First Research Program 2008–2014

During its first six years, the IKKM had different topic each year which guided the selection of invited fellows, themes, and conferences.

1. 2008/09 Hominization and Anthropotechnologies – the Making of Humans.

The first step aims to formulate the essential positions of the new media-anthropological paradigm in arts and cultural studies. Media anthropology starts from the assumption that there is no such thing as the human being per se; rather, there are a plethora of cultural technolgies of hominization or “anthropo-techniques“ (Sloterdijk), for short. This makes it impossible to adhere to rigid demarcations between humanity and technology, between the human and non-human, or between culture and nature. Instead, cultural techniques are described as networks of distributed power of action in which human and non-human agents are, as it were, enmeshed, creating themselves again and again in recursive interactions. It was thus only possible (to give but one example) to domesticate animals in the course of the co-evolutionary domestication of human beings. The erection of a pen, a fence, allowing the hunter to become a shepherd, results not only in domestication of animal species, but also in the very first break with those human/animal metamorphoses to which the Palaeolithic cave paintings bear witness. If something like effects or (better) agency exists here, it emanates from all three of these agents: the human being with his fence acts on the animal, the fence positions human being and animal in respect of one another, and the animals in this positionedness require the human beings to behave in a certain way, behaviour which, in turn, cannot reckon without the fence. If, against this background, the intention is to discuss the foundations from which positions and limits of a contemporary media anthropology might emerge, such discussion will be grounded in a material epistemology.

Media as relational (symbolic) and material hybrid entities with subject and object parts not only designate crucial initiators of action in these networks, they also form those very locations and instruments at which the anthropo-technical processes are revealed and with the aid of which they are (can be) observed and reflected upon. This applies, for example, to the moving image. It is the product of a highly complex, technically, institutionally and individually functionalized field of action together with its own instances of reflection. When it is presented, it functions in a second, different ensemble, in which devices (cinema, television etc.), viewers and other cultural fields are included. Thirdly, it represents and thematizes agency, agents and agencies in characteristic manner, aesthetically and diegetically, simultaneously creating them itself for the first time. If the moving images put human and non-human agents against one another time and again, this only happens – at the production level of these images – in the inseparable interaction between these agents. It is in moving images that the interconnectedness of human and non-human agents becomes visible, is produced and is reflected upon.

2. 2009/10 Referencialization and Ontogenesis – the Making of Things.

The actor-network theory is as much a media-ontological as a media-anthropological theory (or neither of the two): for example, it makes statements about the manner in which referents as scientific or social facts are constituted by being referencialized, that is, integrated into material sign references. “Referencialize“ here means distinguish, filter, mark, code, record, transport, translate etc. a more or less labyrinthine sequence of acts, it being possible to apply each of these acts, in turn, to the result of a part of the chain of operations. The referent is not therefore something that ontologically precedes the medial practices of representation; on the contrary, the referent is produced by reference, and reference consists of a chain of operations in which human and non-human actors are, in turn, enmeshed. While »written form« can be interpreted as a kind of representation, »writing« must be viewed as a practice that represents a network in which those that write and that which is written down are produced.

What is only being cautiously indicated in the German-speaking discussion of cultural technologies and image media has already been tried and tested in different variants in the French and American anthropology of technology: the practical and historical priority of the chains of operation over the epistemic things generated by them or, in very general terms, referents. This enables science historians and sociologists of technology to re-transcribe the ontogeneses that take place every day in the experimental systems of science. The essence of the referent is very similar to the essence of social bonding with the Melanesians: a kind of »hau« or »mana« (Mauss). Reference is a property of this chain of operations in its entirety. The film that was itself experienced as a medium of vitalization or personification of things can be regarded, in the same way as an experimental system, as an acting field of thought that allows the processes of such emergence to be reconstituted. The interlocking, the enmeshing or intermeshing of human and material agents into agencies capable of action and reflection is part of the oldest-established topoi of film theory. It begins with the work and operation of the film camera itself as a machine and as a »mechanical eye« in early film theory and poetics. The camera appears here both as part of the material world and as the agent of an independent, human-like subjectivity, as an »extended« eye. The film image itself therefore represents both object and subject status of the observation; a fusion which, for example, is described as »photogénie« in early French film theory. A cross-disciplinary method transfer is only just beginning to test the way in which, on analogy with the experimental systems of the natural sciences, it is possible to describe not only laboratories, but also cultic, technical or artistic artefacts as »agencies«, not to mention social techniques or »history«. Film, art, religion and technology are »acting fields of thought«. The social as well as the object-like or subject-like or image-like is materialized in them.

3. 2010/11 Semiosis—the Transformation of Objects into Signs

Instead of starting with subjects and objects, the development of theory attempted here assumes a dispersed and recursive agency, which is brought into an ontological hierarchy. This approach does away with the categorial distinction between signs and objects, as it characterized the thinking of the classical episteme from the 17th to the 19th century. Signs and objects are no longer separated by the Cartesian hiatus. In a media theoretical context, the redefinition of the concept of sign is therefore a research desideratum (Krämer following Derrida; Walther; Winkler; cf. also Franz/Schäffner/Siegert/Stockhammer 2007). It can build on Charles S. Peirce’s work, whose types of signs are at the same time ontological categories. A discussion of action theory by dint of positions in semiotic and media aesthetics can make use of the fine differentiations Peirce’s semiotics introduces. Similarly, Latour does not oppose sign and referent but instead introduces a series of hybrid connections of objects, which perform media operations (filtering, ordering, saving, broadcasting, editing, etc.), constituting in turn different types of signs: three-dimensional objects that have significant effects, object-like indicators (Zeigzeugen), two-dimensional diagrammatic and one-dimensional grammatical signs.

In material objects and artifacts, on the one hand, and human agents, on the other hand, signs become effective as agents of social, political, aesthetic and cognitive doing (in short, of cultural praxis) in their own right. Signs are always agents in the agential context of mixed ensembles but also agencies that link heterogeneous agents. Therefore, semiotics has to be addressed as a third operation of media ensembles. Already the founders of actor-network theory conceived this approach as a “semiotics of materiality” (Law). The relationality of the entities is understood as semiotic relationalities. Insofar as being itself is relational (Serres), it is a semiotic being. Also in Gell’s account, signs occupy a central functional place—although from a semiotic point of view, they are only reflected superficially. Signs can represent agents/patients and agencies via relations to the object. During its development, film, for instance, starts to represent and reflect itself as sign. Also the “reality” of “reality TV” always consists of an agency, in which the sign is already recursively entailed and develops effective agency. At the same time, it represents and reflects this efficacy and thereby exerts a media function.

Here, the type of the indexical sign possesses a special function. According to Peirce, only the index as a (causal) nexus establishes a cogent link of signs and extra-semiotic objects; this is the reason why it deserves particular attention in mixed ensembles. It is illuminating that Gell conceives a work of art as an object-reflecting agency within the framework of Peirce’s concept of index; similarly, Bense has tried to introduce the work of art, respectively the aesthetic state of artificial objects, as an indexical category within the Peirceian scheme. Finally, it is not an arbitrary occurrence, and hence noteworthy, that the indexical function has repeatedly been used to characterize the type of analog technical pictures (photography, film; e.g. by Barthes and Bazin; one could also think of the cognition-guiding function of the index in classic cinema). There are indications of a more complex modeling, once one starts to conceive signs as agents in the framework of mixed media ensembles, in which they operate as “knots” or “meshes” of a particular kind—a position assumed here.

4. 2011/12 Localization—the Production of Sites

Agencies are delimited, and they therefore shape their very own spaces. If one regards agencies as acting and thinking fields, actors in these fields or spaces must therefore occupy, first, defined and, second, addressable locations. Locations and addresses are generated by the operations of the agency, which in turn is able to change with the operations of the actors. The operation of ascribing locations to actors is localization. Localization as the ascription of sites and addresses is in numerous ways an indexical operation. Following Michel Serres and (with a complementary terminology) Michel de Certeau, the ascription of position and location has however to be distinguished. The ascription of positions is conducted from a “global” (Serres) perspective, from a bird’s eye or map perspective, which allocates neutral homogenous sites within a space (Gefäßraum) and individual actors (objects, humans, signs). In contrast, the description of location is carried out from a “local” perspective, out of the described space itself; it takes directions as point of orientation. Therefore, a location is a singularity in space defined by the actor that occupies the site and is both reachable and operable; it is described by dint of describing the way to the location. Vice versa, it can therefore be said that actors in the space of “agency” render observable the singularity of locations in space. In actor-network theory such movements are already described with the term figuration (Latour), but without—for instance, with reference to aesthetic and semiotic debates—to clarify under which conditions, under the absence of which actors and with which historic durability concrete figurations occur.

To the extent that media establish locations, they can be described as theatric media. With reference to the aspect of theatricality, mediality captures all those problematic processes of placing, framing, situating instead of the process of representation. To give something a frame, to create a situation constitutes a location. The formation and formulation of locations and spaces in film seems to function in such a way (field sizes, camera movements, acoustic localizations). Singularization in space is also the foundation of tele-visual image transmission. Already Nipkow’s definition of television builds upon the notion of two different locations, which are marked by the presence and visibility of the image object. In this vein, the practices of telephony, of positioning and navigation systems and finally of virtual addressing and mobile media communication can be reconsidered. In this context, the link between global and local perspectives is decisive, in which the local and singular is not seen as a subsumption but as common agency. Here it will also be useful to use historical distance and to take as starting point older, often overlooked media practices, like car radio or maritime radio. The localization and addressing within a comprehensive systems of agencies, which changes itself with every singularity it produces, does hence not appear as an antipole to a “global” perspective of world communication—now in a twofold sense. Based on this approach, it becomes possible to examine the agency of, for instance, the “global market” (see, for instance, Michael Callon) or the climate.

5. 2012/13 Synchronization—the Production of the Present

The concern with the singularity in space fosters the complementary question of the singularity in time—this is the event—and more precisely of the coordination of events, after synchronization. In order for action to occur in mixed ensembles at all, the involved actors have necessarily to refer to each other in a temporal respect: there is no way to avoid synchronization. The practices of television, like the program scheduling of image events and especially live broadcast, provide an illustrative starting point. Globally broadcast television events perform numerous synchronizations; they couple, first, the (external) event with the time of reception, second, the numerous times of reception among each other and, third, the time of broadcast with other (parallel) television events. Finally, television times are synchronized with datings of a different type.

However, television is not content to only provide these synchronizations, it represents and reflects them, renders them observable and makes them therefore the subject of recursive control. From this vantage point, other synchronization media come easily into sight, from regular time and radio-controlled clocks to the mobile phone. They have to be examined as agents of temporal coordination but especially as media for the visualization and representation of simultaneity. The motiveless and aimless, mobile phone based “flash mobs” might be an example for this; as real events, they are the communication and actualization of the synchronization potential between communication and real event.

The process of synchronization is also called “real-time”. This denotes the opening of a temporal window, in which information is distributed, prepared, eventually visualized and which in the process allows intervention in the communicated process. Communication and the communicated become indistinguishable in the frame of the real-time window. Even a few decades ago, these real-time windows were bound to singular locations, which were highly specialized media installations and strictly secretive like military operations centers or government headquarters. Now they tend to detach themselves from a specialized fixed infrastructure. Instead they turn into “shells”, in which the individual moves more and more. The modern media habitat can therefore not be understood as a mere category of location (of a spatially shaped milieu). Rather, it becomes effective as a category of action, which is determined by a particular space-time.

6. 2013/14 Historization—the Production of the Past

It is obvious that from the perspective of a theory of operational chains, interconnection and dispersed agency, the question has to be asked anew of how, where and by whom history is made under such circumstances; even more so, if historization is one of the operations which integrate different actors in a net of actions and therefore in a cultural system of meaning. As one possible research desideratum one might think here of the role of historization in patent specifications and more general in the history of patent law practices and their agonal strategy. In this case the relation of history and memory has to be reconsidered.

If agencies become capable of acting on the basis of the production of simultaneity, they can become capable of (self) reflection and hence in a more narrow sense intelligent on the basis of temporal recourse, i.e. by the production of the past. Harold Innis tried to ground the historical stability of big transnational hegemonic cultures in the equilibrium of space and time dominating cultural techniques. This is an approach current research into cultural technologies follows, although in a critically reflected manner. Agencies have to develop memories, if they want to remain stable in time but also flexible and capable of evolution, i.e. if they want to remain capable of acting (handlungsmächtig) as a whole. In mixed ensembles, the two central operations to achieve this are storage and repetition. Additionally, both operations are, first, immensely relevant for the media and, second, prime examples for the externalization of objects through technical equipment, which was traditionally reserved to the human subject and its assumed internal consciousness. Also and especially in this field, a reorientation can be expected, if one leaves the opposition between subject and object, between materiality and immateriality, behind and assumes their mutual integration, the interconnection of intelligence across heterogeneous actors.

It could here also be decisive—for instance, with regard to the works of Assmann but also of Gell and recently Giesecke—that studies of early and non-European cultures and practices expand the horizon. By formulating the concept of “dispersed memories”, the large number of existing studies about the history of the image and writing can be integrated. In general media studies, studies about the storage and recording function of technical media are anyway of high importance. Here a close relation between the approach of acting thinking fields and the arguments of French “Médiologie” (Regis Débray, Daniel Bougnoux, Louise Merzeau) can be drawn. In the assumption of a technical-social-semiotic complex—comparable to the paradigm of “agency”—established by the media, the “Médiologie” distinguishes between the spatial dissemination of information (“communication”) and its transmission in time (“transmission”; “broadcast”, “transfer”). The dialogue between these approaches should also include Deleuze’s application of Bergson’s philosophy of memory to cinema and the qualification of film as image memory. This account also departs significantly from the notion of a (technical, material) storage by adopting an operational perspective. The cutbacks of classical cinema and modern “memory images” (Erinnerungsbilder) can, for instance, not be explained by the storage function but with recourse to operational and procedural notions; the film image itself works as agent of the memory.

An indispensable partner in dialogue is also the theory of the procedural memories of social systems, as developed by Niklas Luhmann and especially by Elena Esposito. As in theories of cultural and collective memories and in the media theory of the memory, a supra-individual functioning of memory is assumed. Following the assertions of the philosophy of repetition, from the perspective of systems theory we are confronted with an operational memory, which functions without the preconditions of any storage or recording. In its core, it is based on the fundamental distinction between redundancy and information, according to which the system qualifies each occurring event. In the dialogue of approaches, this very elaborate theory would however need extension by including non-human collectives and the interplay between social and technical (as well as semiotic) systems. Additionally, the philosophy of repetition (Deleuze; Derrida) has to be considered in this context as well.

Such a discussion can find a phenomenological impulse in the analysis of rebroadcasts in television and here especially of structures of seriality. Also the self-historizing function of television should be considered, which puts its own images into images through never-ending rebroadcast and retrospection cycles thereby interconnecting its images with the self-images of the audience. The inquiry of other memory practices should also be included. In this context, photography could be of particular interest, as it is more and more operationalized from the traditional storage and externalization function (the photo album) by the process of digitalization: it is fostered by the enormously increased number of available photographs, but also their capability to be edited and distributed. In this way, digital images undermine the distinction of storage and process memory; they integrate both into one agency.