Angels and bionic ears – on the whereabouts of German media theory

Angels, viruses, the Greek alphabet, time tables anno 1900, chaos theory and huge ambitions; or just one attempt at summarizing a recent conference on so-called German Media Theory. Two weeks ago I went to the Media transatlantic conference in Vancouver, I admit, just as much for the city as for the conference in itself. Although the subtitle of the conference described it as being about “Media theory in North-America and German-Speaking Europe” it would have been more correct to replace the ‘North-American’ part with ‘Canadian theory’, or simply the ‘Toronto school’; that aside I went mostly for the ‘German-speaking part’, which also turned out to be the most represented side of the transatlantic endeavour. Here, I’ll just give a brief account of my impressions as to the whereabouts of German Media Theory as far as the conference goes.

First of all, there is a lot of interesting and inspiring stuff going on in German-speaking Europe, which only rarely reaches the shores of Norway, or any other non-German speaking country I suspect. Secondly, and probably needless to say, German media theory is much more than Friedrich Kittler, who does not even see himself as a media theorist (any more). Some of the most well-known German media-theorists were indeed present at the conference, giving fascinating keynotes, including:

  • Sybille Krämer : Krämer is professor of Philosophy at the Freie Universität of Berlin. Her work revolves around the philosophy of language and performativity and how it applies to media and particularly the computer, as well as to questions concerning mediality and the figure of the messenger as basis for a media theory. This latter aspect of her research and the topic of her latest book “Medium, Bote, Übertragung. Kleine Metaphysik der Medialität” was the focus of her talk at the conference as well. Krämer was concerned with developing a path for media philosophy beyond insisting on its a prioriness, arguing for a revisiting of the topi of transmission based on a messenger model of media. For Krämer the messenger embodies the structural properties of transmission. Messengers mediate between heterogeneous worlds, not through speaking but by making one side visible for the other. Messengers such as angels, money, viruses, psychoanalysis and witnesses according to Krämer must be seen as media in the sense that they, in acting as messengers, create the world by bridging something and making visible. Angels transmit or mediate holy messages, viruses transmit diseases and property is transmitted through money. The emphasis of the messenger and transmission allow for a media theory based on processes and thirdness (Mitte und Mittler) rather than on the technical apparatus as the condition of possibility as her other Berlin colleagues will have it.
  • Dieter Mersch : Mersch is a philosopher and professor of Media Studies at the University of Potsdam. Like Krämer he focuses on media philosophy, philosophy of language and performativity. He areas of research also include philosophy of art, aesthetics, hermeneutics and semiotics. As a media philosopher Mersch works with questions concerning the medium and its conceptualization as such; what media is, how media influence perception, communication and knowledge and the constitutive nature of the specific structures of media as they relate to the image, language and mathematics. In his talk, Mersch argued for a third way of approaching the question concerning the conditions of media. In sketching out two dominant modes of thinking about media that he regards as problematic, media as technical means and media as metaphor, he argued for a performative mode, or for the usefulness of approaching media as practices. Whereas the technical mode belongs to the Kittlerian realm, to calculation and mathematics, in short to pure instrumentality, media as metaphor is associated with the Swiss media theorist Christoph Tholen. By means of an etymological excursion, Mersch argued for a move from “meta” as in metaphor or the Greek metapharin (meaning transfer and transmission) to “dia”, or the Aristotelian diaphanis (meaning a through something, by means of light). For Mersch the move from meta to dia provides for a more useful approach in accounting for media, as meta always implies rupture or a leap, which needs to be accounted for, while dia accentuates a throughness and thereby does a way with an idea of an unbridgeable gap. A media theory based on dia rather than meta, highlights the performative and practice based approach that Mersch wants to end up with. Dia as in by using, or by doing, rather than media as rupture, better accounts for the conditions of media according to Mersch. Essentially what Mersch seems to suggest is that the medium cannot be grasped in itself and so we must attain to its practices instead.
  • Hartmut Winkler: Winkler is professor of Media Studies at the University of Paderborn and probably the most relevant theorist for my concerns, as he focuses on digital media and the computer. His talk revolved around the third and often neglected media function – processing.  Media for Kittler have basically three functions: transmission, storage and processing, but as Winkler observes, this third category of processing has been remarkably under-explored. Winkler argues that processing can be seen as a general media function, not just as an integral part of what the computer does. Processing plays a fundamental role in manufacturing media products of all kinds from video, photography to writing, all encompass a certain processing of the message. Winkler further explores the relation between processing and communication, by suggesting that what is now at stake is the relationship between a sender as producer and the product, rather than the senders relation to a receiver. As such, the concept of processing highlights how a communicator today intervenes with the message, or the product, through processing it (e.g. editing a YouTube video, formatting the content etc.). For Winkler, a focus on processing rather than communication prompts us to having to ask different sorts of questions regarding media, which have to do with the ‘logistics’ of media and the organizing principles of structuring certain worldviews. Processing ultimately deals with questions concerning translation and transformation, and Winkler thus proposes that processing can be understood as interfering modification on the one hand and as switching/forwarding on the other.

Performativity, Practice and Processing are the three P’s that seem to characterize a certain theoretical affinity between the different media theorists, all highlighting media’s capacity to act, of doing something. While there are certainly differences in opinion as to the extent to which media are instrumental or have causal power in themselves, terms like translation, transmission, messenger and process attest to understanding media as thirdness, middle and in-between. While Winkler seems to be working on a conceptualization of processing that synthesizes media’s capacity to both change by interfering and delivering without interfering, Mersch would like to distance himself from an instrumental approach to media all together. Both Krämer and Mersch efforts are drawn towards accounting for the invisibility of media in its transmission process, that is the making visible by being invisible. For both a solution seems to lie in aisthesis, which for Krämer is to be found in the logos of transmission and the figure of the messenger while or Mersch it implies a dealing with late Wittgensteinian concepts like practice and language-games.

However, as the only outside expert of German media theory present, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young stressed in his keynote, we must be vary about using a term such as German media theory as if it were some unified category. There is neither a theory to which most German media theorists subscribe to, nor is there a consensus as to what constitutes a medium. Not to mention the construct of ‘German’, which is in itself problematic, which is as Winthrop-Young reminds us just an observer construct. For who counts as German, and do I have to identify it as German if writing from elsewhere? He furthermore talked about the language problem and the academic bureaucracy of getting the works translated to English and disseminated to an international audience. In responding to what he saw as particularly pressing issues to discuss within the international context, Winthrop-Young mentioned the stakes of ‘post-humanism’, a broader reception of Luhmann and what exactly the Germans understand by ‘cultural techniques’.

The huge ambitions referred to in the beginning of the post can be said to characterize the recent project underway by the mythical ‘founding father’ of German media theory. Till Heilman briefly outlined Kittler’s new endeavour of presenting the entire cultural history of the Western world in four volumes. In what still remains a relatively unknown project outside Germany, “Musik und Mathematik” has still to move on and progress from dealing with the ancient Greeks and their alphabet. Although Kittler was remarkably absent from the papers presented, his presence was all the more recurring during the discussions in which several of the conference attendees expressed their disdain towards the equating of German media theory solely with Kittler and Berlin. The fact that the conference didn’t really attract many others than the few conference presenters and the Germans themselves attested to the relative unknown field of German media theory in the North American context.

Interestingly, the younger generation of the German presenters were quite representative of what Winkler saw as a tendency in German media theory of scholars concerning themselves increasingly with the theory and history of science and theories of cognition. Markus Krajewski presented a paper on the global transit system around 1900 as basis for a media theory of the time table while PhD candidates Mueggenburg and Samuel presented on bio-cybernetics in the 1960s as well as on Otto Rössler and Chaos theory respectively.

If we were to judge the whereabouts of German media theory by this conference alone some recurring concerns, theoretical affinities and approaches come to mind. One of the things that kept coming up in presentations and discussion was a concern with questions of the visibility and invisibility of media, and with the visual in general, even up to the point where conference co-organizer Richard Cavell remarked his surprise of this “turn” of attention to the visual. The non-German theorist mentioned most often as a point of reference was the French philosopher Michel Serres, maybe not so surprising taken into account his concepts of the parasite (as a third and as the appearance of the medium) and well as his theory of translation based in large on the figure of the angel as messenger. German media theory if I may still use this term seems more invested in media as they occurred 100 years ago, even with ancient Greece than with contemporary media, say with social media. Cybernetics, cognition and the computer linger strongly and debates about what really constitutes a medium and what they do are actively debated from philosophical and theoretical perspectives.

4 thoughts on “Angels and bionic ears – on the whereabouts of German media theory”

  1. “PhD candidates Mueggenburg and Samuel presented on bio-cybernetics in the 1960s as well as on Otto Rössler and Chaos theory respectively.”

    Would you please give more information including full names, affiliations, etc., for the PhD candidates? Thanks.

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