Occupying the Interstitial: Multidisciplinary Scholar Shannon Mattern Joins NSSR

What do the Helsinki Central Library, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and an Urban Studies conference in Toronto have in common? In just one month, Shannon Mattern has appeared at each of them as, alternately, an exhibition curator, a research workshop participant, and a panelist — all before starting in her new role as Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

A veteran New School faculty member, Mattern taught for 14 years in the Media Studies Department at the Schools for Public Engagement, where she developed her research interests in archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. Visually oriented, she found that collaborating with creative practitioner colleagues helped her explore sound and other multisensorial modex of experience and ways of knowing. “I’m interested in how epistemology is materialized and how information is made manifest in the built world” in a variety of ways, Mattern says.

That interest in information and organization began at a young age in an unlikely setting: her father’s hardware store in Pennsylvania. “In such neighborhood institutions we find a vernacular classification system that also manifests embodied and community knowledge,” Mattern explains.

Perusing Mattern’s website, one quickly realizes that she’s interested in this same idea across all magnitudes of scale – hardware stores, library systems, entire cities – each of which has implicit or explicit systems of classification that help organize our lives, often invisibly, and bear witness to the ways we organize the world for our own use. In analyzing them, she extracts layers of encoded political, philosophical, and artistic significance to examine “how the design of the interface and the attachment of metadata shape the way we search for information, or how the design of a desk  or a shelf shapes our interaction with knowledge objects, or how architectures have been constructed to store and organize our media objects and to embody particular classification systems.”

A scene from The Library’s Other Intelligences, an art project curated by Mattern and Jussi Parikka, and organized by the MOBIUS Fellowship Program of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in collaboration with the Helsinki Public Library. Photo credit: Juuso Noronkoski

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattern is on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves hundreds of archives and libraries throughout New York City, from the Museum of Modern Art Library to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We just worked with the city’s three public library systems on a distributed exhibition that explores how patrons, particularly the people who are not well served by other cultural institutions, can assert their right to digital privacy, both in the library and in their everyday lives,” Mattern says.

This sort of engagement speaks to Mattern’s role as a gap-bridging intellectual. At The New School she bridges NSSR and Media Studies, and also helps bring academic discussions to a variety of public audiences. She believes the type of work she does lends itself more readily to reaching a variety of people. “I’ve found that having a material thing – an object, a site — to unify and ground a discussion can really help in translating ideas to people who aren’t speaking the same language,” Mattern explains.

In this 2018 talk, Mattern surveys a variety of sites where the ethereal and datalogical become material — and where built and natural environments become informational. She considers those dimensions of thought and experience that resist containment, as well as the politics of imposing order.

Mattern’s preferred style of publication reflects this desire to reach out to a broader public, and to include art and media that are essential to understanding her work. These days, you’re more likely to find her work in venues for public scholarship like Places Journal, magazines like The Atlantic or industry publications like The Architectural Review than in academic journals. “When you write about fast-paced contemporary phenomena like digital urbanism, traditional peer-reviewed publications are often too slow,” she says. “Writing online, you can share richly illustrated and still rigorously edited projects that reach an international public immediately. That’s something that you can’t always do when you are writing for a specialized audience in publications hidden behind a paywall.”

Mattern’s more academic publications are also quite successful; her most recent book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, won the 2019 Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the book, Mattern engages with “media archeology,” which builds upon Nietzschean and Foucauldian ideas about genealogy and archeology to study media history – particularly the technologies that get left behind. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt includes discussions of “smart” cities laced with fiber optics and studded with digital sensors, as well as much older (and, in some cases, defunct) technologies like clay writing tablets and mud-brick structures, which she argues are more than merely things from the past. She aims to question the novelty of digital urbanism and “smart” technologies by demonstrating that cities have always been “smart” – and that “new” media aren’t all that “new.” “Perhaps we don’t use the telegraph much anymore but, even in this digital age, inscription and printing and radio communication are still vital to urban communication. As is the voice, one of the oldest media,” Mattern says.

Mattern also brings her pairing of assiduous scholarship and public engagement to her NSSR classrooms. “I tend to do hybrid classes that have some component of making and engaging with material environments or talking to professionals who are practicing the concepts we’re reading about,” she states. While students in her Data, Archives, Infrastructure class, for instance, read typical fare such as Foucault and Derrida, they also dive into the bowels of a municipal archive, a conservation lab, or a digitalization lab to engage with the physical texts upon which scholars rely, and to meet with the staff responsible for making these texts widely accessible via electronic repositories and climate-controlled archives. In  Thinking Through Interfaces, which she teaches together with Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, they explore not only interfaces themselves, from smartphones to Chinese typewriters, but also the pressing social and political issues around them.

Along with her new appointment, Professor Mattern will work to develop interdisciplinary ties between Parsons School of Design and NSSR, as she explains, “to imagine how considerations of the designed world and design methods can enhance social scientific and humanistic research, and, at the same time, how social scientific and humanistic approaches can serve designers” Her fall graduate Anthropology seminar, “Anthropology and Design: Objects, Sites, and Systems,” will survey these points of intersection.

For Mattern, this opportunity accords the benefit of staying exactly where she wants: the in-between. “I’m hoping to bridge anthropology, the design fields represented in Parsons, and media studies. And I like being in such interstitial spaces,” she says.