Strange Sympathies: Horizons of Media Theory in America and Germany

Strange Sympathies: Horizons of Media Theory in America and Germany

John Durham Peters

John Durham Peters outlines “the media studies triangle,” which consists of textual, social, and institutional approaches. He then stakes out another approach that considers what civilization itself has at stake in media change.

Aron Pease:

There is a convergence here. In the last half-century, media and media machines have increasingly become the means of production. Hardt and Negri (among others) have argued that immaterial or communicative labor is the new dominant form of labor (dominant in terms of tendency not number), and this labor primarily produces knowledge, images, and affects.


This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien in Göttingen, Germany, 10 June 2006. A slightly different version was published as “Strange Sympathies: Horizons of German and American Media Theory.” American Studies as Media Studies. Ed. Frank Kelleter and Daniel Stein. Heidelberg: Winter, 2008. 3-23.


In linking a national civilization (America) with media, this conference suggests a road less traveled in media studies. Media studies as a field has generally taken three main forms. One is textual and interpretive: to read and figure out what is taking place, for example, in The Sopranos. Part of the historic burden of this approach is to defend the cultural worth of media texts as comparable to the literary canon. The second is social and explanatory: to understand the demographics, uses and gratifications, or interpretive resources of audiences. Part of the historic burden here is to defend audiences from the charge of being mindless blobs (to rescue them, in part, from the Frankfurt School). The third is historical and institutional: the political economy of media industries, including their laws and policies. Part of the historic burden here is carrying on the Enlightenment fight against concentrated power of the market and the state, a fight that can take liberal, populist or Marxist forms. It doesn’t take much squinting to see that all three faces of the media studies triangle - text, audience, and industry - are tied to an implicitly democratic project: redeeming popular culture, crediting civic intelligence, and creating access for ordinary voices. American studies of course shares much of this spirit, both generous and anxious.

But there is another, more elusive, tradition of media studies that ponders the civilizational stakes of media as a cultural complex. In North America, the historic high points are Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and James Carey. Much of the richest work in this tradition engages in a transatlantic dialogue with German thought and scholarship. Mumford’s magnificent Technics and Civilization (1934) borrows its title from the German Technik and takes much from Sombart (admiringly) and Spengler (disparagingly) and also from late nineteenth-century German Technikphilosophie. In the others, German work echoes in the distance, with British and French work getting first rank for the Canadians Innis and McLuhan, but it is still there. The degree to which American academics looked to Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is well known; my own great grandfather, a Harvard-trained immigrant from Norway to Utah, received his Ph.D. in biochemistry here at Göttingen in 1899, and his dissertation still sits in the library, and provided me with a couple of hours of fascinating reading yesterday.John Andreas Widtsoe, Über Das Traganth-Gummi und Die Methylpentosane (Göttingen: Druck der Universitäts-Buchdruckerei von E. A. Huth, 1899).American culture in my view has always been at its deepest and strangest when it carries on a romance with German thought - in transcendentalism, in the American Renaissance, in pragmatism, and in mid-twentieth-century social thought and criticism. Schelling’s influence on Emerson (via Coleridge) is well known; Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” ought to be read as a comment on Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will (specifically of not willing or preferring not); William James’s pragmatism is arguably an American branch of neo-Kantianism just as John Dewey’s pragmatism never got over Hegel as much as Dewey thought it did; and mid twentieth-century-American social thought has been enormously enriched by what Robert K. Merton called “Hitler’s unintended benevolence,” that is, the intellectual migration from Germany (qtd. in Peters and Simonson 84), to say nothing of mid-twentieth-century American architecture, film, music, physics, or rocket science. Much in the tradition from Mumford to Carey likewise owes to civilizational problematics, historicist methods, and philosophical questions that revert, ultimately, to German idealism and its diverse intellectual legacy.

Clearly, German thought and culture in the twentieth century has had to confront American culture - especially in the so-called Amerikanismus of the Weimar era, and in the postwar Federal Republic. The past two decades or so have seen a great blooming of media theory and history in Germany, much of which directly engages with American materials, but which is only partly assimilated in the United States.For some leading examples, see Friedrich A. Kittler, Grammophon, Film, Typewriter translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz as Gramophone, Film, Typewriter; Bernhard Siegert, Passage des Digitalen; Cornelia Vismann, Akten; and Wolfgang Hagen, Das Radio.I agree fully with Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, who must count as the most informed outside observer of the German media theory scene, that: “Today one cannot really seriously do media theory without engaging with what has been accomplished in Germany.”“[M]an kann heutzutage nicht wirklich ernsthaft Medientheorie betreiben, ohne sich auf das einzulassen, was in Deutschland geleistet wird” (“Deutschland” ###).This does not mean that what has been accomplished in Germany is either easy to identify or free of controversy. Winthrop-Young compares media theory in Germany today to the Kleinstaaterei that once ruled German politics: distinct fiefdoms fighting for dominance, locked at times into an ever escalating arms race of exaggerations and differentiations. Even so, I will focus on some leading themes for the sake of what I hope are productive or at least provocative generalizations. Consider this paper as an effort to restore the transatlantic axis in media studies, to do intellectually what George Bush has failed to do politically. My envisioned Daimler-Chrysler merger of media theory would not have its North American headquarters in Detroit but rather in Toronto: where American studies, media studies, and German media theory all meet best is probably in the tradition of Innis and McLuhan.


Understanding American studies as media studies was the lifelong project of the late James W. Carey, who passed away on May 23, 2006 at the age of 71. Carey was often considered the spiritual leader of American cultural studies, certainly of cultural studies of media. His death and the enormous loss it caused invite a celebration of his contribution and a comparison with allied work in Germany. I propose to compare his vision of media with that of the Berlin theorist Friedrich Kittler, especially his work of the 1980s and 1990s on media hardware.In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I met both men first in 1983 (at Illinois and Stanford), during a formative moment of my doctoral studies, and both have showed personal kindness and given intellectual inspiration to me since. Never, that I know, did they meet or even know of each other, and rarely has their work cross-fertilized (my Speaking into the Air might be an exception), though hybrids may yet emerge. Before Kittler’s visit to Columbia University in 1997, I suggested he look up Carey in New York City; he heard me say (Jonathan) Crary, and he assured me that of course he would visit him. I didn’t press the point since I wasn’t sure either would recognize how much they had to say to each other. I discuss Carey’s work on media history in light of German work in “Ideology and Technology.” Both partners in this odd couple are prominent figures in their national spaces, and each is both influential and controversial. I do not claim that they are fully representative figures of scholarship within their national traditions; in some ways, both occupy extreme positions. But that very extremity reveals something not only about two of the most interesting minds in media studies worldwide today but also about their historical contexts and national traditions. Carey participates in what he studies - American social thought’s romance with an idea of community as a utopian social horizon, especially of the endless frontier in space - , and Kittler also takes part in German culture’s romance with the engineer, or more generally, in the tradition of fusing the natural sciences and the arts in the lineage of Albrecht Dürer and Goethe. In a nutshell, North American media theory from Innis to Carey offers a theologically tinged utopia of regenerated democratic community; German media theory in the wake of Kittler’s middle work narrates a militaristically colored history of ontological ruptures.

Admittedly, I run the risk of either alienating or boring my audience, as half of you either may not know or may not like one of these figures. To be clear to my German audience: I focus here on Kittler’s work of the 1980s and 1990s on media history rather than on his more recent turn to the ancient Greeks, and I do not mean to suggest that his work, which can be polemical and off-putting to other scholars, is the only or best form of media theory in Germany - especially now that Kittler has publicly distanced himself from both media studies as a field, deploring its supposed trend toward institutionalization and specialization, and from the United States as a source of intellectual and other kinds of inspiration.See the Kittler interview “Rock Me, Aphrodite.” A very helpful critique and overview of Kittler’s Hellenic turn is Claudia Breger’s “Gods, German Scholars, and the Gift of Greece.” Isaac Newton’s later interest in the occult interpretation of scripture did not alter the importance of his discoveries in physics, and Kittler’s innovations in media theory and history remain fertile and suggestive, even revolutionary.

Since we are talking about cross-cultural transplantation: Prophets are often honored everywhere but their own countries. This fact has a sound ecological basis. Species flourish when they are exiled from their natural enemies. Potatoes flourish more in Europe than they ever did in Peru; bananas, cotton, sugar, tobacco, and wheat were all imported into the new world from the old. Old world crops often do better in the new world and new world crops in the old - and this general rule often applies to culture as well as agriculture.Here I draw on the classic book by Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange. Foucault and Derrida flourished like banana trees in the new world. McLuhan is probably a more interesting figure in Germany than in the United States or Canada. The new world has repeatedly given a fresh lease on life to imports from the old. Most German scholars I have met have a zany Kittler anecdote to share and place him within the disciplinary matrix of Germanistik instead of media studies, thus neutralizing the importance of his direct contributions and challenges to media theory. I will understand if you treat me as an American audience would if a French film theorist tried to explain to them what a great genius Jerry Lewis is. Ignorance of local context of origin in all its wrinkles can be a certain kind of advantage. In my view, much of Kittler’s work suggests the logical next step for the North American tradition of media history.Kittler’s career can be roughly divided into three periods: literary discourse analysis, media history, and Greek explorations. Such an appropriative reading is not immune to the distortions of fantasy or desire, but it also frankly admits its programmatic purpose.

At first glance, the striking differences of Carey and Kittler stand out. How to even begin? Carey, as both a devout Catholic and an impassioned defender of some version of discourse-based communitarian democracy, was more often criticized for his piety, and Kittler, as a flamboyant poststructuralist arguing that “so-called people” are nothing but wetware and communications engineering, for his impiety. As a rule, Carey’s critics find him too soft-hearted and Kittler’s find him too hard-hearted (up until his most recent turn to the ancient Greeks, which can evoke a very different reaction). “Sometimes it sounds as if the harder-boiled German media scholars were waging war against their inner civics teacher” (Winthrop-Young, “Deutschland” 3).“Zuweilen klingt es so, als führten die härteren Medienwissenschaftler einen Kampf gegen ihren inneren Sozialkundelehrer” (“Deutschland” para. 21) Carey could be a bit of a civics teacher, much in the spirit of his intellectual hero John Dewey, whereas Kittler has no time for such Gutmenschentum, preferring the systems of Luhmann, and the death-of-the-subject arguments of Foucault and Lacan. Carey famously rejected poststructuralism, kit and caboodle, once referring (not entirely incorrectly) to the “sludge” that resulted in the prose of many American acolytes of continental thinkers, whereas Kittler was one of the leaders in the French poststructuralist revolution in German thought (Carey, “Communications” 281). In a late interview Carey made it clear that he had read and admired Foucault’s major works but was still uneasy at not finding “a democratic spirit” there (“Configurations” 211). We have here a humanist and an anti-humanist, one favoring neighborly solidarity (with a bit of feistiness thrown in for good measure) and the other preferring the cold objectivity of the gods (or numbers). Kittler writes a lot about eros, but nothing about agapē; Carey writes about agapē, especially in its attenuated form of democracy, and little about eros. Music, whether Wagner or Pink Floyd, has always been of central importance to Kittler but has made only a late appearance in Carey’s writing (see “Internet”). In religion, Carey’s theory had clear Catholic resonances, especially in his conception of how mass communication could be a ritual transmitted across time and space. If we see the “mass” in “mass communication” in the Catholic sense, it is easy to combine ritual and transmission, the two poles of Carey’s thinking about communication.For Carey’s contrast of ritual and transmission, see “A Cultural Approach to Communication.” Kittler’s attacks on Microsoft’s protected mode and his call for everyone to learn programming enact, in contrast, the classic Lutheran gesture of attacking a priestly institution that stupefies the masses with images (Windows); instead, he wants no more intermediaries so that everyone may become an intimate with The Code itself, as if repeating Luther’s motto of “sola scriptura” (see Winthrop-Young, “Silicon”).Cf. also Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler 146-7. This book presents a remarkable overview of Kittler’s work. The Lutheran echo is a cultural backdrop here rather than a matter of faith, and Kittler’s increasingly outspoken love for the pagan Greeks implies a commensurate distaste for Christianity.See the Kittler interview, “Rock Me, Aphrodite.” (Of course Kittler’s love of getting inside the guts of machines owes something to the DIY ethic of punk rock as well.) Carey, as a pragmatist, allows for a dose of mystification in human life; Kittler loves rigor too much for that. One would nurture our hopes; the other would unveil the real in all its trauma and shock.

Carey was a professor of journalism, and it is almost an occupational requirement that journalists have a yearning relationship with the sublime object of democracy. He was deeply interested in the history of print media - books, newspapers, and magazines - and in questions of style, content, and authorship. For him the newspaper and novel were siblings and both engaged in the historic “struggle against forgetting.” Journalism is the “collective arrest of experience” (Carey, “Struggle” para. 3). None of this resonates with Kittler, whose definition of media is indifferent to content and definition of humanity is indifferent to experience. Carey’s love of the literary public sphere would likely be met with Kittler’s Heideggerian disdain for chatter (Gerede) or engineer’s distaste for humanist Schwärmerei (gushing enthusiasm). Dewey democrats like Carey are always vulnerable to the cold water of Schmitt conservatives like Kittler. Ever since John Milton gave Satan the best lines in Paradise Lost, it has been easier for intellectuals to argue the devil’s side, and Carey regularly fought courageous uphill battles against more glamorous but in his view less honest arguments and vocabularies.

Together with his vision of journalism as a collective act of memory, criticism, and insight, Carey both practiced and called for a sparkling colloquial prose style. He was a spell-binding orator who prized the oral tradition of homily (something he claimed to have learned as a child from the local priest), and he had a remarkable gift as a teacher and raconteur. (His appreciation for Innis owed, in part, to Innis’s high valuation of the oral tradition.) I am not sure whether his influence will ever be as great on those who never had personal contact with the man himself. Kittler, in contrast, writes in a remarkably economic and dramatic but sometimes also tortuous tongue sometimes called Kittlerdeutsch, and his oral delivery can be rather garbled, though spiced with mumbled jokes.For a brilliant analysis of Kittler’s style, see Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler 62-72. His teaching, to be fair, can be quite charming, as can be seen in his lectures on optical media, which make an excellent introduction for people unacquainted with his work (Kittler, Optische Medien).An English translation is in preparation by Anthony Enns for Polity Press. All of Carey’s teaching - in both the large Midwestern state schools of Iowa and Illinois, and the Ivy League’s Columbia - was to laypeople, to noninitiates, that is, to citizens. He never had the luxury - not that he would have wanted it - of speaking to insiders. Even doctoral study was something he conducted in a demotic way.

Carey knew a lot, and read and talked voraciously, but Kittler is the more diversely learned of the two. Graduate training in the German university encourages a long though penurious incubation period of reading: of all the barriers to transmission of recent German media theory to North America, the most insurmountable might be its demands for erudition. 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.

It is a commonplace that one utility of the worst form of cultural studies is the provision to young scholars of a swift mode of article production: take theory, find object, write article. The stunning global success of cultural studies in university curriculums over the past decade might be read as an academic parallel to neo-liberal economic policies. Cultural studies allows for just-in-time production, has low start-up costs and low barriers to entry in terms of knowledge, is closely allied with the act of media consumption, and supplies the increasingly important cultural industries with savvy employees. Multinational corporations are leading the charge for knowledge of local culture and languages as essential for global salesmanship (see Dor). Cultural studies is a ready brand for academic entrepreneurs to market, and many countries seem to have one or two professors who act as its franchise owners. It is clear that universities are under global and regional pressure to standardize and that cultural studies meets a pragmatic need. Cultural studies has what Innis called a space bias: it travels light, favors soldiers and merchants over sages and priests, and tends to favor the contemporary over deep time. The spatial bias of modern, especially American, civilization was Innis’s despair, and he hoped that the university tradition would be a counterweight holding out for a deep sense of time. He would undoubtedly find much of academic life today intellectually thin and corrupt (but he did in his own day as well). Carey’s cheerleading for cultural studies since the 1970s certainly brought desperately needed oxygen to many corners of academic life, and his old-fashioned, rigorous, historical, and economic program for cultural studies deserves a fresh look today. Cultural studies, especially in its populist form, it should be added, never really took hold in Germany, and should not be confused with Kulturwissenschaften. Cultural studies’s failure to thrive owes something to the German scholarly tradition and the obsession with history and memory (see Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Studies”). If German scholars do not hold the line against loosening intellectual standards, who will? At the most stereotypical level, the contrast of Carey and Kittler yields American space and German time, experiential critique versus historicist erudition, though this is not really fair of either thinker.

It might seem easy to reduce this pairing to well-rehearsed intellectual positions: in the German context, to the dichotomy of warm Habermas and cool Luhmann; in the American context, to that of fuzzy Dewey and hard-headed Lippmann.It was Carey who largely invented the debate between Dewey and Lippmann as an axis of American democratic theory in “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media.’” Too much is left unexplained by this reduction. One of the best things about both Carey and Kittler is their capacity to surprise: you never knew what new big idea would be animating Carey next, and few would have predicted Kittler’s recent turn from digits to Homer, with his fantastic discovery that the Greek alphabet was the single storage medium for poetry, numbers, and music. Both are highly original and imaginative thinkers who are not afraid to march to the beat of their own drummers. This streak - “transcendental” I am tempted to call it in light of the joint custody of that term by the German and American traditions - is one of the finest things about both, as I will argue in conclusion.


Despite their differences, both Carey and Kittler address the major issues around media in our age. Both engage in a philosophically-informed history of technology that owes something to Innis and, more ambivalently, to McLuhan; and both admire Mumford.Winthrop-Young compares Kittler to “Innis in battle fatigues” (Friedrich Kittler 128) Both have a high tolerance for versions of technological determinism and put media in the history-moving role that Marxists used to assign to the means of production. Neither one has any tolerance for triteness, a commodity that discussion of media seems uniquely qualified to produce. Both see media not as raising tepid issues of work and play, but of life and death, love and truth. Carey’s studies of the historical reception of new media examine what he called “the rhetoric of the electrical sublime,” a rhetoric that celebrates the spiritual-political hopes of the annihilation of time and space, and in this, his vision of media is most American (Carey, “Mythos” 123). Kittler is closer to the source of the sublime, which as Edmund Burke observes, is war (just as sex is the source of the beautiful) (Burke, “Enquiry”). In Kittler’s middle period, media were enveloped in the sublime terror of battle; in his more recent work, they are enveloped in the beautiful exaltation of eros. In both seeing war as the maker of history and his passion for ancient Greece as an origin, Kittler’s work has deep German resonances.See Breger, “Gods, German Scholars, and the Gift of Greece.” Carey and Kittler point in different directions in their views of media - theology of democracy and historical ontology of catastrophe - , but both agree that media should be seen in terms of the sublime.

Both thinkers attribute strong constitutive force to media - in producing nations and subjects (a word Carey would not use) and citizens (a word Kittler would not use). Carey argued that the USA was a media experiment:

The United States was, to flirt with more deterministic language, the product of literacy, cheap paper, rapid and inexpensive transportation, and the mechanical reproduction of words - the capacity, in short, to transport not only people but a complex culture and civilization from one place to another, indeed between places that were radically dissimilar in geography, social conditions, economy, and very often climate. (Introduction 3)

The democratic republic of the United States resulted from a historic convergence of oral tradition, printing press, geographic opportunity, and political will. The project of 1776 for Carey was a project of communication. (Carey thus anticipated an aspect of the theme of this conference: that America is a virtual reality; in this he was building on Innis’s similar point about Canada.) German history was quite different, but it arguably shares the condition of being a media product. The obsessions of Kittler’s media theory owe something to specific historical conditions, and it is not hard to see the peculiar role that media in some way play in German history: the long history before 1871 of a cultural space held together by language, literature, and the theater distinct from a corresponding political state, Cf. James J. Sheehan, German History 144-89. a remarkable scientific and technical explosion connected to a delayed and militarized modernization, the Nazi era insanity in which media played a large real or imaginary role in subjecting the many to the spell of the Führer’s commands, and the axial role played by Germany during the Cold War in communications. Both Carey and Kittler tie their thinking to the fates of their nations. As Carey wrote of Innis, but could have written of himself: “He recognized that scholarship was not produced in a historical and cultural vacuum but reflected the hopes, aspirations, and heresies of national cultures” (“Space” 149).On the Canadian link as a useful interpretive tool for the German scene, see also Winthrop-Young, “Why Media.” See also my “Space, Time, and Communication Theory.” In some ways their idiosyncrasies are very much their own, but in others, Carey and Kittler each belongs to his national history. Although all nations are perhaps imagined communities in some sense, in certain countries - Germany, Canada, and the United States - there seems something of a national imperative for seeing media as drivers of history.If we believe Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, perhaps all nations are media products. See Winthrop-Young, “Deutschland ist ein Medienprodukt,” passim.

There are three other striking similarities between Carey and Kittler: a complex relationship to Marxism, fierce academic oedipal battles fought in the 1970s, and a reflexive approach to the university itself as a medium of communication.

Generous Marxists have sometimes drafted Carey and Kittler as allies, noting their penchant for structuralist explanations (Kittler in a Foucaultian style, Carey in a Weberian style), their epochal mode of historical understanding (such as the shared view of the axial importance of digital media), their materialist preference for descriptions of behavior over interpretations of thought, and their critical protest against many things about the social order. Both thinkers can favor a base-superstructure logic that privileges certain explanatory variables: Kittler wants his students to study programming (human consciousness is a superstructure), and Carey wanted them to study economics (the foundation of culture).Kittler admits the affinity of his interest in “die Vorgängigkeit der Strukturen” with Marx in his interview with Rudolf Maresch: “Wenn die Freiheit wirklich existiert, dann soll sie ausbrechen” (100). Less generous Marxists, however, are annoyed by Kittler’s tireless (and sometimes méconnaissant) scorn for the Frankfurt School and by Carey’s sometimes literary method of treating cultural history.See “Rock Me, Aphrodite.” A more sustained (but no friendlier) treatment is found in Kittler, “Copyright 1944 Social Studies Association, Inc.” On some resonances between Adorno and Kittler, see Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler, 170ff. Carey was also often attacked for his supposed individualism, an odd charge for an interactionist, and Kittler, as a post-structuralist, gives no causal force to the individual in history (though his histories are generally about heroes - one of his favorite adjectives is “groß” or great).This attitude comes through clearly in his collection of short pieces on some of his heroes, Unsterbliche: Nachrufe, Erinnerungen, Geistergespräche. Both make clear that critical theory is not a monopoly of the Marxist left: Carey plies it from the social-democratic left, and Kittler from the Carlyle-Nietzsche-Jünger right, if it is possible to describe an idiosyncratic position atmospherically with a number of famous names.

Both men rejected a previous generation’s orthodoxy. Carey was a key figure in opening up media studies in the 1970s to a wide range of intellectual currents, and his campaign on behalf of “culture” (in the wake of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and Clifford Geertz) was a critique of the corruption of the Vietnam-era behavioral sciences. For him, models of communication were visions of ways of life, and he found the positivist model both immoral and boring. (He was always empirical by bent but never empiricist by ideology.) Whereas Carey was generally but not always conciliatory, Kittler’s attacks on the humanities establishment in Germany were more intemperate. Kittler kept the philological rigor of the previous generation but got rid of the spectral romanticism of Geist, famously plotting to drive it out of the Geisteswissenschaften (Humanities). Both engaged in major brush-clearing operations of reigning academic doctrines, not always to the pleasure of those who were being cleared out, and both made space for previously unrespectable topics and modes of study. Kittler launched a particular intellectual approach that can be discerned in scholars influenced by him, though their interpersonal relations seem too fraught to be called a school; Carey, in contrast, left a more elusive mark on his many students, leaving behind an elusive brand-recognition though a whole tribe of humanistic communication scholars such as I loyally owe our place in the field to him.

Carey spent years as an administrator, including long service as a dean, and the campus was his field for practicing political argument and engagement. He was both a hard-headed Realpolitiker about the material conditions of the university and someone whose civic republican commitments were paid for in the hard labor of constant service on committees and commissions. Anyone who thinks it easy to be a democrat should try going to all those meetings. His energy was spent diffusively. Nothing equivalent can be found in Kittler’s case: he is a more traditional academic whose administrative duties have been spent in a much more focused and intellectually programmatic way. Befitting such capable university-warriors, both are also students of the university as an institution and keen observers of its cultural history and political present. Carey was always ready with an arresting observation about academic life. He was the only person I ever heard say anything interesting about the tiresome topic of political correctness - which arose, he argued in a rather Foucault-like way, from the medicalization of the student body, and more specifically in the growth of the office of student services on campus: ideological hygiene was one more form of comfort and therapy to be administered by these sincere new bureaucrats along with physical, sexual, nutritional, and other forms of health (Carey, “Political Correctness”). His criticism of the thin debate culture within universities was also telling: for an institution that prides itself on the principle of critical rationality, there is no public sphere in the university - faculty senates are largely tractionless and there is no forum for collective deliberation besides complaint networks; the only campus-wide newspapers are in the business of fund-raising (see Carey, “Engaged Discipline”). Kittler’s interest in the university as a site of discourse-production is clear from his discussion of the republic of letters in his magnum opus Aufschreibesysteme to his Kulturgeschichte der Kulturwissenschaften to his rather unironic practice of the Ordinarius mode of production.Aufschreibesysteme; the second edition has been translated into English by Michael Meteer as Discourse Networks; due to its focus on the history of German letters, it is often less accessible to North American readers than Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, with its frequent reference to US inventors, history, music, and weaponry. (Holding a chair at Humboldt University - the former University of Berlin - Kittler sits self-consciously at ground zero of the modern research university.) The university, like the city, is a medium - a data-processing system that circulates words and bodies within various administrative regimes of power and inscription. Kittler loves brilliant reductions. Bourgeois subjectivity, for example, consists in the flow of black ink. Universities are media that produce pieces of paper marked with black ink - in the form of words, numbers, diagrams, or sometimes (as on doctoral dissertations or diplomas) signatures. This description might seem rather distant from the edifying things that are said at graduation ceremonies, but if you are allergic to “bürgerliche[s] Bildungsblabla,” is there a better account of what universities do (Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler 172)? Though we again see characteristically contrasting conclusions about the university - civic culture or discourse network - , Carey and Kittler both bring their media theory to bear on it.That said, Kittler’s book on the Kulturwissenschaften reads more as straight intellectual history than as media history and, as Breger points out, might be read as his first step away from media studies.


What can the North American and German traditions of media theory learn from each other? The import agenda into North America is more extensive than vice versa. Compared to much recent German work, much of what is done in English looks thin. As Winthrop-Young suggests, good theory may not change the world, but it at least can put bad theory out of circulation. There are several stories about media in circulation today. The dominant one is corporate-sponsored gee-whiz hype about the future and is the latest installment in the rhetoric of the technological sublime. Leading academic discourses include the postmodern thrill or horror (or both) about the post-Gutenberg or posthuman possibilities of media, the tale of the decline of print culture and the rational public sphere, and the praise of popular resistance. After Kittler and the work done by many others, such ways of understanding media seem inadequate. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century novel not written in Russian, the decrepit scholar Casaubon collects notes for his magnum opus, a Key to All Mythologies, without any knowledge of the breakthroughs in comparative Indo-European philology. We view him through the eyes of his younger and much more talented wife Dorothea, who learns of German work from the young social reformer Will Ladislaw, but chooses out of pity to shield Casaubon from the knowledge of his irrelevance. Casaubon at least toiled diligently in his wishful magpie universalism, but what is the incentive for young English-speaking scholars to forsake the fleshpots of a certain kind of cultural studies with its hip poses and instant publishing gratifications for a longer and slower apprenticeship in history, philology, literature, philosophy, physics, engineering, and mathematics? Please do not think me extravagant if I say that we North American media scholars risk the fate of Casaubon without grappling with recent German work. We need not swallow it whole, but grapple we must.

Here I can only sketch some of the achievements of recent German media theory. The first is a basic conceptual house-cleaning. “The whole weight of the German philosophical tradition comes crashing down on media,” and this creates a particular set of critical distinctions and groupings (Winthrop-Young, “Why Media?” 8). At a basic taxonomic level, media receive the ordering they deserve. Media record, transmit, or organize; they govern time, space, or power; they serve the temple, market, or palace; they can take the form of poetry, music, and mathematics for the ancient Greeks, number, word, or image in the Renaissance, or of optics, acoustics, and text in the nineteenth century. By the late twentieth century, all media melt (incompletely, I would add) into digits. Technical media are distinct from the arts (such as painting, music, or poetry) in their interface with neurophysiology, their capacity for time-axis manipulation, and their engineering standards (see Kittler, “History”). A new measure of rigor is introduced into media studies.

Second, German media theory extends Innis’s claim that media are the strategies and tactics of civilization, the devices by which people and other creatures hold together in time and space. Never again can we talk as if media did not exist before 1900 or 1800. Wherever data standing as proxies for property or persons are processed, media exist. In other words, the history of media is greatly enriched. The full historical record becomes the domain for media research, and topics treated recently by German media scholars include fireworks, the sea, navigation, geometry, museums, Soviet cybernetics, passports, maps, ballistics, the postal service, acoustics, and the practice of legal documentation. Recent German work not only expands the history of media, it points to the media of history. The historical record is itself a media artifact. Memory, stone, papyrus, paper, and electricity, for instance, each yields a distinct kind of historical record with what Innis would call its “bias.” Studying the history of communication reveals history as communication. Media history is not only a supplement to other kinds of historical inquiry; it is a challenge to how we understand history altogether. Media turn out to be enormously handy devices of history-writing, fitting into a long Hegelian lineage of structural historiography. Though recent German media history draws more explicitly on the early Foucault than on Hegel, the broad Hegelian resonances are unmistakable (Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler 147-50). German theory enlarges the historical horizons of media research both in depth of time and range of topic and offers a bracing but grandiose master plan for the organization of knowledge, seeing all knowledge reflexively as knowledge of media. In Kittler’s famous words, “media determine our situation” (Gramophone xxxix).“Medien bestimmen unsere Lage” (Gramophon 3). “Lage” in German can have the sense of a battlefield position.

Third, German media theory is part of a larger reenvisioning of the humanities. Taken negatively, this means to purge them of “so-called humans.” Taken positively, German media theory more generally seeks to overcome the ruinous conflict between the natural sciences and the arts - a much more ambitious project than the more conventional call to bridge the humanities and social sciences. Since Vico the humanities have been to a large extent a rearguard action against modern science. Today, whatever humanities are, they exclude numbers and quantification (this is not to absolve modern science of its own aggressive role in the divorce). Yet the modern math-free humanities are actually miles distant from their vaunted relation to the Renaissance. Renaissance engineer-artists such as Leonardo, Albrecht Dürer, Simon Stevin, or, a bit later, Jan Vermeer all made use of geometrical grids. A Renaissance figure such as Alberti, Kittler notes, was not afraid of numbers or of technical mastery: he was at home in number, picture, and writing all at once (Kittler, “Leon Batittista Alberti”). Painting was measuring was looking was building was shooting. A reunion of the two cultures is essential in my view for the future of the humanities today, and diverse scholars in German media studies refuse to separate qualia and quanta. A man without quantities would be in as bad a fix as a man without qualities. What kind of knowledge can we hope to have of human beings today without acknowledging the technical matrix that bears the fate of our species? Humanists should be interested in knowledge as such and not only certain kinds of knowledge. 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. The program of banishing the fear of technē from the humanities might generously be read as the latest installation in the (anti-)humanist tradition. In the Middle Ages the skull was the emblem of gnōthi seauton: today it might be the computer chip.

Fourth, media research receives a welcome shot of sobriety. McLuhan dazzled his readers in 1964 by treating the electric light as a medium, characteristically defining it as something that makes a difference without imparting any information (McLuhan 7-9). McLuhan’s considerable talent for preposterous analogies and wide miscellaneous learning is fully matched in recent German work, but where he generally settled for metaphors, German media scholars tend to seek out documented linkages. Metaphors are research opportunities. It’s not simply a suggestive metaphor, for instance, that both guns and cameras “shoot”: it is a historical convergence in the origins of both technologies and the result of the long “arming of the eye” since the Renaissance.See Kittler, “Gleichschaltungen,” and Optische Medien, in which “die Bewaffnung des Auges” is a recurrent theme. Galileo’s famous discussion of mathematics being the language in which the book of nature was written has long been seen as the founding metaphor for modern science, but if you look at the role of the book in natural science around 1600, it turns out that the book is not a metaphor: it is a medium (cf. Siegert 432n8). Less famous among Kittler’s dicta than “media determine our situation” but equally important is his methodological manifesto: “In lieu of philosophical inquiries into essence, simple knowledge will do” (Gramophone xl).“[S]tatt philosophischer Wesensfragen genügt schlichtes Wissen” (Gramophon 5). Where poetry was, history may become.

Fifth, German media theory invites some useful defamiliarization. Most North American media history artificially truncates its study to the civilian side of this cultural ensemble. Mass media as we know them are, in one of Kittler’s favorite phrases, the “abuse of army equipment” (Gramophone 97).The German original speaks of “Missbrauch von Heeresgerät” (Gramophon 149).This exaggeration is meant to shock, but how could one study technology of the last two - or five - centuries without recognizing warfare as a mother of invention?Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization certainly recognized this (cf. 85-106). Wide-screen movies, radio broadcasting, the pin-up, stereophonic sound, ultra-sounds, microwaves, and personal computers are the domesticated faces of scientific-technical-military complexes. The history of advertising cannot be written separately from the history of bombing. Neither can that of the computer, which was designed by von Neumann to process the data of nuclear war. Warfare, of course, is not the only relevant context for media theory, though from Kittler’s middle work one might think otherwise;See Winthrop-Young, “Drill and Distraction in the Yellow Submarine.” we ought to consider contexts such as the state, the family, accounting, prisons, religion, medicine, or the pharmaceutical industry. The point is not to conceive media in the way that they have been pre-defined by power. To study media you cannot just study media.

Media studies suddenly just became a lot more interesting.


The import agenda in the reverse direction is, as always, shorter but more delicate: history, ethics, and politics.

Innis and Carey both had a sense for the grit, gravity, and inertia of social and economic history. Kittler’s media histories systematically neglect what students of the diffusion of innovations call the “implementation” phase of new technologies - all the messy false-starts, slow creeping transitions, negotiations, and adjustments that occur in the long dull non-state-of-emergency between the births of new discourse-networks. His stories can frankly lurch from one Foucaultian epistème to another, e.g. from 1800 to 1900. He is interested in what Walter Benjamin calls “messianic” ruptures - e.g. 1877 when Edison records sound rather than decades later when he figures out how to make money selling recorded music.See, for instance, Lisa Gitelman’s careful work, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. The deep structures of machines and ideas, which are accessed most readily via the writings of male geniuses, interest him more than their fates in the pragmatic world of use. Media provide a nice way to focus on the floods rather than the drip-drip of events, but the history of a few heroic inventors is obviously not the same as the history of billions of users. The history of media is also the history of boredom and distraction, of classified ads and monthly cable payments. Kittler’s structuralism could use more historical grit - institutional politics, economic marketing, and social history.

The question of ethics and politics is touchier. Innis read media history as an ethical critique of civilizational direction. McLuhan was much more blithe about the ethical meaning of electronic media, which he thought would restore the synaesthesia of the high middle ages in the global village, and his attitude of studied suspension of ethical worry is the closest to Kittler.Consider Carey’s description of McLuhan: “On all such [political] matters McLuhan was silent, if not indifferent, and frequently contemptuous. His public style was often, deliberately or not, arrogant and supercilious with those with whom he disagreed. He regularly dismissed his critics as obsolete …” (“Marshall McLuhan” p. 296). Mumford’s Pentagon of Power was a furious denunciation of the Vietnam era warfare state (as well as of McLuhan for playing along with it). In Carey, Innis-like nostalgia for time often did battle with his hard-headed appreciation for the eternal corruptibility of human beings. Excepting McLuhan, these leaders of North American media theory are moralists, and whatever else you say about Kittler, he is certainly not that. His silence on ethical-political topics that would seem relevant to media history - most notoriously, the Holocaust and sexism - is read in a variety of ways, many of them unfavorable. Kittler has nothing (good) to say about democracy, in stark contrast to the long marriage of forms of communication to the dream of democratic involvement that is so prominent in the North American tradition. In stark contrast with most of the Greco-German tradition stretching over two centuries through Winckelmann, Schiller, Hegel, Hölderlin, Schelling, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Marcuse, and Arendt, Kittler’s vision of ancient Greece has unclear democratic ambitions. Certainly his “aesthetic state” unfolds no political utopia of human flourishing, and his posthuman Greek godlings occasionally seem to have entered a post-political paradise where they spend their days supping the ambrosia of mathematics, music, and love (see also Chytry).On Kittler as heir to the psychedelic rather than the political utopia of the 1960s, see Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler 171-3.

If Foucault lacked a democratic spirit, as Carey claimed (with mixed accuracy), Kittler would certainly do so in spades. The most generous way to read Kittler’s ethical-political silences is as refusals to suck up to doxa. To say that Nazis are evil or that sexism is bad requires no thought: failing to say amen to what everyone knows might be read as a display of a certain rigor. Life is a hundred times too short to be bored, wrote Nietzsche, and Kittler is Nietzsche’s disciple in his impatience with tedium (which can extend to a sometimes cavalier treatment of historical facts), and perhaps even more in his refusal to pay homage to the conventional wisdom. One could read Kittler as one more practitioner of the “method of perversity,” denying the ruling good in order to keep it from bloating into an unquestioned moral monopoly (Peters, Courting 25-7). On the other hand, in a historical moment when an unprecedented political-military-economic-communications empire bestrides the globe, media of all sorts mobilize diverse populations to war, and American studies is necessarily media studies for much of earth’s population and not just for scholars, what would media studies possibly be without direct treatment of questions of power, access, and justice? The price of occasional dullness is not too much to pay for a more decent planet, nor should we fear to restate undeniable truths in moments of crisis. Even the archest ironist needs to drop an occasional hint about the point of the program or else forfeit the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the contrarian call for studies of the music and mathematics of love and beauty - topics that also degenerate too quickly into triteness - is admirably daring.

So we land back on the dilemma posed by the comparison of Carey and Kittler. I have to confess to a mixed mind, and strange sympathies with both, leaning toward Kittler’s cutting analysis and Carey’s feisty solidarity. If you will allow me a perhaps fanciful and certainly normative genealogical claim, a common source for Kittler and Carey is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Carey gets his Emerson via Dewey, and Kittler gets his via Nietzsche, and so they are quite different figures. One Emerson is an ebullient democrat, and the other is an arctic skeptic about the “porcupine impossibility of contact.” One believed in the miracle of the everyday, and the other in a certain moral harshness: “The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pulses and whines” (Emerson, “Self-Reliance” 133). An embrace of the full Emersonian Ursprung would help both branches of media theory. Emerson had both ordinariness and Messianic drama, both democracy and the possibility of an Everlasting No. To Kittler, Emerson would show how to have democracy and ethics without populist piety or boredom. He prized the ordinary, only because he found it so uncanny. To Carey, Emerson would show how to do without an apologetic kind of humanism. Kittler once reveled in poking fun at “so-called people,” but seeing people as strange mixtures of the animal, vegetable, and mineral is not scandalous for Emerson: it is the starting point of self-reflection. He noted “an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me, - cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies …” (“13 July 1833” lxx). Emerson loved to see “all mean egotism” vanish, noted modernity’s “acceleration and condensation of objects,” and was well acquainted with the media of his day, especially optical ones (“Nature” 404). It would not be hard to read him as a media theorist. Like Kittler, he resisted moral palaver, but he did so because of his unrelentingly strenuous allegiance to a higher law of ethical truth. Like Carey, he thought friendship and solidarity worth his reflection. Who says you need a bourgeois ego to be a good citizen or neighbor? Who says citizenship and justice are not important topics for post-humans? Emerson would provide Carey with a palatable critique of humanist pieties and Kittler with a palatable view of the ethics and aesthetics of democracy. To all of us, Emerson, who endorsed creative reading along with creative writing, provides the art of reading-as-if. Fantasy and whim are part of all reading, but that gives us no release from responsibility for how we read. We thus find ourselves, this Saturday morning in Göttingen, back where all roads in American studies always, fortunately, seem to lead: to Emerson, the greatest in a long line of Americans who have stood before German thought and culture with appreciation, awe, and perhaps a bit of dazzled myopia.

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