Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#1 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1994


Hartmut Winkler, Switching - Zapping, Verlag Jürgen Häusser, Darmstadt 1991

Zapping is either looked down upon or disapproved of outright. The bourgeoisie sees it as a danger to the public health, a consumer illness to which children are especially vulnerable. Manifold switching is thought to ruin concentration, causing children to be impatient and want to 'zap away' their teachers, according to recent research.

Columnists on the other hand, tend to dismiss the slumped pose in a single clause as a cynical, ironic gesture towards the over-abundance of inferior programmes, a category that includes their own bite-sized, modish blooms. Zap. Caught between the departments 'lifestyle' and 'media criticism', channel hopping remains a happily non-committal, incomprehensible and uncomprehended phenomenon.

A paradigmatic twist is often given to the rise of remote control, supposing it to be the transition between the passive and the interactive viewer. And yet, switching is terra incognita for media theory as it leaves the study of the subjective fallout to the humanities. In its turn, the research factory Mass Communication, Inc. (as extension of the advertising world and media concerns) can only view zapping as a challenge to make spots and trailers more subtle, in the vain hope that it grabs the viewers before they grab the remote control. Actually, zapping is an ideal subject for Anglo-Saxon cultural studies.

But the first brilliant zap text I have run across comes from West Germany. You might regard Hartmut Winkler as a well-read Frankfurt film theorist who studied architecture and Germanic culture and has taken up a place within the academic tradition of critical theory. Remarkably, he is at odds with Adorno and Horkheimer's criticism of the culture industry, which has lately landed in the pessimistic-culture straits where leftist and right-wing intellectuals can agree on their revulsion at everything that smells of (American) mass culture. Winkler observes what goes on inside the zapper without taking a negative view or shouting `hurrah' for the victory of the viewer over the program makers and what they offer. With an outsider's gaze and a certain sympathy for trivial culture, he tries to come conceptually closer to the experience of zapping. The result is a critical study that knocks down clichés and tests the solidity of concepts, without offering alternatives, as behoves good negativity.

Winkler distinguishes between purposefully turning the channel to another program and dreamy, playful, hectic, rhythmic or nervous zapping. Switching emerged, according to him, from a misuse of technology, that the inventors of the remote control had not taken into account at all. From this unlikely use emerged a new way of receiving. Using newspaper reports, sparse research results and his own interviews, he summarizes some motivations and explanations: the zapper wants to see what else is on, variety, watch multiple shows, fast forward television programs and most of all avoid commercials. One wants to keep one's overview and control what's going on. In search of small and large sensations, viewers avoid things that get on their nerves or bore them. As Montaigne said: When a book doesn't please me, I pick up another. Then I leaf through one book after another, with no plan, incoherently.

But Winkler does not find zapping to be a superior way of acquiring knowledge, producing more information and greater insight. Zapping, like television itself, is a source of distraction. Zapping is a program itself, that can be followed with a minimal dose of concentration, like any other channel. While Neil Postman and Jerry Mander reject distraction as a sign of decay, Siegfried Krakauer regards it as a compensation for the daily pressures of work: in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin, one can see the zapper as an 'examiner', kept pleasantly occupied.

Winkler frequently draws on the debates about the new medium film from the beginning of this century. Switching produces something of the amazement and estrangement felt by film-goers well into the Twenties, when the film theatre still resembled a continuous revue that provoked a wealth of reactions among the spectators. Film's `clock' still wasn't synchronized with the `inner clock' of the viewer. The element of one's own film as anti-pole returns in switching. Revenge is taken on the continuity of passive reception. You drop out, disregarding the unity of the story. A technical expression of the disinterest in greater significance. This `parasitic use of signs' aims to cultivate conscious `mistakenness' technically, a process that reminds Winkler of the collage and Wellershoff's description of the open work of art.

The telecommander has given the TV recipient a means of leaving the program and striking back, without giving up the medium or its reception. And yet, the zapper chooses an alternative that s/he is unfamiliar with, but continues because there is a kick in zapping itself. Winkler relates the amazement evoked to the shock caused by various editing techniques. The fright-seconds and raw, hard montage of the avant-garde recur in sudden switching. An experience comes about at the moment that shock defences lower (Benjamin). The hermetically experienced world falls apart and the loose parts again acquire a material character. Thus emerges the awareness that another order is possible.

Winkler treats his sources from literature and film theory with exaggerated caution. At the end of the day, none of the concepts turn out to be able to adequately describe zapping. While the zapper closes up gaps (film is life with the dull bits cut out – Hitchcock), no new film is produced. Winkler rejects the idea that zapping has a productive side. No author is creating a new piece of work. Switching is at most a subjective processing of meanings, inspired by boredom and playing with coincidence. Fantasies of omnipresence are interpreted by Winkler as fear of missing something and compensation for one's own impotence. In the concluding part about film and daydream, using Hans Sachs' Gemeinsame Tagträume (Common Daydreams, 1924), switching is defined as the balance between the progressive stream of real perception and the regressive stream of fantasy products. Switching is self-influence.

While drawing on early debates about film produces a lot, it is unclear why Winkler doesn't refer to game theory, used at present for describing computer games, MUDs and MOOs. He does not deal with the interactivity discourse of the computer world. Net surfing has much in common with zapping through TV channels; mouse and remote control are brother and sister. You might expect to see arbitrary zapping pushed aside by searching, navigating and scanning. But we find the same kind of productivity delusions and totality fantasies in the Net. Remote control today dominates not only TV channels, but potentially the entire communications spectrum. That makes Winkler's attempts, stripped of their caution, useful for the description of the comings and goings of plugged-in wetware.

translation JIM BOEKBINDER