Challenges of Media Anthropology

Media anthropology is generally understood, especially in the Anglo-American realm, as the investigation of different forms of media appropriations and media usages across cultures, sub-cultures, or societies, including of course the medial practices of anthropological research itself. However, as relevant as such topics are, they raise a host of much bigger and more complex issues that urgently demand careful theoretical interrogation.

Within the realm of media studies, the position of what used to be called “the human” is both delicate and highly disputed. On the one hand, some theorists challenge the validity of the very category of “the human” and thereby also the conceptual and empirical foundations of the above-mentioned approaches. According to the basic concepts of radical materialist media theory and media archeology—perhaps most paradigmatically in the work of Friedrich Kittler—the “so-called human being” is manifest, if at all, only as an epiphenomenal effect. In this view, time will ultimately expose the fundamental contingency of the construction of “the human,” as Michel Foucault insisted with his famous image of the footprint on the beach that is washed away by the next wave. For media theory, there is no such thing as human exceptionality—no “soul,” no “spirit,” no “ingenuity,” no “inventiveness,” no “intelligence” that could not be described either as the product of discursive, epistemic and laboratory practices, or as technically reproducible by means of implemented mathematics. Nevertheless, there are elements of media theory and philosophy, even in some of its most advanced forms, that remain haunted by the shadow of the—now forbidden—anthropological question. Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, this anti-anthropological move was preceded and paralleled by the rejection of explicitly anthropological positions in works of post-Nietzschean modern philosophy by authors as diverse as Theodor W. Adorno and Martin Heidegger.

On the other hand, certain key positions of early media theory, as exemplified in the work of Marshall McLuhan, are purely anthropological in character, as evidenced in the primordial mutual involution of the human and the technological, in McLuhan’s conception of media as extended perception, and, from a more global perspective, in his gestures towards the different functions of technical media in non-Western cultures and traditions. Anthropological concerns also emerge as a less explicit but underlying concern of 20th-century philosophy, as manifest in the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the philosopher of media Günter Anders. In philosophical terms, it has even been argued that non-anthropocentric thinking is simply impossible.

Recent developments such as global migration and ecological catastrophe demand that one rethink human existence as regards its forms, terms, operations, as well as its conditions and situatedness. This in turn makes imperative a reconsideration of the relation between the human and media. Yet the urgent contemporary discussion of “the Anthropocene” largely ignores the function of media and of technologies in general as co-agents in their own right. Important media-anthropoligical questions are also raised by the renewed debates on the relevance and reason of human and animal rights and the recurring concern in popular culture with the human in relation to machines, programs, robot technologies and other humanoid artifacts. In these contexts theoretical models of “symmetrical” (Bruno Latour) or “non-anthropic” anthropology (Robert Welsch) seem deeply appropriate, yet nevertheless fail to address the mediatic grounds on which any relational anthropology would have to take place.

Based on the premise that there is no human without media, the seventh annual Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies will focus on the diverse forms and operations of the coupling, the co-agency and the co-evolution of humans and media instead of their traditional distinction and separation. The conceptual challenges posed by such questions of human-media relatedness will be examined along four loosely defined sets of concerns:

1. Concepts and theories: How does the philosophical tradition conceive of the (non-)human and how is it conceptualized in media theory and related fields? Are there theoretical models that might contribute to an understanding of the reciprocally co-constitutive character of human existence and mediatic operations and orderings?

2. Knowledge production: How did and how does the shaping of the (non-)human work in experimental physiology, recent neurology, paleoanthropology, and other sciences? In their wake, how are specific technologies of observation and inscription involved in the production of what then is called “the human”?

3. Practices: In light of questions posed by “visual/sensory anthropology,” how are we to conceive of media in ethnography or, conversely, the ethnography of media? How do human-media interrelations generate sensorial activity and vice versa?

4. Aesthetics: How do media cooperate in the perception, representation, reproduction and experience of the (non-)human, and with what effects? How are the realms of aesthetics and aesthetic experience linked to the intertwined and mutually generating categories of the human and media?