An Introduction to Kulturtechnik: American Liberalism as a Cultural Technology

Jussi Parikka, my former colleague in Weimar Ilinca Iuraşcu, and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young are editing an issue of Theory, Culture & Society dedicated to Kulturtechnik. What is Kulturtechnik? One of my German friends described as a way to do German media theory while also "talking about people." This could be parsed in the term itself, which conjoins culture (Kultur) with a word that may designate techniques, technologies, or technics (Technik). In research on Kulturtechnik, culture and technology are generally taken to have a mutually constitutive relationship. Technology is taken to be a strategic assembly of practices, instruments, media forms, and perhaps rituals. This project is aided by the fact that, unlike English, the German term Technik doesn't immediately parse human actions (techniques) from non-human actors (technologies). The fact that both are already brought together in some strategic and historical disposition (technics) is assumed within the word itself. I'm preparing an essay for their volume, based on my previous work on "the technologies of liberalism." Below is the abstract for my essay. I've also attached a PDF of collection of essays on Kulturtechnik recently edited by Lorenz Engell and Bernhard Siegert. From what I understand, some those essays may reappear in translation the TC&S issue.


An Introduction to Kulturtechnik: American Liberalism as a Cultural Technology

Humans or machines? Discourse or hardware? Since the mid-1980s these were the methodological questions that divided the anthropocentrism of Anglo-American cultural studies from the technophilia of German media theory. However in the past decade an emerging field of research known as Kulturtechnik—which may be translated as cultural technologies or cultural techniques—has deconstructed these oppositions. By rereading the media theoretical approach associated with Friedrich Kittler through the analytic frameworks of actor-network theory and the ethnographic methodology of Marcel Mauss, theorists of Kulturtechnik have developed a non-anthropocentric epistemology that is equally attentive to the role of human techniques and material technologies in constituting cultural form and practice. Despite the successful institutionalization of Kulturtechnik in Germanophone universities' departments and curricula, and its complementarity to a host of non-humanisms developing in Europe and North America, this methodology remains largely unknown outside the German-speaking world.


This paper introduces the conceptual and methodological frameworks of Kulturtechnik through a re-interpretation of American liberalism (ca. 1790-1900). Classical theories classified liberalism as a style of economic and political association founded upon the reason and consent of autonomous, self-possessing individuals. This emphasis on the rights and autonomy of human individuals furnished opponents of state tyranny and coercion with a powerful device for rhetorical critique. However it also tended to produce a vision of society as what William James once termed a "congeries of solipsisms,” wherein each mind was aimlessly adrift from the next.


Drawing on recent research in Kulturtechnik, I argue for a reconceptualization of liberalism as a “cultural technology of synchronization.” According to this interpretation, American liberalism shifted the task of binding and regulating the body politic from the sovereign and the state to private networks of communication including the press, interstate commerce, and political meeting. A strategic assembly of instruments, techniques, and rights ordered individuals' associations. Through considerations of the essential role played by the printing press, canals, and railways, I demonstrate how technical media were coextensive with the form of liberal politics and content of liberal reason. The resulting analysis offers an historical and ethnographic account of liberalism as a hybrid form of political life based on the strategic association of human and non-human actors.