Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology
by Marianne van den Boomen, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens, and Mirko Tobias Schäfer, Editors
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2009
304 pp. Paper, € 32,50
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
The rich selection of essays gathered in this volume are a survey of cutting-edge research in the field of new media studies as well as a sampling of the type of research performed at the New Media and Digital Culture program at the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University. The blending of these two perspectives is undoubtedly one of the most attractive aspects of this book, which demonstrates a strong sense of pedagogy and clarity in each of its contributions, while craving for presenting new insights in a scientific domain that is strongly opened to contextual and cultural analysis, yet for the same reason also difficult to handle or at least to circumscribe.
The editors of this collection are not claiming to present a full-fledged state of the art of where the discipline stands now nor what it is actually standing for. Although well aware of what is being performed in the major research centres such as MIT's Media Lab (where one of the founding fathers and still collaborator of the Utrecht program, William Urrichio, is now teaching) or Montreal's NT2 and parallel centres, the Utrecht Department has tried first of all to achieve its own viewpoint on the practices and the discourses that are associated with the notion of "new media". The most striking, and dramatically important, achievement in this regard is the definition of digital culture as an illustration of material culture. Turning away from often very radical ideas on digitization as disembodiment, the Utrecht group rightly stresses the importance of the material aspects of digital culture, not only at the level of software as shaped by as well as shaping a large set of material operations but also at the level of the incorporation of this software in highly material hardware. The concept that the group has coined for this complex and multilayered form of materiality, namely "in-materiality", expresses in an exemplary way the will to find new paths within the broader approach of digital materialism.
Generally speaking, this ambition is successfully demonstrated in this book, yet in a way that remains rather "soft". Not in the sense that the concept of in-materiality proves only able to cover a tiny part of what is meant by digital culture, on the contrary: the topics and issues that are covered in Digital Material are important and wide-ranging, and strike a good balance between philosophical reflections -yet philosophy does not mean here disembodied conceptualism- and close-readings of sometimes very small phenomena. The book proposes excellent essays of, for instance, the status of the digital archive, the definition of new forms of indexicality, or the notion of audience participation, but it has no less attractive chapters on more miscropic themes such as specific discussion forums, innovations in e-learning environments, or music websites. If the overall impression of the book is however more "soft" than the editors would like to have it, this impression has more to do with the fact that the authors rely on a wide variety of secondary literature and theoretical framings to study each in their subfield the core issue of in-materiality. Some contributors are heavily influenced by psychoanalysis and authors like Zizek (who is of course not a psychoanalytical thinker in the traditional sense of the word). Others have a strong preference for remediation theories à la Bolter and Grusin or are involved in an in-depth rereading of Johan Huizinga. Still others privilege Goffman or Certeau, and so on. This is of course not a critique, for this diversity, which simply reflects the diversity of the new media fields in general, is the best warrant against uniformity of thinking. Yet the mere concept of in-materiality may seem a little weak or shallow to present the work of the group as fully homogeneous. Actually, after reading the book, one is more struck -and this again is not an unpleasant feeling- by the creative way in which most authors do something with the actor-network theory. Nevertheless, at a theoretical level the articulation of in-materiality and ANT remains a little underdeveloped. Corollarily, I think that the role of cultural media criticism as practised by Henry Jenkins might have been highlighted in a more explicit way. The focus on the "Utrecht concept" of in-materiality, however appealing it is, should not prevent the group to make more explicit its relationships to other approaches and theories. This is done in a wonderful way in the various texts on game theory, with very interesting rereadings of Huizinga (a must in a Dutch context, of course, but an author whose work deserves to be taken more seriously). But one misses at the end of the book a kind of global rethinking of all the theoretical threads that have been followed by authors who do not always share the same theoretical, critical, and historical framework. The essay by Mirko Tobias Schäfer, already excellent in itself, may be one of those that go a little further than others in gathering these threads, but it is still far from a "general theory" (provided the editors of this book wanted something like that, which is not sure).
The articles are gathered in five sections, respectively labelled "processor", "memory", "network", "screen", and "keyboard", and it is very positive to see that this structure is already an attempt of translating and instrumentalizing the general notion of in-materiality. Yet here as well, and personally I do not consider this a flaw of the book, the emphasis on social use and reuse, which exceeds always the division between the five basic categories, is very strong. New media theory remains in the very first place media theory, and theory should be in the very first place practice-based, hands-on theory. Digital Material manages very well to make these points very clear, and can therefore be considered a very welcome enrichment of the scholarship in the field.
As always, the status and level of the contributions is not the same, and some of the texts are not totally new. Some of them seem reworkings of other version, like the (excellent) essay by Jos de Mul, which contains throughout its paragraphs a list of references to figures that are not in the book (one guesses for copyright reasons, but the effect is a little strange in a well edited and carefully printed book).