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[nettime] The Medium is Not the Message

The Medium is Not the Message: On the Future of New Media Studies by Florian Kramer [to Graduates of The Media Department of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, September 2011]:

Dear graduates,

Let me make a wild guess: Perhaps it has become more difficult for you to say what media are – and what media studies are – than a few years ago when you began to study them. A paradox of “media” is that, in our time, they seem to be everywhere at first glance yet nowhere when it comes to critical study. Every person on the street would agree that our everyday life is permeated by electronic media, the Internet, mobile phones, electronic gadgets. Everyone is aware of their economic impact. Even the link between these communication technologies to cultural and social movements is not esoteric anymore, in the year after WikiLeaks and two days after the Pirate Party won nine percent at the state elections in Berlin. If we look at university media studies, however, we see that only few departments exist and that of those few, most are journalism or film studies departments at their core. You could even philosophically debunk and dismiss the notion of “media” itself, with its legacy of 19th century physics and outmoded concept of the ether. What exactly is a medium, as something supposedly in between a sender and a receiver, if senders and receivers are nowadays routinely included in the concept of “media”?

If you have faced these issues in your studies, you experienced first hand that the notion of media is not set in stone, but under a constant semantic shift. The implication of this is quite positive: Since “media” are always something in the making, and even something contested, you can (and inevitably have to be) their makers, and help giving them the meaning you find important. The best thing that can be said of media studies is that they carry less idealist baggage than the historically more established humanities. In their best manifestations, media studies have blurred or even removed the boundaries between theory and practice. This is even true for the so-called media theory. Benjamin, McLuhan, Enzensberger, Baudrillard, Haraway, Kittler, Manovich, Hayles – if we drop some text book names of more or less canonical media theoreticians, we see that their works are bastards: speculative, controversial, fringe and of rather dubious reputation within the larger humanities, even within media studies themselves. None of them even had media study degrees like you have. As far as I know, most of your professors here don’t have them either. (Neither do I have any such degree, by the way.)

Media studies are full of such paradoxes. Perhaps the most famous one is the sentence that institutionalized media studies, McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. If you look at it closely, then this statement is a performative contradiction much like the liar’s paradox: It uses the medium of language (or of print, here we already get into the intricacies of properly identifying a medium) to formulate a message that transcends that medium. Or, in other words: if the medium is the message, then the sentence that “the medium is the message” is an exception to that statement.

McLuhan’s historical pretext for this Zen-like and often misunderstood statement were the modern arts of the 20th century. In abstract painting, painting no longer depicts something else, but is pure painting, so the medium is the message. The same is true for sound poetry and for a text that was McLuhan’s major inspiration, James Joyce’s novel “Finnegans Wake” whose language is above all about language. But this ultimately means that in McLuhan’s media theory, the underlying message were not mass media but the modern arts.

I see an upside and downside to this theory. The problematic side is how l’art pour l’art got transformed into a paradigm of communication media: we watch TV in order to watch TV (not news, sports, drama). The “global village” that McLuhan proclaimed had, in my reading, nothing to do with today’s Internet and community media activism, it was even the opposite – the kind of community created by people around the globe sitting in front of TV and watching the Apollo moon landing. It was a deeply conservative vision of new media. Just at this time, we witness how, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, the sector of new media arts is being scrapped and redefined as “creative industries”. The same is happening in higher education. Those who deplore this should however not forget that this is just what McLuhan did in the 1960s: He was the theoretician and paid counseling guru of the creative industries of his time. He taught its executives how to learn from the modern arts. His “global village” was not a critical but a commercial vision for tv networks. A lot of media theory has been either pro-establishment or uncritical, but often in very idiosyncratic ways: If we think how Baudrillard and Enzensberger turned against their earlier Marxism or how Kittler and Sloterdijk just recently courted the German yellow press publisher Hubert Burda.

The subtext underneath these strange alliances is that media studies are the humanities discipline with the broadest impact outside its own culture. While the position of an English professor studying Shakespeare is comparatively safe and uncontroversial (even given the precarious state of the humanities), it is not of immediate interest to any political or economical party (even if it is political such as the Shakespeare philology of Stephen Greenblatt). Media studies, on the other hand, has a more widely recognized social urgency. Policy makers and industry leaders expect media studies and media arts to deliver innovative visions. (This is the reason why my own job has now been changed from teaching new media to art students to research and development for the creative industries in the Rotterdam region.) Prominent media theorists have often been to seduced into lucrative second jobs as media industry consultants and water down their critical distance – a problem even more rampant in the contemporary visual arts where often the same people work as curators, critics and consultants for private collectors.

For me, the performativity of media theory became visible after the dotcom crash in the early 2000s. Not only did Internet companies crash in America and pretty much everywhere in Western Europe. In my home country, there was also the “stupid German money” bubble, investment money that financed Hollywood B movies like “Driven” (with Sylvester Stallone) and A movies like “Gangs of New York” (by Martin Scorsese). This was only possible thanks to German government tax cut programs for investment into new media. Contrary to the Anglo-American notion of new media, the German term encompasses all electricity-driven media and thus also radio, tv and film. This difference in terminology was powerful enough to offset a few billions on the world financial markets. In the light of the financial system crisis, we can only wonder what other seemingly abstract theories created, and destroyed, market value.

The upside of this is that media studies is not on a safe ground, but risky – not just in a metaphorical, wannabe sense. Aside from this systemic aspect, there is also an individualist dimension. McLuhan institutionalized media studies as a discipline driven by passions, underground passions that never matched nominal research subject. In McLuhan’s case, avant-garde arts, for others: politics, sexuality, money, too, to name a few. In all these cases, the medium is not actually the message. What’s more, media have been and continue to be designed and tweaked to these political, sexual, economic ends. If I had the time to have a seminar with you, and not just a traditional lecture, my question to each of you would be: What is _your_ passion? How do you channel it into your media practice and theory? What drives you into a field where most of you will not have clearly predefined jobs (such as a literature graduate becoming a publisher’s editor) but where you will have to define your own profession?

I am not advocating an ideology or fetish of the “new” in “new media”. I am currently working in a project with third year Bachelor students who were born in 1990 and for whom the term “new media” makes no sense anymore. More than that, it’s obvious that the real “new media” (in the sense of contemporary, edgy, passion-driven means of communication) these days are not digital, but analog: zines, artists’ books, Super 8 films and analog photography, cassette tapes (and vinyl records to a lesser degree). They are not merely embraced in a nostalgic retro trend, but as truly self-made media whose production and social sharing escapes the control of Google, Apple and Facebook – and in this sense, they are the new ‘new media’.

If this describes the practice, what does it mean for new media studies as a critical discipline? With the exception of publications like JunkJet or BLIK (from Utrecht): What are the zines, what is the Super 8 of new media studies, metaphorically speaking? I consider this important because those media that were new ten or twenty years ago have become so conventional that they invite corresponding conventionality in criticism and scholarship.

As two paradigmatic examples, I would like to choose Apple and Wikileaks, the most successful computer and digital lifestyle company versus the Internet project that made the biggest headlines last year. On the surface, they couldn’t be more different: Here the most valuable company of the world that operates top-down and sells products, here a grassroots, non-commercial activist project. But both of them are quite similar in their reviving of classical notions of media. Apple’s business model has always been to merge media and product design: software and hardware that become one organic whole. The iPhone and iPad have perfected this as empty slates where each touchscreen app running full screen pretends to be its own medium: a camera, a map, etc. Since those media – including iTunes music and films – have been made tangible single products again, you can sell them as products, like in the 20th century. That also means that all classical categories of media criticism can safely remain in place.

Apple’s business model and media concept is easy to understand while Google’s business model of media as free networked services financed through a hidden underlying layer of commercial services is much more difficult to penetrate. Google and Facebook, however, seem to be the only companies left who can run this “new economy” business model successfully, a model that can, as it seems, be profitably run only by mono- or duopolies. This doesn’t invalid Yann Moulier Boutang’s diagnosis of “cognitive capitalism” (which he presented at the Societies of the Query conference here in Amsterdam), but relativizes it. I dare to predict that the programs of “knowledge economies” or “creative economies” will end up having a similar fate. Instead of a pure service economy with neo-colonially outsourced fabrication, there will hopefully be a return to an economy that will locally reintegrate intellectual labor and physical production.

To come back to my second example: WikiLeaks is more like Apple in the sense that it operates within a classical media paradigm, the realm of whistleblowing and mass media political journalism. For those who have seen media studies as merely a synonym of journalism studies, WikiLeaks (next to online journalism) is the godsend Internet phenomenon that fits that paradigm, and requires almost no methodological updates of mass media studies scholarship.

I have been in discussions with Geert Lovink that new media studies seem to be disappearing as a discipline of its own, and swallowed by the social sciences and cultural studies. Or perhaps they are turning again into somewhat boring journalism and communication studies. You, the graduates of this department, can change this state of affairs. Or you make the same choice made by most people working in the media field today: go into a different field of work and research to creatively apply your expertise and mindset there, like the Pirate Party is currently trying to do in politics.

So when the UvA asked me for a guest lecture on “The Future of New Media Studies”, I was not sure whether I was the right person to defend it. On top of not having a degree in media studies, I have never had a job in this discipline, but taught in a comparative literature department, then in an art school and now in a polytechnic. If the value of media theory and media studies has been, historically, to foster experimental thinking and experimental humanities, from Walter Benjamin to Wendy Chun, then the disciplinary label is of rather secondary importance. When I studied experimental humanities in the late 1980s, it was called Comparative Literature, when I went to the USA as an exchange student in the early 90s, it had become Cultural Studies, and by the early 2000s, it was new media studies. My concern at this point is that the new name will be Creative Industries.

Since part of my work is for the arts, it has been my experience that “new media” is best used as an umbrella to fit practices that misfit established disciplines. Everyone pretends to love interdisciplinarity, but once you actually try to get a job or some project funding, you will see that this far from the reality. From 2007 to 2009, I was one of four jury members for net art subsidies in Vienna, a city that still generously supports this area of artistic production and cultural activism. Again and again, we ended up subsidizing projects that were not strictly Internet art or activism, but for example film installations or sound art festivals, never mind the fact that separate city funds for film and music did exist. But the music fund would not support anything that was not a concert, and the film fund would not support anything that wasn’t a theatrical screening. If you laugh and dismiss this as conservative Austrian politics, then you should know that it’s almost the same in this innovation-loving country. For the same reason, an experimental music institute like STEIM in Amsterdam and an anarchist music/ film/ performance/ hacklab venue like WORM in Rotterdam were put into the “e-culture” sector of Dutch arts funding, and will therefore be forced to be “Creative Industries” in the future.

Let me stay with moving images for a little while. In former times, when film was synonymous with new media, experimental film and video were synonymous with media art. We not only see it in the strong film heritage of media studies, up to Lev Manovich’s “Language of New Media” in its reliance on Dziga Vertov. In the arts, an institute like Montevideo/NiMK is still a video art archive at its heart. What I have been witnessing in my own work, for example in conferences that we organized in Rotterdam, is how film culture has become conservative in the literal sense of being mostly concerned with its self-preservation. While experimental films in the 1960s such as Wilhelm and Birgit Hein’s “Rohfilm” exposed the materiality of the celluloid in order to destroy the dream factory of the mass medium, contemporary experimental film exposes the very same materiality – sprockets, grain, dust, edge lettering – as a nostalgic celebration of an analog medium that is about to disappear. (Just follow the respective discussions on analog versus digital on the “Frameworks” mailing list.) Micro cinema networks like Kino Climates see themselves as preservers of film and cinema culture. In its worst manifestations, contemporary artists books have become a graphic design genre, taught at schools like Werkplaats Typografie, celebrating the materiality of the paper book.

This brings us back to McLuhan and the medium as the message: It is a sure sign of a dead medium when a medium is fetishized for its own sake. Therefore, 20th century abstract painting was not a good model for media theory. When books are about “book culture”, then they are dead. When films are about “film culture” and film theaters about “film theater culture”, they are dead, when vinyl records are about “vinyl culture”, then they’re just zombies, zombie films are dead since they got co-opted into “b movie culture”, etc. Zines died in the 1990s when they became swallowed into the encyclopedic “zine culture” books by Factsheet Five and Re/search, and did not became alive again until they reinvented themselves as informal, ephemeral media.

Or, to express it in positive terms: A medium is alive as long as it can be quick and dirty. Wilhelm and Birgit Hein’s “Rohfilm” was such a dirty film. Therefore, it was only logical for the two filmmakers to proceed into the realms of sexuality and pornography in their later work. (I met Wilhelm Hein this weekend, so I am still under the impression.) So let’s once more radicalize the hypothesis: A medium is alive as long as it is being used for pornographic ends. This gives us pretty clear indications about the respective booms and busts of print, VHS video and DVDs, for example. Cinema is rather dead since there are no more porn cinemas. Musea, it conversely follows, are not dead media because there is still a thriving sex museum in the near neighborhood of this institute.

I am mentioning these trivia because I would like to encourage you to walk off the beaten paths (to quote the name of Wilhelm Hein’s and Annette Frick’s current zine, “Jenseits der Trampelpfade”) and beware of false trust in expertise. One example: It took me personally a long time to see that the foundations of what I had studied as structuralist literary theory were entirely speculative, and often based on false scientism. So it seems to me as if the title of this lecture, “The Future of New Media Studies”, is blatantly irrelevant to you because it is not interesting what media studies will be, but what _you_ will do and whether it will be interesting. Whether this practice will still be called “new media studies” is of secondary importance. Often enough, disciplinary specialism has just been a token of the emperor’s new clothes. For example, I am almost sure that hardly any new media studies professor actually knows the technically correct definition of “analog” and “digital”. If you need a proof, just take the popular term “Digital Humanities”. It would not exist, except as an embarrassment, if the scholars gathering around it knew more than just the colloquial notion of “digital”.

When I was a teenager in the West-Berlin of the 1980s, the most vital subcultural current were the self-acclaimed “genius dilettantes” which included the bands Die T?dliche Doris and Einst?rzende Neubauten. I sympathize with the dilettantes but less so with the romanticist legacy of the “genius”. For experimental humanities, and whatever future of new media studies under whatever name, I would like to modify this term into another paradox, the “dilettante expert”. Expertise is the classical foundation of all geekdom, whether it is encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare, of the Star Trek universe or the registers of an 8-bit controller. Dilettantism is the unavoidable condition of drawing the bigger picture. It can end up badly like with the pseudo-mathematics and pseudoscience in the books of Lacan, Kristeva, Baudrillard and Deleuze debunked by Sokal and Bricmont, especially to the extent that some of their discourse – Lacan’s in particular – lacked doubt and humbleness.

Sokal and Bricmont published “Intellectual Imposters” in 1997. Retrospectively, it seems to have marked an end of speculative cultural studies and media theory, except for shrinking niches in the contemporary arts and in political activism. And deservedly so, I would say, because you could see the grand media theorists shutting up very quickly when the new media technologies became a reality and you could no longer get away with theorizing about “virtual reality” while not being able to operate your own laptop. (For a certain period from roughly 1997 to 2007, this was the running gag of new media studies conferences.) You are among the first generations of people with postgraduate degrees in media studies who actually, pardon my French, know their shit. You are experts enough to permit yourself some dilettantism again and dare to become universalists. If this is your ambition, then my only message would be: Don’t take the medium for the message, and don’t take media studies for the message either.


Jan 11, 18:41
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