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<nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen
Geoffrey Winthrop-Young on Mon, 4 May 2009 06:05:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen

A few suggestions regarding the German media theory business. 

1. Some, including the Siegen organizers, like to use the term "Sonderweg"
["special path"] when talking about German media theory. I believe that the
term should be avoided or, at best, used ironically. The "Sonderweg" notion
originated in historiography. It denotes the idea that German history
deviated from the established highway to modernity--embodied, most
importantly, by France and the UK--and veered off into authoritarianism
and, subsequently, the 3rd Reich instead. Whether or not that is feasible
diagnosis is irrelevant. The crucial point is that the term only makes
sense against the background of an alleged historical norm ("that is how
nations enter modernity"). In the context of media theory, this is
questionable, to say the least. It would mean that media-theoretical
developments in the US, the UK, France, Japan, Argentina etc. follow common
lines from which Germany deviates. -- At the very least the folks who use
the term should explain what they mean by it.

2. On the usage of "German". Sometimes the debates surrounding this term
appear to imply that there is only essentialism (German media theory is the
outcrop of der deutsche Geist--the ineffable German spirit) or complete
randomness (German is the emblem found on passports east of the Rhine and
west of the Elbe). The former is nonsense and the latter is useless whne it
comes to trying to figure out certain patterns of media-theoretical debates
that are conspicuously stronger in Germany than elsewhere. In the (German)
paper that was the trigger for the Siegen confab I suggested these points
('I'll make this as short as possible)

a) First impressions: What characterized the German media-theoretical
debate in the 1980s and 1990s was the relatively high profile of basic
approaches (most importantly, poststructuralism, system theory,
constructivism) that were largely incompatible ble with traditional
approaches to be found in media and communication studies.. This gave it
the (quasi-)radical panache which no doubt made it very attractive to
outside observers. [Whether or not all this ultimately contributed a lot to
the understanding of media is a different discussion.]

b) The influx of these approaches shows that  in Germany media studies
became a catchment area--ein Auffangbecken--for issues that in other
countries had different academic/disciplinary outlets. Most notoriously,
issues arising from so-called French poststructuralism that could not be
contained by hostile literary studies were moved (by Kittler et al., and
not without justification) into the media studies domain. In the U.K.
similar questions became the grist of the already established Cultural
Studies. One reason for the decline of media theory (certainly not the only
one, but an important one) in Germany is the rise of Kulturwissenschaften.
Just observe how in many present contributions media/Medien give way to
cultural techniques/Kulturtechniken,.  

c) In addition, media theory was better equipped to allow for the ongoing
preoccupation with epistemological problems that traditionally are strongly
developed in German philosophy (from Leibniz and Kant on) . It isn't  for
nothing that "Medienphilosophie" was, originally, relatively more
developed--or at least more talked about--in Germany than elsewhere. Here,
media theory continues discussion that philosophy should have. Though
critics like Frank Hartmann would point out (rightly so, in my opinion)
that media philosophy still hasn't properly gotten off the ground because
it remains too tied to traditional disciplinary ways of thinking.

do) The last point, I admit, is vague. The profile of German media theory
is not only due the academic ecology outlined above.. It also has to do
with a feedback between academic pursuits (or obsessions?) and overall
national political experiences and collective memories. The rise of German
media theory should be seen in connection with the high profile of
Techniktheorie (Theory of Technology) in the late 19th-century and the rich
techno-futurist discussions (including artistic production) of the Weimar
Republic. Ultimately, it has to do with the impression that technology,
especially traumatically impacting technology as well as attempts to
fashion the nation into a community by use of media , have been a decisive
factor  in German history. Note: I am not saying that this was so, what
counts is the impression that it was like this.  Armin Medosch is right, I
did call Kittler a reactionary postmodernist, but it was precisely in the
context of the Weimar debates in which thinkers like Spengler and Junger
were prone to fuse technological evolution with social formation at the
price of abandoning any kind of political emancipation. To misquote
Kracauer's book title, there is a link from Caligari to Kittler. 

In other words, this--be it rich, unique, erratic, or downright
loony--media-theoretical production in the 1980s and 90s is the result of a
number of waves (intellectual, academic and disciplinary, political and
historical) that came together. And for a Canadian such as myself it is
intriguing to note certain parallels between the roles played by Kittler,
Luhman etc. on the one hand and McLuhan and Innis on the other other. 

And yes, this use of Germany does not include Austria. And Frank Hartmann's
books should be translated.  

Dr. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C., V6T 1Z1

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