An Unabashed Tour d’Horizon: Media in the 20th Century

By Axel AnderssonJanuary 20, 2015

[… After the Media]: News from the Slow-Fading Twentieth Century by Siegfried Zielinski

IT IS AN ARRESTING image and hard to get out of one’s head: 40 years ago, a young Siegfried Zielinski sits bent over the Steenbeck editing table at the Technical University of Berlin. He is watching Veit Harlan’s anti-Semitic propaganda flick Jud Süß [Jew Süss] from 1940. According to his own estimation, he must have seen the film 70 or 80 times. 

The details of this image are meticulously presented in the latest of Zielinski’s books to be translated into English: […After the Media]: News from the Slow-Fading Twentieth Century. In this gnomic work, Zielinski — a distinguished media theorist and professor at UdK, Berlin University of the Arts — notes that although the film in question was an expensive 16mm bootleg US copy, he eventually moved on to a ½ inch videotape version that passed through a “heavy reel-to-reel video recorder.” The image serves to situate the reader at the intersection of media and technology, which is where […After the Media] takes place.

In his obsessive study of Jud Süß, Zielinski was trying to analyze the components of Third Reich propaganda. How could so many people have voluntarily willed the madness of the Nazi regime? Zielinski looks for answers in the production of propaganda through forms of an imaginary: dissected down to its “details of dramaturgy, mis [sic] en scène, dialog construction, camera work, use of music, costumes and make-up.” These elements, however, were only stepping stones to other material and discursive apparatuses that needed to be reconfigured, such as the Cold War propaganda and “mass-produced TV products” directed at West Berlin in the 1970s, soon followed by a plethora of new media expressions in the realm of art in the 1980s. Judging by Zielinski’s analysis, technology and media were so much more tangible then, than now.

Zielinski argues that what he calls “media” (a dense composite notion encompassing both discourse and its material supports) has vanished from the horizon because it is now ubiquitous. No more chunky Steenbeck editing tables in dimmed university labs, no more aura-oozing bootleg film reels. Instead: the constant, ethereal connection to the internet (becoming tangible only when it falters), and laptops and smartphones as transparent and invisible as the “windows” they enable. “Now that it is possible to create a state with media, media are no longer any good for revolution,” Zielinski adds in the enigmatic aphoristic style often present in German Media Theory. Media is as much part of the power of authority as they are revolutionary tools in the hands of those challenging the present order. In the end, different usages will merely cancel each other out. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Zielinski goes so far as to proclaim media today “superfluous.” However, even if media were to be in excess, it is only redundant in so far as one stops paying attention to it.

In an evident wish to bear witness to the present, Zielinski shifts from a subject that has occupied him — an anthropological exploration of what he calls “media before media” (mostly centred around widening the field of media studies in the “Variantology” project that has sought to include previously excluded disciplines, cultures and eras to the media studies canon) — to the contemporary mediatic situation. But [… After the Media] is not an elegiac meditation on a vanished age in which media and technologies were more conspicuous. Zielinski’s book is more interesting than that. He moves towards a new analysis of the present through a sweeping engagement with media and technology, from the medieval automatons of Baghdad, through the Korean video-artist Nam June Paik all the way to today’s “Art after media,” in which art is not liberated from media but does not need it to legitimize itself. Media has, in other words, become a natural part of artistic experimentation.

As a physical, singular, object [… After the Media] (designed and printed by Jason Wagner at Univocal in Minneapolis) is a gorgeous book by any standard. As a text, Zielinski’s explorations constitute a heterogeneous collection of threads, musings and theoretical propositions impossible to summarize. After a brief personal intellectual biography, he advances to an equally ambitious and breezy history of media theory from around the 1940s to present day. This first part, which takes up roughly half the content, is in some ways the least interesting part of the book. The marriage of eclectic media theory with historical study isn’t always a happy one. In the second half however, Zielinski’s argument takes shape with somewhat greater cogency as he constructs a theoretical assemblage around the notion of a “cultura experimentalis.” Key to what Zielinski tries to develop is a notion of “art” as “an experimental aesthetic praxis that engages with science and technology.” This is a radical, and necessary, widening of the concept of art. Zielinski claims, not in the least through his elaborate prose, that a theory of media can in some way influence the art at the center of an experimental culture.

The word “experiment” suggests a scientific curiosity regarding the arts. Art is something that is affected by, and has an interest in, science and technology, and vice versa. The “medium,” an entity notoriously difficult to define, is what stands between the arts and the sciences as a “processual element.” And media theory as a praxis should ideally constitute a “cultura experimentalis” that combines a scientific culture of experiment with experimental art. It is through this mode of scholarship, affirming a “techno-logical” position in the world, that Zielinski proposes to approach our contemporary state of existing “after the media.”

He presents alchemy as a model for such a theory and practice. In early modern times alchemy was a way for an “indeterminate and provisional” subject to explore, experiment with, a nature that was equally “not yet understood.” It was a time, as Zielinski puts it, when “[t]he cosmos crackled with atmospheric noise and to listen to it was exhilarating.” He links alchemy to the ability to dream, and he himself dreams of returning to a pre-psychoanalytic, oneiric science. 

But Zielinski is not exactly arguing for a return to the “magical past” of alchemy either. Instead, he wishes to see a resurrected experimental science that dares to dream of the “cosmic.” What the “cosmic” is, however, appears to be as hard to define as media: it is all that of which we are not aware, in the world of objects and nature, as well as in ourselves. It is, in other words, that composite coming-together that makes us, as beings in the world, exactly who we are — giving us “identity.” Alchemy is thus an identity-yielding science of the cosmic. This sounds a bit flaky, but Zielinski wants us to accept the world (exterior and interior) is “inexact.”

Zielinski puts forward the notion of an “Exact Philology of Precise Things” that in many ways is related to the new alchemy. He is, in other words, arguing for the exactness of science as a counter-weight to the inexactness of the world. The aim is to make “things speak.” And this does not merely lead to a perfect understanding of the language that these things use. Deconstructing and reassembling language is also a way to understand how new knowledge is generated. This sums up Zielinski’s notion of experimentation: the experiment is not there to merely prove a thesis that already exists; its role is also to create new knowledge above and beyond the a priori. This latter point is evidently important if we accept that we do not completely know what goes on inside and outside of our heads — otherwise science would only be in a position of affirming our conscious and previously held ideas of how the world works. In order to understand something new, it is necessary to accept that the knowledge is lacking.  

This foundational lack of knowledge, or rather a foundational knowledge of a lack of knowledge, leads Zielinski to a discussion of the imperfection of technology. He unites the concepts of ignorance and imperfection in the notion of “something missing,” something requiring special concentration to be noticed. Technology exists here in a material sense; in other words, as an artefact that can be apprehended by the senses. It consists of different components assembled together in a new order that carries over the imperfections already existing in nature. This composite thing that is technology is as provisional and improvised as our own subjects. Its imperfections open the door for a type of experimentation that can gain knowledge of the unknown (without, presumably, having an idea that there can be a “final” uncovering of all unknowns). The role of alchemical experimentation and philology, according to Zielinski, needs to be as precise as possible when facing the imperfect world. In this manner it can probe the inexact and radically open nature of existence. It is also this project that joins the alchemist and the philologist. Their interest is in something different from merely making systems run smoothly; they seek instead to have an exact knowledge of the “inexact.”

There are other coordinates at the intersection of which the alchemist and the philologist come together. Zielinski identifies philology as the “intense interplay between the act of taking apart and putting back together” in the realm of language. To this we can align the alchemical quest that always passes through the steps of solve and coagula. In other words: a similar process of studying the details in order to then be able to put them together in a new assemblage.

All of this returns us to the image of a young Zielinski bent over the Steenbeck editing table at the Technical University in Berlin. One could better understand the apparently monolithic and perfect propaganda of the Third Reich after breaking it down and reassembling it in a discursive analysis of the propaganda as a technical product. This re-assembly was, as now becomes clear, an experiment that hoped to discover something beyond the already-existing mass of historical knowledge regarding the Nazi regime. The old alchemists, famously, hoped that their coagula might result in materials like gold. The alchemist of media studies prays for a perfect (or exact) combination of observed details that can cast a new light on a familiar subject.

It might be appropriate, then, to ask a straightforward question: Does Zielinski’s [… After the Media] cast a new light on the contemporary? Yes and no. Zielinski attempts to describe the condition of ubiquitous media where all would come to a standstill if this media were removed. There is nothing particularly exciting, wondrous, or special with media anymore. It is taken for granted. It no longer relies on creating some “effect” that media creates. It is certainly not enchanted. As far as “news” goes, this is no scoop. But Zielinski’s real interests lie elsewhere.

Zielinski prescribes a relationship to the contemporary more than he is trying to break it down to its constitutive elements. There is even a manifesto at the end of the book outlining how to “Be Offline and Exist Online” — even if the chosen manifesto format is an expression of a curiously nostalgic retro-modernism. One wishes that Zielinski instead had explained in some more detail what he means with philology and alchemy.

Zielinski’s unabashed breeziness comes at a cost. The principal problem with Zielinski’s book is that he never delivers the solve et coagula we’ve been led to expect. It is, for example, not entirely clear what he means by “medium” and “media.” It retains a familiar, as in annoyingly intimate, air of magic. Zielinski does not manage to show the concept from a new angle. How can it be separated from the prosthetic tool or technology? Or should it not be? In Zielinski’s definition, “the media” is a “historically and systemically deducible discourse, which has incorporated concrete entities.” However, he also attempts to get away from this definition, searching for the “resistant particularities” or “free-floating singularities.” But in his description of the contemporary situation as “after the Media,” it is not easy to find such particularities.

It is perhaps Zielinski’s longing for exactness that draws him (theoretically) to the concrete entity and the resistant particularity, the “thing” in other words. But we could equally well draw up a continuum with “media” on one end and the technical object on the other. On the media side there would be a maximum degree of separation between form and matter (or, in a less Aristotelian terminology: content) in one and the same thing (whether material or not). On the side of the technical object, by contrast, one would find that thing where form and content overlap to perfection. In-between, there are various levels of the more or less mediatic, the more or less technical. A discourse could be a technical object, and a physical machine a medium. 

There is a counter-productive tendency that leads to too quickly coagulating that hard to define concept of “media” and the technical object, or support. Media Theory many times conflates various media and various objects in the term “media”, intended to be read as referring to the technological tools of the modern media society. Sometimes it works; media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler did it with interesting effects. But there are also plenty of good reasons to question this dominating coagulation, and experiment with it a bit further. If [… After the Media] can contribute to such an experimentation, it is in every way an important book.


Axel Andersson is a writer and critic from Sweden.

LARB Contributor

Axel Andersson is a writer and critic from Sweden. He holds a PhD in history from the European University Institute in Florence and his work often deals with the intersection of media, postcolonial history, and critical theory. He also writes on contemporary art and cinema. He is currently working on a project investigating the techniques of the body, media technology, and concepts of race and is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).


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