Con­fe­rence Me­dia Trans­at­lan­tic IV - Traf­fic

March 29 – 31, 2012, Room B3.231, University of Paderborn, Germany

Aiming to bring together media scholars from the United States, Canada, and Germany, the conference continues a series of symposia that began in 2007. After "Re-Reading McLuhan. An International Conference on Media and Culture in the 21st Century" (2007), "Media Theory on the Move. Transatlantic Perspectives on Media and Mediation" (2009) and "Media Theory in North America and German-Speaking Europe" (2010), the conference scheduled for 2012 focuses on "traffic".

Media products and signs travel just like things and people; constantly flowing, they overcome space and time, partly on communal and partly on specific networks. Traffic is the sum of its parts, made up of an infinite number of acts of transport and transfer. It is, however, more than that, because traffic has its own logic and forms its own structures and rules. Scientists from different fields will follow the tracks of Harold Innis and discuss the media as a form of traffic.



Thursday, March 29: 


02:00 p.m. Conference Opening / Introduction 


02:30 John Peters (University of Iowa, USA)

Media as Traffic Between Nature and Culture

Media studies has a tradition of offering ever grander accounts of itself, and I join in the escalation here: media are infrastructures that regulate traffic between nature and culture. They play logistical roles of providing order and containing chaos; they enable being in its historicity. Taking seriously the metaphors of media as environments and as bodies, I explore some odd objects for media studies – such as dolphins, fire, plants, time, and weather – in order to push as far as possible the claim that media give order to the world. Along the way, I deal with the constant rebuke that meets infrastructural or logistical media theory – that it does not care about content – exploring what content might even mean at all.

Innis, McLuhan and Co.

03:30 Gabriele Schabacher (University of Siegen, Germany)

Traffic as 'dirt experience'. Harold Innis' tracing of media

The paper focuses on the relationship between Harold A. Innis' writings on political economy and his later communication theory. It aims to reconstruct the ethnographic concern ("dirt" research) in Innis' early writings as a result of a specific situatedness of his work. By following the indigenous practices and tracing the material infrastructures of several trade routes (fur, lumber) Innis' theory articulates an understanding of transfer in the sense of both transport and media techniques, i.e. communications. In tracing global infrastructure networks back to localised procedures, the different and intervening agents inherent in the process of traffic become visible again.


04:30 Coffee Break


05:00 Jana Mangold (University of Erfurt, Germany)

McLuhan's comprehensive traffic science

In the chapter „Roads and Paper Routes“ of Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan takes up the image of viewing the „media as a form of traffic.“ He treats the relationship of forms of transport and communication media in the light of social and political developments throughout history. Hence, conceptions of traffic described in the history of economics (Innis) but also in town planning (Geddes) or architecture history (Giedion) can be traced in his work. Moreover, in McLuhan's reading of the historical developments of traffic (forms of transport, social infrastructures, information movement) the image of „media as forms of traffic“ was never „only“ an image or a metaphor. The very understanding of media takes place in, by and through an understanding of traffic processes. In connecting transport to metaphor in the Greek term „metapherein“, McLuhan extends the image to an instrument of knowledge, leading his survey of electric media. The paper proposes to investigate the complex of traffic, metaphor, and media in McLuhan's writing to show that media theory could be considered as the comprehensive traffic science which always aimed to describe the exchange of/between areas, people, commodities, signs. Therefore the paper investigates the relationship of traffic and media at a specific historical point in time and offers propositions concerning logic, form and structure of traffic in this relationship.

06:00 Menahem Blondheim and Elihu Katz (Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel)

Traffic in an Ancient Empire: Time and Space According to the Biblical Book of Esther

The Biblical book of Esther provides an unequaled opportunity to trace traffic in an ancient empire from two competing but intersecting outlooks. One is from the center of the Persian empire – its capital, its court, even its emperor’s bedroom – to the periphery. The other is the peripheral perspective of the Jewish Diaspora scattered over the empire. Although living under the emperor’s protection, the community maintains its own ‘flat’, lateral, network of traffic. In his journey through history Harold Innis famously found that the empires of antiquity were based on models of communications that sustained centralized, hierarchical systems of politics, social structure, and culture. Yet he seemed to overlook the workings of parallel communication systems lurking beneath the surface of imperial traffic, and channeling counter-flows of information, social structure and culture. The book of Esther is thought to provide a relatively accurate and detailed description of communications in the Persian Empire. It can serve as a corrective to Innis’ top-bottom perspective by revealing latent processes of counter-flow. Mildly subverting Innis we will apply his notions of time bias and space bias to describe the two systems of communication densely inhabiting the Book of Esther. This attempt to augment Innis’ analysis of empire and communication may contribute not only to our understanding of the history of communications but also to untangling the complexity of traffic in our contemporary globalizing world.



Friday, March 30:Flows and Counterflows


09:30 Grant David Bollmer (Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand)

Vital Networks of Blood and Information: A Media Archaeology of Traffic and Flow

This paper argues that the contemporary understanding of media as informatic connectivity and flow has origins in a discourse of 18th century anatomy. In this discourse, bodies were defined in terms of the embodied regulation of networked flows. Anatomists of the 1700s argued that the essence of life persisted in the fluids that would traverse networks, connecting a body to the external environment through nervous and vital fluids. Life was the movement of blood, and perception was believed to rely on a fluid in the body’s network of nerves. Pathologies were understood as the improper regulation of flow by the body, resulting in tumors and apoplexies. Our current ways of theorizing networked media must address how this way of defining networks in anatomy has persisted in contemporary discussions of informational “traffic” and flows.

10:30 Peter Bexte (Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln, Germany)

Endless traffic & drowning sons

The final phrase of Kafka’s “Das Urteil” says that, while the son is drowning, endless traffic crosses the bridge. I’ld like to discuss this sentence in reference to the location where Orson Wells did his Kafka-film: the Gare d’Orsay in Paris. It is a monument to traffic. Built for a world exhibition, it served as an ideology, a station, a post office, a film studio and finally a museum, where esthetic information is coded and decoded (according to Shannon, this is traffic!).


11.30 Coffee Break


12.00 Richard Cavell (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)

McLuhan, Turing, and the Question of Determinism

Perhaps the most stunning coincidence in the history of media studies is the heretofore unnoticed conjunction of Marshall McLuhan and Alan Turing at Cambridge University in the mid-1930s. While it is very likely that their paths crossed, it is not my purpose in this paper to speculate biographically on this conjunction. Rather, taking the academic culture of 1930s Cambridge University as the element in common to the two media theorists, I want to speculate on the role that determinism played in their theories of mediation. At the time that McLuhan and Turing were students at Cambridge, the question of determinism had a distinctly philosophical dimension, and was constantly invoked in questions having to do with the physics and mathematics that underpinned the new media that, variously, interested these two great thinkers. In this paper, I am understanding “determinism” as an aspect of media “traffic,” which implies not only movement but also control – the “signals” as it were, which determine the movement of that traffic. I focus particularly on Turing’s approach to the “halting” question, and on McLuhan’s “laws” of media, with the concept of the “interface” as crucial in both cases.

01:00 Lunch

02:30 Greg Elmer (Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada) and Ganaele Langlois (University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Canada)

Networked Campaigns: Traffic Tags and Cross Platform Analysis on the Web

This article defines a new methodological framework to examine emerging forms of political campaigning on and across Web 2.0 platforms (i.e. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter) in the North-American context. The proposed method seeks to identify the new strategies that make use of campaign texts, users, keywords, information networks and software code to spread a political communications and rally voters across distributed, and therefore seemingly unmanageable spheres of online communication. The proposed method differentiates itself from previous Web 1.0 methods focused on mapping hyperlinked networks. In particular, we pay attention to the new materiality of the Web 2.0 as constituted by shared objects that circulate across modular platforms. In this paper we develop an object-centered method through the concept of traffic tags – unique identifiers that by enabling the circulation of web objects across platforms organize political activity online. By tracing the circulation of traffic tags, we can map different sets of relationships among uploaded and shared web objects (text, images, videos, etc), political actors (online partisans, political institutions, bloggers, etc), and web based platforms (social network sites, search engines, political websites, blogs, etc).

03:30 Martina Leeker (Berlin / University of Köln, Germany) and Michael Steppat (Beuth Hochschule Berlin, Germany)

Data Traffic. Transformation as a Challenge

In the 1960s an interesting phenomena of data transfer appeared in the performance of 9 Evenings. Theatre and Engineering in New York. In a huge military building a theatrical and perfomative order of data traffic is created. For on the one hand discrete machines are changed to conductors and modulators and, by this, masked. On the other hand an imagination of a space is created, in which an independent and transforming, so to say performative signal traffic is floating via acoustic signals and electromagnetic waves. Finally the figure of thought is developed, that most different phenomena could be transmitted without any irritation of translation and any disturbing noise.

In the same period a perfomative utterance of data traffic is enhanced in software and system engineering, due to the fact that it is a potential source of errors caused by compilation in the machine and in human unterstanding. In software and system engineering this will be compensate with the conception that software development should be organized as design or artistique work (Frederick Brooks).

These examples show, that data traffic contains a lot of metaphers, which can mask the technical basis and can act as this masking. The goal of the masking is to organize the constitutive and high-problematic transformation within the data traffic discoursively and technically. It should be thought about that data traffic is a source of uncertainity, which will be countered by unleashing of the technical worlds and questioning the human capacity of acting. To write the history of data traffic, would also mean to take the discources and practises of the transformation into account, which turn out as an unleashing into data traffic independency in order of its control and surveillance.

The presentation will be held from two researchers of different disciplines. Michael Steppat (musicology, computer science) will present the technical basics and transform processes, Martina Leeker (theatre and media studies) will focus the discource processes and effects. The goal of this interdisciplinary configuration is to unterstand the metaphoric overwriting to achieve an analytic evaluation.


04:30 Coffee BreakHold-ups


05:00 Wolf-Dieter Ernst (University of Bayreuth, Germany)

Mobile Performance

This paper discusses the relationship between traffic and technology in its temporal quality. Usually, traffic (as well as media) is a relational term whereas technology is more related to entities being stable over a length of time. A cell phone, for example, allows us to move around while doing a phone call, because the apparatus and the immobile supporting network is made of materialized, stable technology which should last a few years. Over the past decades, mass culture and the digitalization of all aspects of life have fostered ideas of ever-greater connectivity and mobility to the extent, that our technology appears dematerialized. We don’t buy a cell phone but the service of it. However, in order to raise new insights, this paper suggests looking (again) at the stagnation and stillness of traffic. Does one’s traffic means others exclusion from it? Can we interpret technology as something, which not only allows for traffic (of commodities, signs, people) but also produces it’s opposite? And what is the opposite of traffic anyway? Here, experimental performance art will be taken into account, which reveals, that technology (at least in the arts) is more a dynamic set of decisions which co-determine our ideas of traffic (and media) to the extend that traffic temporarily stops.

06:00 Peter Krapp (UC Irvine, CA, USA)

Polar Media: The Invisible Axis

Popular imagination invests the polar regions with a guiding power, but if traffic reaches that pivot where the magnetic compass no longer aids navigation and orientation, it seems the moral compass also fails. In the silent short Frozen North (1922), Buster Keaton emerges from a subway in the middle of nowhere, right under a sign that says "North Pole - 3 Miles South." The almost random murder his character commits there is emblematic. What guidance systems do we construct and find in media representations of the North and South Pole, when explorers, scientists, or tourists try to access the inaccessible?

Although media theory certainly owes a pivotal impulse to traffic along rivers, as Harold Innis demonstrated in economic history long before technical media started to bridge time and space ever more efficiently, the current promises of mobility are dubious: slogans like "where do you want to go today?" in fact immobilize their addressee in front of the screen. The tagline of Microsoft's first global image advertising campaign is contrasted with the surmise that "McLuhan's nomads are bad citizens", as Scott Lash put it. It is therefore not surprising that telecommunication keeps pushing for access to the inaccessible, bringing us audiovisual evidence of places we would not want to be – like the polar regions.

This paper will explore the popularity of representations of the Arctic and Antarctic as a topic in media history. To this day, the attraction of South Pole and North Pole remains one of heroic detection: certainly they have been discovered, certainly they have inspired myth, literature, science, and art - but nonetheless the polar regions remain inaccessible, unrepresentable, dark, devoid of contrast – there to be found and rediscovered. This is especially true for the kind of art history that hews to the patterns of the detective novel, reconstructing from traces a grammar of objects and authorship; but it applies equally to film and media art in the age of eco-tourism, where discovery remains the motive, following snow-blown trails into nothingness, even and especially after the preceding discoverers had imprinted the landscape with their names and deaths. Outlining research trajectories on polar media recovers traces from oblivion; like most armchair adventures, it amounts to the act of exposing your pen to the frozen history of polar media, to retrieve nothing more or less than a few stories to be retold.


Saturday, March 31:Traffic of Concepts


09:30 Norm Friesen (Thompson Rivers University, Canada)

The Academy and the “Commerce of Mind:” Dewey and Educational Media

John Dewey sees both “the Scholastic and the Speculator” (1891) as ultimately trafficking in the same goods. They participate in “but one commerce: the meeting of Mind and Reality,” and Dewey urges the scholastic to become a more “speculative;” for “intelligence [to] throw its fund out again into the stress of life.” This notion of the commerce of the mind is reflected also in Dewey’s educational and philosophical work, including his famous progressivist educational philosophy, which brings together forms of productive labour into the school, and his “transactionist” epistemology, which positions “Knowing and the Known” (1949) as multiply inextricable. However, as this presentation will show, the influence of Dewey’s notion of the commerce of the mind can also be traced in his sporadic considerations of educational media and technology. This is particularly evident in his early discussion of the lecture (1892), in which he describes this pedagogical form and the media associated with it as primarily liberating knowledge from the “capitalized store” of the textbook – bringing it into much broader circulation: “It has, wherever introduced, destroyed, once for all, the superstition that the text-book is the sum and end of learning; has compelled the instructor himself to broaden and freshen his knowledge; and, I doubt not, has increased the use of the Library a thousandfold.” With Edison’s mimeograph being commercialized in 1887, it is not surprising that Dewey also portrays the lecture and its continued development as facilitated technologically and mediatically through “an increasing use of the printing press in preparing outlines syllabuses, selections [for reading] etc.”

First tracing the proximity of commerce and the intellect at various points in Dewey’s philosophical development, this presentation will then consider the relevance of these ideas for Dewey’s conception of pedagogy and its various media, particularly those associated with the lecture. It will show how Dewey’s emphasis on commerce and transaction allows him to conceive of education, practically and communicatively, in terms germane to technological mediation: Pedagogy and its various communicative forms are not a matter of “erotic” unification in a relationship between individuals, between student and teacher, but a question of more systemic or “postal” transactions. This ensures that Dewey’s references to the use of media in education are consistently welcoming, portraying contemporaneously “new” media as a means towards an ever increasing circulation of thought. In this, finally, Dewey’s vision appears broadly comparable to those of more recent thinkers, such as Kittler (2004), who sees the activity of present-day university as taking the form of ever “higher levels of filtering and processing digital data streams.”

10:30 Shannon Lowe (Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster, UK)

Trafficking in Media Methodology: Propositions for an approach from literature

The metaphor of ‘traffic’ provides the opportunity to assess Gilles Deleuze’s method of symptomatology for this contemporary environment of mediatic flow. I propose that this methodology, that attempts to discern the function of literature, also holds purchase amid post-literary media traffic that is ‘constantly flowing’ (Appadurai), and ‘overcoming space and time’ (Harvey), capital (Goux) and knowledge (Lyotard).

Deleuze presents his final thoughts on methodology in what are his as of yet neglected final essays (Smith, 1997; Bogue, 2003; Deleuze, 1997). These writings concern themselves with a method that is derived from an analysis of medicine and literature and a relation between ‘the clinical and critical’ as that which isolates and produces new forms of ‘life’ that may be catalysts for cultural change. In Essays Critical and Clinical (Deleuze, 1997) Deleuze retroactively states that symptomatology was his methodological approach in a number of writings (Logic of Sense, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature). Symptomatology discerns how a new classificatory category comes in to use and circulation through inscription in writing and literature. A new, necessarily mediatic, classification inscribes with each utterance what Deleuze terms ‘a life’ that had not yet previously existed.

Amid post-literary media traffic, Deleuze provides a useful methodology that is apposite to a mediatic condition of traffic. The term ‘traffic’ develops to express new experiences of ever-increasing mobility associated with commerce and as such isolates this experience (at key points from 1325, at 1505 and 1825 CE). This historical term for an experience of mobile commerce and technology, surprisingly, encapsulates what must occur in Deleuze’s symptomatology. According to Deleuze’s symptomatology, a term has to be ‘trafficked’ before it can be deployed with ease in a specific language and culture. I propose here that the method, while derived from an analysis of modern literature, is not dependent upon it. It therefore can be used to address new media experience(s), or, cultural change.

I mobilise this method to conduct an analysis of an example of a relatively new experience to Euro-America - Attention Deficit Disorder (‘ADD’, in its various forms) - that was trafficked through print then celluloid and digital before it entered common parlance. Through attempts at a media history of ADD, an approach from literature arises. Media thought as traffic inspires questions about appropriate historical methods for our times. Media cast as traffic offers an opportunity to assess the work of thinkers who may have provided methodology for a situation where the object of study is media traffic. Tracking what has been done via literature (Deleuze) will help survey current media theory’s ability to theorise its new, jammed, environment.

11:30 Coffee Break


12:00 Wolfgang Sützl (Vienna/ University of Innsbruck, Austria)

Street protests, electronic disturbance, smart mobs: dislocations of resistance

For a long time, locations of traffic – streets, squares, marketplaces – have been the sites of political resistance, practices of disobedience, even revolutions. For media activists, understanding today's digital communication networks in terms of traffic was therefore key in opening an emancipatory political potential of new media. This paper critically investigates ways in which media activists have translated traffic vocabulary into a vocabulary of electronic communication, and it seeks to identify ways in which such enactments of media history as history of resistance can contribute to understanding some of the potentials and limitations of Innis' concept of media-as-traffic.

01:00 Andreas Ströhl (Goethe-Institut, München, Germany)

From Traffic to Exchange to Communication to Media (and Back to Traffic Again): On the Changes of a Modern Model of Thought

In a paradigm shift as described by Thomas Kuhn in the early 1960s, one model of thought is rather abruptly replaced by another in what can be called a crisis of conviction. In the last 200 years or so our way of thinking about exchange has undergone many changes, but has always stood its ground as a powerful means of describing fundamental processes in nature as well as in the social and cultural realms. This development is a striking example of the exact contrary of a paradigm shift: a certain pattern of thinking, a model, has reappeared in different shapes over and over again. It has, in the 1960s and ‘70s, resurfaced in the shape of what has since been labelled as “media theory”.

There are two contradictory models underlying our understanding of media. One is quite recent; it regards media as systems users may or may not choose to plug into. The other, much more traditional and older notion of media, considers them a part of an exchange process between a sender and a receiver. This exchange model has repeatedly reappeared in ever changing shapes. My thesis is that this notion of “media” goes back to economic theories and reflections on trade, socially adequate behaviour, and traffic, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As an implicit theory of exchange, they prefigure what today is dealt with within communication science and media theory.

When Marcel Mauss defined exchange as a “fait social total“, he was focusing on it to such an extent, that it can be put into question whether a total social fact can be illustrated by anything but the almost all-encompassing term “exchange“. In Mauss’s and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work, the theoretical paradigm of exchange achieves a much wider than merely economical sense – so wide that it may well be asked which of the two terms “total social fact“ or “exchange“ embraces a wider range of phenomena, whose power of description, definition and interpretation is stronger, in other words which of the two ranks higher in the hierarchy of meta-terminology (albeit not within the same language).

“Traffic“ can be regarded as one of several popular metaphors within the boundaries of this exchange paradigm. Other examples may be “dialogue“ or “trade“. Is “traffic” a metaphor for communication? Alternatively, terms like “traffic”, “media”, etc. could also be ontologically interpreted as heterogeneous co-hyponyms pointing to a superordinate concept above it (like a fait social total).

As it is impossible to even merely sketch a rough draft history of the interconnection of the terms “dialogue”, “exchange”, “media” and “traffic” in a presentation like this, I would like to restrict myself to three episodes within that grand tale:

  1. Friedrich List and his 1837 approach of explicitly identifying water channels with media, and of transportation with communication.

  2. A brief evaluation of the dominance of Claude Shannon’s and Warren Weaver’s famous model of communication in Marshall McLuhan’s media phenomenology and in Vilém Flusser’s “communicology”.

  3. A short and critical acclaim of how some media theorists and popular writers on traffic, like Tom Vanderbilt, with every sentence they write, knowingly or unknowingly repeat the entire tradition of thinking I will have hitherto summarised, of identifying traffic and medial communication.

02:00 End of the conference

The Media Transatlantic IV – Traffic conference is organized by the DFG Graduate School “Automatisms” at the University of Paderborn, Germany

Program (PDF) | Flyer (PDF) | Poster (PDF) | CfP (PDF)