Cultural Techniques: A Roundtable Review, Part 2

Cultural Techniques: A Roundtable Review, Part 2 

(Read our brief introduction in Part 1 here)

Participants: Maren Koehler, Melle Kromhout, Peter McMurray and Nina Westzaan

Peter McMurray: There’s a ton we might dig into with Cultural Techniques, but let me start with one observation and string of questions about “difference.” To the credit, I think, of Siegert and the cultural techniques crowd, there’s a recurring thread here of difference, much of which happens at a cultural level.

Indeed, the whole re-culturization of media studies seems promising here, and I was personally very excited to see a string of essays (chs. 2-5) that Siegert describes as anthropological. Furthermore, the kinds of examples that emerge from the outset of the book–from the question of Latin inscriptions in the Ottoman Empire in “Cacography” to Trobriand canoe-builders–take aim squarely at presumptions of European cultural hegemony and particularly the kinds of narratives Western scholars have forged. I appreciated that opening not just toward anthropology but toward the critical humanistic strain of the humanities. I hope to come back to the ways he is engaging with the anthropological, because it seems like a very productive (if sometimes problematic) way to expand the possible sets of disciplines/discourses that might find value in an idea of cultural techniques.

 Siegert takes on a lot of these questions on right in the introduction, which I found tremendously helpful in situating his larger project and trends in “German media theory” (I’ll stop using scare-quotes after this) in recent decades. At risk of being too parochial, however, I found his characterizations of American media studies to be a little slapdash at times. For example, the central question for American posthuman studies is, apparently, “How did we become post-human?” But I’m not sure this is right. Instead, I might phrase it, in solidarity with scholars like Donna Haraway and Alexander Weheliye, as: “How has the posthuman (already? predictably? always already?) replicated and reinscribed human forms and discourses of difference in our contemporary intersections of the human and nonhuman?” In other words, why does the “posthuman” look so much like the “human” in terms of race, gender, ability, etc.? This line of questioning in no way negates Siegert’s fascinating question–wasn’t this human-nonhuman mixing always the case?–but rather points out that not all mixings are the same. Power doesn’t evenly distribute itself in the current iteration of the posthuman, just like it didn’t in whatever previous iterations of the post/human one might have encountered historically.

Siegert writes that the point of cultural techniques is not to remove or critique difference per se, but rather to decenter “the distinction between human and nonhuman by insisting on the radical technicity of this distinction…[T]he irreducible multiplicity and historicity of the anthropological is always already processed by cultural techniques and media technologies” (8-9). The technical still subsumes the cultural, when push comes to shove, however much the idea of Kulturtechniken might try to bring these two categories together. Whether one agrees with the gesture or not, it does seem to displace (as Siegert acknowledges) many of the ethical concerns one might otherwise encounter.

So I’m curious: Would others characterize his approach to “difference” in another way? (Have I unfairly stripped down his argument here, not unlike what I think he’s done with American media theory?) Can cultural techniques remain relevant in an ethically-minded discourse like that of cultural anthropology? Does it have to be a trade-off between ethics and technics, or can they somehow co-exist without having one trump (or always-alreadycize) the other?

Melle Kromhout: Thanks, Peter, for this excellent kick-off for our discussion of the book. In response to one of your question – the one about “ethically-minded discourses” – I have to say admit that I was slightly puzzled by Siegert’s use of the example of the ‘Kula’ in “Medusas of the Western Pacific.” Although I am neither an anthropologist, nor highly invested in post-colonial studies, I couldn’t shake the impression that, especially from a postcolonial perspective, Siegert’s analysis in this chapter remains somewhat problematic. Although I cannot really judge the value of the anthropological work that he bases his findings on (although I get the impression it is certainly not very recent work), he doesn’t seem to escape the tendency of fabricating some exotic “other” in order to ultimately shed light on ‘ourselves’ (the same can perhaps be said from the point of view of a more gender-critical reading of the chapter).

Some of this uneasiness also relates to the ambiguous status of Siegert’s “examples.” Throughout the book, and indeed in his other work like Passage des Digitalen as well, he spends page after page describing the cultural objects or artefacts he is dealing with. His research is clearly thorough and his descriptions are lively and engaging, but, like many of his colleagues in German Media Theory (Kittler, Ernst) the actual analysis is often presented as more or less self-explanatory and indisputably evident. This is, of course, a matter of both rhetoric style and methodology, but it can become problematic when the it veers into academic territories less familiar with this style and method, as is the case with the Medusa-chapter. Once the source material is less material and fact-based, once the cultural techniques involved are not the central perspective, ship-design, door handles or table manners, the methodology seems less sound. Especially when the analysis seems to solely rely on several anthropological studies, the value of which I find difficult to judge.

I am curious to hear what the other made of this.

Maren Koehler: Although bypassing Peter’s question on ethics/technics, I would like to take up his point of Siegert’s rendering difference as technical/technological processes and somewhat extend this to the ‘spatial operations’ of cultural techniques. Some of the case studies are very explicit in the spatial processes “that reproduce, reflect and process distinctions” (doors, grids, ships) while others only point to the emergence of certain architectural/institutional spaces (the office vs. the shipyard in “Waterlines”, the library in “(Not) in Place”) and their functioning as a form of technology. Though I am also wondering how the concept of cultural techniques relates to Agamben’s/Foucault’s apparatus/dispositif:

“Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, judicial measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and – why not – language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses – one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face.” (Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus?, 2009, 14.)

Following this, Agamben argues that it is through the relation with apparatuses that living beings become “humanized” subjects. The concept of cultural techniques and difference as a technical (and spatial) process seems to follow a similar argument. ​Could it be that the ventures into cultural techniques distinguish themselves from posthuman studies in constituting more or less concrete historical case studies? “What (still) separates the theory of cultural techniques from those of the posthumanities, then, is that the former focuses on empirical historical objects while the latter prefers philosophical idealizations” (9). Siegert seems to point here to the methodology of his work, scrutinising, drawing together (and on) a collection of material from various different disciplines.​

Nina Westzaan: In response to Peter and Melle, rather than perceiving the cultural techniques of the seafaring Trobriand islanders as “other,” I am interested whether we can view Siegert’s adoption of the rituals of the Trobriands as an Idealtypus (in Weber’s sense)?

Melle’s question made me wonder whether it is possible at all to ‘otherize’ when you think in terms of cultural techniques, as the analysis of cultural techniques departs from the notion that every culture always starts with the introduction of distinctions. In that sense, the distinction between Occident and Orient (for instance) serves practical rather than ideological purposes.

Yet, (hidden Protestant) ideology reappears in ‘Eating Animals’, for instance when Siegert quotes Kant who portrays the Catholic Communion as a fetishism that counteracts the spirit of religion. Siegert takes the ‘eating’ of God far too literally when he depicts the problem of cannibalism. Although this rhetoric of course serves a purpose as it functions to translate the question ‘How can we both ensure and avoid the eating of the host?’ into: ‘What kind of medium is necessary to prevent the self-incorporation of the community […] from being processed in the real?’, at the same time there is the presence of a Protestant critique to the Catholic service that bothers as well as intrigues me (the transubstantiation of bread/host and wine is a very sensitive point of discussion).

Melle: I think Nina is addressing some fundamental issues raised by the conceptual framework of the book itself: the very status of the term “cultural technique.” Although Siegert very extensively outlines the concept of cultural techniques both historically and conceptually in the introduction, the fact that he identifies “three phases” and “five further features” already signifies the density of the term. In the ensuing chapters, I could not overcome the feeling that the term is subject to a certain slippage in meaning partly invoked by Siegert’s own introductory analysis. Although such an ambivalence can certainly account for the openness, applicability and therefore the conceptual viability of the term, it also continuously runs the risk of becoming a more or less empty vessel (which, due to Siegert’s style, rigor and depth it does not, but still…).

With respect to these issues, I am wondering about the status of the first chapter (on Cacography). Although all the other chapters are examples of one or several more or less specific cultural techniques, this first chapter actually seems to present yet another definition of the very idea of cultural techniques per se, namely the ‘filters’ that (as Nina wrote) introduce fundamental distinctions. Although I’m not entirely sure this is the case, to me, rather than ‘just’ the first example of a cultural techniques, Siegert’s reading of Serres’s introduction of the phatic function and the excluded ‘third’ in the classical model of information theory reads like the methodological introduction to the book as a whole. Hence, although not explicitly stated, the concept of cultural techniques as those operations that introduces distinctions and difference in the first place might be Siegert’s most important conceptual claim throughout the book. 

Peter: I’d love to chime in with a brief response to Maren, in particular, and to a certain degree to Melle’s comment right now: I find a particular virtuosity in all of Siegert’s writing here, especially in the ways he manages to make things into cultural techniques. He acknowledges that he’s doing so explicitly in his introductory essay, where he challenges Thomas Macho’s assumption that things like building fires, plowing, cooking, and hunting can’t be cultural techniques because they defy the possibility of self-referentiality (11-12). Siegert then briefly points out how cooking and plowing in fact do allow for this possibility, foreshadowing some of his writing to come (e.g., on eating). I find the interpretive and analytical creativity of these moments exciting. Granted, they run the risk of “detrimental inflation,” but I myself would be perfectly happy to read Siegert’s explorations of “planning, transparency, yoga, gaming, even forgetting” as cultural techniques, though he seems disparaging of these possible cultural techniques (ibid.). Similarly, I find the rhetorical momentum of Agamben’s apparatus list similarly compelling precisely at the moment he arrives at cigarettes and cell phones. It’s a poignant reminder of the power of naming: both the original naming of this theoretical class of things (e.g., apparatus, medium, cultural techniques) and the successive iterations where it gets applied to other objects. Thus when Kittler entitles an article “The City is a Medium,” the double naming itself already carries a lot of theoretical energy in the title alone. Similarly, in Passage des Digitalen, when Siegert writes in passing that his whole narrative could be told in terms of the sea and seafaring, in some sense, the argument has already been made. Like Herder’s account of the naming of sheep (60-64), the act of naming alone summons tremendous interpretive power, which both invigorates and distorts the objects it describes.

But this line of thinking also has its pitfalls–as Siegert hinted with his inflation remarks, if everything is a cultural technique, then the term itself risks (or is assured of?) losing its theoretical heft. It leaves me unexpectedly sympathetic to the hardware-centric impulses of the work of Kittler and maybe even more so of Wolfgang Ernst. His introduction in Das Rumoren der Archive makes precisely the argument that media archaeology augments Foucault’s archive and apparatus with inscribing machines. Maybe media studies still needs its media? Or will flying canoes, velum grids, and stuffed parrots do the trick?

Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to add one more question, or set of questions, about binaries and distinctions. What are the consequences of creating a world in terms of binaries: on-off, inside-outside, human-nonhuman, etc.? I don’t want to oversimplify what Siegert is doing, because much of his interest clearly lies in the hybrid spaces that then become differentiated (think of parrots and parrot-like messengers, for example). And yet, we see this focus on moments and sites of binarizing (not a word). So, for instance, in “Door Logic”–which I find tremendously engaging and perhaps the ideal introduction to the writing of cultural techniques as a cultural technique–we see this space that always divided in two’s, either inside or outside, domesticated or wild, of-the-human or beyond-the-human. Siegert seems to highlight two slightly different states within this process of differentiation: the already-binarized state, and also the passage from one to the other. But what about those that linger, that somehow never make it to one or the other? What happens when we start thinking about gates that may stay open and create a particular culture right there at the threshold of inside and outside? At that point, even “passage” seems inadequate to the task of considering a cultural moment that lodges in-between.

In his recent talk at NYU on “Codes and Coding,” Siegert argued that cultural techniques allow us to pry open the blackboxing of these in-between states. But if the project of cultural techniques is ultimately constructed on the neverending sedimentation of these binary distinctions, it seems like we have conceded to the creation of cultural blackboxes in the first place. Am I oversimplifying what Siegert means by generating difference here? Or am I missing the point by focusing too much on the binary states that are produced rather than the grounds that allow them to be produced (i.e., the third that enables the first and second)? Critical studies of race, gender and sexuality have highlighted our (the West’s?) propensity for demanding that ultimately, one must opt for one side or the other, however arbitrary those distinctions may be. I wonder if we need to question the inevitability of binary end states as the outcomes of all processes of differentiation–what if instead of grids, doors and circuits, we thought about gradients, gates, and spectra?

Melle: I guess this brings us back to the issue I highlighted concerning the first chapter on ‘Cacography’ and Siegert’s use of Serres’s reading of the ‘phatic’ function and the excluded ‘third’ of communication, which in terms of information theory would be noise or the channel. As you say, I think part of Siegert’s project indeed aims at shifting the focus on the grounds that allow production, the ‘third’ that preceded and enables the the binary distinction of first and second in the first place. I don’t think such an approach in any way denies the existence nor the force of such binary distinction, but does aspire to question its authority and self-evident nature by pointing at the conceptual and/or technical mechanism that produced them.

The question indeed remains, however, to what extent Siegert succeeds at continuously redirecting the focus away from these binaries. Part of the whole narrative of Serres’s Parasite (from which the idea of the excluded “third” is mainly derived) is about the vicious circle that is the fundamental parasitic relation between the ‘third’ (the parasite) and the first and second: parasite and host continuously shift roles, the one becoming the other, depending on (in cybernetic terms) the level of the observer. As such, one wonders whether the whole idea of cultural techniques as ‘elemental’ gestures isn’t naive or overly simplistic or maybe nothing but a media-specific version of Derridean deconstruction, in which the very idea of ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ techniques disappears in the abyss of endless new distinctions.

In this light, it also seems significant to note that the version of Doors that is in the book is very different from the earlier version that appeared in The Grey Room in a translation by John Durham Peters. In this earlier version, the Dutch paintings that take up most of the article in the book are almost entirely absent. Instead, Siegert elaborates extensively on “Duchamp’s Door” which, as Siegert quotes Duchamp “to go into the bedroom, […] closes the entrance to the bathroom, and when you open this door to go into the bathroom, it closes the door to the studio.” This door, therefore, is simultaneously open and closed and, for me, provided the perfect example of illustrating the in-between. I therefore wonder why exactly this poignant example was removed from “Cultural Techniques. Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real,” in favour of the Dutch paintings that I find much less convincing. Maybe it’s because the Dutch paintings provide a larger ‘corpus’ of examples, contrary to Duchamp’s single example? If so, this is again an example of the slightly problematic status of the source material and status of ‘examples’ throughout the book. They seem to uphold the positivistic idea that the presentation of ‘evidence’ attributes for the validity of the argument. Although this is of course not entirely untrue, this is a feature that is common in German Media Theory and, in some cases, one could argue it actually disguises the highly speculative and definitely primarily conceptual nature of some of its claims. 

Nina: Well, here I am again with Weber. But similar critical claims have been made to his concept of the Idealtypus. And referring back to him helps me to structure my argument. I rather understand both concepts as tools to create enough distance and yet analytical depth to approach phenomena and practices. With regard to Peter’s remark that […] this line of thinking also has its pitfalls–as Siegert hinted with his inflation remarks, if everything is a cultural technique, then the term itself risks (or is assured of?) losing its theoretical heft.

Isn’t a cultural technique a way of thinking, a mindset, rather than a name for a cultural-specific, historical phenomenon? The term helps me to open up certain uses and manners and to ‘save’ them from endless stories of constructivism and functionalism. (I’m especially thinking of my own research design/proposal in which I critically rethink concert hall listening. Many studies on concert halls and listening go around in circles by describing related phenomena (political events), or perceiving the concert hall as a neutral interface for contemplative listening.) Too bad I don’t have time left to respond to Melle’s discussion of my favorite essay ‘On Doors’ (it is curious indeed, that Duchamp has left the essay, while Siegert states that The logic of a door that is closed while it is open is the logic of the symbolic)!

Peter: Great question about whether cultural techniques are the historical practices or the scholarly/analytical apparatus to untangle them. My sense is that they’re both, but not always at the same time. To take examples from the sound-focused chapters, I see “Cacography” as thinking about and analyzing communication channels and noise, deriving a notion of mediality and cultural techniques in the process. In the essay on speaking animals, “Parlêtres,” which we haven’t really done justice to here, it seems like cultural techniques refers to a shifting historical terrain in which the act of speaking–whether as a parrot, a medieval messenger, or Gustave Flaubert himself–is both the cultural technique and the thing that is constantly being destabilized when viewed as a cultural technique. Here, terminology like “archaeology” or “genealogy” seem closely related: Siegert seems to be engaging in a kind of archaeology of speaking, in which ruptures comes from talking (non-human) animals which introduce cosmic anxieties among humans (or rather, among philosophers, that special breed of humans). The unmarked technique (speaking) and the cultural-technical reappraisal (the history of speaking animals) collide and become indistinguishable when we get to Flaubert’s late fascination with parrots (as seen in his short story, “A Simple Heart”) and the idea of writing–and by extension, speaking, or any other form of communicating, we might extrapolate–as being ultimately an act of copying. I find this simultaneous duality in the very idea of cultural techniques–as analytical (or hermeneutical??) tool and as media (or media-like) practice itself compelling and ultimately somewhat slippery.

To return to “Door Logic” (is bringing a conversation to a close a cultural-technical form of closing?), perhaps Duchamp’s door is a fitting metaphor for the entire notion of cultural techniques, or the symbolic circuitry of the digital: it appears that one state or the other exists. Either the door is closed for one room or the other, either the circuit is open or closed, either the digital registers 0 or 1. And yet the payoff for cultural techniques is always the in-between space that gets “blackboxed” out of the equation. It’s a state that cannot exist, and yet obviously does. Perhaps cultural techniques are themselves a second-order or meta-cultural technique then? Always already a symbolic commentary on their own cultural technicality?

Melle: It seems we are drawing to a close, although we could go on for quite a while, of course. I very much like the idea of the moment or gesture of the cultural technique as a state that cannot exist, as something that is always overruled by the distinctions it creates. But, like Wiener’s “time of non-reality,” the infinitesimal moment that exists between the 0 and 1 in a digital system, the fact that something (or some’time’) obviously is there, accounts for the relevance of the concept. One could of course argue that this fruitless search for something hidden or fundamental is essentially no different than Foucault’s “archeology” or Derrida’s “grammatology” or, even earlier, Heidegger’s “Seinsgeschichte,” but the focus on material culture, media specificity and anthropological knowledge does offer something new, which can go beyond the usual suspects of writing, or literature, or philosophy more easily.

Peter: Whatever the case, clearly this book of essays will offer considerable food for thought for scholars working in media studies, history of science, anthropology and a broad range of disciplines within the humanities. Siegert has repeatedly noted how amused he was that his work (especially Passage des Digitalen) has been revived by a bunch of musicologists and scholars of sound. It seems just a matter of time before this work seeps into and has an impact on a whole range of disciplinary conversations.

Thanks once again to all our interlocutors, as well as to Bernhard, Geoff, and the people at Fordham University Press!

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