Winthrop-Young: “More things in theory than heaven and earth are dreaming of” (Interview)

A conversation with Geoffrey Winthrop-Young

by Melle Kromhout and Peter McMurray

As a kind of Christmas-intermission, we conducted an online interview with Professor Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, who has been part of our group endeavor these past couple of months and who recently translated Cultural Techniques; Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, a collection of essays by Bernhard Siegert published by Fordham University Press this month.

Besides translating Friedrich Kittler’s seminal Gramophone, Film Typewriter together with Michael Wutz in 1999 (Stanford: Stanford University Press), Geoffrey Winthrop-Young translated Cornelia Vismann’s Files: Law and Media Technology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008) and Eva Horn’s The Secret War: Treason, Espionage and Modern Fiction (Evanston: Northwestern University Press: 2013) and essays by various authors. He is also the author of numerous articles on Friedrich Kittler, German Media Theory and Cultural Techniques, as well as two book length introductions to the work of Kittler: one in German (Friedrich Kittler zur Einführung, Hamburg, Junius, 2005) and one in English (Kittler and the Media, Cambridge: Polity, 2011).

In the interview, we discuss the newly translated collection of essays by Siegert, the concept of Cultural Techniques and its relation to what has been called ‘German Media Theory’ in general and the work of Kittler more specifically, as well as the development of Siegert’s own work over the years. We also briefly tackled the practice of translating this kind of scholarly work, which can of course be regarded as a specific kind of media operation, relying on a specific set of cultural techniques, in its own right.


Peter McMurray: How did the forthcoming book of essays come about? Or what prompted you to translate these essays at this point in time?

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young: The easy answer: Bernhard asked, I said yes. And this although I had promised myself never again to translate a German text of more than 30 pages… I guess things just fell into place. Helen Tartar, to whom we owe a lot, championed Bernhard’s writings; “Meaning Systems,” the new Fordham series, is an ideal venue; Bernhard had accumulated the right number of related papers to be turned into a coherent collection; and last but not least it’s a good time to talk about cultural techniques in the anglosphere.

Melle Kromhout: Taking up on that last remark, although several people have taken up the subject at various occasions, I am curious how you would describe that term ‘cultural techniques’? And, secondly, why is the anglosphere ripe for the term (only) now?

GWY: Big question. It deserves a mural, but I’ll start with a sketch. Let’s for the moment leave aside other, older meanings (which are still around), and let’s also ignore alternate current attempts to define the term. What theorists like Bernhard have in mind when they speak of Kulturtechniken are operational sequences involving actors, things and practices that, coming together, give rise to established cultural practices. Out of these operations emerge those entities we subsequently tend to view as the foundations of culture. Actors will turn into subjects, things will turn into objects, and practices will be seen as either emanations of careful, deliberate planning toward a predetermined goal or the natural results of essential human traits.

A simple example. People developed writing systems long before they had any notion of a language that could be represented by means of an alphabet. In fact, the notion of language as a specifically human trait emerged from earlier cultural techniques of writing, but it was then installed as a notion that allegedly gave rise to writing as the visible representation of speech in the first place. In an ongoing ‘culturing’ process we started to introspect and conceptualize language in terms of our writing systems. In other words, cultural techniques are further installation of modern theory’s crusade against the as such. There is, as Bernhard writes, no time as such, there are only different techniques of time measurement; there is no human as such, there are only different techniques of hominization. And what Bernhard likes to emphasize — and here he is playing parasite to Michel Serres’s parasite — is that while culture-technical operations create culture and order (and sometimes disorder) by introducing distinctions which allow us to distinguish message from noise, order from chaos, culture from nature, these operations themselves belong to neither side.

I have temporarily skipped your 2nd question (why now in the anglosphere?) simply because I would ramble on for too long and send readers to sleep if I answered both questions at this point. We can certainly return to that question later on.

PM: If these operational sequences that comprise cultural techniques don’t fit within the cultural categories they produce, where and how do they originate? That is, for Siegert, do they emerge from previous cultural configurations themselves, or are they somehow timeless, but only active in certain periods?

GWY: Remember the famous anecdote: Bertrand Russell is giving a lecture on astronomy. He explains how the moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun, and the whole Milky Way waltzes around itself. A distraught old lady interrupts him and says: “This is nonsense. Earth is resting on a giant plate supported by a turtle.” Russell asks: “But what does the turtle stand on?” Says the old lady: “You are a very clever young man — but it’s turtles all the way down!”

Bernhard is simply saying that it’s not the Great Turtle Culture all the way down. And though all the levels all the way down are made up of historically locatable practices, there is a point of obfuscating change that needs to recognized. One way to approach matters is to recall a basic feature of complexity. Think of the study of cultural techniques as similar to the study of systemic properties that arise from, but cannot be reduced to, the interaction between individual components. Whether you are talking about the seeming coordination of a flock of birds in flight, or the intricate appearance of ant colonies, human brains, the world wide web or the immune system, in each case relatively simple components with only limited communication among themselves collectively give rise to complex behaviour. We have very elementary practises, which are of course historically located, and which operate, as it were, on a sub-cultural level but which are then seen as the effects and manifestations of what is deemed to be the foundation of culture. This is very much a continuation of the anti-hermeneutic effect the younger Friedrich Kittler became famous (or infamous) for: What is celebrated as an Empire of Meaning that cuts across the nature/culture divide emerges from a sequence of medial operations that are operating underneath the meaning/meaninglessness distinction; they form, in Bernhard’s words, an abyss of non-meaning.

“Media became as much a reified or ossified concept as the humanist concepts it was deployed against. The cultural techniques approach is therefore also an escape from this hardware fetishism.”

MK: Speaking of the younger Friedrich Kittler: in the context of what is known as German Media Theory (or Medienwissenschaften), how does the concept of Kulturtechniken relate to Kittler’s ‘Discourse Networks’ (Aufschreibesysteme), if at all? In his later work, especially Musik und Mathematik, Kittler’s interest tended toward an increasingly broad range of topics (and of course, much larger timescale) that would generally seem to fit within the scope of Kulturtechniken, but which he kept referring to in interviews in terms of Aufschreibesysteme. Is this just a matter of terminology or is there a more profound difference at play?

GWY: This is a question with many intriguing detours. I’ll try to peek into a few. At first glance Aufschreibesysteme and Kulturtechniken, or “discourse networks” and cultural techniques, are very different simply because they are located on different orders of magnitude. Analytically, Aufschreibesystem is a macro-term, while Kulturtechnik belongs to the micro-domain. An Aufschreibesystem — defined by Kittler as a network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store and process relevant data — describes the whole cultural smorgasbord laid out on the table; ‘cultural techniques’ refers to the plain ingredients you only see in the kitchen. The former is the grand executed program, the latter a jumble of algorithms. However, the very term Aufschreibesystem, which literally translates as ‘writing-up systems’, already contains a hint that discourse networks are made up of basic cultural techniques.

The younger Kittler occasionally used the term cultural techniques, yet he did not employ it in the sense we are talking about here. He had in mind the second, far more straightforward instantiation of the term, which refers to so-called “elementary cultural techniques” like reading and writing. To refer to these skills as elementare Kulturtechniken was a result of the diffusion of modern analog and digital media that require a whole set of technical and perceptual skills. In other words, with the advance of modern storage and broadcast technologies into every household, “pre-technical” recording and communication practices came to be conceived of as something more technical as well. However, before Kittler was able to progress from this second meaning of the term to the sophisticated third meaning we are discussing here, a different concept intervened: media.

As anybody who has read Kittler knows, it is not easy to tell what he means when he uses or parades the m-word. The main reason for this difficulty is that he deploys the term in two very different ways. One the one hand the term media signifies just that — media. It refers to a whole array of inscription and storage technologies, from phonographs to index cards, which hitherto had been outside the purview of the humanities. In other words, the term designates a class of objects under investigation, a research vortex that was soon booked under the well-worn phrase “materialities of communication.” On the other hand, Kittler was talking less about media than mediality, that is, the fact that so many of the concepts and constructs we live by, also and especially those seen as indicative of distinctly human faculties of Geist and ingenuity, are in technical fact medially constructed. In this case, media designates less an object than an approach. Rather than targeting the materialities of communication, the focus is on explicitating — to use Latour’s and Sloterdijk’s pet verb — the mediality of culture. (I am in the process of publishing a few papers that try to explain that the core algorithm of Kittler’s theoretical production is how these two different uses of the term ‘media’ recursively feed into each other. However, it’s something you have to tease out, it’s not explicitly stated by him.)

Now, what happened is that because Kittler and so many of those working in his wake tended to focus somewhat obsessively on the hardware component, that is, on the technologically informed study of media, the whole Kittlerian Medienwissenschaft took on that hardware drudgery so-called German Media Theory is famous or infamous for. As a result — and this is a crucially important point — media became as much a reified or ossified concept as the humanist concepts it was deployed against. The cultural techniques approach is therefore also an escape from this hardware fetishism because it teases apart reified concepts of media in much the same way as twenty years earlier media had been able to tease apart Geist, Bildung, soul, consciousness and all usual humanist suspects. But that was not Kittler’s doing. He moved off the into sunnier, steamier terrains of ancient Greece.

PM: Building from Kittler then, how do we position Siegert’s work — let’s say Passage des Digitalen in particular, and his formulation of cultural techniques more broadly — within the current generation of media theorists (Ernst, Zielinski, Coy, among others)? And is the entire rubric of German Media Theory unfairly lumping a whole array of vaguely related approaches together?

GWY: German Media Theory. Jawohl, the term is questionable. Remember the Holy Roman Empire? It was neither an empire nor Roman, and it sure as hell wasn’t holy. You could say of so-called German Media Theory that it wasn’t a theory, that ultimately it didn’t deal with media, and that we should not have called it German before figuring out on what level that epithet operates. In many ways it is as dubious a moniker as French TheoryTM; it throws together people and approaches who do not belong together (and who do not want to be together), and it does so in the interest of external observers too lazy to care about internal differentiations. But as in the case of so-called French Theory there is some truth to the moniker; and what it may lack in correctness it makes up in interest.

To the best of my knowledge, the first outside observer to speak of German Media Theory in a non-trivial sense, that is, as denoting more than merely media theory produced in German-speaking countries, was Geert Lovink. Geert wanted to draw attention to the media-related work by some of the theorists you have named, whose main distinguishing marks were: strong links to French post-structuralism (especially Foucault and Lacan); stylistic murkiness; a McLuhanese grandezza combined with a strong technological bent; covert links to Heidegger; a strong anti-hermeneutic compulsion; and last but not least a hefty aversion to anything that emphasized social and/or individual agency in media theory. The latter frequently gave it an either determinist or fatalist appearance (which, in turn, links back to the German tradition of theorizing about technology that appears in Weber, Spengler, the Jünger brothers, Anders, Benjamin, and, once again, The Man from Meßkirch). Two things strike me as interesting: politically, Geert came from a very different corner — from that of tactical media, social activism, critical network studies — yet he nonetheless put an appreciative spotlight on people like Kittler. The message is that you should engage with the people whose main message seems to be that your engagement is deluded. If you want to know what you are really up against when you sit in front of a computer screen preparing some big political action, if you do not want to be carried away by the facile rhetoric of empowerment and resistance, you need to to study these folks. It’s the logic of inoculation: you need to take on a bit of the virus to resist the disease. Second, when in October 2004 Geert posted a mail in the online forum Rohrpost asking whether or not there indeed was such a thing as German Media Theory, he received a slew of responses that appeared to revive Bishop Berkeley’s doctrines of subjective idealism. If such a national body of theory existed at all, he was told by German respondees, it was the result of the internalization of an external observation. Esse est percipi. To speak of German Media Theory was a performative speech act: The term created what it invoked. Or maybe it had less to with Berkeley than with Althusser: German Media Theory was called to order from the outside, and that interpellation contributed to its self-awareness.

“Bernhard is not what they used to call a homo unius libri, someone who varies, unfolds and expands one big thought across several books. He is more of a flexible observer drawn along by incessant curiosity.”

MK: Returning to Siegert, correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real is Siegert’s second book in English, after Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, which was published in translation in 1999 and originally in 1993. This means this new book comes more than twenty years after Relays was originally published In German. Notably, (to tie this in with our reading group) Siegert’s second major work, Passage des Digitalen, remains as for now untranslated. Therefore, how would you describe Siegert’s intellectual trajectory from Relays along Passage toward the essays included in the forthcoming book?

GWY: Yes, Relays is the Bochum dissertation, Passage the Berlin habilitation. In German there is one further book, Passagiere und Papiere: Schreibakte auf der Schwelle zwischen Spanien und Amerika (“Passengers and Papers: Writing Acts on the Threshold between Spain and America”), published in 2006. The good news is that Grids, Filters, Doors contains a chapter which recaps that book in a nutshell.

I am reluctant to offer an intellectual trajectory because Bernhard is not what they used to call a homo unius libri, someone who varies, unfolds and expands one big thought across several books. He is more of a flexible observer drawn along by incessant curiosity, to the extent that he often seems to be looking ahead to text n+1 while still writing text n. Think of the end of the preface to Passage: He mentions that the book could well have been about seas, oceans and that “we are all Flying Dutchmen” (19) — which is what several subsequent texts in fact are about. This makes cross-textual summaries difficult. Nonetheless, let’s give it a try.

On a very — repeat: very — general level Bernhard is a media-focused epistemologist. He observes how media observe and process the world and how their observing and processing (in)forms us. The basic trajectory from Relays onwards is one of increasing refinement, both in terms of approach and object, and of an increasing awareness of the implications of this double refinement. Relays — which begins with an exuberant, in-your-face anti-Habermasian evocation of discord: Lärm und Zank auf allen Kanälen (“noise and wrangling on all channels”) — paints a large canvass with a broad brush. It deals with the postal delivery apparatus, a far more formidable structure than will appear in subsequent texts. If we for a moment limit ourselves to the French maître penseurs mulling around in the background, we can describe Relays as a synthesizing of Derrida and Foucault. The former provided the notion of the postal principle, the latter its splicing into discrete epistemes. The subsequent work is characterized by an analytic descent onto the level of smaller operations. At the same time there is a corresponding ascent into more explicitly philosophical considerations. As media structures give way to cultural techniques, the feisty anti-hermeneutic fervor yields to a more relaxed post-hermeneutic scrutiny of regional ontologies. In Passage and many of the recent essays you can see how the sustained attention to frequently inconspicuous technologies gives rise to the notion of media as black-boxed assemblies of practices and operations that need to be unpacked. And where is he now? In a nutshell, he is scrutinizing media as objects that connect different realms not, as used to be the case, by representation but by referring to themselves. Not an easy point, to be sure, yet one worth exploring.

PM: Can you give an example of this latest phase of self-reference rather than representation?

GWY: Here’s one (it’s chapter nine of the forthcoming collection). Remember all those food-focused 17th-century Dutch still life paintings? With their half-eaten hyperrealistic pieces of fruit and cheese? They are so life-like that artists occasionally added equally realistic flies and other vermin who mistook them for the real thing. It’s a trompe-l’œil: the flies are not part of the painting, they appear to be crawling around on top of them, thus seemingly adding a third dimension. Sometimes it’s not about vermin; instead the still lifes feature boards, frames, mantelpieces or knife handles that appear to jut out at the observer.

Now, we can wax eloquently about this representational mise en abyme, how the flies both enforce and deconstruct a mendacious mimesis that may also dupe human observers, how it all goes back to Pliny’s tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius and forward to M. C. Escher – and so on and so forth. All these ruminations, however, still presuppose a basic logic of representation. It is still assumed that the principal operation of the media involved is to communicate something outside of themselves to someone in a third place, no matter how oblique or ironic this mediation may be. Here, Bernhard takes his cue from art historians who argue that the trompe-l’œil is not some unsettling hyper-mimetic protuberance added on to the established Dutch mania for realistic still lifes. Rather, it is integral to the emergence of the genre. To put it in a nutshell, the trompe-l’œil is a design feature that compresses an intermedial evolution. Still lifes gradually emerged from illuminated manuscript pages with their elaborately designed margins and boundaries that were intersected, left to right, top to bottom, and even back to front, by pictorial or calligraphic adornments. This breaking of boundaries is recursively processed by still life trompe-l’œils, which grew out of (and never quite left behind) margins, edges and borders that were constantly reinterpreted as represented objects. The fancy margin at the bottom of the page which is not part of the text — and which is therefore not read but gazed at — now becomes a trompe-l’œil shelf or board that is not part of the original picture and which therefore has to be gazed at differently. In other words, these disorienting flies recall a different media format that required different techniques of gazing and reading which cannot simply be transferred to other formats. All this has little to do with representation in any conventional or classic sense. The representation effect is the result of a process of remediation. As I said before, media are now seen as objects that connect different realms not, as we used to think, by representation but by referring to themselves. (And isn’t it like Bernhard’s Luhmannian postal system? A system that communicates all the more efficiently because it has closed in on itself and processes all external stimuli and communicative offers exclusively according to its internal systemic properties?) Next time you look at those duped flies, think of McLuhan: The content of a medium is always another medium — even if it’s flies trying to nibble at painted cheese.

“Translators are media: the better they are, the less they are noticed. But to be ‘transparent’, to optimally communicate and represent heterolingual matters without interlingual friction, involves many operations that have little to do with transparence and representation.”

MK: Speaking of mediation and remediation: you said you promised yourself “never again to translate a German text of more than 30 pages,” but you started translating this collection nonetheless. Could you perhaps elaborate on the way you go about translating a book like this?

GWY: I must confess I do not reflect a lot on translating; and I am somewhat ignorant of the theories involved. I’ve read a few of the canonical texts from Benjamin onwards, but they mean as much to me as the deliberations of a professor of economics do to someone who runs a corner store: certainly interesting, but of little help. Over the years I have collected a few nuts and bolts I live or translate by:

  1. If you do not have to do it for a living, only translate stuff you appreciate and enjoy. Just as you should not teach texts that bore you because you will bore your students, do not translate anything that pains you because it will be a pain to readers. I do not agree with everything Bernhard writes (not to mention Kittler), but I like reading him and I tend to learn more from disagreeing with him than from agreeing with others.
  2. When dealing with German academic texts from the domain we’ve been discussing, remember that they are also sound events. I believe that people, somehow, think the way they speak, so whenever I translate somebody I make sure to listen to their lectures. YouTube is a great tool for translators. When I have finished a passage in English, I test whether it fits the author’s voice. The translation I am least satisfied with is Cornelia Vismann’s Files, and that is in part due to the fact that I never heard her speak. Of course you need to know the source language well, and you need to know the history and undergrowth, the cultural taste of the concepts you are translating, but ultimately you will have to abandon literal renderings in favour of finding the corresponding tone of voice in the target language. If a text is indeed a city of words, you must be familiar with the unseen, off-limits parts, even if they do not need to be translated: the red light districts and backyards, the gated communities and the sewers.
  3. If possible (and it not always is), see to it that you develop a relaxed, easy-going relationship with your authors. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve mainly dealt with people I got on with so well that we could poke fun at each other’s blunders without bruising egos. At the same time, always remember that the Italians got it right: traduttore – traditore. No matter how close you are to the authors, you will and you must betray them by virtue of your ignorance and your hubris, respectively. You will get things wrong and you will at times believe that you know things better than they do, and you will therefore try to help out the text by adding or changing a bit…
  4. Ultimately, it goes back to what we’ve been discussing here. Translators are media: the better they are, the less they are noticed. But to be ‘transparent’, to optimally communicate and represent heterolingual matters without interlingual friction, involves many operations that have little to do with transparence and representation.
  5. Don’t expect anything, but keep your head up. Nobody ever erected a statue in honour of a translator, but authors that aren’t translated don’t receive one either.

PM: There are a number of loose threads scattered here that we don’t have time to come back to, but one that seems especially relevant to this venture (reading Siegert in German, blogging/discussing in English) is Melle’s earlier question about media studies in the Anglosphere: Where does Siegert’s work fit within recent developments–the embrace of Kittler, the heightened awareness of media archaeology, etc.? And what kinds of discussions would you hope and expect to arise from the new book of essays?

GWY: Successful information (we learn from informative books and informed people) depends on the proper mixture of redundancy and the unexpected. The same applies to reception. For matters to catch on they must be both foreign and close to home. Take Derrida. His high-profile part in the French invasion remains inexplicable if you do not take into account that he offered something genuinely new and radical which, however, could be put into action by refunctionalizing well-honed, firmly established native skills of literary analysis. Deconstruction was New Criticism with an attitude.

The same applies to Bernhard. On the one hand, as John Peters and Jussi Parikka have argued, we are dealing with something that is not done in the anglosphere, or at least not as thoroughly as it is done in the Germanies. John has been especially adept in pointing where it comes from; and Jussi, where it may lead to. The similarities or tie-ins are deceptively obvious: (i) the relationship between the operational sequences as they appear in the cultural techniques approach and in actor-network-theory; (ii) the extension of media theory into media archeology or even media geology (though this applies more to Wolfgang Ernst or Siegfried Zielinski); and (iii) the closeness between this German import and related French goods that have already arrived (especially, Latour — think of his concept of immutable mobiles — and Serres). I use the word deceptive because I can feel Bernhard cringing: he would insist on a sharp divide between his kind of work and actor-network-theory. And he’s right: hasty associations such as these are the intellectual equivalent of shotgun marriages, and usually about as happy.

But if I had to add what interests me most, it is the whole anthropological and/or posthumanist domain. Call it media biology. Read Bernhard — for instance, the chapter on parrots and parlêtres in the upcoming collection — with, alongside and against work by Cary Wolfe, Donna Haraway or David Wills. What is the first cultural technique? That of speciation. Or not? What does it say about the different ways in which the two sides of the Atlantic (or the channel) approach the co-evolution, the always-already-intertwinedness of humans and technology? Where does ethics enter? How much was already said by the German Philosophical Anthropologists who frolicked between the 1920s and 1970s? Are media an Umwelt? Lots to discuss. But above all, enjoy the questions. There are more things in theory than heaven and earth are currently dreaming of. So let’s wake them up.

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