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Media Fails

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Organizer: Moira Weigel

Co-Organizer: Priyasha Mukhopadhyay

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Media mediate. Is this statement a tautology? In the past decade, scholars across the humanities have turned their attention to “media.” This turn has been animated by a number of fields: book history, Medienwissenschaft, digital humanities, and STS. The charisma of the concept is its expansiveness. Anything can be a medium. Textiles are media, and so are, cities, algorithms, and doors. But as our objects of study proliferate, the outlines of the concept begin to blur. This leads us to a perverse, and yet surprisingly urgent question: if everything is a medium, is there anything that isn’t? What about the floppy disk that once held all 1.2 MB of your Office 95 files and is now a retro relic? The VHS tape that your daughter stares at blankly when she finds it in the attic? The website that has been shuttered? Media mediate—until they don’t.

To this end, our seminar will focus on what we call “unmedia.” By this, we mean instances in which entities that could be media fail to mediate, or for a range of cultural, linguistic, and technological reasons, mediate a different set of relations than they did in a prior context. Unread and unreadable books become talismans. Microscopes become symbols of middle-class prestige, displayed in drawing rooms. On social media, typos designed to trick content moderation algorithms generate entire online dialects. As neuroscientists have often come to understand the healthy functioning of the brain by studying brain disorders, we suggest that studying unmedia can help us better understand what we mean when we say that something is, or is acting as, a medium.

We invite participants to join us in using unmedia to clarify conceptual and theoretical questions. How do unmedia make us rethink the relationship between media and other current buzzwords such as "institution," "technology," or "infrastructure"? How does the “failure” of media challenge how we situate the Media Turn in the history of Comparative Literature, a discipline that has long focused on mediations through translation and the comparison of language traditions? 

We also hope that our “unmedia” will provide an opportunity to expand the geographical, historical, and linguistic ambit of media studies today. Thus far, the field has remained confined mostly to America and Europe. What can we learn from other media histories? How do the stories of media that transverse boundaries into non-western languages and the global south highlight the limits of our current working definitions in the field? Does the media concept itself fail when it leaves the west?

Papers could explore: 

*why, when, and what kind of media fail in different cultural contexts
*(other) geneses of the media concept
*unmedia and translation *post/colonial media
*media of intercultural exchange
*technologies of nonwestern scripts
*genres of media
*the disciplinary consequences of unmedia (for literary studies, anthropology, history, etc.)

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