[-empyre-] No. 1, Day 3, Week 2

Douglas Kahn djkahn at ucdavis.edu
Thu Jun 12 11:59:31 EST 2014

I should have said Bach fugue to keep to the point of atoms/atmos in the
field of clouds. I don't know enough about drones to ask a good question;
some seem atomystic, others overforecasting doom. I really like LaMonte
Young's early work (Robert Ashley just called him La) but it never struck
me as "drone" but, again, I'm out of the drone loop.  

I am still fascinated with the constant recourse to "the body". Freidrich
Kittler affectionately satirized Jonathan Crary on that count; it's part of
the lines drawn between a period of continental (German?) media theory and
American-style cultural studies. There seems to be more of an uptake of
Kittler now in the States than before (and rapprochement the other way with
cultural techniques), but when I taught a grad seminar on him at UC Davis
about a decade ago the cultural studies cohort came to the first class,
took one look and left en masse, leaving the seminar to anthropology,
communications, sts and art history grads. There is alot to be said about
not having the body as the main port of call, the locus of unity, at least
every now and then. (In the intro ESES I state my main reservation with
Kittler on his engineer/inscriptive basis viz. a science/transmission
approach, which means a media theory where 1/2, so to speak, of the
technological base of modern media is missing, and no uncontorted route to
an ecological standing).  

John Durham Peters has a good talk online at the IKKM website on the
"technological determinism" that is often used to dismiss Kittler outright.
He cannot not talk about social, cultural and political factors. I say
something similar about my concept of "lived electromagnetism". Try to
sustain a "non-human" perspective and you will get back to humans soon
enough. Get out into the e-m spectrum at a global and heliospheric scale
and you'll find yourself in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Marshall Islands, Nevada
Test Site, Utah, Mississippi, etc. and new demographic groups of Hibakusha,
Atomic Veterans, Downwinders, etc. soon enough.

I think the various "non-human" reversals are exceedingly important
especially, as is evident, if one wants to integrate an ecological politics
(again, sorry for the oxymoron) at the core of whatever analyses they may
undertake. I differ on some of the broader outlines found among some
proponents. I don't see what people refer to as technology as "non-human".
In the book I mention a couple/few places that, if you follow the path of
energy, so to speak, without regard to apriori categories, you will
encounter transductive locations, some of which are "naturally-occurring"
(including those in human sensory capacities, but many more having nothing
to do with humans), some of which are "anthropic". Anthropic transducers
are called "technology".   

I also try to sustain an abiotic perspective. It is much more difficult to
do since animals are more equipped to aid a non-human mind meld with their
sentience (their limbs, like machines, have technics). Plants, a little
more difficult except with heads of lettuce (sorry, old joke, got to work
up new material). Ecological discourse used to be very dependent on biotic
touchstones and, for good reasons like the present mass extinction, still
is. The abiotic has taken the stage too with "carbon" and solar-terrestrial
interactions, ocean acidification, etc. It is my contention that an
ecological politics, let alone a "being in the world" and the arts and
experience, will benefit from directed engagements with the abiotics of
energies. And these, of course, have, can and will happen through biotic
and anthropic entities, as well as "the body". 

Marcus, you alluded to Walter Benjamin's "non-sensuous similarity", in his
"Mimetic Faculty" and "Doctrine of the Similar", perhaps because it was in
my talk in Toronto. I think there is some there there in expanding upon
what already exists. Benjamin remarks about little kids imitating trains,
not just human roles; I've seen little kids on the beach imitate the
mechanical force of waves crashing into one another. I proposed that
certain types of music could be understood in such a relationship to
various states of energy. It could break open the shopworn discourses on
"representation and music" in an interesting way, and offer another angle
to those entertainging a prohibtion of representation, signification, and
poesis (collateral damage to semiosis) in "sound art". And, there again,
body practices return, perhaps even an empathic relationship with energy
sources that ultimately could care less about biotic beings, like the sun.
There's Sun Ra. Instead of Pater's parochial "All art constantly aspires
towards the conditions of music" why not "the conditions of plasma?" 

On the sensory, all--how many are there now, 23?--are admixtures of
energetic states. (People may be interested in my essay on America male
artist interoception in the postwar period...Cage, Tenney, Burroughs,
Turrell [Lucier's brainwaves are in the book]...in the recent book ReLive,
edited by Cubitt and Thomas.) Neither tactility nor hearing are mechanical
alone. There are many coditional energetic states as well, the ATP of
cellular surface transduction that will be effected by what you had to eat,
or didn't, let alone drink or psychoactives. There are some very
interesting complexes to be understood. How might these excitations relate
to the charge in the lithium ion battery of your phone streaming tunes from
a server farm halfway around the world sucking power from a hydroelectric
dam on the Columbia River? 

I would be more sanguine about discourses on "the sensory" if there was a
better place in the discourse for distributed sensing arrays. As I mention
in the book, "nature" has been written out of the history and theory of
communications technologies. The telegraph and telephone systems were not
merely used in a social frame for humans to talk and exchange data with one
another; they were also used as regional and global scale scientific
sensing devices resonating with the energetic environment. So, a conduit
for imperialism? sure, but also a model and allegory for an earth scale
coordination of media and ecology.

Finally, a clarification about "most of the work discussed in your book
relates to scientific knowledge as it stood in the late 19th C." Well, not
exactly. That sounds a bit anachronistic. I followed natural radio from
anecdote, to post-WWI science (ionosphere), to 1960s (magnetosphere) where
Lucier picked it up. My point about "lived electromagnetism" was primarily
to explain its historical recentness, the lack of a commensurate vernacular
despite its ubiquity, but also why it was not necessary (at least in this
first cultural purview of the electromagnetic spectrum) to get into things
quantum. I did this, not only as a historian, but also I've seen too many
philosophers skip the prosaic electromagetic world of, say, media and the
sun that we live in and go right to the "reality" of the quantum world. It
is a happenstance of historical discovery mixed with philosophical






> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Point taken re. a potentially problematic politics of the body, when it
> comes to talking about "human energies" etc. And the importance of "the
> great outside" and the possibility of being aware of what is, and what is
> not us, and not accessible to us. And that there's a history of attempts by
> artists to work with this.
> Still, for myself, I think it's still the case, even after Deleuze, that
> "we do not know what a body can do" ... or a mind.  The non-human is
> immanent to aspects of the human body and mind as much as it is to
> environment and ecosystem, and much remains to be discovered.  I take that
> to be one of the major concerns of what's called Afro-futurism ... the
> possibility of new techno-cultural figurations of the human, post this or
> that or not.  I mistrust the rhetoric of a lot of the speculative realist
> folks when they seem to argue that a focus on the non-human also means an
> abandonment of concern with human subjectivity. It often looks evasive ...
> as if human subjectivity  is the one thing they don't want to think about,
> even the horrors of Cthulu are more welcome! Than themselves .... ourselves
> ...
> And the issue of the ways in which the human body is capable of accessing
> the electromagnetic spectrum is important.  Technologies like the telephone
> are prostheses that make natural radio accessible. There are other
> creatures that can sense other aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum
> through their own sensoriums.  No doubt the possibilities for
> instrumentalizing access to the electromagnetic spectrum are going to
> expand radically in the years to come.  Again, what I find intriguing about
> Nina's argument about possible relations to sound as vibration is the
> suggestion for non-instrumental approaches.  That's also something you hone
> in on in ESER, Douglas, when a new technosocial development suddenly
> reveals, amongst other things, new aesthetic possibilities.  
> What does a global geophysically driven ecopolitics sound like?  Hmmmm.  If
> I respond in a literal way, I would bring up the work of people like
> Toshiya Tsunoda, and his recordings of waves in the Tokyo Bay amongst other
> things.  So the concern there would be with awareness of what is, and the
> ability to evoke something otherwise unpresentable.  I think it is possible
> to think about drones in relation to the question too tho! Tim Morton
> gestures in that direction with the section on La Monte Young at the end of
> Hyperobjects.  La Monte tuned some of his drone based music to the 50 Hz of
> the electrical gridline in the US apparently.  He also described his music
> as "meta music" in the 1960s apparently.  But when you listen to
> contemporary drone music, whether the synth based sounds of Oneohtrix Point
> Never or the dark metal drones of Earth or Sun O)))) (the names are clue!)
> what you're hearing is a music built around energy surges, vibratory
> matrixes ... it's energy that is reve
>  aled by sustaining tones.  You stop focusing on the shifting of pitches
> and melody, your sense of time is altered because a lot of the time there
> are no drums and thus no overdetermination of pitch or rhythm.  You tune
> into much faster and slower periodicities, often so fast or slow that at
> first you're not aware of them at all. It's about attention ... La Monte
> said "tuning is a function of time".  The unpresentable aspects of sound
> and vibration become a model for the unpresentable as such.  But I also
> come back to Nina's point that it's about modes of sensing, about immersion
> and strategies for exploring an immersive unknown.  And in a way I think
> we're just at the beginning of thinking about these matters ... as you
> noted, Douglas, most of the work discussed in your book relates to
> scientific knowledge as it stood in the late 19th C.  

Douglas Kahn
National Institute for Experimental Arts
College of Fine Arts
University of New South Wales, Sydney

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