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Re: <nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen
Edward Shanken on Sun, 3 May 2009 06:36:27 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen


Until recently from the other side of the pond, I have a different
view of these matters.

First, Geert isn't the only one using the term "German" media theory
or capitalizing Media Theory.  "New German Media Theory" was the theme
of a fairly recent issue of the US journal, Grey Room, no 29 (Winter,
2008), edited by German scholar Eva Horn, and including essays by
youngish scholars including Claus Pias, Bernhard Siegert, and Cornelia
Visman/Markus Krajewski.  While I can understand the argument for a
German "Sonderweg" and am interested in understanding what that could
be and how it is being historicized, Gumbrecht's assertion that there
are no "media studies faculties in other countries," is not a "fact,"
and it's odd that Geert agrees with this fallacy, since we teach
together in the Media Studies department at the University of
Amsterdam and there is another Media Studies program just 40
kilometers away at Utrecht University.

In the 1990s, as the German "Sonderweg" was arguably taking shape, my
cohorts in the US were so few and widely dispersed both departmentally
and geographically that we barely knew of each other.  For example,
Alex Galloway and I overlapped at Duke but we studied in different
departments with different supervisors, bibliographies, methods, and
agendas, and didn't meet until years later in New York.  Everyone read
Kittler of course, and my mentors led me to English translations of
Schivelbush and Asendorf's fascinating Batteries of Life, though
without any awareness of a special "German" approach to media theory.
Zielinski had been translated into English by the mid 1990s but was
not a key figure in US discourses and the term media-archaeology was
not part of our vocabulary, even though some of us intuitively found
ourselves doing it. Given the Germanic roots of modern art historical
practice, perhaps German media theory does not seem so "sonder" to my
discipline, in which questions pertaining to the relationship of form
and content have been an integral and long-standing part of our
discourses and in which it is standard practice to draw parallels
across historical periods.

We also were reading Benjamin, Heidegger, and McLuhan and "les
suspects habituels": Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Virilio,
Deleuze, etc. And we were also very engaged with the history,
philosophy, and sociology of science, especially Latour but also
Oyama, Varela and Maturana, and Stengers. Those of us with a more
historical bent were on a recovery mission, resuscitating Shannon,
Wiener, Bateson, Bense, Ascott, Burnham, E.A.T., Engelbart, Nelson -
anything that could help provide a helpful foundation for
understanding the flood of new media tools and effects.  As noted in
an earlier post, media studies in the US has tended to be focused on
mass media and often connected to departments of sociology or
journalism; or, if it has its own department, has tended to be either
professional/practice-based (journalism/television) or
social-science-based (or both). In my experience, the humanities have
generally not been part of the equation and a deep chasm has persisted
between disciplinary camps and practitioners/theorists, with tensions
mounting as the old "mass" media departments are forced to reconfigure
themselves in light of technological and theoretical changes.

Key US scholars participating in media-theoretical discourses in the
1990s included Michael Heim (whose Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, was
widely discussed in the US but remains under-recognized in Europe),
Jonathan Crary, Douglas Kellner, Jay David Bolter, Katherine Hayles,
Barbara Stafford, Andrew Feenberg, and others, coming from diverse
disciplinary backgrounds representing a wide range of methodological
and ideological commitments. In particular, Crary's Techniques of the
Observer compellingly connecting science and popular culture,
technological media, epistemology and ontology.  As such it remains a
vital model for scholarship that analyzes not only the materiality of
media but its effects at the level of human perception and
self-awareness. Clearly, the diversity of the US media theory scene
defies the assertion of any "Sonderweg." None of these scholars has
spawned an identifiable "school." This is perhaps not a bad thing. And
while Stefan Heidenreich seems to bemoan the disintegration of the
Kittler school, perhaps that's no loss either, particularly if, as
Heidnereich claims, the litter wasn't brave enough to apply the model
to the present (but in fact, Oliver Grau's book, Virtual Art, did just
that - and was translated into English.)

One must also remember that the media art scene - which has played
such an important role in the development of media theory in Europe -
emerged under very different circumstances in the US.  In Europe,
large festivals, conferences, annual exhibitions, and publications -
with particular concentration in Germany and Austria - helped
stimulate discourse and disseminate important scholarship. In this
regard, it is also important to note that in the US the arts are not
as highly esteemed as in continental Europe, and humanists are not
considered scientists.  On the continent, scholars like Flusser and
Hartmann have argued against the Saussurean plague of reducing
everything to a text, and in support of non-textual forms of
theoretical exegesis. Despite Joseph Kosuth's assertion in 1969 that
every work of art implicitly embodies a theory of art, there are only
a handful of American art historians/critics who seriously assert that
works of art, as well as artists' writings, are central modes of
theoretical practice. Indeed, I would go as far as to claim that the
work of artists such as Ascott, Anderson, Hershman, Kac, Stelarc, and
Mongrel is as conceptually sophisticated as any written treatises of
media theory. Few people seem to know how to perform the act of
translating these theories from their concretions in aesthetic forms
to compelling exegeses in other, more generally comprehensible, forms.

The challenge of translating from one mode of expression to another is
joined by the challenge of language translation, which is a major
impediment to the flourishing of larger international discourses on
media theory. Sloterdijk's Sphere trilogy has not been translated into
English and only in bits and pieces of Flusser can be found.  In 2004,
Geert published on Nettime a wonderful and oft-cited email exchange
with Hartmann, entitled, "Discipline Design: The Rise of Media
Philosophy"
http://amsterdam.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0401/msg00042.html
I just re-read this inspirational piece, which makes me yearn to learn
Korean, so I can read the translation of his classic work,
Mediaphilosophie.

Ed Shanken

On Sat, May 2, 2009 at 9:26 AM, Armin Medosch <armin {AT} easynet.co.uk> wrote:

> I am not sure if the world really needs 'German' media theory right
> now. First of all the term 'German media theory' does indeed suggest a
> focus on the German nation, whilest leaving out or forcibly connecting
> to it (Anschluss) other works in the German language by authors from
> Switzerland and Austria, or Czech/Brasil as in the case of Flusser.
 <...>

--
Edward Shanken
Universitair Docent, New Media
University of Amsterdam

New Media MA Blog: http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/

My personal webpage: http://artexetra.com

*** Newly published!  Art and Electronic Media (Phaidon, 2009)
http://artelectronicmedia.wordpress.com ***


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