[Journalism] From Media History to zeitkritik_Wolfgang Ernst_Humboldt University.Germany
Wolfgang Ernst, Professor of Media Theories at the Humboldt University in Berlin, has become known through his work on media archaeology. Hence the inclusion of this translation represents an alternative take on cultural techniques. It places the legacy of cultural studies, or Kulturwissenschaften, in an interesting tension with the different epistemological demands that technical media impose. After Vico and Dilthey, argues Ernst, we need to investigate the specific modes of knowledge that technical media propose to cultural techniques. Ernst’s media archaeology and the slightly different approach to cultural techniques found in some other contributions in this issue can be seen as two of the most intriguing ways in which current German media studies has been developing in relation to Friedrich Kittler’s impact. For Ernst, this has resulted in a more technical focus and also in the development of critiques of temporality that go beyond media history. Ernst argues that media temporality is not to be understood only through the cultural history of media technologies, but also how media technologies produce time. Machines have their own specific temporality, Eigenzeit. It is in this context that the article discusses the different approaches to cultural techniques, taking into consideration the specific time-critical and epistemic implications of technical media.
cultural history, cultural techniques, epistemology, media, media archaeology, media
The present article does not primarily focus on the alliances and distinctions between cultural theory [Kulturwissenschaft] and media studies [Medienwissenschaft] as academic disciplines, but rather questions the discursive mode that spans both subjects: the historical inquiry into the things that shape culture.1 Technical media are neither the apex nor the driving force of culture, but rather a constitutive element of its history. Consequently, the history of media must be written as a history of cultural techniques. Media are a part of cultural history and culture can be read as a function of media history. Both forms of history share a common focus in the concept of ‘cultural techniques’. Epistemologically speaking, this is a rather harmless claim. after all, the humanities have learned to look at matters historically and render them as history(ies) ever since Vico and Dilthey. As long as there is agreement on this point, defining media history in terms of cultural history and cultural history as a media effect will always be mutually implicit. The question still remains whether there is anything about technical media that eludes the realm of history, its narrative model or even, ultimately, culture itself. To a certain extent, it seems obvious that all media innovations are culturally determined – a premise culminating in the new historicist view that affirms both the textuality of history and the historicity of texts. But this chiastic historical model calls for a supplement: the assumption of an inner logic of media development that literally introduces a third element to the Promethean dichotomy of culture and nature
Anything and everything associated with the term ‘media’ can, of course, be included in the discursive framework of cultural history. That inclusion, however, would jeopardize the accuracy of a term that refuses to label anything and everything as media, but rather seeks to account for discontinuities, in order to grasp media-epistemological escalations (Bachelard, 1974; Canguilhem, 1979). Michel Serres distinguishes between techniques and technologies – a distinction which also applies to the difference between cultural techniques and media technologies. He contrasts the ‘hard’ machinery of the Industrial Revolution, functioning on the basis of thermodynamics, with the ‘soft’ negentropy of information technology: ‘I therefore reserve the term “technology” for those types of artefacts that negotiate signs – and thus the logos – and contrast them with “techniques”, whose energetic scope is 1016 times higher’ (Serres, 2002: 194). Speaking of the frequent confusion between the stroboscope and the afterimage effect in the transmission of visual perception, Bernhard Siegert stresses ‘how fundamentally the media-theoretical discourse is in need of a media-historical framework of analysis to match media’s inherently high physical and mathematical standards’ (Siegert, 1996: 8). And, indeed, the history of knowledge and technology serves as a necessary test for all media theories. But media archaeology does not merely reconstruct historical media practices; it also reflects on their timebuilding, chronopoetic processes – thereby raising a challenge to history.
Cultural History with Media History – A Liaison Dangereuse
The field of Medienwissenschaft also fulfils, at many universities, the function of Kulturwissenschaft, or else works in close cooperation with it (Dotzler, 2005). This privileged proximity is rooted in the fact that both disciplines (in contrast, for instance, to what is known as ‘cultural studies’) deal not merely with the discursive software of culture, but also with its material hardware. But while Kulturwissenschaft prefers to read media techniques as a function of historical processes, media archaeology takes the opposite perspective: here the model of history itself appears as a function of cultural (symbolic and signal-based) operations.
To this day, the field of Medienwissenschaft draws on the resources ofbcultural history, which emerged in the 19th century both as an academic practice and a research dispositif. This is precisely why it is vital to analyse the media-based conditions of such a large-scale, worldwide labour of collecting, archiving or museumizing. So, for example, the postal system (transmission) and the archive (storage) became conjoined when Erich Moritz von Hornbostel ordered Edison cylinders with musical recordings from all over the world for his Berlin phonographic archive, with the idea of developing the field of comparative ethnomusicology (Klotz, 1998). The notion of culture that governed the projects involved in collecting knowledge around 1900 had become identical to the storage media it generated. In its materiality, culture thus reveals itself as an object of research for the study of storage and transmission techniques. Chronology, diplomacy, epigraphy, genealogy, heraldry, numismatics, palaeography, sphragistics, historical cartography: these so-called ancillary disciplines of history, which identify and analyse their objects with regard to their usability as cultural data storage devices, acquire the status of media archaeology avant la lettre and are intimately connected with the category of Kulturwissenschaft. As a result, culture becomes calculable; it is a function of mnemonic strategies and transmission techniques, as well as their respective institutions.
The analysis of media techniques and material culture is a joint endeavour of Kulturwissenschaft and Medienwissenschaft. Marshall McLuhan famously analysed the psycho-technical effects of media as operators in the cultural matrix. But what happens if such media technologies no longer operate in the familiar context of culture but form a world in their own right? A notable difference between Kulturwissenschaft, on the one hand, and Medienwissenschaft, on the other, lies in the fact that the former is primarily interested in discourses, while the latter places a much stronger focus on non-discursive aspects. In contrast to the field of Kulturwissenschaft, which tends to interpret experimental arrangements as semantic spaces, media archaeology (much like Gaston Bachelard’s epistemology) seeks to maintain spaces of contingency (see also Rheinberger, 2001). The cultural techniques that generate discourses are precisely those that are not already discursive effects. The inquiry into what constitutes ‘existential’ historical differences – so to speak – sets the study of cultural techniques apart from the kind of cultural research that not only carries ‘media’ in its name but also engages with media’s intrinsic perspective and specific inner temporality 134 Theory, Culture & Society 30(6)[Eigenzeit] in a kind of reverse hermeneutical move. On the one hand, this means programmatically positioning media theories within concrete spaces of cultural practices. However, media archaeology is not to be confused with Kulturwissenschaft. Writing, reading, counting, networking and representing are symbolic techniques which generate culture as a recurring and normative formation. They transform a priori concepts of space and time into an analysis of concrete spatial and temporal systems. Media archaeology does not conduct this analysis on the level of macrocultural production, but rather on the level of micro-technical operativity. In contrast to Kulturwissenschaft, which starts from grand narratives (histories of culture, science or even knowledge) to arrive at concrete particulars, media archaeology operates on the assumption that technological media systems can be understood primarily and conclusively on the basis of their elementary, sub-semantic procedures. This type of analysis, which understands material, symbolic and signal-based operators as escalations of classical cultural techniques, requires a theory of genuine media-temporal processes.