Author Archive: sdileonardi

Final project: The Phonograph

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014 by sdileonardi

Final project: The Phonograph

Success is subjective, right? It may not work, but it was worth re-inventing. I hope others enjoy taking a look at my final project and maybe even respond with a comment. I make some claims about how the phonograph might fit into a variantological perspective that may not be entirely accurate, so challenge me!

Please do let me know if there are issues with the link so I can fix them. 

Thanks to all my classmates and Professor Emerson for a great semester,


My Edison Moment

Sunday, April 20th, 2014 by sdileonardi


The impetus for my project is my fascination with the significance of the late nineteenth century and the monumental media technologies that developed around the same time– particularly the phonograph. The phonograph and other 1900 sound technologies feature prominently in some of the theory that has been informing my scholarship recently, but rather than explore this key invention through the intellectual processes to which I’m accustomed, I wanted to become familiar with the phonograph in ways that feel foreign and uncharacteristically (for me) hands on.

My goal is to recreate the experience of Edison capturing his voice for the first time, by constructing a replica of his original tin foil phonograph. This device is drastically different from the one that would find its way into thousands of American homes ten years later. The mass-marketed Edison phonograph that is more recognizable is fitted with electronic mechanisms and that large, iconic horn that directs the sound. The earlier model, which is known for being the first device to capture and play back an audio recording, is relatively simple and composed of only a few basic moving parts. After doing some research and realizing how hard it might be to find actual instructions for assembling this device on the internet (even though lots of folks have attempted this experiment, they seem more inclined to publish the results rather than the details of their process), I was able to use a couple youtube videos to piece together an idea of what I needed. (There is obviously something wonderfully ironic and media archeaological about the fact that my recreation of this nineteenth century device required the use of a myriad of twenty-first century resources). Before long I had the following blueprint:



As you can see, it isn’t very complicated. But for a guy who can hardly be called Mr. Fix-it, this presented a variety of problems for me. For now, I’ll fast-forward through my trip to the hardware store and my first round of tinkering which leaves me with the following work-in-progress:


Obviously the essential missing part is the mouthpiece, which I believe is going to give me some trouble. The mouthpiece, or receiver, has to be adjustable, in terms of distancing it perfectly from the cylinder so that it just barely marks the foil. These specifications and the constant tinkering that they will require are still on the horizon, although I hope to get to that stage soon. 

As for the big question, will I successfully experience the sound of my own voice being played back on a machine I constructed? To be honest, I doubt it, but here’s hoping.

Is Kittler non-anthropological?

Monday, April 14th, 2014 by sdileonardi

I want to blog about one of the many topics that I imagine will not make the cut for my final presentation; there’s only so much we can talk about in a couple of hours. It would be great if this topic comes up in our discussion tomorrow, but in case it doesn’t here are some thoughts on my end. Kittler begins his description of discourse network 1900 with two experimental “victims,” that is, Nietzsche and pyschophysics psychologist Ebbinghaus are portrayed as suffering bodies capable of producing the very knowledge they are studying: “Ebbinghaus took the place of Nietzsche’s victim or experimental subject and then retroactively became the observer of his own experience in order to quantify what he had suffered” (207-8). Look at the language in this quote: victim, suffered. A particular attention is being given to Ebbinghaus’ body.

According to David Wellberry in the foreword to the book, this concentration on the body is part of post-structuralism’s response to its non-anthropological position. You know all of those discussions we’ve been having all semester about taking the human out of the humanities? Well, Kittler isn’t the only post-structuralist who has dealt with them, and, if you are inclined to agree with Wellberry, the reason Foucault and Kittler cannot genuinely be called non-anthropological or negligent to human concerns is because post-structuralism does not deny the subject but replaces it with the body—subjectivity is defined by corporeality (check out page xv of the foreword). One of the implications of this is that Kittler and Foucault (for example) actually pay close attention to the pathos and sufferance of the human body in order to identify the construction of social terms such as aberrant, perverse, mad, sexual, etc., or, in the case of Kittler, to catalogue the ways in which Nietzsche or Ebbinghaus suffered under the strain of their auto-experiments.

This is in no way an accurate representation of Ebbinghaus’ experiments, but to get a feel for the regimented, daily, incessant memorization exercises he endured take a look at this computer-based rendition of his monosyllabic memory test:

I think what I want to pay attention to here is the ways in which these experiments would have strained the eyes, produced head aches, etc, and the ways in which Kittler seems acutely aware of Ebbinghaus’ bodily pain in the name of scientific pursuit. Is this enough for you to rethink our accusations? Should we consider the post-structuralist approach to be more in tune with human concerns than we previously thought? I would really like to hear the class’ response on the subject.

Dickinson and the limits of form

Sunday, April 6th, 2014 by sdileonardi

          In the introduction to The Gorgeous Nothings Jen Bervin quotes Jerome McGann as writing: “Dickinson’s poetry was not written for a print medium, even though it was written in an age of print” (11). Bervin goes on to cite several of Dickinson’s writing practices that are curious by nature and deserve explanation, such as her insistence on using pencils and her manipulation and modification of paper envelopes. As McGann suggests, these examples convey a reaching, on Dickinson’s part, for an alternative to the—some might call—hegemony of print, as if an alternative form of expression were on the horizon. Likewise, Susan Howe asks, “Does form envelop everything? . . . Is there an unwritable unknown poem that exceeds anything the technique of writing can do?” (7). Again, this sentiment gestures toward that indefinable quality of Dickinson’s poetry that seems to resist the printed form by defying its conventions, especially in the poet’s resistance to traditional publication. If publication solidifies the written word for public consumption—a solidification that resembles the permanence of ink—then Dickinson’s methods seem to pursue a more fluid, less concrete form of expression. One in which editions can be prolonged and word choice held in limbo; thus the pencils, the self-publication, and those curious + marks that designate the substitution of one word for another without offering a final decision on the matter.

            This remarkable quality of Dickinson’s work seems to transcend her own practices within her lifetime and extend into the history of her posthumously published work. For some startlingly lucid evidence on the matter check out Sharon Cameron’s digital archive on Fascicle 16 (, which demonstrates the onerous journey Dickinson’s poetry has taken through 100 years of publication alterations.

            As a final thought on the matter, I wonder if this might also be a good time to look forward one week when we will be discussing Kittler’s Discourse Networks, especially the discourse network of 1900, of which Dickinson is a good example. The hegemony of print and universal alphabetization are characteristics of the previous discourse network—aptly called 1800. Therefore Dickinson’s experimentation preludes and takes part in the technological rupture of the era that introduces new modes of expression through the revolutionary mediums of phonograph and film. Food for thought.

A question for Niebisch

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by sdileonardi

Would it be fair to press Arndt Niebisch to differentiate between parasitic subversion and the general laws of intertextuality and borrowing that have governed art and story telling since the beginning of the spoken word? My concern is that he paints the accomplishments of the early avant-garde with a fairly broad brush. That is, in the ecological rhetoric that Niebisch adopts, doesn’t all representation find a host in the spatio-temporal context in which it resides? A burgeoning generation of artists generally galvanize through its attempts to resist previous conventions by augmenting and building upon accepted practice. I’m not sure if this can be characterized as “abuse” or “parasitic,” particularly since subversion is not always an aesthetic movement’s modus operandi. However, it seems to me that Niebisch’s use of the parasite is simply a new metaphor to describe the age-old phenomenon of artistic experimentation by pushing the boundaries of one’s current form. One might say, however, that his argument is unique in its adherence to communication technologies. In the spirit of Kittler, Niebisch is aware of how networks of media systems produce hegemonies, which he extends to draw attention to the ways in which the avant-garde attaches to these hegemonies in order to distort and manipulate them. My hesitation, however, also takes a page from Kittler, who dilates the scope of media studies to include all systems of communication, including the postal service and the pony express. To that end, oral and vernacular traditions, folklore and mythologies, all inherently contain the makings of a communication system and thus a media form. And therefore, the very formation of the modern novel (whenever we want to argue that took place) represents the distortion and manipulation of such oral traditions. The novel could neither develop without these past forms nor could it ever fully replace them, but it could borrow, extend, alter, and in some sense, “abuse” the preexisting conditions surrounding it. I don’t discount Niebisch’s entire argument, and I’m sure several folks in class will commend him for returning agency to the artist by challenging Kittler’s media-determinism, but I do believe it would be worth our while to clarify the limits of his scope and the necessary implications of what he calls parasitic media manipulation. 

Foucault: Poster child of new media studies?

Monday, March 10th, 2014 by sdileonardi

When Foucault outlines his rationale for employing the metaphor and methodology of archaeology as a substitute for more traditional histories, it becomes evident to me why media archaeologists have followed his lead, as well as why a great deal of Foucault’s theoretical practices are adopted, modified, and augmented by new media studies. In The Order of Things, for example, he seeks to adumbrate a given episteme without being hindered by concepts of continuity (such as those described in the first chapter of Archaeology of Knowledge: tradition, influence, development, evolution, and spirit), which presuppose connections, progress, and causality that lead toward “an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be recognized” (The Order of Things xxii). Instead, the goal is to uncover the layering of different knowledge systems, an epistemic history made manifest not by “growing perfection” but “conditions of possibility.” That is, an archaeology of knowledge.

McLuhan engages with a similar model of discontinuity when he suggests that the medium is the message. For example, his description of the airplane’s effects upon modern societies is characterized by the results of one technological system being superimposed over another, rather than viewing the content of the newest system as better or more progressive. In fact, the dominant theme in McLuhan’s chapter—that the more significant factor in any given construction is generally the one humans elide, ignore, or cannot see—takes its cue from a general Foucauldian principle. Foucault spends his career studying how socio-political conditions produce the possibilities for the construction of specified phenomenon. For example, from this week’s reading in Archaeology of Knowledge, he writes, “Discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs” (25). Just as discourse is under his magnifying glass in this text, Foucault would go on to unveil the social production of sexuality, the madman, the criminal, power, and of course knowledge.

Media theorists have adopted this approach to disclose how technological and informational systems also stand apart from any primordial narrative but instead produce subjectivities and actual cultural effects independently of human intentions.

Dioramas, Elves, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 by sdileonardi

I feel compelled to write about a media-archaeological experience I have been having on a regular basis for the last two years without knowing it. The fact that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre participated in both the historical art of diorama and the development of camera technology speaks to the constant attempt to represent history through optic media. Although, Ernst is resolute in emphasizing the veritable distance between subjective discourses of historical representation, such as the diorama, and the “cold, mechanical gaze” of the camera with its ability to capture time and space less subjectively.

 Getting down to it, the experience I have been sharing with my toddler for the last couple years involves the 90 dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We have stood in front of every one, identifying the animals and learning about their natural environments on an almost weekly basis, and frankly, my kid can’t get enough. The museum’s website contributes to a media-archaeological understanding of the dioramas through their interesting reference to an alternate medium of information technology: “Like three-dimensional “postcards” from places near and far, they capture moments in time, showcasing the world’s wondrous animals and the delicate ecosystems in which they live” ( The postcard, while attempting to relay details and descriptions of a certain time and place, actually takes part in the symbolic imagination of reality, as Ernst would describe it, conveying instead a subjective instantiation of one person’s experience- in this case the diorama’s artist Kent Pendleton. Pendleton draws attention to this anthropocentric quality of his art by being ironic, since it “displays its own artificiality, technical fictionality, and artifactuality” (52). In fact, if you ever visit the museum, when handing your ticket over for admission ask for an “Elf Map.” Apparently, Pendleton made use of the countless hours he spent creating these dioramas by hiding tiny elves in the jungle foliage and desert rocks. If you can manage to spot these cleverly camouflaged imps you will notice their beaming smiles and waving hands, ironically signaling the fabrication of “real” natural environments. The conflation of real and fantastic gestures toward Ernst’s understanding of the diorama as a forerunner of the photograph despite its reliance on artificial light and not an actual chemical captivation of real light processes.

Of course, my son only wants to see some animals, and despite the ironic perspective offered by Pendleton, we succeed in this goal every time.  

Let’s argue with Kittler for a moment . . .

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 by sdileonardi

I am trying to work my way through Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter because I find his arguments to be fascinating and because the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries that he finds so pivotal also defines the area of my own personal interests. But rather than present myself as a proponent of Kittler yet again, I wondered if I could challenge an assumption that he requires his readers to make from the very beginning of his work.

In the preface Kittler describes the titular “electric trinity” of gramophone, film, and typewriter as “[t]hose early and seemingly harmless machines capable of storing and therefore separating sounds, sights, and writing [that] ushered in a technologizing of information that, in retrospect, paved the way for today’s self-recursive stream of numbers” (xl). In order to understand the contemporary effects of this tripartite technological phenomenon we assume that sounds, sights, and texts are being separated from their sources and authors for the first time, that before these technologies, there was some quasi-intimate act of creation when writing on paper or singing that travelled directly from the throat of a singer and not the funnel of a gramophone. These devices altered that intimacy, placing different apparatuses in between the sound being heard (for example) and the throat that originally made the sound.

Of course, this position is debatable, as Will pointed out in a comment to my post last week. Even the most primitive of inscription technologies—pencils, charcoal, etc.—separate the human hand from the paper. Does the typewriter actually function in a fundamentally different way? Furthermore, as Kittler acknowledges, the gramophone was hardly the first device to capture sound, just as film was not the first invention to capture light (what about the moon, let alone magic lanterns and camera obscuras?). Do these previous instantiations of separating medium from source dissolve or frustrate Kittler’s larger argument about the significance of the “electric trinity”? Or does the year 1900 represent the acme or culmination of this phenomenon with the implicit understanding that no time period can stand in perfectly for a specific kind of technological phenomenon? – especially if we consider that “to understand is to remember,” since all inventions begin with remembering a previous invention (30). 

Thinking with a Typewriter

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 by sdileonardi

This week in the MAL I spent some time with an old typewriter, the 1956 Olympia de Luxe. Although this particular brand and model is more than half a century older than the original Remington typewriters, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for individuals to trade in their pencils and pens for this unusual contraption—this intermediate thing “between a tool and a machine” (Kittler 14). As Kittler points out, the typewriter was the first technology to insert space between the writer and text during the act of production. For many, this spatial insertion felt artificial and cumbersome, and Kittler gestures toward the lamentable loss of identity that one maintains when composing a letter in manual handwriting (not because Kittler feels this way but because it was a common reaction). The split in reactions toward the typewriter around 1900 remind me of a current split in cognitive science that we read about for Sue Zemka’s course on the human hand. Embedded cognition theorists propose that the act of thinking is produced and generated strictly within the mind and can be communicated by the hands, only as a secondary action. Extended cognitive theorists, on the other hand, believe that extensions of the body, primarily the hands, actually aid and cooperate with the cognitive processes to the degree that body and mind can never be separated.

            Such an anti-Cartesian theory of cognition raises compelling questions when you are sitting in front of a typewriter. Can the machine actually generate a particular kind of thinking pattern that may differ, say, when sitting in front of a pen and ink, or a MacBook Air? How does each variation in writing technology affect the mind of the writer, to the point where cognitive processes actually change from machine to machine? And perhaps in an effort to end the debate and begin a discussion—Is it less a question of good versus bad and more a question of style and desired results?

Control Societies and Capitalism

Monday, February 10th, 2014 by sdileonardi

Deleuze enumerates the shift from discipline to control society with a variety of examples. What I find most compelling is the control society’s dependence upon late-capitalism, to the point where they are virtually indistinguishable. Just as Foucault well documents how sovereign power was dispersed into a set of disciplinary institutions, Deleuze describes the exchange of power through a process of privatization of the same institutions. 

The factory to corporation transformation is his obvious starting point, as they encapsulate the agenda and objectives of capital desire. From there however, the end of the school, the hospital, and the prison can only be predicted through a vision of privatization. We can easily witness the reality of these claims as under-acheiving public schools are  closing in favor of private and charter schools. And Angela Y. Davis and other prison abolitionists have long drawn attention to the corporate by-outs of prisons and the growing concern that comes from turning inmates into a profit margin.

I think it is this central position of capitalism to the problem at hand that motivates Deleuze to turn to the union as a solution. He hopes that the union, as the vital point of resistance to corporate bullying, is able to adapt to the new tactics of control societies, as though variations of union resistance will automatically become the strategies of the disenfranchised home owner, prisoner, patient, etc. 

The Vectrex Arcade System

Monday, February 3rd, 2014 by sdileonardi

I’m going to be very honest in this post and admit that I went to the MAL with the intentions of doing some tinkering and exploring with unfamiliar technologies, but instead I was absorbed into the Vectrex Arcade System, a kind of proto-gaming console. I spent about twenty minutes attempting to make a frame-by-frame animation with very unimpressive results, when I decided to fall back on the console’s go-to game: Mine Storm, the 1982 predecessor to Asteroids. I confess, at this point I was just having fun. But the moment seemed to retain a valuable lesson for the media archaeologist.

Decades stood between me and the last time I held a joystick, yet the familiarity of it sank in immediately, like the proverbial riding a bike. The simplicity of the control apparatus forces a comparison to my more recent experiences with video game controllers, such as the complex Xbox controller, which among its many buttons actually wields two mini-joysticks, operated solely by the thumbs.  But stronger than the contrast, the experience generated distant comparisons. That is, I was reminded of the long after-school hours I would spend playing Asteroids on my family’s first desktop computer, long after the Vectrex had become obsolete, or the times I would play Pong on my neighbor’s Atari. Then of course, there was the Christmas my brother and I received our first gaming system: the original NES.

I wonder if there is a way to tie in some of our concerns from our first seminar regarding the separation of the body and a truly Kittler-inspired media archaeological analysis of technology. One of the most compelling aspects of my experience with the Vectrex was its ability to inspire a technological affect that transcends mere sentimentality. The very design, feel, and functionality of the Vectrex was engaged in this affective resonance. It was not just the game I was playing, or the memory of it, but the feel of the joystick, the dimensions of the screen, and the flashing twitch of the monitor. The unique aspects of this particular console produced a somatic connection that I think may be worth pursuing epistemologically. 

On Crary’s 24/7

Sunday, January 26th, 2014 by sdileonardi

This post is hardly argumentative, but rather an attempt to map out the claims being made on pages 41 and 42 in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7. I think that any general comprehension of the book relies on at least a partial grasp of the two tenants of his argument outlined in these pages.

On the one hand,  our contemporary context, especially regarding forms of technological consumption, inherits many of its defining characteristics from the industrial projects of modernization and capitalistic expansion occurring during the end of the nineteenth century. As I write, the hum of the washing machine signals the ominous presence of GE, which 130 years ago was called the Edison Electric Light Company. Giants such as Edison have proven that capitalism has also helped produce particular types of consumers, shaping and forming the nuanced aspects of society through an understanding of what drives a profit margin.

However, Crary wants to adumbrate an alternate kind of consumer production model that is inaugurated by the 1990s through Microsoft, Google, and others. Companies like these take a step beyond the production of consumers and actually succeed in producing subjectivities of technological users whose social ontologies are largely outlined and delineated by the roles these megalithic entities play. Crary posits that through this model “technological consumption coincides with and becomes indistinguishable from strategies and effects of power” (42). It is with this Foucauldian bent that Crary allows the subsequent chapters of his book to unfold. It is not that the mega-capitalistic model of Edison et. al. has been replaced, but rather augmented. And while for centuries philosophers and writers have focused their attention on political figureheads in order to fully highlight the power of the sovereign, Crary represents a shift in focal point as corporations have demonstrated the ability to wield subject-producing power.