Communication and Media Studies: La Forge’s VISOR and the Pictures in Our Heads

Nathanael Bassett

in Set Phasers to Teach! Springer (In Press)


The lineage of traditions that lead to the study of media makes defining a single coherent discipline difficult. But these studies involve more than just what we see on the screen. They focus on one of the inescapable aspects of human experience – mediation and technics. Phenomena are never the subject of direct encounters. Our experiences are always mediated through something which stands between us and the world. Communication and media studies researches both content and form, with an exceptional focus on the relationships between ourselves, the messages we receive via the medium, and the artifacts and systems through which we experience the world. Geordi La Forge’s VISOR is a prime example. It is both “the medium and the message,” in McLuhan’s (1994) terms. Despite his obvious prosthetic, La Forge is just one of the many humans in Starfleet who depend on complex socio-technical systems to mediate their experiences. The purpose of communication and media studies is to reveal the way these systems contribute to our lives and help to constitute our social world, by drawing from many different disciplines to investigate the means of communication we otherwise take for granted.

Turning the Gaze Upon Ourselves: Philosophy of the Slasher

Nathanael Bassett

in A Celebration of Slashers

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

It seems that philosophy has a lot to offer to the appreciation of horror and fantasy. A quick glance at a popular bookstore shelves reveals titles like True Detective and Philosophy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, American Horror Story and Philosophy, The Walking Dead and Philosophy, and so on. Looking at popular culture through the lens of philosophy is nothing new. But the relationship between each is a two way street – certain types of horror have been an inspiration to philosophers in recent times, specifically those centered around iterations of “cosmic horror.” This relates to an unknowable Other or the horror of a cosmic void (often based in the work of H. P. Lovecraft). Recent work in speculative realism draws out the philosophical potential of those forms of entertainment (Thacker, 2015). The body horror of David Cronenberg also helps to produce original philosophy (Riches, 2012). Even the traditional ghost story has lent itself to works focused around ethereal media and so called “hauntologies” (Sconce, 2000). But the slasher has been neglected, and I intend to argue that while these forms of philosophy based on other horror look outward, a philosophy of the slasher has the potential to look inward and reveal a critique of the human more uncomfortable than any mess of flesh from beyond.   Continue reading

DePaul Pop Culture Conference: Slasher Philosophy

This weekend I will be presenting for the third year in a row at the annual DePaul Pop Culture Conference, which is A Celebration of Slashers29572.jpgThe challenge for me is that  personally, I have never been a huge fan of the slasher genre. I prefer my horror in the form of Cronenberg’s body horor, or the cosmic horror of Lovecraft. Each lends themselves to a certain aesthetic and type of thinking that is widely found in veins of speculative realism and philosophy like object oriented ontology, which turns to “the things themselves” and asks us to deanthropocize our phenomenology, particularly in the anthropocene (or cthuluscene, depending on who you read).

While this is all well and good, it is a bit impersonal. Take for instance, one of my favorite current comic series, Joe Golem. Joe Golem is literally a Golem. He’s not human, but he is desiring to become human, much like the aliens and androids of science fiction. But no monster really wants to be human – it’s inhumanity is what sets it apart. Slashers challenge this aspect of the horror genre because their antagonists largely are (or were) humans.  It is their fractured and wounded humanity that turns them into the monster, a predicament that shows how any of us is capable of terrible, awful violence. It is a relational mode of horror, in which we are searching for a villain to be unmasked, rather than waiting for the rubber monster to just come out of the floor.

My idea is that a philosophy derived from slasher fiction (rather than cosmic or body horror) can tell us more about ethics, gendered and interpersonal violence, than it can about the oddness or weirdness of a non-human phenomenology. I will post the essay here following the conference. If you are in Chicago, be sure to stop by!

Update(s): ABD, Adjunct Faculty at DePaul, and Comm +1

After working the better part of the year to prepare for my prelim exams and my dissertation proposal, I am happy to announce that I have completed and defended my exams and am now a PhD Candidate at UIC. I am close to proposing a dissertation centered around non-use and adoption of technology, and I’m grateful to my committee (including Steve Jones, Adrienne Massanari, Liam Cole Young and Richard Warner and especially my advisor (Andrew Rojecki) for all their time and patience through this process. I’m excited to get to focus now more on teaching and writing as I end my fellowship with the Electronic Security and Privacy NSF-IGERT program here at UIC.

I also am excited to announce I will be teaching two courses at DePaul University this coming winter quarter, starting in January. These courses are Media Ethics (MCS 343) and Introduction to Digital Communication (CMNS 570). This is my first time where I have been able to choose all the readings and the structure of the course for myself, and I’m grateful to DePaul University’s College of Communication (particularly Michael DeAngelis and Paul Booth) for this opportunity.

Lastly, I am co-editing a special issue of Communication +1 with Zachary McDowell this year centered around Media Archaeology, and I am planning on doing a “dialogues” piece for the issue, essentially a short, edited interview with a scholar on some of their current work and theoretical progress in media studies and communication. If you know of someone or would like to nominate yourself, please get in touch with me.


Edit: Now available here

by Nathanael Bassett

in STUDIA UBB. PHILOSOPHIA, Vol. 62 (2017), 2, pp. 1-21

ABSTRACT. This paper argues identity documents (ID) prefigure wearables as artefacts connected with archives. As participants with human practices, they constitute an apparatus that engenders sensibilities about the proper way to participate in society, through the use of socio‐technical systems. The use of these artefacts is necessary to make individuals legible to the state. Refusing them renders us insensible. Through a media archaeology of the history and use of IDs through modern Europe, an understanding emerges of the agential properties of artefacts and their essential role in establishing a social imaginary of the state.

“Enjoy Your Feeling”: A Media Archaeology of Mechanical Keyboards

by Nathanael Bassett  & Jason Archer

published in Communication & the Public, Vol 2, Issue 3, pp. 239 – 252


Ubiquitous technology depends upon imposing standards. Choices in function and form reflect the homogenization of artifacts, necessitated by the intentions of experts to satisfy a plurality of users. In material publics, users with expert knowledge can develop customized artifacts satisfying desired affordances or aesthetics. This project involves a media archaeology of computer keyboard design to explore the relationship between experts, publics, and the creation of these artifacts. Participation in these communities and study of enthusiast records result in a public-expert knowledge. The importance granted to minutia of design, from the choice of plastics to spring tensioning, parallels new form factors that reflect highly personalized choices. These reassert user control over the materiality of an otherwise ubiquitous and mundane mediating artifact. Publics then create a new political materiality by recomposing artifacts beyond what commercial expertise prescribes.

Please see the full article at

Sensibility and a Typology of Tech

Aside from the most emphatic social determinists, we can imagine that technology and design is ideology made material. Our material culture is composed of physicalized socio-cultural values. This is also a way to inscribe sensibility on the physical environment. The use of window shades creates a sense of privacy for the homeowner. Bars and walls promise a sense of security to the insecure. My chair grants a sense of comfort, my clothes a sense of decency, crosswalks and traffic lights instill a sense of order, and so on. These are feelings which imply perception rather than emotion. It means we are aware or cognizant of the artifact’s meaningfulness and role in society. 

These sensibilities are not just engendered by artifacts – they are produced by socio-technical systems which help produce the sensible, intelligible world we inhabit. They populate the environment or the mise-en-scène where we perform our lives. Our sense of agency is contingent on this engendered sensibility – certain choices elicit the frustration, anger, and disappointment of “proper” society. This is how sense-making can prefigure power dynamics. To talk about agency and technology does not require  us to become lost in critical dystopian and luddite responses. Instead it can involve an exploration of refusal as “nonsense.” The non-use or refusal to engage with socio-techncial systems as per the prescriptions of their designers, engineers, or other authorities can render us as unintelligible or nonsensical. The power dynamic here is not between non-users and another class of actors, technocrats and such, but between agents and the environment, the space in which intelligibility is articulated by the scene, made up of the social and material culture. Continue reading

Defining Sensibility

Problematizing the obvious, Reconceptualizing, and borrowing methods. 

My writing so far has largely focused around Abbot’s “Methods of Discovery” and the way one can thinking through questions via heuristics like Aristotle’s forms. But another framework is Burke’s five keys of dramatism, which include action (what is being done), agents (who is doing it), scene (where it is happening), agency, (what is possible), and purpose (motivation). Literature on nonuse and technology refusal takes a few forms but typically focuses around purpose and agents. “Older adults are less likely to use the internet because they are less technological literate” goes the old mantra of “digital divide” research. Research addressed towards policy initiatives then gives the media literacy people something to work on for action oriented research and participatory research designs.

What happens then if we move the focus from agents and purpose to agency and scene? This is what I am doing when I think beyond non-use as a motivated behavior by a select group. What is possible (agency) given the environments constructed around us (scene)? If I move past thinking about non-users as a demographic or just their instrumental decisions (action), I can infer larger consequences about not just power, but adaptability and sensibility in sociotechnical systems. Given that agency is not constructed with the actor in mind, but with the intentions of the designer, a limited number of actions are possible. Typically, non-use focuses on one action (turning the thing off), which is a very shallow way for thinkign about engagement with technology. It’s similar to when we think of how political participation works, and someone enters the conversation and says “if you don’t like this country, leave it!” Leaving a sociotechnical system that is ubiqutous, where essentially actions and agency are embedded, embodied and inscribed into the very environment (scene) itself, carries very high costs for actors. One of my research questions is to think about those costs and try and measure them. Are they just social, economical, or related in some way to social agency? I think it’s more than that. It has to do with the sensibility that is constructed into a scene, a way of making the landscape navigable and seemingly orderly to us.  Continue reading

(Rough) Notes on Refusing Technology

I now turn to Aristotle’s four causes for “why.” This is “why things are” but I want to use it the way Abbot does in “Methods of Discovery” to make an argument for a “potential why.” These are material (something happens because of social material that went into making or unmaking it, such as “the republicans lost the election because they lost the women’s vote”), structural (the shape of the structure gives it peculiar properties ( IE “all social groups with three members are inherently unbalanced, because two of the three always ally against the third”), effective (cause of something is what it brings about or forces to happen, IE a strike caused employer retaliation/newspaper caused a war), and final cause ( ultimate aims of events. IE “universities exist for education. pollution laws exist because of a need for clean air.”) Begining with an assumption that technology is part of what makes us “human” as we can understand it (and the only way we can understand it), the question should then be “why is it impossible to refuse technology?” We can also ask “why would people want to refuse technology?”

More fundamentally we can ask “what IS technology.” Above I noted that technologies “are both material (as in, having physical instantiations), social (as in engendered by social processes which make it possible) , and produce new forms of sociality, in both cultures that emerge around them and associative cultural effects.” This makes up the material, formal/sturcutral, and final cause, but I will write more in depth below. Continue reading