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The University Seminar on the Theory and History of Media brings together scholars from the humanities and social sciences to examine emerging concepts in media theory. Media, in this conception, refers to material technologies that (re)produce, store, and transmit information – a conception broad enough that allows us to move from, say, the role of print technologies in early modern Europe, through spirit photography to the emergence of contemporary digital media. We are especially interested in the ways in which technologies shape and are shaped by cultural practices, and social sensibilities, and we consider a historical dimension as central to this effort. There is nothing so powerful in understanding the novelty and dynamism of contemporary media as looking at the introduction of earlier technologies whose technical and social influence was yet to be understood. At the same time, we are also committed to moving beyond the specifics of media in the U.S. to incorporate the different histories and trajectories of media in Europe and elsewhere. Finally, we intend this to be beyond any one disciplinary approach and each year is organized around a specific theme that sets the frame for questions and conversation.

Past Schedules

2009-2010: Archaeology of Media and Its Futures
2010-2011: Medium Histories
2011-2012: Aesthetics and Technology

Professor Zeynep Çelik

Professor Ying Qian

Alex Zivkovic

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/26/2019 Deutsches Haus (420 W. 116th St.), Columbia University
8:00 PM
Bauhaus Equipment
Zeynep Çelik Alexander, Columbia University

03/02/2020 832 Schermerhorn Hall, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Political Hacks: Computers, Campaigns, and the Midcentury Search for the ‘Typical’ American Voter
Alma Steingart, Columbia University


In the run up to the 1960 Presidential election on behalf of then-senator John F. Kennedy, political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool, psychologist Robert Abelson, and sociologist William N. McPhee, founded the Simulmatics Corporation. The company sought to merge the science of public-opinion polling with nascent computer simulation in order to guide political campaigns. To do so, they divided up the voting population into types such as “Border state, rural, upper-income, white, Protestant, male Independent,” or “Eastern, urban, lower-income, white, Catholic, male Democrat.” The work of the company was later fictionalized in The 480 by political scientist turned fiction writer Eugene Burdick. This talk will address the ways in which the firm’s work forced both supporters and detractors to articulate their ideas about what constituted democracy and the American political system through technological mediation, both real and imagined. It has become commonsense in media studies to acknowledge that new media address and organize new publics, and further, that inherent tensions in liberal democracy – between circulation and capture, representation and anonymity, are increasingly mediatized. How might political action, however, be circumscribed by technologies that, rather than tracking how individuals behave, predict how classes of people are expected to behave? “Political Hacks” will historicize some of the “looping effects” that are triggered by the mediatization of political action in contemporary liberal democracies.

03/23/2020 832 Schermerhorn Hall, Columbia University
7:00 PM
meeting cancelled

04/13/2020 832 Schermerhorn Hall, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Photographing Never: Temporality, Nationality and Ottoman state portraiture
Zeynep Gürsel, Rutgers University


This paper investigates the temporality of never, a future action depicted explicitly as one that will not come to pass. Specifically how might photography guarantee never? This paper investigate this peculiar and radical tense in photography by investigating the Ottoman state photography as a central part of the history of Ottoman Armenian emigration from the Ottoman east to the United States from the politically fraught and often violent 1890s to the end of Abdülhamid II's reign in 1909. This paper draws from a larger project, Portraits of Unbelonging, examining one of the first uses of photographs to police borders of nations and empires. Specifically, it rethinks temporality and photography to ask what it means to photograph subjects not to commemorate a particular event or moment in the present, nor to hold on to the past in the future, but rather to ensure that specific futures shall never come to pass. For more on the larger project see: