Medea Theory

Darren Tofts


[1] In a review of my book Memory Trade Ken Wark made the following point:

Tofts is here sufficiently past the now unworkable orthodoxies of structural and poststructural semiotics to show why those theories have now to be surpassed... Tofts' prehistory of cyberspace...lays some conceptual and historical groundwork for thinking media theory free from the limiting assumptions of poststructural dogmas. But it does so by pursuing poststructuralism to its limit, rather than by retreating from it. [1]

In arguing that Memory Trade pursued poststructuralism to its limit, Wark had honed in on something that was most important to theoretical premises of the book. In arguing that the history of writing constitutes a sedimentary vein in the prehistory of cyberspace I had to push poststructuralism as far as it could go. At the moment of its most extreme extension I had hoped to find a concept capable of linking cyberspace and grammatology. The name I gave to this moment was cspace; a term derived from the expedient abbreviation of cyberspace. [2] Cspace refers to the modification of consciousness through the interiorization of the phonetic alphabet, to a mediated apprehension of the world through the abstract interface of acoustic and visual space. Just as a diminutive term presented me with a way of theorizing the prehistory of cyberspace, a misspelling of the term media as medea that I had read in a student essay a number of years ago, seemed to be presenting itself to me as a poetic for thinking media at the limits of poststructuralism and for theorizing these limits. While there is a great temptation to re-articulate media as medea, poetically it is actually more appropriate to pronounce medea as media. In this homology there is an ambivalent presence that is seen and not heard, the shadow of a repressed difference that makes a difference; the elusiveness of which will be difficult to detect in this discourse. What follows is an attempt to trace the outlines of this shadow.

Media Theory

[2] Media theory has its defining moment the Socratic condemnation of writing. When Socrates recounts the Egyptian story of the invention of writing, he portrays more than the discovery of a medium that will interrupt the complex relations solidified by the living voice. He identifies an interval, a spacing and pausing that intervenes into the immediacy of the present, bringing with it a new sense of time and a new way of relating to first hand experience. His metaphor for this interval is that of the abandoned child. Left to fend for itself in the absence of its progenitor, it is at the mercy of the promiscuous treatment of those who come into contact with it:

...once a thing is committed to writing it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers. And if it is ill-treated or unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its rescue; it is quite incapable of defending or helping itself. [3]

Writing, the supplement, the abandoned child, resides in the vulnerable interland of shifting contexts, confused signals, misunderstood transmissions, indeterminate meanings; the ambient and ambivalent agon otherwise known as communication.

[3] When Theuth presents his writing to King Thamus he is lectured on the shortcomings of his text, rather like an editor finding fault with an author's work: "you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function." [4] In a similar way, the Phaedrus is an editorial version of an earlier and more violent account of mediation, Euripides' The Medea (431 BC). [5] Like the medieval image so beloved of Derrida, in which Plato stands behind Socrates, receiver of the pen and the penis, the assemblage I want to work with displaces the Phaedrus with The Medea as a foundational moment in the history of media theory.

[4] Medea is the grammé, the pharmakon. She is alien, from afar, an eastern barbarian from Colchis who is reluctantly welcomed and tentatively harboured in her adopted home of Corinth. Preceding the Phaedrus by one hundred and thirty-nine years, she anticipates the breaking up of the world of sense with the alphabet and its particulate logic. She is writing before the letter, dispersing traces over the seas she traverses from one temporary destination to the next. Prior to the diegetic action of the play, two corpses have been dismembered, one of them her own brother. Here is the first example of writing the body, of the body writing.

Medea Theory

[5] To pursue poststructuralism to its limit is not to achieve closure, to culminate or come to the end of something. Rather, it is to acknowledge the force of the particulate; to no longer promise wholes, but to, rather, yield to the dissemination of bits. When Medea scatters the bits and pieces of her brother's body on the Black Sea as a decoy to aid her escape with Jason and the Golden Fleece, she is the fugitive presence of deconstruction. Her means of evasion casts her as the emblem of a theory of medeation in which there is arrival at a destination, but at a price: the inevitability of contingency and entropy. Medea will do whatever is necessary to secure escape or advancement. She represents the extremes of promiscuous, miscreant behaviour that would befall writing in the Socratic theory of media. Towards the end of the play Medea appears to Jason in a chariot drawn by dragons with the bodies of her dead children. Having murdered them in a symbolic act of vengeance against her husband, she stands guilty of infanticide: the vulnerable child killed by its own parent. Long before Gerald Graff's identification of the postmodern moment in literature, here was writing against itself.

[6] The perils of the journey, of medeation, stalk the history of writing, beginning with the Phaedrus and continuing in poststructuralism — a discipline haunted by the shade of Medea who, like the referent in Roland Barthes' theory of the image, adheres, rather like the pink, flesh-like membrane or shadow cast by figures in a Francis Bacon portrait. [6] Bacon's portraits are another instance of medean space. As a figurative painter Bacon struggled with the paradoxical problem of wanting to retain a defamiliarized appearance of the subject that was not an illustration. This creative tension or pressure, that Deleuze called "the figural," is a confrontation of the radical undecidability that is the stuff of medea, an interland that brings illustration and abstraction into uneasy, unresolved syncopation. [7]

[7] Medea, the shade of poststructuralism, has been waiting for a time of heightened excess, when it is no longer possible to resist the idea that sense is a matter of bits. Medea theory eventually finds its place in a technological age that has its foundation in the history of writing, but which abstracts that technology even further, removing it from the phonetic realm of proximity to the body, to breath and the living voice, locating it in the infravisible interchange of digital code and packet switching, of infinite permutation within a limited field of possibility. This is the abstraction of poststructuralism pursued to the limit, of writing after the letter.

[8] It is the missing bits in the Euripides' play that are the most apposite for the development of medea theory. In the preceding action Medea tricks the daughters of Jason's usurping uncle Pelias into cutting their father into pieces in order to rejuvenate the ailing old man. Betrayed by Medea, the daughters of Pelias are left with blood on their hands and a failed promise to rejuvenate their father to his first youth. The poststructuralist promise of the delivery of an imminent wholeness has been denied. Bodies can't be put back together. While bits in the electronic environment can be reformed in the course of their multifarious exchanges across networks, we can't possibly hope to make sense of their abstraction; we only ever engage with their graphic representations. And even though bits can be reconstituted through the machinations of intermediary software and screens, there is no guarantee that all the bits have been retrieved, or that the wholes they generate are always the same. As Norbert Wiener put it, all information has a tendency to leak in transit. [8] Communication, for Wiener, was a quintessential cybernetic event, a battle for coherence and understanding in the face of contingency. Communication was a struggle for the control of information between talkers and listeners, writers and readers, senders and receivers. The achievement of understanding was not a qualitative achievement in itself, but rather a curtailing of entropy, a measurement of the degree to which misunderstanding has not prevailed.

[9] Dispersal is the logic of poststructuralism, of Foucault's theories of the circulation of discourse, Derrida's alterity and the play of the trace. The legacy of dispersal is to be found in the discourse of information technology, especially in Manuel Castells' theory of information flows. Particularity is a different kind of logic. It is a diaspora, a dramatic breaking up of sense into bits. James Joyce knew from his profound understanding of grammatology that television was an extreme instance of a scene of writing. Writing stands in for a putative whole, which, it is assumed, will remain stable in the contexts in which it moves. Plato and Socrates knew this not to be the case, as did Joyce and Wiener. As did the Tel Quel theoreticians of textuality. Joyce's description of television as "the bairdboard bombardment screen" is suggestive of his sense of the dynamism and instability of the transmitted image when it is broken up into "bitts" of light, bombarded across distance and reassembled by a receiver. [9] In fact, in his account of television we hear, for the first time, what bits sound like. We hear the abstract grain of the televisual voice, the otherworldly, ihnuman "soundscript" of medeation:

In the heliotropical noughttime following a fade of transformed tuff and, pending its viseversion, a metenergic reglow of beaming batt, the bairdboard bombardment screen, if tastefully taut guranium satin, tends to teleframe and step up to the charge of a light barricade. Down the photoslope in syncopanc pulses, with the bitts bugtwug their teffs, the missledhropes, glitteraglatteraglutt, borne by their carnier walve. Spraygun rakes and splits them from a double focus. [10]

[10] Joyce's interest in television's electrification and medeation of the word was bound up with his interest in the particulate nature of the alphabet (or "allforabit"), and its ability to reconstitute its individual figures or bits into larger units of sense. [11] It was also influenced by contemporary theories of the quantum universe, or "microbemost cosm." [12] What united both of these particulate systems, through the breakdown of wholes into bits, was the spectre of medea, named by Werner Heisenberg as the "uncertainty principle," entropy by Norbert Wiener, or more dramatically, to use Wakespeak, the "abnihilisation of the etym." [13] The etym, like the atom, is in a constant state of agitation, collision and fusion. It produces unpredictable outcomes. Like the "bee-tv" of David Blair's hypermovie Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees, television in the Wake, as a medeam, has powerful connections with ancient traditions of writing and the tower of Babel, both of which are archetypal diasporas. But for Joyce they all amount to one thing, the spraygunning of sense into bits.

[11] Transitive theories of mediation assume that the moment of writing, the interval, retains the integrity of the whole and that the outcome, the delivery, was the most important factor in the exchange. The poststructuralist modality of intransitivity questioned the very idea of a whole, let alone its transport. It also focussed more on the process of mediation, of what Roland Barthes called "the middle voice," or "perpetual present." [14] But intransitivity concerned temporality and it could only go so far in its identification of what actually happens to the stuff of mediation. It needs to be extended beyond the verbal, that which carries, shifts or displaces, to the adverbial, to the conditions of movement, to the modifiers that form bits into tentative, ephemeral wholes on our screens. But these wholes are still caught within the flickering interchange of presence and absence, of thereness and not-thereness, on and off, one and zero. This is the limit point of poststructuralism, the distraction of wholes by the parts. This is anti-metonymy, when parts refer to themselves and not to an unseen whole. The retrieval of bits yields the realization that they are still only bits. There is always the possibility, too, that some bits will be missed. Here is the correlative of Aeetes, father of the murdered Apsyrtus, collecting the dismembered limbs of his son for burial.

[12] Medea theory is suited to a time when indiscriminate information is the currency of exchange. Medea theory is excess, extremity, matter, information, knowledge, reduced to its constituent bits. Medea theory addresses the irreducible moment when threshholds of matter and understanding reach an impasse and can't be broken down any more, when the rest is, well, silence. Maybe the aesthetics of silence also warrant revisiting at a later date. Perhaps Ihab Hassan's work on Beckett, Burroughs, Rauschenberg, Miller and Cage deserves another look in the context of medea theory. It's no coincidence that in the age of particulate excess, modes of thought to do with complex systems and chaos theory have also pursued to the limit previously entrenched threshholds of understanding. Quantum physics pushed the boundaries of matter into even more abstract, paradoxical planes with the discovery of elementary particles, quarks, which have the ambivalent status of being made up of waves and particles. Ironically, quarks took their name from the Wake, the great ur-text of media and medea theory; the text, by any other name, that is given to Joe Fernright in Philip K. Dick's novel Galactic Pot Healer and described as a "peculiar book... in which, it is alleged, everything which has been, is, and will be, is recorded." [15]

Theall and the Poetic

[13] At the end of the century, medean promiscuity is everywhere. Transmissional media theory has had its day. But is there a unifying concept within medea theory capable of making sense of and, if only temporarily, holding still the eclectic, indiscriminate bombardment of bits that we are faced with every day?

[14] The Canadian theorist Donald Theall has spent a lifetime exploring the relationships between sense, communication and technology and his most recent work offers a convincing way of responding to this challenge. Theall has been involved with all of the key intellectual movements that matter when it comes to theorizing medea: the new criticism, cybernetics, communications studies, linguistics and poststructuralism. Closely associated with Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter and the University of Toronto Explorations group of the 1950s, Theall realized than any theory of media and communication worth its salt couldn't possibly be a pure discipline, nor could it be singular. Encouraged by the work of Gregory Bateson, who synthesized communications, anthropology and psychiatry to develop his "ecology of mind," Theall incorporated avant-garde radicalism into the mix, as well as any and every form of popular culture. He recognized that the arts and everyday cultural life had as much a part to play as formal disciplinary knowledge in understanding "the social and theoretical implications of communication, communication technology and the emerging cyberworld." [16] Before fiber-optic cables and modems were on the scene, Theall was developing a particulate, broadband theory of medea.

[15] Theall's strategy has been simple enough: embrace complexity. He shares the cyberpunk's taste for hybridity and the informaniac's conviction that a particulate theory of semiotics means an end to the pigeon-holing of meaning. He has no time for simplistic bifurcations of high and low culture and sees any form of demarcation within the gamut of cultural production as weakening the potential of any theory. The concept that links, without necessarily unifying, the disparate fields of particulate activity that interest him, he has called the "poetic." Understood as an art of assemblage, the poetic describes any "planned act of cultural production, whatever the mode of expression in which it is realized — spoken words, images, gestures, writing, movement of words or images or objects, and all possible combinations. Thus the poetic includes drama, film, dance, sound and video recordings, mime, hypermedia and hypertext, comic books, TV series or even advertisements."[17]

[16] One has only to read Theall's writings to see the poetic at work, as moves with eloquent panache from Wyndham Lewis to Gene Roddenberry, Dusan Makavejev to Alexander Pope, Harold Innis to Marcel Duchamp. Theall's concept of the poetic is motivated by the insight that until recently "the study of all modes of cultural production have suffered from being carried on in relative isolation from one another." [18] The advantage of the poetic is in its uncompromising and energetic acceptance of ambivalence, of undecidability. Theall gleaned from his study of Wiener that "all cultural production is permeated by ambivalence, since all intersubjective human interaction is necessarily engaged in a complex dialogue about our mutual coexistence within a world of differences. The poetic provides a vital and elementary function of the ecology of mind, for it is the means by which people (all people) explore, deconstruct and reconstruct their resources of communication and expression in order to make sense of their world." Theall's work prompts us to reconsider some of the key terms that have been used to conceptualize what we mean by communication, demonstrating that they no longer have the same meaning in an age of particulate excess. "We have to give more depth and precision to speaking about communicative actions. There must be a recognition that not only have we moved beyond media, but that the ambivalence of the concept of media has always been a potential problem for understanding. Moving beyond the episteme of media and a transitive account of communication should be a move towards a deeper understanding of how people interact. There has always been a transverse aspect of communication which has been produced by the adjustments people must employ to understand one another." [19] And further, as he notes in his 1995 book Beyond the Word,

A post-mass-mediated world is emerging in which it is relatively meaningless to speak of media, for all media are becoming the medium of the microprocessor. Users are placed directly in the centre of the drama of communication, in which language becomes one central, but subordinate, aspect of the continuum of communication. [20]

[17] It is this transverse aspect of media and communication that medea theory identifies as having always been part and particle of social and cultural interactions. This transverse locution is the limit point of poststructuralism; communication is the aberration, the accident, as Niall Lucy has eloquently put it. [21] It is this moment that medea studies must now grasp. It is the indeterminacy that dare not speak its name. This indeterminacy is the limit point of poststructuralism, understood not as a culminating act of mediation but of medeation, experienced as an unresolved and unresolvable "ambiviolence." [22] Media theory has traditionally worked on the cusp of this moment. It is perhaps timely that in the age of non-linear editing, complex systems, chaos and virtual particles, medea theory needs to find new ways of handling the perils of the journey. Samuel Beckett once referred to finding a form to accommodate the mess when he was battling with the problems of undecidability, unnamability and the interstices between silence. Medea studies perhaps needs something more sublime as its signature theory, or maybe more funky, something like Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces." As this song suggests, anything and everything can and should be used and drawn upon for theoretical work. In Memory Trade the poetic assemblage Murray McKeich and I jammed with to essay a prehistory of cyberculture improvised Finnegans Wake, the fictions of Borges, the classical art of memory and the history of writing. Who knows, somewhere in those groovy lyrics we may find the tracings of an earlier narrative, of Aeetes fishing the limbs of his son out of the Black Sea, confronting the awful truth that medea is indeed more dramatic and more unpredictable than he or anyone else had dared imagine.


[1] McKenzie Wark, "Future (in)human: becoming third nature," RealTime, 28, December 1998-January 1999, p.18.

[2] Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich, Memory Trade. A Prehistory of Cyberculture, 21C/Interface, Sydney, 1998, pp.51-52.

[3] Plato, Phaedrus and The Seventh and Eighth Letters, trans. W. Hamilton, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, p.97.

[4] Plato, Phaedrus, p.96.

[5] Euripides, Medea and Other Plays, trans. Philip Vellacott, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1963.

[6] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Vintage, London, 1993, p.6.

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon. Logique de la Sensation, Editions de la Difference, Paris, 1981.

[8] Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1965, p.82.

[9] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, Faber, London, 1975, p.349.

[10] Finnegans Wake, p.349.

[11] Finnegans Wake, p.19.

[12] Finnegans Wake, p.151.

[13] Finnegans Wake, p.353.

[14] Roland Barthes, "To Write: An Instransitive Verb?" in R. Macksey and E. Donato, The Structuralist Controversy. The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977, p.142.

[15] Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer, Pan, London, 1971, p.69.

[16] Donald Theall quoted in Darren Tofts, "Fuzzy Culture," 21C, 25, 1997, p.34.

[17] "Fuzzy Culture," p.35.

[18] "Fuzzy Culture," p.35.

[19] "Fuzzy Culture," p.36.

[20] Donald Theall, Beyond the Word. Reconstructing Sense in the Joyce Era of Technology, Culture, and Communication, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1995, p.92. See also James Joyce's Techno-Poetics, Toronto University Press, Toronto, 1997 and "Beyond the orality/literacy principle: James Joyce and the pre-history of cyberspace," Postmodern Culture, May, 1992, «».

[21] Niall Lucy, Debating Derrida, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p.26.

[22] I have adapted this from Joyce's "ambiviolent," Finnegans Wake, p.518.