Interferences as Quality

On the mode of existence of media technology

by Katharina Groß*

This text is based on my dissertation “Playbour-Time: Experimental exploration of the techno-aesthetic mode of existence” and is continuously expanded and updated. You can find a german version of this text here (http://www.katharinagross.tv/2020/04/stoerung-als-qualitaet-zur-existenzweise-von-medientechnologie/). English translation by Katharina Groß.

—–This post is part of the “Critical Exchanges on COVID-19” of the Metabody Forum 2020 – Please check future updates of the text in progress—–

   

Many institutions such as theatres, opera houses, concert halls, clubs and numerous freelance artists are currently transferring their artistic performances to the digital sphere of the Internet. The mass of streaming offers is overwhelming.

As Uwe Mattheiss writes in his taz article (https://taz.de/Was-der-Kultur-im-Netz-verloren-geht/!5677513/), this kind of media use serves the (self-)exploitation and competition of an attention economy in an unfavourable way: “The small business instinct, which many artists have sharpened in the rush from project to project, rightly fears the market shakeout that libertarian ideologists hope for in the storms of the crisis for the economy as a whole.“

Surely the course of action by many artists was born out of their misery, because many concerts, theatre and dance performances suddenly had to be cancelled and also the clubs will probably not be able to give public events until the end of August. Here, I don’t want to have a debate about the necessity or futility of the closures.

Shortened ways of using media technology

I  do not want to go into the economic consequences driven by the neoliberal impetus, mentioned by Mattheiss. However, from my media-philosophical perspective, a vivid techno-experimental situation emerges, which makes clear that the intention of many artists to transfer the analogue 1:1 into the digital represents a shortened way of using media technologies.

The consequence of this is that on the functional and structural level of both modes of existence – human and media technology – a mutual subjugation or exploitation is at work. The consequences of this socio-technological situation, which has now been intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to underline with the thoughts of the sociologist Bruno Latour and the philosopher Gilbert Simondon.

Loss of quality?

Starting from the streaming of a video recording of small dance or music practice sessions in the kitchen at home with a smartphone, to the documentation of theatre rehearsals or orchestra concerts, to the digitalization of entire art exhibitions: If the potential audience at home does not have the appropriate technical equipment for video and audio playback, they will hardly be able to perceive the quality of the artistic performance. A normal Bluetooth box simply cannot reproduce the manifold nuances of quality.

Moreover – and this is why we visited a theatre play, a dance performance or a techno club in the first place – there is no physical presence. This perfects the sensual experience. That is why Mattheiss asks: “What are their works without the ‘dirt’ of the materials, what is the performing arts without the physical presence of actors and audience?” But the medial of the digital also has its materiality and thus its dirt, which can be perceived as interferences.

In general, all kinds of media connect and separate at the same time, whether they are understood as the body, the canvas or technology. But it is precisely with digital media that the spatial aspects of proximity and distance are suspended. In the digital architectures of perception, space and time unify in their multiplicity into a singular here and now, into a placeless permanent presence. What seems close is at the same time far away and always available and therefore often enough remains without appreciation.

Structural adaptation of both ways of existence

Two facts can be recognized from the current media use: First, transferring something into the digital world always means a loss of ambiguity and multivalence. Both are indispensably bound to physical qualities, i.e. one might think that quality decreases with digital transport. However – and this is the crucial point in my description – something new is added: noise, time delays or image fragmentation. This interferences represents a new quality in the human mode of perception, which however is often enough negatively evaluated, because it does not correspond to the artistic intention and degrades the desired performance.

In other words, when artists come into their play, something else is always playing with them – in this case media technology. Artists who do not reflect the particular medium and its materiality, as media artists do in their practice, subject their play to technical conditions.

Media technology as a player

The second fact concerns media technology itself: If the player, i.e. technology, is not understood as an independent mode of existence, but if the media situation is supposed to suggest pure immediacy, then technology is understood as an object for ‚pure’ transport of meaning. This is what Bruno Latour calls “double-clicking”: In such an understanding, media technology is treated as an intermediary, which has to function as invisibly and smoothly as possible. This understanding underpins the thesis of transparency, according to which media should disregard itself and disappear.[1] The technical object is subordinated to the artistic intention.

With the current ethical attitude, i.e. the medial ways of use described above, the structurally and functionally different modes of existence tend to stabilize in a form in which they are not perceptible. [2]

The existence of the mediator

In his book One the mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Gilbert Simondon described the co-genesis, the co-creation of man and technology. He argues that although both modes of existence are ontologically symmetrical because they both co-evolve, they have functional and clearly structural differences.

Furthermore, while recording the artistic play is changing through respective media technologies. It has to change, because the mixture of man and technology is metastable and changes during its progress. The consequence of an artistic personality assumed to be stable is the negation of the functional as well as structural asymmetry between man and technology when both meet.

Under such media-ecological circumstances, no activity-sensitivity [activité-sensibilité] is processed [4], which lead to differences and therefore to new, only temporary metastabilities. On the contrary, a result-oriented and optimization-obsessed logic of adaptation is formed, which leads to a mere automatism.

No transport without transformation

A transport, i.e. a media transmission always goes hand in hand with a transformation of the message. There can be no 1:1 transmission unless there is a mere adaptation of human and technology. The technical play, i.e. the relational process between the living and the technical, can be described as an oscillating movement between active involvement and passive allowing to happen. In this sense, processes cannot be classified as either active or passive, instead they are both active and passive at the same time.

Therefore, instead of a logic of adaptation, a process of sensitivity should be aimed at, with which the respective qualities and characteristics of both modes of existence – human and technology – can be perceived and appreciated. If the play with media technology and its peculiarities, indeterminacies and interferences is properly appropriated, then this includes a long process of trial-and-error.

In-formative forces of media technology

In Simondon’s irreductionist philosophy, there is also a criticism of hylemorphism (Aristotle), according to which Being is separated into an active form and a passive material principle. [3] The passive material must first be given a form through the active doing.

Transferred to the media situation here, the material ‘media technology’ is given a form by the artistic performance. However, this simplification is difficult, because media and artistic situations are much more complex. After all, the body of the dancer, the voice of the singer, the instrument of the musician is also ‘material’.

But what is important is that a material itself owns these formative powers, i.e. is actively involved in the creative process. The respective media technology shapes the artistic work! And this should be clear to every artist, no matter what material he or she uses. It is therefore incomprehensible to me, why so many cultural institutions and artists expect media technology to transport the message of all things without transforming it.

How do we get out of the dilemma of physical isolation on the one hand and the mere use of media technology on the other?

In a Facebook commentary on Mattheiss’ taz article, culture manager Thomas Dumke makes a significant suggestion: We need new formats that appreciate the potential of media technologies. A new culture of the digital has to be demanded. Media technologies in their own particular mode of existence support this transformation.

Already in the late 1990s, a group of artists from the Blaue Fabrik Dresden and the Palindrome (Robert Wechsler) experimented with the potential of network-based technology. In contrast to the visual register being prioritized with media technologies today, the focus at that time was on auditory ability: network technology was played. An essential feature of technology at that time was occurring delays in transmission. However, these were not interpreted negatively, but were conceptually considered and productively incorporated into the artistic creative process.

Experimentally playing with the possibilities and limitations of bodily and media-technological conditions is always a trial-and-error that requires a great amount of practice and experience in order to structurally transform perceptual habits and to create new modes of perception through artistic-technical abilities.

Our techno-aesthetic mode of existence is still in its very beginning. A new ethics of media use must first establish itself with digital media technologies, which is situated beyond the encrusted institutions of the analogue and their habits of perception.

Interferences, irritations or distortions of our perceptual modalities do not necessarily and instantly change these structures, but they reveal them. Interferences make us sensitively aware of those habits of perception, which we have so internalized, which are so familiar to us that they are taken for granted. In this respect, the Covid-19 pandemic can also be classified as a disturbance in relation to which quite a few people claim that the culture as we know it will change. However, change cannot be measured and does not occur as a break with the past. It is a creeping cut. For actual transformation, therefore, new interfaces are needed.

Genesis of our modes of perception 

This future-oriented appeal also requires a retrospective approach to philosophical, medical and physiological explanatory models. In the following, I would therefore like to make a concise attempt to outline briefly the structuring of our modes of perception by using the examples of the camera obscura and, in opposition to it, the stereoscope. This small tableau of media-epistemological processes unfolds the history of human conventions of perception as one of the increasing separation of physical sensation and mental cognition.

From the 17th century onwards, and with the establishment of methodological principles of modern natural science, only that which is observable and measurable was considered real. Moreover, media technologies provided exactly the kind of models and metaphors that also lead to new insights into the human sensory apparatus. (Kittler 2002, 28) Thus, the positioning of the observer in the dark room of a camera obscura, which is assumed to be safe and protected, helped to establish the tradition of central perspective.

The camera obscura as a tool of knowledge

Due to the use of camera obscura, the Cartesian separation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ progressed. In the Enlightenment sense, it was only this media technology, that made the creation of a subject possible through its technical construction and its effect of invisibility. It provided the fundamental precondition to recognize a stable outside world with its objects. It is precisely its mode of operation that, as an instrument for measuring the world, favoured the ideal of ‘pure’ observation, because all negative disturbing aspects of sensual perception were reduced to a minimum in order to follow the maxim of objective (self-)cognition.

René Descartes’ (1569-1650) mechanistic body model, including its perception based on organic functions, had decisive and lasting effects on Western perceptual theory. Through his thinking a clear distinction could be drawn between the body as ‘res extensa’ and the mind as ‘res cogitans’ (Descartes 1664, 78-95). Accordingly, the human senses were conceived as a technical-mechanical device of a superior mind in analogy to the structure of the camera obscura.

David Hume (1711-1776) also retained the metaphor of the camera obscura. He described cognition as an ‘inner theatre’ of perception and assumed that the contradiction in human perception – i.e. that on the one hand all sensory stimuli appear to be interrupted and on the other hand are then resumed in the same way – would dissolve through a real independent and stabile existence of objects in the outside world (Hume 1986).

The claim to a ‘pure’ objectivity, which underlies the mission of science, is formed in the canon of constant reduction. In the logic of a Cartesian separation, the examination of the visual sense was thus intensified, whereby the sense of sight and the sense of touch were no longer considered to be connected. The search for the ‘indeterminate subject’ through a ‘pure’ observation in the name of transparency continues.

What was still treated as a mere illusion in ancient world gradually acquired the status of an optical truth: subjectively perceived phenomena of the visual were given the status of ‘objectivity’ (Crary 1996, 103 f.). Kepler’s discovery of the retinal image took over the role of a neutral screen.

Disembodied vision

The previous referentiality of the outside world and its objects as an image is increasingly shifting to the inner nervous world as an image. No other quotation than that of Arthur Schoppenhauer (1788-1860) proves this more aptly; in his second volume of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Imagination), he brings this understanding clearly to the point:

“By virtue of the proven intellectuality of contemplation, the sight of beautiful objects, e.g. a beautiful view, is also a brain phenomenon. The purity and perfection of the same therefore depends not only on the object but also on the nature of the brain, namely on the shape and size of the brain, on the fineness of its texture and on the energy of the pulse of the brain veins.“ (Schoppenhauer 1860, 41f.)

The thinking of Schopenhauer as well as those of Goethe and his theory of colours (Goethe 1949, 844-855) and those of a „transcendental self“ by Kant (Kant 1960, 22 ff., 214 f., 203 ff.) paved together with the scientific field of physiological optics the way for further profound changes in conceptions of the body and its perception. They decisively determined what is considered ‘scientific’. Nethertheless and regardless of whether the ‘transcendental subject’ is pure illusion in Kant’s work or whether the ‘I’ becomes an empirical object in Schopenhauer’s work, the phenomenal body is reduced to a passive, biologic-mechanical substance in both cases.

Physiological explanations and their effects

The human senses were technically upgraded in the 19th century and their performance was expanded and refined. Physiology played a central role within science, because its experiments underpinned the mechanistic image of man, which through metaphorical entanglements within the device formed itself exactly according to the logic, which it followed. Their results and the insights derived from them also led to a reevaluation of human sensory perception.

Physiological studies focused on the discovery of the functioning of the eye, the optic nerve and the brain. Under the premise of a static world of objects and a self-identical individual, the increasingly precise experimental arrangements led to the discovery of a temporal interval between perception and realisation (Wahrgebung) by von Helmholtz. (By Wahrgebung I understand a reflexive form of perception in which ambivalences are ‘smoothed out’. By this I mean an active generation of reality that includes the process of materialization and giving meaning).

The physiologist Johannes Müller (1801-1858) studied in detail the connection between nerve tracts and sensory perception in his work Über die phantastischen Gesichtserscheinungen (On Fantastic Facial Appearances) in the year 1826: The triggered sensory perception proved to be independent of the way in which the nerve tracts were stimulated in each case. Müller thus paved the way for an image of man that presented the individual’s perception of the world as a mental composition.

The temporality of the perceptual process was interpreted in the sense, that ‘pure perception’ is the human potential for ‘false perception’ especially by Müller. Concluding, biological explanatory models interpreted human perception as a subjective construction and later led to the direction of behaviorism. This shows that drifting into biological explanatory models paradoxically carries the danger of neutralizing the sensual along with the cultural.

Although the interconnection of senses (synaesthesia) as a hidden basic right of human existence came back into the focus of scientific questions from the 19th century onwards, it was nevertheless on the one hand seen as an abnormal confusion of physiologically separated processes and on the other hand only understood as an artistic technique. It was not until the end of the 19th century that criticism of the ‘illusory problem of body-soul dualism’ was increasingly voiced, leading to the formulation of Gestalt Theory and opening the way for phenomenology.

Criticism of empiricism and reductionism

Maurice Merleau-Ponty also directed his work Phénoménologie de la perception (Phenomenology of Perception) against the two currents of philosophy present at the time: intellectualism and empiricism (Merleau-Ponty 2011, 85, 70, 47 ff.). On the one hand, the presupposed objective world, by virtue of its given characteristics, exists as its own complement in the consciousness of the subject. On the other hand, and according to the empiricist, the origin of all knowledge lies in experience, i.e. in the observation or sensory perception of the passive cognitive subject in relation to external objects. In both epistemological teachings, the oppositions between body and mind, outside and inside, objective world and subject are present and thus prove to be deficient.

Out of this opposition, Merleau-Ponty developed a productive approach to the relationship between being and world, because “external nature and life are unthinkable without reference to perceived nature” (Merleau-Ponty 2011, 52, translation by KG). It is the human body and not the consciousness which perceives nature and lives in it at the same time.

The interaction of body and world

Merleau-Ponty describes the relationship between body and world in a highly poetic way: “I have the world as an incomplete individual, through the agency of my body as the potentiality of this world, […]“. It is a constant, existential oscillation between body and world. Both are in a relationship of mutual implication, “and because my body is a movement towards the world, and the world my body’s point of support.” (Merleau-Ponty 2005, 408).

It is precisely this orientation of the body towards the world that makes it the source of meaning for the world around it. It is precisely the principle of indeterminacy , which is related to infinity and from which qualities emerge in the first place, that allows human existence to take over a merely factual situation, to determine it, to evaluate it and thereby to give it meaning.

The proprioception of the body

Without spatiality the body cannot be experienced (Merleau-Ponty 2011, 197). Even before the human being cognitively adopts spatial dimensions and operates his body as a being in the world, he already has something pre-spatial. “Our bodily experience of movement is not a particular case of knowledge; it provides us with a way of access to the world and the object, with a ‘praktognosia’, which has to be recognized as original and perhaps as primary“(Merleau-Ponty 2005, 162).

The body has its world and first understands it through its own movement [proprioception]. Without first having to take the passage through “conceptions” or to subordinate itself to an “objectifying” or “symbolic function”, the body experiences itself and the world through movement. (Merleau-Ponty 2011, 170). With the sensation of movement the body creates a sense of all significations in the external space directly, without a mediating between ego and body.

The body is both condition and cause of reality. Sensations lead to movement and vice versa, movements lead to sensations, which becomes particularly striking with the double sensation of the body. According to Merleau-Ponty, the reflexivity (of touching) is characteristic of all sensations. Thus, self-reference and external reference are intertwined.

The metastability of human existence

The body and its (media) environment are in a co-constitutive relationship to each other. Due to their mutual implication relationship, subject and object never appear as (phenomenologically) separate, but initially exist as a mixture or milieu. With the process of perception and increase in sensory capacities, the understanding of self and world differentiates itself.

In doing so, we fall back on previous experiences (structuring) already made in the (media) environment, which are disturbed and also modified by encounters with the foreign and the other. This describes the metastability of human existence. Without this structural peculiarity, the human being would not be capable of (further) development.

Destabilization through the stereoscope

The mediality of our being inevitably leads to the destabilization of the rational, self-conscious self. This destabilization was most evident in the use of a stereoscope. The visual apparatus is actually an anti-optical apparatus, the depth illusion allows stereoscopic viewers to develop a sense of their own dislocation. The field of vision, which is organized in central perspective, reaches its limits, since it is based on binocularity, which is directly evident in the technical apparatus.

The physiological studies of how the eye perceives objects, which are not far away, fundamentally determined the design of the stereoscope. Because the stereoscope requires a visual technique that makes perspective impossible, an aperspectival feature becomes clear: the stereoscopic visual technique creates closeness. Proximity in particular brings with it the effect of a disturbing tangibility, which destabilizes the observers. The oscillation of human being and the world can be experienced through this technical apparatus.

A constant process of balancing

By shamelessly questioning the process of an active synthesis of the brain and the search for the space-time continuum of consciousness, the stereoscope makes the human being understand his constant process of balancing. By making the mediality of the human sensory apparatus visible through the stereoscope, the act of seeing and the associated desire to understand is no longer obscured by this technical apparatus.

A number of media-technical apparatuses first served as experimental arrangements for scientific investigations and then for pleasure in the newly created leisure sphere. From a media anthropological perspective, the dizziness evoked in the observer by so-called locomotion apparatuses illustrates the generation of new sensori-motorabilities of the human being, which are challenged and fostered by media technology in various ways at the same time (Ladewig 2010).

 

(Forthcoming parts of the text in process:)

 

Interaction between the concept of man and the development of media technology

The role of system-engineers and hardware-developers

Measurability and predictability

The cybernetic principle

Simulation of transformation

 

*1983. Katharina Groß first studied sculpture, then animation film and graduated with a master’s degree in New Media in the class of Prof. Dammbeck at the HfBK Dresden. She is currently doing her doctorate in media philosophy at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. She was co-founder of CYNAL-Neue Kunst im Dialog and currently collaborates with neue raeume; to explore the artistic-technical possibilities in software for virtual environments and sensor technology. She exhibited at TonlagenFestival, WISP and several times at CYNETART. Her work focuses on artistic research with current media technologies, media aesthetics and knowledge culture as well as practice as research / theory as practice. (www.katharinagross.tv / www.neueraeume.xyz)

 

[1] A comparison between mediator and intermediary: LATOUR, Bruno: Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005, S. 37–42.

[2] Cf. SIMONDON, Gilbert: „Form, Information, Potenzial“. IN: Just not in Time- Inframedialität und non-lineare Zeitlichkeiten in Kunst, Film, Literatur und Philosophie, Ilka Becker, Michael Cuntz und Michael Wetzel (Hg.), München: Wilhelm Fink, 2011, 221–47.

[3] SIMONDON, Gilbert: Die Existenzweise technischer Objekte. Aus dem Französischen übersetzt durch Michael Cuntz. Zürich: diaphanes., S. 328ff., insb. S. 331.

[4] GOMART, Emilie und Antoine Hennion: „A sociology of attachment: music amateurs, drug users“. In: Actor Network Theory and after. Hrsg. v. John Law und John Hassard. Oxford/Malden: Blackwell Publishing 1999, 220-47; HENNION, Antoine: Offene Objekte, Offene Subjekte? – Körper und Dinge im Geflecht von Anhänglichkeit, Zuneigung und Verbundenheit. Hamburg. Felix Meiner Verlag: Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung, 2011, 1, 93-109.

 

REFERENCES

CRARY, Jonathan: Techniken des Betrachters. Sehen und Moderne im 19. Jahrhundert. Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1996.

DESCARTES, René: L’Homme (1664). Hrsg. von Louis de la Forge, Paris: Fayard, 1999, S. 78–95.

GOETHE, Johann Wolfgang: „Maximen und Reflexionen Nr. 706“ IN: Farbenlehre. Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, Ernst Beutler (Hg.), Bd. 16. Zürich/Stuttgart: Artemis Verlag, 1949.

GOMART, Emilie und Antoine Hennion: „A sociology of attachment: music amateurs, drug users“. IN: Actor Network Theory and after. Hrsg. v. John Law und John Hassard. Oxford/Malden: Blackwell Publishing 1999, 220-47.

HENNION, Antoine: Offene Objekte, Offene Subjekte? – Körper und Dinge im Geflecht von Anhänglichkeit, Zuneigung und Verbundenheit. IN: Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung, 2011/1, Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 93-109.

HUME, David: Eine Untersuchung über den menschlichen Verstand. Leipzig: Reclam, 1986.

KANT, Immanuel: Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Köln: Atlas, 1960.

KITTLER, Friedrich: Optische Medien – Berliner Vorlesung 1999. Berlin: Merve, 2002.

LADEWIG, Rebekka: Apparaturen des Schwindels – Zum psychiatrischen, populären und wissenschaftluchen Einsatz von Drehvorrichtungen im frühen 19. Jahrhundert. ilinx | Berliner Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft 1. Ausgabe – Wirbel, Ströme, Turbulenzen (2010), 262–85 URL: http://www.ilinx-kultur.org/autoren/ladewig-rebekka/

LATOUR, Bruno: Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005, S. 37–42.

MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice: Phenomenology of Perception (1962). Translated by Colin Smith, London/New York: Routledge, 2005.

MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice: Phänomenologie der Wahrnehmung (1966). Perspektiven der Humanwissenschaften, Band 7, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011.

MÜLLER, Johannes: Über die phantastischen Gesichtserscheinungen. Koblenz: Hölscher, 1826.

SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1860), Bd. 2. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1987.

SIMONDON, Gilbert: „Form, Information, Potenzial“. IN: Just not in Time- Inframedialität und non-lineare Zeitlichkeiten in Kunst, Film, Literatur und Philosophie. Hg. Ilka Becker, Michael Cuntz und Michael Wetzel, München: Wilhelm Fink, 2011, 221–47.

ibid.: Die Existenzweise technischer Objekte. Aus dem Französischen übersetzt durch Michael Cuntz. Zürich: diaphanes, 2012.