McGehee Post 10: Navigating Wasteland

zombiemediaNaturally, I find myself gravitating towards Hertz and Parikka’s article, “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method.” Having presented on Parikka’s “Media Theory and New Materialism” several weeks ago, it’s interesting to see the shape Parikka’s opinions take a year later. Generally speaking, the content of “Zombie Media” is something I grapple with fairly often, particularly this idea of purchasing technological products with the knowledge that they will become obsolete. When I try to take account of how many phones, laptops, etc. that I’ve personally owned and where they might be now, the shameful truth is that I have no clue what became of my consumption.


I was already aware of “the concept of planned obsolescence first put forward by Bernard London in 1923, as a proposed solution to the Great Depression” (425). I learned of this concept in a women gender studies class after we began to map the formation of cultural norms for women, such as shaving legs and underarms, all of which related back to this consumption plan meant to pull the U.S. out of the financial hole, so to speak. Planned obsolescence is specifically a consumer capitalist issue, one that is destroying our planet, but Hertz and Parikka tell us that, “The political economy of consumer capitalism is a media archaeological problem as well” (427).


When Hertz and Parikka state, “In other words, technological objects are designed as a “black box”—not engineered to be fixable and with no user-serviceable parts inside” (426), Macintosh products (closed systems) come to mind specifically. When I encounter service errors with my MacBook or iPhone, I must go to the source (i.e. the company) to fix them. Additionally, it is becoming more and more commonplace for those of my generation to lack any sort of programming ability; so even at micro levels, users struggle with customizing, building, or understanding the hardware they interact with every single day:


“The inner workings of consumer electronics and information technologies are increasingly concealed as a result of the development of newer generations of technologies, a feature that is characteristic of recent decades of technological culture” (427).


Hertz and Parikka take a closer look at contemporary electro-movement techniques, such as “circuit bending,” which essentially recycles and repurposes old technologies, “…it can be connected to tinkering as a methodology of media archaeological art…circuit bending is a way of operating that reminds us that users consistently reappropriate, customize and manipulate consumer products in unexpected ways, even when the inner workings of devices are intentionally engineered as an expert territory” (426).


Despite my focus on the environmental impact of technological consumption, it is important to note Hertz and Parikka emphasize that media archaeology is “not always connecting such ideas to poetical economy or ecology” rather, the primary focus is on “…the nature of temporality in contemporary electronic digital culture…The circuit, not the past, is where media archaeology starts if we want to develop a more concrete design-oriented version of how we can think about recycling and remediation as art methods” (427).


This is where I begin to see ties between “Zombie Media” and Parikka’s “Media Theory and New Materialism,” both articles pointedly depoliticizing media and materialism, choosing to “go inside a device” rather than “back in time to media history” (427). Again, we go into the function of a device and remove the emphasis of the assumed user. I can follow Hertz and Parikka through this, albeit with a bad taste in my mouth. As Parikka defends in “Media Theory,” “In the wake of the Kittler-effect, media archeology becomes a way to investigate not only histories of technological processes but also the current “archeology” of what happens inside the machine” (86).


Addressing data, I feel, is useful, and Parikka certainly makes a great argument for this, but his theoretical approach and method problematically erase the user of such devices. Is it not also worth viewing user data? As we saw in Erin A.’s presentation, we know that class effects ones ability to use and access basic technology. Race and gender likewise influence this. To me, this proposed approach works from an assumed “we,” othering individuals that cannot participate in this conversation. More than anything, I am curious as to why Parikka seeks to separate analysis of the user from analysis of the device, as if the device transcends its human creator or ecological consequences. Because of this, I’m not sure what to make of Hertz and Parikka’s statements on information technology “traversing political economy and natural ecology” or how technical media “taps into the temporalities of nature—thousands of years of non-linear and non-human history” (429).


My personal view is that this article makes many contradictory statements regarding media archaeology, and I’m not sure what to take away here. Just as science detrimentally seeks to exclude cultural theory, I feel that there is a danger to pretending that we may separate the device from the creator/user of the device for analysis or that we may eliminate responsibility from art methods.


MattinglyWhile reading “Zombie Media,” performance and installation artist Mary Mattingly, who meticulously catalogues her consumption in an online archive and has created giant sculptures composed entirely of waste, came to mind. Art21 follows her process in this 10-minute video, under which a journalist posses the question: “Do objects come with responsibility?” Mattingly’s art, creative process, and way of life center around the concept of planned obsolescence and one’s role in it as consumer. Similarly to circuit benders, she repurposes technological waste, “…what gets bent is not only the false image of linear history but also the circuits and archive that form the contemporary media landscape” (427). Where she differs from Hertz and Parikka, however, is by highlighting waste politically in our culture. Waste and consumption are not only the art but the method of the art itself. One can hardly separate the consumer from the technological products in Mattingly’s work.


A few questions that arise from my reading of “Zombie Media” and viewing of Mattingly’s art processes:

  1. How do users shape the technology we currently produce? Who is the user?
  2. Can we predict who will or will not have access to technology in the future?
  3. Can we predict what type devices will be created down the line?
  4. Do these things already influence the history of technology?
  5. Is history actually contingent to the study of media archaeology?


Some of these questions work in tandem with Hertz and Parikka’s assertions, while others, I feel, interrogate the relationship between the user and the device, as well as deconstruct who specifically benefits from this separation. While I have some reservations about jumping aboard “Zombie Media,” I feel that many of the points are valid and crucial to understanding Media Archeology as a field and some of the rhetoric and methodology behind it. Whether or not I fully agree with the article, I find it useful for probing my own understanding of the field and for locating some of the existing holes in terms of cultural theory.



Works Cited:


Hertz, Garnet and Jussi Parikka. “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method.” Leonardo 45.5 (2012): 424-30. Print.

Miller, Weseley and Nick Ravich. “Mary Mattingly Owns Up.” New York Close Up. 2013. Film.

Parikaa, Jussi. “Media Theory and New Materialism.” What Is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. 63-89. Print.

2 thoughts on “McGehee Post 10: Navigating Wasteland

  1. Marie-Christine Lavoie says:

    I am Marie-Christine Lavoie from Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec. I am commenting here as part of my coursework for professor Darren Wershler’s “Mess & Method” course on digital humanities.
    I thought this post was especially thought provoking for me. It also made me think back to a blog post I wrote for my course on Cell phone agency and my own recent problems with Apple care. The week I wrote that blog we looked at “Jim Johnson”/Latour’s notion of non-human agency; “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer” and Parikka’s “Media Theory and New Materialism”.
    I thought that Latour’s article was similar to the “Do objects come with responsibility?” question you refer to in your post. Not only might objects come with certain responsibility, but, as Latour believes, objects can and do hold agency.
    To start, I would like to look at this notion of planned obsolescence that made me think of my own post, particularly this idea of purchasing technological products with the knowledge that they will become obsolete: My friend upgraded his Iphone (4?) to Iphone 6s yesterday and it cost him something over 1000.00CAD$. He and the salesperson kept going on and on about how his four year old device was “way too old”. It is not rare to know someone who buys the latest Apple produce the minute they comes out, regardless of how old (or young) their “old” product is. It is not rare to know someone who upgrades their technology to “stay with the times”. We, as a society, have been indoctrinated into this system of consumption through corporations, advertisement, post-world war capitalism; in our schools, and at home. Something is broken? We can buy a new one. Don’t think too hard, just go to the store and buy a new one.
    Cell phones, like many products that make our lives easier, are now seen as some essential part of our lives and something that we cannot live without. Therefore, to some degree they hold power over us, but they also come with responsibility; product waste; especially batteries that can be dangerous if tampered with, potential health risk….
    You yourself explain that Macintosh products come to mind when you read “In other words, technological objects are designed as a “black box”—not engineered to be fixable and with no user-serviceable parts inside” (426). Additionally, they control us to a certain degree: “every time you want to know what a nonhuman does, simply imagine what other humans or other non
    -humans would have to do were this character not present” (Latour 299): how would most students today survive without their cell phones or laptops? We have an increasingly complex power relation between ourselves and our technologies-technologies that are constructed in a way that we have no access [black box] and that break down, or are outdated, at an alarmingly fast rate.
    Looking at consumer human-technology usage back in our grandparents times, we start realizing that it is all electronics that are designed as “block box”: microwaves, ovens, dishwashers, washing machines, televisions – these are not built to last but to break down. You could potentially try and fix these problems, but the pieces are expensive and sometimes it just cheaper to buy a new product. ( and Discovery channel documentaries talk about this). Additionally, opening these products is difficult, and voids your warranty. Another product that comes to my mind are sewing machines. I recently obtained an old 1950s Necchi Italian-made sewing machine. It is made of durable metal, straps and hard plastic. It can sew over 100 different stitches. It still works. Products are just not made to last anymore. These old sewing machine manuals (I still have mine), demands that the user learn the mechanics of the machine in order to take care of it. The learning curve is high; however, the machine is built to last as long as its owner is capable of providing care.
    Therefore, I completely agree, “Planned obsolescence is specifically a consumer capitalist issue, one that is destroying our planet”. The products are disposable, but somehow necessary, or at least, we are made to feel like they are. They hold power over us that we seem incapable of, or unwilling to, overthrow.
    I completely agree with you when you say; “I feel that there is a danger to pretending that we may separate the device from the creator/user of the device for analysis or that we may eliminate responsibility from art methods”. I think we need to find new methods of looking, analyzing, and commenting on our relationship to objects: how can we create a more equal relationship between ourselves and our products that will both enrich our lives and breakdown planned obsolescence? Is it even possible today on a large scale to breakdown this pre-defined relationship? Are we starting to see an emerging DIY community that seem to work on some level on notions of found art fighting the wasteland (such as perhaps Mary Mattingly)? While apple fans wait in line for the next product, is there a slow revolution taking place that will begin to change the way we consume and use products? I hope so. Your blog has really made me think about these ideas of over consumption, planned obsolescence, and waste.


  2. Ken says:

    Hi there! This is Ken Hunt, a student in Darren’s “Mess & Method” theory course.

    Your piece reminded me of my recent experience binge-playing the game Fallout 4, where the player must navigate a retro-futurist alternate history where advancements in nuclear technology prolonged the age of the ‘American dream’.

    In the game, the player makes use of various technologies, from rusted pre-WWIII relics to post-war laser rifles developed by an underground collective of scientists over two centuries. The aesthetics of these technologies vary greatly, as does the player’s ability to observe their functionality. For example: a ‘pipe rifle’ constructed out of scrap metal, showcases the component parts of the assemblage we refer to as a ‘gun’ (trigger, barrel, stock, etc.), while the innards of the ‘instutite rifle’ are encased in several rectangular boxes or containers that conceal its inner workings and evoke a sense of sleekness, akin to an Apple product.

    The game’s power armour suit ( is another excellent example of a technology that reveals its status as an assemblage. When entering the power armour suit, the player must climb in from the back (a nod to Soviet-era cosmonaut spacesuits such as this one: The frame of this armour, when no pieces of armour have been attached to it, reveals the various joints, valves, and other mechanisms that comprise the assemblage. A player can watch their avatar, as they climb into the armour, grasp the handle that allows them to control the larger hands of the mini-mech.

    Fallout 4 is a game in which the player navigates a wasteland, complete with ‘ghouls’ (radiation zombies). The idea that survival in this enironment is contingent not only upon a player’s ability to modify items, but upon their ability to scavenge while prioritizing what objects to pick up (some weight more than others, and will cuase a player to become encumbered more quickly, but such objects might also contain more useful materials). In the game, I found myself initially ignoring coffee cups (which can be broken down to retrieve ceramic, a material that can in turn be used to create certain armour modifications). However, as I progressed, I realized I needed a great deal of ceramic to make modifications to one of my armour sets, and had to backtrack to several ‘cleared’ locations in search of elusive white mugs, dinner plates, and other pre-war detritus I had thought I could ignore to save carry weight.

    Your comments on the role of objects in virtual space also made me think of the various ‘workshops’ the player can access in the game, where most guns and armour can be modified using materials scavenged from other objects (an old telephone might provide the screw needed to attach a silencer to a sniper rifle). This concept of literal deconstruction and DIY repair and modification necessitates a level of expertise that the player must ‘learn’ gradually by assigning skill points to skills that allow for more extensive modification of items. The irony is this: in a video game, a virtual environment, the player is made more aware of the materiality of the virtual objects of the game than they might be of the material objects they are using to play the game in the first place.

    Thanks for an excellent read!


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