Dark Media

I haven't blogged anything since October 2014. I used to really like writing and something about spending a while writing for other places with all the kind of lay pressures that brings have made writing a drudgery. I've got 400 posts on this blog and almost 500 on my old one so there was a period there where I enjoyed writing for myself as part of a process. Let's try that again.

Toward the end of Techgnosis, Erik Davis makes reference to the concept of 'Weird Media' by Eugene Thacker. (Yes, he of Kanye t-shirts and accelerationist bedroom walls.) Thacker's essay has a crack at laying out what he eponymously calls 'Dark Media' - loosely; media that are so good at what they do that they break the epistemological bounds of what we understand of that media.

Dark media can loosely be divided into three subcategories:
  • Dead media - The object is no longer in use but we still want or value its effects and properties. For example, gramophones may no longer be in popular use but we still have stereo systems that play music. 
  • Haunted media - The object is currently in use but in a non-normative way. This is particularly relevant to ghost hunting and its relationship with photography; the camera acts as a revealer, able to show things that the human sensorium cannot mediate. Haunted media can also act as portals - for instance the video tape from Ringu - which allow a connection between two different planes of reality - again exceeding the normative bonds of media where we assume that it can only mediate between what we understand as 'the real.'
  • Weird media - reveal a gulf or gap between the natural and the supernatural (Thacker refers to realities flatly as 'ontological orders.') Here, there is again a portal but no connection. The media reveals the negative, non-communicable invisible around us. Here he references Lovecraft quite heavily but is keen on the fact that the ontological order weird media connects only exists apophatically - eg; 'indescribable, unnatural, unlike anything I've ever seen, inhuman.'
I think an addendum could be made for 'hauntological media' inextricably linked to dead media; the stereo suffers from being haunted by the gramophone. I'm also not sure on the range that we could classify haunted media as expanding to in terms of 'non-normative.' In his examples, Thacker is keen to stick to mediation with the supernatural as examples of non-normative. But what about hacking? Or jugaad? There are also interesting projects that start to contemporise haunted media and consider how they relate to modern cultural hangups that may influence how we use them as portals to mediate modern value systems.

Where US house prices can be severely affected by reports of ghost sightings, Shing Tat Chung designed a 'device' for hunting ghosts that would be used by estate agents. You say that, but.

There's a whole range of other questions about how and why times come about when we think of developing haunted media and I don't want to start to approach them here; (I've done that elsewhere.) I kind of suspect that culturally our understanding of the limits and reach of media technologies is failing and therefore we're seeing these extra-media properties (surveillance, 'intelligence,' smartness) as 'magical' or 'haunted.' Right now, I'm more interested in what these media are than why they exist.

ASMR videos give a neat, tangible definition, to haunted media for me. Here, the YouTube video, a medium we know epistomologically is tied to video and audio acts as a portal to a wider sensroy experience. For those who experience ASMR, the online video is a medium that performs too well, going beyond the apparent visual and activating a euphoric experience. (As counter to Ringu where the video activates an horrific experience.) Wider to this, and building it's mythology are the questions about how exactly ASMR works, and for some whether in fact it is a real condition or memetic. (As if that distinction actually counts for something.)

Slender Man, as a meme, demonstrates the Internet itself as a haunted media. The 'ficitonal' effects of Slender Man have easily and tragically entered the 'real,' the Internet acting as a haunted network portal that allows slender man as a strange kind of second-order simulacrum to travel into the realm of the 'real' from the realm of collective fiction it originally inhabited.

So what of weird media? What does this start to look like when taken beyond the metaphorical vehicle of the horror genre Thacker leans on and brought into a real analysis of contemporary media? Thacker has a neat definition here:
The function of [weird] media is no longer to render the inaccessible accessible, or to connect what is separated. Instead, media reveal inaccessibility in and of itself - they make accessible the inaccessible - in its inaccessibility.
This 'accessibile inaccessibility' could also be termed 'visibility.' This tendancy is apparent in the raft of work being done to reveal hidden systems and infrastructures, particularly around surveillance art.

Erik Davies references glitches and noise as more than just technical faults but the 'flip side of another order of being leaking through.' Again, these artefacts are referred to apophatically - the feed has a glitch, it is not working. A 'weird' reading of this suggests that we instead say it is working too well and revealing more than we expect but cannot describe. Davies seems to indicate that as technology progresses, rather than clarifying what was previously thought of as the supernatural leaking through as glitches, that the opportunity for 'weird' multiplies

I'm not one for fetishising glitches, I kind of buy the old signal and the noise routine - it's fine to be fascinated by glitches as some sort of twitch in the curtain that reveals the working of the technology (a rendering of 'visiblity' - accessible inaccessibility) but I don't think they fall into any kind of realm of 'supernatural connection.'

I could try and make an argument for the good ole 404 page in fact being a weird media - something evidenced by its absence, an accessible inaccessibility. Here also falls redacted texts and censured data. Something we know is there but is impossible to access. But this isn't quite supernatural, it falls within the limitations of our understanding of the media - we know that we'll get 404's in the same way that we know we'll get glitches.

The key to weird media is that it reveals apophatic visions. Surveillance infrastructure, 404's and even non-human cameras are all describable, all real, all translatable within the limitations of their media. Thacker says that with weird media 'all objects inevitably withdraw into things.' Through weird media, objects are revealed for their 'thinginess.' This puts them beyond the realm of subjective understanding and highlights the impossibility of connection. In this sense, weird media may be the only truly 'supernatural' category of dark media and the only one I can't de-analogise.

I leave you with a reading of Ambrose Beirce's The Damned Thing.  In a similar way to which Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos has survived because of it's mythology built on text as a medium, Beirce's tale deals with unnameable, indescribable horror who's very absence as a visualised presence is enabled because of the negative-descriptive power of text as a weird media.
There are colors that we cannot see. And god help me, the Damned Thing is of such a color.