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Week Three—The Creation of Worlds

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The Creation of Worlds

LECTURE

Fields, Worlds and Media and Communications

(Lecture recordings supplied elsewhere—full text or notes for the lectures is below on this page)

Media and communications are often approached very narrowly. They are often thought—and worked with—only as ways of communicating clear messages between isolated individuals or objects. However, many thinkers think this misses most of the picture. In this lecture we will think about media and communications in terms of the way they work in fields, or as fields themselves. The ambient environment has always been important to media and communications. However, it becomes more important as media and communications diversify and occupy more and more niches in the world around us. Thus, for example, some write of “ambient intelligence” in which the environment is filled with networked sensors and activators that respond to all kinds of environmental changes.

You need to listen to all 7 recordings (4 about von Uexküll and 3 about Bateson). They are in mp3 format (the levels are a tiny bit high but I think it’s ok).

The recordings are all quite short (7-12 minutes) although not quite a short as I hoped. The Bateson material is perhaps a touch more complex than the von Uexküll. There is about an hour of recorded material overall (I’m thinking that some weeks might be around this or even more).

Or, if you prefer, you can read the texts below on von Uexküll. There are only notes on Bateson so you really should listen to the recordings on him. Or you can both listen and read if you really want to.

The ideas involved are many and complex this week. So you will need to spend some time with them. Nobody is expecting you to get all of it, or even most of it, right away. Rather, take up what you can, even what you perhaps only half get, and run with it. Try to suspend any need to get it all right away as there are a lot of ideas in this course, especially early on. It takes a while—I often say perhaps six weeks—for at least some of these ideas to settle in to your own world (or for you to develop interesting critiques of them). The main point is to get us all thinking about media and communication from some new perspectives.

Full Text Version of Uexküll Recordings

Jakob von Uexküll and “umwelts” (or umwelten) [the basics]

Von Uexküll was a biologist and ‘A stroll through the worlds of animals and men’ was published in 1934. Since then von Uexküll’s work has been influential far beyond biology. It’s influenced a range of key media and cultural areas, from information theory to biosemiotics and cybernetics. Simply put, it allows us to understand how communications and the world are mutually influencing—indeed mutually forming. It thus provides a way for us to understand how media and communication literally change worlds.

If we can understand this world changing we can use von Uexküll’s ideas to rethink what media/social change are at a very fundamental level. His ideas might also explain some of the problems that emerge when we use media and communications to escape the worlds that we are used to—whether we are used to particular worlds because we have particular bodies that require particular forms of perception and action, or whether this might involve cultural or individual factors that have habituated us to certain ways of living. In sum, when we use media and communications to extend or change the nature of our perception and action, we change our worlds in very basic ways.

The central idea is this: each animal species lives in its own, unique little “soap bubble” as von Uexküll calls it casually. More formally, he calls this soap bubble an umwelt—which means something like surrounding world. This world is made up of the special “marks” and signs that a species is attuned to (and this implies that there’s an awful lot of the wider world that is simply not there for any species—thus the example von Uexküll gives of a fly that simple cannot see a spider’s web). There are two kinds of marks/signs for von Uexküll. Some of these marks or signs are what each species perceives in their world. Others are marks or signs that have the potential to provoke animals to act. There are obvious (quite literal) links between these two—perception and action. These links are what von Uexküll calls “functional cycles” (p324). These functional cycles cycle in two different kinds of ways at once. First, there is a cycle between perception and action (between what he calls “receptors” and “effectors”). Second, however, note that there is a different kind of cycle, between inside and outside (between the animal body and the surrounding environment, or at least those aspects of the environment that form the “umwelt” for that animal).

This is what, for von Uexküll, literally makes for subjectivity—our sense of being an active being in the world (of perceiving and acting and of the relays or loops between these). And he is very radical for his time in insisting that all animals—not just the human, and not just more complex animals—have a kind of unique subjectivity (even a tick). What makes a species subjectivity can be understood in terms of their umwelt. Some have simple subjectivity. His analysis of the simplicity of the eyeless tick’s world is famous now. Some have more complex subjectivity because their unwelts have a lot more receptors and effectors and functional cycles between them. Here Von Uexküll notes that “all animals, from the simplest to the most complex, are fitted into their unique worlds with equal completeness” (324).

Von Uexküll is also radical of course for suggesting that there is therefore a continuity between animals and humans, not a clear separation (thus he is now important in animal studies and environmental humanities). For many thinkers up to this time (and after) animals were often seen as just a kind of mechanical instrument, acting automatically (as opposed to “thinking” humans). Von Uexküll thinks otherwise, although his position on the human/animal relation/difference gets quite complex (the introduction and afterword to the University of Minnesota Press edition are good on this).

That this all involves marks or signs suggests that we can think biology and communication, “nature” and technology together. Signs and communication are as much a part of the natural world as the technical world. Indeed we can see the technical world as just one way of working with the complexities of the relations between the natural and biological world. There is no clear division between them (a tick has its techniques for example and uses a kind of “technology” in the blades of grass or bushes from which it drops onto other animals).

In the next recording I’ll develop some of the more radical implications of von Uexküll’s work.

Von Uexküll—some radical implications

There are quite a few radical implications. As I’ve suggested before, von Uexküll suggests that neither signs nor communication nor even subjectivity are found only in human (or animal) heads. They are found in the relations between heads, bodies and unwelts. In a simple sense, they are found in the world at large (we will see this echoed in a few weeks time when we consider theories of extended, embodied and enactive mind in relation to media and communications). So when we work with signs, as we do all the time and more fundamentally than we might have realised before, according to Uexküll at least, we do not just work “in our heads”. Rather whenever we are using signs (and communicating), “we” are in a sense both in our heads, our bodies, and our environment in the same time. “We” exist across all three. You can see why using media and communications to change all this has radical effects.

Von Uexküll’s work also suggests that communication is much more than a question of the transmission of a message from one head to another (which is how most of us are used to thinking about communication). It’s a matter of entire fields of perception and action, internal and external, coming into contact with each other. Perhaps sometimes altering each other.

Each species’ umwelt is different to other species. So although different species (you and your dog—and Uexküll’s famous tick—for example) might inhabit and share the same general environment, they do not (you, your dog and the tick) live in the same umwelts or worlds. Obviously, there are still points of contact (we call these points of interaction or even communication) between these worlds, but this is contact between very different worlds. In fact, in other work, Uexküll suggests that individuals (different people for example) might live in their own worlds. This might also imply that different cultures have different umwelts. Or, from a different point of view, that changing what the environment affords us in terms of both perception and action—for example in media and communications of all kinds, from language to networked technologies to interactive interfaces—literally changes our worlds. However, we can see the problem also, that changing umwelts to some extent brings in significant clashes in terms of the way we perceive and engage with world.  In other words, each animal lives in it’s own umwelt, which is made up of the way it’s body is structured to mesh with only certain aspects of the wider environment.

Finally, in the reading for this week. Uexküll spends some time discussing time and space. He suggests that just as a tick has a very different umwelt to a human (or any other animal) they all quite literally live in different times. Some of a tick’s “moments” might last for years, for example, while humans tend to have much shorter moments. In terms of our subjectivity, this leads to a very different experience of time—in fact to a very different time in itself (at least as Uexküll sees it). A similar thing applies when it comes to space. Uexküll spends some time doing three things here. First, he demonstrates how differently different animals see (from the tick that has no eyes but can feel sunlight to humans’ more complex vision) and what the consquences are (throughout one of his aims is to allow us to get a better feeling for subjectivities different to our own). There is an obvious usefulness here when we think of how media change what we can see and how we can see it (simply in networked cameras and screens for example, or augmented or virtual reality, which we will discuss later in the course). Second, he discusses what he calls different aspects to space in which vision interacts (operational space—our sense of space as we move through it; tactile space—our sense of space through touch, which varies depending on where on our bodies we are touched, and of course on what kind of animal we are etc; vision space). There are obvious parallels to the way that interaction (operational and often these days tactile engagement through media) work with vision to change our experience somewhat dramatically (for example in gaming). Thirdly he discusses the “farthest plane”, the point in our visual field at which things are just big or small—we lose a sense of whether they are near or far. This is one way of marking out the edge of our “soap bubble”. Again if you think of tele-media (from telescopes and microscopes to Skype) you can understand the significant of media’s changing of our “soap bubbles” and umwelts, from a von Uexküll point of view.

In the next recording I’ll deal briefly with the importance of von Uexküll’s work, it’s influence, and the one after with some of the problems.

Von Uexküll and after—influence, take up and importance for media and communications [media, communications and world].

Influence

Von Uexküll has influenced a number of key thinkers, and indeed entire disciplines, from Heidegger to contemporary environmental and animal studies in the humanities to well known recent cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari and Georgio Agamben. I have to thank Greg Seigworth for suggesting ways in which von Uexküll might be important to media and communications. This was via facebook when I said I was trying to think ARTS3091 in terms of the fields and worlds that went beyond the normal way of thinking about “messages”. It seems to me that these fields and worlds are also more and more obviously interfered with by contemporary developments in media and communications (augmented, VR and gaming, just to name three, although we could of course think of older media in similar ways).

Importance

anticipates: in that all sensory data is sign/signal, von Uexküll anticipates … information theory (the world is one of information processing—and therefore of a kind of computing—and the communication of information although what information and communication are is perhaps given a much fuller understanding than some later definitions); cybernetics (the world and media are a question of constant feedback loops); arguably founds biosemiotics (the idea that signs are crucial to biology on the one hand, and on the other that that semiotics applies far beyond the realm of human communication).

allows us to think communication in relation to:

animals (and to humans as animals, as well as to media as changing umwelts by changing both possible perceptions and actions)

subjects (differently): here we include the fact that the subject is not just “in our heads” but in relations and events that are found in the world

Affects/Signs (we will discuss affects more later in the course although it will come up quite a bit—what follows briefly might be a bit counter-intuitive so don’t worry if you don’t get it all just yet)

Here’s how we might think about affect and signs in this work.

Note that in von Uexküll’s work strange things seem to be happening regarding signs. For a start, the question has become one not of signs just representing the world (well not just this, in some passive way). Signs aren’t secondary images of the world. Here they actually make up the very substance of worlds. And these are not just static worlds but very active  worlds.

In all this signs really don’t seem to be signs as we might sometimes think of them. This is precisely because signs in umwelts do more than just interpret or represent a world that is somewhat separate to them. Signs seem much more central and active than that. Indeed, their activity almost seems to make up the world. Signs don’t so much secondarily communicate about a non-sign world as make up the very basis for what the world is and what it does. We can sum this up as saying that, first, signs are the world, or at least a key component of it. And secondly, here’s the tricky but rewarding part, we can say that signs are also affects. Indeed, some people (Deleuze and Guattari for example) have suggested that when von Uexküll is discussing signs he is also discussing what we call affect (affect has recently become the basis for some important philosophies, along with media and social theory). What, however, does affect mean?

Simply put affects are ways of affecting and being affected. They are a bit like von Uexküll’s effectors and receptors. And affect—the way things affect and are affected in their relations—is absolutely crucial to everything. Imagine a world without affect—nothing affects anything else. Without affect nothing would happen. Some would therefore say we, and our worlds, are ultimately collections of affects in this sense (Deleuze and Guattari for example point to the tick’s affect potentials as defining it, precisely in terms of how it can affect and be affected by the world).

What about signs and affects? Simply put, according to these ideas we might say that signs are affects and affects are signs. In von Uexküll’s umwelts, signs are affects precisely in that they affect and are affected by the world. Or, we might say, signs are affects in that they constantly, in the world, affect and are affected by each other. Signs as affects as world perhaps. And we—as subjectivities or just as bodies—are these signs are these affects. While certain collections of affects or signs in this sense are us .. etc.

Don’t worry if you don’t totally get that. More on this in weeks 7/8. Although just to clarify one thing, when many thinkers in media and cultural theory write about affect, they are mainly interested in a much more limited sense of “affect”—that is how we are affected in terms of our feelings and emotions. This is of course important but it only one limited aspect of affecting/being affected. The question of affect, although it includes feelings and emotions, is much larger than this.

Von Uexküll’s Umwelten—questions and problems

There are many technical disagreements with aspects of von Uexküll’s work, which I won’t go into now (in part because I don’t know this area so well just yet).

However, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, in the afterword to the University of Minnesota Press edition of A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans raises some crucial questions about von Uexküll’s relations to culture. Von Uexküll was in some ways quite conservative, and generally nationalist, in a Germany that went through two world wars during his life time. Some of his opinions were at times dubious to nasty.

Winthrop-Young points to the problems with the concept of umwelt if it implied that some people might be more at “home” (a big concept in northern European cultures) than others. The implications is that cultural or racial grounds might lead to inclusion for some and exclusion to others.

However, later thinkers who have taken up von Uexküll’s work have allowed for more dynamism around the question of umwelts and the relations between different umwelts, along with different species or individuals.

Famously Deleuze and Guattari point to what they call a “double becoming” between wasps and orchids, when male wasps pollinate orchids (they do so because the orchid emits a smell like a female wasps—see for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drakaea). In short, the umwelts of the wasp and of the orchid have adapted to each other, even if they remain very different. Here there is what Deleuze and Guattari see as a transcoding .. the work of signs across umwelts. In fact, they see an entire theory of transcoding in von Uexküll’s concept of a kind of harmony in the interplay of unwelts, in which signs/affects interweave across the world as a whole. As they put it, von Uexküll sees the components of the different unwelts  ‘as melodies in counterpoint, each of which serves as motif for another. Nature as music’ (Deleuze and Guattari [1987] A Thousand Plateaus, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 314).

In passing here we might also think of Lev Manovich, one of the best known thinkers about software and new media, when he writes of the transcoding that occurs between computing (and we might say, to stretch things a bit, computing’s umwelts) and human culture (http://newmedia.wikia.com/wiki/Transcoding).

Von Uexküll was also problematically anti-Darwin, mainly because he thought Darwin was too Engligh and not German enough. Although according to the Wikipedia entry he in any case anticipated the discovery of DNA and some of his ideas can make a contribution to thinking about questions of evolution differently. His work also suggests that there might be slightly more than the question of unthinking survival of the fittest involved (although von Uexküll himself heads to a kind of agnostic creationism which I should make it clear I don’t at all agree with).

Then there is the ambiguity of subjectivity. Von Uexküll wants to give us a more active subjectivity for all animals. Here all animals are thought as more “engineer” than “machine” as he puts it—that is animals are more like someone driving a train than the train itself. Or they are more like someone deciding where to walk on a sunny day, than like some kind of automaton or zombie just automatically responding to stimuli (like flesh to eat for example, if it is zombie). However, von Uexküll also, in anticipating cybernetics, anticipates the sophisticated forms of control that feedback loops can become. So is Von Uexküll’s subjectivity controlling, controlled, or somewhere in-between? See page 324 of the reading about the functional cycle in this respect.

For all these problems here, I still think von Uexküll’s work is valuable for us now in media and communications. If we consider the way we live in our varying “umwelten” then:

  • can humans cross between or dramatically change umwelts or not?
  • if they can, can they do so without largish consequences (the subject of the novel we’re reading for week 6, Feed, with regard to social media and more)
  • do humans exceed umwelts and are they therefore a different kind of animals?
  • What different do media and communication technologies and practices make with regard to all this? They arguably work within the scope of all these questions (reinforcing home, creating umwelts or exploiting them or excluding and including, allowing us to change umwelts, to cross between them, to manipulate the umwelts of others).
  • How big are the concepts of media and communication if they extend to the whole world, far beyond the human, and how much does this challenge the notion of the human (some scientists now argue that we are not even necessarily more intelligent than all other creatures—it depends on what “umwelt” you think about it from within—dogs for example have much more “intelligent” hearing and sense of smell than we do and much richer worlds in these respects)
  • Mostly, how does thinking media and communications in the light of these ideas allows us to think much more broadly? How does all this allow us to think differently about media, society and the world at large?

Notes Version of the Bateson Recordings

An Ecology of Mind

Bateson’s theories of communication/metacommunication

Very quick (15-20 minute) summary of key points about Bateson, ecology of mind, communication and metacommunication and his notion of play.

Bateson influential

Gregory Bateson: anthropologist, worked with the cyberneticists and information theorists in the 1940s/1950s, then worked on animal communication, schizophrenia, family therapy, aesthetics, ecology and the nature of mind.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

A quick example

Face to face communication versus email or SMS …

The ambiguity of email or SMS.

Things are clearer in face to face communication.

Why?

Redundancy

There is more of what we call “redundancy” in face to face communication than email (or SMS, etc). That is, simply, there’s more extra stuff happening beyond the basic verbal message (eg. extras are tone of voice, gestures, posture, proximity to the other person, relation to the weather “it’s a lovely day, or not”, etc).

This means that the full communication can be cross-checked across all these redundancies. You can be more sure of the relations involved, and what they mean. You can therefore be more sure—although never totally—of what is being communicated.

Redundancy-Pattern

Bateson’s word for this redundancy was “pattern”. In other words, every communication involves a rich pattern of a whole bunch of events.

True communication has little to do with a simple message and everything to do with this rich pattern.

In fact, this rich pattern, which tells you about the full nature of the communication taking place, as a relational event, is the real communication.

A lot of communication is mainly about this.

Those parts of the communication that are about the nature of the communication in a particular situation are what Bateson called “meta-communication”.

Now emails are famously ambiguous because they don’t have as much redundancy or pattern to work with. And you can’t really get a rich communication out of an SMS. Thus in both cases, the use of emoticons, etc, make up for this poverty of metacommunication.

However in play (this week’s readings), there is a great deal of metacommunication, and it makes the crucial difference between an action being taken as play or as a real attack in combat, even though the actions and things said/sounds involved might be quite similar. (Bateson starts with young chimps playing but it’s also true for humans)

Metacommunication Shifts Patterns

One thing you might think about in this week’s tutorials are metacommunication and the way it shifts patterns of relation.

Complex Embodiment

This gives us a much more embodied understanding of communication.

Communication is easier to conceive as part of a whole web of embodied relations.

Yet Bateson had a radical understanding of what embodiment was.

Bateson did think in terms of embodied events. That is, the significance of events is in the way that they move one’s body, which becomes more important as part of the communication—although body here includes the vocal cords, eyes and brain etc.

However, “unlike almost all communication theorists … Bateson rejects the concept of embodiment of meaning simply as a physical trace in the body, a sensation, or as a neural embodiment of a signal in the mind”…

Much more radically (even today) “Bateson proposed that, in addition, all embodiment was relational, a part of the patterns of messages or interpersonal perceptions that are established and maintained between members of a communicative system”.

Information is Difference

Embodiment itself was a pattern. It come into being across relations, in patterns across differences.

This was life itself, but also the essence of communication.

Although these patterns roughly repeat sometimes (as habits), they also constantly shift.

Bateson pointed out that the shifts are as important to us as the repetition. In fact more important.

In fact, for Bateson, famously, information is difference, the “difference that makes a difference” in these relational patterns (a change in the wind and temperature that suggests as storm is coming, for example).

Media ecology

You can start to see why Bateson’s ideas lend themselves to media ecology (as discussed last week and in this week’s readings). All media have ecologies. Maybe all media also are ecologies. Not only this, they also are part of broader ecologies to do with mind, nature, other relations, weather, animals etc.

Communication is everywhere here—ecologically.

Ecologies of Mind—Good  and Bad

This overall ecology of communication is what Bateson means by “an ecology of mind”.

There are different versions of it. Different patterns with different consequences.

There are “bad ecologies”. These are over-rationalised, analyse everything as bits and pieces, and can’t see the whole. They frames things (including communication) so that we tend to see only “single goals .. managed by single human beings” in their own “personal interests”. They structure out the perspective of “all the interpenetrating influences and effects flowing between each of us and the living” and even non-living “world”.

In fact, Bateson thought that a lot of problems, including environmental problems, were the result of “human linear-consciousness purposiveness”, the idea that we could think in terms of single causes and effects and control these to our advantage, along with “our conviction that we are somewhat separate from the rest of the living world”.

A better ecology is aesthetic (by which he means precisely sensitive to patterns of relation large and small).

Beauty is this sensitivity to pattern.

By “recognising beauty we can identify sane and health-giving possibilities for action”.

Media ecology and ecology as medium

In sum, mind extends beyond the individual body or brain (mind) to an immersion in the world. It is the relations involved.

The “total  complex of ‘mental’ systems .. is the living world itself”.

This includes mediation or communication (which are as natural as they are technical, as non-human as they are human—all are involved in the patterns of relation).

On the other hand we can think of “ecology as a medium in itself”, which is to say we can think of “eco-systems” of all kinds” as “communications networks” (Parikka, Insect Media: xviii). They provide “platforms of alternative agencies and sensoriums”—that is, platforms for different things that can be done or sensed/perceived.

An Ecology of Mind

In sum, mind and nature are a “necessary unity”. You can’t think of them as totally separate.

This includes conscious “mind” but also includes unconscious mind, which resides in any pattern of information, human or non-human.

An ecology of mind involves thinking ecologically about the relations between mind and nature as whole.

Patterns of Relation

Throughout:

Patterns are relations—relations are patterns

The communication is in the pattern

The (changing) pattern is the message

Communication as Pattern

These ideas enabled Bateson to think differently about animal communication, schizophrenia, family therapy, systems theory and many other things.

In all these settings, communication is not (or not only) a message produced by one body then “transmitted” through a medium, then received and internalised in another body or “in the mind”.

It includes, and to an extent most importantly is,“metacommunication”, an attempt to shift or maintain a whole pattern of relations (think of maintaining all your relations through Faceboo SMS, phone and face to face conversations, gifts etc)… indeed, information is this ongoing adjustment of the pattern between members of a “communicative system” (Harries-Jones, A Recursive Order, 123).

Metacommunication

“… metacommunication, is a secondary communication (including indirect cues) about how an [event of] information is meant to be interpreted. It is based on idea that the same message accompanied by different meta-communication can mean something entirely different, including its opposite, as in irony.[1] The term was brought to prominence and perhaps coined by Gregory Bateson to refer to “all exchanged cues and propositions about (a) codification and (b) relationship between the communicators”.[2] Metacommunication may or may not be congruent, supportive or contradictory of that verbal communication.[3]

which of course is leading towards frames

Frames

frames are the aspects of metacommunication (and its repetition and variation), or patterns of relation, that frame events—make some things easier to sense/perceive/think/say/act out than others.

understanding framing is crucial to understanding communication in almost any context (social, political, any context).

Play

This framing is one of the main concerns of “A Theory of Play and Fantasy”, the main reading for this week.

Framing turns communication towards play, even though it could just as easily turn it towards combat.

If you think of framing like a picture frame, this would be ‘excessively concrete”. Rather, a frame sets up “a class or set of messages or meaningful actions” (Theory of Play and Fantasy: 186).

The “play of two individuals on a certain occasion would then be defined as the set of all messages exchanged by them within a limited period of time and modified by the paradoxical premise system which we have described”.

However, frames constantly change. This whole system can evolve, along with it’s metacommunications, patterns of relation and so on.

Bateson—survival

“Our survival depends on our understanding that”

“we are coupled to how we conceptualize ecological order” [how we think about our world/model it, thus the important of thinking through theory]

we are also coupled to to “how we have embodied .. our epistemological [ways of knowing] ideas of nature … in our patterns of relationship” [the patterns of relations in which we live our embodied lives]

media and communications are crucial to both

In short, our survival depends on the way we think about, and the way we live in relation to, our ecological contexts, and this is literally formed by our assumptions about, and practices of, ways of knowing and communicating.

TUTORIALS

Fields, Worlds, and Media and Communications

The ambient environment has always been important to media and communications—and by ambient environment I mean the fields in which we find media and communications, in which they intervene and which they sometimes even create (think of wifi for example). However, thinking in terms of fields becomes more important as media and communications diversity and occupy more and more niches in the world around us. Thus, for example, some write of “ambient intelligence” in which the environment is filled with networked sensors and activators that respond to all kinds of environmental changes (this is sometimes also called the “internet of things”).

Thinking and working with contemporary media and communications are thus now confronting the increased complexity of the fields in which communications take place. A related issue is the exciting but slippery nature of the many, changing and temporary worlds that media and communications create (and pull apart) as they go. This has led many thinkers to think beyond a model of communications as involving a simple and isolated message that is transmitted between a neatly separated sender and receiver. Instead such thinkers look at the overall situation in which communications takes place. The question becomes: how much of communication is really about the situation (there and then) rather than the isolated “message”. Recent thinkers have also looked at what some call the “ecology” in which relationships between a media technology (such as a television) and a user (such as a viewer) and world occur. Of course, when so many of us are moving between so many different media platforms and forms of communication this “ecology” becomes much more complex. Today, we will look mainly at two highly influential thinkers in the history of thinking about field and world—Jakob von Uexküll and Gregory Bateson.

This will help us think about the broader contexts of media and communications and the subtlety of the more immediate situations of which they are a part. We will also consider the question of “media ecology”, which has become a prominent sub-discipline of media and communications over the last 60-70 years. The concepts we look at this week can enhance your thinking about any event of media and communication, but they seem especially useful when it comes to thinking about the new entanglements of media, communication and world.

Tutorial Activities: Come to the tutorial prepared to talk about Bateson and Von Uexküll in relation to media and communications. Think of some of the most startling and intelligent things you can say about all this.

Group work etc: Discussion of Bateson’s concept of communication (and metacommunication) and of von Uexküll on Umwelts, and related ideas that consider the shifting fields and worlds of media and communications. You might also consider the question of expanded ecologies: ecology of mind, media ecologies, social ecologies, mental ecologies, ecologies of the self, ecologies of practice, as well as environment ecologies. What difference does it make to think “ecologically” in this broad sense. Does it help or harm the actual “natural” environment to think this way? When might we feel something of a “double bind” (see the short note below) in contemporary culture? Might media be a factor in this? Might it be a way out?

Practical Preparation: Consider how the different contexts of media engagements involve different aspects of “umwelt”, or perhaps enhance or change the possibilities of human umwelt (the possibilities of perception and action made available to human bodies). What difference does online or offline make, for example? Or a game controller? 3D TV? Web cams? Sensors? What are the metacommunicative aspects of the communication involved? You might think here of the kind of media experience you’re engaged with most. However, two useful examples through which to think about umwelt’s and metacommunication might be infrastructure and design (which are of course related). Think through some of the infrastructures that create the fields in which your communications take place. What is good media and communications design, given the insights of Bateson and von Uexküll.

Required Readings/Explorations (about 33-38 pages in total—anything with a link go from here—all other texts supplied elsewhere)

[pdf elsewhere] von Uexküll, Jakob (1992 [1934]) ‘A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture  book of invisible worlds’, Semiotica, 89(4): 319-391 (you only have to read to page 326, finishing at “stressing the decisive role of the subject”, but we recommend reading at least to page 339, finishing at “fable facilitates mutual communication” if you have time—a lot of this is to do with visual experience but applies equally well to the other senses).

[pdf elsewhere] Bateson, Gregory (2000) ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’, Steps to an Ecology of Mind Chicago: Chicago University Press: 177-183 (sections 1-11 only, finishing at “means of pure mood-signs”).

[online] Milberry, Kate (n.d.) ‘Media Ecology’, Oxford Bibliographies, <http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756841/obo-9780199756841-0054.xml#> (you only have to read the opening paragraph of this article)

[online] Media Ecology Association ‘What is Media Ecology’ <http://www.media-ecology.org/media_ecology/> (this is the main site for the Media Ecology discipline—it has a lot of extra resources. You’ll see that McLuhan is a key player).

[online] Deitz, Milissa (2010) ‘The New Media Ecology’, On Line Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate <http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=11410&page=1>

[pdf elsewhere—you only have to read pages ix-xii ..which is from the beginning to “In Robotics, MIT Professor Rodney Brooks” … ] Parikka, Jussi (2010) ‘Introduction: Insects in the Age of Technology’ in Insect Media: an archaeology of animals and technology Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: ix-xxxv [covers lots of interesting themes in current thinking about media]

[online] Anon. (2008) ‘The Three Ecologies – Felix Guattari’, Media Ecologies and Digital Activism: thoughts about change for a changing world <http://mediaecologies.wordpress.com/2008/10/07/the-three-ecologies-felix-guattari/>

[online] Cook, Henrietta (2016) ‘University Students, You Are Being Watched’, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 11, http://www.smh.com.au/national/university-students-you-are-being-watched-20160811-gqqet7.html

[online] Cuddy, Amy (2015) ‘Your iPhone is ruining your posture—and your mood’, NY Times, December 12, <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/opinion/sunday/your-iphone-is-ruining-your-posture-and-your-mood.html>

[online] Parks, Lisa (n.d.) ‘Media Infrastructures and Affect’, Flow Journal, 19(2) <http://www.flowjournal.org/2014/05/media-infrastructures-and-affect/>

Highly Recommended but Not Required (may be useful for your blogging, for example)

[online] Leedy, Scott (2016) ‘When The Workplace Is Everywhere, Or The Case Against The NBA’s Biometrics Fetish’, The Classical, January 27, http://theclassical.org/articles/when-the-workplace-is-everywhere-or-the-case-against-the-nbas-biometrics-fetish

[online] Hsu, Hua (2015) ‘How the Metaphor of “the Cloud” Changed Our Attitude Toward the Internet’, the New Yorker, November 10, <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-the-metaphor-of-the-cloud-changed-our-attitude-toward-the-internet>

[online] Watch ‘The End of Privacy’ at <http://thenextweb.com/insider/2015/05/23/watch-the-end-of-privacy-if-youve-got-nothing-to-hide-youve-got-nothing-to-live-for/>

[online] Vitlin, Alex (2016) ‘Future State’, Semi Permanent, February 3, <https://beta.semipermanent.com/articles/future-state-dantley>

Extra Resources (only if you have time and the interest)

[online—free download] Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, <http://www.minorcompositions.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/undercommons-web.pdf> (this book comes out of the black, radical tradition and is in part a critique of contemporary universities. If this sounds like something in which you’d be interested, read especially chapter six, ‘Fantasy in the Hold’, which among other things is a radical, very critical take on logistics and race).

[online] look at prominent artist, Trevor Paglen’s web site at <http://www.paglen.com/>. He makes art that deals with surveillance infrastuctures.

[online] Bateson, Nora (2015) ‘Symmathesy: A Word in Progress’, norabateson, November 3, https://norabateson.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/symmathesy-a-word-in-progress/

Kember, Sarah and Zylinska, Joanna (2012) ‘Introduction: New Media, Old Hat’ in Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: xiii-xv (only these three pages although more of the chapter is in the study kit—it can also be found here <http://joannazylinska.squarespace.com/aftermedia/2012/4/28/new-media-old-hat.html>)

Harries-Jones (1995) ‘Communication and its embodiment’ in A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson, Toronto: Toronto University Press: 122-144 (this is a complex chapter but the best account I’ve found of Bateson’s concept of communication. It is worth skimming at least).

A note on metacommunication

Peter Harries-Jones notes that for Bateson, metacommunication provides a ‘higher’ or ‘larger’ framing context for lower level (and often more obvious) communications. By metacommunication Bateson ‘meant [that] interactive sequences among communicators framed the ‘higher’ significance of the communication through registering relationship’ (Harries-Jones 1995: 134). So much non-verbal communication (gesture, tone of voice, posture, relative positioning, etc) would be metacommunication for example (although meta-communication is not just a matter of non-verbal communication). However, this is more than a matter of “body language” framing things. The communication itself is also, nearly always also “metacommunicative”. Just as von Uexküll suggested that different bodies allowed different organisms to perceive and act differently and therefore live in different umwelts (or world’s), so Bateson suggested that different metacommunicative frameworks makes for different possibilities of communication (metacommunicative frameworks are more flexible than umwelts as they are not dependent on the physical bodies of the organisms but can be set up by communication itself).

A note on Bateson’s concept of the double bind (the Wikipedia entry on double bind is good for those who would like to know more)

Bateson’s ideas about communication were informed in part by his understanding of the psychological ‘double bind’. The famous concept of the double bind was developed in the context of thinking about mental illness. However, it has applications elsewhere. Simply put, the double bind involves an embodied experience of conflicting demands (a mismatch in the patterns of behaviour demanded by different, repeated communicative or metacommunicative patterns of relation). It must also include a further demand—that one cannot leave the situation of the double bind (for example if one is a child in a family one cannot leave). In addition, as Peter Harries-Jones put it:

Double bind was a situation in which simple dilemmas were compounded by falsified contexts, supported by patterns of interpersonal communication which ensured continuation of the denial that a falsified context existed. (1995: 135)

In becoming habituated to these conflicting demands, falsified contexts and denials of these conflicts, a person must take on some seemingly odd communicative behaviours (although these do make sense if one fully understands the impossibility of the person’s situation).

A Note on Media Ecologies

Media Ecology, Ecologies of Mind, The Three Ecologies

In this course we question many important assumptions within contemporary cultural life, and many of our ideas about who we are, that are based upon a clear separation between: technology and nature, dead media archives and life, our own interior thoughts and the exteriorization of these through technology. We shall see that this is a questionable set of assumptions, and there are indeed many thinkers who question them. For example, Bernard Steigler has recently pointed out that the very idea of the human is almost totally mixed up with the “non-human”. Much that makes humans what they are seems to depend on the increased mobilisation of human life by means other than human life (see the quote at the beginning of the Course Outline). Even scientists have long wondered how much of our thinking really takes place within our heads, and how much takes placed in a series of “exteriorizations” such as language and media in general. If so, we have to perhaps think not in terms of media as mere relays between interior consciousnesses, but media as presenting a kind of “ecology” in which thinking—and other aspects of culture such as being affected by the world—take place. To put this in terms of a simple question, how many of the thoughts, perceptions and actions that are “yours” could you have without media interventions? Without simple conversations with others?

In fact, media ecology is a media discipline in itself, and a very interesting one at that. It deals with the way that changes in media change cultural contexts (so that, for example, it’s easier to be a dictator such as Hitler if you have a relatively new and ‘intimate’ medium such as radio that allows you to talk to people directly in their homes). It also deals with what we might call the pseudo-evolution of media technologies and practices. Media ecology can sometimes be a little technologically determinist—which is to say that it might assume that media technologies cause things that happens in culture. Indeed, this is an accusation often levelled at one of the most important figures in media ecology, Marshall McLuhan. Yet media ecology is probably not as technologically determinist as it sometimes seems.

The network—both as an inescapable social event and as concept—profoundly reworks the concept of ecology. Ecology is pluralised. It becomes not only a matter of the environment but of media ecologies, cognitive ecologies, ecologies of perception and affect. This pluralisation of ecologies necessarily has a political dimension, first recognised in Gregory Bateson’s general ecology of mind which included three ‘cybernetic or homeostatic systems: the individual human organism, the human society, and the larger ecosystem’ (1972:446). In Félix Guattari’s work (2000) this becomes the three ecologies of the environment, the social and human sense of self. Yet, as recognised in both Bateson and Guattari’s work, all the ecologies mentioned above seem less and less self-contained. They are also less approachable via older disciplines. As they diversify, ecologies seem riddled with transversals—connections that change everything they connect, transductions—operations that transform forces and make for something new and, indeed, a general breakdown of what seemed the clear and culturally foundational divide between technics and life, or technics and thought (Stiegler 1998). As Guattari puts it, ‘one cannot separate a transformation of the environment […] one cannot come to grips with the dimensions, the composite elements, the essential parameters of the biosphere, if one has not also changed mentalities, if one has not reconstructed social tissue, if one has not reinvented it’ (p41 in Guattari, Felix (2001) La philosophie est essentielle à l’existence humaine, Paris: Editions de L’aube).

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