Not About Media!

On: September 11, 2011
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About Daniel de Zeeuw
In 2011 I graduated from the Rietveld Academy, direction "Interaction Design and Unstable Media." I also did a BA in Philosophy. For the last couple of years, my research has focussed on the phenomenon of conspiracy theories on the Net, the way stories spread, communities form, and how come the Internet seems to be such a 'fertile nexus' for their explication and circulation. Conspiracy theories represent both the continuation of the radical ideal of the Internet as a forum for public discussion and democratic participation, as well as the inherent mythical and ideological character of this ideal, its 'dark side'. It takes conspiracy theories as an example for possible artistic and activist strategies on the Net. My thesis can be freely downloaded: Something is Out there! Networked encounters of the nth kind, or: the art of conspiracy


The Impossibility of Media Theory

Where previous generations of Serious Men saw in the concept of Medium but marginal or esoteric wordplay, we in our times seem to attribute to it almost magical qualities, such as the 19th century use of the concept ‘aether,’ which was discovered by Einstein to be an unnecessary postulate. Will we ultimately also recognize that the Medium was just a useless theoretical postulate? Perhaps when mediation has become Total, we will forget about it altogether?

The recognition of the autonomous status of mediation as such (ontologically and epistemologically, in theory, and most importantly, as environmental explication, i.e. Design) vis-a-vis the traditional categories of subject and object, to the point of actually becoming primary, i.e. the fundamental and only condition by which the latter’s interrelations can be thought, is not a given but the result of a historical process. Paradoxically however, a process of de-autonomization always accompanies this process: the consciousness of the Social Function, the Ideology and the Manipulation of mediation and media-technologies as vehicles of domination, i.e. the awareness that, since media are essentially not about themselves, no theory of media be solely about mediation, without implicitly or explicitly fetishizing it.

The Chicken or the Egg, or the Chickegg

The techno-scientific development of media neither precede nor follow this historical dialectic: they are always both cause and effect of the recognition of the ‘in-between’ of human existence and the transformations of its objective environments. The ‘descriptive’ and the ‘normative’, the technical and the utopian are part of a ‘dialectical totality’ (( The debate concerning technological versus ‘cultural’ determinism seems nothing more than a means to sustain the continuous flow of research papers and articles.))

The structural similarities between the methods of Media Theory and the functioning of the Media themselves

This pull towards and away from the becoming-autonomous of mediation is essential to the functioning of media themselves, in that they are never solely ‘concerned with themselves’, but rather with ‘mediating some-thing(s)’: social, economic, symbolic, political relations, or: “the imaginary relations of individuals to the real conditions of their existence” (Althusser). They do not fall within the same category of being as the being(s) they mediate. This is why they work.

Furthermore, this prevents a priori any analysis of media that does not immediately transcend its ‘proper domain of explication.’ Once again, simply because media function only as their self-transcendence, i.e. as mediating some-thing. In that sense, Media Theory, as an autonomous discipline, is methodologically impossible, and can as such not escape from fetishizing ‘The Medium’ qua autonomous status.

Media Theory as a process of Self-Negation

It follows that Media Theory cannot consist of anything else than the development of its own negation as an autonomous discipline, in as much as media must, like ideology, erase their presence as media in order to function. But for this reason, it might also be the best entry point for understanding the complex and intricate involvements of all those processes that the Scientists and the Designers like to treat as self-sufficient, separable disciplines and systems. As media technologies increasingly condition, connect and shape the totality of social existence, the Media Theorist must also at least aspire, as a regulative ideal, to become a polymath (although obviously any external totalization is utterly unthinkable within networked environments.

Thus what Aristotle would call the ‘final cause’ of media theory parallels the telos of media systems themselves: to infiltrate and inter-connect all spheres of life, the synthesis of system and lifeworld (Habermas). Both potentially tear the world from its reified past and propel it into Absolute Contingency. Because of its necessary self-transcendence, in that it must ‘follow the media’ in their self-transcendence, Media Theory has the potential to take on the foundational role philosophy assigned itself in the 18th century, were it not for the fact that this role has already been taken… by the Media!

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