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nettime: interview with Hartmut Winkler
Geert Lovink on Sun, 19 Jan 97 10:34 MET


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nettime: interview with Hartmut Winkler


From: "Hartmut Winkler, Frankfurt" <winkler {AT} tfm.uni-frankfurt.de>

The Computer: Medium or Calculating Machine?

Geert Lovink meets Hartmut Winkler

     This is a 25%-excerpt of an E-mail discussion which took
     place in April 1996 and was first published in the online
     magazin Telepolis, Munich, Germany
     (http://www.heise.de/tp/co/2038/fhome.htm).


G.L.: Hartmut, I first want to introduce you: the media
scientist Hartmut Winkler who lives and works in Frankfurt,
Germany, just presented a comprehensive critique of the
current German media theories. 'Docuverse' is the title of his
Habilitation work (in the German academic system the hab.
follows the PhD); the manuscript of 420 pp. is subtitled 'On
the Media Theory of the Computers'. The book is forthcoming in
February 1997 (Boer Verlag, Munich).
The background of the text is the Internet and the
contemporary transformations in the media landscape shiftig
from the image-dominated media to the computers, and Winkler
asks about the social motives causing this change. The book
focuses on the concept of 'wishes', the "reconstruction of the
underlying wishes to which the data universe is the answer".
The title 'Docuverse' is borrowed from Ted Nelson and as a
term is relevant to Winkler because it forces to think of the
data universe as a textbased, socio-technical implementation
complex. The term also allows to criticize this idea as a
fiction of theory. [...] Hartmut, can you briefly outline what
'Docuverse' is about.

H.W.: Drafting the book two of my interests came together:
first, the anger about the huge computer-as-medium hype which
emerged with the internet and about the fashionable,
precipitate character of the debate. Second, writing the book
was a chance to recycle my past as a programmer. It was a
challenge to confront the computer with certain theories
developed in the field of classical media. Then I wanted to
see what happened to those categories everybody used to use.
The issue yet completely lacking in the debate and worth
thinking about is the theory of language. The WWW is exploding
as a medium of written texts and nobody thinks about why the
media history leaves the technical images (photography, film,
television) behind, after a century of unquestioned supremacy,
in order to return, as it seems, to writing and language. In
the current debate, however, the 'end of the Gutenberg galaxy'
is announced which -if at all- happened already around 1900.

G.L.: Your critique of media theory is aimed predominantly at
a certain group of authors who have published a lot since the
end of the eighties. On the one hand, the 'Kassel School'
including Kittler, Bolz, Tholen and others, and, on the other
hand, the circle around the 'Ars Electronica', Weibel and=7F
Roetzer. Would it be possible to describe this discourse a
little more precisely? In my perspective there were very
distinctive regional, cultural and even historical conditions
for this vital text production. The year 1989 comes to my
mind: climax of the eighties, of yuppie culture and
postmodernism, the fall of the German wall, the birth of
techno and the fist appearance of VR and the networks. This
group of theorists, now, can neither -in terms of an overall
technology skepticism- be characterized as left-progressive,
nor as right-wing conservative culture-pessimists. Naturally
you can always feel the spirit of Heidegger around, and one
could name Lacan as a common background, the latter is even
true for you. For a long time in Germany people who were
concerned with the media were considered conformist. But I
always thought of this as a disease of the Ideologiekritik.
The sphere of the media, this is evident, is very real and
material (and gets so more and more). Have those authors still
anything to say, or should we stop asking about sociological
and ideological positions?

H.W.: It's true that my book is mainly concerned with the
German theory and the authors you mentioned, it undertakes a
critical revision and develops its own interpretations and
conclusions from this vantage point. That's the project.
However, I would locate this debate differently; first of all
I don't think that the Ideologiekritik was hostile to media
and technology in general. If the authors in question more
than evidently distance themselves from the Ideologiekritik
(and this also resounds in your presentation to a certain
degree), I can see a whole bundle of motives: it is a well
justified interest in reaching a more differenciated
interpretation of technology and also in overcoming certain
aporias in the realm of the Ideologiekritik. Taking distance,
though, could also be considered an immediate result of
political disappointments; technology offers a way of escaping
the complex demands of the social, and whoever considers
technology the 'apriori' of social developement can stop
caring about a lot of things. And above all, one got around
asking what it is that gives technology its drive and
direction.
Here I would clearly differentiate between Kittler and Bolz:
while Kittler makes a real effort to develop a hermeneutics of
technology (and tries to win back what the social process
inscribed into technology) Bolz turns to an open affirmation
with politically reactionary implications. I think, like you
do, that the debate is precisely located in place and time.
But in my view the year 1989 doesn't stand for an awakening
but for a doughy German chancellor and the potential
immortalization and globalization of the bourgeois glory. If
technology seems to be the only sphere where one can still
find some kind of progress, it's no wonder that it's highly
appreciated.

G.L.: In my opinion the 70s' Ideologiekritik has indeed caused
a lot of damage by grossly neglecting the realm of the media
and, secondly, by refusing to understand what is so attractive
about mass culture, a question that later on was taken up by
English cultural studies. [...]

H.W.: Dealing with the seventies, you already focus on the
followers, and they, I agree, seldomly reached up to the
prophets. For the classics of the Frankfurt School, however,
your estimation doesn't apply; neither for Benjamin, nor for
Kracauer who was very hopeful about mass culture; Brecht
articulated the utopian idea of changing the monological
character of the mass media, a utopia taken up by Enzensberger
in the 60s and which became the basis for a number of
practical-democratic media initiatives. The Communal Cinemas,
financed by the municipal administrations, were founded in the
60s/70s etc. Above all, I think, that the opposition critical
attitude vs. sympathy/understanding/affirmation is much too
coarse. If the 'culture industry chapter' of the 'Dialectics
of Enlightenment' didn't exist it would need to be written
right away - as a contribution to a debate and a very radical
perspective which makes visible a particular side of the
media. And Adorno's 'Aesthetic Theory', even if repudiating
media, jazz, and mass culture, offers many criteria which, in
a certain way, are more appropriate for the media than they
are for autonomous art which is so favourably treated by
Adorno.

G.L.: According to me, contemporary German media theory is not
rooted any more in the instrumental, rational, technocratic
thinking of the last two decades (the
Affluent-NATO-Police-Nuclear state). Working neither
positivistic nor fromnegation, it mainly seems to trace the
inner voice of technology. The de-animated machines, worn by
their commodity character, ought to sing again. Since there
are mainly people from literature, philosophy, and the arts
involved. Such a constellation merely existed in Germany at
that time (1989). In other countries, you have to look for
media theory in the departments of sociology, communication
sciences, and in hardboiled history of technology. Why is the
attitude of the German media ideology and their 'virtual
class' (if one reallywants to name it this way) so sublime, so
poetic? Elsewhere the media specialists do not invent such
wonderful and complicated terms in order to describe the grey
everyday life of the media. Does Germany, in the international
division oflabour, develop more and more into the country of
the datapoets and thinkers?

H.W.: Jee, now I'm in the position to defend a particular
German solution. Although many of the efforts, terms, and
results of the debate seem very absurd to me I very much
thinkthat the more pragmatic approaches ("sociology,
communication sciences, and history of technology") miss their
subject matter - the media. Concerning the media, we
definitely don't know what we are dealing with. We know that a
more or less blind practice brings them into being, but we
don't know theimplications of the fact that 'communication'
asks for increasingly complicated technical devices. The world
of symbols melts into the one of technology. And as long as we
don't know, I believe, it's important to work on the terms.
'Communication' is a very good example; you assume without
questioning that living people communicate with one another
(bilaterally), in contrast to the 'dead' universe of writing.

Is that plausible though? Isn't technology 'dead' in the same
way as writing is? And isn't that the reason why people want
to make them sing again? And that is where my pleading for the
"academic ways of thinking" starts. Certainly there are the
"rituals of academic writing" that you mentioned; yet this
kind of writing opens up the opportunity to distance oneself
from common sense and to talk differently - in a way that is
unconditioned by the needs and pressures of practice. I'm
always astonished about how fast and definitely certain things
become established as consensus: multimedia is the natural aim
of computer development, the computer is a universal machine
etc. If you want to oppose these kinds of consensus, you have
to have either good nerves or good arguments (and probably
both). In any case you need terms and tools which don't stemn
from the debate itself, but from different contexts, and may
beeven Lacan and Heidegger. And if the international division
of labour assigns this part of theory to the Germans - that's
o.k. with me, they (we) did worse jobs in the past.

G.L.: Hence, around 1989, in a time of rapid
technological developments, a theoretical movement comes into
being which doesn't leave the Gutenberg-Galaxy behind, but
takes on the whole knowledge of the last centuries into
Cyberspace tracing back the history of technology and
connecting chip architecture and modern literature. Though
people outside that movement wouldn't ever think that way.
Doesn't technology work excellent without Nietzsche and the
humanities? Isn't it only us, the intellectuals, that need the
aid of Kittler and other theorists in order to cope with
technology? Are we dealing with a media theory developed for a
well educated middle class who has a hard time with the
titanic forces of the 'techne'? Or do the heavy volumes of
theory serve to give the shares of AEG, Mercedes Benz,
Siemens, and Deutsche Bank additional weight? For their power,
it seems to me, the metaphysical insights of the German media=7F
theory aren't very useful.

H.W.: ... I very much hope so. And certainly technology works
without Nietzsche. Generally the main problem is not just to
cope with technology the way it is. If our society has chosen
to inscribe its contents not in texts but into technology, the
effect is that the contents aren't visible and discernible any
more. They appear as the natural features of the things, as a
result of a linear (and necessarily single-track) progress, as
unchangeable. It's the same as codification. Things once
encoded are the invisible precondition of communication. And
whoever argues that a critique of technology is not possible
any more and that the times of critique are generally over is
taken in by a strategy of naturalization.
Thus it would be the task of theory and of the hermeneutics of
technology to win back the contents which the society has
'forgotten' into technology. The decisions and values, the
social structures and power configurations, the practice which
became structural in technology. To show the transformation
from practice/discourse into structure (and from structure
into practice/discour-se) is the main theoretical project of
the book. Your 'internet critique' aims at precisely the same,
doesn't it? The grown structure of the net also doesn't depend