Start Making Sense?

The Question of Interpretation under the Condition of Technology’s Ongoing Provocation

Hardware oriented media studies often posit a ‘technological’ or ‘medial’ a priori. Claiming that there is “no software” (Friedrich Kittler) this approach holds that “all social, cultural, and epistemological structures are the effect of the changing technological means of mediation“ (Geoffrey Winthrop-Young). This polemical claim has been accused of technological determinism and it implies that autonomous categories such as human agency, subjectivity or psychology, which have traditionally been at the core of classical humanities, should be treated only as dependent variables of media dispositives.

Starting in the 1980s, Friedrich Kittler spearheaded the study of technology as something that did not simply restrict consciousness and the autonomy of the classical subject, but constituted (archaeologically) the core of the subject and (apocalyptically) its future fate. Kittler’s intervention bears a historical signature in two regards: To begin with, his work joined a larger contemporaneous theoretical enterprise in criticizing the priority of interpretation within the humanities. At the same time, however, he attacked Michel Foucault’s concept of a “historical a priori” for failing to address the material substrate that provides the possibility of storing, transmitting, and processing information. Kittler furthermore denounced Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction as mere exegesis that is ultimately unable to grasp the material and technological preconditions of writing. The historical setting of Kittler’s approach is also evident in the inspiration he took from the computer and hacking culture of the early 1980s. His study thereby took its model from the hands-on experience of those directly interacting with the technological substratum.

By now, this “hacking of German literary studies” (Claus Pias) has been transformed under the influence of Simondon, Actor-Network-Theory, STS, the new materialisms in social anthropology and gender studies into much more network-like, processual and practice-oriented notions of mediality by the next generation of German and Anglo-American Media Scholars. Thus, the question of how “media technology determines our situation” (Kittler) seems to lose its institutional und discoursive place.

However, faced with the “big data” obsession of the new governmental-media-industrial complex, the ongoing coupling of technology with written and visual arts, and the impact of communications media on the social, knowledge, war, and politics in general, it remains a pressing task for the humanities to address technology – including the technicity of their own methods and procedures. Nevertheless, technology-focused as well as technologically-assisted approaches to the classical objects of the humanities are still met with considerable resistance. Digital Humanities, to name a prominent case, is for many precisely not part of humanistic studies.

Therefore it is obvious that the relationship between the humanities and technology urgently needs to be reviewed anew both in archaeological and methodological ways. As for the archaeological perspective, one can easily show that the confrontation between humanities and technology developed only in the early 19th century. When the term “technology” was invented by the German economist Johann Beckmann in 1777, it meant the knowledge of the technical production of useful things without making a distinction between the products of mental and physical labor. As for the methodological perspective it becomes more and more clear that the concept of interpretation, instead of being discarded, is in need of a redefinition which takes into account limits, interruptions, disruptions, and empty spaces of sense-making.

The sixth installment of the Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies will raise the question of how to address interpretation and technicity without falling back into old dichotomies, that is, from the vantage point of a media studies beyond the traditional notions of humanities and technology. Is it possible to understand technology? Is it possible to conceive of a non-human agency of understanding? Can machines/animals/materials interpret our Dasein? How can we understand our own reading if reading is no more an exclusively human activity? What is the difference between writing and implementation? What are the “objects” that we should address and analyze as “technical objects” (Simondon)? The summer school will map out approaches to technology from the point of view of a posthumanistic study of media culture. Of particular interest are two paradigms: The analysis of actual media usage, and the study of cultural techniques, which connects to the archaeology of the humanities-technology-relationship by studying the material operations that are (though often suppressed) at the basis of the arts and the concepts that formed the core of humanities.