It’s All in the Technique

Heads up on what looks like a great little Dossier of German Media Philosophy – in the new issue of Radical Philosophy (169). Indeed, as Eric Alliez in his short (hence telegraphic?) afterwords points out, this is not philosophy of media, as we might tend to think, for instance in the English language academia. It is not so much of philosophy about the media, but how philosophy and media share a certain a priori.

I myself co-edited a collection of Continental Media Philosophy in Finnish in 2008, following this idea of (positive) separatism of a certain German agenda concerning philosophy in the age of media. And it’s not only the slightly worn idea that we need to rethink philosophy because we have the internet, but understanding how the a priori of humanities might actually be technical media. This is not a techno-determinist statement in the a-historical sense, but something that at least tries to account for the birth of modern humanities in the 19th century at the same time technical media was giving us a new ontology (and hence epistemology) of the world.

What is disturbing about this special issue is the generic problem of German academia and often media theory: it’s lack of women. Whereas one could say that the dossier and the conference at Kingston University that preceded it just honestly replicates the situation, it merely replicates the bias. Lack of such people like Sybille Krämer, Marie-Louise Angerer or Eva Horn – or any younger scholars! – is unfortunate, and it seems that this blind spot was transported along with the conference, the translations to Radical Philosophy now.

This of course does not take strength away from some of the texts. Without offering a full-fledged review of the issue, I just want to point out the joy it brings me to read Bernhard Siegert. This time his short text “ The Map Is The Territory” is about something, well, not obvious to media studies: maps. But what the article turns out to be is both an investigation into the epistemological cultural practice, or technique, of map-making, the question of representation and explication what Cultural Techniques are for the German media theorists. As pointed out in a recent e-mail to me, Geoff Winthrop-Young (who is the true expert in these matters) too underlines how important of a concept it is, and represents something that the Anglo-American reception of “German media theory” has still not started to grasp. As such, for the English speaking audience, Siegert’s text is the best entry point to the concept that does not reduce itself to Marcel Mauss’ bodily techniques, nor even completely to Michel Foucault’s ideas of practices (where it however takes a lot of its inspiration).

As Siegert emphasizes, the concept is post-media but not as leaving media behind, but post as in “post-new-media” and wanting to take distance from Internet studies or mass media studies (not a surprise if you are a scholar in the Kittlerian vein). It seems like a mixed bag, the way he outlines it, inclusive of techniques of measurement and time, like calendars, to techniques of hallucination and trance. And yet, as a mixed bag, it resonates closely with what emerged since the 1980s as  “German media studies” – often referred to as media archaeology too:

“The concept of cultural techniques thereby took up a feature that had been specific to German media theory since the 1980s. This specific feature set apart German media studies from Anglo-American media studies, as well as from French and German studies of communications let alone sociology, which, under the spell of enlightenment, in principle wanted to consider media only with respect to the public. German media analysis placed at the basis of changes in cultural and intellectual history inconspicuous techniques of knowledge like card indexes, media of pedagogy like the slate, discourse operators like quotation marks, uses of the phonograph in phonetics, or techniques of forming the individual like practices of teaching to read and write. Thus media, symbolic operators and practices were selected out, which are today systematically related to each other by the concept of cultural techniques.”  (14)

I think that long quotation was worth it to illuminate the centrality of the concept, which has enjoyed a bit of visibility in the name of such institutions as the Berlin Helmholtz Centre for Cultural Techniques.

In another context, Siegert has called this media archaeological 1980s as a phase of gay science– of exploration and fresh ideas. Indeed, I have to agree on some of his critique that he points towards some of the dogmatic media and cultural studies that already from the beginning know the research results: The Marxists always find the commodity form, and Cultural studies always finds race, gender and class. Interestingly, whereas a lot of Cultural and Media Studies for instance in the Anglo-American world brought with it a suspicion of ontology as something that still smells like the old library books of metaphysics, and  a focus on epistemology (preferably linguistically determined, representational, or at least empirical), the emphasis on knowledge and epistemology that one finds in cultural techniques is slightly different. Epistemology is indeed embedded in a range of practices from the body to science (obviously), but at the same time Siegert insists that part of the work of analysis of cultural techniques is to investigate how cultural practices are everywhere – to take his example, for instance no time outside techniques of time. And yet, Siegert does not turn his back on ontology. Let’s quote again: “ This does not imply, however, that writing the history of cultural techniques is meant to be an anti-ontological project. On the contrary, it implies more than it includes a historical  ontology, which however does not base that which exists in ideas, adequate reason or an eidos, as was common in the tradition of metaphysics, but in media operations, which work as conditions of possibility for artefacts, knowledge, the production of political or aesthetic or religious actants.” (15) There is no mention of Ian Hacking in this context by Siegert, but for someone with a bit time on their hands, there are possibilities to track some connections to recent years of “new materialism” too.

Don’t worry if its not mass media, it is at least a cultural technique.

When Siegert picks up on Gilbert Simondon, the critique of hylomorphism and embracing the idea of cultural techniques (and as I too have called media archaeology) as Deleuze-Guattarian nomadic science, we are on to the specific emphasis on materiality again. This however is not a materiality determined by a clean-cut causality chains from scientific-engineering solutions, but one that investigates them in a bundle with techniques of various ranges. Across a historical hylomorphic assumption of separation of content and form, things interfere across such regimes – like in maps, materiality infects the content. And as such, the interference offered by some such texts might be a really excellent distraction if you are bored reading the introductions to mass media or introductions to representations of media content, that still fills our media studies understanding.

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