Nettime mailing list archives

Re: <nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen
Florian Cramer on Wed, 6 May 2009 12:42:55 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> Debating German Media Theory in Siegen

A late footnote to the postings by Stefan, Edward and Geoffrey
Winthrop-Young; Stefan wrote:

> The main difference might indeed be addressed as Geist. Maybe I got 
> Florian and Geert initially wrong there. 

As a matter of fact, I fully side with your characterization of
Friedrich Kittler and his colloquium or school. On my initial posting on
the Siegen site, I wrote that there was (with Kittler) a "German turn
from Geistesgeschichte to Mediengeschichte" based on Heidegger's earlier
turn from metaphysics to ontology. Clearly, getting rid of the
Hegelian-metaphysical notion of "Geist" and replacing it with matter,
respectively media in a material (hardware) sense, was the larger agenda
and momentum of the media theory school you describe and have been part

This media theory ended up squarely in opposition to the
Hegelian-Marxist politics of the Frankfurt School, Benjamin, Brecht and
Enzensberger, and of Anglo-American cultural materialism and cultural
studies, i.e. what Armin quoted from Geoffrey Winthrop-Young as
"reactionary postmodernism". Aside from its recourse to particular
strands of Weimar Republic speculative right-wing thinking, German
postmodernism and postmodern media theory has been reactionary in the
most literal sense, namely as a sarcastic and willfully provocative
reaction to post-1968 Marxist socio-cultural, politically correct West
German academia. The great attraction of Kittler's thinking in the 1990s
was its punk quality within that environment. Stefan's account nicely
documents how his students identified themselves as a punk avant-garde
within yet against the rest of the humanities. (And clearly, playful
inclusion of right-wing codes has always been part of punk rock

The problem described by Stefan, namely that neither this media theory,
nor the "Kulturwissenschaft" influenced by it - the more mainstream
watered-down New Wave that followed punk -, seriously engaged with the
Internet and contemporary media developments, has paradoxically enough
its roots even in the initial punk. Media and technology were not simply
studied as cultural fields worth studying, but first and foremost in an
act of defiance against the mainstream of German literary studies and
humanities with its worship of the spirit, the letter and pure art
[strongly present even in Adorno's post-symbolist aesthetic philosophy
and all literature departments that followed his master's voice].  

The most simple provocation was to write a discourse analysis of Intel
chips instead of a discourse analysis of, say, Goethe's Faust; the more
complex and typical, to analyze Goethe's Faust and Hegel's phenomenology
as products of the technical inventions of the Jacquard Loom, the
battery and gas lightning in the early 19th century.  

This way, media history became the antithesis to intellectual history
(Geistesgeschichte). In the late 18th century, Geistesgeschichte still
had been an intellectual provocation when the romanticist Friedrich
Schlegel had called the French revolution, Fichte's epistemology and
Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister" the "greatest tendencies of our age".  200
years later, Kittler's "media a priori" would suggest to rather read
those three tendencies as outgrowths of the electrical capacitor
invented in 1745. Such theory was not driven by the aim of establishing
critical research of the culture, politics, economy and arts of
contemporary media, but first of all by its overall battle within the
academic humanities, and dream of rebooting them with the technological
a priori.

One could say that, given the ubiquity of the term "media" in the
contemporary German humanities, this attempt has been successful, but
seems to have been a Pyrrhic victory, since the notion of "media" has
been so loosely, metaphorically and even metaphysically adopted into
"Kulturwissenschaft": As said, "medium" has been become the factual
terminological and conceptual equivalent of what used to be called
"sign" or "signifier" in previous decades. Instead of reading "Faust" as
a product of Jacquard Loom, contemporary Kulturwissenschaft would, for
example, investigate the magic spells in the drama as a "medium".
Consequently, nobody bothers to engage with the lowbrow everyday
cultural issues of contemporary information systems. In the current
(embarrassing) culture war of the German humanities against Open Access
publishing, for example, no media theorist has spoken up yet.

But with its focus on epistemology and methodology, the German
humanities practice of media research is of particularly attraction to
scholars outside the media field. This explains why a literary scholar
like Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht considers German (post-1980s) media theory so
unique and valuable, perhaps without being aware of the media studies in
his own neighborhood, from Katherine Hayles to Wendy Chun. Since the
1980s, German media theory has been chiefly written for literary studies
readers rather than new media audiences. Its chief objective was to
mostly work on the former's existing field of knowledge and research and
put it into a different perspective. (Apart from that, it's also a
hide-and-seek game that is typical for poststructuralist writing in
general. In the case of the Kittler school, readers need to be
philologists _and_ technological experts to grasp the texts. The
philologists typically don't get any of the technical parts while the
media people are dumbfounded by the historical philology.)

The function of media studies as a different perspective on an existing
research field, rather than a research field of their own, is what I
meant when I had called, in my Siegen posting, media a "paradigm" in the
German humanities. One could say, in other words, that Kittler
introduced the media paradigm into the German humanities just like
Stephen Greenblatt's introduced the social history paradigm into
Anglo-American literary studies. 

The rather brief period in which the Kittler school engaged with chips,
programming languages and operating systems seems to me rather a general
proof of a point than a more specific attempt of founding long-term
cultural study of computing and the Internet.  Since, from a
Heideggerian-ontological perspective, media and technology are already
"there" as givens, there's no need of studying them in the way cultural
studies would do - namely as social constructs and cultural dynamics. A
hardcore model of the "a priori" or embedded agenda of media implies,
after all, that if contemporary media practices do at all exist, then
only in the work of the engineers of Intel & Co., with any other -
artistic or activist - media effort being (even aesthetically)
irrelevant in the end.

I see least three issues here:

- The original punk provocation is, and has been, quickly exhausted.

- What has been playful in the beginning has quickly become predictable
  if not dogmatic. Taken as a no-nonsense theory, this strand of media
  theory is a dead end because it can account for a real discursive 
  analysis only when it contradicts itself. (IMO, Kittler contradicts
  himself when he defines media as a priori on the one hand while
  insisting on their social constructedness by the military on the other. 
  Both points clearly work as the intended anti-p.c. provocation, but become 
  hollow if not politically opportunistic when carried beyond that 

  It is difficult to develop, past the initial punk, a continued and 
  sustainable productive base for critical media thinking and practice 
  from media a priori theory.  (While the critical theory approaches from 
  Brecht to cultural studies have plenty of their own dead ends, I find
  them much more useful as points of departure and for a hands-on 
  critique of urgent contemporary media issues such as intellectual 
  ownership and control, producer-vs.-consumer economics, media politics
  and cybernetic ideology, to name only a few.)

- The grand narrative of replacing Hegelian metaphysics and
  Geistesgeschichte with media ontology and history of technology ends
  up being yet another grand narrative. In other words, it falls
  into the very metaphysical trap that Derrida already identified 
  in Nietzsche and Heidegger in 1967 when he wrote (in "Structure, Sign
  and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences") that their very 
  attempts to destroy metaphysics were ultimately continuing metaphysics.

> In one sense the term German Media Theory names something that did not 
> happen. As there was just a heightend academic awareness around a 
> buzzword (Media) in a language (German). I am still a bit puzzled by the 
> fact that the core group did not manage to develop the common hypothesis 
> of a media apriori further (debatable as it is, but at least a clear-cut 
> approach) and to apply it to our present.

Stefan, sorry, but I think it's somewhat of a hubris of Kittler's
students to perceive themselves as "[the] German media theory", although
that's quite understandable from its own avant-garde identification.
Looking, for example, at the back catalogue of your publisher Merve, I
don't even think that this was true for the 1980s and 1990s.  
Likewise, I have to disagree with only one point in Geoffrey
Winthrop-Young's reply:

> 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. 

The perception and adoption of French poststructuralism did happen in
German literary studies, long before Friedrich Kittler's first books
came out: most importantly in Peter Szondi's Institute of Comparative
Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin where, among others, Derrida
taught as a visiting professor in the late 1960s (and whose graduates
include Werner Hamacher and Samuel Weber), and since the early 1970s at
the university of Konstanz in the departments built up by Wolfgang Iser
and Hans-Robert Jauß (where Gumbrecht studied and graduated).


[*} I'm just stumbling over the text of a 1996 lecture by Geert that
nicely sums it all up: "If our English-speaking colleagues could read
this stuff, it would be fun to read their critique of its metaphysical,
almost 19th century style and premises. Take the works of Heidegger,
Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Juenger, Friedrich Nietzsche and J.
W. Goethe, simmer them in the sauce of the media technologies, flavour
with a dash of French Theory. That is the basic recipe.  This postmodern
media theory tries implicitly to escape its 68- past. Also typical is
the rejection of the existence of rival media theories. It makes no
reference to the existing media studies like 'mass communication' or
cultural studies (with McLuhan being the exception). Its dislike of
social sciences remains a secret. The condemnation of the Frankfurt
School is also standard. Media theory dislikes ideology criticism. It
reduces media to the essence of the machine logic. It is no longer
interested in the meaning of its message, which was once assumed to be
propaganda." [http://www.thing.desk.nl/bilwet/TXT/ICC.txt]

blog:     http://en.pleintekst.nl
homepage: http://cramer.pleintekst.nl:70

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org