I’d been working on my Spring 2011 “Media & Materiality” syllabus all weekend, and took a break today to see Krapp’s Last Tape at BAM. It was a fitting distraction, since the play — actually, much of Beckett’s work — is concerned with the materiality of language — its inscription, performance, and repetition. From The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940:
Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as, for example, the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?
Oh, that I could some day write so beautifully! For now, though, my energies are focused on creating a syllabus that’s comely and clever, if not beautiful.
This spring will be the second time I’ve taught “Media & Materiality,” the first being a year-and-a-half ago, in Fall 2010 (and I suppose the “Textual Form” class I taught at Penn in 2002 was a language-focused precursor to this class). The first time around I wasn’t sure what my students would be interested in, or what they’d need to help them complete their final projects: online exhibitions of media objects. This time around, I have a better sense of what structure needs to be put in place, but I still don’t want to presume that I know their topical interests. So, once again, I’ll be building in a few weeks for “plug-in” lessons — lessons that respond to students’ interests, which I’ll gauge through their project proposals and, perhaps, through a poll distributed sometime mid-semester.
Here’s the draft syllabus as it currently stands. The course description reads as follows:
Ours is an existence characterized by cultural flux and political economic flows, by the virtualization of place and the acceleration of time, the disembodiment of labor, the fluidity of identity, the “conceptualization” of art, the etherealization of communication. Yet even these financial flows and digital networks rely on physical supports, on material storage devices and infrastructures, and embodied interactions with human actors. This seminar examines media as material objects, as “things,” as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication. In the first third of the semester we’ll explore various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory” to media archaeology to object-oriented ontology – that can be useful in studying the material culture of media. The second third will be dedicated to topical or theoretical “plug-ins” that pertain to students’ research interests. And in the final third, we’ll focus on the creation of online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we’ll approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship,” an alternative means of performing and publicizing academic work. The particular format of our projects will also provide an opportunity for us to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their physicality?
And here’s our schedule of lessons:
- Week 1: Introductions + Overview
- Week 2: The Myth of Immateriality: I’ll have them read a little “immaterial scrapbook” I’ve created, which contains textual, audio, and video excerpts addressing “immateriality” in physics, geography, economics, art, etc. I’ll talk about two relevant exhibitions: Jack Burnham’s Software show at the Jewish Museum, and Lyotard & Chaput’s Les Immatériaux from the Centre Pompidou
- Week 3: The Persistence of Materiality: Here’s where we start to see the material “flip side” of all those “dematerialization” prognostications of the 20th century. We’ll read some Bill Brown, Kate Hayles, Vilém Flusser, and Rosalind Krauss.
- Week 4: Material Culture and the Social Lives of Things: Here’s where we explore more “material culture” studies, anthropological, and sociological approaches to the study of “objects.” We’ll read some Schlereth, Appadurai, and more Brown. And we’ll begin to discuss our class’s possible involvement with the Vera List Center’s “thingness” programming.
- Week 5: Objects, Assemblages & Ecologies: Here’s where we talk about actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology, and Jane Bennett’s “thing power.” We also consider possible tie-ins with Jamie Kruse’s “Thingness of Energy” project, supported by the Vera List Center.
- This week we also have the Paper Tiger TV / Vera List Center “Designing a New Rrradical Media” conference, in which I’m participating, and which will feature discussions on the materiality of media and politics, as well as workshops where participants can materialize their own “grassroots media prototype for the digital environment.”
And here are the assignments for the semester:
- Exhibition Review: ” Because our final project will be an online exhibition, we’ll spend some time at the beginning of most classes reviewing and critiquing some exemplary exhibitions, both onsite and online, encompassing the world of art, history, and science exhibition. Each student must present one review over the course of the semester. For the first few weeks of the semester, I will identify particular exhibitions that are pertinent to the week’s reading and discussion, but in later weeks, I’ll offer some options; you’re encouraged to choose an exhibition that both raises practical questions that we’ll need to address as we curate our own exhibition and pertains to the readings for the week.”
- Individual Exhibition Proposal: self explanatory
- Exhibiting Arguments: “Even though our final projects represent an alternative to traditional text-based scholarship, text (written, typed, audio- or video-recorded, etc.) will still be an integral component of our work. Your exhibition text will still have to adhere to the standards of written scholarship (e.g., based on rigorous research, citing sources properly, etc.), but it should be written to serve our distinct purposes and audiences (e.g., do we want dozens of distracting footnotes, or an extensive lit review?). Please share with me via Google Docs, no later than April 30 (earlier is better!), a 900- to 1200-word sample of text that you’ll be using in various segments of your exhibition – in the overall introduction; in the introductions to and transitions between various sub-sections; or in navigational cues (particularly if you’re designing a structurally complex project)…”
- Final Exhibition + Self-Assessment
I also plan to organize some optional field trips to relevant exhibitions, like the Print/Out show at MoMA, which looks fantastic. I’m particularly excited to see that Andrew Beccone and the Reanimation Library are organizing a related studio.
So that’s what I’ve got. Any suggestions, complaints? Praise? Please share.
Media & Materiality, Round 2 by Shannon Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.