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Cultural Techniques-special issue

December 17, 2013 2 comments

Our book-length special issue on Cultural Techniques (Kulturtechniken) is out. Co-edited by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Ilinca Iurascu and myself, the special edition in Theory, Culture & Society is a significant introduction to the term that stems from German academic discussions in cultural and media studies. One could say it offers a significant variation on themes familiar from postwar German humanities’ focus on media, technologies and epistemo-ontological questions of culture in a post-representational and post-textual mode.

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 18.55.16

By way of some significant translations as well as new articles the issue pitches a way to understand cultural reality through its techniques. The usual definition is from Thomas Macho:

“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 until 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)

But as the issue demonstrates, there is more in this mix. The multiplicity of positions and inplications is well articulated in Winthrop-Young’s Introduction to the issue. He articulates how not only in Macho, but in different ways in Cornelia Vismann’s and Bernhard Siegert’s work the constitutive role of cultural techniques functions. In fact, could say that this is the German media theory version of the hominization-thesis: how we become humans; how agency is constituted by cultural techniques which allow us to occupy subject positions. Space, enclosures and passages between them is one way to understand the idea:

“Thus the difference between human beings and animals is one that
could not be thought without the mediation of a cultural technique.
In this not only tools and weapons . . . play an essential role; so, too,
does the invention of the door, whose first form was presumably the
gate [Gatter] . . . The door appears much more as a medium of coevolutionary
domestication of animals and human beings.” (Siegert, 2012: 8)

Key here is the way in which cultural techniques process distinctions with material and aesthetic means. In Winthrop-Young’s lucid words, “Procedural chains and connecting techniques give rise to notions and objects that are then endowed with essentialized identities.Underneath our ontological distinctions (if not even our own evolution) are constitutive, media-dependent ontic operations that need to be teased out by means of techno-material deconstruction.” The implications for a range of recent years of theory-debates are intriguing; it refers to the fact how we need to address practices of theory and techniques of theory as part of the work of concepts and philosophy of contemporary culture. Besides it also shows some early ideas that resonate with a post-textual approach to cultural analysis (for instance in Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp’s article).

I was asked to produce a short video abstract of my own contribution. In addition, find below the table of contents.


Special Issue: Cultural Techniques
Edited by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Ilinca Iurascu and
Jussi Parikka

Articles
Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
Culture, Technology, Cultural Techniques – Moving Beyond Text by Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp
Second-Order Animals: Cultural Techniques of Identity and Identification by Thomas Macho
Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory by Bernhard Siegert
After Kittler: On the Cultural Techniques of Recent German Media Theory by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
Cultural Techniques and Sovereignty by Cornelia Vismann
The Power of Small Gestures: On the Cultural Technique of Service by Markus Krajewski
Zootechnologies: Swarming as a Cultural Technique by Sebastian Vehlken
From Media History to Zeitkritik by Wolfgang Ernst
Afterword: Cultural Techniques and Media Studies by Jussi Parikka

Review Article
Files, Lists, and the Material History of the Law by Liam Cole Young

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A Day In the Life of A Computer

September 4, 2013 Leave a comment

If you are serious about speculative realism, or object-oriented, perhaps you should consider this instead.

Martin Howse, Diff in June, Link Editions, Brescia 2013. Soft cover, 740 pp., ISBN 9781291503593

Martin Howse’s weird data archaeology delivers its own set of speculations concerning a more media-specific non-human perspective that opens up the object in alternative ways. If the computer speaks it definitely sounds a bit different than narratives of philosophical discourse. This is data archaeology becoming media epistemology becoming a speculative artistic practice into onto-epistemologies. If this is forensics, it is a twisted sort where the computer self-records and narrates its own little day in the life.

“Diff in June” tells a day in the life of a personal computer, written by itself in its own language, as a sort of private log or intimate diary focused on every single change to the data on its hard disk. Using a small custom script, for the entire month of June 2011 Martin Howse registered each chunk of data which had changed within the file system from the previous day’s image. Excluding binary data, one day’s sedimentation has been published in this book, a novel of data archaeology in progress tracking the overt and the covert, merging the legal and illegal, personal and administrative, source code and frozen systematics.”

For those those interested in Howse’s earlier projects and collaborations, check out the interview we did in Berlin some years ago.

OOPhotography

April 4, 2013 1 comment

Congratulations to Paul Caplan who yesterday passed his viva very succesfully! These are the important moments of academic incorporeal transformation where one metamorphoses from Mr Caplan to Dr Caplan!

Besides OOO/OOP as its theoretical approach, it is a creative practice PhD, representing a very exciting addition to practice as research that relates to visual culture as well as software studies! See here for a video sample of his work and thinking (Originally in O-Zone: A Journal of Object Oriented Studies):

Cultural Techniques of Things that Matter

April 21, 2012 2 comments

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.

References:

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)

Ooops

December 23, 2011 5 comments

Based on this year´s blog statistics, a guaranteed way to drive up traffic is to either to write about Friedrich Kittler (after he is dead) or about Object Oriented Philosophy. The latter of these two, my previous posting gathered an awful lot of commentaries, including for me really useful feedback, so thanks to all for contributing. But it also reminded me that mentioning OOO/OOP is the guaranteed way to raise big emotions — reminding me why I never wanted to dip into those conversations. That does not mean that there is awful lot of good ideas there, but I just don´t want to get drawn into such heated discussions.

Here is Graham Harman´s  mention of the discussion, also calling for more “productive debate”. I was not able to leave a comment on his blog and continue that debate so wanted just to briefly flag a couple of points here.

Firstly, for me, my blog post was not meant to poke at anyone just to irritate. I was merely interested, after reading and following debates, in some of the core questions from my perspective. I did not realize they were unproductive, and feel slightly paranoid now how my texts can be suddenly turned as part of some bigger academic catfight to which I have no desire to be part of.

Secondly, I am not interested in general debates “object” vs. “process”. Neither answers what I am after, and that is to map the specificities of technical media culture. Hence, I cannot decide beforehand whether I am dealing with object, process or something else. I am too much of  a cultural historian, or a media archaeologist even, and interested in mapping/using the heterogeneous sources through which to understand technical media culture, from its technico-scientific roots to various imaginaries; political economy to political ecology; the ethico-aesthetico to aesthetico-technical. But that’s me. Others can and are (take for instance Bryant, Bogost or Paul Caplan) are doing really interesting things with OOP and media, even if I might differ on various points. I am interested in materiality, and also politics of matter(ing) – Braidotti, Grosz, Barad, Parisi, Terranova, post-fordist political theory – where questions about the real or new materialism are mobilized in so many differing, often also conflicting ways. But that’s another story.

Thirdly, in relation to Harman´s post — of course I would be saying critical things about OOP; saying critical things is just taking an interest in something. I think that is better than not saying anything critical. I have not wanted to say anything too publicly because I have felt and always added that I am not qualified to do that, and that I will leave OOP-discussions to others. So be it from now on as well, as the some of the repercussions and comments are getting too weird, already now. It’s not a very welcoming debate.

Fourthly, what I have probably said about Simondon is that he solves more problems for me than does OOP, and feels closer to the fields I am tackling with. For me, in a Kittlerian fashion, I want to articulate the double bind of philosophy and its relation to technical media — both historicized. I am a pragmatist in this way — perhaps sharing a bit of similar ground as Bogost mentioned in one of his comments to the post: interesting to see what we can do with different theories.

And btw. on top of my reading list, Bogost´s Alien Phenomenology, as soon a its out. And a couple of months after that, Braidotti´s The Posthuman. Oh the bliss of non-human world. And hats off to so many theorists of the non-human.

 

 

OOQ – Object-Oriented-Questions

December 21, 2011 55 comments

I can’t claim that I know too much about object oriented philosophy. It’s often more about my friends or colleagues talking about it, enthusiastically for or against. Indeed, I have been one of those who has at best followed some of the arguments but not really dipped too deeply into the debates – which from early on, formed around specific persons, specific arguments, and a specific way of interacting.

Hence, let me just be naïve for a second, and think aloud a couple of questions:

–       I wonder if there is a problem with the notion of object in the sense that it still implies paradoxically quite a correlationist, or lets say, human-centred view to the world; is not the talk of “object” something that summons an image of perceptible, clearly lined, even stable entity – something that to human eyes could be thought of as the normal mode of perception. We see objects in the world. Humans, benches, buses, cats, trashcans, gloves, computers, images, and so forth. But what would a cat, bench, bus, trashcan, or a computer “see”, or sense?

–       Related to this, what if the world is not an object? What if the non-humans it wants to rescue are not (always) something we could with good conscience call objects? I guess OOP wants to treat everything as an object – across scales, genres and epistemological prejudices – and hence bring a certain flatness to the world – to treat humans and non-humans on equal footing, a project which I am in complete agreement with – but does this not risk paradoxically stripping entities, the world of specificity? For instance, in mediatic contexts, what if we need to account for the non-object based realities of such media technological realities as electromagnetism – that hardly could intuitively be called an object. Would treating such entities as objects be actually just confusing, and lead to imagined concretenesses? This question is motivated by some recent arguments in media theory, insisting that we need more careful vocabularies of the non-object nature of media; for instance Wolfgang Ernst and his discourse concerning time-criticality; Mark B.N. Hansen and his recent ideas stemming from the direction of Whitehead, in connection to ubiquitous media.

–       Some people are enthusiastic because object oriented philosophy seems at last to offer a philosophical way of treating the non-human (animals, technology, etc.) on an equal footing to the human. Agencies are extended to a whole lot of entities. But such claims, whether intentionally or not, forget that there is a whole long history of such thought; the most often forgotten is the radical feminist materialism of figures such as Rosi Braidotti and Elizabeth Grosz; this goes nowadays often by the name of new materialism.

–       Just a thought: The real is not the same thing as matter. Matter is not always about objects.  In an interview, Grosz has briefly hinted that she is not that interested in the concept/category of the real, because that still concerns more closely epistemology. Instead, what concerns her is matter.

–       Is object oriented philosophy more akin to epistemology, an operationalization of the world into modular units through which we can question human superiority– instead of it being an ontology? If we want to pay more philosophical respect to the world of non-humans – chemicals, soil, minerals, atmospheric currents and such – should we not read more of scientific research that constantly is the one who talks of such worlds, and actually offers insights into different worlds of durations and stabilities from that of the human? Don’t get me wrong – I might be a naïve observer but not that naïve: of course I know that a lot of sciences are not able to be that self-reflexive, and constantly smuggle in a huge amount of conceptual and other material that makes their epistemology infected with the human/the social, and that science is not a neutral cold gaze that just registers the world. I guess I am just interested in the world – an empiricism, transcendental, radical.

These thoughts are indeed just self-reflections of an amateur while reading object-oriented philosophy, or listening people talk about it – I think I am just trying to figure out why people are so enthusiastic about it.

Object-Oriented-Madness

With tongue in cheek, I call it object-oriented-madness. Collections of lists, notes, polaroids: of objects, newspapers, series after series, accompanied with measuring devices of various sorts (time measurement, geiger counter, and so forth). Even empty places, room corners, merit wide explanations and commentaries.

Horst Ademeit’s Secret Universe is like a diary of madness, illustrating some of the classical symptoms found often in medical case studies – and of continous interest to media theorists: they are not only personal/social symptoms, but socio-mediatic symptoms, as with Dr Schreber, or for instance Victor Tausk’s study of “influencing machine” concerning delusional schizophrenia – as well as broadcasting media (see Jeffrey Sconce’s article in Media Archaeology).

On the Hamburger Bahnhof-website the project is described as follows:

“This artist has devoted more than 20 years of his life to the photographic documentation of what he   called “cold rays” and other invisible radiation that he thought harmed him and his environment. In the complex reference systems developed by Ademeit, certain motifs play a constant role: electricity meters, peepholes, building sites, electric cables, collections of bulky trash or bikes. Ademit began to cast the flood of images he produced in a concrete form in October 1990: he arranged measuring instruments and a compass on a newspaper and photographed them with a Polaroid camera. Over the course of 14  years, he made 6006 numbered Polaroids.”

Watching the hundreds, perhaps thousands of polaroids, meticulously commented one thinks of archival lists, notes, and notation systems themselves as tightly coupled with measurement systems. It’s curious how so many of the pictures were focused on electricity systems, part of wider electricity networks of course. But also indeed trash, miscellaneous objects in a manner that reminded me of some of the object-oriented ontology and vibrant matter theorists interest in hoarding and the life of objects. Jane Bennett talks of hoarding and “thing-power”, Paul Caplan has aptly talked of similar themes in relation to data and object-oriented philosophy approaches. What I want to point towards more widely is how the metaphysical idea of agency

Series

of things, and matter is inherent so well in mental disorders, which themselves can be seen as wider mediatic phenomena (well, also part of capitalist consumer society). As such, there is an inherent link between this technical media-capitalist context, and object-oriented approaches, if understood more widely. This brings specificity to the context in which the wider interest in thingsirreducible to discourses and human practices emerges. It is parallel to the observational power of the paranoid schizophrenic, who believes in thing-power — or that things have agency, connected to wider networks. Such paranoia is  an observation of power, and of things empowered. Furthermore, watching the series of meticulous organisation (labeled, serialized also by numbering) of for instance newspapers to show the repetitious elements in layout etc. one cannot but think of the digital humanities projects concerning serialisation…could we find a geneaology even for that in the madness of painstaking serialisation?