack of connection to this tradition, the book's thesis and purpose is to be defended whether it ultimately enhances our understanding of media ecologies or not. The implication is that except for the legacy of Marshall McCluhan, we are generally lacking in interesting and insightful discourses for understanding media ecologies. The author begins with the assumption that we are living is a post-structuralist, theme-parked world, and then he proceeds to call for alternatives approaches that are better suited for such a world.

Now I attempt to tease out some of the author's most worthwhile observations and findings. In Chapter 1, "The R, the A, the D, the I, the O: The Media Ecology of Pirate Radio," Fuller states that pirate radio is not a whole system but an aggregate of illegal, unlicensed broadcast signals that are created by spectrum poachers on regulated bandwidths, where the airwaves carrying voices of dissent in society collide with agendas, media, laws, and marketing. Voices that walk the margins in pirate radio are expressing a will to power through technology. In Chapter 2, "The Camera That Ate Itself," Fuller portrays authors and artists who create photographs and conceptual art to question the prevailing social and economic constructs as visionaries. In Chapter 3, "How This Becomes That," the author writes about how nomads of the city streets encounter standard objects such as telephone wire systems and streetlights, and how they look for novel ways of arranging these standard objects to create alternative social operating systems. But before they can handle, operate on, and form these materials, they must first question "abstractive power of misplaced concreteness" (97) in standard objects. In Chapter 4, "Seams, Memes, and Flecks of Identity," Fuller considers how individual media makers who exploit options for autonomous media expression via community television and other telecommunications vehicles such as the Web can work with memes and create disruptions in a struggle against media industries. The social construction of personal identity is made possible through -- and is embedded in -- the materials of new media, digitalization, and the Internet. The dissident and the non-conformist want more from the government regulators and media gatekeepers than a stable media system, but the demands of the marginalized, anti-consumerist messenger are continually attenuated and rendered ineffective by the owners of media who are not interested in sharing market space.

The ways in which Fuller combines ethics and aesthetics offers the analyst some novel ways to understand media ecology as moral acts, and their decor and processes of collage making as world–stretching aesthetic acts. The question I have for the author is how do subjects portray their own perceptions of salient people, issues and pursuits? And, how do they portray their own perceptions of salient people, issues and pursuits? These questions seem to be the kinds that require an ethnographic methodology to answer with any helpful degree of specificity and concreteness. Fuller makes much of the transmission of memes by renegades through various media boundaries. In spite of this, he offers the reader few actual ethnographic insights into the process of meme transmission, which could prove to be a productive area for research in the future. And yet there may be some valuable ore in this vein worth mining.

The media he analyzes are clearly technologies of the self, a means of altering an individual's identities through use of memes. Fuller relies on Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (1989), for his definition of a meme as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation" (11). He colorfully describes memes as "flecks of identity" recorded "within databases as the primary compositional elements of surveillance systems" (148). Another key term is layer. Fuller defines layers in aesthetic terms as "a device wherein many technologies are combined." He continues, "Media are experimented upon, not simply in terms of their affordances as standards, but also in terms of what may be mobilized or released when they come into odd conjunction with another scale, dimension or relationality, or drive" (171-172).

And perhaps resistance could be more clearly formulated in terms of strategies and tactics of sabotage or "making do." Fuller only briefly references Michel de Certeau's major work, even though The Practice of Everyday Life (1988) resonates with his thesis in much the same way that the work of Michel Foucault does. In fact, the strength of Fuller's conceptual framework lies with its heavy reliance on the work of Foucault. For example, the author is correct when he concludes that the layers of technology that a media artist utilizes can represent the positive aspects of experimentation and differentiation of a subject that is autonomous and empowered, but it can also represent the ideologies of institutions, which in turn can compromise the individual's power and autonomy.

By shifting the focus on media ecology in the direction of media systems as layer upon layer of machines, laws, drives, politics, economics, and protocols, and by conceptualizing innovation that occurs between these layers as sites of struggle over which control of meanings is continually being waged, Fuller gives us a useful way to investigate media systems and the innovations that socially conscious artists and technicians are producing when they use media technologies in ways that may not be approved by the media elites who own the means of production. He does so by studying the subjects who labor in the shadow of multinational corporate media industries, and he does well by them politically by theorizing how their cultures allow them to make do as artists when their subjectivity moves fluidly between layers of overlapping an intersecting digital media technologies. Even though he explores some interesting topics such as pirate radio, dance marathons, or geek culture, this book doesn't go far enough in the direction of providing a "measure or motive" (173) for the potentialities and autonomies of resistance.

To close, Fuller reflects on media ecology in a constructive, theory-building way. He examines the impact of digital technologies on artistic innovation and on the politics of electronic labor. He traces the confluence of new media and traditional technologies, and how its whirlpools and eddies produce an abundance of subjectivities and texts of every potentiality and possibility. What the author fails to do is provide an extended example of his approach to analyzing meme transmission in media ecologies and how art produced by renegades working in media can be subversive. In future endeavors, researchers who are setting out to refine his approach might find a way to integrate Herbert Marcuse's theory of aesthetics (Hartwick, 1978), which is "that the social determinants pertain to the style of the work but not to its substance or quality." Marcuse, along with de Certeau’s (1988) concept of "making do," would seem to be one of the more relevant solutions to problems of innovation in art and technoculture.

Dawkins, R. 1989. The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

de Certeau, M. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steve Rendall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hartwick, L. 1978. "On the Aesthetic Dimension: A Conversation with Herbert Marcuse." Herbert Marcuse Official Homepage. Retrieved April 7, 2006.

Virgil Moberg:
Virgil "Pete" Moberg earned his doctorate in Rhetorical and Cultural Studies from the University of South Florida in Tampa. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is currently an assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communications in the Humanities Division at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida.  <vmoberg@yahoo.com>

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