Accepted paper:

Elementary Forms of Elemental Media


Stefan Helmreich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Paper short abstract:

Recent conceptualizations of the classical elements of earth, fire, air, and water as elemental media demand attention to those processes that both constitute and disturb these forms. This paper looks at waves as processes that can both generate and jam such elementary forms of elementary media.

Paper long abstract:

In his 2015 book, The Marvelous Clouds, media theorist John Durham Peters argues that we should think of media as elemental, as already part of the substance of the given world. He unfurls this argument by working through the classical elements of earth, fire, air, and water, showing how each can serve as a channel for communication and creation for various sorts of Earthlings, from humans to birds to cetaceans. Waves — of sound and of water — skitter through the text as elemental epiphenomena, both facilitating and disturbing communication. In this paper, I dig into Peters's claims about elementary forms of elemental media, reading The Marvelous Clouds alongside Durkheim's and Lévi-Strauss's writings on the elementary as well as through contemporary writings on watery and geological media from such scholars as Mel Chen, Melody Jue, Eva Hayward, and Jussi Parikka. By asking what happens when waves both secure and undo the elementary forms of elemental media, I seek to unsteady what will count as figure and ground in cultural and scientific accounts of the biophysical world.

panel T122
Elements Thinking