She would incarnate herself in the cat and would eat her desired orange.—Gabriel García Márquez, “Eva Is Inside of Her Cat”
In 1988, when Public Culture began, media appeared to be the primary infrastructure of a newly globalizing world. In those days, the readership of the journal had just become aware that media were not a monopoly of the Euro-American world. Satellites were breaking the link between terrestrial and territorial broadcasting systems, and it was not yet clear how nation-states would or even could respond. The Indian film industry, Latin American and Mexican telenovelas, the infant potentials of the personal computer, and the beginnings of the market for rental films were all new subjects for global cultural studies, which until then had been largely preoccupied with literature, and to a lesser extent, with cinema. In the 1990s, many authors and readers of Public Culture were primarily concerned with media flows, effects, geographies, and subjectivities.
These interests are still with us. The world turned out not to be a global village. We now know that the medium is only half of the message and that conditions for dissemination are as important as their ends. In the past year, governments in Egypt, India, Myanmar, and Sudan, to name only a few, have shut off the Internet to stifle dissent; there are major political obstacles to connection. The stuff of media—screens, platforms, applications, clouds, networks, and invisible geographies (of wires, metals, impulses, and energies)—have opened our eyes to the planetary, shifting our attention from the global. The scale of our inquiries has shrunk down to the nano level and up to the galactic. Mediation turns out to be vital at both of these scales.
The essays in this issue could be read as reports from a changed terrestrial surface whose flows and forms appear in a new light due to the melancholia of the planet and the living glow of infrastructure. They report on the circulation of forms and the forms of circulation. They consider air quality and undersea cables, movie watching at the market stall and the multiplex, images “of what is past, or passing, or to come” (Yeats 1928, st. 4, line 8). They are infused with a sense of media historicity, of how global markets for digital devices depend on imperial ambitions to make use of the earth and its peoples. They are attuned to new formations of the sensory self as crucial to belonging. They are alert to dystopic forms of the viral that have made themselves at home in our lifeworlds and on our social media feeds.
We sense in these essays a new vein of critical media studies that refuses the gap between stereotypes of the reflecting North and the behaving South, of the sending metropolis and the receiving hinterland, and of a standardizing global everywhere in opposition to the idiosyncratic and particular locale. The essays and articles in this issue sneak up on media from instances, occasions, and locations, a signature of Public Culture. Together they give a sense of the scope of media studies and of the mediascapes forming in the global present.
Media have become forms of theory insofar as they prompt, shape, and structure practices of many kinds. This is a challenge for media theory, which is sometimes tempted to chase its own theoretical tail. Despite the presence of media in most, if not all, human interactions, mediation remains largely peripheral as a matter of concern within the social sciences. Where media do appear, they are often treated epiphenomenally. In this issue we notice how scholars work with the enlarged register of substances, sensations, ontologies, and practices such that mediation is a constitutive feature of social life.
We open with Forum essays by Kathryn Mariner and Nicole Starosielski. Mariner is a powerful analyst of the American cultural condition and Public Culture is proud to publish a trio of her essays. The first, “American Elegy, A Triptych” (published in January 2020) was occasioned by the anniversary of the death of twelve-year-old Devonte Hart when his adoptive mother drove the family car over a cliff. Mariner imbricates domestic violence with state violence. Hart was already famous for “the hug heard round the world,” a viral image of him tearfully embracing a police officer at a protest after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. In this second essay, “American Elegy, Reflux: American Aspiration,” Mariner draws our attention to the subtlety and necessity of breath.
In the spring of 2020, the spread of COVID-19 shut down public life. Scientists knew the virus was highly contagious but were not yet sure if transmission was airborne or surface contact based. As late as April, the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was that masks made no difference at all. People were dying in hospitals, unable to say goodbye to their families. There were nationwide shortages of ventilators, medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE), and N95 face masks. By the end of the spring more than two hundred thousand Americans had died from COVID-19.
Mariner (292) draws our focus to the intimacy of the bedside: “Imagine the sound of a loved one hooked up to a heart-lung machine.” Lungs are sensitive indicators of lived experience. They are supple interfaces between organism and environment. What the lungs take in from the atmosphere affects the body over time. Acute respiratory events, even if survived, can cause a lifetime of damage.
The summer of 2020 was marked by conjunctural respiratory crises. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin. Floyd was apprehended for using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill to purchase cigarettes. As with Eric Garner, who was suspected of selling “loosies,” or single cigarettes, “the state used murderous and carcinogenic tax revenue as a cover for killing an unarmed Black man” (292). Protesters across the country and then all over the world put on their masks and took to the streets to protest police brutality with the already-familiar phrases “#BlackLivesMatter” and “I Can't Breathe.”
Then came the wildfires. Over the course of a single weekend, twelve thousand lightning strikes ignited more than six hundred fires in northern California. More than four million acres burned. Gigafires arrived decades before climate models predicted. By late August, the West Coast had the worst air quality in the world. Prisoners, already among the most vulnerable populations for COVID-19 infection, fought the fires.
“American Aspiration” traces the circulations by which these conjunctures are inextricably linked. Mariner draws our focus on the breath from the acute event to the generalized condition of suffocation. Bodies bear the burdens of commerce in tobacco, underinvestment in healthcare, lax regulatory standards for carbon emissions, poor land management, and violence. “We are killing the atmosphere, and it is killing us” (300). Even as we write these words, Los Angeles has relaxed air quality standards to accommodate the backlog of bodies awaiting cremation who died from COVID-19 (Wong 2021). The American aspiration binds the conditions of living to the labors of breathing. Long before the pandemic, this was “a nation choking on its so-called dreams” (300).
Nicole Starosielski picks up on the stakes of studying circulations and lifeworlds in “The Ends of Media Studies.” In the past quarter century, several fields with interests in symbolic communications have taken a “turn to nature.” Landscapes and environments are now regarded as media, and who or what counts as a communicator has radically expanded. Artifacts, systems, institutions, ecologies, animals, plants, elements, and gods—these are all fair game in media studies. In a field so expansive, where everything can be a medium, is anything essential at all?
Starosielski distinguishes between two approaches to the question. Materialist analyses focus on substrates, systems, and ontologies in order to get at the essence of the medium and to find the limits of what media can do and be. The field catalogues failures, glitches, and breaks. The turn to nature, however, “proliferates communicators instead of abandoning them” (306). It shifts the emphasis on what matters. Starosielski proposes that “perhaps the task is not so much deciding what are and are not media, but why media at all?” (308).
Mariner and Starosielski challenge what counts as media studies. Media don't just channel information from here to there and back again. They mediate social and ecological relations, transforming the immediate environment, the political landscape, and the cultural geography. To ask why we study what we study is to consider “What does this work do?” (310) “To ask about ends is to think about places where traditional understandings of research stop and generating effects begins” (310). There is a new media studies emerging that takes up the ethics of studying the means.
The Essays section opens with “The Cinematic Milieu: Technological Evolution, Digital Infrastructure, and Urban Space.” Brian Larkin takes a comparative approach to media to explore dynamic structuring relationships between technology and culture. Larkin advocates for a shift from theorizing based on a cinematic dispositif to theorizing within a cinematic milieu. Media technologies have standard features, but they do not standardize the environments in which they are deployed. Infrastructure happens when technologies are emplaced, when they unfold and take shape within conditions until they become routine.
Larkin (328) writes that media theory
has been strikingly successful in analyzing how successive media technologies have given rise to political collectives that comprise the modern world: the mass, public, swarm, and multitude. But, based as it is on the technical, political, and social formation of the urban West, media theory has never had to adequately theorize the relation between media and the collective of informal society which has lain largely outside of its purview. This needs to change.
The formative decades of cinema theory linked enclosure with mass society. The salaried masses of the city transformed into audiences within the darkened theater. Modern spectatorship was a condition of isolating attention and fixing desire by gazing at the single glowing screen.
In West Africa movie theaters were never fully separated from the surroundings. They were enclosed on the sides and open on top. It is here that Larkin steps away from the cinematic dispositif toward theorizing the interconnected variations of spectatorship forms. During the 1990s, in the wake of economic collapse, religious prohibitions, and increased violence, cinema in northern Nigeria transformed. Lagos became a modern megacity and openness a charged political question. The state sought to contain the always present urban majorities who work largely outside of the formal economy in precarious labor conditions (Simone and Rao 2021). “They are in public but do not represent a public” (Larkin 333).
Within this milieu, digital cinema emerged in two forms: the multiplex and the viewing center. Multiplexes offer elite access to the pleasures of high-end viewing. Located within guarded shopping malls, they bind the comforts of climate-controlled screening rooms to separation from the city and its crowds. Viewing centers are more makeshift and ad hoc. They are the market stalls in dense neighborhoods outfitted with screens and loudspeakers. Their audiences view from street corners or pay a small fee to enjoy cramped seating on benches and floor mats. Viewing centers blur distinctions between cinema and the street.
To see the multiplex and the viewing center as distinctive forms but related expressions is to analyze technology within a cultural milieu. It is to see reciprocal exchanges between urban politics and technological systems such that multiplicity is a key feature of media.
Jenna Grant continues the theme of multiplying viewing conditions in “Portrait and Scan.” Grant offers an extended meditation on ontological instability that begins with an image from a prenatal ultrasound that looks like a cat. The prenatal ultrasound is a phenomenon par example because it operates at the intersection of multiple orders of the real. Ultrasounds require synesthesia from their viewers because these are images made by sounding. Diagnostics complicate the relationship between image and referent. They depict matter still-becoming and thus can materially affect the future of that which they depict. “The photographic image is not just a copy; it can be part of the original and have an aura”—so what is to be done about a fetus that resembles a cat? (365).
Grant's fieldwork in Phnom Penh places the “ontology of the prenatal—of the baby, the mother, the pregnancy”—within a cosmology that accommodates biological development and consciousness settling in (363). Through cycles of rebirth, personhood can cross lifetimes and even species. Karma is unfolding, fortunes are not yet fixed, and pregnancy is a charged passage between spirit and flesh. The habits of mothers and the qualities of their surroundings can be absorbed and taken in. Whether it is a trick of the camera, or the image in the eye of the beholder, or a side effect of spending too much time with a beloved pet, the capacity for a fetus to resemble a cat is a sign of “the image's multiplicity” (351).
The next two essays, by Patrick Eisenlohr and Denise Gill, turn our attention toward the sonic dimension of collective life. In “Atmospheric Citizenship: Sonic Movement and Public Religion in Shi‘i Mumbai,” Eisenlohr follows the Muharram procession commemorating the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE as it moves from the Shi‘i neighborhood of Dongri outward through the streets of Mumbai. Mourners beat their breasts and self-flagellate, reenacting martyrdom through ecstatic performances of pain. Their devotions and lamentations envelope participants and passersby alike in an emotional intensity that is hard to put in words. For Muslims, who are often treated as conditionally belonging to the nation, the procession revitalizes attachments to community while animating struggles over the right to the city in religious terms.
Urbanity is a shared feeling in space, an intersubjective whole-body encounter of diffuse sensations contextualized. By suffusing the urban setting with sonic overwhelm, the procession mediates belonging. Eisenlohr proposes that we attend to these changes in the atmosphere. “Atmospheres also allow a new perspective on urban space as something that is felt and provokes particular sensations, sensations that in turn impinge on the crucial urban question to whom that kind of space belongs” (374). Atmospherics can give rise to temporary collectivities. They can grant an environment in which shared world, an “atmospheric citizenship” is experienced as a somatic fact (373).
In “Sense Experiences: Religious Affairs and the Palpability of State Power,” Denise Gill (412) picks up this question of sensory experience and belonging by “attend[ing] to how distinct sense experiences . . . interact with or against state power as vibrant relationality.” During the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey the AKP Party, led by President Erdoğan, and the Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) mobilized frameworks for interpreting experience. The sounds of violence and protest and explosions were overlaid with the voices of state-employed imams, who broadcast prayers and devotional songs and calls to resistance from mosque loudspeakers around Istanbul and Ankara.
In the days after the coup attempt, managing dead bodies became a matter of reincorporating citizens into the body politic. Ordinarily, bodies are taken to the gasılhane (municipal washing house), where state-certified deathworkers prepare them for burial in accordance with the tenets of Sunni Islam. In the hands of the devout, the flesh of those who died in service to the state smells sweet and clean. Their bodies seem weightless and glowing. It is in these richly sensorial moments, these death rituals, that cultural narratives are experienced as real, and social order asserts itself anew. That ordering was dramatized by the contrasts between anointment and abjection, between belonging and exclusion. The bodies of coup perpetrators were left unshrouded and unwashed. They were cast as filthy traitors and buried in unmarked graves. Citizens were encouraged to direct disgust and scorn toward the Hainler Mezarlığı (Cemetery of Traitors), which was located behind a municipal dog shelter and cast as a “cenotaph of shame” (404).
Gill's textured portrait of the relationship between power and sense experience highlights disruptions, contradictions, and resistances that make possible shared and deeply felt social worlds. “In working with communities experiencing the violent consolidation and disciplining of state power, a focus on skin, ears, mouths, noses, and hands gives form to how sense experiences mitigate, solidify, challenge, or push back against official regulations of the body politic” (412). Circling back to Starosielski's provocations, Gill gives us a methodological insight into how and why to study the means.
In the final two articles, first Yuriko Furuhata, then Eric Klinenberg and Melina Sherman push us to think about mediation and sociality at two scales. In “Archipelagic Archives: Media Geology and the Deep Time of Japan's Settler Colonialism,” Furuhata pushes us to think about media in deep time. Global markets for digital technologies depend on rare earth metals such as indium, terbium, coltan, and lithium. Access to these resources will play a key role in twenty-first-century territorial disputes and geopolitics. In the twenty-first century, media analysis will center on places such as the Ogasawara (or Bonin) Islands and the prospect of deep-sea mining the blue frontier.
Furuhata grounds her analysis of resource nationalism in nineteenth-century Japan's rise as an archipelagic empire. Key to that process was binding geology to territory through topographical mapping because it prepared the way for settling the surface and mining the depths.
For example, the conquest and settlement of Ezo was carried out with the aid of US geologists and government officials who billed themselves as experts in the American West. Surveying was a means of consolidating islands into an archipelago—which is to say, a geopolitically unified territory in the imaginary of empire. In the process, Indigenous inhabitants of the island were cast as elements of the earthly past. Their land was declared uninhabited, and they were systematically dispossessed. “The Ainu people became effectively ‘geologized’ ” (423).
By the twentieth century, a shift from using the term guntō (group) to rettō (line) to refer to the region was complete. “The imperial vision of the Japanese archipelago manifests in this organizational unity of the single arc” (432). Furuhata advocates unthinking the geopolitical assumptions about territory and resources because parts do not and never did naturally make wholes. Doing so would shift us from thinking about frontiers and toward “the shore that opens to various islands in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, which in turn connect Sakhalin, Hokkaidō, and Kurile Islands, which the Ainu people have long inhabited” (436).
This issue closes with Eric Klinenberg and Melina Sherman's analysis of “Face Mask Face-Offs.” In the span of a year, more than a hundred million cases of COVID-19 were confirmed worldwide. The United States alone claims more than a quarter of those cases and over five hundred thousand deaths. The echoes and reverberations of this crisis will be with us for a generation. A key marker of this crisis is that it has been experienced at home, apart, without physical contact, and in avoidance of one another. How can we make sense of the American cultural condition when “in the pandemic, most collective life happens on screens” (442)?
Klinenberg and Sherman focus on the proliferation and circulation of videos of people getting in fights about wearing masks. In ordinary places—gas stations, grocery stores, mall parking lots—people shouted and screamed and threatened one another. Adversaries and bystanders picked up their phones, documenting the outrage of those who refused to wear masks on the grounds that doing so violated their civil rights, their bodily sovereignty, their whiteness, even the Constitution. They redeployed political slogans and rallying cries—“Anti-Mask Lives Matter!” and “I CAN'T BREATHE!”—and lobbed perhaps that most American threat of all, “You guys are gonna get a lawsuit!” (454).
Klinenberg and Sherman urge us to take seriously this archive of conflicts because they say something deep about people's worldviews. “In the midst of a lethal health crisis involving a highly infectious disease, Americans encountered their ideological adversaries in public and debated germ theories, what counts as a scientific fact, who belongs to the body politic, the boundaries of freedom, the responsibilities of neighbors, and the shape of governmentality in contemporary life” (443). That these encounters were picked up by smartphone and rerouted through social media tells us that “what the face mask and insurrection videos establish is that recording and sharing are not supplementary, but constitutive of twenty-first-century civic engagement. Today the media are not merely vehicles of communication, but forms of behavior as well” (464). The both/and of online and offline life, in public and domestic spaces, is the locus of the social.
Where does this leave Public Culture? We close volume 33 with our attention to mediation revitalized. We expand the scope and scale of possibilities, and we draw upon senses and substances as much as objects and institutions and flows. In volume 34, we will turn our attention back to the body politic to rethink democracy in practice and civic engagements in more fluid and mediating forms.