The AIME of Media – Latour and New Media

Nowhere are media to be found among the list of beings that Bruno Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence has so far discovered. Even the concept of “communication” does not belong to the metalanguage of Latour’s pluralistic ontology. It would seem that these basic concepts of modern social theory are subsumed under the ideas of “association” and “mediation” and thus not a suitable matter for differentiation into networks of their own. However, the list is not complete. The door is open. But the threshold is high. The master himself does not make it easy to get through the door. In order to be acknowledged as a mode of existence, a network must have its own kind of crisis, hiatus, rupture, or breach, that is, there must be some reason, why actors make efforts to associate in a particular way. Furthermore, a network must have its own trajectory or direction of establishing continuity and jumping over the gaps. Legal associations are different from scientific associations, and these again are different from religious associations. Third, a network must also meet certain conditions of felicity or infelicity regarding what counts as “truth” for it. Quite obviously, legal truth conditions are different from religious, political, scientific, or artistic truth conditions. Fourth, networks “institute” beings of a certain mode and they do this for a certain purpose, function, or what Latour calls “alteration.” If a mode of existence, or a being, cannot be identified by these criteria, then it has no place in the list of modes of existence that the AIME project is assembling. Despite these hurdles, we ask if media and communication do not demand to be considered as modes of existence in their own right. Can a future media studies be based upon communication and media as a specific mode of existence?

This implies subjecting media to the four question test that Latour has proposed for modes of existence. It is important to note at this point that we are no longer talking about traditional mass media. When we try to walk through the door of AIME with media in our hands we do not take the newspaper with us, but the tablet or the smart phone. The first question we have to answer is whether or not media have their own problem, breach, disruption, or hiatus. All work, including networking, always begins with a job to do, a problem to be solved, a question to be answered. We suggest that media arise when connectivity and flow are disrupted, when spatial and temporal gaps block the flow of information in all forms. This does not require an ontology of substance. The gaps we are talking about are those between different programs of action and different setups. They are blockages of flow. The ontology of “irreduction” implies that existence or coming to be depends on attaining a voice of one’s own, with the help of others of course, by which one can demonstrate what one can do. Disconnection, isolation, blockages of all kinds that hinder the associations and thus the recognition and acceptance of any entity could be considered the hiatus specific to media networks. This is what must be bridged if entities are to receive their own voice and appear in the world. This leads to the next question. What trajectory do media follow? Corresponding to the specific problem that gives rise to associations of the media sort, the trajectory of media is to connect actors, to enable flows of information of all kinds, and to guarantee the flexibility of networks by accommodating new voices and new actors. The trajectory of media can therefore be termed connectivity, flow, and flexibility. The next question concerns the specific conditions of truth that a network has. The specific conditions of felicity or infelicity in media can be found in values such as transparency, participation, and authenticity. Misrepresentation, exclusion, closed systems, barriers to access and use of media, all these things amount to negating media, acting against the inherent trajectory of media. A final question must be answered if something is to be acknowledged as a mode of existence in its own right. What beings does a network institute? What specific kinds of beings do media institute? The mode of existence that arise in media networks might be thought of as actors, actants, or agents of all kinds, in general mediators. These beings are, of course, in all networks. There are actors in legal, scientific, religious, political, artistic, and legal networks. But where actors are, there are media as well. The tension we noted above in the concept of media between a general condition of the construction of meaning on the one hand and a specific technology, institution, or practice on the other surfaces within AIME as the question of the specific mode of being of media. In AIME there is no question of going back to the ontological and epistemological domains of modernity. If something is everything, this does not imply that it is nothing. Quite the opposite. Only if media are everything, do media become something, namely, a specific mode of existence that characterize a network with its own “alteration,” its own function and purpose. What then are the specific beings that flow through the media network? And what is the purpose of media?

We propose considering the specific being of mediation under the regime of the digital to be “information.” Information has come to the fore in discussions of being with regard to digital media. Information has a being of its own that is neither matter nor energy, as Norbert Wiener put it. Information is not data. Information is instituted the moment data are communicated. Communication enables a difference to make a difference. Communication is inscription and interpretation. Communication can be considered the specific “alteration” of media networks, that is, the specific kind of movement of information from one form to another. In science, for example, this happens by means of immutable mobiles and chains of reference. The alteration of networks of “fiction” is to “multiply worlds” (Latour, 2013, pp. 233-258). The specific purpose of “politics” is to “circumscribe and regroup” (pp. 327-356). Legal networks are designed to “ensure the continuity of actions and actors” (pp. 357-380). Organizations “change the size or extension of frames” (pp. 381-412). What about media? Communication opens up a “socio-sphere” in which the construction of meaning follows “network norms” that tend to give every actor a voice of their own. As all forms of agency in the digital age are inscripted in information, it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook, disguise, forget, or suppress what an actor does and can do (performance and competence). On the contrary, we find ourselves fighting in the courts for a right to forget. At the same time, informational actors break out of their silos and enter into unforeseeable associations of their own. Following these actors and their many different transformations, translations, enrollments, and programs is a task for which ANT has well prepared us. Despite Latour’s claims to have left ANT behind, for AIME networks are everywhere. Networks are that mode of being whose purpose is to “extend” associations” (pp. 47-68). And which network, despite its specific mode of being, does not do this? The study of how associations are made and extended such that information is instituted for the sake of communication, which opens up the socio-sphere, could become a program for media studies. Understanding media as a mode of existence and investigating their mode of being in the world of networks might prove to be useful for theorizing media studies after the end of media.