Cultural Techniques of Things that Matter
One of the luxuries of being academic is that you should contradict yourself – on purpose and on a regular basis. Actually, when refined to its best, this can be an art of argumentation (and arguing) as in the wonderful public self-critique by Søren Kierkegaard. Writing under many aliases, he was his own fiercest critic. This might not be a contradiction, but let’s say a minor defense of something I have critiqued before.
As for me, promoting “primacy of non-humans” and being enthusiastic about “new materialism”, I find myself with this odd feeling that I have felt the need to defend “texts” and “discourse” as I have recently started to (well, kinda). Usually rather more being interested in post-representational thought (Thrift 2007) and indeed new materialism (Braidotti, Massumi, Delanda, Grosz, Barad, and many others) it has been for me much more interesting to think what takes materially place, how and when, than what things mean, signify, represent. Besides the enthusiasm for representations that took a central place in cultural studies vocabulary since the 1980s, or even with the performative that happens inside discourse, I did enjoy the idea that bodies have a materiality that is irreducible to such dimensions.
Now this brand of recent aberration from signification goes often under the name of anti-correlationism, and critique of such a modern framework of thought, indeed, which grabbed even a lot of post-structuralism. Quentin Meillaissoux’s texts, and especially mediation of such ideas in speculative realism or object-oriented-ontology, is of course central, even if I would claim his arguments are not completely unique.
A lot of this discourse (!) is well captured at the beginning of The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism:
[In] ‘The Speculative Turn’, one can detect the hints of something new. By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourses, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinkers is turning once more towards reality itself. While it is difficult to find explicit positions common to all the thinkers… all have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique… all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humans more generally (Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011: 3).
I am not disagreeing, of course, as this path articulated by Delanda, and what I wrote about in 2006 (Parikka & Tiainen 2006) with similar arguments (more in the context of cultural studies though, than philosophy) is what I still find necessary as a way to specify what we mean by critique. (One should at this point nod towards Latour 2004 for instance).
What I am however interested in adding is to point to the longer disciplinary histories of alternative, material takes on textuality and discourse (or let’s say, variations of such post-structuralist themes) as well as the theme of cultural techniques. Besides various cultural histories of reading and related practices (my own background training was in cultural history), one finds lots of strong theoretical takes on such matters.
Indeed, to think of something close to my own turf, German media theory has been for a longer time, since 1980s, been successful in turning for instance Lacan, Foucault and Derrida into historically contextualised and materialised sets of theoretical affordances. Their post-structural notions, at times indeed very textually oriented (and yes, it did always rub me the wrong way) are de-territorialized so as to become more suitable to understand the variety of material modalities of expression. For Kittler, it was a matter of taking Foucault but showing there are other things in the world besides books and textual archives; the world of machines, circuits, and computers.
Indeed, take Markus Krajewski’s (2011: 34) recent memoir of Kittler’s class from early 1990s:
“Kittler, […]pointed out what was required to attend and complete the class successfully: the minimum precondition for this course was the ability to handle the Linux free c compiler ‘gcc’ with all flags and options on the command line. Silence in the room. For those who were willingto learn directly how to handle the beast he would briefly give an introduction to this art. He, then, went to the chalk board and – with verve – wrote one line:
gcc -ansi -pedantic -Wall -Wextra -Werror -o myprog file1.c file2.c –lm”
Much more than textual critique, Kittler’s methodology in teaching and research related to understanding the materialities of the computer on various levels – from software (he wrote in low-level Assembler himself) to hardware (having built his own synthesizer in the 1970s).
For such as Bernhard Siegert, a lot of the discourse of Foucault but also for instance Derrida is taken only as a starting point to analyses that take more interest in materialities such as paper, or bibliographic and typographic details – like the point/full stop (Punkt). His Passage des Digital is such a rich body of work that spans different notation systems, materialities, elements (not least water!!) into a historically continuously specified argument.
A lot of such approaches go under the name of cultural techniques – an approach to investigate textualities, but also other forms of knowledge and expression.
Histories of knowledge, science and media are understood not through texts as semiotics, but texts as part of complex spatial and temporal knowledge systems, cultural techniques completely material where things from the material characteristics of the inscription surface (what kind of paper used) to the wider spatial and temporal infrastructures matters. In Passage des Digitalen, this task comes out as:
1) instead of semiotics, let’s focus on cultural techniques of reading, writing, signs and counting
2) not ideal objects, signs are actually in the world as res extensa; symbols are always machinated
3) Sign practices are specified to certain institutional spaces, of which for Siegert interest are the office, the ship, the atelier, the laboratory, the academia, etc. (this threefold definition loosely translated/paraphrased from Siegert 2003: 14)
In short, discourse is mobilized as material. Another simple, often quoted definition of cultural techniques goes like this:
“Cultural techniques—such as writing, reading, painting, counting, making music—are always older than the concepts that are generated from them. People wrote long before they conceptualized writing or alphabets; millennia passed before pictures and statues gave rise to the concept of the image; and still today, people sing or make music without knowing anything about tones or musical notation systems. Counting, too, is older than the notion of numbers. To be sure, most cultures counted or performed certain mathematical operations, but they did not necessarily derive from this a concept of number.” (Macho 2003: 179)
What this approach is useful for is indeed how far we can go with it. It does not make such strong claims of ontology as in some more recent philosophical debates, but tries methodologically to mobilize approaches that take into materiality. What this does is a more historically embedded understanding that we do things, and that things do us (?).
Besides the German heritage of materialist media theory, we can look at work that takes inspiration from science and technology studies as much as media studies. Jonathan Sterne is a perfect example here, of a mix of various traditions to highlight the complexity of such objects as Mp3 – part of cultural techniques non-reducible to the technological details, where however the latter afford specific bodily practices too. In other words, it’s not only about the human:
“Mp3 technology also has an interesting relationship with other bodily technologies of communication. The mp3 works automatically on the body. Mp3 listening might involve ‘practical knowledge’ (Bourdieu, 1990), where the body goes through routines that do not enter the conscious mind. Certainly, mp3 listening requires a whole set of bodily techniques, dispositions and attitudes. But the mp3 goes even further than this. The encoded mathematical table inside the mp3 that represents psychoacoustic response suggests less a ‘technique of the body’ as these authors would have it, than a concordance of signals among computers, electrical components and auditory nerves.” (Sterne 2006: 837)
Such objects as Mp3 are stretched across a variety of materialities, from bodily techniques to mathematics at the core of it as a technological artifact – a connection obviously to Meillassoux’s mathematical ontology. A weird object indeed (btw. Keep your eyes open to Sterne’s MP3 book coming out I believe soon).
Now it would be easy to counter that by saying that such approaches do not really tap into the reality of the objects – the non-human nature of objects outside the correlationist relation, and having an autonomy non-reducible to relations or practices.. Yet, this is where for me the notion of materiality is more useful than that of reality. As Grosz has pointed out, talk of realism – even non-human – is still tied to positions of epistemology, not ontology; she prefers to call herself a materialist even if soon using the term “real” to refer to dynamics of production: “I am much more interested in the dynamic force of the real itself and how the real enables representation and what of the real is captured by representation.” (Grosz in Kontturi & Tiainen 2007, 247) In any case, if we approach things through materiality, we might be closer to the dynamics of production of realities (sic), of relevance to issues historically significant from political, mediatic and economic points of view. Indeed, such an approach maintains closer ties with the longer traditions of historical materialism (thanks to Alex Galloway for the heads up on this, and his insightful articulation in another context on similar issues), and flags the difference between realism and materialism – and perhaps is able to take further some of the limitations of earlier traditions.
Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press.
Kontturi, Katve-Kaisa & Tiainen, Milla (2007) “Feminism, Art, Deleuze and Darwin: An Interview with Elizabeth Grosz” Nora—Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4, 246–256, November 2007.
Krajewski, Markus (2011) “On Kittler applied: A technical memoir of a specific configuration in the 1990s” Thesis Eleven 2011, 107: 33.
Latour, Bruno (2004) Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? Critical Inquiry Volume: 30, Issue: 2: 225-248
Macho, Thomas (2003) “Zeit und Zahl: Kalender- und Zeitrechnung als Kulturtechniken,” in Bild-Schrift-Zahl, ed. Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2003), 179. (The passage translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young).
Parikka, Jussi & Tiainen, Milla (2006) “Kohti materiaalisen ja uuden kulttuurianalyysia, eli representaation hyödystä ja haitasta elämälle.” Kulttuurintutkimus 2/2006)
Siegert, Bernhard (2003) Passage des Digitalen. Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900 (Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose)
Sterne, Jonathan (2006) “The MP3 as a Cultural Artefact” New Media & Society, Vol8(5):825–842.
Thrift, Nigel (2007) Post-Representational Theory (London and New York: Routledge)