Category Archives: Media Studies

Dissertation Reviews on Creatures of Artifice

Last week, Dissertation Reviews posted a review of my own doctoral thesis, Creatures of Artifice: Rodney Brooks and the Bioethics of Animated Machines. DR is a relatively new website (founded in 2010) that offers “friendly and uncritical reviews” of recently defended dissertations. What began as a fairly specialized forum for reviewing dissertations in Chinese history and Asian studies has quickly expanded to include research in science studies, bioethics, medical anthropology, and media studies, with the intention to keep growing. Continue reading Dissertation Reviews on Creatures of Artifice


Animated by Regret

Are our objects, our tools and media, animated by regret?

When it comes to consumer electronics especially, we show no gratitude to these things that we lusted after in the weeks before their launches, that we had been told and then believed would make us better workers, better and closer friends, more intimate and considerate sons and daught­ers and moms and dads. And, for the briefest of times, these things did what they had promised, after a fashion,more or less, at least as far as these things go. Then, it gradually became apparent that the full extent of the promise would go unfulfilled, even though our gadgets took up residence in our pockets and in our bags and travelled alongside our lives for a year or two. As soon-as the ads for the competing product became just that little more slick, or rumours of the next-generation began to circulate, complete with dubious photographs from the Chinese assembly plant where a dozen suicides had been reported and hushed up and investigated and subsequently acknowledged, the photos candidly blurry and indistinct, like a celebrity sex tape, then the cycle of desire revved up again, if ever it were truly idle.

What would it mean to ritualize the disposal of old, obsolete, or worn-out objects? Rather than dump them in landfills or send them for scrapping in some toxic village in Southern China or West Africa, what if we thanked with praise and reverence and ceremony in the yard or at a nearby church or temple?

Old needles and pins placed in tofu during hari-kuyo.
Old needles and pins placed in tofu during hari-kuyo.
On 8 February of each year, many Japanese participate in hari-kuyo, a funerary rite for dull and broken needles. At the end of the New Year’s festivities, just as the hard work of the coming year is to begin once more, women gather at Buddhist temples with their worn-out pins and needles to offer them up in large blocks of tofu or jelly, adorned with ribbons and accompanied by the prayer chants of the temple monks. They show their gratitude and reverence for the collaborative work these things put into the labour performed by the human women. It is not only a utilitarian bond, but a personal and affective one, as well, a sympathy sutured by confidence and secrecy, as many women put their painful thoughts and feelings into the tools and entrust them to the gods.

In Japanese folklore, tools and other household objects that do not receive the proper consideration risk transforming into demons called tsukumogami. The story often goes that objects that reach one-hundred years of age may receive a soul, become animate, and seek vengeance for abuse or neglect or abandonment. It is said that modern artefacts cannot become tsukumogami, mostly on account of the relative brevity of their usefulness, but also, for whatever reason, because the demons are repelled by electricity.

Tsukumogami gather to plot against the humans who have abandoned them.
Tsukumogami gather to plot against the humans who have abandoned them.

Today’s consumer electronics are generated and belong to a certain “generation” of devices, yet they do not often play a serious role in relations between human generations. Instead, such objects emerge and withdraw in an economy of waste. Too ephemeral and trivial to be passed on or inherited, they can only be used up—quite often long before they actually become inoperative.

How convenient that the regret and rancour of tsukumogami cannot animate the tools of the twenty-first century, or we might have to consider ways to honour the obsolete.

See See “Japanese tailors’ needles find soft grave in tofu,” via Reuters.

Grace in the System: Glitch Art and the Subversion of Technical Faith

Project Saxonfly

That glitchy animation to the right is a series of images that I manipulated using a process called “databending,” one of the techniques highlighted in the fascinating short documentary (embedded below) over at PBS Arts: Off Book about the emerging practice of Glitch Art.  For this little piece, which I call “Project Saxonfly,” I used .JPG photo of myself and one of a common housefly (found via quick Google search).  Then I changed the file extension for each file to .TXT, which caused them to open in TextEdit on my Mac.  I then took some inspiration from The Fly and cut, copied, and pasted chunks of text from one file to the other.  Thus I spliced the image data together, though the incomprehensibility of the data meant that there could be very little intentionality on my part.  When I was fairly satisfied that I had thoroughly corrupted the file, I closed it up, changed the extension back to .JPG, and opened it in back Preview.  I repeated this process several times, sometimes altering the “Nick’s Face” file, sometimes the “Fly” file.  Some of them ended up looking pretty interesting.  A lot of them didn’t, necessitating a parsimonious vetting of the final images.  After the break, you find a gallery of the stills that make up the animated .GIF above. Continue reading Grace in the System: Glitch Art and the Subversion of Technical Faith

Seven Days of Fire, Tokusatsu Style

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo is currently hosting an exhibition curated by Hideki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame, entitled “Kanchō Anno Hideaki Tokusatsu Hakubutsukan” (“Curator Hideaki Anno’s Special Effects Museum”). Continue reading Seven Days of Fire, Tokusatsu Style

Failed Sorcery at Menlo Park

Sam Van Olffen, Eve Future.  Many of Van Olffen’s images have become synonymous with steampunk and dieselpunk.  See more of his work at Blogspot.

The description that the fictionalized Thomas Edison gives, in Villers’ L’Eve Future, of the inner workings of the android Hadaly is entirely fabricated. It is a brilliantly imaginative bricolage of extrapolations based on Edison’s productions up to the early-to-mid 1880s (the novel was initially published in 1886).  The centerpiece of Hadaly’s design is a twin set of golden phonograph records that house the sum of her physiological and conversational behaviour.  In the novel, Edison is of course rather vague on the finer points of how this set up works in practice, at times suggesting that Hadaly would be able to respond appropriately to particular gestures and queries put to her, while at others he appears more modest in his claims, implying that her activities would run on a set schedule to which one would more or less become accustomed. Continue reading Failed Sorcery at Menlo Park

Pollution Hard and Soft

Let us define two [types of pollution] and clearly distinguish them from one another: first the hard, and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquids, and gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writing, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public, and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin. To be sure, the pestilential invasion of space by soft signs does not enter into the physical and chemical calculations mentioned above, for instance those concerning climate. But in combination with hard pollution, soft pollution proceeds from the same drive. Here is the result: of course, pollution comes from measurable residues of the work and transformations related to energy, but fundamentally it emanates from our will to appropriate, our desire to conquer and expand the space of our properties. He who creates viscous and poisoned lakes or garish posters is making sure no one will take away the spaces he has occupied, now or after he is gone.

Michel Serres, Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution? trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 41-42.