Eds. Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, and Susan Zieger
Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media
Duke University Press, 2021
Reviewed by Hannah Hopkins
What might first appear timely about Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media is its resonance with a persistent pandemic-era supply chain crisis that has brought into stark relief the fragile and exploitative nature of global capitalism. Indeed, Assembly Codes reminds us that the manifests we make, the grooves cut into vinyl records, the cables running lengthwise across ocean floors: all these stories about efficiency and seamlessness point to the long history of global logistics and media circulation. In Assembly Codes, editors Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, and Susan Zieger bring together conversations in media studies, Black studies, history, anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies, and allied disciplines through the convergence and co-creation of media and logistics.
Assembly Codes is concerned with approaches to global logistics that span centuries and continents and the media that constitute its operations. As such, Assembly Codes offers three major interventions. First, the ‘logistical imagination’ gives shape to approaches to logistical media that highlight its emplaced histories and attendant vitality. Second, ‘logical instruments’govern and guide the operation of supply chains, media distribution, and systems of information storage and transmission. Finally, the collection demonstrates the orientation toward logistics and media infrastructures as ‘supply chain media’under an increasingly precarious and surveillance-oriented system. Taken together, these interventions engage approaches to logistical media across disciplines, geographies, and temporalities. They also structure each of the book’s three sections, which are further informed by short “logistically inspired stories, keywords, and object descriptions” linking each contribution. Including a range of logistical media—from supply chain management software interfaces to trade maps—these interstitial moments attune us to what John Durham Peters calls “the return of the big and the raw, along with the small and refined.”
In the first section, “The Logistical Imagination: Image, Sound, Subject,” Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, Susan Zieger, Ebony Coletu, and Shannon Mattern frame an understanding of logistics around the Transatlantic slave trade, inscribing a media history of quantification and control of enslaved people as a key to understanding, in Zieger’s terms, both logistics and freedom today. Harney & Moten begin with “Habits of Assembly,” reminding us of the nefarious feedback loop that logistical thinking foments: “the more logistics you apply, the more logic you acquire; the more logic you deploy; the more logistics you require.” “Habits of Assembly” engages the logistical imagination relationally. Harney & Moten trace the ways that logistical thinking, particularly given its foundation as “the science of whiteness in and as the science of loss,” shapes relations of subjugation. Here, ownership and ‘loss prevention’ are at the center of the science of logistics and the story of “the wickedness of the Atlantic slave trade, the first massive, diabolic, commercial logistics.” Zieger, too, takes up logistical media and archival memory through the media traces of the Middle Passage in “Shipped,” demonstrating how the “material of paper, the medium of the print, and the genre of the bill of landing, far from achieving total logistical control over the Middle Passage, instead reflect its messy, open, and contested aspects.” Zieger’s account of the openness and contestation of such paper archives and their logistical apparatus brings resonance to the interconnected dependencies and fragilities of digital logistical infrastructures while also highlighting the media history of paperwork in a specifically Black studies context. Coletu’s “Pan-African Logistics” brings a similar material archival study to logistical artifacts of the Pan-African movement, tracing what it means to “probe for logistical challenges in a back-to-Africa movement.” Coletu argues that logistics must “explicitly include slavey and colonization as a prompt for the reorganization of global commerce” and that such an approach “addresses how legacy institutions develop afterlives at the level of technical affordances and constraints.” With these afterlives in mind, Mattern’s “The Pulse of Global Passage: Listening to Logistics” suggests ‘listening’ as “another mode of representation and investigation” for logistical media. Mattern frames listening as a “means of orientation and synchronization” that charts our orientation in contemporary and historical logistical systems. She calls us to “hear the pulses of global passage” as the section closes.
In “Logistical Instruments: Efficiency, Automation, Interoperability,” Liam Cole Young, Matthew Hockenberry, and Ned Rossiter engage traces and networks of logistical media that have and continue to shape colonial and epistemological regimes. Young frames ‘logistical media’ as “gatekeepers of time, space, and experience” and engages traces of such media to consider histories of colonization. In so doing, he characterizes logistical media “as more than traces of past activities or events but rather as intermediaries that activate certain possibilities and seek to cancel others.” With continued attention to infrastructural logistics, Hockenberry’s “Every Man within Earshot” Auditory Efficiency in the Time of the Telephone” interrogates the seamlessness and relative invisibility of the telephone. This account finds resonance in Rossiter’s “Logistical Media Theory, the Politics of Time, and the Geopolitics of Automation,” which interrogates the place of waste in logistical media systems and brings to the fore tension between the ‘material world’ and the ‘calibration machines of the digital.’
Likely of particular interest to those with investments in media studies and management, essay contributions in Assembly Codes’s final section, “Supply Chain Media: Digitization, Globalization, Exploitation,” examines media artifacts and industries, working toward what it might mean to account for media’s entangled logistical materialities. Michael Palm’s “Carry That Weight: The Costs of Delivery and the Ecology of Vinyl Records’ Revival” grapples with material(s) toxicity of the ecologies of vinyl production and distribution. Palm engages the opportunities and imperatives around accounting for the ecological draw of the shipping and supply chain process, an attunement echoed by Kay Dickinson in “Supply Chain Cinema, Supply Chain Education: Training Creative Wizardry for Offshored Exploitation.” Dickinson highlights the ways that cinema that is shaped by a growing propensity to outsource the work of production “hinges on sensitizing film personnel and their artistic predispositions to logistical principles.” This contribution is particularly compelling given Dickinson’s engagement with imbrications of academic and creative work, as both venues give rise to slippery questions of ethics, credit, and cooperation across difference. Nicole Starosielski’s “The Politics of Cable Supply from the British Empire to Huawei Marine” traces the genealogy of the undersea cable systems comprising critical international internet infrastructure and the multinational politics that constitute its operation. Here, the work of the organizations that manufacture cables is authorized as “a means of representing what the state can do, as well as its investments and capacities.” Even as the public conversation around the supply chain may appear to indicate the opposite, Starosielski argues that public discussion around the supply chain misses critical geopolitical context. Finally, Tung-Hui Hu’s “Laugh Out Loud” addresses the labor practices of microwork, with specific attention to lethargy, a “precarious position” Hui articulates as “lacking agency and thus personhood” characteristic of a person who is objectified by a logistical web. Hui closes with a call for renewed attention to lethargy or doing “nothing” in racialized environments, which are never neutral and always subject to technocapitalist surveillance.
Assembly Codes addresses a remarkably broad range of logistical and media technologies, with global colonialism and capitalist exploitation at the heart of much of its inquiry. In moments where contributions might feel far afield of one another, it is this common epistemological ground that reminds readers of the logistical webs that encircle us across temporalities and borders. Assembly Codes presents a host of rich possibilities for interdisciplinary conversation around media, logistics, governance, and the afterlives of data and information that will support vibrant ongoing inquiry. These possibilities begin as we do in the book’s first section: with listening.