Monday, 5 September 2011

The gay science of Media Archaeology

The influence of German media theory --or what could partly be called the "gay science" of 1980s media archaeology (these are Bernhard Siegert's words)-- to American discussions is of major interest to a wider range of theoretical debates. Digital Humanities is (=should be) one of these, in it's insistence to bridge art and science-knowledge. In this context, John Durham Peters' text "Strange Sympathies: Horizons of Media Theory in America and Germany" is of great us. In short, it outlines through a comparative perspective and through two key figures (James Carey and Friedrich Kittler) some of the peculiarities of both traditions. What we get in Peters' text is an insightful mapping of some of the debates why things have picked up - and not. It chooses to try to synchronize some of the ideas that at times stand way apart, but in a historical fashion.

Indeed, what Peters is able to show is how the differences are not matters of merely translation and language - but the wider academic background from which ideas come from. Suffice to quote him in full:

"The standards in German media scholarship are so much higher - in terms of knowledge of languages, history of science and technology, philosophy, the arts, and literature - that I sometimes despair of German media theory ever fully crossing the Atlantic. Bernhard Siegert's splendid Passage des Digitalen, for instance, provides quotations in seven languages and features mathematical equations; American publishers I have tried to interest in its translation tend to quiver in fear. Doctoral students in the United States in media studies are generally expected to be publishing three or four years after the bachelor's degree, and many of them barely learn to read another language, let alone mathematics, history, philosophy, physics, literature, or programming. However iconoclastic Kittler may seem, he is a traditional Ordinarius in his deep and deeply footnoted command over a domain of learning."

And yet, the recent years of American media theory - platform studies, software studies, computer forensics - have been able to offer their own exciting further-development of some media materialist themes. Some of these have been insisting on a fuller understanding of the scientific basis through which humanities can really be become particular - not by distancing but engaging head on. The take on "revisiting humanities" that Peters maps as one of the useful legacies of German theory is something that Digital Humanities seems to want to do -- and with an emphasis on digital, computing tools, but the epistemological consequences and field is much deeper than tools. To follow Peters's reasoning, reading Kittler, we have a long tradition of science-arts collaboration, and quantification as part of what the humanities is about. Perhaps it was only because of the birth of social sciences and such, as part of biopolitical regimes of national modernity since the 19th century that gave such a bad name to quantification (and which scholars like Latour are trying to salvage with help from Gabriel Tarde). Indeed, a critique of "language/meaning/interpretation-only humanities" (such as Gadamer) has become a stock in trade part of material critique of some humanities (I myself have carried my own arguments into that debate of "against interpretation, against Gadamer", but in Finnish mostly).

Peters writes:
"The split of Geist and Natur, even when it produced some compelling accounts of the uniquely humane office of language, literature, and history by figures such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Hannah Arendt, ultimately impoverishes self-knowledge among us humanoids. There is no human world without a medium: whether the body, the voice, the text, or the computer screen, there's always a medium with its carrying capacities and standards. Human life is mediated - by nature, medicine, texts, buildings, lenses, hearing aids, digital bits, not to mention drugs, food, climates, water supplies, microbes, and other people."

Despite the shortcomings of various theorists, for instance Kittler, of not addressing gender, being disinterested in political economy, and often being a bit too much at home in the conservative political camp, some of the inspiration of the approaches is still for me, exactly as Siegert flags it, "gay science": exciting, fresh, and different.

(note: Siegert talks of media archaeology as gay science in the 2007 translated, Winter 2008 issue of Grey Room. The article is called "Cacography or Communication?" and is translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young).

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