Research area media critique

Critique of "the" media?

For a long time the critique paradigm was at the center of the dealings with media, which are said to deprive humans of their particularities—or even of their basic nature (Groys 2000, Schirrmacher 2009). If one wished to reconstruct a "primeval scene" of the critique of media as a secondary outside and as a negation of immediacy, there was Plato's Phaedrus. In comparing speech and writing, Plato founded a metaphysically charged manner of dealing with media that repeatedly generated new scenes of a "critique of the media." With each new medium, an entire system of established media, practices of use, relations of time and space, and languages of descriptions was reshuffled (Sprenger 2010, Krämer 2008). A new medium's claim to truth, self-evidence, and life has to be negotiated—be it current media, like the internet, or historical media such as print, film, or television. The anti-representational reproach that comes is always the same: media—which are always new media—are an obstacle to the immediacy of the supposedly direct, immediate exchange between human beings. Established media are naturalized only by the advent of a new medium: writing as opposed to the spoken word, the handwritten codex as opposed to the printed book, the novel as opposed to film, film as opposed to television, the book as opposed to the internet (Bolter/Grusin 1999, Koschorke 2003).


a) Critique of digital cultures

With the digital media revolution this aspect is adopted and deployed, historically as well as systematically. This reveals a systematic timeliness of the recurring anti-representational and anti-medial Platonic figure. With it, the digital pervasion of our lives is articulated in a narrative of decay or loss that bases its criteria on the "old" media. This includes, for example, the critique of social media as destructive of attention (Hayles 2007, Stiegler 2008 and 2012, Wolf 2008, Carr 2011), as a colonization of brain-time (Schmidgen 2014), as affective engineering (Parisi 2009, Hansen 2014 and 2015) or cognitive exploitation (Boutang 2007, Lorey/Neundlinger 2012). In the meantime, digital media have invaded every sphere of life: they transform the cultural and creative sector and the economic system, no less than politics, science and everyday practices. Thus there is no need to assume a "media critique" in the accepted sense anymore, but to reckon with a critique of "digital cultures" instead. The latter include the technological conditions and artifacts, as well as the systems and processes of perception, attribution of meaning, and communication that distinguish the present and future forms of "world creation" from those of the past (Gere 2008). There is also the question concerning the end of the modern critical paradigm and its own susceptibility to crisis (Beyes/Pias 2014).


b) Media critique and media science

In light of this upheaval, the historical relationship between the critique of media and media science becomes all the more controversial. With the institutionalization of culturally oriented media studies, criticism of "the" media was often ignored or relegated to non-academic, media-critical discourses (Pias 2011a). As a result, the present is marked by a problematic constellation: the intuitive, "naive" understanding of media and media critique usually forgets its own means of representation for the sake of a supposedly "direct" gaze that can immediately grasp social and societal phenomena. Over and against this exoteric understanding, there is an esoteric understanding of mediality in some media studies that often purchases its self-reflexive potential at the price of societal irrelevance.

Using a historical perspective, we will take a new look at the transformation that took place at universities around 1970 and led to institutionalized, as well as activist theater, film and media studies (Zielinski 2011). A central issue involves the forms of critique that operate on the level of the current media themselves and within them. This applies, for example, to expectations on the use of video technology in the 1970s (Paech 2011), the mastery of personal computers (the "ability to program") in the 1980s with Kittler, or the competency in new forms of publication and grouping on the World Wide Web ("network critique") of the 1990s (Lovink/Schultz 1997). A constant question is how the changing interaction between media critique and media studies can be reconstructed as to their historical determination.

The mediality of critique under digital conditions

Since about 1950, in the wake of computerization and the general implementation of digital media at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, the significance of critique has shifted in a decisive way (Hayles 1999 and 2012, Hörl 2011 and 2014). One can observe a major movement of transformation; namely, the transition from a "logocentric" to a "technocentric" world (Lazzarato 2014, cf. also Günther 1980 and 2002) that is based less on language and writing than on diagrams, graphs, logarithms, indices, software, etc. (Guattari 2007, Krämer 2011, 2012 and 2014a/b). This leads to the fundamental question as to the effects of digitalization on the philosophical-political project of critique and its subject (Hansen 2011, Alpsancar 2012, Ekman 2013, Gabrys 2014). The most recent critical theories—in accordance with the speculative empiricism of Alfred North Whitehead and the radical empiricism of William James—are heading in the direction of a radical, environmentally conceived subjectivity. The esthetic, not to say aisthetic,constitution of subjectivity is increasingly replacing the linguistic one as the center of attention (Parisi 2009, Parisi/Hörl 2013, Munster 2013, Hansen 2014). The affective turn in critical theory (Lazzarato 2002, Angerer 2007, et al. 2014, Clough 2010) is probably the surest indication of this fundamental change. A further major question precisely on this point is in what form the central topoi of a future critique will crystallize and to what extent topoi of art criticism, with its demand for a new form of affective-corporeal involvement, will come into effect.

a) Critique without a critical subject?
The point of departure is the controversial question whether and how critique without a critical subject in the classical sense—without the central actor of critique since Kant—is thinkable at all. If the traditional critical subject was a reading-writing subject (Stiegler 2009, Hörl 2011), what will reading and writing mean under digital conditions? And can these cultural techniques still constitute a critical subject?  Under digital conditions what other cultural techniques supplement or succeed the established cultural techniques of critique and therefore possibly generate new, or expanded forms of critical subjectivity (Guattari 2014)? In an age of pervasive codes of general algorithmization and Big Data, will calculation, for example, develop into a source of critical subjectivity and activity? And, under digital conditions, what concepts offer themselves as possible guiding ideas of a critique to come, from the softwarization of society and the computational industries (which succeed the cultural industries) to informational ontologies and algorithmic governmentality (Rouvroy 2012, Rouvroy/Berns 2013, Berry 2014)? What critical operations are necessary and possible under the new medial conditions of critique, and how do they give an account of the altered conditions of expression and representation? In an age of digital immanence and culture of affirmation, what will become of the alliance of criticism and negativity (Noys 2010)? Is there a critical power of the positive and a difficult politics of affirmation (Badiou 2007, Noys 2010, Braidotti 2011)? What is the place of humanity in the post-human situation of the digital (Barthélémy 2008, Braidotti 2014, Hansen 2015)?


b) Philosophies of critique under digital conditions

On the basis of case studies we can raise the systematizing question as to what degree major contemporary projects of critique account for these developments in terms of ideas and concepts. Exemplary for such neo-critical thinking under digital conditions would be: Donna Haraway (1991a/b/c): informatics of domination, conceptualization of a situated knowledge and biopoliitical techniques of control; Félix Guattari (2013): post-media subjectivity, general—no longer language-fixated—semiotics, ecosophic critique; Mark B. N. Hansen (2009, 2013 and 2015): specific temporality of 21st-century media operating in micro-temporal areas; constitution of human experience and subjectivity; Brian Massumi (2002 and 2010): affect politics beyond language; Bernard Stiegler (2010 and 2011): cultural-technical constitution of the critical subject of Enlightenment, pharmacological critique of contemporary processes of grammatization as a general "organology."

Against this background, we should also discuss advanced contemporary projects of critique that do not explicitly deal with media and technological conditions. Examples of this would be Jacques Rancière (2002 and 2006), Giorgio Agamben (2003, 2008 and 2010; cf. Zielinski 2011), Alain Badiou (2004, 2005 and 2011; cf. Galloway 2013) and Judith Butler (1998, 2002).


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