Matt Bernico (b. 1988) is a media theorist and professor from Ottawa, Il. He received his Ph.D. from the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, CH. Bernico is currently an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Greenville University in Greenville, Il. Bernico’s research interests include ways material culture influence and reinforce belief.
1. Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar.
I’ve always been a “technical” person. I grew up circuit bending instruments, making bad electronic music, and trying to fix all of the things I broke along the way. I loved the chaos of making something weird! These few formative experiences helped me grope my way into building a critical and technical literacy that would carry me a few different places professionally.
Throughout my undergrad, at Greenville University in southern Illinois, I lived a double life: in class working on political philosophy and in an office doing helpdesk work and putting my “fixing broken things” skills to work. This double life led me to ask some more significant questions at the intersection of both philosophy and tech, namely, how does technology affect the structure of our political economy? On the back of this question, I began working on a graduate degree at the University of Illinois at Springfield in integrative studies. In my grad work, I started pushing into all of that good European post-Marxist analysis! Working with the political philosopher, Richard Gilman Opalsky, I looked at how new media changed the mechanics of capitalism.
From there, I dove in into a Ph.D. program at a wild institution called the European Graduate School (EGS) in Saas-Fee, CH. At EGS I became familiar with the crucial interventions speculative realism could make on aesthetics and media studies. My Marxist materialisms were reinforced by the “New Materialism” of Jane Bennett and Jussi Parikka. I defended my dissertation on speculative realism and media in 2016.
After finishing my Ph.D., I got the chance to return back to the beginning! I was offered a teaching post back at Greenville University in 2016 in an emerging initiative called the Center for Visual Culture and Media Studies. The impetus behind my hire was to revitalize a cluster of departments (Media Communication, English, Digital Media, and Art,) so that they might better address the current technological paradigms we find ourselves in.
I officially work in the Media Communication department as an assistant professor where I teach a 3/3 in Media Comm while also directing the Interdisciplinary capstone for our undergrads.
2. What are some of your main influences?
I am so grateful for so many scholars and academics who have guided me in getting to where I am. A few of them are Richard Gilman Opalsky, Christina Smerick, John Brittingham, Dean Dettloff, and Wolfgang Schirmacher. Though, apart from the litany of colleagues and former professors, I also find a lot of resonance and direction from creative people! I know “creative people” is vague, but I feel like some folks on my list might not fit into the category of “artist.”
I draw a lot of inspiration from people who can say something interesting while also being playful or just having fun while doing it. Musically, I’m influenced by Boots Riley work in his band The Coup, Milo, Open Mike Eagle and Kool A.D. I’m also really invested in all of the storytelling work of the McElroy brothers, especially their work on The Adventure Zone. Finding people who can make things while also expressing a lot of joy has been instrumental in the scholarship I’ve begun doing. Figuring out how to comport myself amongst a lot of heavy topics has been vital for building the worldview I need to get work done.
3. New Media is …….
One of the primary methodologies I like to work with is media archaeology. For the uninitiated, media archaeology thinks about media history in a more or less non-linear sense. Siegfried Zielinski says, “Everything has always been around, only in a less elaborate form; one needs only to look.” If this is the case, then finding what exactly is “new” in “New Media” is kind of complicated. Usually, when people talk about New Media, they’re talking about forms of media that have been developed on digital platforms. However, the digital forms of New Media are, as Zielinski and other archaeologists hold, just more elaborate forms of already existing media.
Maybe, rather than fundamentally new forms, we could say that the new and more elaborate intensities that digital platforms enable are what is at the basis of New Media. To me, new media is about the dromological investigation of the ways New Media ignites or pushes cultural forms. I think Paul Virilio gets it right when he says “Digital messages and images matter less than their instantaneous delivery; the shock effect always wins out over the consideration of the informational content.” (The Information Bomb)
4. What is your typical day like?
Being a TT faculty member in the summer is a boring kind of thing to describe–it’s very routine! I spend time with my family, everyone gets off to daycare and work, I work on some ongoing projects, read or write, maybe on a particularly inspired day I do some work on my syllabi for the next semester. This summer I spent some considerable time building a fleet of Raspberry Pi pirate radio stations for an upcoming class. The amount of tinkering and repetitive work that project took was really nice. It was good to get lost in some technical stuff and provided a nice break from writing
The dichotomy of school year against the summer is really difficult for me to deal with. I’m not good with unstructured amounts of time. I guess that can all be attributed to the types of discipline and life rhythm academia puts you into. In the summer, where I don’t really have anywhere to be, I find myself making lots of checklists to stay on task!
5. What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m working on a manuscript that’s yet to be titled. The basic idea behind what I’m doing is mapping out the connections between one’s beliefs and the ways that material artifacts might reinforce those beliefs. To get to the bottom of this question I’ve been doing research into the material cultures of fringe science and outright pseudo-science. I’m trying to catalog machines that people/groups believe to produce an effect, but in fact, do not actually work.
For example, there’s a pretty notable hoax that was uncovered in 2010 where a British company was producing and selling bomb detectors called the ADE651. The ADE651 was believed to be able to detect bomb-making supplies, money, blood, and even ivory! However, the device was a colossal fraud and basically an expensive dowsing rod. The tragedy is that many of these devices were sold to the Iraqi government to be used at checkpoints around the country. What’s interesting to me is the ways that the device itself in combination with the discourse surrounding it produced a rather fantastic belief!
Apart from all of that, my semester will start soon, and my work with students will be underway! I’m teaching a handful of media studies related courses, and I’m totally psyched to be in the classroom after just hanging all summer! I’m most excited to teach a seminar on the history of clandestine radio. It’s a nice chance to read a lot of politics into media history.
6. Do you have a collaborative idea that you want to get off the ground?
One of the courses in my load this year is an undergrad media criticism class. There are plenty of great resources out there for teaching media criticism, but I always find myself walking a line between reform or revolution. Media criticism is great at drawing out issues for reform, but it has a harder time thinking through larger political projects! I’d be interested in collaborating on a media pedagogy that is actively thinking through the structures of oppression with regards to colonialism and white supremacy.
7. What is the most recent thing you’ve learned?
Recently I’ve been reading a really wild book, Abducted by Susan Clancy. Clancy is an experimental psychologist who studies false memory with regards to people who believe they have been abducted by aliens. In reading it, I’ve been surprised just how malleable and complicated memory is! Getting the empirical explanations of memory have been making me think back to Bernard Stiegler’s mnemotechnics! As someone who works primarily in history and theory having real empirical data is a nice turn that gives me some new interest in past theory.