Review of Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
280 pp. illus. 67 b&w. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
Shannon Mattern’s Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media reads the city anew. It is a history of ether and ore, as her introduction coins the approach, that are the two poles as the co-determining forces of knowing about materials, and materials that provide the infrastructure for knowledge and media. Smart cities are written as part of histories of thousands of years and media is conceptualised broadly enough to include the variety of cultural techniques from use of building materials to the ephemeral notes, sounds, patterns and practices that defined urban space much before the digital. While some architectural theorists and critics might claim that up until recent time we have operated in data-poor culture when contrasted with the explosive abundance of data since the 1990s, Mattern turns this assumption upside down to demonstrate the richness of different sorts of materials, formations and information that have constituted the built environment. As a media archaeological study – a position that Mattern does not digest without a critical engagement with some of the pros and cons of the field – it draws on a wide range of sources, sites, geographies and disciplinary discussions to compose an image of media practices of urbanity. And a composite image it is: the city is visual, aural, olfactory and more. It is a site of writing of many forms from casual to industrial, as Mattern argues referring to materials of inscription (such as clay) and early forms of writing (such as cuneiform).
One key reference point becomes infrastructure, a key term of past years of media studies including work by Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski and others. But infrastructure is not merely the nuts and bolts, steel, cement and wires that are at the ground and underground of the city, but also a temporally stretched perspective. It is alongside this temporal stretch where also the argument builds up. Infrastructure exists as residual layers on top of which media emerge again and again. Cities and urban settlements build on their own historical legacy, sometimes ruins, in ways that stores always some part of this material condition as part of its future.
The book takes us for a ride that is architectural, mediatised and geographically vast. It is almost too dizzying when the text transports us through (admittedly apt) examples from New York to Bethlehem, L.A. to Mecca, Baghdad to London and many places in between. Some of the examples become anecdotal, although underline that the story is global and yet always situated. But of course, materials travel, even architecture and buildings travel. Reconstruction of the Palmyra Arch is one such traveling part of materiality that is connected to various political contexts of cultural heritage as well as the colonial roots of archaeology. Hence, is it in both cases a question of colonial infrastructure like when 3-D printing brings to London the once, or twice, already destroyed piece of urban materiality from the Middle-East. “What does it mean to have Western universities, tech companies, and capital transform the culture of a non-Western city into a mediated artefact, and then dictate its circulation? Whose interests are served when the technological, intellectual, and financial elite marshal their resources to resuscitate, to promise immortality to, a particular instantiation of a city that has already weathered the multiple cycles of history across its multimillennial existence (even the arch itself restored in 1930)?” (152). Hence, this also raises a broader question of politics of methodology of visual culture: at whose scale, at which angle is the media and the city approached? From the aerial perspective to the close-up of a city street and the casual scribble attached to a lamppost, from the grainy surface of stone, the acoustic environment of a street to the conditions of detaching images, sounds and affects of a city into another context. How far or close is one to the city and the sources that tell of the city? That is also a question that underpins some different approaches in media archaeological methodology.
The book delivers a range of excellent questions, answers and ideas how to think the lived qualities (to use a term from Brian Massumi) of time. Mattern is a writer who is able to mobilize detailed material in exciting ways. What strikes me is also how she is an educator whose work is entangled with her teaching. This might be a rather anecdotal thing to mention in a book review, but the way in which she also acknowledges the years of teaching and students as part of the scaffolding of the book itself makes it a significant part of methodology too. From classrooms to archives, from architectural sites to infrastructures of knowledge such as libraries, Mattern acknowledges the sites where our cognitive work takes place and situates itself among collectives. And the city thinks much more than its human inhabitants think. The implied lesson is that there’s so much intelligence embedded in the routes and sites, architectures and automated habits that are formative of why the urban functions already as an intelligent system way before computers. Besides offering a rich scholarly study, Mattern’s book is useful to designers and architects who are interested in developing alternative ways of thinking about the media+city link than the supposedly new smart discourse. Sometimes the age-old is not the worn out.