• Emily Dowdle

Humanities on the Edge Preview: John Durham Peters


In the first chapter of John Durham Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media entitled “Understanding Media,” Peters attempts to do just that – understand media. Drawing from various thinkers including Martin Heidegger, Bruno LaTour, Charles Peirce and Marshall McLuhan, Peters engages with the conversation over exactly what media is and what this definition of media means in the landscape of media theory and the writing of the history of media.

Media, Peters argues, is not what we might think it is. Media goes beyond the television shows, movies, music and news – this is mass media, Peters argues. Media is the logistical media of the census, names, accounts, archives, calendars and so on whose job it “is to organize and orient, to arrange people and property, often into grids. They both coordinate and subordinate, arranging relationships among people and things” (37). Media is the recording media that “compress time” and the transmitting media that “compress space” (37). In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Peters states: “’media' is one of those terms whose meaning is as imprecise as a plate of spaghetti” (“The Anthropoid Condition”). Media, argues Peters, is anything that communicates meaning from the “old” technologies of speaking and face-to-face interaction to the iPhones that have become extensions of our limbs. Quoting David Hendy, Peters writes that “In writing the history of media, we are, in effect, writing the history of everything else” (29). In order to understand media, we must also understand “fire, aqueducts, power grids, seeds, sewage systems, DNA, mathematics, sex, music, daydreams and insulation” (29). Media theory then, “at its most ambitious,” is a successor to metaphysics; to study media is to study being – media becomes a new ontology.

A crucial part of this new understanding of media and its study is the notion of infrastructuralism. Whereas structuralism is concerned with principles of thought and post-structuralism with gaps, aporias, and the breakdown, infrastructuralism is concerned with those things that we may never see or even think about. Infrastructuralism, explains Peters, finds its fascination in "the basic, the boring, the mundane, and all the mischievous work done behind the scenes. It is a doctrine of environments and small differences, of strait gates and the needle’s eye, of things not understood that stand under our worlds" (33). The infrastructuralism is that which finds meaning in the supposedly meaningless – infrastructural media is that media which stands under (giving way to the pun of the chapter: “Understanding Media”). Infrastructural media is the aforementioned logistical media, it is that media we never think about but still coordinate our lives; like the infrastructures of sewer systems, highways, railways and so on, we may never fully see these structures but still feel their effects. Marvelous Clouds is a study of many of these infrastructural media - what seems mundane and monotonous is actually fascinating – “studying how boring things got that way is actually a good way never to be bored.” Media are not simply vessels for meaning but rather “media are our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are. This gives them ecological, ethical, and existential import” (15).

Media not only creates our environment, but also is our environment. “The concept of media,” argues Peters “was connected to nature long before it was connected to technology” (46). From ancient Greece and Rome to medieval times, and the modern era, media and the Medium from which it is derived has also stood for something in the middle of things. Taking his cue from American transcendentalists who sought to understand the relationship of experience and nature, Peters argues that "this does not mean that the sea, fire, or the sky are automatically media in themselves but that they are media for certain species in certain ways with certain techniques; in seeing media as ensembles of nature and culture, physis and techne, I try to stir together semantic strains that speak to a historical moment in which we cannot think of computation without thinking about carbon, or of the cloud without thinking about data" (49). On the clouds that are in the title of the text but do not receive a full chapter tho themselves, Peters states that “clouds illustrate media ontology.” Clouds raise fundamental questions about where significance lies, they act as historical markers, they are elemental backgrounds and beg the question of how we “record phenomena that exist in time and how to represent ones that do not conform to symbolic system” (“The Anthropoid Condition”). Clouds illustrate the way in which media is elemental and environmental, how media works in concert and is nature.

Ending this chapter, Peters gives weight to his project arguing that: "Media are not just pipes or channels. Media theory has something both ecological and existential to say. Media are more than the audiovisual and print institutions that strive to fill our empty seconds with programming and advertising stimulus; they are our condition, our fate, and our challenge. Without means, there is not life" (52). To study and understand media in its entire expanse, then, is to study and attempt to understand life and being itself.

Works Cited

Peters, John Durham. “Understanding Media.” The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

---, “The Anthropoid Condition.” Interview by Brían Hanrahan. Los Angeles Review of Books. Los Angeles Review of Books, 10 July 2015. Web.

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