Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 4, 2008

Write! Make! Run! Or just read.

Filed under: Discussion — moorekc @ 4:52 pm

Since last week, I’ve been thinking more about Deleuze and Guattari-especially the D&G of A Thousand Plateaus-and how their ideas fit in the context of media theory. In the past, I’ve encountered the duo exclusively in post-1965 literary theory seminars, where they always seem anomalous and usually awkwardly squeezed between de Man and, well, Baudrillard. In the narrative those kinds of seminars always unintentionally propose, a text like the “Introduction: Rhizome” essay seems to enact a theoretical process that internalizes Derrida’s provocation at the end of “Structure, Sign, and Play”: the pursuit of an irresistible “kind of question” emerging in the discourses of the human sciences that will be born beyond the view of mainstream discourse and “under the species of the nonspecies,” a question which cannot be tracked until it has arrived (293). They also seem to have something in common with the ironic activism of Donna Haraway, though again I feel like that is a stretch. However provocative the “rhizome” may be as a theoretical model for literary critics, media artists, and others, it inevitably seems, as I mentioned in class last week, an extremely hard act to follow. Take a passage like this, for example:Write to the nth power, the n-1 power, write with slogans: Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line! Be quick, even when standing still! Line of chance, line of hips, line of flight. Don’t bring out the General in you! Don’t have just ideas, just have an idea (Godard). Have short-term ideas. Make maps, not photos or drawings. (25)

An exhilarating call to action, no doubt, and one that appears to provoke emulation. Fine. But the problem, I believe, is the reality that most essays attempting to “write” or “make” or “run” a “rhizome” without taking the “rhizome” as their subject can have a difficult time summoning the wit to prove they are not simply taking a D&G “line of flight” as an excuse for laziness. Whereas the rigorous, procedural Derridean method-at its best a form of radical, socially acute close reading-could give birth to a school of legitimate and illegitimate literary “deconstructionists,” the structural-procedural model D&G propose seems to me like something only observable after the fact unless you happen to be Deleuze and Guattari. I realize this may be a contentious point, but for me D&G are simply not Foucauldian “founders of discursivity.” Rather, they are a useful theoretical lens through which we can view existing structures (Galloway and Thacker exemplify this quite well in “Nodes,” when they pivot on D&G to observe the “network” more generally as “something that holds a tension within its own form” (61)). In this sense, we might more accurately call them agents of meta-theory.

Anyway. That had always been my take on D&G-that they are edgy, brilliant, and never very useful-until I read Matthew Fuller. Media Ecologies, for me, is a large-scale, slightly muted reenactment and/or parody of portions of A Thousand Plateaus, one which makes many of the same moves (this essay on the rhizome is a rhizome becomes in Fuller this essay on the media ecology is a media ecology). And this point can hardly be understated: Fuller’s most direct call to action falls in precisely the same position in his book as the D&G call quoted above falls in their book, in the penultimate paragraph of the first full chapter. It also undoubtedly echoes their language. Here is the passage:

The account of pirate radio in this chapter has proceeded by following through the flat list of components. Each element was counted as an “index of a multiplicity.” Each of these multiplicities is too much to handle. They are signposted, traveled through. In further chapters, this indexing of multiplicities will be taken up in different ways, different situations. The reader will make the rest of the connections. What goes on outside the text, what surpasses it, what it also I hope in some way thickens and makes perceptible, does the rest of my work. To carry on reading this, switch on the radio, make a transmitter. (52, italics mine)

Where Fuller differs from D&G, and I would say breaks new ground by making a model like the “rhizome” many times more useful, is in his conception of audience: “the reader” is the agent who “will make the rest of the connections,” not the writer or the runner or the maker. To put it simply: to be a rhizomorphic writer requires wit, complete academic freedom (read: tenure), and authorial autonomy. To be one of Fuller’s “readers,” which implicitly refers to a secondary act of writing, all you need is a good ear and the equipment to report what you hear.


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