Material Incompatibility

Jussi Parikka

Forget smooth, start with the rough. What if we assume a fundamental incompatibility?

What if we assume that by their nature, things don’t fit in? Not with the world, not with themselves; incompatibility is not a contingency or if it is, it is the fundamental contingency of the world from thoughts to things, ideas to devices. Furthermore, incompatibility is not only a cognitive category, or an object that just does not fit in – the anomalous, the incongruous, the thingy without even a proper name.

More closely, what is material incompatibility?

This could be the plug that does not fit, or the software that does not load, the installation that works only to halfway of the process. Whereas such experiences characterise digital media culture as a culture of standardised and constant frustration, material incompatibility can be seen characteristic of discarded and obsolescent technology as well. Not only a field for media archaeologists dedicated to excavating archives and ideas of outside-the-mainstream, this extended-media-archaeology is more like media garbology: it tracks the material in/compatibilities of components, chemicals and such raw, even bad materiality with our lungs, skin, the soil and other organic inscription surfaces.

What kind of materiality are we talking about then?

Is it the material that we know from a certain brand of German media theory, often for the Anglo-American audience attached to the name of Friedrich Kittler only? The materiality that starts reading media devices from their scientific and engineering roots, in order to claim that the frustrations at the entertainment interface are only an after effect of a much longer military-scientific genealogy? That media studies starts from physics and communications engineering, from war and scientific management theories than it does from the audience or representations, from content or narratives.

Or another kind of a materiality?

What if we take it even more literally and start talking of “plasma reactions and ion implantation” (Yoshida 105) – as in processes of semiconductor fabrication, as relevant to arts and humanities perspectives that have to entangle with science and technology?

Hence, let’s draft an alternative list of media studies objects and components which are studied from an e-waste management perspective: “metal, motor/compressor, cooling, plastic, insulation, glass, LCD, rubber, wiring/electrical, concrete, transformer, magnetron, textile, circuit board, fluorescent lamp, incandescent lamp, heating element, thermostat, brominated flamed retardant (BFR)-containing plastic, batteries, CFC/HCFC/HFC/HC, external electric cables, refractory ceramic fibers, radioactive substances and electrolyte capacitors (over L/D 25 mm);” and which themselves are constituted from a range of materials – plastics, wood, plywood, copper, aluminum, silver, gold, palladium, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium and flame retardants (Pinto; cf. Cubitt).

So why call this incompatible materiality?

Things work, at times, don’t they? This is where the wider ecological framework kicks in. Materials, even natural ones, are not automatically compatible with the world in the sense of empowerment. The various trajectories of components are crystallised into media technologies, and incorporate in themselves mini-archaeologies of media that is more grey, more transversal than a focus on complete devices or use practices. For instance, the history of a mineral, or of batteries; of transformers, diodes or for that matter electron tubes (Ernst). As such, this kind of a deep time of media (Zielinski) is what can go to a long duration, something called by Jonathan Sterne as the neglected approx. 39,400 years of human media history; or even more radically, the thousands, even millions, billions years of history of minerals now being excavated.

Think about the perverse complex ecology of it all: a specific design solution concerning a screen or computer component has an effect on it becoming-obsolescent sooner than ‘necessary’ – of course, not without the product itself being embedded in the capitalist discourse emphasising newness as the affective atmosphere of consumerism. This is followed by a quick turn to obsolescence. Dealing with obsolete devices is often called ‘recycling’, but is actually waste-trade, where old electronic media are shipped, e.g. to India to be dismantled by means of some very rudimentary – and dangerous – processes that affect the lungs and nervous systems of the poor workers. (Gabrys) Nor should we forget where the minerals for the components come from – such as coltan, which is mined in Congo and from which refined tantalum powder is obtained. Tantalum powder is extremely heat-resistant and hence ideal for manufacturing certain parts in mobile phones, Playstation game consoles and so forth. The mineral allows us to consume mediatic content but has at the same time its own genealogies of matter and politics, for instance in bloody wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a range of European mining companies have had their own dubious part to play, including funding the war efforts in order to secure the extraction of the mineral (Cuvelier and Raeymaekers).

So the question is: Could we account for not only thing-power, as Jane Bennett calls it in her focus on the agency of the non-human, and even non-living, but also thing-depowering? That already on the level of material agency we have disagreements, dissonances, and relations that cause diminishment of powers, as with the environmental effects of the materials leaking out to the soil, riverside dumping, burning – without forgetting the organic: for instance lungs and brains as the inscription surfaces for the chemicals released in such processes.

So what if we consider media archaeology as media garbology, of digging through the rubbish and the genealogies of waste in order to think fundamental in/compabilities that extend from aesthetics to political economy, from lungs and brains, and more specifically neurological disorders, to supply and material chains, product recycling, use of materials and the material, yet in/compatible conditions of media for our eyes and ears? (See Parikka) For a deep time, one does not have to go back, but look at the devices which transport various times for us, to us, and beyond us.

Works cited:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham, North

Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Cubitt, Sean. “Ubiquitous Media, Rare Earths – The environmental footprint of digital media and what to do about it.” Pervasive Media Lab, University of the West of England, 22 Sept. 2009. Lecture.

Cuvelier, J. and T. Raeymaekers.  “Supporting the War Economy in the DRC: European Companies and the coltan trade.” IPIS report. Jan. 2002. Web. 19. Dec. 2011. <>

Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print

Ernst, Wolfgang. “Distory. 100 Years of Electron Tubes, Media-Archaeologically Interpreted vis-á-vis 100 Years of Radio.” Re-inventing Radio. Aspects of Radio as Art. Eds. Heidi Grundmann et al. Frankfurt/M: Revolver, 2008. 415-430. Print.

Parikka, Jussi. Medianatures: Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste. Open Humanities Press, 2011. Web. 19. Dec. 2011. <>

Pinto, V.N. “E-waste Hazard: The Impending Challenge”, Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, August 12.2 (2008): 65-70. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan. “The Times of Communication History,” Connections: The Future of Media Studies.  University of Virginia, 4 April 2009. Lecture

Yoshida, Fumikazu.“High-Tech Pollution.” Economic Journal of Hokkaido University 23 (1994): 161-188. Print.

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Trans. Gloria Custance. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2006. Print.


Posted in in/compatible Research Category