Distance and Proximity: Media Culture in the Age of Disruption

Weihong Bao
Film and Media Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultures
UC Berkeley

Peter Bloom
Film and Media Studies
UC Santa Barbara

Erkki Huhtamo
Design Media Arts
UC Los Angeles


Nadine Chan
Cultural Studies
Claremont Graduate University

Christina Vagt
Germanic & Slavic Studies
UC Santa Barbara

The theme of distance and proximity underscores our predicaments in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic. At a moment when we are learning to communicate and “travel” virtually, we have become aware that the relationship between distance and proximity is a well-rehearsed historical topos, and yet unfamiliar to critical scholarship. It has led us to consider broader debates about media histories, techniques, cross-cultural contexts of media circulation, and critical methods of audiovisual media studies. Distance, as in “distancing,” exists in relation to the social contexts where proximity becomes modulated. Proximity, as famously discussed by proxemics, applies to short-range communication situations, but these can never be separated from parameters of remoteness and distance. Distance and proximity, in other words, cannot simply be “objectively” measured but raises fundamental questions about what constitutes “distance” and “proximity” as such; they also draw attention to the layers of mediation and diverse agents involved: media objects, processes of technical operation, people as technicians, users, consumers, and social institutions. As optical terms, distance and proximity are most often reduced to the dynamic between the microscopic and the telescopic as part of a visual spectrum of reduction and magnification. However, these intermediate stages and agents require attention as well as distorted perspectives (“optical illusions”).

Media objects continue to generate operational contexts and effects, which is why we seek to understand the effect of our contemporary social and political conjuncture within the terms of a collective dispositive. The current convergence between mobilities and communications is one example that requires further attention in contemporary techno-culture, as exemplified by the self-driving, or autonomous car as a new kind of hybrid entity. It implies a situation where we are both “here” and “near,” so that a computerized and networked vehicle, a “media machine,” comes to exist under the sign of transportation and acts of movement. It takes us far and away into tangled conceptual itineraries. Finally, the relationship between distance and proximity points to the reorientation and remaking of media objects, which opens the discussions toward the problematics of design between the material and the immaterial.

Photo: David Leonard. Itinerant showman’s peepshow box with its set of transforming perspective prints (vue d’optique). Continental Europe, early nineteenth-century. Erkki Huhtamo Media Archaeology Collection Los Angeles.