Cultural Techniques: A Roundtable Review, Part 1

Cultural Techniques: A Roundtable Review, Part 1

(Jump ahead to our roundtable conversation in Part 2 here)

Siegert, Bernhard. 2015. Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. New York: Fordham University Press. xix, 265 pp.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the idea of Kulturtechniken, or cultural techniques, has flourished, spreading well beyond Germany and German-language media and cultural studies. Already in Passage des Digitalen, Bernhard Siegert frames his arguments of the digital within a notion of cultural techniques “of writing, reading, drawing and counting” (Passage des Digitalen, 14). Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, serves a dual function of introducing Siegert’s recent work to a wider audience, but also articulating a vision of what this (study of) cultural techniques is or might be.

Like the place of binaries within a cultural-technical approach to media and culture, the book’s ambivalence between these two aims is productively hazy: in some moments, Siegert’s writing appears to be offering a definitive account of what cultural techniques are and how they function; in other moments, that unifying clarity wanes, though not in an unsatisfying way, as readers are then treated to a sprawling web of media forms, technologies, and modes of existence that carry plenty of provocative substance without being shoehorned into a larger chronological or geographical narrative. From this emerges a complex, if somewhat disjointed vista on the scope of Siegert’s interpretation of cultural techniques: from eating habits to ship building, from mapmaking to Trompe-l’oeil painting and from the logic of doors to the symbolic register of biographical writing.

The book opens with an introductory essay that offers some possible definitions of cultural techniques–though certainly not the only ones offered in the book. In a comprehensive history of the development of so-called German Media Theory in the past two decades, Siegert signals a

“second phase (from the late 1990s to the present), which witnessed the conceptual transformation of media into cultural techniques, may be labeled posthermeneutic. Underneath this change, which served to relieve media and technology of the burden of having to play the bogeyman to hermeneutics and Critical Theory, there was a second rupture that only gradually came to light.” (6).

With this “second rupture,” which “was linked to nothing less than the end of the intellectual postwar in Germany,” the “new conceptual career of cultural techniques” began. That is: a notion that extends well beyond such ‘elementary’ cultural techniques as writing and counting. The opening chapter then lays out a programmatic exploration of what cultural techniques have meant (in three distinct phases) and mean today (in five broader features).

The three broad phases that Siegert recognizes focus on, firstly the study “historically and culturally contingent techniques” (instead of philosophical idealizations) through “empirical historical objects” (9). Secondly, as mentioned previously, the study of “basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic,” or more broadly a focus on “the domains of graphé and its relationship to material carriers” (10). And thirdly, a move away from the alleged hardware-centric techno-determinism of earlier German media studies back toward the humanities and social sciences:

“[M]edia are scrutinized with a view toward their technically, technology is scrutinized with a view toward its instrumental and anthropological determination, and culture is scrutinized with a view toward its boundaries, its other and its idealized notion of bourgeois Bildung” (10).

As might be clear, these three phases are not necessarily successive, but also constitute different opinions on what researching cultural techniques can bring to theory. The five broader features that Siegert subsequently list further flesh out his own approach. Closely akin to a Kittlerian approach to media, cultural techniques, firstly, focus on the “exteriority/materiality of the signifier” (11) and, secondly, presupposes an “understanding of culture that no longer posits man as the only, exclusive subject of culture” (ibid.). More influenced by Derrida and Serres than by Kittler, however, Siegert’s cultural techniques are situated “before the grand epistemic distinction between culture and technology, sense and nonsense, code and thing” (13). They are “media in the broadest sense of the word” (14) processing elemental distinction (14). Lastly, Siegert emphasizes, these media not only produce categories and delineate distinctions, they “also destabilize cultural codes, erase signs, and deterritorialize sounds and images” (15).

In the course of these five characteristics of how cultural techniques might be understood, Siegert adds a number of other striking descriptors (if not outright definitions):

“Essentially, cultural techniques are conceived of as operative chains that precede the media concepts they generate….When we speak of cultural techniques, therefore, we envisage a more or less complex actor network that comprises technological objects as well as the operative chains they are part of and that configure or constitute them” (11).

The fact that cultural technique ‘precede’ the (media) concepts they generate seems crucially significant to understanding what Siegert is after. Although no longer confined to relatively straight forward examples of basic techniques like writing and counting, his idea of cultural techniques still upholds the idea of something ‘elementary’ or ‘fundamental,’ something that precedes distinctions, concept and definitions that govern the field in which they operate. Unlike other technologies, cultural techniques therefore perform some kind of “symbolic work,” though the distinction between technology and the symbolic is one to be problematized:

“In order to situate cultural techniques before the grand epistemic distinction between culture and technology, sense and nonsense, code and thing, it is necessary to elaborate a processual rather than ontological definition of first- and second-order techniques. We need to focus […] on how nonsense generates sense, how the symbolic is filtered out of the real, or how, conversely, the symbolic is incorporated into the real, and how things/signifiers can exist because of the interchange of materials/information across the ever-emergent boundaries by which they differentiate themselves from the surrounding medium/channel” (13).

With a broader revival of interest in process in recent years, this call for a processual approach to media sense-making is particularly compelling.

Siegert continues with other key criteria, including the critical idea of differentiation: “Every culture begins with the introduction of distinctions: inside/outside, pure/impure, sacred profane” and so on (14). Cultural techniques lays bare the contingency of these distinctions and, again, the processes that bring them about, challenging their perceived status as the real. Researching cultural techniques is therefore to a large extent epistemological, questioning “the medial conditions of whatever lays claim to reality” (ibid.). It is here where ‘cultural techniques’ relates back to the term previous reserved for such operations: media. Indeed, “the distinctions in question are processed by media in the broadest sense of the word (for instance, doors process the distinction between inside/outside)” (ibid.). Hereby, Siegert’s idea of cultural techniques extents the definition of media almost well beyond even its broadest common interpretations. Media come to be everything that assumes “the position of a mediating third, preceding first and second,” which means preceding the ‘real’ or ‘symbolic’ categories or distinctions that they bring forth in the first place. (ibid.).

The book is organized with a few clustered themes. The introduction and first essay, “Cacography or Communication?,” raise broad questions about what cultural techniques are and how they might function in processes of inscription, writing and communication. It is here, as well, that the idea of the ‘mediating third,’ inspired by Michel Serres’s Parasite, gets its clearest definition, which is that, as Siegert cites Serres “a third exists before the others [the first and the second]….There is always a mediate, a middle, an intermediary,” preceding every form of differentiation and categorization. A series of anthropologically-focused essays follow on eating, talking animals, canoe-building and seafaring, and colonial registers. While these essays vary considerably, they all posit culture as something that is not limited clearly to the realm of the human, but rather involves animals, boats and water, the divine/supernatural, technologies of inscription, and so on. The next trio of essays emphasize visuality and “graphic operations,” including the grid and the line. The final essays, including the already-classic “Door Logic,” explore opening, closing, and folding as operations shared across a variety of media forms. That one can readily imagine different arrangements of these essays–by sensory modality, by historical period, or even by date of authorship–attests to the fecundity of Siegert’s approach. His own self-ascribed emphasis on the anthropological, visuality, and certain material movements (folding/opening/closing) already hints at some of his agenda in applying a model of cultural techniques.

As an extension of our reading of Passage des Digitalen, we were pleased to continue on (as a smaller group) with a collective reading of Cultural Techniques. (Many thanks to Bernhard Siegert, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Eric Newman and the editors at Fordham University Press for making this possible!) The roundtable conversation that follows in Part 2 delves into a handful of issues we found particularly intriguing, challenging, or otherwise noteworthy in the book.

(Also see the review of Cultural Techniques by Bernard Geoghegan that we put on the blog earlier, as well as our interview with translator Geoffrey Winthrop-Young.)

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