Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#4 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1991

Theorie der neuen Medien - Norbert Bolz

Raben Verlag (pub) Munich 1990 ISBN 3-922696-67-8, German text, pp. 167, DM 24

In a time in which instructions for use have taken the place of book learning, a situation in which scribes express their disturbance at the question: What is media? might seem paradoxical.


Theorie der neuen Medien -

Computer and communication science are so overloaded with the design of systems and the measurement of their effect, that one need not look to their comer for a General Media Theory' any time soon. In Germany, the birthplace of theory, its the germanophiles and the philosophers who are attempting to express the present-day technical reality.

Considering the sciences’ classical division of labour, it is to them that it falls to examine the question of existence and of the assignment of purpose to human life. But the postwar generation has abandoned this noble task. Having grown up with pop music and television, seated at their PCS, a considerable number of German researchers have devoted themselves to hollowing out and undermining the goals of their discipline and have dared to make the crossing to technology.

One of them is Norbert Bolz, a philosophy professor at the Freie Universitat Berlin, who is known for his classes on Benjamin. Under the ambitious title Theory of the New Media, he has combined several of his lectures and essays into a triptych which takes as its subject the departure from the culture of the book and acquaintance with telematica. The book does not have the character of an introduction, nor does it lean towards systematizing. It is probably too early for that. Bolz, in his own words, sketches several formative events from recent media history. He does not wish to practice the dialectics of Human Beings and Technology; he wishes to describe the technical implementation of the senses and the central nervous system. His work seeks affiliation with the research being done by the Kassel school, led by Friedrich Kittler (see Mediamatic, vol. 3#4). While they strip literature of all hermeneutic interpretations. Bolz is busy dusting philosophy off so that the ties which do indeed exist between it and technology become visible, audible and tangible. Within its limited framework, this book was not intended to be an original work (even though the publisher does suggest that it is 'primary literature'). Bolz goes no further than indirect polemics with established ideas and leaves ample room for one to make one's own connections. In part one, he draws a picture of Wagner as a master of static, in part two, of Benjamin as a media-reader and he concludes with the happy media science of Marshall McLuhan. But Bolz’s media theories are difficult to follow without prior knowledge of academic interpretations, and his style almost fails to perceptibly depart from them. Yet, he succeeds in wrestling himself free of the usual formula by sticking persistently to his purpose, not attempting to supply the technology of the media with a new meaning and accepting the vacuum which the media create with dyonisiac approval.

In the first, and largest chapter, Nietzsche and Wagner offer a program for the physiological a priori of thought. For Nietzsche, these are to be found in the labyrinth of the ear. When background static emancipates itself and becomes deafening, the question arises: What is ‘correct listening'? With the transformation of the art of listening, which, according to Bolz, is accomplished in Nietzsche's work, the trained ear of the Bildungburger, which is aimed at perceiving meaning and must listen to what others have to say, is traded in for the capacity to hear the beloved voice of the other. The primacy of the optical, which dominates intellectual life through reading and writing, is robbed of its power in Wagner's works, because the music affects the body directly. In the static which Wagner creates, intoxication and dream are communicated to the senses in a technical fashion. According to Bolz, the static, which defies symbolic musical notation, indicates the impending implosion of the Gutenberg Galaxy, which, along with the uniform measure of Books, had supplied life with a readable content up to then. In the space established by the Gesamtkunstwerk, listening becomes a tactile affair. Indeed, it's a nerve-racking business reminiscent of drug consumption and which aesthetic qualifications have difficulty encompassing. The enlightened citizen slumps, loses the normal distance he keeps from art and enters his own head. Bolz sees the sound of mythos of the media-artist Wagner, once called the father of film music, as the forerunner of pop music. In some of his other writings, he has already analyzed the correspondences between Wagner's theatre spectacles and Pink floyd’s shows.

Bolz takes their creed Your Inside is Out and Your Outside is In as a program for his analysis (not long ago, the psychedelic Grateful Dead announced plans for their own Festspielhaus). Physiological music played on digital hi-fi stereo can't think along with the ear any more. The atmosphere created by the right mix knows no distinction between intention and effect. It conjures up a world of its own, which modem thinking on the entzauherte Welt had excluded for good. The world is everything staged by our senses in their medial extensions. Its oldest name is Gesamtkunstwerk, Bolz concludes. He pointedly manoeuvres between Nietzsche's early admiration and later abhorrence for Wagner, Adornos designation of phantasmagoria and the usual accusation that Wagner glorifies German mythology. This is possible because Bolz avoids portraying Wagner as an avant-garde artist. As the techniques of sense massage are lifted from their artistic context, Wagner can graduate to the status of grandfather of our media. Thus, Bayreuth is no modem temple of media art either, it is connected to nineteenth century technology. It is a space station which had to wait, just as Nietzsche's texts had to wait for their readers, until after a catastrophic launch attempt before it could soar free of German soil. Once stationed in medial space, it could be brought into the same orbit as John Cage and Pink floyd from ground control Bolz. The satellite connections have been laid, and these transmissions of extra-terrestrial signals to the earths brains can finally be designated as such.

For Bolz. Walter Benjamin is an interface between the Gutenberg inheritance and the rising media. The links established by Benjamin in his threshold science have a double aspect: on the one hand, he looks backward, considering nineteenth century Paris as the natural history of capitalism. In the grip of an allegorical gaze, he reads the city as though it were a script. With his technique of metaphorical photography, he records the ware-hieroglyphs which he encounters as he drifts through streets and archives in the metropolis. But the aura surrounding the images which he picks up has disappeared: all sorts of indications remain, which are then described. In principle, Benjamin reduces all media to script. However, he does afford a glance into the future by not reducing the new medium 'film' to an art form, but, rather, interpreting it as a medium. With the aesthetic test- programs which he writes, Benjamin creeps into the perceptory apparatus of his day. Bolz uses the medical term innervation to describe this. In this way, the distance necessary to form an aesthetic opinion disappears. These spasmodic sequences of images call a second nature into being, one in which the organic and mechanical are interwoven. Bolz defends Benjamin against the ideological criticism of a later date, which severed anew the bonds connecting technology and the senses with the concept culture industry. Bolz sees Adorno’s spleen about the fate of modern art (to disappear completely beneath the ever- increasing flood of pulp) as a kind of melancholy, and opposes it to Benjamins mourning of the disappearance of the nineteenth century’s symbolic order, which took the aura with it. As a mosaic of quotes and hypotheses Benjamin's Passagewerk thus becomes both evidence of the ultimate readability of the world and a herald of the way in which a Mac full of stacks can cut and paste the media world together.

Having entered the realm of the media, the theory cuts off its roots in the Heimat. For decades, war and fascism kept the links established by Benjamin and others from being noticed. We turn now to McLuhan, who discourses on the extensions of the nervous system and the internalisation of technology in his Understanding Media. Bolz succeeds in including this Canadian in his ultimately very Teutonic train of thought without a hitch, continuing it right up to the ISDN network. That which had to be interpreted by Benjamin and Nietzsche is an explicit theme for McLuhan. That is why there is much to be said for a reading of Bolz's Theorie der Neuen Medien from back to front. Using the emptiness of the media as a priori, and aided by McLuhan, one can get beyond the gigantic impotence which has so characterised thinking about the media since the Second World War. While Bolz does indicate the innovative role of the war in the acceleration and revolution which took place in human perception, a deep rift remains separating the Twenties and the Sixties of the twentieth century. With the advent of McLuhan, the media's power was established and the Gutenberg galaxy left behind for good. The birth and workings of the media are clearly indicated by Bolz, but the establishment of its omnipresence remains a mystery. The narcotic veil hung over the world of the new media hampers the scribes' comprehension in this crucial period. It must also be said that the historical research being done in Kassel has not yet reached the post-war atomic-TV age. Only writings for which technical prostheses are a priori, and not a subject, can afford the timeless ambience required to tackle this period.

translation Jim Boekbinder