American Magic and Dread

November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

The title of this post is not mine. It goes back to Mark Osteen’s fabulous book on Don DeLillo‘s fiction and its concern with modern media. But ever since reading that book, the tautological nature of the title, so apt and precise to describe the fiction of DeLillo, has remained with me as a shortcut to a European perspective on America. In a similar way, Liam Cennedy argued that for Europeans, America remained an object of study and also an object of desire (h/t Ida Jahr). Same tautological structure of interest (magic) and despair (dread). Yet, seen from the right perspective, and I speak spatially here, that picture above does make sense to someone driving DOWN the alley in the wrong direction, while for someone driving UP the alley, the letters are just nonsense. The irritated bystander (read: European) perceives the interdiction and the definition at the same time, as mere commands phrased in the same alphabet. This yes/and – no/but structure still seems to capture what many think about America as a cultural space, although the no/but-faction is gaining ground.

Paul Virilio coined the phrase of a projectile image, projecting through space at radiant speed, reflecting on screens and surfaces, thereby reorganizing our perceptions of space at the same time. Now, in addition to these spatial metaphors of images – between the ground floor and the observation deck – there is a temporal dimension of the image, which altogether can go beyond its spatial origins. It’s the visceral and viral image, which resonates in digital time (not space, how anachronistic).

DeLillo was able to capture this mode of being obsessed with images as a fundamental quality of American culture, images as part of the magic, for sure, but also images as the source of dread, of unease, and instability. In Cosmopolis (2003) and Underworld (1997), to name just two, DeLillo weaves the objective certainty of the image into a matrix of uncertain perceptions – phenomenological irritations in the face of photogenic magic. In one short passage, Jeff’s fascination with a video of the “Texas Highway Killer” turns into an ontological journey into the self, an image beyond the consumerist self of wryly calibrated image particles.

Jeff became absorbed in these images, devising routines and programs, using filtering techniques to remove background texture. He was looking for the lost information. He enhanced and superslowed, trying to find some pixel in the data swarm that might provide a clue to the identity of the shooter. (Underworld, 118)

In the constant run of images this clue to an identity is no longer directed at identifying the “Texas Highway Killer” but is used as a vehicle to see an image of oneself gaining shape in an endless swirl of half-codified, half-creative forms of repeated interaction, documented amply in forums and on pinwalls. If there is such a magic of uncertainty, then America might still inhabit the space of attractions. But as the magic of uncertainty of the image surpasses the national turf, it becomes a temporal trope, actualized at haphazard conjunctions of identity processes. One may feel urged to warn: “Do not enter” – “Entrance only” – at your own risk.

Additional background reporting: GC Commentary: BV, JP, JK and IJ.


The Fallacy of Social Media

July 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

I. Intro

The age of mass media ended when its most avid users converted to producing representations of the social world themselves. Whatever your semantic preference is in association with “mass” and the media, an individual seems somewhat preferable to an atom in a mass. But the emphasis in the beginning on “most avid users” shall be my starting point to argue for a fallacy in the term “social media,” in spite of the many accepted benefits of this development, which include the basis and readership of this post and this blog. The underlying thesis here is that those avid users of mass media were and are the first to jump at the even more enhanced possibilities of the new social media – multiplying their options of further connections endlessly.

The point does not need emphasis that social media are a new social formation on the basis of the widespread integration of electronic media in everyday life. As the communications scholar Mark Deuze puts it, a “life lived in, rather than with, media” marks a turning point in our perception of subject and object, in our concepts of communication and its role in social life (“Media life” Media, Culture & Society. January 2011: 137). But what are the implications of this turn in the use of media for those social relations (with people) if such relations are literally managed in similar ways that large corporations use to “address” or “target” their customers, contacts and partners? Are we only socializing with strangers, rubbing shoulders with giants, and crowdsourcing the wisdom of the world?

The electronic media revolution has certainly transformed information from hard copy to carbon copy to endless copy of a copy of a copy … at your fingertip. Welcome to the network, stage 2.0. Or we have reached phase 4 of hyperreal accumulation, the circulation of value in its pure form as the option for further value creation. Well a decade into this transformation of information into a purely circulating value, it’s time to ask the nasty question. What is social about “social media”? Where does the value of information intersect with social relations? And finally the nasty critical question: Does that transformation really change a thing?

II. What’s Social about “Social Media”?

The notion that media are now somehow social is interesting for the fact that it thrives on the obvious distinction from an age of “asocial media” – the dark ages of mass media. In hindsight, the last efforts of the mass media moguls to capture the attention of millions with ever more scrupulous methods of investigation to provide titillating daily fare (News of the World), will look like the final showdown between two very different media ecologies. “Thank you & Goodbye.”

But what is asocial about this waning age of mass media? Aren’t there also people working day by day in newsrooms, editorial boards, in front and behind cameras, microphones and anchor desks? Aren’t journalists digging into the fabric of social relations in order to find out what makes the world tick? Isn’t the benefit of having no personal interest in some other person’s matters yet reporting about them a great service to a public of viewers, readers, and listeners?

Mass media in their form of organization are heirs to the form of industrial production popularized in the nineteenth century when muscle power was replaced with steam engines, bureaucracy and accountancy became management, and centrally managed paths of distribution optimized the principle of scale to maximize profit. The mass in mass media remained a managerial abstraction for the purpose of reached an undifferentiated number of people with at a minimal cost for the greatest possible profit. Even by statistical analysis of audiences, popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century, the analysis of audience behavior and preferences remained rough and fairly undifferentiated.Through Gallup polls and similar measures, public opinion became a chart, a graph, a sum total of heterogeneous expressions. In his study News for All, Thomas Leonard succinctly remarks that “reducing the public to a chart may be the most arresting change made by the press of the twentieth century” (1995: 221). Markers like age, gender, place and income are only four out of thousands of possible variables, in socio-psychologic profiling of human behavior. But just because audiences fell into more or less finely marked socio-psychological clusters, there is little reason to believe that they were anything less differentiated than people are today. The fallacy of mass media then, entailed the conception of an audience that was addressed as a mass, because the channels of distribution followed the rule of scale.

III. The Value of Information in Social Relations

This economic principle of scale, in turn, yielded higher profits to investors (or moguls) than to their employees. Yet there are just as many social relations in mass media organizations and their environs as in any other bee hive of more than ten individuals. And on the other side of the screen, audiences are a lot more diverse and interactive with media content, then manager may be willing to admit. Against the abstraction of a mass, “social media” thrive on a positive connotation of media exposure, because now these media are no longer perceived as agents of a “false consciousness” – consumerist ideology, capitalism, patriarchy – but retreat behind the creative potential given to anyone willing to expose him or herself. But this euphemism of “social media” as a positive outlet of creative (self-)production hinges on the fallacy to mistake a form of production in the sense of value maximization (4th phase of simulation) with a form of interaction, which was already part of the mass media age.

While production remains within a value maximizing idiom, couched in neo-liberal jargon of flexibilization, interaction through media messages is and has been part of public communication ever since the first printed newsletters. We are not discovering that media are now suddenly social, but we are beginning to realize that media were always used to structure interaction among people. Only on the basis of a statistical abstraction like an audience, which emerged simultaneously with a particular regime of production, does this mechanism of media in interaction retreat behind the managerial logic of maximizing profits.

“Social media” platforms and similar reloaded enterprises are not opposed to this logic, but have modified it for the endless options of the network age: Consume at “no cost.” Yes, it’s free, it’s really free. Now, even from an amateur’s perspective on economics that sounds pretty revolutionary. In light of the development of network media this logic, however, loses much of its magic. Driven by enterprising investors and smart programmers within a quite short time, free simply means to acquire the right in return to buy more of each consumers time for exposure to advertising. It a trade-off between offering a free resource in exchange for your time. Likewise, the principle of scale (number of users, number of links, page views, etc.) continues to drive the development of these media (or provoke a sudden 404 error).

The hypothetical question today is: What if Google started charging a dollar for every search you perform, ten for its mail service, fifty for access to its online book collections? What if (excuse the Zizekian syntax), facebook started to charge a 100 dollar monthly subscription fee? 500 billion times $100 should yield more venture capital than an uncertain IPO. The consolation is of course, that such rates are far from realistic but that does not mean that they are not possible. Ironically, the age of social media has been accompanied by even fiercer concentrations and conglomeration than the old age of mass media. There used to be hundreds of newspaper companies (!) in the United States, putting out well over 1,300 different papers. Canceling subscriptions for daily papers is just one result of the ubiquity of information circulating “for free” online. Yet in this logic of free production, free circulation and free access, there is as yet no equivalent of exchange for those engaged in the actual production – except shorter attention spans. If there is something social about these new media, it’s their “socialized cost” to everyone, which in turn drives the necessity to become a producer of oneself in certain respects (Castells: “mass self-communication“).

The remodeling of the entire information ecosystem (aka the digital divide) creates an adverse network effect. Those engaged in networks – per se a social affair – profit from online networks a lot more than those, formerly not acquainted with such forms of technology-dependent private communication (ie. letter writing). Such indirect costs of media change – you could speak of social externalities of media change – are rarely measured in account sheets of individual enterprises since they can only figure in the productivity and creativity balance sheet of a given society/community/people-who-hang-out-together-and-do-something-cool. Whole areas of the world disappear from perception once connectivity becomes the gold standard of communication.

Map of communcative ties on Facebook (TM)

In a perceptive article, Harald Mahrer points out that “online social networks” change little about the power of social networks. If power is understood as the product of resources and social relations, so called social networks exemplify only that relations as such can only become a resource once they are applied to some concrete task. But the value of the “social network” is of first of all created as an option for further connections. The value creation of the network is not its extensiveness but its eventual application to an enterprise, a task of venture. The strong ties of networks (family, company, organization) and the weak ties of “social networks”  also differ in their dependence on technical network, tools of contact management and the statistical abstraction of converging spheres of interest.

While the technical network is still comparable to the grid of telephone lines (although enhanced, decentralized, accelerated), a network of statistical coincidences is a mathematical chimera. “You bought shoes, you might be interested in shoe laces.” What a surprise. However, I might not be interested in hiking shoes for a trip  to Absurdistan, savoring shoe-de poo puffs on a strawberry parfait or commit my savings to Shoemaker Financial (whatever their merits are).

These random examples just illustrate that semantic competence is a minimum requirement to understand the power and limits of network coincidence. But adversely, this competence creates what I call “search term inequality.” The  dominance of search as a tool to gather knowledge (aggregate form of socialized information) puts power in those hands, which tamper with outmoded forms of storage, of confidential data and eventually those who distinguish between a “social” and a “symbolic” relation.

Information is neither raw nor free. If the age of mass media has taught us a lesson on the benefits of free information, then it is the embeddedness of such raw data in social interaction. The chat about the latest news draws people together, strengthens and maintains ties. The confidential transmission of non-public material creates symbolic ties that last. The dream of the crowd as a corrective to clientelism is charming but underestimates the benefits of such ties for anyone involved in fostering symbolic relations through the exchange of links, recommendations and resources. Tapping into the acknowledged trust of close ties as a marketing instrument through free access creates “the consumer” as a volatile object of exchange between data brokers. While feeding the private exchange of information (in public), the symbolic relation starts serving the logic of scale. For whom?

IV. Redrawing the Boundaries in the Convergence Age

The age of convergence culture melts the cultural, technological, and social divisions of information and interaction into a global information ecosystem, to which some still refer as the Internet. In this ecosystem, many forms of information such as text, music, images, and video are no longer separated by different technologies, as in the age of print, radio or television but are now represented and enabled by the same digital technology. However, although we can access these forms of information by a click on a link, does not mean that the cultural conventions used to create or communicate about these forms have molded into a homogeneous bubble of identical information. Rather the opposite occurs. Now, that so many forms of public communication online have become equally accessible, the boundaries between these forms are redrawn in interaction. The network society today is marked by a struggle about the definitions of these boundaries.

In this transitory phase between the age of mass media and the new age of network media, some forms of public communication are only accessible as a form of practice: blogging, twittering, “social networking” are all modeled after existing cultural forms of expression, but are digitally remixed and altered for the demands of the network age. The benefit of such practices is that they create continuity in times of change. They work through repetition and gradual adaptation. The repeated transfer of existing cultural forms to new contexts enables us to cope with rapid change and development. Practices create a new certainty through simple repetition; they create continuity even if they are illogical, irrational or haphazard.

If social media mean anything, than it’s the realization, that practices of media use and production were never an “asocial” affair. The crucial difference between symbolic social relations and “social relations” as an outcome of statistical coincidence is that you can forget your best friend’s birthday but you can’t avoid the “Happy Birthday”-button on your control screen for social management. Insisting on the redrawing of boundaries in the convergence age is an urge against the unquestioned inclusive logic of networks. Just because there are cables between your home and my desk, I never thought of calling you. But, who knows, maybe one day we run into each other in … and realize, we were living next door. Pure chance. Years ago, the German super-sociologist and systems theorist  Niklas Luhmann coined the iconic phrase: “You may be dealing with systems all day in your office, but once you go out into the street, there are only people.” And these people may be enjoying a chance acquaintance. Just for this very moment.

Too many options and not enough focus?

Bodies and technology

February 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Ei Wada (和田 永様, *1987), a Japanese media-musician, is becoming a regular appearance at new media festivals outside of Japan. He appeared in Linz (Austria) and performed at the 2010 ISEA Ruhrgebiet, where he won the Nam Jun Paik Award. Wada exhibits a keen interest in the physical workings of outdated technology and how it can be turned into a creative tool. A prototype for a proactive media archaeology.

The”Braun Tube Jazz Band“, presented during the recent Transmediale Media Festival in Berlin this February, is an assembly of several classic Braun tubes (short for: Television), which are short-circuited by Wada through his body. All tubes are connected to his body, his feet serving as a grounding for the circuit to function. Probably everyone knows the sizzling feeling at the fingertips, when you approach a classical TV screen. Wada exploits this everyday phenomenon for his music. The electric/magnetic field is the source  to produce sounds by using two screens as antennas and interfering with his hand in the field of the other tubes. Each tube is variously tuned to a different timbre or octave, related to a umber of effects panels and the usual audio-distortion equipment. For anyone sitting in front of the speakers during the second part, this resulted in quite unpleasant low-pitched noise, while for others further in the auditorium the spectrum was much wider. Image became Sound and vice versa.

Before closing his performance, Wada advised the audience on the proper uses of television. Like McLuhan once philosophized that a TV screen could also be used as a light source for someone reading a book, Wada said that it’s better to hit the screen than watch it. We agree: Hit it. Here. Now. Every day. がんばって、ね。新音楽を見つけるよう。

Das Alpha und Omega der Medien

February 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Heute is nicht mehr, was es einmal war. Statt sich in die Reihe mit “Gestern” und “Morgen” einzureihen, steht “Heute” heute auf der ersten Seite einer kleinen Boulevardzeitung aus Österreich. Wer gewohnt ist, sich mit philosophischen Kategorien den Zugriff auf den Alltag zu erleichtern, dem steht der Slogan dieses Blattes quer im Mund, denn die Ankündigung “Kein Morgen ohne Heute” läßt für einen kurzen Moment das Apokalyptische und Fragile der Gegenwart aufscheinen. In dieser doppelten Verkehrung der Terme, ist mit “Heute” nicht nur der heutige Tag gemeint, sondern auch die Zeitung selbst, die man in Händen hält. Der oder das “Morgen” bringt den nächsten Tag ins Spiel, bleibt hier aber ambivalent. Es könnte ja auch, der Nutzungsgewohnheit eines Boulevardblattes geschuldet, der Beginn des heutigen Tages gemeint sein. Waren sich die Schöpfer dieser kurzen, einprägsamen Zeile darüber bewusst; haben sie, nach zu vielen Semestern Philosophie, die gezielte Anrufung so alltäglicher (!) Begriffe in doppeldeutiger Absicht und Selbstüberschätzung zur Versöhnung mit ihrer Arbeit wissentlich in Kauf genommen, sogar provoziert?  Im scheinbar Alltäglichen ist nichts selbstverständlich, geschweige denn selbst erklärend. Und auch der übliche Mix aus Star News, Wetter und Verkehr, Konsumberatung und doppelbödiger Empörung ist kein so einfacher Weg, den Alltag mit Verständnis anzureichern – weder im Heute noch am Morgen.

Kategorien erleichtern den Zugriff auf die Umwelt. “Wer nicht in Kategorien denkt, denkt überhaupt nicht”, sagte schon Plato. Dem steht der freie Gedanke gegenüber, der sich (meist) nach der Technik der Assoziation und (zuweilen) auch Logik aufbaut. Auch das Gespräch setzt eine Denkart der Assoziation im Austausch voraus, wenn es versucht, einem Thema durch Eingrenzung und Abwägung näher zu kommen. Schon Heinrich von Kleist pries die besondere Qualität des Gesprächs in seiner Schrift “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (1805). Für den Erfolg des Gesprächs ist die Begrenzung des Themas nötig, gleichtzeitig aber auch die Offenheit gegenüber weiteren Kategorien der Betrachtung. Was eine Datenbank nicht leisten kann, ist einzuschätzen, welche Begriffe oder Kategorien in einem Gespräch von Bedeutung sind, und welche eben nicht. In jener Ignoranz liegt ihre größte Stärke gegenüber dem Neuen, und gleichzeitig ihre größte Schwäche gegenüber der Kontinuität des Gedachten. Ein Begriff allein macht noch keine Kategorie.

Against Simulation: The Early Works of Jean Baudrillard

July 28, 2009 § 1 Comment


Becoming an author is a really hard job. Publishing a book is even harder. Even today. Not until you can become ignorant of your own text and read it over and over again, the true character of the text will emerge. My thesis on Baudrillard’s early works is now available (in German) featuring in-depth explorations of the Marxist and Semiotic treatises, McLuhans heritage, and Baudrillard in the context of Durkheim’s distinction of profane and sacred practices and Weber’s disenchantment of the modern world.

Chapters feature:

  • Baudrillard in Media and Cultural Criticism: Against Simulation
  • From Symbolic to Semiotic Cultures: Collective Representations – Rationality of Literacy and Individualization
  • Alienation and Symbolic Exchange: Barthes’ Modern Myths – The Objects and Consumer Society – Need for Difference – Symbolic Exchange
  • The Test of the Mass Media and Telematic Subjects: Parole sans réponse and Implosion – The Screen and Telematic Subjects
  • Symbolic Exchange in (online) social networks

Graphic concept and typo composition by Katharina Berndt ( Editor: Jakob F. Dittmar. Available from University Press of Technical University Berlin, Kiepert, or or as a free download of the complete pdf from the publisher.


Theory – 学説 – Theory

The cover image was taken on the streets of Ginza, Tokyo. I wish it was a montage but actually it was all there. “Longchamp” of “Paris” next to a Barbra Streisand-looking girl featuring fashion by “Theory”. What struck me most is the combination of such disparate elements as pure signs. Maybe it takes a long way to Japan to discover this self-referentiality of the sign and the image. The cultural difference aside, it teaches a lesson in Baudrillardian thinking. And maybe theory is not so far away from fashion anyway.

Born to be Dialed

April 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

The World at your fingertips

The World at your fingertips

Reviewing the strange trends that have accompanied media revolutions, it occured to me that Marshal McLuhan’s thesis of new media overtaking functions of older one’s was worth pondering in relation to the Internet. Especially digital network media seem to be endowed with a revolutionary force no other medium has ever possessed. In their alleged annihilation of physical space, of lived experience, of social relations, in their drastic rewriting of the rules of business, and the vast opportunities of self-reflection and creation, the digital (network) media find their way into every conceivable act of interaction.

Yet, a quite opposite thesis would hold that these new media merely facilitate and improve what was already there. Now, everyone can make nice and professional looking pictures with a plethora of easy-to-use digital cameras and imaging software. While the developers are working on the next big hit in interaction design, it’s the bulky Yellow Pages disappearing from the hall. Search engine availability optimizes the use of one of the oldest modern media… the telephone. It has become so common to call someone in case of a knowledge gap or where actions need to be coordinated instead of finding an individual solution to a problem. Formulaic language is introduced, similar to a code pattern, that is exchanged vocally instead of a nuanced written text. The easy availability of contact data forces some to artificially close the channel, block off communication to be able to perform their assigned professional functions. On the back of ready access comes a new culture of exclusivity.

“I pick up my telephone receiver and it’s all there; the whole marginal network catches and harasses me with the insupportable good faith of everything that wants and claims to communicate.”

(Baudrillard: “The Ecstasy of Communication“)

define: symbolic

February 27, 2008 § 1 Comment

You say:

Symbolic Pronunciation

Do you mean?

"Symbolic." Oxford Dictionary of English. Ed. by Angus Stevenson. Third Edition. 2010. p. 1802.

Or one of the 172,000,000 other ways of defining it?

Possibly, it was Ernst Cassirer who defined man as a symbolic being, highlighting that as humans we use language and symbols to grasp reality. His monumental “Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” (appeared in three volumes 1923-1929) was an attempt to understand the function of symbols to structure social life, the passing or recurrence of time and the stability the use of symbols gave to human existence. The importance of this work is its insistence on the inner logic of the symbols themselves, the practices associated with their use, which can be totally detached from anything such as truth or reality. Cassirer is an important, and often unacknowledged, prelude to the debates about signs, semiotics and the reality-making qualities of communications media, which have defined most of twentieth century discourse on humans’ relation to their symbolic environment.

The reference to an event or an act as symbolic suspends a relation between symbol and act as logical, as necessary or utilitarian. A monk burning his body in public may not alter the conditions of his sect of being politically suppressed, but the act draws attention to such conditions so as to open a space of reconsideration. A friendly handshake between opposing political factions may symbolize an act of consensus or reconciliation, but the basis for reaching such a consensus will consist in laborious negotiations behind closed doors, heated debate and intricate maneuvering. The symbolic act of cutting a red tape does not functionally distinguish a building site of a highway from a finished highway – the road is the same before and after the cutting of the tape – but symbolically the public investment in the road is acknowledged in the act of cutting the tape, before the highway is put into public service. In all of these examples, the symbolic function of an act exceeds – and in a way universalizes – a plain social interaction.

In looking at the symbolic qualities of an act we simply suspend other modes of explanation for this act, by focusing on the self-referential qualities of symbols and their relations to other symbols. An analysis of media representations that starts with the same preference for symbols – instead of just signs – that the media exhibit, can be an analysis of power and meaning. Those who deploy the symbols are in a position of power to define in which terms, in which symbolic relations a particular question is phrased. A symbol condenses a multitude of other meanings so as to keep each individual meaning in a latent contradiction to other meanings. The symbol is thus ambivalent as to its meaning, which makes symbolic representations a welcome mode of communication for mass media. Through their latent ambivalence symbols address audiences in different ways. Each latent meaning of a symbol sustains one or another opinion, yet the symbol never fully, never completely sustains only one side of a debate. Because the media bring into circulation such ambivalent symbols, they can assume a posture of neutrality, while influencing the debate entirely through their choice of symbolic ambivalence.

This picture was printed in a newspaper with the telling caption “Violent Youth (symbolic image)”. The discussion attached to this image was certainly not dedicated to a particular incident of youth violence, but discussed more general circumstances. This picture is thus not a picture of this young man, at a particular time, shown in the act of attacking; the picture is more likely even staged for the aim of producing a picture. But the attributes of the man in association with the theme bring into play typical symbolic tensions and prejudices. As a scene shot from an action movie this image would create very different impressions, maybe of independence, masculinity, street-wiseness, etc. But as a “symbolic image” for youth violence the image is brings together an entire semantic field of attributes associated with the sociology of youth violence. The picture thus evokes a set of commonplace assumptions about the reasons for such violence and the “typicality” of its perpetrators.

The elements of the picture in a symbolic reading map an entire social existence, marked by body cult (piercings) and carelessness (beard), disguise (hoodie, cap) and open threat (fist), raw and unsophisticated violence (knife), male viciousness (look) etc. All these elements stand in an ambivalent relation to symbols which imply the exact opposite in other contexts: clean-shaven, hightech criminals in suits, who are in fictional contexts endowed with vastly more positive attributes despite the larger scope of their crimes. By bringing up  a symbolic tension between what are believed to be the most typical elements of a youthful renegade and its semantic oppositions, the image remains symbolic, not only of a violent youth, but also of the media strategy to prefer symbolic images over merely illustrative ones.

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