Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#1 Robert van Boeschoten 1 Jan 1994


Norbert Bolz, Am Ende der Gutenberg-Galaxis, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 1993

Norbert Bolz's most recent book is a summary of past ideas. Interactive means of communication have made McLuhan's End of the Gutenberg Galaxy a reality. Bolz's philosophical view of his subject is fed by aesthetic interest.


Cover of "Am Ende der Gutenberg-Galaxis" -

Communication relations are determined by the way the means of communication present themselves. The appearance, the presentation is important: this is expressed in his `surface philosophy'. In the world of the media, appearances, or (put more accurately: the contemplation of appearance or aesthetics) dominate completely. The book in which one searched for the underlying story is finished. Philosophically, this means that the light itself in Plato's cave is no longer interesting, but the shadows all the more. Sunlight has been exchanged by today's and tomorrow's cyber-cowboys for cathode radiation.

Because Am Ende der Gutenberg-Galaxis has the character of a summary, it runs a certain risk of superficiality, too. But it is certainly to be recommended to those who have not yet stood still at his work. The relationship between philosophy and communication technology is portrayed in a structured and comprehensible way. Through a tour of the best-known, especially German, communication theories of Luhmann, Habermas and Benjamin, among others, Bolz arrives at the evolution of `interface design'. By this he means, as McLuhan explained before him, the technical structure in our perception that forms the basis of that of which we are aware. Physiological processes organise our neural network and stimulate psychological changes with consequences for our knowledge of the environment and thus also our theories of knowledge. Technology makes structures in our frame of thought (`Brainframes' according to De Kerckhove), causing us to categorise and explore the world in a specific way. Through linear perspective and the `panoramic gaze', we have arrived at interactive perception. For McLuhan, this last form of perception was best represented by a `resonant interval'. A term that he borrowed from physics, where it is used to indicate how particles interrelate. In McLuhan's theory, various sensory impressions enter the brain simultaneously, where a choice is made between them. The sensory nervous system first checks over all the impressions, as it were, and creates a specific image based on them.

The consequences of the means of communication for philosophy are elaborated most clearly in the last two chapters. For Bolz, these are mainly in the fields of epistemology and aesthetics. He calls it a `knowledge design' and a `media aesthetics'.
The most important impulse to the design of our knowledge in Western culture was the invention of writing. Writing increases interaction between people, because of the representation of absent people by the written word. The production of writing in book form causes the text to represent a person even more. The unity of the book was equal to that of the person who had written it; the text had an identity.

This identity has been splintered by electronic media, made possible by a difference already present in the book: that between speech and writing. Writing was a representation of the spoken word, but not its equivalent. The printing press caused a reordering of our thinking, by elevating the written text as organisation form above other forms of information transmission. The printed text pressed an order into language that was represented by the book as a mental unity and accepted by all. Our knowledge structure oriented itself towards this, so that today a situation is comprehensible if described as a story with a beginning, a discussion and conclusions. Every history in book form consists of a unity in which beginning and end are tied together.

In written language, absence as false reality and presence as true reality are engaged in a continuous game with each other. The book that is present represents a writer that is absent. The text in the book seems to only portray the writer's thoughts, as though the writer is speaking. But because of the written character of the text, the reader must interpret the written word himself, and the text is not as clear as it pretends.

Bolz finds this theme in the work of J. Derrida, who deals with the philosophical consequences of this game. The break-up of linearity in modern thought is described by Derrida as an archedifférence underlying any description of reality. Where a philosophical truth or description of reality is offered, the text resembles a speaking `reason' attempting to prove its correctness. The text pretends to be present and clearly understandable, but is in fact not yet present because it must first be interpreted by the reader in order to acquire meaning. McLuhan portrays this difference with the metaphor of the `mosaic', and also rejects linear thinking in modern science. In Bolz's book, these metaphors are joined in a `figuration game', used by modern media to describe reality and distance itself from the logic of cause and effect. According to McLuhan, language has developed from an oral- via a scriptural- into a typographic form, which is being transformed in modern times into an electronic form that resembles the language of the scriptural era. Bolz adopts these categories when he speaks of today's `hypertext', that fits our image of mediaeval times. The Torah and the Bible were regarded as texts that required annotation. The texts thus produced were organised tours, in which `super links' were created between fragments from the Torah, the Bible and philosophical texts. The modern media also weaves texts together in zig-zag fashion. The book in which reference of one text to another is suppressed, has lost its validity. Reference to other texts remains reference in modern media, causing the internal difference meant by Derrida to be present in the text. The structure of communication is more transparent in modern media than in books.

To Bolz, modern means of communication represent a revolution taking place in our consciousness now. The greatest challenge to the developer of the media is the design of that same media. Their demand is directed at making the media as user-friendly as possible. According to Bolz, this requires examination of modern art forms. Communication that does not artistically reflect on its own form is nonsensical, according to him.

Bolz places art and communication media on the same level. He finds them not to be a reflection of an utopian, other world, as people like T. Roszak still thought in the sixties; rather, they form an `alarm system' for our consciousness. Our senses are tested by today's media, causing us to learn to deal with new forms of perception.

According to Bolz, aesthetics in modern art develops from Cubism, in which the perspective image is shattered, through Futurism, in which the movement as such is the main thing, to Suprematism, in which the minimum of representation in art is attained. In Malevich's Suprematism, all objects are deception, forming a false reality that conceals real being. Suprematism opposes artistic reality to this. According to Bolz, Suprematism takes a kind of `eagle-eye view', making `geometrical aerial photographs' to describe the situation in art and daily existence. The turbulence of daily life is established as a structural form in Suprematism. But Bolz gets into difficulties with this metaphor. The eagle-eye view of artists like Malevich assumes a reality that is determined in an Euclidian space that the artist can rise above. The all-seeing gaze is transcendental. On the other hand, Bolz describes reality as a time-space continuum, like modern physics. Connections are not located within systems of causal relation in that world. Rather, they are located in a field of forces at play where various options are present - McLuhan's resonant interval. Appearance and reality are indistinguishable in that world. It is not possible to rise above it. Only recognition of the pattern of effects provides insight into the situation.

Finally, Bolz compares the object-less world of the Suprematists with the world of computer simulations. The technical teachings of modern media are just as object-less as abstract art, because they are about communication as process and not about the content of communication.
Modern advertising has understood this aspect of the media well. It has changed its goals in recent years, selling life-style and world-image rather than products. We are no longer guided by the function of products, but by the emotional bond we can form with them. From this, Bolz concludes that the important thing is no longer essential understanding and unmasking of appearances, but a well-thought-out attitude or stance towards them.

According to Bolz, the effect of modern media is to make people cling to role patterns that are recognisable on the surface. McLuhan writes in Understanding Media, that because of the uncontrollability of the modern media, our consciousness has moved outside of the body. We put our faith in public opinions, accept the life-style advertisements and adjust our habits and customs accordingly. That which is individual is no longer interesting, because the subject has lost its right to have a voice. The book as representation of that subject is finished.

translation JIM BOEKBINDER