Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 Geert Lovink, Bas Jan Stam 1 Jan 1991

The Souring of the Old Arts

Discomfort in the Media in Steiner and Syberberg

'Who are you?' 'Oh. Sorry.' He handed Zoyd a card that read. DR. DENNIS DEEPLY, M.S.W., PH.D.


someplace down north of Santa Barbara. a struck circle around a tv set, above the Latin motto Ex luce ad sanitatem. 'We study and treat Tubal abuse and other video-related disorders.'


The innocence of the media has been lost. After its exuberant growth in the '80s, a period of stagnation is beginning, heralded by the propagation of a mentality of restraint. From all sides, it is being made clear to us that the time has come to stop handling information and visual material carelessly. From now on, the media and data traffic in their presentation must subject themselves, like any other sector of Western society, to the diktate of ecology.
The environment is more than endangered plants and animals. It is a mentality which views the constructed media sphere with abstract concepts like 'conservation' and 'recycling' as a third or fourth nature. Inside this sphere, watchfulness prevails towards all possible needless pollution and senseless waste.

Aware media users at the present are finding a 'natural balance' in their own lives between the reception and issue of information. Alter euphorically getting to know the new technologies, they are seeking a balance between the immaterial environment which evokes imaginary worlds and the biographical environment in which their own physique finds itself. This balance is considered necessary to protect the data pioneers who work at the 'electronic frontier' from cold turkey. After the ecstasy of the experimental phase a discomfort appears in the technoculture, which is possibly seeking a destructive outlet. High expectations all too easily end in great disappointment. which breeds hatred towards the machinery. Deleuze and Guattari would simply call it 'anti production': the disgust that suddenly arises in those who have let themselves be carried away by the stream of signals. Would this be the 'drama of communication' (adapted from Alice Miller) – that at the moment we are only receiving and signalling nothing back? Or the reverse: putting too much data into the world, without getling anything whatsoever in return? Among data workers there is a feeling of emptiness and pointlessness which can only temporarily be compensated for by the introduction of yet more new hard- and software. Perhaps an ecological therapy can help: in any case this is what media ecologists G. Steiner and H. J. Syberberg suggest in their recent publications.
The body seems likely to evaporate from a long stay in the medial milieu. Along with the boundaries of the personal environment, the definition of one's own body is growing vague as well. But before the critical limit of 'virtual reality' is transgressed, the ecosophers want to protect us. They look wistfully back to the long-ago era when authenticity and 'real presence' so flourished, in an attempt to salvage what there is to salvage.
The 'impending' estahlishment of permanent media unavoidably produces a new longing for 'direct contact', without all those mediating bodies and elaborate prostheses.

The unbridled colonization of the personal life must be temporarily halted. At the end of the '80s people suddenly expressed annoyance at the tapestry of media we all had to eat through in order to keep up on things. Not more magazines, TV series and computer software! Not more world-shocking media events! The diet of media we automatically impose on ourselves, lest we get swamped, is becoming the done thing. Boredom and indifference mingle with active forms of refusal to keep consciously consuming. The bestsellers we've bought can just stay unread, the TV can be watched zapping or even sleeping..... or just left off. Unconscious registration of the headlines proves enough for keeping up in conversation.
The 'French' theories from the 1970's, which turned against concepts like unity, truth and meaning and practised unrestrained deconstruction and difference, are no match for the supersonic world of stimulation. Endless text production has turned out t0 offer no solution, but rather to cause problems. Moaning and groaning about the excess of interpretations is turning into a public lament which appeals to many. According to the media dieticians' diagnosis, we are currently in a media vacuum caused by the drivel of journalists and the endless academic discourse of the specialists. We live, they say, in a corrupt world where the parasites of the Secondary call the shots. These second.rate writers and filmmakers who populate editorial centres make sure every original experience is nipped in the bud. According to this media criticism, a real present no longer exists, just imaginary zones, indirect discourses and staged events. Above all, access to the work of art is being closed off to us by a garbage heap of exegesis, commentaries and criticisms. If anything can recapture meaning, it is real art, which strikes you dumb and requires no further explanation.

Society of the Primary

George Steiner's Real Presences (1989) articulates the antipathy for emptiness which accompanies the flood. In these essays he seeks alliance with the modern struggle with media overkill and arouses the reader's interest in a society of the primary in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited. In this society all discourse is held to be illicit verbiage. Criticism can be put on the shelf; all serious art, music and literature is a critical act, anyway. We don't have to worry about a blank and passive silence prevailing in this counterpart to Plato's republic. After all, all presentations of the Great Works which create an imaginary community of the immediate are to be considered as interpretations and are understanding in action.
Steiner is without doubt playing with a full deck. He also understands how difficult it is to draw a dividing line between primary and secondary texts. We must see his call for the dismantling of the culture industry as, above all, a sign of desperation at the fleeting character of modern products. The great bulk is totally ephemeral; it will be soon out of print and sepulchred in the decent dust of deposit libraries. These works come and go like querulous shadows, provide at most some transient pleasure and the necessary job opportunities for the secondary souls.
Indeed, the Works of today do not dedicate themselves to an imaginary eternity as once existed. They are manufactured to be recorded and reproduced more precisely, copied. Their manufacture is entirely dominated by possible media connections. The fleetingness Steiner so deplores is nothing more than the speed of modern registration techniques. The media alliance into which the 'eternal' works of art have been incorporated is a dynamic multimedia archive where technical connections between word, image and sound are created. Without calling this development by name, Steiner sees a loss of authenticity here.
The modern media alliance, in which culture moves forward as information, in no way resembles Steiner's model of secondary layers with an authentic, primary core at the centre. In information science there is no difference between first- and second.rate data (at most there are processed and raw data). In principle, they are all subject to static and erosion and at the mercy of the state of the technology.
For Steiner, media are synonymous with the imminent fall of the subject, which would express itself in its own way, but cannot because it is bowled over by an avalanche of information. Literate humanity is solicited daily by millions of words, printed, broadcast, screened, about books which it will never open, music it will not hear, works of art it will never set eyes on. Not even the computer and the electronic databanks can process this mass. But who's worrying about the machines? Steiner is mainly looking to arouse self-pity. It's all simply come to be too much for the scholars. Even worse: the media are impairing their intellectual capability and are becoming superior. A mandarin madness of secondary discourse infects thought and sensibility. He tacitly hopes that history will pass devastating judgment on our imperialism of the second- and third-hand. Perhaps our age will come to be known as that of tlte marginalists, of the clerics of the market.
Steiner has little of the '80s fascination for the media. No analysis of global media capitalism even need be made. The task of the scholar evidently does not lie in understanding the world around him. Media ruin the mind and pointing out the culprits is sufficient. These are the press hounds: Journalistic presentation generates a temporality of equivalent instantaneity. All things are more or less of equal import: all are only daily. (Data are equal. but some are more equal.) Poets, composers and painters, according to Steiner, should not be satisfied with the five minutes for which they are allowed to shine as stars. They are, after all, wagers on lastingness. That the media are concerned these days with the incorporation of art into the mythological universe (think of Van Gogh, Mozart or The Doors) has not yet occurred to Steiner. Meanwhile, the media have produced their own immortal heroes and myths, which can compete with the traditional ones and moreover happily embroider on them.
Journalism bids us invest in tlte bourse of momentary sensation. Whole masses of people who practise serious art are caving in to this seductive offer. Actually they should display a radical disinterest in timeliness, since according to Steiner meaningful art is by definition not new, and just as timely 30 years later. Originality is antithetical to novelty. But creativity has become fatally entangled in the academic-journalistic discourse which twines around it. In placing such emphasis on the compulsion to present oneself as shocking, new or modern and succumbing to the patterns of fashion, Steiner cannot get involved with the current use of media in art. In his view, the media still maintain themselves outside the creative process. They attach themselves like parasites to the work of art and consume from the outside. When this gnawing reaches the threshold of pain, we can indeed expect artists to become frustrated with the paper Leviathan of secondary talk of which they unwillingly comprise a part. At that moment, the ecological appeal can strike a chord and give restraint a moral fundament.
If, on the other hand, we see the media as a platform, and start with the assumption that the arts must seek contact with other data currents if they are to survive, finding an interpretation. free work space outside the media does become quite difficult. The longing for that is nostalgic and timeless. Leaving things as they are and applying yourself to new work in your surroundings has a touristic quality. If we see the media as more raw material. they and all their secondary replays are freely at the artist's disposal. If we succeed in using media purely as material. it's been primary action. Then the wastefulness is back on track and we can calmly let Babble continue to grow rampant over media excess and mental moderation. Then it is not interference, but applause in the form of static. The secondary no longer distracts or impedes' art-inaction' at all.

Second-Rate Art

This same unholy alliance between media and art bemoaned by Steiner is also the bone of contention in the controversial book written by West German film director Hans Jürgen Syberberg in the turbulent transitional period of '89/'90. Vom Unglück und Glück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem Kriege (On the Misfortune and Fortune of Art in Germany after the War) immediately drew attention to itself when published because of the Nazi terms used unrestrainedly by its author. The scandal prevented people from looking more closely at his line of reasoning. The 'secondary talk' indeed had the effect here that the primary theory remained out of range. What is remarkable about Kunst in Deutschland is that it articulates popular prejudices about postwar art and then connects them to a theory of art. Syberberg sees an era coming to an end with the fall of the Wall, and is there in no time to fill the need for new paradigms. Finally he can say aloud what everyone was already thinking, namely that contemporary art is second-rate garbage. Like Steiner he thinks back longingly to an art that radiates purity, durability and beauty: authentic monuments for eternity.
In order to be included in the media, art has had to defer to them. According to the conservative thinkers, this is the reason for postwar superficiality and pollution. This art without a people resulted, according to Syberberg, in throwaway goods like punk, pop and junk. Everything mutates boundlessly, everything degenerates into unhealthy decay, with wholehearted approval. In the boom period an anti-art triumphed which was pounced on by the media: All doors opened for this anti-world of beauty, grinning, dominating the market, shameless. Syberberg sees the preference of the small, the inferior, the deformed, the sick and filth over brilliance as a hallmark of this art form. The command of ugliness dominates life and art and the rats become the symbol of what is interesting, as do the swine.
Hans Jürgen is livid with annoyance at 'Hamlet in undershorts', 'Don Giovanni in the whorehouse of the fast-food chain', 'the poet Kleist with a stahlhelm', 'William Tell in a Jeep' and Richard Wagner's Götterdammerung cut up into 'a fast food porno videoclip'. The reader has to laugh involuntarily at this bombastic drunken language in which Syberberg spews out his frustrations about poor Germany. He rants about all those filthy artists and their hollow products that culminate in self-destruction ('the rocker who smashes his violin'). A 'neurotic mannerism' typifies the contemporary art sector. Everywhere a subsidized, organized apocalyptic mood, a culture without identity, crippled by inauthenticity. Although Syberberg achieved success with his monster films after WW II, he nevertheless considers this period a hell, which celebrated its triumph without making merry and was nauseated by its own vomit.
From his hallucinations there speaks a tremendous fear of the chaos of hybridization, in which everything is connected to everything, everyone goes to bed with everyone: nations, races,food, plants, animals, populations. The media in particular have become too much for him. He cannot distinguish between the many images and sees only the masses of media that engulf him. The international arbitrariness of multicultural media charisma is to him a mess emptied over the bloodless land from above. This he frankly admits: So we sit there in the land of plenty of realities, on 5 to 4o channels from all over the world, our lives lonely, sated and having lost art. The media officials, calling themselves the mouthpiece of protest, speak with forked tongue: life-lies arise from the media markets as a result of the dialectic of minorities. The wars from behind tlte desks of the opinion industry, according to Syberberg's masochistic cultural philosophy, result in a gigantic environmental pollution of the soul. Art has degenerated into the show business of the leisure industry. It has been reduced to charismatic electronic art. Syberberg's own medium too is guilty of dissolution in tlte international electronic multimedia marketing show, when he writes that film has lowered art to pure industry. The aesthetic situation, it seems, is so hopeless that he no longer embarrasses himself by coming out with such nonsense.

Return to the Authentic

Steiner and Syberberg fill a need. For the time being, experiments with electronic art are open-ended and offer no certainty in the unstable art world. So the call for a return to the Authentic can count on public approval. The overkill, however, which is real. is a logical consequence of the new media's phase of introduction onto the market. This will regulate itself via restraints and bankrupcies, irrespective of the authenticity wrapper. The
drumroll of the oaken sticks on tightly stretched pig's bladders which can be heard at fetes and street festivals (amplified or not) is at present passing before us in the media's consolidation phase, followed by an authentic tape of '60s' music and the latest technodisco. It is for lack of a primary media theory that Syberberg and Steiner can not only lash out so naively and conservatively, but on top of it get discussed as groundbreaking thinkers. If enough were known about the connections and technical possibilities of the media (and its history), such contributions would instantly be lost in the everyday multicultural shuffle.
Fascination and boredom constantly alternate. The importance we attach to the media is just as great as the disbelief which overcomes us moments later. This zigzag motion causes confusion which cannot be cleared except by switching off all the media. That would be the end of the authentic work of art as well, because it blooms out of confusion and is not availed by any diet whatsoever. Art is immoderate, and not just because it leaves time and space behind. The eternity propagated by Syberberg and Steiner on the basis of simplicity and moderation is an outstanding hallmark of the new media. They leave time and space behind, while for Syberberg eternity didn't last even 1000 years and Steiner's Plato was mystically busy expressing the idea in natural numbers.

translation LAURA MARTZ