Media theorists, in the shadow of Marshall McLuhan, tend to discuss various media as static objects. McLuhan’s mantra, “The medium is the message,”1 invokes the idea that people interact with media as solid forms that can provide stable meaning. Nevertheless, many media, particularly electronic ones, are in states of constant flux, processing information at the same time as they display it. Additionally, people experience media through various processes, changing the ways in which media objects are received. Such considerations lead one to believe that the concept of “process” is particularly vital to the media theorist.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists nineteen definitions for the word “process,” thirteen relating to the noun form and six to the verb form, indicating the variety of ways in which the word has been put to use. It derives from the Latin procedo, meaning, “to go ahead, proceed, advance, continue.” Procedo becomes procés in Middle French, and first refers only to a “legal contract.”2 The term still exists in English legal vocabulary, referring to the entirety of steps involved in “following due process.” Expanding upon this temporal and causal sense, the phrase procés verbal refers to a narrative, or the explication of a sequence of actions. This sense of the word is retained in modern English when talking about, for instance, the process of baking a cake. In spite of the extremely broad range of usage, it is clear that the word “process” consistently refers to a connected sequence of actions or events that occur over time. Importantly, the term almost universally connotes a change in state.
Brian Massumi, examining the dynamic relationship between bodies and media, argues for further conceptualization of the supposed liminal space that bodies in motion occupy: “[W]hat defines the body is not the movement itself, only its beginning and endpoints. Movement is entirely subordinated to the positions it connects.”3 Massumi recommends “fluidifying with Bergson,”4 a conceptual move that he believes, among other things, will put process in a primary position:
“Position no longer comes first, with movement a problematic second. It is secondary to movement and derived from it. It is retro movement, movement residue. The problem is no longer to explain how there can be change given positioning. The problem is to explain the wonder that there can be stasis given the primacy of process.”5
The various media, and particularly their iterations as aesthetic objects, appear as “endpoints” in Massumi’s terminology. When people speak about a painting or a poem, they generally refer to it as a static object. Nevertheless, many aesthetic objects have to confront process in one form or another, and a number of artists have specifically highlighted process in their work. In so doing, these artists are able to better expose the materials of their medium and simultaneously emphasize the importance of considering process as part of a larger critical project. In painting, for instance, Jackson Pollock’s “drip” method made his creative processes explicitly visible, with the viewer afforded the opportunity to trace the movements of each line. One is forced to confront not only the complete work of art, but also the appearance of the work in progress. The viewer in the gallery or museum is not presented with representational shapes or objects, but the elements of the painting medium themselves: paint and canvas. By highlighting the processes involved in creating a work, Pollock alters the perception about what the medium is and does. Donald Judd touches on this when he writes, “The dripped paint in most of Pollock’s paintings is dripped paint. It’s that sensation, completely immediate and specific and nothing modifies it. […] It’s not something else that alludes to dripped paint.”6 Judd’s equating of Pollock’s “dripped paint” to a “sensation” invokes the physical process used to create the work. The “dripped” adjective, here, only makes sense as a consideration of how exactly the paint came to look the way it does. In the early 1950s, John Cage began to develop processes for composing music by using the text of the I Ching, essentially developing a crude algorithm, and making compositional decisions based on the chance selection of numbers from the text. As with Pollock’s painting, Cage’s pieces only begin to make sense when one is aware of the processes involved in their composition. Cage extended these methods to his poetry, most notably in his “writing-through” other works, such as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Pound’s Cantos. Cage describes his methods for composing 62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham:
No line has more than one word or syllable. Both syllables and words were obtained from Merce Cunningham’s Changes: Notes on Choreography and from thirty-two other books most used by Cunningham in relation to his work. The words were subjected to a process that brought about in some cases syllable exchange between two or more of them. This process produced new words not to be found in any dictionary but reminiscent of words everywhere to be found in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.7
Cage describes a technique that “processes” the original text into a dense and fragmented kind of poetry. Importantly, the process is described as something separate that the words are “subjected to.” The resulting text proudly bears the marks of the process, which becomes more vital to the work than the specifics of the outcome. Like Pollock’s paintings, Cage’s works’ emphasis on process resituates the reader/listener’s notions of the media themselves. In particular, such processes expose the material nature of the media they operate on.
Perhaps the most committed to the concept of process in twentieth-century aesthetics was the French arts group, Oulipo (Workshop of Potential Literature). Warren F. Motte Jr. summarizes leading Oulipo figure Raymond Queneau’s view when he writes, “potential literature is ‘the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.”8 Whole-heartedly disavowing any relics of Romanticism, the Oulipo declared themselves “anti-aleatory,” instead depending upon the development of highly restrictive processes of composition. Whereas Cage’s compositional processes were designed to incorporate and emphasize the operations of chance, the Oulipo were committed to developing processes that would remove any trace of chance in their productions. Queneau’s work, One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, consists of ten sonnets whose lines may be interchanged in any way one desires. Motte notes, “[E]ven in a lifetime of diligent reading, one can read only a small portion of the sonnets theoretically engendered[…]. The rest remain in the potential state.”9 Taking Cage’s mesostics one step further, the Oulipo declare to be interested in processes alone. Any particular aesthetic object made by a process is important only insofar as it highlights the potential of the process. Queneau’s poem, which resists close reading because one cannot physically read the entire thing, shifts critical focus away from the poem as object onto the potential poem as process. For the media theorist, Queneau’s poem skillfully exposes the complicated relationship between the medium of poetry and any particular iteration of the medium, any poem. More generally, the overarching project of the Oulipo uses processes to further emphasize the abilities of specific media to express meaning and, more importantly, directs critical attention to the idea of process as critical to the understanding of any work. The Oulipo’s particular output not only highlights the processes involved in the production of aesthetic objects, but also points the way toward understanding the processes involved in reception. Indeed, a work like One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems emphasizes receptive procedures over productive ones, the latter being obvious in a way wholly unlike that of the former.
The Oulipo’s commitment to process, and its frequent emphasis on reception, is especially important to those working in media studies. At a very basic level, many of the things that we experience as aesthetic objects must be “translated” through one process or another: the film that we experience as photographs and movies must be chemically processed before they can be fully viewed; sound is recorded and processed by computers and other machines so that it can be pressed onto another medium; most writing is now done on word processors before it reaches the printer. But these in-between stages, the places where an object is transformed or translated into its recognizable self, generally lurk in the background of the object. Friedrich Kittler, quoting Heidegger, captures the liminal space that these processors occupy when he writes about the typewriter: “An innocuous device, ‘an “intermediate” thing, between a tool and a machine,’ ‘almost quotidian and hence unnoticed,’ has made history.”10 Additionally, processes are intimately involved in the reception of informationby particular individuals or groups, a concept hinted at in a number of the examples above. Stuart Hall, a proponent of a reception theory that emphasizes the “reader” in the construction of meaning, points out the tangled web of translations: “Producing meaning depends on the practice of interpretation, and interpretation is sustained by us actively using the code—encoding, putting things in the code—and by the person at the other end interpreting or decoding the meaning.”11 Hall points to the cultural processes at work in communication, re-emphasizing the need for a dynamic theory that can accommodate to changing physical and social conditions.
Perhaps most importantly, one must confront the computer as a processing machine. Not wholly unlike the media already discussed (painting, music, the printed word), the processes a computer uses to create the end product are generally hidden. However, in a fashion similar to the works discussed above, a number of artists are beginning to expose the processes computers rely on in their work. A prime example of this emerges from the fact that the computer operates by processing information that comes to it as digital code . It is only through those processes of decryption and translation that the computer makes the information legible to the viewer/receiver. Some poets, most notably mez (Mary-Anne Breeze), Jessica Loseby, and John Cayley, have begun incorporating computer programming code into their artwork. Although these works do not generally make use of executable code, code that exists to perform a particular action, their incorporation of code-like symbols again points to the processes involved in translating something onto a computer screen. code is intimately tied to process in the sense that executable code is not an object in itself, but rather taps into the continuous action of particular processes. N. Katherine Hayles writes, “code has become arguably as important as natural language because it causes things to happen, which requires that it be executed as commands the machine can run.”12 Computer code does not merely expose the processes happening within a computer, but it is rather an integral part of those processes. Just as Pollock’s paintings forced his viewers to confront the materials of the medium, so, too, must the media theorist who wants to better understand computers, and the aesthetic objects that are produced and/or displayed on them, confront code as a fundamental fabric of computer processing.
Although code poetry exposes the computational processes necessary to display something on a computer, some theorists would argue that they do not represent the most integrated form of digital media because they do not actively make use of the computer’s constant processing power. So-called “programmable procedural computer-poems” (CPs), on the other hand, take full advantage of the processing speed of the modern computer. Adelaide Morris claims such poems are the digital heirs to the Oulipo and the “writing-through” methods of Cage and Jackson Mac Low, and provides a general description of how such poems operate: “A procedural poem is a poem generated by the interplay between a body of information and a sequence of steps or, in new media terminology, a database and algorithm.”13 In essence, a CP works in the same way that Cage’s mesostics do except that the computer does all of the work of searching. The increased speed that the computer provides means that the same algorithm can be applied to multiple databases or vice-versa. This fundamentally alters the critical project of the media theorist. Any individual object produced through a CP can be quickly reproduced or even altered, rendering any particular iteration subordinate to the processes involved its creation or reception. Such work highlights the concerns particular to this digital medium and the important roles that processes themselves play in interpreting digital objects.
The media theorist of the immediate future must not only be aware of the processes through which information is mediated, but must also incorporate these continuous states into her analyses. As exemplified in the constantly updating computer screen display, the aesthetic objects of the future will not be static, but will rather be a momentary piece of continuous process. As exhibited above, a number of artists have used processes in order to expose the component parts of their particular media, while also making the case for process itself being a component part. As the influence of the processing machine grows, Massumi’s advice to “fluidify” becomes increasingly relevant to understanding new media.