tilman baumgärtel on Wed, 6 May 2009 12:47:26 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> 'Debating German Media Theory in Siegen: The Word from Berlin

Just out of curiosity, in what language was the interview conducted?
In English or German?

Actually, I am not just asking out of curiosity. I feel that the major
reason why this fabulous Deutsche Medientheorie is internationally
little known is the fact that the major figures have not sought
international exposure, partly because they do not care, partly
because of language issues. I have been to international conferences,
where German media critics asked their questions in German, and had
them translated into English by the moderator, and I saw them turn
down invitations to international conferences.

Again, German academia is largely responsible as international
experience has little importance for your university career there, and
despite all the rhetoric of globalization etc, teaching experience
abroad is rarely rewarded, if you have not been at a handful of
American Ivy League universities or in German-speaking Austria and
Switzerland. (It is interesting to note that most of the participants
in the panel in Siegen have no teaching experience abroad, or only
in Switzerland and Austria. Only Gumbrecht has been teaching abroad
for a long time, and Kittler spend some semesters at various US
universities...) There is no need, not even any use in engaging with
the rest of the world if you are in the German humanities.

I am not saying that you have to participate in the current
international academic discourse, which is dominated by Anglo-Saxons.
I actually find it quite charming that you can stay out of it, if you
want to. But then, I do not understand the surprise about the fact
that this brilliant German Media Theory is not widely known. If you
want to get international attention, you have to participate in the
international debate. And the lingua franca of that international
discourse is (bad) English - like in the rest of the world, be it
politics, economics, or whatever. Geert, who started this whole
discussion, always made a point out of speaking and publishing in
English and occasionally even in German, and that´s why I am surprised
that he calls for state alimonies for translations now.

As for the media apriori - I can see how this was a very important
tool in the 1970s and 80s, when the academic discourse on media
was dominated by all this sociological bla bla (and that included
dumbed-down Benjamin etc. I cannot believe that people think that
Benjamin had a recent revival. He was never gone!). However, when
critics stubbornly insisted on it, the media apriori eventually
started to smack of sullen provocation for the sake of it. Because
of the dogmatism that seemed to be a defining element of the whole
concept, this theoretical approach eventually turned into a dead end.
That theoretical inflexibility might be the reason why many people
from the Kittler group ended up as historians of technology - but
unfortunately not very good ones, since the pressure to prove that
they had read their theory resulted in largely unreadable tomes about
episodes in the history of technology that would be significant enough
without the coating in post-structuralist wishi-washi. I am grateful
to Edward Shanken for mentioning Christoph Asendorf and Wolfgang
Schivelbusch. Their brand of writing on technology and its history is
just so much saner than the work mentioned above, but at the same time
manages to be intellectually challenging. Somehow they never received
the credit they deserved for this, not even in Germany. I also agree
with Stefan Heidenreich´s criticism that nobody from these circles
started to address more contemporary topics. But then again, the owl
of Minerva flies only at dusk in Germany since the days of Hegel.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is important to insist on
the formbildende function of media. That still gets ignored way
too often in favor of staid and questionable Marxist, feminist,
post-structuralist etc approaches towards media. However, this always
just accounts for only one half of the story. The other part, the
social use that people eventually make of media, was never properly
addressed by the media apriori position. I think that´s why the snotty
post-humanism of Kittler, where the chip rules the culture and if you
do not buy it, you are a moron, did not prove to be fruitful in the
long run.

What remains interesting for me is to figure out how - if hardware
dictates cultural and social use - a given culture accommodates the
particular cultural use that comes out of the hardware. So, for
instance, if Techno came out of the sequencer function/step relay of
the synthesizer, but turned into a youth culture, what residues of
the hardware/the electric step relay are in this culture? The same
goes for computer, internet etc which also spawned their (sub)cultures
that, I would argue, contain remnants of the hardware. That is quite
a different story from Kittler´s fantasies of human impotence in the
face of new and powerful technology. McLuhan was much more daring when
it came to discussing questions like this - despite the many wacky
assumptions he came up with and that are today repeated ad nauseam
like a gospel.

All that, of course, is not to say that Kittler wasn’t a major
intellectual influence and a super-important figure in German
media theory. There is still no way of getting around him, as this
discussion once again shows. Everybody interested in media theory
should read his work. I really regret that I cannot get myself
interested in his recent turn to ancient Greece. I am sure it would be

Dr. Tilman Baumgärtel
Check out my new blog:
The Cinema of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia et al

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