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<nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen
geert lovink on Fri, 24 Apr 2009 12:38:25 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen


Is there an exceptional way for German media theory? This was the  
theme of a public debate at the University of Siegen (between Cologne  
and Frankfurt in Germany). I was perhaps the young outside rebel on  
the panel, in part because of my age, my passport, being an “internet  
pope”, as chairman Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer described me. Participants  
were Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Stanford), Friedrich Kittler (Berlin),  
Irmela Schneider (Cologne), Hartmut Winkler (Paderborn) and Erhard  
Schüttpelz (Siegen). The German word discussed here was  
“Sonderweg” (special way).

In his ‘impulse’ speech Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht described the German  
media theory that emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s as a  
positive developement. Gumbrecht is a German-American literature  
professor who worked in Siegen from 1986-89 before moving to Stanford  
and who played a key role in the early days of this intellectual  
movement. Even though we gathered in a town that is so easily  
described as dull and small, the research in Siegen and German media  
theory in general, has never been described as provincial. This was  
neither the case with Freiburg and Kassel. Gumbrecht emphasized the  
unique position that media studies had, and still has, in Germany.  
Gumbrecht: “What is self-evident here, is absent elsewhere. We don’t  
find media studies faculties in other countries. This is a fact.” As  
you may know, I agree with this. Ever since the late 1980s I have  
studied the great books that came out, made interviews, wrote reviews,  
participated in conferences and workshops and consider myself part of  
this larger context. In my last book Zero Comments I wrote a chapter  
on the topic. Even more of an expert is the Canadian translator of  
Friedrich Kittler and others, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (who couldn’t  
attend the discussion) and who has written on numerous occasions on  
the exceptional status of German media theory. Starting point of the  
debate was an essay (including responses) by Winthrop-Young (”On  
Promised and Doomed Media Nations”, Zeitschrift fuer  
Kulturwissenschaften, 2/2008, in German) in which he compares Canada  
and Germany.

According to Gumbrecht there was a general birth trauma of the  
humanities, ever since its emergence in the 19th century, of not being  
of this world. The media theory that starts to emerge from inside the  
German literature departments ought to be situated in this out-of-this- 
world context. Gumbrecht mentioned eight philosophical underpinnings  
of the German media theory’s special character. I will highlight some  
of them. There must be reference, something outside of the text,  
beyond hermeneutics. The exodus of the spirit out of the humanities.  
Desire for a reference. Then there is the substance concept. Obviously  
there is the deconstruction of the subject. We see special interest in  
history and fascination for philosophical antropology and long  
cultural shifts (dating 50.000-100.000 years back). Then there is a  
early pressure, and desire, ever since Humboldt and the way he  
designed the university system, to innovate. Ordinary knowledge needs  
to be taught in highschool or polytechnics. The university is a place  
for new thinking. This could explain why there is a permanent  
revolution inside the German universities. Ever since the post-war era  
there is a constant wave of reforms. This is no in itself a good thing  
but was a positive condition under which the 1980s media theory  
programs came into being. Gumbrecht closed off with the observation  
that the public identiy of German professor as a prophet still exists.  
The professor is a thinker, not an academic project administrator.

I was the first to respond. Ever since the mid 1980s German media  
theory has been an extraordinary source of inspiration for me because  
of its conceptual richness, discourse diversity, historical insight  
and capacity to illustrate highly abstract thinking with imaginative  
examples. Around 1987 I hitchhicked from Amsterdam to one of the  
conferences of the Kassel research group where I frist heard Kittler,  
Bolz, Tholen and others speak. In my short statement I expressed that  
speculative and critical concepts are one and the same thing and only  
manifest themselves in different ways according to the era. I noted  
that much had changed over the past 25 years. Even Germany is now  
firmly subjected to global neo-liberal standards of knowledge  
production. Germany media theory as we know is a product of the late  
coldwar prosperity of its welfare state. But how do things work out  
these days? I pointed at the tremendous opportunities for translations  
and international dialogue that remain unused and closed with a call  
to the science funding body DFG to start an ambitious translation  
program (not just to English) of key works in this area. The market  
will not do this. Worldwide publishing houses are cutting costs and  
risky translations are the first to go out. Translations are anyway  
already a firm part of the national cultural policy instruments that  
subsidize literature, theatre and contemporary arts as nation and city  
marketing tools. The fact that theory is not part of this, says more  
about the declining status of this discoursive branch. Compared to the  
1980s theory is out of fashion in most region of the planet. This  
further isolates this particular subset called German media theory  
whose main players are about to retire.

Friedrich Kittler disagreed with me and said that all his books are  
available in English, Japanese and Greek. Even though everyone would  
agree that he’s the perfect exception to the rule, even this statement  
isn’t entirely true. Just visit amazon.com and you’ll find three  
titles of him in English, a thin result compared to the many  
interesting monographs Kittler wrote over the decades. What doesn’t  
work here anymore is the reading, interpretation and translation  
circles abroad that would pop up by itself 5 or 10 years after the  
publication of major theoretical works. Less and less students read  
German (out of my own experience I would say none in new media  
programs). Whereas the interest in media theory amongst teaching staff  
has remained steady, German contributions cannot be taught because of  
an acute lack of translations, in particular of introductory materials  
for undergraduate programs. The situation is even worse for the  
(primarily) German media archeology that, as a field, even remained  
more scattered.

Hartmut Winkler, who disagrees with Kittler on the ‘media a-priori’  
thesis, stated: “The good thing about Kittler is that it is easy to  
understand and still is not boring after years of of studying his  
texts. This cannot be said about all authors.” As insiders already  
know, Kittler laments the lack of technological knowledge in the  
humananities and is sceptical about the wishy-washy term ‘media  
theory’ that has been misused to such a vast extend. Kittler: “Die  
Mediengeschichte ist ein Steinbruch.” It’s a treasure chest, but  
you’ll have to do it on your own, so Kittler, not as a part of a  
program or department.

Irmela Schneider, whose media ethonographic work (dealing with the USA  
and UK) I do not know stressed that the position inside philosophy  
remains problematic, and with some exceptions, is one of isolation.  
Media theory is simply not welcome. As many would know Cologne is a  
conservative city in this respect. She also said that in the USA there  
is always an element of the democratic potential of (new) media, which  
in the German media theory is not explored. Gumbrecht: “In the USA  
there is an emphasis on the researcher as an individual. People think  
Kittler is cool, stupid or difficult, but have no awareness of  
something like German media studies.” All seemed to agree that what  
makes German media theory is exactly its abstract, conceptual nature.  
In various postings on the Net

Florian Cramer has attacked exactly that metaphysical aspect as its  
main weakness. From his exile in Rotterdam he wrote a long email, in  
English, which was posted on the blog of the Siegen event. I can  
highly recommend the text he wrote on the event blog. Voices of the  
under 50 or 40 generation completely missed in the debate. I could  
have represented them, but I didn’t feel like. Mainly because the  
untimely, drifting, weird nature of German media theory which was  
exactly what I was looking for, trying to escape the flat and  
uninspriring Dutch and Anglo-saxon pragmatism and politically correct  
modes of media criticism. Postmodernism and cultural studies just  
didn’t do it for me. They refused to ask the Media Question.  
Ultimately they shied away to look the Beast straight into the eye.  
Media isn’t just surface and fun. It wasn’t enough to reject  
McLuhanism. There was, and still is, so much more to explore. There  
was much talk about Heidegger, that afternoon in Siegen. And that’s  
what software studies got ahead of its mission. What is thinking in  
this networked age of realtime exchange? We need to create the  
‘interval’ to reflect and theorize, and German media theory, with all  
its shortcomings, still provides us with amazing insights that  
radically break into the numbness of the crazy everyday life inside  
the digital regime.

See also: http://medienumbrueche.uni-siegen.de/groups/medienwissenschaften/blog/
(some of it is German, some in English)









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