A few weeks ago the Altman Fellows and Scholars—an interdisciplinary group of faculty at Miami—held their Fall symposium entitled “Networks and Power.” It was a successful, day-long event where students, faculty and visiting lecturers discussed a wide array of topics—from the politics of drone warfare to how networks allow us to imagine new forms of cohesion and togetherness, from the infrastructure of undersea cable networks to the “people’s microphone” used at the Occupy Wall Street Protests. The event was also associated with the Faculty Flash Mob that took place on November 10th in the King Library dining hall at Miami University, organized by Professor Denise McCoskey (Classics), Professor Ron Becker (Communications), and choreographed by Miami Student Caroline Farris. Professor Becker gave a lively talk about the mob at the “Networks and Power” symposium. Employing social networks and the flashy fun of viral dance mobs, the event was designed to catalyze a meaningful dialogue about networks of inclusion and exclusion at Miami University.
This year, Miami University’s Altman Fellows Program is organized around the topic “Networked Environments: Interrogating the Democratization of Media.” In the past few months we have been analyzing how citizens or “netizens” have increased access to both the consumption and production of media, partially due to the emergent networks of the early 21st century.
Is the democratization of media truly liberating the power of media and placing it in the hands of the people? Who is included and excluded from the process? What are the positive and negative aspects of networks? What can we learn from studying the history of different networks, performing a network archaeology of recent and past network forms? Are social networks like Facebook wonderful, new media forms that allow us to communicate and connect in productive ways or are they tools for gathering information about us, tracking our behaviors, and undermining our right to privacy?
Beyond these more superficial questions, the Altman Scholars have been studying the formal aspects of networks, asking how the network form challenges our traditional methods of interpreting media while inaugurating new, hermeneutic models of analysis that conceptualize networks as a catalysts for new forms of humanities research. Lisa Park’s talk at the Networks and Power Symposium, “Drone Media,” provided a wonderful example of a methodological approach that employed the non-representational structures of distribution and circulation to situate the powerful impact of the visual images that have emerged from US drone attacks in Pakistan. In my mind, Parks provided an excellent example of tracing the complexities of networks, mapping a participatory and journalistic documentation of “invisible” attacks in Pakistan which are then made visible to circulate and confront dominant networks of power that try to hide themselves. The import of Wendy Chun’s talk, which embodied the nodal explosion of connected epistemological and ideological thoughts withing an era of networks, was precisely the challenge that it presented to the audience to begin the process of reimagining power when the network form shatters our preconceived notions of an object of analysis that will not stand still. While being able to map the complex networks of contemporary life is a method for connecting the individual with a sense of his or her larger place in global culture, Chun begins to take apart the ideology and desire of mapping: what does it mean to be constantly called to map these networks? What happens when the search for (and analysis of) networks leads to production of more networks, thus increasing the difficulty in providing a “cognitive map” that can represent the network? Nicole Starosielski provided a wonderful explication of the material influences of networks (which are often deemed immaterial and friction free), demonstrating how these networks and their infrastructures reorganize space along colonial vectors of power and conceptual ideas of security. Starosielski seems to be creating a new form of media history and archaeology which employs the analysis of (culturally invisible) infrastructures in order to map historical changes through the friction of material networks and their so-called immaterial siblings. cris cheek delineated the historical precedents of leftist, decentralized organization, providing a pre-history for the people’s microphone in order to inscribe the act of speech within a decentered voice of change, invoking a backstory for radical, political narratives.
The Altman Program will hold another, much larger, conference in the Spring, from April 20th to 21st. If you missed the “Networks and Power” symposium, mark this event down on your calenders. The conference is called “Network Archaeologies” and will certainly be a strong and invigorating dose of thoughtful discussion, performance, and other events plumbing the depths of networks and their various histories. While I can’t promise more flash mobs I can promise mobs of flashy, intellectual fun.