This was one of the assigned reading materials set out by Endicott College. What are your reactions to it now? After several weeks of discussing the issues outlined in this article? Please post your comments!
MEDIA AESTHETICS IN EUROPE
I. Philosophy and Media in Europe: A Disconnection
Day and night, as private persons and as citizens we are surrounded by media. It has become increasingly rare to communicate without the help of media-generated forms, role models and channels. Seeing and hearing, which informs our thinking, is overwhelmed by technological media. Thinking and writing is done in a framing media provides and follows — in a process mostly unnoticed — the possibilities and limits of the chosen medium. Two examples: The telephone answering machine has changed our style of personal communication as lastingly as the computer changed the flow of writing. With the feature “call screening” we are present and absent at the same time, becoming free and open to choose the “essential moment”, as the Zen masters put it. And the ease with which we can alter and expand the text already written into the computer eliminates the “voice of authority” in us and allows us to play with thoughts. Of course, one could describe both events very differently, call the answering machine a pest and the end of meaningful communication and word processors the source of text pollution as they tempt even the serious person to babble on like a child. Few people feel excited about the prospects of an age shaped by media, most feel threatened. But how we judge this impact is less important than acknowledging the fundamental changes in our lifeworld through media. Before we can criticise, praise or condemn, we have to let the new phenomenon show itself to us. That means: A valid media criticism is based on media aesthetics, the judgment on experience, and not the other way around. But the harsh critique of media, fashionable in Europe, can rarely boast a foundation in an experience of the media itself since it resists their authenticity. Instead, all experiences with media have been held up to a value system not found in media itself. This biased view of media stems from a want of media aesthetics, creating the odd situation where, in terms of media, the blind and deaf are those whose criticism is most outspoken and widely received. The less they watch television, the better they know it will destroy critical thinking!
Especially for Europe’s intellectuals, a crash course in media aesthetics is sorely needed. This doesn’t imply a new theory of aesthetic values is necessary — far from it. The first step would be to temporarily suspend everything we believe we know about media and to get ready to let the media go uninterrupted by our smart interpretations. What is missing is an unbiased sensual experience with media, a ten-thousand hour treat with film and video, sound studio and computer graphics, multiple television channels and a working remote control. Missing is living with fax and laser printer, with notebook computers and High Definition Television Screen, being at home in computer conferencing, missing are legal hackers riding the waves of cyberspace. Hyperreality and Virtual Reality are concepts which only pretend to have experienced what they describe, but they are no more convincing than the Pope advocating gay couples. Aesthetics in its most basic sense tells us how we perceive world, how we experience what we see, feel and appreciate. For Aristotle, aisthesis was the name for our pre-logical being-in-the-world and addressed the process of sensation before any interpretation takes place. Ontologically, aesthetics is rooted in the differences through which we live the identity of life. In aesthetics we discover, educate and express our sense of proportion which teaches us awareness for our changing place in the web of reality. Art and the understanding of beauty are consequences of this aesthetic existence — and for Western culture their most influential paradigm historically — but are in no way the basis of aesthetics.
Aesthetics is a philosophical perspective which qualifies a philosophy of perception. Philosophical aesthetics investigates perception as an inter-active process in which a person plays at the same time an active and a passive role. Aesthetics describes human perception as communication, a sharing of a common world which constructs and deconstructs reality for us.
Concerning language, Western philosophy of the 19th and 20th century has explored its communicative potential but at times missed a crucial point. There is communication beyond written or spoken language which is as powerful as it is silent. And it can be increasingly observed that in communication a language based on words is a part, and not the whole. Pictures and sounds, silence and performances, an art-filled space, and body language speak their own mind.
In today’s world a communicative aesthetics tells us that our perception is always mediated and that all forms of mediation are equally important. How we perceive our world is shaped by the media in such a fundamental way that perception and media become interchangeable. Such an observation is bound to be misunderstood as long as media is defined as a sender for which we are the receiver. In the most common forms of media such as television, film, print, video, audio cassettes, telephone, computer graphics, there seems to be an obvious imbalance between maker and user, with a clear-cut power structure in place. Most of us are being merely an audience, there to receive what a few designed to inform or entertain us. Much evidence confirms the fact that our lives are written in media. But does this not sentence us to a passive role because we let other people write our lives for us? Mass communication then turns out to be mass brainwashing!
If philosophers in Europe considered media as a worthwhile topic after all, it was mostly in a manner of cultural criticism. Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gilles Deleuze gave film a chance as art form, at least, but the high-brow approach (in German Naserümpfen) is still deeply ingrained when it comes to television, telephones and computers. At this “Europe and Media” conference you will encounter nearly all the exceptions to the rule that there is a disconnection between media and philosophy in Europe. Paul Virilio, Villem Flusser, and Jean Baudrillard have forcefully advocated a philosophical exploration of media. But even in their cases you can find traces of the general disrespect, a patronizing attitude towards the new media, a nostalgic hope the world would be more humane without the overwhelming presence of today’s media.
Media aesthetics as a philosophical activity has yet to begin in Europe and has to overcome a number of difficult obstacles. Aesthetics deals with something you have to demonstrate, its proof is never given through conclusion but through what you can see youself. Therefore, media aesthetics relies on examples from films, video, photography, sound environments and cannot be presented properly without such evidence on display. You have to see, to feel, to appreciate yourself, get hooked und involved — and no philosophical description can replace this personal participation. Appreciation comes with experience, and it is a lifelong learning process. But unfortunately there exists almost no audience in Europe’s academic world, not among my fellow professors and not among their students (present company excepted). Are there no foreign film buffs, no pop music fans, no computer freaks and telephone maniacs in Europe who would know what it means to live in the Age of Media? Sure there are, but rarely in the humanities and social sciences, and certainly white ravens in philosophy.
Media aesthetics in Europe is preaching in the desert. Teachers and students are used to a talking head, the professor, and an audience taking notes. A discussion after the master’s long talk gives future masters the opportunity to deliver their own talk, mimicking the professor’s attitude. There is a disregard for the form of the delivery — as long as the sentences pour out of a significant mouth — because the pre-media academics believe strongly in the traditional dichotomy of form and content and the dominance of content over form. In terms of criticism only, the academic philosopher is interested in media and shares his or her biases freely with a like-minded audience. What a judge the person makes who has never enjoyed a video clip, who at best accepts the Beatles, who was never raised as a television baby and never watches TV commercials for the fun of it! Media aesthetics cannot be designed by such brains without bodies who live a non-trivial life. These hermits would not know what they are talking about. How could they realize the significance of movies such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Stranger Than Paradise” or “Roger and Me”, of TV programs such as “The Simpsons” and “Twin Peaks”? That Brian Eno wrote music for the Chicago Airport and that commercials define playfully the mood of the times, will be forever incomprehensible to intellectuals who were never “In Bed with Madonna”.
Isn’t it ironic that Europe’s media has the same old-fashioned outlook as its philosophers and managed to destroy the challenge of American programs by dubbing them? The mostly state run or state influenced European media is boringly serious: in movies the actors talk for the talk of it, on TV celebrities chat for hours on end, and even the weather people are dead serious — with a few exceptions. Answering machines are not an opportunity for a re-defined communication but a technological and social problem, and computers are still considered a different kind of typewriter. The gap between philosophy and media has consequences for the media, too. Without critics who understand the framework of media, who are tuned into their aesthetics, European media tends to fight or embrace the American influence more or less randomly — it all depends on how much money they put on the table. Under these circumstances, a media aesthetics in Europe has no basis in the status quo but has to be experienced in a few programs which show the potential of media and invite inter-active perceivers. Most of them are US inventions such as MTV, “Most Funny Home Videos” or “The Simpsons” in television. Yet with Godard, Agnes Varda, Wenders, and Lina Wertmüller, to name only four of many, Europe’s filmmakers are on the leading edge of media. Not enough experience has been made with the new media of information technology such as computer conferencing and electronic libraries, and the computer itself is completely misunderstood. Still using it as a tool, we have not even started to experience living with and in computers. Media, despite its everyday existence, is an unknown lifeworld.
II. Media Aesthetics: Four Rules of an Artifical Lifeworld
Aesthetics experiences a phenomenon by sharing it, following its own style. An account of this exploration should describe the phenomenon in its own terms. My six years of living in the East Village of New York, supported by all kinds of media imaginable, teaching Heidegger as well as philosophy of technology in an electronic university and media philosophy and theory of communications from Bataille to Habermas in the New School for Social Research should qualify as a witness for the Age of Media. Living media is best experienced in the industrial countries; there it is a universal phenomenon, not a lifestyle of the happy few. The noise and crime, the homeless people, the cars and the garbage of Manhattan are not contradictions but rather complement the artifical lifestyle media demonstrates so convincingly. It’s all human-made, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, but no longer controlled by humans. New York, the media center of the world, designed an art of living which fails as often as it is successful. In terms of ontology, it is the human contribution to being. But no one ever intended it to be this way: we don’t want art, each one of us is only fighting for survival. Hegel’s insight of an unintentional event which he termed “cunning of reason” might be helpful in understanding media. But then we have to sidestep Hegel’s belief in progress and should anticipate, following Schopenhauer, that this art of living may lead to the infamous art of torture. In today’s media we certainly find a lot of proof of that!
What was once called mass media has radically changed its meaning. Instead of media for the masses we can observe the birth of a potential media of the masses. Only with regard to distribution is mass still a topic, in terms of audience we are back to tailor-made programming and inventions.
This artificial lifeworld reveals rules as amazing as they are evident to an unbiased view. The first rule of the media game is:
• The Self is the focal point
This self is not the ego of domination or the subject of modern times but the activity of “care for self” of which the late Foucault found traces a long way back. Taking care of oneself is now the activity of media. In advertising, to use a telling example, the message remains unchanged in any production: “You, only better!” Advertising as well as all media addresses Lacan’s “Ideal Ego”, the primary unity we lost with the mirror-phase and through the distraction of language. The promise of mediation in media hints at a possible reunion with the world. The Self is in no way satisfied by being apart and single. The Self wants to overcome its separateness without losing its specialness. Some art directors in advertising tend to think of the audience their work addresses as a “void” for which “anything goes” and into which everthing could be filled. Successes and failures of advertising campaigns prove that the “void” is not neutral or chaotic but rather follows an order we cannot predict. After the fact it is often comprehensible why this particular commercial was successful and others not.
The “void” is the genuine place of a Self which doesn’t strive for the security of definition. The Self of media is an activity, the process of constantly receiving patterns, destructuring and reconstructuring unities, an “unending struggle with the world” (cf. Wolhee Choe, “Toward an Aesthetic Criticism of Technology”). As “emptiness” and the Socratic “I know that I don’t know”, the “void” provides the medium for the Self to redefine itself, to grow and to diminish. In media we are challenged to write our own lives — with camcorders as well as with computers, with answering machines as well as with films. Mouse and remote control are only the beginning of inter-active features in media which allow us to edit and cut, stop and go, break and flow whatever situation we encounter. It is true that in the first days of the Gulf War the authority of the media took over and this fascination will be repeated in any especially strong programming such as the finals of Wimbledon or world soccer. But it doesn’t last and what’s left is not permanent brainwashing but a temporary hang-over! We are soon back to a programming of our own by avoiding or using media, cannabalizing programs or yelling at the mind-numbing talking heads. In media we write our autobiography — and if we don’t, somebody else will do it for us. The care for self is a project, not a given fact, and its other side is the neglect of self. Media doesn’t ask us to neglect ourselves, for a simple reason: There is no money in bums or saints!
“Express yourself!” is the advice of the media icon Madonna and don’t ask permission. As the Beastie Boys put it so nicely: “You have to fight for your right to party!” What is a Self to do which by definition doesn’t care to get a fixed outlook and a secure place in society? It has to become a creative Self. Such a Self is the nightmare of traditional media administrators and the dream of innovative media producers. This creative Self is an elusive self interrupting the conventions of dominant culture by twisting it around. Bart Simpson is the icon for this style of subversive irony which mocks even the most serious things. Gone is the archaic dichotomy of form and content which backed up the taboo of seriousness. During the Gulf War, an advertisement for the “United Colors of Bennetton” featured a soldier’s cemetery as background. A European critic claimed that there is “a reality which has the right to be free from advertising” (FAZ, 2.4.91, p.25). But the Disney World-like manufacturing of the Gulf War’s media coverage by the Pentagon shows that these guys knew better. It is the other way around: Advertising and the artifical world of media have a right to be free from a war in which people really die and the environment is actually destroyed. In today’s lifeworld created by media there is no place for a wide-scale production of corpses called war. Was the media coverage of the Gulf War a prime example of information as distortion, or did we see the emergence of news as an art form? Did the Pentagon cheats and their boss in the White House realize much better than their European critics what the definite limits are of a war you can sell to the people? If it doesn’t look good, nobody will buy it, and you will be out of a job. True for a president as well as for a performer and an art director is the Second Rule of Media:
• Performance is the moment of truth
Appearance counts but it has to be demonstrated in media, no credit is given for the hidden agenda. The media performance has to follow media, and “cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control”, as Neil Postman criticizes. Postman is an outspoken critic of a development which Eco and Baudrillard have termed a bit more understandingly “hyperreality” and “simulation”. “Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or printed word or the television camera, our media metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.” (See Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death). Eco acknowledged at least the “pleasure of imitation” which lies in a fake reconstruction of the truth. “Reality becomes inferior to the copy”, he states and points at the hyperrealistic reproduction of art, history, and nature you can find in the United States from Las Vegas to Miami. (See Eco, Travels in Hyperreality). Postman described it more grimly: “All public discourse…takes the form of entertainment”. Baudrillards tongue-in-cheek praise of the “brutally naive…land of ‘just as it is'” in his book “America” hits the same nerve but goes all the way: “illusion is no longer possible because the real is no longer possible” (p.178). The difference between the real and the simulation has disappeared, the distinction between the original and the reproduction has become meaningless.
So what else is new? The crucial difference is between people raised in pre-media times and the media babies nurtered by entertainment and trash movies. What the critics call irony and hyperreality, “nomadic meaning” (G. Deleuze) and simulation, the disapperance of time and the “falsification industry” (Eco) is for the people born after television, for the Walkman and Discman generation, the camcorder artists and sound studio mixer the artificial lifeworld they are used to. It seems in no way odd to the computer generation that there is no aesthetic difference between news, tennis, war, soap opera, and weather report. How entertaining they are, how successfully they avoid boring us, is the only difference left — an important one still. Media in all forms and with any kind of message are merely material for a personal collage (Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk on a small scale) and provide the realm of performance. “Tele-Vision is Tele-Action”, as Virilio critically stated, but what else should it be? There is no dialogue outside media, and all the action takes place within. But Virilio obviously believes that media’s deceptive pictures will replace the act of thinking or political action and will turn us into “couch potatoes”, passive viewer and easily fooled. This suspicion has no ground in the activities of the media babies — they choose their actions the way they wish (and may think that Virilio’s straightforward cultural criticism is a bit out-moded to put it politely). No media event has the authority to enforce action — propaganda’s heyday is over. Media has to seduce and open up a field of action which has no goal other than playing life, rearranging a never fixed lifeworld. Media’s seduction has nothing to do with the so-called power of pictures — this is a myth perpetrated by writing ideologists. Media seduces by style alone. It invites and challenges the audience to follow its lead: Style yourself in a media performance. Therefore, the Third Rule of Media is:
• Style is the medium of action
Style is a self-evolving activity producing a gaze and opening the ear. It is not the author’s viewpoint or his/her aesthetic judgment which style expresses. As Jim Jarmusch’s deadbeat movies demonstrate, style is a game playing with time and language in which you discover and forget the self. Style is not an identification tag nor a tool of power but a composition never done before, in a language free of meaning but still meaningful to you. Media needs style in order to reject the displacement of creative production through mechanization. (See Fuller, Postmodern Aesthetics). In today’s highly technological media the machine’s mood of standardization is restricted to machines. Through style the self “appropriates the world of technology cognitively, critically, and creatively” (Choe, Aesthetic Criticism of Technology). The gaze as exchange of seeing and being seen, the ear as meeting point of hearing an being heard do not need recording but aim at fulfillment. Media fulfills itself in mediation which has no outside goal. In the rejection of synthesis in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in Habermas’ non-strategic communicative action, but also in Lyotard’s post-modern language games this mediation without goals is anticipated. Acting without believing, waiting without expectations, living without the will to survive are other concepts pointing in the same direction. The Fourth Rule of Media states:
• Mediation is the flow of media
It is in aesthetics, when we are open to the phenomenon itself, that we discover media’s authenticity as mediation. But it is no longer the mediation of a deal between partners or a communication following established rules, but an inherent process of media we belong to. In media mediation there is not even the Habermasian goal of “mutual understanding” because the flow needs breaks, as Deleuze and Guattari pointed out (See Deleuze/Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.37). Dissent is the salt of mediation and designed to eliminate anthropocentric arrangements, the mafia practices of humankind. Mediation in its intensive phase scratches the surface of the “four-fold” (Geviert) Hölderlin and Heidegger were hinting at. “Break on through to the other side” screamed The Doors in Oliver Stone’s simulation, and Jeff Koons finally married his Porno-Queen — who wore white. The fundamental character of mediation is “dwelling” in a “primal oneness” by which “the four — earth and sky, divinities and mortals — belong together in one” (Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought). The Doors and Hölderlin, Heidegger in bed with Jeff & Ilona — he mesalliances of the once real world are the mediative acts of artificial life as media aesthetics teaches us. It is about time for Europe — to quote Spike Lee’s great movie titles — to “Do the Right Thing” and catch media’s “Jungle Fever”.
III. Media Aesthetics: A Project for Europe
How could we implement Media Aesthetics as an experience and a field of study in Europe? Certainly not by continuing the custom of letting German Literature or art schools play host to media programs. The term aesthetics does not signify media’s belonging to the Liberal or Fine Arts. Nor will it help much to create new media centers everywhere, as long as they offer only operator careers to their students. To become players in the global communications revolution underway, one has to accept media in its own right and as a universal language combining theory and practice. The foreseeable media society is one not blunted and dulled by mass consumption, by a flood of information, but one created through mass participation and audience interaction, one in which doer and viewer are interchangeable.
It is misleading to emphasize only one particular perspective such as film and television, journalism, media history and research, media for artists, advertising, or corporate media. Such a specialization misses the cross-disciplinary and inter-cultural make-up of today’s media in which borders between journalism and entertainment, art and advertising, science and literature are no longer of great importance. Media aesthetics has to be attuned to the global changes in technology. A university of communications with international faculty members and an international student body dedicated to promoting cultural diversity could bring together American and European media experiences and would be the most appropriate environment for media aesthetics in Europe.
This lecture was delivered nine years ago at a conference in Paris on “The Media in Europe”, organized by the Association Descartes in conjunction with the College International de Philosophie. I’ve never formally published “Media Aesthetics in Europe” (it is only included in one of my rather hidden websites) because of its dated context and somehow sweeping generalities. But it served me well back in 1991 in the heated discussions with Paul Virilio (whom I accused of “grandfather’s philosophy”), Jean Baudrillard, and Vilem Flusser. (“Don’t give me the kiss of death!” I yelled at Flusser when he AGREED with some of my assumptions — in the meantime I’ve learned to appreciate his work as the McLuhan of the Eighties much more). The basis of my rather harsh judgments in “Media Aesthetics” was my experience with French students and academics when I taught “Media Philosophy” in Paris in 1990, supported by some anecdotal evidence I got from my German and Dutch friends. Still, in the age of the Internet 10 years are like a century, and you will find a totally revised description in my forthcoming book / project “Media Philosophy: Innovations in Communication”.
Yet, I’d like to underline my judgment from 1991: “What is missing is an unbiased sensual experience with media”. European media scholars continue to be disgusted by the US produced mass media, with little constructive criticism. To quote Florian Cramer from the Free University of Berlin: TV is “a dumb, linear medium, formatted to death with sitcoms, talk shows and commercials”. And again: “There is an exaggerated attention for Hollywood blockbusters and TV sitcoms in the contemporary European humanities. I am sure, younger scholars will have noticed the decline of Hollywood blockbusters in the 90s — from a quite sophisticated period with films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Total Recall” to the boredom and irrelevance of today’s movie theater programs”. Yeah? What about “The Matrix”, “Fight Club”, “American Beauty”, “The Dogma”, to name a few I’ve send my students to see? It is part of the game never to rule out Hollywood or TV sitcoms may surprise you. My point is you must combine a tough criticism of the American media culture with an appreciation of the potential it provides to newcomers.
If I had to characterize the difference between Media Aesthetics in Europe and the US from my current perspective, I think the increase in Internet use by European media scholars has had no real impact on their fundamental belief: They still treat technology basically as a tool, understand themselves as the masters of the game (or have the paranoid belief, like Kittler, hardware has taken over). Therefore, they stubbornly defend their (biased) view of humanity as homo sapiens, homo creator, homo faber. It really feels like I never published “Technik und Gelassenheit” (1983) and “Ereignis Technik” (1990), establishing technology as our genuine way of living a life worth living: We are technicians-artists — and nothing else! And yet, there is no reason to despair: The next generation (playing Pokemon at the moment) is on its way and will dance artificial life without even having to learn the moves.
The US situation is trickier with its blatant capitalistic takeover of every form of media, including the alternative ones. One result for university-level education is an increase of graduate students who just want to learn the know-how of the business (including web design) but have no appreciation of the theoretical framework, the true software of their future lives. American universities follow this trend to trade schools, and increasingly there is no place to go for the brightest students, striving to be both theorists and creative persons. I have no doubt that in a few years the pendulum will swing back when the lack of vision will be felt in the media field. But as a counter-measure I’ve founded a cross-disciplinary Master and Doctoral Program in Communication (from film to new media) as an English language summer program in Switzerland (see http://www.egs.edu). Among our professors are genuine philosophers from many fields who, in my view, will shape how we perceive and create media (and life): Jean Baudrillard (on photography!), Peter Greenaway (the multi-media filmmaker), John Waters (subversive aesthetics goes mainstream), Slavoj Zizek (Lacan meets popular culture), Sandy Stone (the body in cyberspace), Donna Haraway (Cyborgs as feminists), Avital Ronell (the black lady of deconstruction), Jean-Luc Nancy (a rare vision of politics), Gregory Ulmer (electracy at work), Siegfried Zielinski (anarchaeology of media), Yve-Alain Bois (art theorist as well as curator who studied with Roland Barthes and let the work determine the theory). The European Graduate School www.egs.edu blends the best feature of the American and European systems, and our students are a true international mix (currently from the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Germany, France, Philippines, Italy, and Switzerland).