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<nettime> Interview with Frank Hartmann, Viennese Media Philosopher
geert lovink on Wed, 14 Jun 2000 18:04:19 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Interview with Frank Hartmann, Viennese Media Philosopher


Beyond the dualism of image and text
An interview with the Viennese media philosopher Frank Hartmann
By Geert Lovink

Viennese media theorist and Internet critic Frank Hartmann recently
published a book, in German, with the ambitious title "Media Philosophy". In
an e-mail exchange he told me, in moderate terms, that readers should first
of all perceive the work as a school book, written for educational purposes.
Published in the prestigious "red cover" UTB series, Media Philosophy seems
an ideal title for media theory courses. In a few months the book has become
a bestseller, Frank proudly reported. After having played down possible
expectations of a Magnus Opus, it is worth mentioning that Frank Hartmann's
book indeed has a lot on offer for those interested in a continental
European overview of media issues, drawn from a philosophical perspective.

Hartmann is neither a member of school of German media archeology (Friedrich
Kittler) which is arguing from a techno-determinist position, nor does he
want to come up with an ethic of what to do with the Human in the age of
technology. Instead he likes to present an "integrative approach of media
evolution", bringing together technology and society. Drawing upon the work
of Vilem Flusser, Hartmann further develops "communicology", an analytical
approach of the "medial turn", in which categories such as knowledge,
textuality and language have become inseparable from the technologies in
which they are expressed.

Written as a chronological overview, Media Philosophy starts with Descartes'
imaginary space and the birth of the modern scientific author, further on to
Kant and his notion of the reflexive subject and the need for publicity,
over to Herder and Humboldt, Husserl, Heidegger, Benjamin etc. Each chapter
is closed with a neat summary. Interesting chapters, beyond the usual
thinkers and references, for example deal with Fritz Mauthner, an early 20th
century German philosopher who tried to deconstruct the "logocratic regime"
of language. Unknown to me were attempts of Gottlob Frege, at the end of the
19th century, to develop a new logic sign system - a pure script of
concepts, not contaminated by the dualities of meaning. Another, well
written chapter interprets Otto Neurath's system of icons as "universal
code".

It is not exaggerated to say that continental media theory, once it has
positioned itself within the tradition of philosophy begins and ends with a
critique of language. It is only through the language that we can access the
image (Mauthner). A similar argument can be found in contemporary writings
on the history of computing and the Internet, in which code-as-language is
lying at the basis of all computational commands. Hartmann is not just a
Eurocentric. He is well aware of the Ango-Saxon traditions, from Pierce to
the Canadians Innis and McLuhan who both developed a "media theory of
civilization". Hartmann's scope does not include the US-American mainstream
communication studies. Nor did he include the more recent wave of cultural
studies with its roots in critical sociology. The last chapters are
surprisingly up to date and deal with Internet culture, the notion of the
virtual class (Kroker/Weinstein), the emerging genre of "net criticism" and
the topology of electronic space. Time to ask questions about the motives
behind the making of such an ambitious overview.

GL: Frank, can you tell us about your interpretation of what "media
philosophy" could be? Are you the first to use this term? Can this new
discipline be studied in Vienna? Writing about technology and philosophy
already has a tradition. Would the philosophical approach of media and the
Internet in particular start from there?

FH: Of course there is a tradition in reflecting technology, although
continental philosophy especially, tends to purify thought from all
materiality. Academic philosophy never bothered too much about media, while
language always was present in its discourse. Media would be the realm of
aesthetics, of what affects the senses only and not logical human thought.
There is this clear obsession with language, with the logocentric tradition,
which also reflects the predominance of abstract codes - and therefore
text - in western culture. I started to be fascinated by the critical
approach of Horkheimer's research group (later called the Frankfurt School)
which in the 1930's made the press and audiovisual media as an object of
study. This social and cultural studies explicitly was put up against
Heideggers approach, which concentrates on the single human situation and
which is set within a rather pessimistic 'logic of decay'. By the way, this
was about the time when as an undergraduate, McLuhan studied New Criticism
in England, which is the second trail leading to media philosophy.
The insecurity of western culture which intensified at the beginning of the
20th century has a lot to do with the fact that people started to be aware
of how mechanical devices like the camera not only enhanced human
perception, but also conquered it. With media restructuring the cultural
forms of communication and the forms of reproducing knowledge in society, we
witness the rearguard actions of philosophy, like analytical philosophy. As
I stated in the opening passage of my book, philosophy should come up with a
new approach to reflect all those changes which lead to new media, and the
changes induced by media as well.
Concerning the term 'Media Philosophy', I think it has been around in the
nineties already and it should not point towards a school of thought or the
canonization of an academic discipline, but rather follow the order given by
Vilém Flusser, who saw the need of 'communicology' as a supplement to our
culture's obsession with 'technology'.

GL: Besides the critique of language, there is a string of theory which
argues from and with images. Coming from art criticism and art practices,
there is a less verbal approach which is focussed on the haptic interfaces,
the way in which graphic user interfaces are working, how advertisement and
images as such seduce the viewer/user. Could you fit this into your
definition of media philosophy?

FH: Yes definitely, but it is always a matter of how this criticism is done.
There is the tradition of Warburg and Panofsky, relating artistic styles and
cultural traditions in a new interdisciplinary framework, and there is a
variety of semiotic schools... yet something seems to be missing. Did you
ever notice how a lot of the semiotic interpretation presented at
conferences stays purely descriptive? How all analysis ends in abstract
categorizations? Or how film theory imitates the strategies of philology in
an obvious urge to be academic? In most of the cases no insight is produced
which would go beyond the commonsense of any witty consumer of media
products. So what is really done here is not producing theory, but recoding
information like transcribing visual information into an academic script.
These mostly ridiculous texts, squeezed between two covers, bear the promise
to provide access to knowledge otherwise not found. The questions underneath
are not answered: how does an interface work? Is there an intuitive
interface, beyond all the conventions? A perfect language maybe?
I believe that the text, and classical texts at that, represent but a small
fraction of what former cultures dealt with as knowledge. These small
textual fractions nevertheless are being fetishized as philosophy, which
also faces a problem of transmission within book-culture. The discipline of
media philosophy has to deal with two crucial points: first, modernity
produced scientific knowledge which is too complex to be represented by
texts alone. New forms of social information processing request new forms of
encoding/decoding to stay functional. This is why in my book I consider
Neurath, who visualized informational relations, a pioneer. Second to that,
new media already start to remediate the academic discourse. Remediation is
a term used by Jay Bolter to express what is happening when new media form
meets the content of older media forms. We have to take this very seriously,
because the computer currently is re-coding the cultural codes of reading
and writing. That it to say, under new semiotic constellations we cannot
produce theory in an authoritative way any more, like the academic tradition
wants (and sometimes forces) us to do. New media is definitely going to
break up the guild principles of knowledge reproduction within academia.

GL: For Deleuze, the philosopher works 'alongside' the cinema, reordening
the images and signs for new purposes. Could we say that today's
philosophers are, though sympathetic to this patchwork point of view,
actually more interested to work 'inside' the media?

FH: The problem I have with Deleuze is that he tends towards rather
enigmatic writing. When I tried to read his book on Spinoza and, as the
author put it: 'le problème de l'expression' within philosophy, I comforted
myself with a sociological interpretation of this kind of writing. The
exciting thing about Deleuze now, is that especially with the cinema text he
was working towards a breaking point within philosophy. This has to do with
the medium of philosophical expression as well. The move is documented in
'Rhizome', the popular first chapter of "Mille Plateaux", but also in the
"ABCdaire", a video interview series on philosophical questions Deleuze did
shortly before his death (go to:
http://www.langlab.wayne.edu/Romance/FreD_G/ABC1.html for the
transcriptions). This philosopher knew that one cannot go on just by
'raping' dead authors to produce a new text. Immersion truly is the issue
here. Anyway, the most interesting texts were not written by repeating what
is already there, but by a certain hybridization. Alas, it still is a text.
Flusser, at one point, talking about the telematic society, apologized for s
till using words instead of images. This apology would not have been
necessary if we had interfaces according to human thought, associations and
feelings, and not just to technological frameworks and restrictions made by
programmers.

GL: You are producing web sites yourself and do a bit of programming. I
would not call you an
outsider, quite the opposite. Is there an imaginary outside position, and if
we could think the unthinkable, would that be a favorable option to you?
What will happen after the closure of the Net? Should we start thinking to
go beyond the Internet already?

FH: This is a tricky question. Basically, I do not quite believe in this
inside/outside dualism which is fostered by technology oriented media
services. There, everything has to be so very hip technologically to be
worth mentioning. I am fed up with this kind of hipness when there is
nothing else to say than what results in a momentary journalistic surplus
value. The prostitutes of cyberspace are to be found everywhere, in all the
e-zines and future-zones around the globe. They are insiders in their own
way who will swiftly jump on the next train, which probably will be
biotechnologies.
My guess is that nowadays, people want to have some 'essence' of cyberspace
and be as close as possible to the imaginary 'operating system'. See the
Linux mania, in all its melancholy - to start all over again, in a clearly
protestant move, if not to say a movie in the making, for which Linus
Thorvalds took up the role of the big salvationist against the big and evil
pope of our sour desktop world. Is this revolutionary now, or rather
pathetic?
Sorry, I got carried away a little bit. Let us step back and ask what we are
talking about. The Internet? A something like 30 year old construction of a
new infrastructure for the communication of people and machines. The Web? A
10 year old interface solution for exchanging scientific documents. Are we
really in a position to ask what is next? Then we would reveal ourselves as
the avant gard elitists, which we unfortunately are, never being there for
the revenues when business takes over. The question to think beyond the
Internet does not work for me at the moment. Bruno Latour published a book
which carries not a title, but a thesis: 'Nous n'avons jamais été modernes',
we have never been modern. We cannot afford to be postmodern and ignore the
non-modern world around us. There is a vast territory out there which does
not wait to be cultivated in a traditional way. Maybe the answer to the
question what comes next, is not up to 'us' average white middle class
nerds. I do remember an interview with Michel Serres, 'Knowledge's
redemption' (Revue Quart Monde, 1997), which contains some of  the relevant
questions. The text was recycled on lists like <nettime>, but never
discussed. Information wants to be free, but in the world today, knowledge
requests consumer spending power. To quote Serres: "Knowledge is the realm
of non-scarcity, as opposed to the economy. (...) But who says that the
knowledge necessary to fix a scooter is less important than knowledge about
quantum physics? In a society where garbage-men are more in demand than
natural scientists, knowledge is on an equalization trajectory." So while we
think about going beyond the Internet, we maybe should listen to some
garbage men. They are the ones who clean up after the party.

GL: The attempt to develop "net criticism" within the circles around such
mailinglists as www.nettime.org are now five years under way. Long enough in
this fast changing world to look for preliminary outcomes. Do you see any,
also outside these networks of artists, activists and critics?

FH: Very marginal ones, as I perceive it. Does <nettime> really work as an
alternative publishing medium? I doubt this. People inside new media theory
and art may benefit from <nettime> as a distribution channel. There is a
chance well lost. I cannot remember for example a discussion of the very
relevant topics of sound. Until recently, MP3 and Napster just did not
happen on <nettime>.
Ok, so let us ask about the role of theory. Theory is needed as an
analytical and a reconstructive force, which does not really fit into the
wake of this new era of digital networking. The assets of theory will show
in a time of crisis, and the success of e-business does not need a media
philosophy nor a net criticism, not to mention the quite self contained
net.art stuff. Classical critique wants to show the limits of an idea, but
the net is not just the idea of some Californian digerati. This is also a
political issue. Where is our discussion on e-Europe, which became the
official term for the information society? Besides, I think <nettime> is
just too full of academic lurkers who are keen not to miss some trendy
things. Now I ask myself: knowing that a lot of the interesting stuff
happens outside academia anyway, why did <nettime> not take the chance to
develop a cool web interface, name it something like E-THEORY or what, and
become the virtual center for media theory? This is my serious question to
the founders and curators of this list.

GL: How is your interpretation of the German media theorist Friedrich
Kittler? There is no separate chapter in your book dedicated to the
so-called Kassel school of media research (Tholen, Bolz, Kittler etc.) which
were so active throughout the Eighties. They now seem to be the dominant
discourse, even though they might not like this, a position which is anyway
quickly being eroded by the rise of the Internet (generation) and the cold
pragmatics of cultural studies which seem fit much better in a climate of
budget cuts and the commercialization of universities. You share your
critique on the Kittlerian technological determinism with Hartmut Winkler,
and others. Is there a debate about these controversies in the German
speaking countries?

FH: May I stay brief in answering this? Friedrich Kittler is a well
respected theorist and an exciting author. Within the German theory
tradition, he made the necessary and liberating move from hermeneutics
towards the technological approach. It is the first time that I am hearing
of a "Kassel School". Let us forget this very quickly. A research project
does not make a school. With all respect to the research probably done, this
is a wrong categorization. Texts by the Kittler group do not much more than
to fetishize the technology approach as such and foster a very German
obsession with war. And this is simply not enough, because, whether they
like it or not, social innovation is the clue. No technological innovation
ever was successful without its social acceptance (human factor alert!).

GL: Another aspect you do not address directly is the question of the
(virtual) body and consciousness. What is your opinion on transhumanism and
extropianism?

FH: The times we live in made us forget to think about how the individual
can be an asset to the collective, something essential to traditional
communities. Online communities work different to traditional ones. The
community does not exist but as a projection. We witness all forms of
media-induced escapism. Our perception of the self changed, yet all the
technologies of the self, according to Foucault, never have been steady but
changed with the change of times and the influence of cultures. Cultural
techniques have changed our physical bearing, for example to sit at a desk
for reading and writing. Now we wear glasses and stare at screens most of
the day. But there is something more to it - who said that changing
communications would not alter the body? Culture always meant to shape and
form the individual and the social body as well. Genetic engineering is one
of the consequences, chip implants are only a matter of time. A collection
of perfect individuals now does not make a society work better. Extropianism
is but one restricted way to think about the future of enlightenment. I do
consider it a very pathetic way of western thought. You may fantasize about
the future by reinforcing the power of the individual with biotechnologies,
which certainly is the topic next to the Internet hype. The future of
communication is more about developing the social interface, I think, not
the individual body.

GL: At the end of "Medienphilosophie" you are putting the question of a "new
enlightenment" up in the air. You are someone who would love to promote the
creative destruction of post modernism, are you? Can we imagine a techno
enlightenment which would be aware of its own power as well as its own
limitations?

FH: Techno enlightenment is what happens all around us right now. Or should
we call it the wit of advanced technology? Let me relate to some personal
experience here. When I took my daughter Melissa to a movie in her
pre-school days, I had a big laugh when she yelled for the remote control,
as soon as some Disney characters which were not hip enough for her appeared
on screen. She has her own website and her current mode of being is a power
pop-girl (http://www.medienphilosophie.net/melissa). This is great,
everything is expected to be disposable at the click on a remote device, but
I would not call this a classical enlightenment move now. A six year old
does not really make a website herself, but she managed to ask me the right
questions. This is the new media generation. There is this nonverbal, yet
articulate cultural protest of an unruly performance as opposed to the old
time rage against the machine. Our generation had this idea of sending the
right messages through the proper channels. For the media generation, this
difference of truth is not of much relevance, and also, intelligence does
not necessarily mean verbal articulation.
Intellectuals feel very uncomfortable with this, because their role in the
social setting is being questioned and generally, people (i.e. ordinary
folks) just do not follow their pathetic 'Bilderverbot' (iconoclasm) any
more. Let us face it: we are living in a society in which people not only
put webcams under toilet seats, but others actually watching these images on
the Internet. In a very blunt way: before enlightenment, people thought
their actions were set by transcendental acts of god and possibly enabled by
contingent authorities within this world. Enlightenment told them to refrain
from all kinds of images, and meant not to make an image of God, i.e. of any
trans-subjective matters. Techno enlightenment still has to show that we can
go beyond the so much stressed dualism of text and image. Paradise now. One
problem stays: we do no believe in god any more, and still want to enjoy
Sunday. Where is the party, who serves the drinks?

Frank Hartmann, Medienphilosophie, UTB/WUV, Wien, 2000
The website of the book: www.medienphilosophie.net
More on Frank Hartmann: http://www.medienphilosophie.net/Frank_Hartmann.

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