Media & The Materialism of the Encounter

Akihito Takuma, Lines of Flight, op.389, oil on canvas, 2013
Akihito Takuma, Lines of Flight, op.389, oil on canvas, 2013

“It is raining,” French philosopher Louis Althusser writes as an introduction to the underground current of materialism that runs through the history of philosophy (“The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” 167). But Althusser’s apartment window and the drops that inspired him to write manuscript that is “before all else, a book about ordinary rain,”[1] have been displaced by an even more ubiquitous window – the screen – and a new rain – the digital stream.

This article repeats Althusser’s materialist philosophy of the encounter. It is a materialist philosophy that arrives late in Althusser’s career to combine electric readings of Deleuze, Derrida, and Epicurus not present in his earlier writings on ideology, the state, and determinism. In repeating Althusser, however, this paper is not a return to Althusser – his conjuncture: debates within the French Communist party over Stalinism and the role of class struggle, or the philosophical legacy of Machiavelli and Hobbes – but rather, it chases the current of materialist philosophy as it flows into the field of media studies.[2]

Materialism is not new to media studies, to name a few examples: information theory has long quantified the ‘materiality’ of media for the purpose of scientific analysis; German media theory studies a markedly materialist dimension of media history that has expanded into the study of “assemblages or constellations of certain technologies, fields of knowledge, and social institutions that compose the media a priori for human experience” (Horn, “‘There Is No Media’,” 6); and recent scholarship on ontology and “new materialisms” has made media and mediation a common denominator for interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations (Parikka, “New Materialism as Media Theory”). The importance of repeating Althusser, however, does not follow from a trend within media studies but its objects of investigation; in particular, internet blogs and social media platforms. With the growing prevalence of ‘real-time Web,’ static pages are being replaced by information feeds that flow by like streams. What Althusser’s philosophy of the encounter offers is a materialism of the rain, the swerve, the encounter, and the take [prise] that constitute those streams (167).[3]

[1] Althusser’s book manuscript was edited down to a single article by François Matheron.

[2] The distinction between repeating and returning was made notable by Slajov Zizek, who suggests in an uncharacteristically Deleuzian moment of repetition as reinvention and becoming. See Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917.

[3] These atomistic concepts, especially the swerve (clinamen), are already common notions within media studies. The work of philosophical figures such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Ilya Prigogine, and Isabelle Stengers as important enough to the metaphysics of media to makes the Lucretian concepts Althusser is working with well known (see, for instance, Parisi and Terranova, “Heat-Death: Emergence and Control in Genetic Engineering and Artificial Life,” and Goodman, “Contagious Noise: From Digital Glitches to Audio Viruses,” The Spam Book, 125-40). Althusser readily admits that this philosophical philosophical tradition is not unknown, but instead characterizes it as too dangerous to be neglected and is therefore either mischaracterized or lacks the systematization of his four-part formulation (Underground Current, 168).

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