On Siegert's "Cultural Techniques" and Sprenger's "Medien des Immediaten"

Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors and Other Articulations of the Real

I wrote book reviews of Bernhard Siegert's forthcoming "Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors and Other Articulations of the Real" and of Florian Sprenger's "Medien des Immediaten. Elektrizität, Telegraphie, McLuhan" for the forthcoming issue of PARAGRAPH. It was a pleasure to be able to contribute something to this great journal, and also to comment on trends in germanophone media studies for Edinburgh University Press, which has done so much in recent years to put cutting edge conceptual work before anglophone readers. I'm also pleased to review something coming out from Fordham, another press championing pathbreaking publications and translations. The late Helen Tartar championed publication of this book by Siegert and perhaps this review can serve as a small tribute to her important and enduring legacies in critical thought.

Writing a book review is tricky, all the more so when you know the authors. However, my goal was not to provide a transcendent "view from nowhere" report but rather to say something about these books, where they fit into some discussions, what distinguishes them, and what questions remain to be asked. For that kind of undertaking, I think my conversations with Florian and Bernhard served to help me say more. It's my hope that the review offers a decent overview of some emerging problematics in media theory, media history, and their relationship to what Guattari termed the postmedia condition. The final draft of the review is significantly longer and also includes useful footnotes. If you're interested in what you read here, I strongly encourage you to get access to the final text from PARAGRAPH this fall, as well as the books themselves. The deeper, more detailed aspects of my critical engagement are reserved for print. And for some English translations of excerpts from Sprenger's book, visit http://bernardg.com/blog/florian-sprenger-media-immediacy .

 

Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors and Other Articulations of the Real, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), pp. 288.

Florian Sprenger, Medien des Immediaten: Elektrizität, Telegraphie, McLuhan (Berlin: Kadmos, 2012), pp. 514.

…introduction concerning Nietzsche and the untimely not included—see forthcoming issue of Paragraph for full text…

An appealing aspect of Bernhard Siegert’s Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors and Other Articulations of the Real and Florian Sprenger’s Medien des Immediaten: Elektrizität, Telegraphie, McLuhan (Media of Immediacy: Electricity, Telegraphy, McLuhan) is their militant untimeliness. First, although both books might be received in American and British markets as new additions to the German brand of media- archaeological discourse, it’s doubtful that either author would show much interest in this trendy designation. Siegert presents his book as a contribution to the field of cultural techniques (Kulturtechniken), a recent germanophone specialization in media and cultural studies dedicated to studying how signs, technology, and practice consolidate into durable cultural forms. Although Sprenger shows strong interest in cultural-technical research, his book shows more allegiance to the historical epistemology of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and the poetics of knowledge developed by Joseph Vogl. In the hands of Siegert and Sprenger, these methods offer a critical alternative to media archaeology as it developed in the mid-period work of Friedrich Kittler and more recently in the work of Wolfgang Ernst. Against the media-archaeological determinations of an episteme founded on a well-defined technological a priori, Siegert and Sprenger offer micro-analyses of technology and practice ‘in action’, to borrow a phrase from an author cited prominently in both books, Bruno Latour.

Another untimely aspect of these books is the authors’ relative disinterest in contemporary or recent media technologies. References made to digital media seem cursory, at best. Other recognizable media platforms from the last century such as broadcasting and cinema do not feature prominently. The notable exceptions in Sprenger seem to prove the point: he offers more than a hundred formidable pages dedicated to telegraphy, yet the actual telegraphic device that sits on a desk and sends signals is almost entirely absent from his account. Instead, Sprenger examines the experimental, legal, corporate and juridical networks that confer technical stability on that apparatus. Likewise, the one hundred and fifty pages Sprenger devotes to Elektrizität focus on the difficult labour of designing apparatuses and theories capable of defining this elusive force. Rather like Kafka’s Odradek, ‘media’ as understood by Sprenger and Siegert refers to a liminal force that lays down distinctions and boundaries while itself eluding those distinctions.

Becoming-outmoded should not be mistaken for becoming irrelevant: the persistence of untimely and archaic notions is among the major motifs of Sprenger’s Media of Immediacy.He investigates how the basic fact of communication—that is, that things in one place seem to reappear in another—has presented a philosophical conundrum since antiquity. Sprenger joins Plato’s early suspicions of media supplementation to Aristotle’s insistency on the necessity of mediation and modulation in all physical things to establishes a paradox in Western thought: the desire for im-media-cy drives the development of technologies of media-tion. This conundrum, formulated as a paradox, is wrapped in an additional veil of mystery: successful communications raise the spectre of a something appearing in multiple places at once, thereby calling into question the very identity of that which is communicated. Sprenger restores to these mundane facts of communication the force of philosophical and scientific anxiety they excited for centuries across Western European and North American salons and laboratories. In analyses of electricity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century as well as telegraphy in the nineteenth century, Sprenger demonstrates how the paradoxes of communication generate occult and irrational notions within science and engineering. According to Sprenger, the desire for immediacy leads individuals to suppress or ignore the material conditions of mediation. Sprenger sees the culmination of this trend in Marshall McLuhan’s mystically inflected vision of a ‘global village’ united by electrical communications.

Sprenger is at his best in his lengthy examinations of the Wissensordnungen or knowledge-dispositions embedding early experiments in electricity and telegraphy. Although historians such as David Nye and Carolyn Marvin have already examined aspects of electricity and the technological sublime from various points of view, Sprenger eschews their concern for popular culture in favour of tracing out the material logics that develop among laboratories, instruments, physical theories and patents. The major bookends for his analysis are, on the one hand, early modern wonder within early modern scientific experimentation and the aforementioned media mysticism of Marshall McLuhan.

…elaboration not included—see Paragraph for full text of review…

Bernhard Siegert’s Cultural Techniques collects essays published between 2001 and 2011 that illustrate his distinct approach to research in the broader field of cultural techniques (Kulturtechniken). These essays examine diverse dispositions of signs, techniques, and practices that mediate and distinguish cultural oppositions such human/animal, self/other, and signal/noise. Siegert is primarily interested in instances of communication, filtering, and modulation as they happen beyond well-defined media technologies. For Siegert, legal testaments, drafting techniques, and table manners are among the cultural techniques that he suggests offer insights into media history.

Siegert categorizes his case studies as investigations into ‘the materiality of the signifier’, a term he borrows from Lacan. He also includes numerous citations to the other founding fathers of francophone structuralism, Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss. It’s clear why he finds such inspiration in these sources, as few theorists offered such powerful conceptual armaments for reducing vast cultural complexity to elementary, machine-like diagrams of opposition and distinction. Yet the vast and sprawling networks of machines and codes that cut across language, word, body and object in this book seem more reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari, who argued that the despotic logocentricism of the Lacanian signifier must be toppled to allow for the articulation of transversal chains cutting across animal, plant, tool, and human. The bold notion at the centre of this book—that cultural techniques articulate the real (as opposed to the symbolic or the imaginary)—illustrates this post-Lacanian embrace of asignifying and non-linguistic elements as active elements within cultural order. For example, in an extended meditation on table manners in chapter two, titled ‘Eating Animals-Eating God-Eating Man’, Siegert writes, ‘sharing the meal is not a conventional sign but a symbol in the real’. Exchange, belonging, and participation are fundamental determinations lodged within the cultural techniques of eating that actually dispose real things in the world, rather than signs referring to those things. A few of Siegert’s other examples of cultural techniques include philosophers’ oppositions between human and animal speech (‘Parlêtres’, chapter three), seafaring practices (‘Medusas of the Western Pacific’, chapter four), and drafting techniques (‘(Not) in Place’, chapter six).

A common thread in these case studies is boundaries that put the essence of human identity into question by confronting it with a form of alterity that must be incorporated, expelled, or bought into uneasy cohabitation. To be more precise and technical about it, Siegert’s case studies suggest that human being (Dasein) articulates through a strife inherent in the play ontological difference. This strife demands the construction of distinctions that articulate human identity and cultural differences. Siegert assigns the name ‘cultural techniques’ to this production and maintenance of difference.

The great phantasm of untimeliness haunting Siegert’s book is different in kind from that of Sprenger: At its core, Siegert’s work is a study of techniques of synchronization and desynchronization among cultures, spaces, and species, including occidental and oriental difference (‘Cacography or Communication’, chapter one), legitimate and illegitimate subjects of the state (‘Pasajeros a Indias’, chapter five) and the distinctions between humans and their animal counterparts (‘Parlêtres’, chapter three). In each instance, the deployment of cultural techniques to produce identity in one group simultaneously produces desynchronization vis à vis the excluded group. This synchronization of desynchronization always relies on a third term, namely the cultural-technical apparatus responsible for its maintenance and reproduction. This style of analysis suggests that well-maintained untimeliness is the condition of possibility for human being. It also sets Siegert’s work off from an earlier iteration of apocalyptic media theory that warned of global cybernetic technologies gradually effacing all traces of human cultural singularity. The histories sketched by Cultural Techniques suggest that every technical advance consolidates and reproduces new ensembles of cultural difference. Here, life itself is lodged within a system of differences that defy resolution and remain perpetually open to strategic redistribution.

…elaboration not included—see Paragraph for full text of review…

I would like to note by way of conclusion that, in at least one sense, that, in spite of their salutary untimeliness, in certain respects these are profoundly timely books: their patient attention to forgotten technologies, neglected instruments, and antiquated epistemologies offers a vision of mediation in the wild, before that strange historical interregnum known as ‘the mass media’ divided communication into three or four major platforms. Siegert’s and Sprenger’s histories invite us to inhabit worlds where micro-techniques structure every local interaction, often with global implications for culture and power. As such, both of these books prove invaluable for reflecting on the post-media conditions of the twenty-first century. As digital convergence fractures a few distinct media into hundreds of devices, thousands of channels, and millions of ‘apps’, traditional histories of radio, television and film seem ever more untimely. The methodologies of Sprenger and Siegert provide ample resources for delineating this emerging horizon of mediation without media.

...citations and other supplementary material not included--see Paragraph for full text of review...