Media, the Anthropocene, and American studies

The purpose of this post is to diagnose the Anthropocene and to explain why a philological approach to American cultural studies can bring a cure. A related post with a video can be found here.

The “Anthropocene” is largely defined as the harmful effects of human activities on the earth. It sounds like an ecological problem. But already in the 1960s, thinkers like Gregory Bateson saw the social dimension of ecology. Such thinkers further posited that ecological thinking, which is to say thinking that emphasizes interrelationships, is needed in response to these problems, also defined as complex and “wicked” (Rittel & Webber 1973). If we can agree that the contemporary world calls for increased interrelational thinking, it is relevant that hermeneutics, which is the study of textual interpretation and the interpretation of meaning, traditionally takes this as a focus. Hermeneutics belongs to the disciplines of philosophy and philology. It is related to American cultural studies where that new discipline seeks to interpret culture as a text (by way of Geertz 1973).

The cultural production of the Anthropocene is predominantly material and technical. It is very complex. The technical layer is so ubiquitous as to begin to penetrate layers of perceived, immediate reality. This can be illustrated.

Most people spend much of their day looking at screens (computer, ‘telephone’). This is a material layer. Even though most of the content appearing on these screens is termed as coming from ‘the cloud’, philologists point to how this word is a misnomer, which again points to a material terminal: someone else’s server. (A server is a computer that sends information to other computers.) Servers can adjust how people see reality through the scale and speed of the types of information that is sent. For example, multiple data points can be gathered about an individual and aggregated and fed through algorithms that function at speeds of up to four million times faster than the human nervous system. That output can be used to ‘tailor’ what information that individual sees, such as on search results. And that individual’s behavior in response to that ‘tailoring’ in turn gets fed through the system which continues to operate such as to direct behavior.

This is an example of why media studies not only needs to be updated to include, for example, at least basic mathematical modelling. It is also an example of why media studies is key. What do they have to do with American cultural studies? The answer lies in who the providers of this infrastructure and its services are. That they are predominantly American is meaningful. How did America succeed in achieving such dominance? Answering this question further helps understand the telos or purpose of the media. This is a rhetorical problem. And one affecting our daily experience. Rhetoric is a domain of philology and experience is a domain of phenomenology which is a domain of hermeneutics…

This post was spontaneously written between 7:45-8:15 as an experiment.

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