For millennia, mud and its geologic analogues have bound together our media, urban, architectural, and environmental histories. Some of the first writing surfaces, clay and stone, were the same materials used to construct ancient city walls and buildings, whose facades also frequently served as substrates for written texts. The formal properties of those scripts—the shapes they took on their clay or, eventually, parchment and paper foundations—were also in some cases reflected in urban form: how the city molded itself from the materials of the landscape. And those written documents have always been central to our cities’ operation: their trade, accountancy, governance, and culture. In examining the place of mud in the Kulturetechniken of city-making and record-keeping, we see that urban and administrative culture are both utterly dependent on geological resources. Aggregating these often separate historical lineages has the potential to enrich the disparate disciplinary knowledges that are bound together here, but there’s more at stake than historiography. These public squares, city walls, building facades, urban archives, and sandy stores where earthen materials and writing intersect are the humble city sites where politics play out at myriad scales—where the entanglement of global and local political-economic forces enter people’s lives through the material, the geological, and the aesthetic.
Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis: Aggregating Histories of Writing and Urbanization
Shannon Mattern is an associate professor of media studies at the New School. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is author of The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities (2007), Deep Mapping the Media City (2015), and the forthcoming Ether/Ore: Archaeologies of Cities and Media, and she writes a regular column about urban data and mediated infrastructures for Places Journal. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.
Shannon Mattern; Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis: Aggregating Histories of Writing and Urbanization. Cultural Politics 1 November 2016; 12 (3): 310–331. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/17432197-3648870
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