Interview with Frank Hartmann

Beyond the dualism of image and text. An interview with the Viennese media philosopher Frank Hartmann

Viennese media theorist and Internet critic Frank Hartmann recently published a book, in German, with the ambitious title “Media Philosophy”. In an e-mail exchange he told me, in moderate terms, that readers should first of all perceive the work as a school book, written for educational purposes. Published in the prestigious “red cover” UTB series, Media Philosophy seems an ideal title for media theory courses. In a few months the book has become a bestseller, Frank proudly reported. After having played down possible expectations of a Magnus Opus, it is worth mentioning that Frank Hartmann’s book indeed has a lot on offer for those interested in a continental European overview of media issues, drawn from a philosophical perspective.

Hartmann is neither a member of school of German media archeology (Friedrich Kittler) which is arguing from a techno-determinist position, nor does he want to come up with an ethic of what to do with the Human in the age of technology. Instead he likes to present an “integrative approach of media evolution”, bringing together technology and society. Drawing upon the work
of Vilem Flusser, Hartmann further develops “communicology”, an analytical approach of the “medial turn”, in which categories such as knowledge, textuality and language have become inseparable from the technologies in which they are expressed.

Written as a chronological overview, Media Philosophy starts with Descartes’ imaginary space and the birth of the modern scientific author, further on to Kant and his notion of the reflexive subject and the need for publicity, over to Herder and Humboldt, Husserl, Heidegger, Benjamin etc. Each chapter is closed with a neat summary. Interesting chapters, beyond the usual thinkers and references, for example deal with Fritz Mauthner, an early 20th century German philosopher who tried to deconstruct the “logocratic regime” of language. Unknown to me were attempts of Gottlob Frege, at the end of the 19th century, to develop a new logic sign system – a pure script of concepts, not contaminated by the dualities of meaning. Another, well written chapter interprets Otto Neurath’s system of icons as “universal code”.

It is not exaggerated to say that continental media theory, once it has positioned itself within the tradition of philosophy begins and ends with a critique of language. It is only through the language that we can access the image (Mauthner). A similar argument can be found in contemporary writings on the history of computing and the Internet, in which code-as-language is lying at the basis of all computational commands. Hartmann is not just a Eurocentric. He is well aware of the Ango-Saxon traditions, from Pierce to the Canadians Innis and McLuhan who both developed a “media theory of civilization”. Hartmann’s scope does not include the US-American mainstream communication studies. Nor did he include the more recent wave of cultural studies with its roots in critical sociology. The last chapters are surprisingly up to date and deal with Internet culture, the notion of the virtual class (Kroker/Weinstein), the emerging genre of “net criticism” and the topology of electronic space. Time to ask questions about the motives behind the making of such an ambitious overview.

GL: Frank, can you tell us about your interpretation of what “media philosophy” could be? Are you the first to use this term? Can this new discipline be studied in Vienna? Writing about technology and philosophy already has a tradition. Would the philosophical approach of media and the Internet in particular start from there?

FH: Of course there is a tradition in reflecting technology, although continental philosophy especially, tends to purify thought from all materiality. Academic philosophy never bothered too much about media, while language always was present in its discourse. Media would be the realm of aesthetics, of what affects the senses only and not logical human thought. There is this clear obsession with language, with the logocentric tradition, which also reflects the predominance of abstract codes – and therefore text – in western culture. I started to be fascinated by the critical approach of Horkheimer’s research group (later called the Frankfurt School) which in the 1930’s made the press and audiovisual media as an object of study. This social and cultural studies explicitly was put up against Heideggers approach, which concentrates on the single human situation and which is set within a rather pessimistic ‘logic of decay’. By the way, this was about the time when as an undergraduate, McLuhan studied New Criticism in England, which is the second trail leading to media philosophy.

The insecurity of western culture which intensified at the beginning of the 20th century has a lot to do with the fact that people started to be aware of how mechanical devices like the camera not only enhanced human perception, but also conquered it. With media restructuring the cultural forms of communication and the forms of reproducing knowledge in society, we witness the rearguard actions of philosophy, like analytical philosophy. As I stated in the opening passage of my book, philosophy should come up with a new approach to reflect all those changes which lead to new media, and the changes induced by media as well.

Concerning the term ‘Media Philosophy’, I think it has been around in the nineties already and it should not point towards a school of thought or the canonization of an academic discipline, but rather follow the order given by Vilém Flusser, who saw the need of ‘communicology’ as a supplement to our culture’s obsession with ‘technology’.

GL: Besides the critique of language, there is a string of theory which argues from and with images. Coming from art criticism and art practices, there is a less verbal approach which is focussed on the haptic interfaces, the way in which graphic user interfaces are working, how advertisement and images as such seduce the viewer/user. Could you fit this into your
definition of media philosophy?

FH: Yes definitely, but it is always a matter of how this criticism is done. There is the tradition of Warburg and Panofsky, relating artistic styles and cultural traditions in a new interdisciplinary framework, and there is a variety of semiotic schools… yet something seems to be missing. Did you ever notice how a lot of the semiotic interpretation presented at conferences stays purely descriptive? How all analysis ends in abstract categorizations? Or how film theory imitates the strategies of philology in an obvious urge to be academic? In most of the cases no insight is produced which would go beyond the commonsense of any witty consumer of media products. So what is really done here is not producing theory, but recoding information like transcribing visual information into an academic script. These mostly ridiculous texts, squeezed between two covers, bear the promise to provide access to knowledge otherwise not found. The questions underneath are not answered: how does an interface work? Is there an intuitive interface, beyond all the conventions? A perfect language maybe?

I believe that the text, and classical texts at that, represent but a small fraction of what former cultures dealt with as knowledge. These small textual fractions nevertheless are being fetishized as philosophy, which also faces a problem of transmission within book-culture. The discipline of media philosophy has to deal with two crucial points: first, modernity produced scientific knowledge which is too complex to be represented by texts alone. New forms of social information processing request new forms of encoding/decoding to stay functional. This is why in my book I consider Neurath, who visualized informational relations, a pioneer. Second to that, new media already start to remediate the academic discourse. Remediation is a term used by Jay Bolter to express what is happening when new media form meets the content of older media forms. We have to take this very seriously, because the computer currently is re-coding the cultural codes of reading and writing. That it to say, under new semiotic constellations we cannot produce theory in an authoritative way any more, like the academic tradition wants (and sometimes forces) us to do. New media is definitely going to break up the guild principles of knowledge reproduction within academia.

GL: For Deleuze, the philosopher works ‘alongside’ the cinema, reordening the images and signs for new purposes. Could we say that today’s philosophers are, though sympathetic to this patchwork point of view, actually more interested to work ‘inside’ the media?

FH: The problem I have with Deleuze is that he tends towards rather enigmatic writing. When I tried to read his book on Spinoza and, as the author put it: ‘le problème de l’expression’ within philosophy, I comforted myself with a sociological interpretation of this kind of writing. The exciting thing about Deleuze now, is that especially with the cinema text he was working towards a breaking point within philosophy. This has to do with the medium of philosophical expression as well. The move is documented in ‘Rhizome’, the popular first chapter of “Mille Plateaux”, but also in the “ABCdaire”, a video interview series on philosophical questions Deleuze did shortly before his death (go to:http://www.langlab.wayne.edu/Romance/FreD_G/ABC1.htmlfor the transcriptions). This philosopher knew that one cannot go on just by ‘raping’ dead authors to produce a new text. Immersion truly is the issue here. Anyway, the most interesting texts were not written by repeating what is already there, but by a certain hybridization. Alas, it still is a text. Flusser, at one point, talking about the telematic society, apologized for still using words instead of images. This apology would not have been necessary if we had interfaces according to human thought, associations and feelings, and not just to technological frameworks and restrictions made by programmers.

GL: You are producing web sites yourself and do a bit of programming. I would not call you an
outsider, quite the opposite. Is there an imaginary outside position, and if we could think the unthinkable, would that be a favorable option to you? What will happen after the closure of the Net? Should we start thinking to go beyond the Internet already?

FH: This is a tricky question. Basically, I do not quite believe in this inside/outside dualism which is fostered by technology oriented media services. There, everything has to be so very hip technologically to be worth mentioning. I am fed up with this kind of hipness when there is nothing else to say than what results in a momentary journalistic surplus value. The prostitutes of cyberspace are to be found everywhere, in all the e-zines and future-zones around the globe. They are insiders in their own way who will swiftly jump on the next train, which probably will be biotechnologies.

My guess is that nowadays, people want to have some ‘essence’ of cyberspace and be as close as possible to the imaginary ‘operating system’. See the Linux mania, in all its melancholy – to start all over again, in a clearly protestant move, if not to say a movie in the making, for which Linus Thorvalds took up the role of the big salvationist against the big and evil pope of our sour desktop world. Is this revolutionary now, or rather pathetic?

Sorry, I got carried away a little bit. Let us step back and ask what we are talking about. The Internet? A something like 30 year old construction of a new infrastructure for the communication of people and machines. The Web? A 10 year old interface solution for exchanging scientific documents. Are we really in a position to ask what is next? Then we would reveal ourselves as the avant gard elitists, which we unfortunately are, never being there for the revenues when business takes over. The question to think beyond the Internet does not work for me at the moment. Bruno Latour published a book which carries not a title, but a thesis: ‘Nous n’avons jamais été modernes’, we have never been modern. We cannot afford to be postmodern and ignore the non-modern world around us. There is a vast territory out there which does not wait to be cultivated in a traditional way. Maybe the answer to the question what comes next, is not up to ‘us’ average white middle class nerds. I do remember an interview with Michel Serres, ‘Knowledge’s redemption’ (Revue Quart Monde, 1997), which contains some of the relevant questions. The text was recycled on lists like <nettime>, but never discussed. Information wants to be free, but in the world today, knowledge requests consumer spending power. To quote Serres: “Knowledge is the realm of non-scarcity, as opposed to the economy. (…) But who says that the knowledge necessary to fix a scooter is less important than knowledge about quantum physics? In a society where garbage-men are more in demand than natural scientists, knowledge is on an equalization trajectory.” So while we think about going beyond the Internet, we maybe should listen to some garbage men. They are the ones who clean up after the party.

GL: The attempt to develop “net criticism” within the circles around such mailinglists as www.nettime.org are now five years under way. Long enough in this fast changing world to look for preliminary outcomes. Do you see any, also outside these networks of artists, activists and critics?

FH: Very marginal ones, as I perceive it. Does <nettime> really work as an alternative publishing medium? I doubt this. People inside new media theory and art may benefit from <nettime> as a distribution channel. There is a chance well lost. I cannot remember for example a discussion of the very relevant topics of sound. Until recently, MP3 and Napster just did not happen on <nettime>.

Ok, so let us ask about the role of theory. Theory is needed as an analytical and a reconstructive force, which does not really fit into the wake of this new era of digital networking. The assets of theory will show in a time of crisis, and the success of e-business does not need a media philosophy nor a net criticism, not to mention the quite self contained net.art stuff. Classical critique wants to show the limits of an idea, but the net is not just the idea of some Californian digerati. This is also a political issue. Where is our discussion on e-Europe, which became the official term for the information society? Besides, I think <nettime> is just too full of academic lurkers who are keen not to miss some trendy things. Now I ask myself: knowing that a lot of the interesting stuff happens outside academia anyway, why did <nettime> not take the chance to develop a cool web interface, name it something like E-THEORY or what, and become the virtual center for media theory? This is my serious question to the founders and curators of this list.

GL: How is your interpretation of the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler? There is no separate chapter in your book dedicated to the so-called Kassel school of media research (Tholen, Bolz, Kittler etc.) which were so active throughout the Eighties. They now seem to be the dominant discourse, even though they might not like this, a position which is anyway quickly being eroded by the rise of the Internet (generation) and the cold pragmatics of cultural studies which seem fit much better in a climate of budget cuts and the commercialization of universities. You share your critique on the Kittlerian technological determinism with Hartmut Winkler, and others. Is there a debate about these controversies in the German speaking countries?

FH: May I stay brief in answering this? Friedrich Kittler is a well respected theorist and an exciting author. Within the German theory tradition, he made the necessary and liberating move from hermeneutics towards the technological approach. It is the first time that I am hearing of a “Kassel School”. Let us forget this very quickly. A research project does not make a school. With all respect to the research probably done, this is a wrong categorization. Texts by the Kittler group do not much more than to fetishize the technology approach as such and foster a very German obsession with war. And this is simply not enough, because, whether they like it or not, social innovation is the clue. No technological innovation ever was successful without its social acceptance (human factor alert!).

GL: Another aspect you do not address directly is the question of the (virtual) body and consciousness. What is your opinion on transhumanism and extropianism?

FH: The times we live in made us forget to think about how the individual can be an asset to the collective, something essential to traditional communities. Online communities work different to traditional ones. The community does not exist but as a projection. We witness all forms of media-induced escapism. Our perception of the self changed, yet all the technologies of the self, according to Foucault, never have been steady but changed with the change of times and the influence of cultures. Cultural techniques have changed our physical bearing, for example to sit at a desk for reading and writing. Now we wear glasses and stare at screens most of the day. But there is something more to it – who said that changing communications would not alter the body? Culture always meant to shape and form the individual and the social body as well. Genetic engineering is one of the consequences, chip implants are only a matter of time. A collection of perfect individuals now does not make a society work better. Extropianism is but one restricted way to think about the future of enlightenment. I do consider it a very pathetic way of western thought. You may fantasize about the future by reinforcing the power of the individual with biotechnologies, which certainly is the topic next to the Internet hype. The future of communication is more about developing the social interface, I think, not the individual body.

GL: At the end of “Medienphilosophie” you are putting the question of a “new enlightenment” up in the air. You are someone who would love to promote the creative destruction of post modernism, are you? Can we imagine a techno enlightenment which would be aware of its own power as well as its own limitations?

FH: Techno enlightenment is what happens all around us right now. Or should we call it the wit of advanced technology? Let me relate to some personal experience here. When I took my daughter Melissa to a movie in her pre-school days, I had a big laugh when she yelled for the remote control, as soon as some Disney characters which were not hip enough for her appeared on screen. She has her own website and her current mode of being is a power pop-girl (http://www.medienphilosophie.net/melissa). This is great, everything is expected to be disposable at the click on a remote device, but I would not call this a classical enlightenment move now. A six year old does not really make a website herself, but she managed to ask me the right questions. This is the new media generation. There is this nonverbal, yet articulate cultural protest of an unruly performance as opposed to the old time rage against the machine. Our generation had this idea of sending the right messages through the proper channels. For the media generation, this difference of truth is not of much relevance, and also, intelligence does not necessarily mean verbal articulation.

Intellectuals feel very uncomfortable with this, because their role in the social setting is being questioned and generally, people (i.e. ordinary folks) just do not follow their pathetic ‘Bilderverbot’ (iconoclasm) any more. Let us face it: we are living in a society in which people not only put webcams under toilet seats, but others actually watching these images on the Internet. In a very blunt way: before enlightenment, people thought their actions were set by transcendental acts of god and possibly enabled by contingent authorities within this world. Enlightenment told them to refrain from all kinds of images, and meant not to make an image of God, i.e. of any trans-subjective matters. Techno enlightenment still has to show that we can go beyond the so much stressed dualism of text and image. Paradise now. One problem stays: we do no believe in god any more, and still want to enjoy Sunday. Where is the party, who serves the drinks?

Frank Hartmann, Medienphilosophie, UTB/WUV, Wien, 2000

The website of the book: www.medienphilosophie.net

More on Frank Hartmann:http://www.medienphilosophie.net/Frank_Hartmann.