The dissolution of media as a concept—if not the entire discipline of media studies—likely reads as a shock to English-speaking scholars and students for whom the concept remains a powerful institutional and intellectual frame. But can Siegert’s claim serve as a catalyst for rethinking some of the foundational concepts and categories of Anglo-American media and cultural studies? To address this question, I offer an overview of German debates that introduces key thinkers and concepts to English readers. I then consider recent Anglo-American work that resonates with German discussions—specifically, work by Jonathan Sterne on media formats (e.g. MP3) and by John Durham Peters and Ned Rossiter on logistical media. I conclude with a few notes toward synthesizing these traditions by returning to Harold Innis’s early theorization of media. I argue that such a synthesis produces theoretical and methodological tools well suited to account for contemporary issues in digital culture such as Big Data and state surveillance.
German debates around cultural techniques began in the wake of Friedrich Kittler’s controversial establishment of media as the technical a priori of the human sciences. Kittler’s media ontology sought to correct and displace Foucault’s conception of the archive as historical a priori. To sum up this move in one sentence: Kittler went a layer deeper than Foucault’s archaeologies did or could, showing the archive and discourse to be themselves always structured by media technologies: no discourse without pens, paper, and typewriters, no archives without recording media and address systems, no governmentality without files. According to Kittler, Foucault’s understanding did not go far enough because he—“the last historian or first archaeologist” (5)—was unable to think beyond conventional alphanumeric writing systems. Kittler showed that before it can ever condition subjects, or even be articulated as language, power/knowledge is forged via the processing, storage, and transmission of signals.
In Kittler’s wake, the concept of media proliferated, eventually becoming over-extended and totalizing. Many were troubled that important considerations about what precedes media devices and networks had been pushed aside in the fevered dream of 1980s media analysis, with its proclivity for lost media stories, devices, and engineers. Their claim was that too much baby had been thrown out with the bathwater in the rush to, in Siegert’s words, replace the critique of reason with a critique of media (“End” 49). So Siegert, Cornelia Vismann, and others like Thomas Macho, Sybille Krämer—even Kittler himself—sought a way to unloosen the problematic knot the concept of media had become. They did so by rediscovering an old agricultural concept, Kulturtechniken.
‘Cultural techniques’ first emerged in the late 19th century to describe agricultural procedures like irrigation and draining, straightening riverbeds, or constructing water reservoirs (Winthrop-Young, “Preliminary” 4-5; “Kultur” 380-81; also described by Williams 87-89). Already we can see the Kultur in Kulturtechniken is a very far cry from ‘culture’ in the Anglo-American tradition, which describes—to use a crude heuristic binary—either the ‘best that has been thought and said’ (Arnold) or a ‘whole way of life’ (Williams). The culture in cultural techniques originally had to do with cultivation, nurturing, or rendering habitable. These are, after all, the etymological roots of the word (the Latin colere means: to tend, guard, cultivate, or till). This is culture in the sense of doing, handling, working; it involves hands, bodies, and tools, which converge to draw borders and process distinctions.
Imported from agricultural science into media theory—after a brief stopover in mass media studies (see Winthrop-Young “Kultur” 381-82)—cultural techniques are “conceived as operative chains that precede the media concepts they generate” (Siegert, “End” 58). This approach starts not with totalizing concepts like ‘media,’ ‘network,’ or ‘power,’ but instead
places at the basis of changes in cultural and intellectual history inconspicuous techniques of knowledge like card indexes, media of pedagogy like the slate, discourse operators like quotation marks, uses of the phonograph in phonetics, or techniques of forming the individual like practices of teaching to read and write. (Siegert, “Map” 14)
Theories of Kulturtechniken hold that such techniques delineate and assemble the broader spatio-temporal infrastructures of societies (see Parikka 154). There is less emphasis on the devices, objects, or systems privileged by early German media analysis than on ontic operations that reproduce, displace, process or reflect the distinctions at the core of any society, e.g. inside and outside, subject and object, nature and culture, matter and form, etc. (Siegert, “Cacography”; “End”; Grids). At the level of ontics we observe the means by which humans and tools assemble basic categories of space, time and being.
The concept of cultural techniques clearly and unequivocally repudiates the ontology of philosophical concepts. Humans as such do not exist independently of cultural techniques of hominisation, time as such does not exist independently of cultural techniques of time measurement, and space as such does not exist independently of cultural techniques of spatial control. (Siegert, “End” 56-57)
By shifting the analytic gaze from the ontological to the ontic we are able to observe crucial distinctions in a process of becoming, rather than as a priori. Vismann puts it another way: “cultural techniques define the agency of media and things. If media theory were, or had, a grammar, that agency would find its expression in objects claiming the grammatical subject position and cultural techniques standing in for verbs” (“Sovereignty” 83).
The study of cultural techniques holds that media and things are not simply passive objects to be activated at the whim of an intentional (human) subject. Media and things supply their own rules of execution—we do not choose how to open or close a door, to take one of Siegert’s favourite examples (see “Doors”). A door does not present us with an open horizon of possibility. We must act according to the rules it sets out for us: push or pull, open or close. A door has agency in the sense that it structures what is possible for praxis. Thinking of a door in this way shows the picture of agency we usually work with, as reserved for acting human subjects, to be insufficient. As Vismann reminds us, in an echo of Latour, “certain actions cannot be attributed to a person; and yet they are somehow still performed” (“Sovereignty” 84).
Another famous example from literature on cultural techniques is the plough that draws a furrow in the earth to mark the threshold of a city that will be built. Inside this space there will be order, law, custom, exchange; outside will be chaos and barbarism. The furrow, and the door or gate that replaces it, is a cultural technique of hominisation: inside is the space of the human, outside the space of the beast (see Vismann, “Sovereignty”; Siegert, “Doors”; “End”). Entire moral, political, and ethical worldviews are built upon such distinctions; they are the fabric with which social orders are woven. According to Vismann,
the agricultural tool determines the political act; and the operation itself produces the subject, who will then claim mastery over both the tool and the action associated with it. Thus, the Imperium Romanum is the result of drawing a line – a gesture which, not accidentally, was held sacred in Roman Law. (“Sovereignty” 84)
Property still works like this. Ownership only comes to exist after the drawing of a boundary: a line on a map. In this way Vismann can claim the drawing of the furrow as a cultural technique not just of property and ownership, but sovereignty itself.
This tradition is not interested in the content or meaning of media or things, historically the focus of Anglo-American media and cultural studies, only in ways of doing—counting, measuring, collecting, observing, playing, confessing, listing—because these engender systems of knowing and modes of social organization. ‘Media’ as we understand them (e.g. gramophones, telegraphs, and computers) communicate and order by encoding non-sense into sense (and vice versa). This is done via the recording or transmission of signals, or the translating of data into alphanumeric characters. Cultural techniques are the parasitic third: neither sense nor non-sense, but that which engenders the distinctions and operations required for media to do their communicative and ordering work (Siegert, “End” 61-62; Serres).
Listing, for instance, is a cultural technique that precedes a whole host of media networks, from Ancient Sumerian clay tablets to contemporary computer code (Young; see also Vismann Files 5-10). A list draws a border around certain items, inscribing order on a field of possible data. When placed in a list, persons, words, or things become dynamic units available for processing, storage, or transmission. Listing is the cultural technique by which things from the world (or from imagination) become encoded into the symbolic order and thereby subject to manipulation, revision, erasure, or reversibility (see Krämer; Winkler). What is included in a list vs. excluded is a basic distinction upon which rests all kinds of second-order operations, speculations, and actions that comprise media networks of trade and circulation, whether in Ancient Sumeria (Goody), early modern Europe (Poovey; Vismann Files) or Wall Street in 2008. There are major political stakes in such operations: the form of protocol determines how computation unfolds; how a person is listed can determine his or her fate.
Similar conceptual innovations are being pursued across the Atlantic, though they have not yet coalesced as a ‘movement.’ Geoffrey Winthrop-Young highlights connections between cultural techniques and the post-humanism of Haraway, Wills, Wolfe and Hayles (“Kultur” 386), while Jussi Parikka maps resonances "with a range of cross-disciplinary approaches that the Anglo-American academic world is interested in: post-humanities, the non-human, questions of materiality and objects, the affective turn, media archaeology, historical methods and archives, as well as the role of anthropology in media studies" (149). There is a French connection, as well; affinities with Bruno Latour's work—highly influential in Anglo-America—are receiving similar attention (Siegert, Grids). To contribute to such efforts, I turn now to research from the Anglosphere that focuses on those points at which media concepts, devices and networks are still in-formation, having not yet taken their final institutional or epistemological forms.
Formats: Behind and beneath Black Boxes
Jonathan Sterne’s recent call to “focus on the stuff beneath, beyond, and behind the boxes our media come in” (Sterne, MP3 11) is part of a broader shift in the humanities toward materiality (see e.g. Grusen on ‘the nonhuman turn’; Ernst on media archaeology; Dolphijn and van der Tuin on new materialism; Starosielski on infrastructure studies). Sterne develops the concept of format to describe the ‘layers’ of technical development and social practice that occur before media devices or networks emerge as such. His case study is MP3, and he traces a long history of experimentation (and failure) with audio compression modes that prefigure its standardization.
Though formats like MP3 (and the media devices in which they operate) appear to users fully formed, Sterne’s point is that there are myriad historical, institutional, technical and other factors that precede their appearance. They do not fall from the sky. “Cross-media formats” like MP3 “operate like catacombs under the conceptual, practical, and institutional edifices of media” (16).
The concept of format offers a corrective to a trend Sterne sees in media studies that misguidedly conflates under the concept of ‘media’ a vast array of processes, mechanisms, histories, techniques, practices, etc., that operate at distinct layers of any given medium (be they spatial, temporal, institutional, or imaginary):
Format theory would ask us to modulate the scale of our analysis of media somewhat differently. Mediality happens on multiple scales and time frames. Studying formats highlights registers like software, operating standards, and codes, as well as larger infrastructures, international corporate consortia, and whole technical systems. (MP3 11)
The MP3 research is an extension of Sterne’s earlier work on the development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of audile technique, “a set of practices of listening that were articulated to science, reason, and instrumentality and that encouraged the coding and rationalization of what was heard” (Sterne, Audible 23). Through this concept Sterne links together practices of hearing from diverse social, cultural and technical environments. The shift in medical practice from listening to patients’ speech (descriptions about how they were feeling) to listening to their bodies (using technological apparatuses) encodes a technique of hearing that affects the technical development of everything from telegraphy to radio and headphones, and the social development of concepts like private space and private property.
Sterne’s emphasis on the granularity of technique—how humans and their devices converge to establish ways of doing, hearing, seeing, and thinking that are the ground upon which concepts, desires, and institutions are built—resonates very strongly with cultural techniques as theorized by Siegert and others. However, Sterne is far less invested in questions of philosophy and ontics than in methodology. He is not seeking to replace media studies with ‘format studies,’ only to address the erroneous conflation of various ‘sedimentary’ layers under media devices and networks. Siegert’s analysis of media operations at the level of ontics should be seen as a media-philosophical compliment to Sterne’s rigourous historical research. From the other end, cultural techniques could use some of Sterne’s “historical grit – institutional politics, economic marketing, and social history” (Peters “Strange” 12).
Logistical Media: Arrangements of Space and Time
Both cultural techniques and format theory describe ontic operations that precede concepts. These are actions that have to do with handedness; the verbs of media theory that operate on its objects, to recall Vismann’s characterization. John Durham Peters similarly describes what he calls ‘logistical media,’ which “arrange people and property into time and space” (Peters, “Calendar” 40). These are “prior to and form the grid in which messages are sent […] Logistical media establish the zero points of orientation, the convergence of the x and y axis” (40). In ancient societies, technologies like the calendar and clock established grids through which time came to be experienced, measured and calculated (as Mumford understood in 1934). The tower established terrain as a visible field over which power could be exerted. Time and space converge in these objects: towers render the time required to move over terrain as a spatial horizon that can be processed by the eye; the discrete, spatialised movements of a clock’s hands freeze the ephemeral arrow of time; the calendar renders cultural cycles into a spatial form by which these can be standardized and canonized (for a discussion of media and ‘the geometry of time’ see Winkler).
Ned Rossiter extends Peters’s concept to account for conditions of labour and life in contemporary network cultures. For him, logistical media “coordinate and control the movement of labour, people, and things situated along and within global supply chains” (Rossiter, “Coded”). They are devices, protocols, and structures that establish parameters within which movement occurs. According to Bratton, design—whether architectural, infrastructural, or computational—produces “logistical media for mobilization and its administration, technologies that consolidate territory into logistical field and enable a Modern governance based on the abstracted calculation over omnidirectional spaces and surfaces, from open oceans to shared spreadsheets” (8). Logistical capitalism is ‘omnidirectional’ in the sense that distributed computation enables operations to be synchronized in time and distributed over space. “Finance capital and supply chain operations intersect with labor-power through logistical technologies that measure productivity and calculate value using real-time computational procedures.” (Rossiter, “Coded” 135). Operations occur almost simultaneously (in human time) rather than sequentially. In this regard coordinated informational and logistical environments seek to emulate the frictionless “oceanic vectors from which [logistics] is born” (Bratton 12; see also Virilio).
Even though they use the term ‘media’ to develop the concept of logistical media, Peters and Rossiter actually identify moments prior to media, in which devices and techniques process logistical distinctions that establish concepts like time, space, being and ‘media’ itself. Peters’s and Rossiter’s logistical media are cultural techniques by another name. In fact, conceiving of logistical media as a series of interrelated cultural techniques may be a more productive move. Cultural techniques open up the black boxes of media and remove the conceptual baggage that has accumulated over the years (or arguably was always there—we understand ‘media’ no better now than McLuhan did in 1964). Cultural techniques turn our gaze away from dominant media forms, industries, content, or some abstract notion of ‘the (mass) media,’ and toward protocols, standard operating procedures and operations that facilitate infrastructures that Rossiter argues “rob living labour of time” (“Logistical” 67).
Concepts like cultural techniques, format and logistical media grapple with questions of space and time. In so doing, they offer tools well suited to reckon with not just history but contemporary algorithmic culture. New spaces and times have emerged that structure everything from the rhythms of life and labour to expectations regarding communication and commodity circulation. Human subjects, once administered by written formats (over which the state enjoyed a monopoly), have become users (self)regulated by proprietary enterprise systems and code. Our behaviour as consumers is continuously marshaled by computational processes that we cannot see and often do not understand. These problems are inherently logistical; they demand analyses properly tuned to the ways in which the cultural techniques of algorithmic culture structure what is possible for social, political, and imaginative life.
Harold Innis’s ‘Civilizational’ Medium Theory
In foregrounding issues of space and time, the above approaches bring us back to the ‘civilizational’ tradition of media studies most closely associated with Canadian scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Peters suggests that this tradition, which “ponders the civilizational stakes of media as a cultural complex,” has received less emphasis in the last 30 years than dominant streams (Peters schematises the latter as: textual and interpretive; social and explanatory; historical and institutional, see “Strange” 4-5). The more elusive fourth stream has to do with understanding the way that the biases of dominant media shape the character of civilizations, marshaling culture and politics toward certain tendencies: e.g. spatial conquest, as with Rome and its parchment administration, or temporal endurance, as with religions of the papyrus book (see Innis, Bias; Empire). Innis’s great insight was to suggest that an understanding of large-scale civilizational issues can be derived by observing both the granular techniques of e.g. memory and preservation, administration, or communication, and the knowledge practices that structure these realms (aside from medial bias, Innis’s most well known concept is probably ‘monopoly of knowledge’).
Innis was after something like a theory of civilizational cultural techniques. Vismann argues that the Canadian’s distinction between space and time informs a similar conceptual split between cultural techniques that organize spatial categories (“border regimes and surveying techniques […] the act of drawing a line,”) and genealogical techniques, “which govern notions of duration, assign origins and secure the future: record-keeping, adoption and inheritance regulations, but also breeding and grafting” (“Sovereignty” 91-92).
In Innis we can also anachronistically observe a convergence of the original terrain-based definition of Kulturtechniken and its more recent media theoretical incarnation. The concept, as noted above, originally described engineering processes aimed at cultivating land and rendering it habitable. Innis’s early ‘dirt research’ of the 1920s and 30s has a similar emphasis on terrain. The Fur Trade of Canada (1927), for instance, shows that colonial trade networks are shaped by habitation patterns of non-human actors like the beaver. The book’s famous opening gambit was that “it is impossible to understand the characteristic developments of the [fur] trade or of Canadian history without some knowledge of [the beaver’s] life and habits” (3). A detailed description follows of certain biological, geographical, material and even social characteristics of the beaver. These remarks grant context to the later discussion of temporary trade routes, sites of exchange, and navigational patterns established by colonial and indigenous fur trappers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Innis highlights, for instance, that alterations to hunting techniques (arising from encounters between these cultures), combined with the immobility of the beaver (its ‘heavy fixed capital’), played a crucial role in pushing trade and settlement further west.
In the language of the economists, the heavy fixed capital of the beaver became a serious handicap with the improved technique of Indian hunting methods, incidental to the borrowing of iron from Europeans […] With [beaver] destruction in the easterly part of North America came the necessity of pushing to the westward and northwestward to tap new areas of the more valuable furs. The problem of the fur trade became one of organizing the transport of supplies and furs over increasingly greater distances (Innis, Fur Trade 5-6).
The organization of economic activity around fur, a staple good relatively abundant in a peripheral colony (Canada) but highly desired in a central empire (France, later Britain), established techniques, infrastructure and fixed capital that would orient Canada’s emergent economy toward other staples in subsequent centuries, such as lumber, cod, grain, and oil (see Innis, Staples and Cod; Watkins). Innis’s description frames the fur trade and Canadian economic history in terms of cultural techniques and logistics: the movement of things, people, and data. He uses the language of his intellectual training ground, Economics, but the early studies went far beyond conventional economic histories. They trace both the cultural techniques of cultivating land for extraction of staple goods, and the process by which such techniques draw distinctions (in maps, settlements, trade routes, fixed capital, etc.). In later works, Innis extrapolated, seeking to understand the way such techniques and distinctions produce different civilizational ‘biases’ toward space and time (Empire; Bias).
Innis’s early studies were archaeologies of trade and infrastructure that showed how nation states, economies, cycles of accumulation and circulation, and even national identities arise from encounters between humans, terrain, waterways, and fauna, and in response to problems of transportation and navigation, i.e. logistics. This was a radically new approach to understanding economic and civilizational history that emerged from Innis’s commitment to what he called ‘dirt research.’ From 1924 Innis traveled hundreds of miles by Canoe across Canada in order to gather first-hand observations about staples. He learned about the conditions of extraction and production, transportation, exchange, and so on (Creighton 61-64). Innis paid careful attention to terrain and what happens on its surface. He mapped the ebbs and flows not just of rivers, but also social encounters (conducting interviews with those involved in staple economies). He developed tools to understand what precedes not only networks of circulation and communication but also the cultural, political and institutional life built on such networks. Such work stands as a theory of cultural techniques avant la lettre.
Innis’s fourth, civilizational stream of media and cultural studies grapples with issues of infrastructure and logistics, which is where cultural techniques, format theory and logistical media brush up against one another. In conversation, what kind of advantages do these approaches offer in thinking through the dissolution of mass media into digital computation? And how might they help us to connect new modes of data organization and processing—analytics, algorithmic trading, state surveillance, etc.—with older modes, bringing seemingly divergent historical periods into contact? Big Data, for instance, is an orienting principle not just for state surveillance and corporate business plans, but everything from city planning (“smart cities”) and political campaigning (“data consultants”) to counterterrorism (“predictive policing”). How do the cultural techniques of Big Data compare with those of modernity’s earlier “datascapes”—techniques of surveillance and administration like the state census, or private sector efficiency, e.g. Taylorism? Furthermore, does Innis, the great political superego of the civilizational tradition (with his insistence that the key to peace and prosperity is balance amongst the biases of communication), offer a more productive political orientation than currently on offer in the approaches sketched above? Such questions remain for future dirt research.
The modest aims of this paper are to introduce the emergent concept of cultural techniques to English readers and connect it with similar research happenings in the Anglosphere. More ambitiously, I suggest that synthesizing these traditions produces conceptual and methodological tools that are well equipped to account for contemporary developments in digital or ‘algorithmic’ culture. A benefit of these approaches is that they bring to light what precedes foundational concepts like network, system, nation, identity, even ‘media’ and ‘culture’ themselves. They also enable us to more clearly understand that justice in the age of algorithmic capital is as much an engineering problem as a political or philosophical one. Cultural techniques are means by which extant systems enframe life and labour, yet they are also means by which new, more just systems might be built.
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