Summary

  • Siegert’s book is a case study in cultural techniques; as such, think of it more as possibilities for cultural technical analysis, modeling the critique itself.

Keywords

  • “cultural techniques”: originally a nineteenth-century agricultural term, now repurposed to think about the material processes by which cultures produce and structure themselves: cataloging, time measurement, legal procedures, alphabetization, and so forth (9–10).
  • “ontic operations”: activities (i.e., cultural techniques) that produce ontologies, which are never pre-given (9).

Notes

0. Introduction

  • The introduction appeared in the Theory, Culture, and Society volume that Parikka edited on cultural techniques, so we can think of it as a good frame for what they even are.
  • We need to understand that German media theory isn’t a “media theory” in the Anglo sense: it first constituted a shift in “the frame of reference for the traditional objects of the humanities,” turning to media in order to determine the root of cultural production—the cultural objects themselves then effects of underlying media techniques (2).
  • The turn toward materiality also stands opposed to the Anglo/Critical Theory obsession with analyzing media only in terms of “mass media”; an approach already DOA in Innis (3–4).
  • “But if media are no longer embedded in a horizon of meaning, if they no longer constitute an ontological object, how can they be approached and observed? Answer: by reconstructing the discourse networks in which the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic are stored, transmitted, and processed” (5). This is precisely Kittler’s project in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.
  • Cultural techniques and the posthumanities: whereas Anglo posthumanisms derive from deconstructive bio-animalian work, German posthumanists are more interested in media, in the sense of “always already” posthuman (8).
  • “The study of cultural techniques, however, is not aimed at removing the anthropological differences between human animal and nonhuman animal . . . Rather, it is concerned with decentering the distinction between human and nonhuman by insisting on the radical technicity of this distinction” (8)
  • Five notions of cultural techniques:
    1. “Essentially, cultural techniques are conceived of as operative chains that precede the media concepts they generate” (11); “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.”
    2. “To speak of cultural techniques presupposes a notion of plural cultures,” in the sense that “objects are tied into practices in order to produce something that within a given culture is addressed as a ‘person’” (11).
    3. Cultural techniques involve symbolic work: this bounds cultural techniques to the work of processing such that not every single activity becomes available for analysis (12–13).
    4. “Every culture begins with the introduction of distinctions . . . Researching cultural techniques therefore also amounts to an epistemological engagement with the medial conditions of whatever lays claim to reality” (14).
    5. Cultural techniques “sustain codes” but also “destabilize” them (15); they have to acknowledge what they exclude and can violently reorganize when necessary.
  • This book is wide-ranging and there are chapters that are important but for the sake of time not relevant to our conversation right now: I’m going to read the first chapter, on signal processing; the sixth and seventh chapters, on grids and design; and the last chapter, on doors. I’m skipping more anthropological or art historical chapters for now.

1. Cacography or Communication?

  • Opens w/ a reading of Serres’ Parasite: following the idea of the “excluded third,” the material media channel, Serres emphasizes the phatic function, “the reference to the channel. Hence in all communication each expression, appeal, and type of referencing is preceded by a reference to interruption, difference, deviation” (21). “For Serres, then, communication is not primarily information exchange, appeal, or expression, but an act that creates order by introducing distinctions; and this is precisely what turns the means of communication into cultural techniques” (23).
  • “This opens up the possibility of a culture-technical approach to communication theory: The basic operation of those cultural techniques responsible for processing the distinction between nature and culture, or barbarism and civilization, is a filtering operation” (32).

6. Cultural Techniques of Ruling Spaces

  • Thinking about connecting this to the political infrastructure of Bratton; also for thinking about weather mapping.
  • “This distinction between retrievable things and untraceable humans points to the fundamental divide that separates the Greeks from modern subjects. Modernity is characterized by the invention of a taxis technique capable of also turning humans into retrievable objects. This modern taxis is implemented by means of a new cultural technique which takes into account that something may be missing from its place. In other words, it encompasses the notion of an empty space. The technique in question is the grid or lattice. Its salient feature is its ability to merge operations geared toward representing humans and things with those of governance” (97).
  • “The universality of this concept of order is apparent in the way in which it bears on the interaction between imaging technologies and mathematical, topographical, geographocal, and governmental knowledge. It is this interaction that turns the grid into a cultural technique. But what does this imply? As a cultural technique, the grid has a triple function”: 1) an imaging technology; 2) a diagrammatic procedure for data storage and addressing; 3) constitutes a world of objects imagined by a subject, a Heideggerian Gestell (enframing). “The grid, in short, is a medium that operationalizes deixis. It allows us to link deictic procedures with chains of symbolic operations that have effects in the real. Hence the grid is not only part of a history of representation, or of a history of procedures facilitating the efficient manipulation of data, but also of ‘a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made into subjects’” (98).
  • Representational grids: begins w/ Alberti & perspective; “The representation of objects in pictorial space implies their substitutability, which in turn reveals the analogy between Alberti’s perspectival space and the place-value system of Indo-Arabic numerals” (100).
  • Cartographic grid.
  • Topographic grid: “The navigational technique employing latitude and longitude, in turn, enables us to head for any point in space by means of addresses that precede all stored data. The overall result is a common paradigm of image construction and early modern colonial governmentality that far exceeds the boundaries of art” (102–03).
  • Speculative grid: reading the early US imposing a grid across the unknown west as a “scheme aimed at capitalizing on federal land” rather than Spanish topographic governmentality (111–12). Connections here between the speculative grid of land speculation and the grid orientation of the DNS and IP system??? Link this to my projective paper w/ Setsuko perhaps…. “The plans created an unsparing structure that prefigured the future appropriation of the wilderness. Nothing was left untouched: The rectangular system guaranteed that no shred of land remained masterless, as frequently had been the case in the Southern territories claimed by Virginia. Both plan and projection, the uniform system of rectangular townships and sections assigned to everything—wilderness, plains, forest, or swamp—its own place. Nothing was allowed to fall off the grid” (115).
  • Three-dimensional grid: extended into three dimensions the grid becomes a spatial technique for organization in e.g., the library or file cabinet; the skyscraper or apartment complex; Grid thinking is vital for planetary scale computation: “From this interconnectivity of grids, Le Corbusier and Neufert derived the vision of a future which in many respects is our present. The fusion of matrix grid and GPS has ensured the global presence of the operationalized deixis first conceived of in connection with the grid- and register- shaped settlements of South America. Indeed, what better way to describe some of the basic aspects of our media culture than to point to the mutual translatability of cartographic grid, topographic grid, planning grid, and imaging grid? Linked with the convertibility of these diverse grids and with corresponding scaling techniques, grids—a formidable cultural technique—have become the basis of a mediatization of space from which hardly anything can escape” (120).

10. Door Logic

  • “As long as doors functioned as operators of difference between inside and outside, they also helped to create, in line with the public- private distinction, an asymmetry of knowledge. Doors produce an information gap; they play an indispensable role in the production of thermodynamic or information-theoretical knowledge. Not by chance is Maxwell’s demon a gatekeeper” (201).
  • “Compared to their replacements, traditional doors truly are things of the past. Modern doors have irretrievably forfeited their nomological for a cybernetic function. The basic distinction of inside and outside has been replaced by the distinction between current/no current on/off. The cybernetic logic of opening and closure estranges the old nomological logic: The electronic door the switching element, is a door ‘where,’ to put it in Lacan’s words, ‘something passes when it is closed, and doesn’t when it is open’” (203).

Archive and Impact

  • The turn toward “cultural techniques,” as Young notes, is in part German media theorists post-Kittler looking for more productive and expansive ways of thinking about media beyond determinism.
  • Cultural techniques begin the work of reintroducing politics to media archaeology.