Afterlives of Systems

My friends and colleagues here in Germany, Christina Vagt and Florian Sprenger, are co-editing an issue of the journal Communication+1 (where I happen to be an editorial advisor) on "Afterlives of Systems." The announcement is below, and also attached as a PDF. This project's intersections with the history of cybernetics appeal to me generally, but I'm specifically excited by its investigation of links between media theory and ecological studies. In the United States scholars including Bruce Clarke, Mark B. N. Hansen, Rob Mitchell, Alenda Chang, Tom Cohen, and J. Hillis Miller are among a diverse group of theorists who have prodded at intersections in medial and environmental analysis. Classic works in media theory have also broached (without quite systematizing) these links. For example, Harold Innis's account of time, space, and communications takes the conquering of the environment as a defining aspect of modern communications. One needn't prod too hard to find a similar thread of analysis woven across theorists as diverse as John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virillio, and Bruno Latour. A commonality among these theorists' approaches is their interest in understanding media and communications, not merely as vehicles for representation, but rather as networks and ecologies. Unveiling and binding, decentralizing and interlinking, disclosing and enclosing, unfolding and enmeshing, reworkings of the near and far, the intimate and the alien: these are among the problematics in-forming these analysts' accounts of communications. Sadly, Anglophone media theorists have often treated intersections among media, ecology, and the environment as "mere" metaphors or remnants of some Howard Rheingold-type hippie futurism.

A recent exception to this line of thought in the United States can be found in the work of Fred Turner. His book FROM COUNTERCULTURE TO CYBERCULTURE explodes simplistic dismissals of the legacies of both systems thought and the counter culture. His forthcoming book THE DEMOCRATIC SURROUND: MULTIMEDIA AND AMERICAN LIBERALISM FROM WORLD WAR II TO THE PSYCHEDELIC SIXTIES seems to go one step further by taking seriously the notion that space, installation, and media environments are bound up with political and ethical consciousness, senses of belonging, and so on.  I'm hopeful that this project by Christina and Florian may support such continued reconceptualization of the intersections among media and ecological studies while binding it to German its complements, as exemplified by some of Erich Hörl's recent work.


Call for Papers

Afterlives of Systems


communication+1, Volume 3, 2014


Guest Editors: Christina Vagt, Florian Sprenger


This issue of communication+1 investigates the afterlives of systems since the early 20th century, following Aby Warburgs and Walter Benjamins historiographical concept of afterlife as the transformations and iterations a concept traverses to become productive at a specific moment in time. Under the impression of todays global crisis phenomena and the rise of an ‘ecological paradigm’ (Erich Hörl), we ask for papers that explore these afterlives from a historical or systematic perspective. We are interested in the promises, plausibilities and argumentative resources of system-oriented thinking, holistic or vitalistic worldviews and mechanistic approaches on different fields of knowledge during the 20th century and their current revival in the 21st century.

When system-oriented thinking emerged within biological contexts in the first half of the 20th century, it came along with universal pretensions: The concepts of ecosystems (Tansley) and general systems theory (von Bertalanffy) were both immersed in longstanding struggles between materialism and holism. From this context stemmed the rise of cybernetics and neocybernetics after the Second World War, which incorporated the principles of feedback and self-organization (Maturana/Varela/von Foerster/Luhmann). System-oriented thinking in the once-new fields of ecology, cybernetics, or systems theory itself seemed to offer an alternative to the futile opposition of mechanistic or atomistic perspective on the one side and holistic, organicistic or vitalistic perspectives on the other side. Nonetheless, underlying this institutionalization of system-oriented thought were diverse models of the relationship between a system and its parts, and alongside with that a renaissance of holistic concepts, e.g. holocoen (Friedrichs), biosphere (Vernadsky), noosphere (Teilhard de Chardin), synergetics (Buckminster Fuller), or Gaia (Lovelock).

How do these debates and affective states survive and live on in today’s discussions on new materialisms, object-oriented philosophies, media ecologies, or environmentalisms? Was the renaissance of holism in 20th century thought an effect of various system crisis, taking new media technologies such as television, computers, satellites and space shuttles as stabilizing ‘cure’ against dystopian future scenarios after World War II? Or should we understand the afterlives of systems within a broader perspective of new media induced models of subjectivity and agency that still have to be explored? Which role does the figure of the observer play in all this? Are there notions of systems in arts and architecture that are not incorporated in the historical struggles? What does it mean when materialisms today become holistic again? What is systemic in assemblages?


Please submit short proposals of no more than 500 words by November 25th, 2013 to

Upon invitation, full text submissions will be due March 31st, 2014, with expected publication in July, 2014. Although there is no set word limit, suggested length for the final submission is between 4500 and 7000 words.



About the Journal

The aim of communication +1 is to promote new approaches to and open new horizons in the study of communication from an interdisciplinary perspective. We are particularly committed to promoting research that seeks to constitute new areas of inquiry and to explore new frontiers of theoretical activities linking the study of communication to both established and emerging research programs in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. Other than the commitment to rigorous scholarship, communication +1 sets no specific agenda. Its primary objective is to create is a space for thoughtful experiments and for communicating these experiments.


communication +1 is an open access journal supported by University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries and the Department of Communication



Briankle G. Chang, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Managing Editor

Zachary J. McDowell, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Advisory Board

Kuan-Hsin Chen, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany

Lawrence Grossberg, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Catherine Malabou, Kingston University, United Kingdom

Jussi Parikka, University of Southampton, United Kingdom

John Durham Peters, University of Iowa

David Gunkel, Northern Illinois University

Greg Wise, Arizona State University