Models, Metamodels and Contemporary Media
The Fibreculture Journal and Open Humanities Press
Issue 12 of the Fibreculture Journal marks the exciting event of the journal joining with Open Humanities Press. OHP is a major initiative in online publishing in the humanities, ‘an international open access publishing collective in critical and cultural theory’.
Those of us who have worked on the Fibreculture Journal from 2003 are very happy to be invited to join with OHP, and grateful to the organizers, especially Sigi Jöttkandt, Gary Hall, Paul Ashtonand David Ottina, for all their work bringing OHP into being.
The Fibreculture Journal has always been fully committed to online and open access publishing, and to the best in critical and cultural theory. It has now published 84 articles on a range of critical issues in what was, when we began, internet and new media studies. In the period of 5 years since the journal began, “new media” studies has gone mainstream. “New media” themselves have infected, transformed and sometimes undermined all previous media, to the point that some traditional media have recently begun perhaps to look a little like “heritage” media. Galvanized by the OHP initiative, we are currently reviewing and reorganizing our operations in order to adapt to these shifts in contemporary media. We will also expand our ability to publish articles and make use of the latest technologies of publication and open discussion.
Issue 12 – Models, Metamodels and Contemporary Media
This issue of the Fibreculture Journal arose from conversations the editors had in 2006 in Sydney. We realised that we were both interested in the question of the roles that models play in cultures, and this quite separate to the question of whether these models were accurate or not.
The issue pays close attention to the roles that models play in contemporary media, the adequacy of these models to new media cultures, and the state of methods and disciplines based upon various models. There is a surprising range of articles in this issue, but this range in itself demonstrates that the issue of modeling is central not only to media studies, but to media production and media use (as the two of these increasingly merge). The range of articles here also reflects what is perhaps a proliferations of models – and questions about modeling – that accompanies the proliferation of ecologies in which contemporary media find themselves.
The issue departs from Félix Guattari’s suggestion that new, transdisciplinary metamethodologies are needed in order to upset existing formations of power and knowledge. It contains discussions of the modeling operations involved in contemporary media practices and cultures, and of the invention of new models in a transdisciplinary context. It also contains critical evaluations of the current mix of models at work (and play) within new media cultures. Several articles also detail the complicated tangle of the histories of media thinking, media practices and models, even as these histories meet something of a fork in the road when confronted by digital and networked media. At the same time, the emergence of metamodels – and perhaps the very concept of metamodelization – allow us to reconceive the potentialities of media histories. These histories are brought into fuller contact with a more flexible ‘post-media’ society, as Janell Watson describes it in this issue.
In what follows we will first give a more detailed description of what is at stake in modeling and metamodeling and second give a brief description of the specific approaches to these issues in the articles published in this issue.
On the Passage from Modeling to Metamodeling
Modeling operations involve petrified representations that have absorbed and arrested a-signifying semiotic flows and reconstituted them in meaningful ensembles as static, central reference points. Such models contain simplified core components that are safely repeated, soberly recoded, delicately redrawn and augmented in applications to specific phenomena. However, models operate largely by exclusion and reduction, tightly circumscribing their applications and contact with heterogeneity. The world of models is arid, lacking ambiguity and uncertainty.
By contrast, metamodeling operations – not to be confused with higher order or general modeling – introduce movement, multiplicity, and chaos into models. Metamodeling de-links modeling with both its representational foundation and its mimetic reproduction. It softens signification by admitting a-signifying forces into a model’s territory; that is, the centrality and stability of meaningfulness is displaced for the sake of singularity’s unpredictability and indistinctness. What was hitherto inaccessible is given room to manifest and project itself into new and creative ways and combinations. Metamodeling is in these respects much more precarious than modeling, less and less attached to homogeneity, standard constraints, and the blinkers of apprehension. It is not, however, completely without constraints.
How, then, does one get from modeling to metamodeling?
Models are imperfectly representational. Their simplicity makes them partial and limited. Some very abstract models like those of pure mathematics and pure theory are not descriptive in a literal sense of visual mirroring and may be used to advance certain kinds of claims without implying the pre-existence of empirical data to ground them. Other models display varying kinds and degrees of similarity with real objects and processes, but the static visual and spatial dimensions of models convey weakly dynamic processes and only vaguely suggest what a fuller picture might look like through the partial connections with the features they present.
Models mark their territories: as cognitive aids to discovery; as guides for thought and exploration; as creative aprons that helps inform imaginative extrapolations and build new hypotheses; as instantial patches that instantiate the axioms of a theory; as representational swaths that bear upon the world in some designated manner, minimally or maximally, in matter or in mentality. Models occupy a good deal of property and have the capacity to bewitch users into opting for sedentary iterations of the same schema. Much modeling is no more than an exercise in tracing.
On the other hand, models are not obviously or exclusively representative of a real. Their axis of reference is primarily with other models that purport to model the same things. These other models may be arranged hierarchically such that higher models refer to lower ones or, one looks into the future ‘not to predictions about data, but to predictions about a model of possible data’ on the basis of high level models (Giere, 1999: 55). Models may be about other models. However, there may be isomorphism between models and thus their components are perfectly analogous. The important relation in this instance is between the model and the theory it satisfies and other models that do the same, only better, or worse, or equally, maybe just differently, and these differences may be themselves modeled, and compared.
In a remarkably compact phrase, Myrdene Anderson and Floyd Merrell (1991: 3-4) state: ‘models reek of iconicity’. This claim has quite interesting implications. It entails that models may be distinguished from representations: ‘”Modeling” captures the complementation, the provisionality, the counterfeit involved in open-ended synergies. “Representing” by comparison conjures up a highly targeted, a priori, nonproblematic closed system’ (4). Somewhere between determinate reference and its rejection stands this deployment of C. S. Peirce’s icon. For Peirce, icons were semiotic phenomena best described through likeness (mental photograph, diagram, analogy, image). ‘The Icon is the visual essence of model building’, as C.W. Spinks writes (1991: 445). Peircean icons are not only linked to visuality but also to discovery, concept generation, and experimentation based on observation. However, the relation between the iconic sign and the object to which it bears a likeness or with which it shares some characters does not entail representation in the strict sense of validating the object’s existence. Indeed, icons do not provide a guarantee of the existence of the objects they resemble; they are strictly speaking hypothetical signs linked closely to possibility that generate concepts in the minds of those observing their qualities. Although icons are also subject to existential grounding (indexicality) and proof (symbols) they are loosened from the demands of a rigorous referentiality. Additionally, icons have an array of nuanced classes of semiotic relations.
Deleuze and Guattari have taught us the importance of liberating the diagram both from the yoke of the Saussureanism and the Peircean icon. Guattari developed the semiotic category of diagrammatism through the division of icon and diagram along the lines of signifying semiotics and a-signifying semiotics, the latter involving signs which are more deterritorialized than icons and which work without the authority of a signifying semiology. Diagrams are irreducible to icons, Guattari contended, because icons remain encysted in pre-established coordinates, beholden to a meaning they cannot do without.
It is via diagrams that the passage from modeling to metamodeling takes place. Importantly, the diagram’s productivity entails that metamodeling is productive of a new kind of reality; it functions; forces things together; doesn’t need meaning, just the manufacture of it. Diagrams get models moving and in full flight they become metamodels. But wait. Metamodels must be able to account in some way for their own vigor. They cannot simply be, of course, modeled (slowed down, solidified), but are themselves philosophically diagrammable (mappable yet a bit sketchy), at least with reference to specific domains. Diagrammaticity is a like slice of chaos released by a metamodel and which opens up a new world through which it coils itself along, like a virtual worm. Yet worms are tightly scripted. This is the metamodel’s mechanism of constraint, which echoes the machinic rigor and automatism of a-signifying trigger signs. The diagrammatic metamodel remains exploratory, fulfilling, and not at all static, because its constraints are productive, yet they filter pure potential. Caution and sobriety are urged in the face of creative proliferation, and lest this kind of happy talk prove too overwhelming, let’s add that the recourse to the model’s purchase on representation cannot be ruled out (even if it is striated by non-representational lines). Metamodels are, in this respect, models of hybridity. Metamodels unfurl vast discursive and non-discursive worlds with multiple semiotics engaging both representational and non-representational processes across actual and virtual domains. The sections of such worlds are not equally accessible. Self-powered original and imaginative flights are not always incarnated in actual matter and escape coordination of any type and elude capture by identification, roaming far from anything that might crystallize them. Sometimes this is visualizable, but not exclusively. For the afffectual dimension of metamodels must be considered, as well. Our task here is to release some of the potential enveloped in metamodeling to account for new media, affecting and being affected in the process, attentive to constructive constraints in the unstilling operations of our contributors, and on the lookout for sources of pollution.
The unstilling operations in issue 12 of the Fibreculture Journal are wide-ranging. There are two discussions of Shannon and Weaver’s central model in the history of both thinking about and using media – or should we say the model that has created the very idea of a centre to thinking about and using media. These discussions ‘unstill’ Shannon and Weaver without the all-too-easy gesture of throwing them away. They find themselves alongside discussions of the tensions surrounding computational and other approaches to modeling in architecture, the tagging of photographs in Flickr, the possibility of a mobile media commons or public, and a detailed examination of the implications for contemporary media of the complex relations between models of media and of thinking processes.
The issue begins with Janell Watson’s gloriously subtle and clear unpacking of Guattari’s concept of the meta-model. Watson examines the metamodel’s emergence from Guattari’s sometimes forgotten yet intensive engagement with the work of Jacques Lacan. In the process, she makes what is at stake regarding models and metamodels for media cultures very clear. In particular, Guattari’s concept of a post-media culture is clearly located as emerging from a long engagement, on the part of both Guattari and Lacan, with cybernetics and a culture immersed in machinic practices. Pia Ednie-Brown’s article on modeling in contemporary architecture manages to attain a delicate balance between a complex discussion of emergence and computational design in architectural modeling on the one hand and, on the other, the further complications of embodied and affective contexts which challenge any form of modeling.
This is followed by the two transversal rethinkings of the work of Shannon and Weaver, by Gary Genosko and Steven Maras. Although they take their engagement in very different directions, both these articles begin by dismissing both the common rejection of Shannon and Weaver and the easy acceptance of their famous model for general communications systems. The result is both the discovery of new life in Shannon and Weaver’s model in the context of a broader metamodelization, and some striking reconceptions of fundamental issues in the history of media theory. Focusing more on the work of Weaver than Shannon, Genosko returns to the embodied contexts of telegraphy in order to open up both the history and present of the real, messy interactions involved in media work. Maras takes another look at the key concept of transmission, in the history of both media theory and cultural theory, the latter particularly as it is used in Stuart Hall’s crucial discussion of the relations between media and culture in ‘Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse’ (1973, 1980). Maras finds more of the concept of transmission in Hall’s work than is often believed. In doing so, he allows for a much more complex understanding of the relations between transmission and sign systems. Maras then turns to the work of Régis Debray, who has presented a very different concept of transmission as part of his ‘mediology’ (Debray, 2000: 122). In all, Maras makes clear the full extent of what is at stake in the various modelings of transmission in relation to other key components of media models and practices.
Mat Wall-Smith’s discussion of models, mind and media folds a number of new aspects into what has, in this issue, become itself a complex ecology of practices, models and metamodelisations. Wall-Smith takes recursion as a central if destabilising factor: in media events and in the models of media events; in events of thinking and in models of thinking processing; indeed in the relations between all of these. In doing so, he stages a fascinating meeting of the work of contemporary thinkers Brian Massumi (on the autonomy of affect) and Bernard Steigler (who so completely understands the extent to which the human is technical, in fact mnemotechnical, being). Wall-Smith arguably rewrites almost the entire context of media events. Yet he does so in a manner which insists on openness and contingency.
Gerard Goggin’s discussion of the models and politics of mobile media raises fundamental questions about the discourses and political formations surrounding mobile media. He identifies some troubling gaps in the thinking about mobile media that also open up potential for quite different social contexts of mobile media use. Goggin is particularly focussed on the possibility of a new type of Commons spread across mobile media networks, at a moment when most discussions of Commons restricted it to the Internet, as normally conceived. He also begins to open up the very attractive possibility of mobile publics.
Jan Simons demonstrates how much can be achieved when traditional assumptions and models are turned on their head. He does so in a rich analysis of tagging practices on the sociable media photography site, Flickr. It is common at the moment to fetishise a near future, rigidly ordered (often by experts) semantic Web. It is often assumed that this will function neatly and smoothly, as opposed to what is often seen as the clumsy and non-expert use of metadata such as tags by ordinary “folk”. Simons points out that this all depends on fairly strict models of media practice, control and indeed of language, in which the best that can be hoped for is that somehow the “folksonomy” involved will emerge with something like a coherent order – one without too many contradictions or too much inconsistency over time. Simons demonstrates that this is a grounding assumption in much contemporary media practice involving metadata. He then goes on to show the great value of abandoning such assumptions in favour of an analysis of tagging as an ongoingly open, and in fact highly effective, practice of natural language. Finally, in a detailed and coherent account of the history and present of theories of technological determinism, John Potts puts “medium theory” back on the agenda. However, he does so in order to map out a much more interesting pathway than usual, between the social context of media technologies and the properties of the media technologies themselves.
We think this issue of the Fibreculture Journal is much more than a snapshot of important issues in contemporary media cultures and theories. It is more of a high resolution panorama, if one can conceive of a panorama that is constantly morphing into new shapes. We also hope this issue will give support to those who do not wish to subscribe to given models once and for all time. Such researchers might also prefer not to participate in media research merely by staging gladitorial contests to the death between their own favourite models and those of others. Instead, the work in this issue might prove useful to those who wish to use models, but perhaps only in the context of an ongoing metamodelization.
Gary Genosko is Canada Research Chair in Technoculture at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada. His recent work has focused on the intersections of administrative technology, race, and alcohol in historical context. He is currently working on ‘Phreaking the Maple Leaf’ – Canadian hackers, phreakers, and anti-surveillance cyborgs.
Andrew Murphie (https://www.andrewmurphie.org/) is Editor of the Fibreculture Journal and Associate Professor in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts, University of New South Wales, Australia. Recent publications include: ‘Performance as the Distribution of Life: from Aeschylus to Chekhov to VJing via Deleuze and Guattari’, ‘Differential Life, Perception and the Nervous Elements: Whitehead, Bergson and Virno on the Technics of Living’ and ʻDeleuze, Guattari and Neuroscienceʼ.
Debray, Régis. Transmitting Culture trans. Eric Rauth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
Giere, Ronald N. ‘Using Models to Represent Reality’, in Lorenzo Magnani, Nancy J. Neressian, and Paul Thagard (eds.) Model-Based Reasoning in Scientific Discovery (New York: Kluwer Academic, 1999).
Hall, Stuart. Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse (Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, Occasional Paper, Media Series: SP No. 7, 1973).
Hall, Stuart. ‘Encoding/Decoding’, in Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis (eds.) Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies 1972–79 (London: Routledge, 1980), 128–138.
Anderson, Myrdene and Merrell, Floyd. ‘Grounding Figures and Figuring Grounds in Semiotic Modeling’, in Myrdene Anderson and Floyd Merrell (eds.) On Semiotic Modeling (Berlin: Mouton, 1991).
Spinks, C.W. ‘Diagrammatic thinking and the portraiture of thought’, Myrdene Anderson and Floyd Merrell (eds.) On Semiotic Modeling (Berlin: Mouton, 1991).