Beyond the Aesthetics-Technology Dichotomy

It's six or seven years now since I first moved to France for graduate research, and nearly three since I relocated to Germany to carry on those studies in Berlin and Weimar. At the time I had imagined immersing myself in "French theory" and "German media theory" so that I could return to the United States as some kind of expert in continental theories of media, science and technology. What ultimately happened was a bit different. I've dveloped a more complicated sense of the polyvalent currents, trends, and tensions underway in these contexts and theoretical communities. My essay “From Information Theory to French Theory” hinted at this emerging conception by considering the development of a handful of post-WW2 philosophical and technological concepts according to a multinational, multidisciplinary disposition of researchers, institutions, and technologies. The title of my forthcoming essay, "La cybernétique 'américaine' au sein du structuralisme 'français'" also hints at that kind of transnationalist conception.

Those kinds of reflections, as well as an ongoing dialogue I've had with film theorist Lisa  Åkervall  about the vexed relationships between film theorists and media theorists in Germany, inspired a workshop proposal I recently helped put together for 2013 meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Dr. Akervall--who is herself Austrian and Swedish and has studied in Germany as well as the United States and Austria--and I assembled a group of colleagues to discuss current and emerging questions in German and American media theory. Rather than simply frame it in terms of an American/German dialogue, we also focused on tensions and divisions that “German” media theory created internal to Germanophone universities and disciplines. We consider how those tensions have gradually given way to a reformulation of the relationship among terms such as culture/technique, aesthetics/technology, media/film, and of course “German”/“American.”The workshop is composed of scholars who have taught or studied in both the United States and Germany, and whose—if my experience is at all exemplary—multi-national itineraries productively shuffle and inform their thought on the terms, problems, and oppositions emerging in contemporary film and media theory. It's an exciting group of scholars, not all of whom I've met in person, and I hope the workshop is accepted, if only to further my own thoughts through dialogue with them and the audience.


The proposal—co-authored by Dr. Åkervall and myself—is below.



New Intersections in German and American Media Theory:

Beyond the Aesthetics-Technology Dichotomy


Workshop Summary:

Aesthetics or Technology? Kultur or Technik? Since the mid-1980s these questions were among the methodological foci that divided the anthropocentrism of Anglophone cinema and media studies from the technophilia of German media theory. Despite the moniker “German,” so-called German media theory likewise created new divisions within the Germanophone university, where film theorists' preference for aesthetic inquiry often put them at odds with the technologically-oriented media theory exemplified by Friedrich Kittler and his associates.


Yet in the past decade a reconceptualization of the oppositions associated with German media theory has taken place. German-speaking film theorists such at Ute Holl and the late Miriam Hansen contributed towards the development of “media aesthetics,” while German theorists such as Christian Kassung and Bernhard Siegert turned towards the concept of Kulturtechnik to bring cultural analysis into the study of media and technology. In the English-speaking world theorists such as Mark Hansen and John Durham Peters likewise redeployed the preoccupations of German media theory around the cultural and artistic status of cinema and media.


This workshop, composed exclusively of scholars that have worked in both German and American universities, will offer reflections and instigate dialogue on current problems emerging at the intersections of German and American media theory. Chair Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan will guide these scholars and the audience in a vibrant and speculative discussion on the stakes of media and aesthetics at the transatlantic crossroads of German and Anglo-American theory today. Film theorist Lisa Akervall will discuss how to displace the oppositions of technology and aesthetics that once divided German film and media theories. Media theorist Rembert Hueser will discuss how technical images embedded within cinema upset traditional distinctions among film and media theory. Inga Pollmann will turn to the role of “life” in German and American film and media theory to discuss the possibility of a vitalist conception that incorporates the problem of aesthetics into technological and medial analysis. Mark Hansen of Duke University will discuss the place media aesthetics may play in elaborating future transatlantic dialogues in media philosophy. Laura Frahm of Harvard University will examine Max Bense's “information aesthetics” as a resource for rethinking the relations among cinema, technology, and aesthetics.



Media theory, aesthetics, technology



Hansen, Mark B. N. “Media Theory.” Theory, Culture and Society 23, no. 2–3 (2006): 297–306.

Hansen, Miriam. “Why Media Aesthetics?” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 391–395.

Siegert, Bernhard. “The Map Is the Territory.” Radical Philosophy, no. 169 (October 2011): 13–16.



Chair: Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

Bio: Dr. Geoghegan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He received a dual PhD in Media Studies from Northwestern University (USA) and Bauhaus University (Germany) and has held fellowships and teaching positions at Harvard University, the American University of Paris, the Pompidou Center, and MIT. His publications have appeared in journals including Critical Inquiry, Anthropologie des Connaissances, and the Annals on the History of Computing.


Speaker: Lisa Åkervall

Talk: Aesthetics and Technology in Film and Media Theory

Bio: Dr. Akervall is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Film Studies at the Free University in Berlin and a member of the “Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits” research center. She received her PhD in Film Studies from Free University Berlin. Her Anglophone publications include “Cinema, Affect and Vision” published in Rhizomes and “Character-Witness, Actor-Medium” in the edited collection Acting in Moving Image Culture. Bodies, Screens, and Renderings.


Speaker: Rembert Hueser

Talk: Importing Technical Images

Bio: Professor Rembert Hueser teaches in Moving Image Studies at the University of Minnesota. He studied cultural studies and media studies in Germany and the United States and has been a fellow at the Center for the Research of Media and Cultural Communication at the University of Cologne. He has published numerous articles on the history of German media studies, film and installation art, and opening title sequences.


Speaker: Inga Pollmann

Talk: The Concept of Life at the Crossroads of Film and Media Theory

Bio: Inga Pollmann received her Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill. She works on the history of film theory, intersections of film, science and philosophy, and the place of the moving image within aesthetic theory. She has written essays on Dziga Vertov, Hans Richter, Jakob von Uexküll, and the notion of Stimmung in and for the cinema, and is working on a book project on conceptions of life and film theory.


Speaker: Mark Hansen

Talk: Media Aesthetics

Bio: Professor Hansen teaches at Duke University. He studied literature, philosophy, and media in Germany and the United States. He has published four books as well as numerous articles on these topics. His current book draws on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead to consider the problem of digital media and embodiment.


Speaker: Laura Frahm

Talk: Cybernetic Aesthetics

Bio: Dr. Frahm is an assistant professor at Harvard University. She received her PhD from the Humboldt University in Berlin. Among her publications on film and media theory are her monographs Jenseits des Raums. Zur filmischen Topologie des Urbanen and Bewegte Räume. Zur Konstruktion von Raum in Videoclips von Jonathan Glazer, Chris Cunningham, Mark Romanek und Michel Gondry.




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