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For a long time the medium, viewed as a variety of physical elements, was denied in scientific terms; this conceptual system was accompanied by parascientific phantasms up to and including “the ether.” What Marshall McLuhan introduced to scholarly discourse with the title of his book Understanding Media (1964) was an appreciation of technological media, such as books, radio, and television, as intensifications of human culture. In the communication theory worked out by mathematician and engineer Claude E. Shannon (and still valid today), a medium is understood as a transmission channel, together with its technological/mathematical optimization based on a calculated concept of information. In opposition to this reduction to the purely operative aspect of such “coupling agents,” the semiotics of media insists on taking into account contextual knowledge in the act of successful communication. In this semiotic sense, “communication” refers to the symbolically coded transmission of messages, and can consequently encompass fields of activity ranging from music to administration.

Vilém Flusser’s operational thinking is not explicitly media theory; he deliberately refrained from defining a concept of media that would reduce communication to its technological venues. At the same time, such a concept of media is necessary to support the tangibly divergent nature of communicative acts, such as the difference between directly spoken and telephonically transmitted language. “Media are structures (material or not, technological or not) in which codes function.” (Kommunikologie, 1996, p. 271; translated from the German) Flusser’s response to those forms of media studies in which media analysis is restricted to mass media is not techno-epistemological mediamatics, but rather his own communicology, which, in distinguishing between discursive and dialogical media, comes close to Bertolt Brecht’s theory of radio and Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s plea for return channel technology.

Flusser develops original, sometimes idiosyncratic concepts of media. His interpretation of the gesture of telephoning, for instance, corresponds to an anthropological concept of media, albeit one that refers not generally to culturally transmitted skills in a prosthesis theory context, but to their specifc technological divergences. Alphabetic writing linearized and temporalized our view of the world in line with “history,” while its escalation to the alphanumeric code of programming mathematized machines. Acting as an archaeologist of knowledge, Flusser diagnoses the alphanumeric code as the autonomization and computerization of numbers as against the familiar letters of the alphabet and the medium of language (Does Writing Have a Future?, 2011, p. 28). He uses the concept of the “technoimaginary” to capture the progressive, “iconoclastic” replacement of classical imaginal worlds by technical ones. Notably, this interpretation is not limited to imaginal realities, but quickly encompasses near-Pythagorean analyses of new music as well.

With concepts of entropy from both thermodynamics and telecommunications in mind, Flusser develops an interpretation of cultural communication in terms of symbolic technology: culture as the attempt to perpetuate unnatural states of order by encoding them in media, in opposition to the contemporary tendency toward disorder. This interpretation is to be viewed critically from the perspective of a communication theory that clearly differentiates Claude E. Shannon’s entropy (a measurement of the information in a sequence of signs) from Ludwig Boltzmann’s. Flusser develops an unwavering conception of the recurrent themes and operations of media culture. His theses cut bold swaths of insight through millennia of cultural, technological, and symbolic relationships – if occasionally at the expense of historical correctness or technical precision – as those of few other thinkers on media do.

Original article by Wolfgang Ernst

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medium.txt · Last modified: 2021/11/05 17:47 by