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The Large Hadron Collider Project:  Mediating Life, the Universe and Everything

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The Large Hadron Collider Project: Mediating Life, the Universe and Everything


Dr Sarah Kember, Goldsmiths, University of London



LHC: the aim of the exercise:

To smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang. The LHC experiments try and work out what happened.





Introduction. A non-event with a difference

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project aims to recreate the big bang inside the world’s largest supercollider. It is a fully scaled-up automation of a, if not the cosmic event which lies at the origin of life, the universe and everything. The automation process is facilitated by a range of technologies (analogue and digital) and by innovative programming and engineering that includes a 27 kilometre tunnel dug deep underground on the outskirts of Geneva. The goal is to collide counter-rotating beams of protons, driven by large magnets and travelling at almost the speed of light, inside the tunnel and then conduct experiments that detect exactly how a universe comprised of matter as well as energy came into being. Currently, physicists are unable to explain why things like snowflakes, rocks and people have mass. They cannot answer the question of embodiment, expressed in scientific terms as why some particles acquire mass and others do not. The experiments that constitute the LHC project are designed to answer this question by detecting the presence (or absence) of a particular object; the Higg’s boson, otherwise known as the god particle. If the god particle is detected, it signals the existence of a field (the Higg’s field) that is thought to confer mass on those particles that pass through it at a certain velocity. 

Despite the trial runs that have been conducted since 2008, the automated ‘event’ of a proton or particle collision, with an energy of 14 teraelectronvolts1 occurring at almost the speed of light has not yet taken place. Although it is currently still wished-for, it has already been and continues to be highly mediated. The aim of this article is to consider what, in this context, mediation means, and further, to analyse the relationship between the automated event and its mediation through live images and animations. I will propose that the collision event, the big bang at the heart of the LHC project, is ‘entangled’ (Barad, 2007: ix) with its mediations; co-constituted by the animations that appear to merely represent it. These same animations are therefore integral to the vitality of the event - not just its liveness, understood as a representational trope, but its liveliness, understood as a facet of media performativity. Animations of the big bang co-perform the event itself by virtue of being indistinguishable from, and integral to its automation. Ultimately, my aim is to show how they, alongside other forms of agency, reformulate the question of embodiment in this project, directing it away from singular objects of detection towards processes of mediation. My argument is therefore sympathetic towards what Lisa Blackman has characterised as a development in studies of the body and embodiment. This development ‘refuses the idea of separation’ (2008: 40), singularity or autonomy, and rejects divisions between subject and object, mind and body, biology and society. It seeks to replace such Cartesian divisions with more process-based notions of becoming and relationality that recognise the way in which human and non-human bodies, people and particles are entangled with each other, and with socio-cultural phenomena such as mediation.

In the context of the LHC project, the entangled relationship between events and their mediation is highlighted by virtue of being made extreme. Karen Barad states that ‘to be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence’ (2007: ix). Events, in other words, are always already mediated. They are not independent or self-contained, and do not await mediation, as it were, from the outside. Rather, they are constituted in part through processes of mediation that exceed the terms of representationalism: ‘the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent’ (Barad, 2007: 46). In this project specifically – one in which the full event has not yet occurred, and will remain resolutely unrepresentable if and when it does – there is, more evidently, no event that is independent of its multi-mediation by agents ranging from magnets to computers, from particle physicists to the average web user.

Where the current status of a particle collision at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research which is responsible for the LHC project) is something of a non-event, this does not mean, in Baudrillard’s sense, that it is condemned to being a pseudo-event, not only one that hasn’t (yet) taken place, but one that will not take place (2009). On the contrary, I aim to show that as a mediated rather than a media event, the collision is continually taking place. It is, in effect, virtually real. The concept of mediation cannot be equated with that of simulation precisely because the latter is predicated on a division between the virtual and the real. If, for Baudrillard, the indivisibility of the event and its simulation in semiotic media signifies implosion, loss and de-vivification (Merrin, 2005), for me, the entanglement of events and their mediation signals a distributed, multi-agential and embodied vitality that broadly conforms2 to Bergson’s notion of movement, duration, creative evolution or life itself (1988).

The question of the relation between the event and its mediation is paramount in this project. This relation contains within it a number of other relations that can be, or have been regarded as oppositions including automation and animation, liveliness and liveness. Automation is a form of mechanised agency that is capable of providing the signs of ‘spontaneous agency’ (Sobchack, 2009: 383) and vitality (liveliness) and animation is a representational form associated with the illusion of movement and life (liveness). In order to sustain the question of relations and neither collapse nor oppose these phenomena, my method is based on division and reconciliation. Bergson’s intuitive method states 1) identify the problem or distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ problems 2) distinguish between differences in degree and differences in kind and 3) take time seriously (Deleuze, 2002). The stated problem of the LHC project, the one foregrounded in its own publicity, concerns the presence (or absence) of a particle collision and the subsequent appearance of the elusive Higg’s boson or god particle. Again, the Higg’s boson is the quantum of a field that, if present, would explain why some particles acquire mass and become embodied. Not only is this one of the so far unanswered questions in particle physics, but answering it would serve to reconcile the Standard Model of particle physics (effectively the bible of particle physics) with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (Ellis, 2009). The Higg’s boson, if detected, would provide science with a theory of everything. It would link the physics of small and large objects, protons and planets. It would afford ultimate, god-like knowledge, hence the veneration of this hypothetical entity. However, if it exists, if it makes its re-appearance in the fraction of a second following an automated event, then it will be so large and unstable that it will disappear before it can be visualised. All that could possibly be detected, therefore, is the ‘smoking gun’ – the animated lines or traces radiating from a point (the point of collision) on computer screens that, in representing the unrepresentable, are already contributing to bringing about the event that they subsequently describe. The god particle will remain hypothetical in the sense of being outside and above representational knowledge. Proof of its existence will be contingent on our faith in the objectivity of visual media, their ability to describe something from which they are epistemologically and ontologically separate. Presuming that this faith is at least combined with doubt in a secular, teletechnologised (Derrida and Stiegler, 2002) culture then the presence/absence of the collision-induced Higg’s boson must give way to the (‘true’) problem of its mediation.

Mediation is a difference in kind from media, and one of the things that makes it so is its temporal nature. Mediation is primarily a temporal, multi-agential phenemenon, a process rather than a spatialised and spatialising object. However, the division is not absolute and I will attempt to reconcile as well as to distinguish between the LHC as a one-off, launch-based media event characterised by spatiality and liveness, and the LHC as an ongoing, mediated (non)event characterised by temporality and liveliness. Time, for Bergson, is vitality, liveliness or life itself but not liveness understood as the illusory movement of an object from A to B (1988). Considered as a characteristic of television, liveness is widely regarded as an illusion, a construct. Derrida, for example, argues that there is no liveness as such, ‘but only a live effect [un effet de direct], an allegation of “live”’ (2002: 40). Whatever its effects, any given broadcast or screening ‘negotiates with choices, with framing, with selectivity’ (40). Media, for him, are associated with ‘artifactuality’ or the production of liveness as an artifact (3). Whatever is happening, the very temporality of a happening is ‘calculated, constrained, “formatted”, “initialised” by media apparatus’ (3). Actuality, as it comes to us on the screen, is a fiction, ‘no matter how singular, irreducible, stubborn, distressing or tragic the “reality” to which it refers’ (3). However, our knowledge of this should not, Derrida insists, ‘be used as an alibi’ (5), an excuse for pretending that nothing is happening, and that reality has been subsumed in ‘the simulacrum’ (5). Indirectly, he accuses Baudrillard of denying the event (6). While deconstructing artifactuality, he suggests, we should never lose sight of the event, which is ‘another name for experience itself, which is always the experience of the other’ (11). Derrida retains the hope ‘that artifactuality, as artificial and manipulative as it may be, will surrender or yield to the coming of what comes, to the event that bears it and toward which it is borne. And to which it will bear witness, even if only despite itself’ (6). Somewhat in the spirit of Derrida, then, or at least in alignment with his critique of Baudrillard, I will attempt to show how the illusion of movement is caught up with its actualisation or, how the proliferation of live images is both performative of cosmic life, and a manifestation of its elusiveness.

The quest for life, the universe and everything at CERN is, I will argue, more intuitive than intellectual, more concerned with affect than meaning.3 It is embodied by mediating agents that include the celebrity presenter Brian Cox (the – ever smiling – face, I’ll suggest, of the LHC project) and it is communicated more in the language of science’s connection with, than mastery of nature (Bergson, 1988). However, alongside what Barad terms CERN’s ‘experimental metaphysics’ (2007:35), and an affective investment – on behalf of some participants – in the failure of the project to find the god particle and solve the mystery of the cosmos, it is possible to discern a far more instrumental and hard-headed rationale. The development of Grid technology (a form of distributed computing) at the LHC is a lesser-known aspect of the project. I will show how this aspect cuts across the dominant claim to experimentalism, open-endedness and non-utility and serves as a salutary reminder that mediation in this context as in others is generative, but by no means necessarily progressive.

Media events, space and liveness: the switch-on (and off) of the LHC project

What is a media event, and how might media events be associated with the spatialisation of time, or with liveness as an illusion of temporality?


Today the idea of a ‘media event’ has permeated popular, academic and journalistic discourse, being variously used to describe the media’s complicity in organized publicity, official events produced to be publicly broadcast, an undue prominence given to a minor news item or popular cultural phenomenon, stories involving major celebrity, or any story where the media’s presence or the weight of coverage alone becomes noticeable (Merrin, 2005: 63)


The LHC project conforms to at least three of these definitions. The media were highly complicit in the organised publicity surrounding the launch on September 10, 2008. The moment when the supercollider was switched on was a pre-planned, official event produced to be publicly broadcast, and the weight of coverage was distinctly noticeable. Although it might be described as a global media event, broadcast to the many countries that are reputed to have invested in the project, the BBC in particular4 had a strong presence. Matthew Chalmers discussed the media’s role with CERN’s head of communications, James Gillies: 


Rumour was that the switch-on date was arranged around BBC presenter Andrew Marr’s holiday plans?

It’s hilarious. The BBC did ask if we could put the date back if Andrew couldn’t make it, and we said “no”. But on the other hand, BBC Radio 4 pulled out all the stops and decided to do something unprecedented in science by devoting a day to the event, so in return we gave them a room just off the CERN Control Centre to use as a studio. The fact that Radio 4 went so big on CERN drove it out to the rest of the BBC, culminating in “Big Bang Day”, and then out to the rest of the UK media and the world. (http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/37461)


The BBC’s reward for publicising the project was not just a room next to the control centre but an event sufficiently live that it threatened, or promised, to fail – catastrophically. At least in the popular imaginary, failure would take the form of black holes that would constitute not the beginning, but the end of the world as we know it. Chalmer’s interview reveals that the switch-on had not been rehearsed and that the LHC’s electrical circuits had not been tested. This resulted, in fact, in an electrical fault which developed nine days later, causing extensive damage and necessitating the now notorious switch-off. Whether or not the incident was brought about by pressure to meet a publicity deadline, the event’s organisers have subsequently struggled to retain control of the (negative) publicity, especially as this proliferates through blogs. With no real clarity regarding the status of repairs or a full re-start5 , there is a sense in which both the event and its mediation have become disorganised, chaotic and, from the organiser’s point of view, in need of new management6:

Look, we have to be more effective in the way that we communicate at CERN both internally and externally. The world is watching this. We’ve created what we’ve created, there is a demand for information and we need to provide it. That’s something the new management is very aware of.

The previous management had to contend with the publicity about the possible formation of black holes and an imminent catastrophe:


Did the black-hole Armageddon frenzy aid or hinder your communication efforts?
Ultimately it helped us by generating interest, but it also worried a lot of people and that makes me somewhat angry. People were phoning us up genuinely worried about the end of the world and demanding to know who CERN is accountable to.

If the unofficial reaction to the public’s irrational fears was, at times, rather tetchy (“Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat”)7, the official reaction, prior to switch-on, was to conduct a risk analysis. The LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG) was thereby able to report that LHC collisions ‘cannot be dangerous’, and that microscopic black holes, should they form, would harbour ‘no associated risks’ (http://cern.ch/lsag/LSAG-Report.pdf). Less proactive perhaps, and less playful than CERN’s approach to Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons 8– ‘we put up a webpage and had fun with it’ – the very existence of the LSAG (a re-formation of the LHC Safety Study Group) testifies to the entanglement of one aspect of the event and its mediation, namely, the inseparability of the project and its publicity.  

Mediation, in this account, both incorporates and exceeds forms of media representation. The form most associated with the communication of actual or potential catastrophe is television. In a blog by James Dacey, John Ellis, a scientist on the LHC project is reported to have said:


Of the billions who tuned in for the switch-on, I suspect that many were only interested in seeing whether or not we would be blown to smithereens.

Catastrophes, such as the Challenger space shuttle explosion of 1986, or the collapse of the twin towers in New York in 2001 are, according to Mimi White, atypical events that have become typical of the medium (2003). They interrupt TV schedules, they are endlessly repeated and they involve the direct address of anchors, live in front of the camera. They are the means by which TV expresses its specificity: ‘the possibility, however illusory, of ‘touching the real’’ (White, 2003: 75). White (unlike Derrida and Stiegler, 2002, unlike Bergson, 1988) is not so much concerned with exposing the illusion of liveness – of immediacy, of presence, of reality unfolding in time – but rather, she seeks to show how liveness can be associated with banality as well as catastrophe, with the past as well as with the present, with space as well as with time. The timing of the Challenger catastrophe, for example, was hard to determine: ‘the astronauts did not die at the moment of the explosion, but when their capsule splashed down minutes later’ (77). Even as it exploded, witnesses were not sure what they were seeing: ‘the event could be definitively designated a catastrophe retrospectively, not only after it occurred, but also after sufficient time elapsed to allow for expert analysis to certify it as such’ (77). Catastrophe then, is an historical event as much as it is a live one. The live event, as such, may be neither represented nor representable. In addition, most of what is covered live on TV is resolutely banal. White refers to the need for TV anchors to ‘vamp’ or improvise in the absence of any actually unfolding event. Again, the vacuum is filled with a retrospective or historical narrative – in this case, the origins of the mission, backgrounds of the astronauts and so on. More than that: ‘the emphasis on the temporality of liveness on television (immediacy, interruption) distracts from consideration of the medium’s spatial articulations’ (79). Here, White invokes the notion of spectacle, of visual attraction, or ‘television’s ability to show things’ (89). Footage – of explosions, of buildings collapsing – is endlessly replayed, and ‘relatively static images are shown for a considerable duration, often with little or no variation’.

White’s argument applies to the LHC switch-on as a planned media event that promised catastrophe and delivered banality along with the historical/futuristic and often spectacular details of particle physics. Vamping was much in evidence, mainly courtesy of Andrew Marr who featured on BBC News 24 and throughout radio 4’s Big Bang Day. The challenge he faced is evident in the archived footage of the launch. YouTube features an eighteen second clip from which Marr’s vamping has been mercifully excluded:


‘five, four, three…’
As the countdown begins (we hear a male voice of European origin), the camera pans a room full of anxious faces, people biting their nails and staring at an array of computer screens.
The camera switches to the screens themselves. We see four screens, arranged in a block. The top left screen appears blank. Two others display graphs and simulations that are meaningless to the layperson. The bottom left screen resembles an early computer game; four t-bars face each other, waiting for a ball to bounce between them. This is where the action will take place. The anchor is laughing nervously at this point.
‘ha ha ha…’
A small white ball has appeared in the centre of the screen, bottom left. It pulses and then fades.
We hear applause.

(YouTube Countdown Cern – BBC News)


Although there are no archives for BBC News 24, the BBC website carries transcripts and recordings of Big Bang Day, including the live coverage of the switch-on. At 8.30 a.m. John Humphreys, hosting the Today programme, hands over to Marr at CERN (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/bigbang/). Marr talks to CERN scientists about the background to the project while waiting for the countdown to begin. The protons, he says, ‘are champing at the starting gate’. The project’s success ‘is not a sure thing’. While everybody in the control centre ‘is staring at a series of screens above us’, he asks how the launch will be effected: ‘what happens? Is it somebody hitting a return key?’ Just then he realises something has happened: ‘oh, it’s happened. The beams are into the collider’. Is this an event? Apparently not. A stopper has been removed, but there will be a five second delay in the acquisition of data: ‘there’s five seconds in which nobody knows quite what’s happening’. He sees a vertical line. He learns that the beam has been stopped. He does not understand why. Then it is started again. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is a very very hard thing to do’. Protons will be behaving like kamikaze pilots, smashing into each other. ‘We’re still waiting.’ Then the countdown begins, and Marr joins in. He knows ‘they’ve done it’ only when he hears the applause.

The switch-on of the LHC project was a live media event of uncertain timing in which there was nothing to see. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly a (tele)visual attraction consisting of both static images and replayed footage. There was, and still is a great deal of space on show – terrestrial space of underground tunnels dug deep beneath the border between France and Switzerland and filled with machinery on an awesome scale, but also cosmic space of a past/future big bang. These attractions characterise news coverage of the switch-on,9  television documentary (BBC Four ‘The Big Bang Machine’) and also the LHC website. The website offers an extensive photo gallery, an archive of the LHC’s technological imaginary, incorporating analogue and digital machines, the industrial and the informatic, the spectacularly big detectors and the infinitely small objects of detection. Shown here are the CMS detector and a mini-event (a collision, but not at full energy) which took place on December 14, 2009.




The photo gallery provides a link to an animation which is frequently replayed in other visual media.



It begins with a graphic representation of the circular, 27km collider and the sling-shot structure that will accelerate proton beams in opposite directions until they reach virtually the speed of light and collide inside one of the four detectors, in this case, ATLAS. On pressing play, a single red proton enters the circuit, shortly followed by another. They pursue each other around the miniature rings, before being propelled in opposite directions around the main loop of the collider. Each proton makes several high speed laps before they both enter the detector where we zoom in to watch them square up to each other, Western style, not kamikaze – this is one big showdown. They advance, they collide, they transform into a brilliant display of radiating lines and colours that burst out in all directions and appear to break through, to transcend the boundaries of the ATLAS detector.

Enchanted objects

Here then, is the smoking gun, the only evidence there will ever be of the elusive Higg’s boson, the so-called god particle created by the collision between two proton “bullets”. Even though the event has not yet happened, the ATLAS detector has already performed, and, in numerous animations, continually performs its task of detecting the undetectable so that TV screens and computers everywhere – in the control centre and in homes – can represent the unrepresentable. For Baudrillard, ‘playing out the scenario before it can occur empties the real event of its signficance and originality’ (Merrin, 2005: 67) but, unlike a war which follows a war film, or a nuclear explosion that comes after a film about a nuclear explosion, there is no event of a collision-induced Higg’s boson (catastrophic or otherwise) that is discernable in space and time from its animations. As yet, there is no full-energy event that the animations putatively trace. Moreover, there is no trial event, at less than full energy that is separable from its animations. Are these, then, no more than a ‘disastrous interference’ (68) in history, an end point in history, brought about by the over-proximity or implosion of the event and its mediation? Are they, effectively, ‘deterrents’ of the real – or are they in some sense it?

I would argue that in a representational sense, the LHC animations are neither. Representational realism, or representationalism ‘is the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular, that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representing’ (Barad, 2007: 46). Representationalism presents us with autonomous entities like particles that, by virtue of being independent of our scientific and other ways of seeing and knowing, can be represented either more, or less accurately. The LHC project is over-invested in representationalism and therefore in the event as an object, an autonomous thing, rather than a phenomenon or process incorporating multiple agencies. The event as an object or thing has a beginning (a bang) and an end (a universe), and it can be represented in science and the media because it supposedly preceded the intervention of science and the media. Ultimately the event becomes, in the word of the anthropologist Alfred Gell (1998), ‘enchanted’, taken as ‘something that is and has effects, rather than as an effect in itself’ (Suchman, 2007: 244). This enchantment can be manifest in verbal as well as visual images, and it need not apply specifically to the collision event itself, but also to anything or anybody that can stand in for it: the project, a person, a proton.

The LHC website includes a list of enchanting facts ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous:


The combined strands of the superconducting cable being produced for the LHC would go around the equator 6.8 times. If you added all the filaments of the strands together they would stretch to the sun and back 5 times with enough left over for a few trips to the moon.


Part of the LHC will be the world’s largest fridge. It could hold 150 000 fridges full of sausages at a temperature colder than deep outer space.


Protons, as we have seen, are particularly daring and heroic, and as such, they are anthropomorphically interchangeable with people:


When protons arrive in the LHC they are travelling at 0.999997828 times the speed of light. Each proton goes around the 27km ring over 11000 times a second.

A nominal proton beam in the LHC will have an energy equivalent to a person in a Subaru driving at 1700 kph.


Here again, we see the enchantment of the proton as an autonomous and therefore representable object. In place of representationalism and its enchanted objects, Karen Barad turns to a notion of performativity that might apply to the natural as much as to the social world:


Performative approaches call into question representationalisms’ claim that there are representations, on the one hand, and ontologically separate entities awaiting representation, on the other, and focus inquiry on the practices or performances of representing, as well as the productive effects of those practices and the conditions for their efficacy. (Barad, 2007: 49)

What are the productive effects of the LHC’s representing practices and to what extent are they helping to bring about the event that they subsequently describe?10 A performative account of science (and, indeed the media) ‘takes account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world’ (49). What is the nature of these direct material engagements? Particles are produced experimentally and visually, as entities and/as images11 by what Barad calls ‘a Cartesian habit of mind’ which atomises, isolates and divides things along a subject/object axis. Bergson similarly criticises the tendency of what he calls intellectual knowledge which, by cutting and isolating objects from among processes, converts movement to stasis, time to space (1988). A particle is not something that is, and has effects, but rather an effect in itself – an effect of a habit of mind. For Bergson, we can change this habit of mind by thinking more intuitively, less intellectually, more in terms of our connection with, than separation from the world around us.


Bergson claims that that are two ways to know: one, intellectual, immobilises and isolates, facilitates practical action and use but thereby moves from the real to its schematisation; the other, intuitive, seeks continuity, indiscernability, flow, and duration, immobilises practical action but brings us directly into connection with the dynamism of the real. (Grosz, 2004: 239)

The productive effect of the LHC’s representing practices is both to repeat the Cartesian intellectual habit of mind and to challenge it by taking us back to the beginning of time. If the Large Hadron Collider itself is a time machine for enchanted objects, then their animation plays out the possibility that they could be transformed into something that transcends or remains elusive to detection, to current and future forms of representational knowledge. In other words, the elusiveness of the Higg’s boson – of the collision event itself – is realised and not merely symbolised by the traces that escape the ATLAS detector. That is to say, that the event remains elusive to dominant, representational forms of knowledge that Barad terms Cartesian and Bergson terms intellectual, but may still be known more intuitively. By extension, the question of embodiment is effectively reformulated; directed away from the prospect of a representational object towards a performative process that constitutes a challenge to our dominant, Cartesian-intellectual habit of mind.

Mediated (non)events, time and liveliness

I have argued that mediation is not synonymous with simulation, and that it exceeds representation to encompass the performative relationship, the ‘intra-active’ (Barad, 2007) relationality between entities held separate by our dominant habits of mind. Mediation is not a spatialised thing or object but a temporal phenomenon, a process involving human and machinic agencies. Like all processes it cannot be represented (Bergson 1988), though it can be apprehended intuitively. Mediation is key to the vitality of the LHC non-event that has not actually taken place but is virtually real, and continually taking place. My reading of this non-event entails retracing Baudrillard’s steps back to Bergson: ‘Whereas the virtual was once that which would become actual, now, for Baudrillard, it is that which deters it’ (Merrin, 2005: 71). In signalling that the relation between the event and its mediation is paramount in the LHC project, and in identifying the project as a non-event, I’m placing my argument firmly within a Baudrillardian frame. According to Merrin, Baudrillard’s discussion of the non-event is significant because it ‘reveals a mediatic operation extending beyond the mere production or inflation of ‘news’, one encompassing and implicating our entire epistemological relationship to the wider world’ (63). For me, that epistemological relationship is also an ontological one, and in Baudrillard’s account it remains too Cartesian, too intellectual – too divided into static autonomous entities that can (adversely) affect each other; notably, semiotic media and symbolic events.

What is at stake in proposing, instead, a performative and productive entanglement between media and events is precisely their shared vitality. If ‘the playing out of a programmed event cannot constitute its occurrence’ (Merrin, 2005: 67), it can co-constitute it. In this way, the animation of a particle collision – itself a manifestation of liveness, an illusion of movement, an instance of representationalism – becomes a vital part of its automation, and instead of constituting an interference in history, it contributes to the metamorphosis of history in and through technological forms. The stage for the in/action of events has been shifted, expanded, not removed. Events are not imploded in media but rather transformed through entangled forms of mediation. Mediation does not posit a reciprocal end-game – the ‘dissolution of TV in life’ and the ‘dissolution of life in TV’ (65) – but rather a productive relationality that is not an end-point in history, but part of its creative evolution.

Like the H1N1 flu pandemic, the Iranian post-election protests or the atrocities at Abu Ghraib – all ‘superconductive events’ for Baudrillard (2002: 36) – the LHC events are multi-mediated and, in Bolter and Grusin’s terms (2000), hypermediated. Hypermediacy is in part an aesthetic, a collage effect of different media forms and styles that often come together on a single screen.12 But the concept of hypermediacy also captures McLuhan’s assertion (2006) that the content of media is always other media. Mediation, for Bolter and Grusin, is always the remediation of (old) media in other (newer) media. More than that, (re)mediation is intrinsically connected to wider social and economic forces, so that the question of agency is never simple, never wholly human or technological, but rather hybrid, distributed (if not evenly) and processual. Another way of putting this would be to say that as a hypermediated event, the LHC is not, and never will be fully automated. It is comprised, as I’ve suggested, of machinery big and small, analogue and digital, but also of massive financial investment, and personal/professional investment measured in career life-times. Of all the particle physicists, amateur and professional, who embody the (nail biting) aspirations of the LHC project, one has been chosen to publicise it, to bring the god particle to the people.

Things can only get better?

As the keyboard player for D:REAM, Brian Cox was one of the musicians behind new labour’s 1997 election anthem, ‘things can only get better’. His faith in progress has been rewarded with enhanced celebrity status as the face of the LHC project and other scientific wonders.13 In the absence of an actually unfolding televisual event, Brian Cox, ex pop-star, gives us something to look at. As he races around the 27km circuit, helmeted, adventurous, gleeful, he becomes interchangeable with the protons that enchant him, the 16 particles of the Standard Model whose names – muons, gluons and so on – he lovingly recites. He affectively narrates the impasse in physics, and if he is excited by the prospect of detecting the Higg’s boson, he is more excited by the possibility that it will not be detected and therefore doesn’t exist: ‘this would provoke a revolution in physics’ (BBC Four 2008).

Cox, among other scientists at CERN, stands more than ready to break with his habits of mind. If the god particle would join together their seemingly intractable scientific models and complete their intellectual knowledge of life, the universe and everything, then long may it continue to elude them. This seems likely, one documentary suggests, since physicists are not entirely sure what a particle is – a point in space, or an extension in time. What if particles were more like strings: ‘not the idealized points of Euclidean geometry, but…objects extended in one…or…more dimensions’ (Ellis, 2009: 33)? Then they would be more amenable to gravity, the force that underlines Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, but is at odds with the Standard Model of particle physics. String theory, like the Higg’s boson, could bridge the two models except that strings are so ‘unimaginably small’ (BBC Four 2008) that it would be impossible to build a collider big enough to detect them. The existence of superstrings is beyond, if not above representation even by means of the smoking gun. String theory is therefore more metaphysics than physics, an intuitive rather than intellectual philosophy of life characterised by a desire for connection, not conquest. Its presence in the discourse of the LHC project helps to reinforce an aura of creativity, experimentalism and non-utility – a sense that the whole project has been designed, funded and executed for the sake of pure knowledge.

The claim to pure knowledge is undermined, in this context, by the LHC’s sub-project; the development of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG). The WLCG is defined as ‘a novel globally distributed model for data storage and analysis’ (http://lcg.web.cern.ch). CERN needs to distribute and decentralise its computing because the LHC project will generate a phenomenal volume of data. So, just as ‘the Web was invented at CERN so that scientists could share information’ (http://www.gridcafe.org), the Grid will be developed so that information can be stored and analysed in different locations. If the growth and popularity of the Web was unforeseen, the potential applications of Grid technology are not. The idea is that Grid technology will turn computing into a utility like gas or electricity that is, at the same time, infrastructural (Foster and Kesselman, 2004). This will be effected through the development of middleware, a layer in between operating systems software (like Windows) and applications software (like Word). This layer will enable Internet access to be regulated through automated systems of tracking and security expressly designed to prevent the free flow of information, file sharing and other activities attributed to ‘malicious hackers’ (http://www.gridcafe.org). The mission, currently, is to standardise computing grids so that business, government, scientific and academic investors can ‘influence and outreach to end-users’ and ‘gain visibility for brand, products…’ (http://www.ogf.org).

Grid computing is the relatively invisible vision of the LHC project, as well as a more widespread goal for scientific and business computing. It is continuous with the marketisation of the Internet which literally put pay to its early utopian promise – including the promise that it might constitute a virtual life-form; an autonomous, information processing, self-organising, non-organic system. At the same time, the grid is discontinuous with the LHC’s intuitive philosophy of life and posits a wholly different kind of automation; instrumental, not experimental, regulatory not open-ended, commercial not creative.

Of Particles and People

The LHC project is a contemporary exemplar of the problem of mediation. Mediation is a term that has begun to be interrogated in the context of new media studies and in recent research on media events,14 but has yet to be fully explored, at least in its temporal and embodied aspects. Too easily reduced to a synonym for media representation, and therefore aligned with representationalism (Barad, 2007), mediation has been understood here as a difference in kind – performative, material, vital – which is neither reducible to, nor separable from relatively stabilised and spatialised media forms in which vitality has been said to be illusory (Bergson, 1988) or eliminated (Baudrillard, 2002).

To an extent, the LHC may be read as a media event that conforms to the ceremonial tradition outlined by Dayan and Katz (1992). These ceremonies, they suggest, take the narrative form of contests, conquests and coronations, and they function as vehicles for social integration and reconciliation. Although Hepp and Couldry (2010) have questioned whether the idea of the media event as ritual or ceremony remains viable in a global context, the LHC stakes a claim, as I’ve outlined, to being a global media event, a cosmic scientific conquest, that operates, rhetorically, to integrate ‘us’ at the highest (or lowest) possible scale: not as a nation or even a species (the human race), but as constituents in the universe of particulate matter. Conciliation is achieved by incorporating the US, a previous competitor with the EU, as a collaborator in the construction of what is now the world’s largest supercollider. More than that, conciliation is effected through the metaphor of people as particles – ubiquitous, equivalent, alike and elemental. In the context of globalisation, decentralisation and de-territorialisation (Derrida and Stiegler, 2002), ‘we’ are brought together again, re-formed as the undifferentiated elements of a proto-universe. History, geography, politics, society, identity are effectively, symbolically erased in order to be started anew. The ‘loss of the “we”’ (Dayan, 2010) that is effected, according to Dayan, by the upstaging or ‘banalization’ (2010: 29) of media events by endless, repetitive news coverage of disaster and catastrophe is recovered here, and the effect is the opposite of the disenchantment he observes. What we see, at the LHC, is the (re)enchantment of particles as people; as anthropomorphised autonomous agents.

However, by responding to the way in which the LHC project also challenges and problematises these forms of automous agency; by highlighting the centrality of mediation as a multi-agential process based not on autonomy but relationality, I am not seeking to dismiss, but to de-anthropomorphise (and literalise) the relation between particles and people. If the LHC offers us a symbolic return to an undifferentiated particulate state prior to the formation of actual entities – in order to effect the scientific discovery of how we acquire bodies – then my reading of it is aligned with materialist philosophies such as those of Barad (2007), Braidotti (2006) and Haraway (2008) that explore agential intra-actions between embodied entities across the divisions between human and non-human. The impetus for these explorations is an epistemological, ontological and perhaps most importantly, ethical challenge to humanism, anthropomorphism and what Couze Venn refers to as ‘subject-centredness’ (2010: 141). For Barad:


Ethics is about mattering, about taking account of the entangled materializations of which we are a part, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities. (Barad in Haraway, 2008: 285)


Ethics is tied to a notion of embodiment as material co-constitution. It does not concern the right or wrong response ‘to a radically exterior/ized other’, but is enacted when we take account of the ‘lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part’ (Barad, 2007: 393).  

In his recent essay subtitled ‘Rethinking the Human in Relation to the Living’, Couze Venn explores the notion of relationality and its conceptually ‘open terrain’ (2010: 135). He posits a range of entities – animal, machinic, inorganic – that ‘may be closer to us than our privilege of the human dictates’ (134), and presents a possible alternative to the Higg’s field in the form of Simondon’s field. This is a non-hypothetical milieu ‘enabling individual beings to come into a relation that constitutes them as entities with specific properties or characteristics’ (138). Rather than conferring a property such as mass on an otherwise already distinct or individuated particle, Simondon’s magnetic field sets up a dynamic between the totality and the element, the field and the magnetic agent such that they constitute each other. Individuation here is a process of ‘becoming through relating’ (139), a process that, for philosophers such as Barad and Braidotti, cuts across the distinction between the living and the non-living, encompassing the recognition that ‘nobody and no particle of matter is independent and self-propelled, in nature as in the social’ (Braidotti, 2006: 6). Particles and people do not pre-exist each other as objects and subjects, but rather co-constitute each other in a dynamic universe or, in the context of the LHC, proto-universe in which “bodies that matter are the [eventual] result” (Haraway in Venn, 2010: 157). While it continues to promote autonomy, the LHC project also raises the prospect of a radical relationality ‘that explores the connections and linkages which make it possible to enact multiple bodies that do not end at the skin, and which are always oriented towards Otherness’ (Blackman, 2008: 120).


I have characterised the LHC project as a non-event (because it hasn’t happened yet, and because it is unrepresentable), and have challenged Baudrillard’s reading of the non-event as the outcome of the implosion of the symbolic in the semiotic, the real in the virtual. By replacing the metaphor of implosion with that of entanglement, by regarding events and their mediation as co-constitutive, I have also, effectively, reinstated becoming through relationality, rather than deterrence, as a key aspect of mediation.

Just as a collision event at CERN is not likely to produce black holes and a cosmic catastrophe, the animation of a collision event does not effect its (for Baudrillard, catastrophic) negation. The relation between automation and animation in this context is, I’ve suggested, both indistinguishable15 – in that there is no event of a collision-induced god particle that can be discerned from its representation – and co-operative. The co-operative role of animation is fully recognised in technical descriptions of the project, and particularly in outlines of data retrieval, flow and analysis where scientists and engineers make no distinction between data that is ‘real’ and that which is ‘simulated’16 [sic] (Harvey et al., 2009: 230). Despite an over-investment in the presence/absence of the Higg’s boson and other enchanted objects, what CERN makes operational is the becoming of life, the universe and everything – every material thing including the body –
in, or rather, as processes of mediation.

Mediation incorporates technologies and their users, machines and their human counterparts. It is embodied, multi-agential, and rather than constituting an interference in history, I’ve argued that it is contributing to its metamorphosis. Nevertheless, I would not want to characterise mediation as becoming without limits, process without stasis or potentiality without closure. Its vitality is perhaps only the flipside to what Baudrillard refers to as ‘fascinating, indiscriminate’ virulence (2002: 36), and while mediation cannot be anthropomorphised or utilised, the media to which it is tied – especially the media of computing – continue to be diverted to political and economic ends. The LHC project promotes as well as experiments with physics, it works to further instrumentalise computing even as this stretches back to infinity – and beyond.


This article was written before the announcement, on Wednesday 4 July 2012, that the Higgs Boson had been discovered at Cern. However, the argument presented here – which moves from an examination of media events and non-events to an analysis of the LHC experiment as a mediated event – still holds. Readers might want to consider the possibilities inherent in the idea of a mediated (non) discovery.


1. ‘Event’ is the term used in particle physics to describe a collision. On Tuesday March 30th 2010, collisions occurred at half of the energy that the LHC project originally aimed for, namely 7 TeV (teraelectronvolts). Although hailed as a success, this is still part of an experimental period after which the LHC will be shutdown prior to making its final, full-energy attempt.

2. Only broadly because of the sometimes unresolved distinction here between life and matter. For a discussion, see Kember, S. ‘Creative Evolution? The quest for life (on Mars)’, Culture Machine, Interzone, March 2006 http://culturemachine.tees.ac.uk/Interzone/kember2

3. Affect here is understood as that which is beyond or outside of social signification (see Hemmings 2005) and as a physical and emotional tendency (Hardt 2007). Though useful in these respects, the concept is problematic for me partly in that it offers up a mechanistic model of reciprocity or mutuality in place of proposing the relationality of mind/body, reason/emotion, self/other and so on: ‘Affects require us, as the term suggests, to enter the realm of causality… they illuminate… both our power to affect the world around us and our power to be affected by it’ (Hardt 2007: ix).

4. The UK is reported to have contributed 70% of the funding for the LHC project (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/bigbang/).

5. See TimesOnline (http://www.timesonline.co.uk) and physicsworld.com (http://physicsworld.com) for updates.

6. Chalmer’s interview with James Gillies coincided with the take over of a new Director General at CERN.

7. Brian Cox, quoted in The Observer, 07.03.10

8. Angels and Demons, the ‘Dan Brown novel in which antimatter is stolen from CERN to destroy the Vatican’ (http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/37461).

9. See Christine McGourty, BBC News, 10 September 2008.

10. Mark Fenton O’Creavy offers this definition of performativity in the context of debates on the credit crunch: ‘performative statements or beliefs are those which help bring about the conditions they describe’ (http://www.open2.net). Similarly, Michel Callon writes: ‘scientific theories, models, and statements are not constative; they are performative, that is, actively engaged in the constitution of the reality that they describe’ (in Mackenzie, D. Muniesa, F. and Siu, L. (eds) (2007) Do Economists Make Markets? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press: 318).

11. Barad, discussing the work of Ian Hacking, reminds us that microscopic entities are always in part artifacts of experimentation and visualisation technologies. A scanning tunnelling microscope, for example, ‘undermines any illusion that the image represents the mere magnification of what we see with our eyes’ (2007: 51).

12. In these contexts: texts, tweets, blogs, photographs, videos and so on.

13. See Wonders of the Solar System, BBC 2, March 2010.

14. See Van Loon, J. (2010) ‘Modalities of Mediation’, in Couldry, N., Hepp, A. and Krotz, F. (eds) Media Events in a Global Age, London and New York: Routledge.

15. This is the case whatever we know of the 5 second delay in the acquisition of data from the detectors, because during that 5 seconds ‘nobody knows quite what is happening’. The event happens on screen.

16. ‘The stream of simulated events is produced by simulating the passage of particles through the detector material to produce “hits” in the detectors which are then reconstructed and analyzed in exactly the same way as for real data’ (Harvey et al., 2009: 230).

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