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Elena Esposito - The Arts of Contingency

Elena Esposito - The Arts of Contingency

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Critical Inquiry 
31 (Autumn 2004)
2004 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/04/3101-0005$10.00.All rights reserved.
Platonee le tecniche 
The Arts of Contingency 
Elena Esposito
If we consider the present situation of the arts of transmission in thebroad sense of the phrase as Francis Bacon used it—namely, as the wholeof the procedures that circulate, record, andorganizeknowledge—wehaveto admit to quite a discouraging condition for theoreticalreflection.Whilethere exist many techniques in the sense of technologies, machineries,andinstruments, the ancient sense of art, as used by Bacon, has been lost. Inthis sense, art—the art of carpentry, for instance, or the art of navigationor persuasion—is something governed by rules that can be taught. Theserules indicate what to do, how to do it, and for what purpose.
On a con-ceptual level, there does not presently seem to be much to teach, in spiteof incessant reflection on media and of the multiplication of theories aboutmedia. Technologicaldevelopmentandmediapracticeproceedquicklybutalso proceed independently of theoretical reflection. Theory seems ratherto be concerned with integrating mostly uninterpretednewdevelopments:chat rooms rather than virtual reality (which was much theorized butquickly faded from general interest), the internet explosion instead of in-teractive television (which failed because of a lack of interest rather thanbecause of technological difficulties), very intelligent video games ratherthan (often quite stupid) artificial intelligence. We lack autonomous theo-retical categories that can deal with these developments. Instead of sur-prising and informing the development of technology, theory seems to becontinuously surprised by the evolution of technology.Media theory seems to be suffering from a kind of interpretive inade-quacy.Inmediaanalysis,forinstance,theorytendstopresupposeadubious
8 Elena Esposito / The Arts of Contingenc
A similarapproachcanbe foundin RaymondWilliams,
Television:Technologyand Cultural Form
(London,1974),wherehe arguesthatdiffusionis a secondaryaspectin the sensethatitcomeslater.Firstthere isredefinitionof the functionsandof the processof communication,leadingthen tonew techniquesfor diffusion.An exampleis lithography,whichwasdevelopedtoproduceportraitsto preservememoriesforthosewhoalreadyknew the representedpersonandwasused laterto overcomespatialandtemporaldistances(see in particular§ 1.3).I owe thisreferenceto JamesChandler.
final causality. One tries to explain the phenomena by starting from theeffects, as though a certain innovation had been successful because of itsusefulness or because of the advantages it implies.Butaninnovation,aswewell know, would not be new if it were not unknown before; and how canunknown (and hence imperceptible and, strictly speaking, also unintelli-gible) advantages motivate and foster the assertion of a new technique,overcoming the resistance that always opposes the modificationoffamiliarpractices? How can one examine the birth and consolidation of the newwithout slipping into aporias or tautologies?Problems of temporal coordination also emerge in the simple analysisof data. In the study of media, the presumed effects often seem to comebeforethecause,asexemplifiedbytheage-olddisputesovertherelationshipbetween the introduction of the printing press and the consequent socialtransformations of the Renaissance. Many of the innovations allegedlyen-abled by the new medium (such as the production of a great number of volumes, which was possible also in scriptoria, and the introduction of punctuation, references, and title pages, with which copyists had already experimented) seem to have actually preceded it, in a curious muddle of causalities.In my essay, I would like to propose a hypothesis: the difficulties of mediatheorycanbeconnectedwiththefactthatthedifferentapproaches—above and beyond their disagreements—tend to employ a concept of me-dium based primarily on
The weakness of studies of the artsoftransmissioncouldthenbeduetoanexcessiveemphasisontransmissionitself—to the detriment of the art as such and its other aspects. Certainly,the notion of communication is by now much broader than the mere dif-fusion of information, and also includes emotional, expressive, relational,and other aspects. The medium itself is no longer understood as a neutral
Elena Esposito
is professor of sociology at the University of Modena-ReggioEmilia. She has published several works on the theory of social systems, mediatheory, and social memory, including
Soziales Vergessen: Formen und Medien des Geda¨chtnisses der Gesellschaft 
(2002) and
Die Verbindlichkeit des Voru¨bergehenden:Paradoxien der Mode 
Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2004 9
In sociology,systemstheory, associatedmainly with Niklas Luhmann(for an overview,seeNiklas Luhmann,
Die Gesellschaftder Gesellschaft 
[Frankfurt,1997]) representsthe rathercontroversialand very complex attemptto researchsocietystartingfrom communicationrather than from people or the objectsof the world. Objects of sociologicalanalysisare thenfirst of all the ways and formsof communication,from which follow not only the configurationand the complexityof the conceptsused to considerthe world but also what, for a given socialformation,is the world: not an independentexternal datum but the external reference of communication.In this way, scienceand law, economicsand politics,religion,formalorganizations,love, and much else have been examined.For such an approach,the study of media is clearly central,even if at the moment there is no finished treatmentof this topic.Media, however, cannot appearas external instruments(typewriter,telephone, or televisionset) but as modalitiesthat configureand organizecommunication,first of all as its internalarticulations,which will then use these instruments.
diaphragm diffusing denotations and connotations with the least possibleinterference; the medium intervenes, influences, constructs,ordistortsthemessage(dependingontheviewofthestudent).Butingeneralitisthoughtthat the central point is the spreading of communication beyond the im-mediate perceptual context (as in writing) or beyond the personalizedsphereofthepeopleandthingsoneknowsorcouldknow(aswiththeprint-ing press). This feature of the medium should then explain its cognitiveeffects, like the ability to abstract or to modalize, with their respectiveconsequences for the general organization of semantics. One starts fromtransmission and eventually returns to the recording and organizationof information.In section 1 I will propose an alternative conception, the one of socio-logical systems theory, which starts not from a concept of the medium as aunity but from the difference between medium and form.
As we will seein section 2, this leads to considerationofthefamiliartechnologiesofcom-munication from the point of view of their capacity to loosen and recom-bine the elements of the consolidated forms. Transmission, that is, thecapacity to reach more receivers and in different ways, would then be only one of the aspects of this general reassessment of the relationship of thenecessary and the contingent, of the stable andthemutable,ofredundancy andvariety.Insection3thisapproachwillbetestedinthecasesofthemediaof writing and the printing press. In section 4 I will try to sketch the con-sequencesofthisapproachforthestillopenfieldofcomputersasamedium,specifically with regard to their communicative uses.
In the sociological view the problem of media is not primarily thestudy ofthefeaturesofsomeobjects,thatis,ofparticularinstrumentswithcertainpresuppositions and certain consequences. There is also this problem, of course, but prior to it there is the much more radical, self-referentialques-

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