Professor Gumbrecht was interviewed after his visit in November 2005 at the Department for Cultural Studies
and the Arts, Copenhagen University, Denmark, arranged by the Research Forum for Intermedial Digital
Aesthetics directed by Ulrik Ekman. On that occasion, Gumbrecht gave a seminar titled "Benjamin in the
Digital Age," which focused on his editorial work with Professor Michael Marrinan (Stanford) on
the essay anthology, Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age.
This interview originated in conversations during Gumbrecht's
visit and continued to develop further ideas raised in the seminar. The interview took place mainly by email during the first three
months following Gumbrecht's Denmark seminar.
This interview stretches the conventional limits of the genre in more
ways than one. The initial agreement was that questions and answers would be exchanged several times,
undergoing cuts or further articulation as each party found necessary, until a format and body of work acceptable to both was reached.
The length of the interview as well as the scope and complexity of the
questions and answers thus often exceed what one would normally expect. It has from the outset been a
conscious decision to articulate and even to emphasize the
participants' differences of position or of approach.
UE: The Dubrovnick seminar on the materialities of communication not only resulted in the publication of a very rich body of
work, it also seems to have been of lasting importance for you. You refer frequently to this event
as the high point of the seminar series, and one can see how it prefigures, among other things,
your later work on post-hermeneutics, the production of presence, and meaning-effects. What was the motivation, at that time, for
bringing specific attention to "materialities of communication," and how do you work with that notion today?
HUG: "Materialities of Communication" (back in the spring of 1987, if I remember correctly), in a
still almost "Socialist" Yugoslavia, was indeed only one (the fourth) of four meetings that my friends and I
organized on the Eastern Adriatic coast between 1981 and 1989. Our main motivation was, typically enough, as
I might say today, to "keep alive" the theoretical and philosophical impulses in the humanities that came
from the "earthshaking years" around 1970, but that we felt had been slowly ebbing since the early 1980s. I
am saying "typically enough" because today, in a first and not yet totalizing retrospective, it is my
impression that it has always been my task (at least my main ambition) to keep alive, and even to accelerate,
intellectual movement. In those Dubrovnik years, I once said that I wanted to be a "catalyst of intellectual
complexity"--and this certainly still holds true. Now, such a self-description implies that I care much less
about "where" such intellectual movement will lead us. I care less about the "vectors" of our thinking than
about its actual happening--and this works well with a general conception that I have of the humanities as
being a (small) social system, which, rather than reducing complexity (which of course is necessary in
general), adds to the intrinsic complexity of our societies. We should be less about solutions and more about
producing new questions, i.e., more complexity. But back to your question, and my Dubrovnik decade--the
1980s. As I am implying, it was not very clear at the beginning of our colloquium series in which direction
we could be successful with our intention to keep intellectual movement alive. What we first tried was a
"revitalization" of the then-present moment through a study of the history of our disciplines. But this
turned out to be too "antiquarian." Then we tried two universally totalizing concepts, i.e., that of
"historical periods" (in German: Epochen) and "style." But in general, our experience pointed out
the misery of any type of constructivism; that is, that there are certain concepts that one can endlessly
expand so that, in the end, they don't distinguish anything any longer. This was, in the mid-1980s, the
moment--a moment quite loaded with frustration--when we were looking for a topic and a self-assignment that
would offer us more conceptual and intellectual resistance. "Materialities of communication" seemed to be the
solution--and I assure you that, while the actual invention of the topic caused great euphoria (I can still
remember it: it happened on a Sunday morning on the beautiful marble-stoned main street of Dubrovnik), we
didn't quite know where it would lead us. It was in the most complete sense of the phrase: a "search
concept." Let me add, anecdotally, that the strongest reason for choosing this concept back in the mid-1980s,
was the hope that it might contribute to a revitalization of a small materialist Marxism. This clearly
remained an ambition--almost unbelievably, from my present-day perspective. Indeed, we organized those
colloquia in Yugoslavia because Yugoslavia was the only country in that world that would let Westerners run
academic colloquia and that offered, at the same time, the possibility of inviting colleagues from "behind
the Iron Curtain" to participate.
UE: It seemed obvious that both the concern with the materialities of communication and
the ensuing inquiry into the limits of the hermeneutic tradition of either assuming or attributing meaning
opened a host of difficult epistemological questions, not just as regards any stability for (socially)
constructed meaning-effects but also respecting the centered, or at least consensual unity versus a
fragmentary multiplicity of epistemological positions. You reflect upon this several times in your work, and
I wonder how you see this problematic today. In addition, would there be a way to sketch out how the form and style of your writing were influenced by this? I am thinking here of the inventive and complex kinds
of intermediary constellations or configurations that you elaborate in both In 1926 and
Mapping Benjamin--in the first case via notions of arrays, codes, collapsed codes, and
frames--and in the second case via the notion of mapping, the use of 16 critical terms, eight stations, and
various nodes or knots between these...
HUG: You know, you may have discovered something here that I have neither seen nor intended myself--which of
course does not imply that what you are seeing is "wrong." The subjective truth is, however, that, firstly, I
have never cared all that much about those "epistemological" motifs that came with the threatening authority
of prescriptions. While I do think it matters to care about the "cutting-edge," in the sense of knowing "where it is," and in the sense of having the ambition to really "be" "cutting-edge," it is
not in my temperament to follow certain fashions (I am too ambitious for that--it is rather my way to try and
"found" my own fashion by departing from existing ones). Anyway, I have never thought that "epistemological
fragmentation" was the order of the day, or the order of the year. What you are observing (correctly, no
doubt) are "local" solutions to "local" problems. My main personal desire for the project that led to the
1926 book was to find a way (and, later on, a discursive form) that would allow me to produce this illusion
of "full immersion into the past." In the end, a "fragmentation" of my material into fifty-three "entries"
seemed to be an appropriate discursive solution because it gave me the impression that I could "surround"
myself (full immersion!) with those "fragmented" entries. In the Benjamin reader that I edited with Michael
Marrinan, the question between the two editors (two editors, by the way, who never happened to agree
easily--which is why I have such good memories of my collaboration with Marrinan)--anyway, the question was
how we could "work through" and present "editorial discourse" on the work presented by the multiple (and very
short) contributions to our volume. After long discussion, we constructed / "extracted" a certain (perhaps I
would tend to say: all too complicated) conceptual grid along which Marrinan and I wrote our editorial
commentaries. We felt that this was a way, if you will allow for this metaphor, to x-ray Benjamin's essay
sixty years after its first publication, with intellectual tools (to continue with the metaphor)--with a
"technology"--that was very different from the prevailing intellectual tools of his time. I fear
that this answer may be disappointing, because it is so unprogrammatic--but at least I am trying to tell you
UE: One of the intriguing aspects of your work on the materialities of communication is the careful
and repeated traversal of the relation between epistemological and ontological concerns. Your work displays,
especially in its reiterated encounters with "presence," an extremely intricate oscillation between a move,
perhaps unavoidable, towards epistemological sense-making and conceptualization on the one hand, and, on the
other, an at least formally opening move in the direction of ontological concerns, "ontology" here perhaps
remaining altogether other, overwhelmingly complex, or socially and historically variable. Moreover, this
oscillation seems informed by a problematization of ideality and the empirical both, just as it draws not
only on modes of deconstructive differentiation from Heidegger through early Derrida but also, and perhaps
especially, on the affirmative making of distinctions we find in the later Luhmann. How do you see this
oscillation today, and how do you undertake the navigation between incessantly complicating deconstructive
gestures towards "presence"--such as the early Derrida's concern with the "exteriority of writing" or
Jean-Luc Nancy's notion of the "birth to presence"--and the frequent reduction of complexity in Luhmann's
social systems theory, from its centering on semantics in the mid-80s through the later elaboration of
autopoeisis and observation?
HUG: Let me start by admitting that, in a not-so-remote past, I cherished the word "ontology"
because it was such a "dirty word," the word with the worst possible philosophical reputation--a word,
therefore, that had an enormous potential for provocation. This "explosive" situation, unfortunately, has
faded away--and at times, I accuse or pride myself on having made a certain contribution to this
development. But, more seriously, my best way of saying what I am referring to by "ontology," is,
surprisingly, I hope, to say that the word refers to an epistemological situation, an epistemological feeling
that is no longer completely obedient to the premises and prejudices imposed by the so-called "linguistic
turn." Yes, I refuse to accept what Foucault, Luhmann, and ultimately even Derrida almost joyfully accepted,
i.e., that it is neither possible nor desirable to "speak," or even to think, about anything that is outside of language. Of language, or, in Luhmann's terms, outside of "communication," i.e., outside
of those systems, all social systems and the psychic system, whose functioning is based on "meaning." It
turns out that, quite simply, I am fascinated by things, i.e., by that which is "not language"--I have, for
example, long felt that it is stupid and counterproductive to describe sex as a form of communication (I
never forget to tell my undergraduate students that, if they want to communicate, they should rather use
language than sex). A more academic way of perhaps expressing the same would be to say that there is nothing wrong with "post-linguistic turn" philosophy--the basic argument is of course quite
convincing: that nothing outside of language can ever be grasped by our minds. But this leaves us with a
relatively narrow range of possibilities for thinking. Now, if thinking in the humanities is genuinely
"riskful thinking" (just another way of saying that the humanities should produce complexity), then we have a
right and an obligation to rebel against such reductions in the range of thought-possibilities (as has been
advocated for almost a century now by what we call "analytic philosophy"). This is a way of saying what,
despite his quite repulsive biography, I cannot help but be fascinated by Heidegger's philosophy:
it is a philosophy that does not care about the premises and prescriptions coming from the "linguistic turn."
Derrida, unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, soon abandoned a motif that was strong in his earlier work,
the motif of the "exteriority of the signifier" (as my Chicago colleague David Wellbery called it), a motif
that could have made his philosophy a "non-linguistic turn" philosophy. But he ended up embracing linguistic
absolutism and Hermeneutics, its Teutonic equivalent. Luhmann, in this sense, was a linguistic-turn
philosopher right from the beginning, i.e., from his very first programmatic essay--which had the title
"Meaning as Basic Concept of Sociology." But, after all, why should my heroes from the previous
intellectual generation necessarily be those who have already thought everything that I myself might desire
UE: The editor of the first anthology to present in English a fuller range of your early texts was
Wlad Godzich, who was also one of the contributors to The Materialities of Communication. You
refer more than once to his essay in the latter, which delineates a very interesting history of the crisis of
legitimation for language and literacy vis-à-vis the hegemony of images, especially in a contemporary
culture of digital technology and media. As regards image-culture today
Godzich remarks towards the end of his essay that we are "living in the midst of a prelogical affirmation of
the world, in the sense that it takes place before the fact of logos, and it threatens us with an
alienation that modern thinkers could barely conceive" (368). According to him, this means that we are now
"inhabited by images that we have not drawn from ourselves, images of external impressions that we do not
master and that retain all their agential capability without being mediated by us" (369). It is not just that
world, subject, and language thereby lose stability and fixation as was the case with the modern putting into
motion of these concepts, something which still permitted constructive solutions in the sense that modes of control
over velocities could be achieved, along with effects of stability and management of
instabilities. Rather, what Godzich has in mind here, echoing Virilio's concern with such acceleration, is
that today "the technology of images operates at the speed of light, as does the world" (370), something
which at best allows one to ask whether language can indeed bring the speed of the image
under control, turning images into some new kind of language. Godzich, of course, is not alone in pointing
out the problematic vicissitudes of the digital image; in fact, there is still no consensus on an aesthetics
of the digital image, in spite of the laudable efforts of Sean Cubitt, Edmond Couchot, W.J.T. Mitchell,
Jonathan Crary, Bernard Stiegler, Mark B. Hansen, and quite a few others.
We still seem to be left with discussions about the very possibility or impossibility of framing the
digital image, prior to any more elaborate or differentiated engagement that retains notions of
aesthesis, whether more traditional or as regards relations to, or breaks from, the avant-garde.
When you concur in your texts that we do, as Godzich has it, live in a world of floating images, how do you
see the relation of images and language, and in what ways do digital images enter your
HUG: I was just saying earlier that I am inclined (not to say eager) to find that my very impressive
predecessors (although I have never seen them in a "Harold Bloomian" way, as all too threatening)--that my very
impressive predecessors have left something for me to think. But now you have jumped--and you seem to
confront me with a question that, from my perspective, seems to be a question/an assignment for the next
generation (although you are referring to my friend Wlad Godzich, who is three years older than I). Anyway,
to really think about what it means to be increasingly surrounded by and immersed in an environment of
"floating images" is, from my point of view, a question for the next generation, because I, frankly, try to
be as little surrounded by "floating images" as I possibly can. I have nothing on earth against TV, for
example (on the contrary, my family may well hold the record for the most TV hours per week for an academic
family). But I personally (and atypically, within my family) don't like TV. The truth is that I regularly
fall asleep in front of the TV screen--even if I am not tired at all, even if I am watching the most exciting
thing for me, i.e., sports and athletic events. So I am just not in a good position to analyze "floating
images"--although I of course acknowledge that the question is important.
But let me try to say something more general (from the wisdom of my age?) about the character of such tasks.
It is my impression and my criticism that your generation, i.e., the "media theory-generation," is always
trying to come up with the "genius formula," the "genius intuition," when it comes to describing and
analyzing such phenomena. Patiently working on and developing a network of distinctions (I know I now sound
like an analytic philosopher) does not seem to be your thing. Many protagonists of your generation (and of my
own) do look strangely "Hegelian" to me--but Hegelian with the ridiculous ambition to be geniuses and
geistreich. Like those late nineteenth-century naturalists who were "hunting butterflies" with nets,
and never caught any. Virilio, for example, looks to me like the embodiment of such bad intellectual taste; I
have never managed to read any of his texts all the way through. Very seldom, Friedrich Kittler
participates in such lapses of bad taste--but his best pages are of course sublime--and the admirable
phenomenon is that most of his pages are "best pages." Anyway, I am trying to make a pledge for patient and
descriptive accuracy. Following this pledge, one will discover that we are of course not as exclusively
surrounded by "floating images" as Godzich would have it. Not our entire world is MTV. Most of us are also
surrounded, for many hours a day, by the environment of electronic mail and of the Internet, which is,
after all, still a "verbal" environment. Now, the new thing, the thing yet to be analyzed by a good
phenomenological description, is that, on the one hand, visual perception ("images") is less embodied and
requires different reactions from our bodies than visual perception that is not produced by a screen. On the
other hand, communication by email and by the Internet "feels" different, in this very bodily sense, from
writing a text by hand or on the typewriter, and from receiving a "traditional" letter on either beautiful or
cheap stationery. The simple proof is, for me (if this observation requires proof at all), that I miss that
old-fashioned type of correspondence every day when I look into my (real space) mailbox in the mailroom of
my building at the university--and see that it is empty; whereas the "mailbox" on my screen contains around
five hundred new electronic messages every day. Now, I shouldn't fall back (or "fall ahead") onto that tone
of cultural criticism; all I want to say is that not only do I not have a formula for describing our
profoundly changed communicative environment, I feel that one should not even go for such a formula. In more
critical terms: I think that media research and media theory would have made much more sense and much more
progress if it had concentrated more insistently and more broadly on good descriptions.
UE: One of the recurring debates about the digital image concerns the question whether the condition of
"post-photography" and the variability or manipulability of the digital image entail a more or less complete
departure from ontological and realistic representational dimensions. Currently, Mitchell is very much
concerned to counter exactly such leave-takings of realism, and others try to point out how work in this area
does not exclude notions of realism in the first place and, secondly, is not unidirectional but rather seems
to be undergoing a more differentiated development. In particular, Lev Manovich points out that the
almost unlimited digital simulation in cinematic post-production that we know from the Wachowski
brothers' The Matrix, and from virtuality-oriented art more generally, now increasingly seems to
be supplemented by new modes of work that focus on sampling rather than on pure simulation, or on documentary
video realism rather than on the full-scale special effects of Hollywood cinema. If we keep in mind the rich set of focal interests for the study of the materialities of
communication, how do you view such debates over the "real" status of (moving) digital images?
HUG: Unfortunately I am not familiar with most of the
works--artistic and academic--that you are invoking here. In this case, my ignorance has no excuse; it is
sheer ignorance, and not a judgment, as in the case of Virilio, whose work I find grotesquely overrated.
Sometimes, if you will allow me this remark, I am astonished to see--and grateful at the same time--that I
have survived the challenges of an academic life, being the slow reader that I am. I read slowly, I spend a
lot of time taking and making notes, and I write comparatively much. But that feeling of being "behind," of
not reading enough, of not responding to so many questions, grows, the older I get--and unfortunately, this
is not just secretly self-congratulatory rhetoric. This is the reason why my reaction to your question about
the "reality-status" of "moving" and digital images has to be all too general and abstract. Whatever degree
of "reality" you want to invest them with of course depends on the epistemological premises, the
philosophical system, or the conceptual network within which you are asking this question. Each framework
(think of analytic philosophy, systems theory, deconstruction--you name it) will produce a more or less
predictable answer. What I find interesting (and not in the sense of a judgment) is that I, for example (and
I believe: like many people of my age) have a hard time reacting to (and an even harder time connecting with)
some of these digital effects and miracles. I do not deny their value and their potential merit; it
does not astonish me to see that you, for example, really enjoy and appreciate them. But in my case, they
have produced a paradoxical reaction. The more I see myself confronted and surrounded by a technologically
mediated environment of stimuli, the more I enjoy that which, at least from a naïve
standpoint, is not mediated. As I said before, there is a huge difference for me between watching a game of
American football on TV or in the stadium--and I am well aware that I see "less" in the stadium. As
I am answering your questions, I am looking through the window of my library carrel, across the red roofs of
the buildings of Stanford University, in their strangely nineteenth-century Spanish Colonial style--and in the
background, I see a mountain range, and, faintly, the wings of a white bird. I find this moving; I wish I had
learned earlier to be more a part, with my own body, of this natural and physical environment. Now, I am not
talking (at least not mainly talking) about "ecological politics." What I am trying to point to is an
aesthetics, perhaps an impossible aesthetics, of "immediate experience"--which no doubt, in my case, depends
on being overfed and overstimulated by manmade technologies. Yes, this is very romantic; you may even call it
kitsch. But I do not seem to be the only one, at least in my generation. Read, for example, the book
of my good friend and closest colleague Robert Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead. This book is
about rediscovering a feeling for the ground we walk on as the ground that contains the remnants of our
predecessors. It is a feeling that we have largely lost, and
I will admit that this (objective) loss has only become a (subjective) loss for me in the past few decades.
UE: You open your co-edited essay anthology Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in
the Digital Age, by introducing the coupling of two critical terms,
aesthetics and perception, as part of the reactualization of
Benjamin's work today. In the treatment of perception you point out that we might understand the
intellectual background of "aura" as "Benjamin's last-ditch effort to save, in the face of a growing
challenge from technology, the physical limits of our human bodies as the yardstick of perception itself"
(7). More specifically, you see in Benjamin's polarization of "cult value" and "exhibition value" a certain
reintroduction of the traditional philosophical dualism of what you call nativist and empiricist models
of perception. On this view Benjamin seems unable or unwilling to consider perception in a technologically
expanded field. Could one understand you as saying that he
allows for an opening, at the very least, of the question respecting whether and how "the fundamental
parameters of perception itself might escape the limits of our physical bodies" (6)? In that same passage
regarding perception, and the missing link in Benjamin to seemingly inhuman models of perception, you describe
today's dominant model of perception as based on the body qua "information processor"--one that "deploys a
complex system of long-term and short-term memory storage, of hierarchical coding schemes, and a modular
chain of cognitive operations very much like a computer" (6). In that case, embodied perception would be attuned to the production, dissemination, and reception of digital data. While the reception
of Benjamin's mechanical production essay is famously multiplicitous, at least two recent efforts draw
extensively on Benjamin as a source of inspiration for a materialist theory of digital media and a notion of
the lived body as the framing capacity vis-à-vis digital art. I am thinking here of the
reactualization of Benjamin and cinematic paradigms in Manovich's widely read study, The Language of
New Media, and of Mark B. Hansen's more recent New Philosophy for New Media,
which opens by citing Benjaminian perception as a source of hope for the survival of media today in spite of
digital convergence and various posthuman positions. Hansen devotes his entire text to fleshing out
the notion of the body as the framer of information artworks. In addition, at least two of the essays in
Mapping Benjamin, by Bolz and Werber, go quite far, albeit differently, towards
actualizing Benjamin's notion of the "training of perception" as something valuable today. I know that
bodily being-there, the experience proper to the life world, as well as (mediated) spectatorship and/or
participation figure very prominently in your work, including in the recent text on athletic beauty.
How do you see Benjamin, the body, and the training of perception in our digital age?
HUG: Of course I find Benjamin's essay (which someone told me is the most frequently cited essay in
the academic humanities) very important--otherwise I would not have invested my time into a collective volume
discussing it. But I find it important as a symptom of its own time, the late 1930s, of its specific
sensitivities, hopes, and above all prognostics. For me (and I know how irreverent this may sound),
Benjamin's prognostics were about as grotesquely wrong as Jules Vernes's imagination of the future world
(although it is very interesting that, in both cases, intellectuals passionately insist on how miraculously
right they both were). Look, for example, at how Benjamin predicts that aura will disappear--whereas our
contemporary truth is that so many more artifacts than in the mid-twentieth-century have become "auratic."
If, in Benjamin's time, a drawing by Paul Klee or a picture by Picasso had an aura, today we consider even
the (very "selective") posters (I always find a touch of kitsch there) of Klee and Picasso exhibits auratic,
and subsequently frame them. Or take the moving but completely erroneous idea that a multiplication of
"cameramen" would entail some effect of "emancipation" (whatever this may mean). Technologically, this has
happened. But I cannot imagine that anyone would seriously claim that running through the world with a
camcorder, or being able to take photographs with a cell phone, has had any "emancipatory" effect. Now, I am
not blaming Benjamin--I think his essay is a bundle of strong intellectual intuitions--whose incoherence (and
I mean it in the sense of "glorious incoherence") has probably contributed to the unique breadth of its
reception. But give me a break! Can people be serious when they claim that Benjamin's concepts will help us
to analyze our present-day media environment? This would be even more hilarious than to claim that scientific
labs of the late 1930s were superior in terms of the "truth value" that they produced, than contemporary
labs. So I won't even begin to discuss the question of whether Benjamin's concepts or intuitions can be
helpful in analyzing our present-day technological and media environment. They can definitely not. The
interesting question is, once again, why so many of my colleagues, specifically younger colleagues
(colleagues of your generation), are so obsessed with and so insistent in finding more than inspiration, in
finding, indeed, "Truth," in the classics of our field. It is as if today, very different from those days around
1980, when my friends and I (with the beginning of the Dubrovnik colloquia) tried "to keep intellectual
movement alive" we have fallen under a paralysis or a prohibition of independent
thinking. Why do those who are interested in digital art not use their own competence to describe and analyze
it, to develop theories? Why do you read Benjamin with the hope of finding help for the analysis of
contemporary technology, instead of thinking for yourselves?
UE: I was quite intrigued when watching the opening ceremony of the most recent Olympic Games--for on
that occasion bodily presence, perception, participation, and the spectacle of the sports event all seemed to
be displaying in uncircumventable ways the changes our culture and our life world are currently undergoing
due to digital augmentation and the pervasiveness of computing. I am not just talking about the real time or
"live" televising with multiple cameras and the big screens on the stadium, but also about the fact that a
most of the spectators present and the participants themselves were carrying and actively using
cellular phones, digital cameras, as well as digital video cameras. "Presence," "being-there," and
"participation" here rather obviously included the navigation through the augmented dimension, in the sense
of engaging with quite complicated overlays of physical space and data spaces, place and tele-distance--just
as the pervasiveness of computing made it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish clearly between
embodied and digital perception at the level of at least the audio-visual and the haptic or tactile. You have
written extensively on sports events, spectatorship, participation, and the relation to the media, but today how is one to make sense of, and is one indeed to make sense of,
so many athletes and spectators pointing and waving with one hand, while talking right there as well as via
their wireless headsets, and video recording with the other hand?
HUG: Yes, this time I am familiar with the (screen) images that you are referring to. I have seen
those closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, for example, where the athletes whom we see on the screen have
nothing better to do than to shoot photographs or use their cell phones. Frankly (and after the first part of
our conversation, you won't be surprised to hear this), I find these images depressing--I certainly cannot
identify with this attitude. Had I ever had the privilege of participating in the Olympic Games, I would have
tried to indulge, as best I could, in the immediacy (here is this kitsch word again!) of every
moment. It wouldn't have crossed my mind to become an amateur reporter--and why would I ever take photos or
produce a video in order to enjoy the event retrospectively, instead of enjoying the event in real
time? But this movement and practice have a long history, meanwhile. When my four children (today 27, 23,
16 and 14 years old) were born, I was of course present in the delivery room--and, quite honestly, I cannot
remember any other moments or events that I have found more impressive or incisive for my life. But alreaady at that time (back in the
spring of 1978), there were dads who filmed the "event" with their camcorders. I
found that obscene--but even forgetting the criticism of "obscenity"--how can one possibly forego the
immediacy of the event in order to prepare for a retrospective viewing? Now, let me become self-critical
here: there is clearly something that I do not get. Of course these children, today, use their computers as
photo albums; they edit pictures; they fast-forward through them; they enjoy them in a way that I cannot
follow--I always want to tell them that I want to take more time with each picture (and I no longer dare to
tell them that I would so like to have a print--and an album full of prints). It is as if the speed of beauty
was not for me.
UE: This problematic of sense-making, assumption or attribution of meaning, and of semantics generally
has been a lasting concern, indeed one of the most indisputable and energized foci of your work. It is evident in your approaches to the everyday life world on psychological and socio-cultural
planes both, and in your reconsideration of what the role of meaning can be in the encounter with art and the
spectacle, but perhaps it is enjoying special foregrounding in your explicit reflections upon the difficult
challenges posed by a new epistemology that does not grant that traditional kind of privilege to
interpretation and hermeneutics which we find not least in Germany. What was the original motivation for your questioning of interpretation, and what do you consider to be the more or less unmet
challenges today for post-hermeneutic epistemology, or epistemologies?
HUG: Although I get the impression that this, the "non-hermeneutic" epistemology, is what colleagues
and readers most associate with my work and with me, this is indeed a good question in many ways. The most
banal way in which it is a good question (and the most interesting one for me personally) is that if I am
such a verbally exuberant person, someone who always interprets, who always attributes meaning, why am I so
radically against the "universality claim of hermeneutics"? Of course I will not venture any kind of
self-reflexive psychoanalysis here. Let me admit, rather, that there is clearly some academico-Oedipal
dynamic at play here--about which I have recently written for the first time (symptomatically enough, the
essay was first published in Russian, but will soon come out in the American journal Telos. My own Doktorvater and first academic boss (whose name I had sworn
I would not mention in the public sphere again) was a great admirer (rather than a student, as he claimed) of
Hans-Georg Gadamer, who was himself a student of Heidegger--who was a student of Husserl; this is a heavy
genealogy already, which, despite a remark I made earlier in our conversation, probably did incite some
Oedipal energies. But while I have come to greatly admire Gadamer's work (and Heidegger's even more so), I
have always hated the authoritarian way in which my academic advisor handled interpretation--even more so
when he pretended that his method was "dialogic." Another, very German, way of answering your question would
be to say that what separated that advisor of mine and myself was the (never to be underestimated)
distinction between German Protestant culture and German Catholic culture. While my parents did not give me
an orthodox Catholic upbringing, I was an altar boy, I enjoyed incense, sumptuous religious rituals, the
"real presence" of God in the Eucharist--rather than the Lutheran insistence on the gospels, the Word, and
their meaning. Some people have said that I am simply "sensual"--and of course I hope that this is also true.
Nevertheless, I believe--or should I say: I fear?--that the Oedipal (self-)interpretation goes a long way in
UE: When reading through your texts on post-hermeneutic epistemology as an historical sequence,
according to their date of publication, my impression is that a certain transformation is gradually taking
place: the earlier texts appear quite a lot more radical, either in their call for a strict departure
from hermeneutics and sense-making or in their emphasis on the severity of the difficulties that work on a
new epistemology is facing, and the later texts sketch out a more balanced and consensus-seeking approach
to meaning-production and interpretation. I am thinking of certain earlier passages in Making
Sense in Life and Literature and in Materialities of Communication as read in dialogue with
the more recent comments in The Production of Presence. Let me try to unfold this a bit.
In the first of these texts you point out that: "the proposal to analyze sense making as an intrasystemic
operation depending on each system's specific environment (without 'picturing' it) generates the new question
of whether we have to count, according to the high variation in the frame conditions of sense making, on a
multiplicity of different modalities in sense and meaning" (Making Sense 12). You remark that
you are not taking any answer to this question for granted but rather consider its pursuit "important in an
epistemological situation in which we have been aware for quite a long time of the fact that our concepts for
the description and the analysis of sense making turn out to be insufficient whenever we apply them to
contemporary culture (12). At that time your conclusion was first that we were facing the task of inventing
"a new epistemology capable of theorizing and analyzing ways of sense making that perhaps no longer include
effects of 'meaning' and 'reference,'" and, secondly, that so far we "simply do not know what
interfaces such as those between TV and psychic systems, or between computers and social systems, look like."
Accordingly, the question of "sense making" might continue to be the issue at hand, but this would no longer
hold for meaning, representation, and reference--which leads one to suspend the
question whether "our dealing with new modes of sense making will make sense" (13).
In your closing essay for the second volume you undertake a more detailed macro- and micro-mapping of the
urgent tasks for projects working on materialities of communication, and your key hypothesis here is that
quite a few emergent theory-positions could be seen to converge in a shared problematizing of conceptualizing
the humanities as hermeneutics, i.e., "as a group of disciplines grounded on the act of interpretation as
their core exercise" (Materialities 396). In the case of the inquiry into the
materialities of communication, such problematizing of interpretation would cause, you remark, a shift
in the main perspective of investigation. This shift would go "from interpretation as identification of given
meaning-structures to the reconstruction of those processes through which structures of articulated meaning
can at all emerge" (398). Rather than assuming given meaning or unproblematic attribution of such meaning,
the projects gesturing towards the materialities of communication would thus be trying to take care of all
the phenomena that somehow contribute to the constitution of meaning without being meaning themselves.
Hence the difficult question whether and how it is at all possible for
psychic and social systems to constitute meaning, a question that simultaneously pursues a replacement of
"interpretation" with "meaning constitution" and seeks to pay much more attention to the human body and the
physical qualities of signifiers.
In contrast to such marked departures towards a rather decidedly post-hermeneutic condition, The Production of
Presence emphasizes the various ways one should precisely not take you to be opposing or abandoning meaning,
signification, and interpretation. For example, when reflecting upon Derrida's early remark that "the age of the sign" will "perhaps
never end. Its historical closure, however, is outlined," you point out that whatever else this kind of "beyond" might
involve, putting an end to the age of the sign and the metaphysics of presence can "certainly not mean that we would abandon meaning,
signification, and interpretation" (Derrida, Of Grammatology 14; Gumbrecht, Production of Presence 52). Rather, if we are to talk of such a "beyond" and of what it would take to end metaphysics, this can,
you emphasize, "only mean something in addition to interpretation--without, of course, abandoning interpretation as an elementary and
probably inevitable intellectual practice" (52).
- Some of this perceived change in your work could, of course, just be
due to a later, strategic response on your part, not least because you have been misread so often on this score, but if there is some
truth to the impression of such a gradual change of your position, could you elaborate on the implications of this movement you now seem
to be gesturing towards, a movement somehow between interpretative meaning and a "beyond" whose birth is otherwise?
HUG: You are right, the insistence on the "non-hermeneutic" character of my work has certainly changed
over the past decades (or over the past two decades)--my tone has become more conciliatory. I will not even
try to deny that this is, partly at least, an effect of (incipient?) old age, and of becoming more
established. I wouldn't go so far, as a Berlin newspaper recently did, as to say that I have now "joined the
club of toothless old ex-intellectuals"--but, yes, it would be pathetic to try to maintain a full-fledged
"Oedipal energy" at age 57. But the most important answer to your question--at least for me--lies elsewhere.
As I mentioned before, when we organized the "Materialities of Communication" colloquium, when I was
experimenting with a concept (if it was a concept at all) such as the "non-hermeneutic," it was not quite
clear where this journey would take me--if it took me anywhere at all. This fact, that I had a vague feeling
and intuition of wanting to find something like an "alternative" to hermeneutics and interpretation, made it
more or less necessary to be very radical. Ever since I "found" (not the Promised Land, but) the dimension of
"presence," since I have begun to develop, as best I could, a network of concepts regarding presence, I can
afford to be less fanatical. Besides that, would it not be ridiculous to "deny" the existence of meaning and
of interpretation? Of course we do interpret all of the time; it is (Heidegger was right) one of our more
basic existential conditions--up to the point that I would confirm that we cannot not interpret.
But the point is (and here again, I turn against the "linguistic turn," that there is more to our lives than
just interpretation; there is what I call "presence"--and there might well be other dimensions that, like
presence, our Western philosophical tradition has abandoned and neglected for many centuries. So, to come
back to your question, the answer is that I believe that I could begin to be more open to "meaning" again as
soon as I had a clearer conception of what was the non-hermeneutic dimension on which I wanted to
UE: I was particularly intrigued by the possible convergences between your notion of an in-between
movement for sense-making and a different production of presence on the one hand, and the situation facing
one in the contemporary field of digital art and aesthetics. Perhaps the latter can be seen to be almost the
obverse of the traditional privileging or taking for granted of meaning and interpretation in the humanities.
That is, digital artworks more often than not present one with the difficulty or even impossibility of sense
making, seeing that whatever we might take to be meaningful here implies and originates from digital media,
communication, discrete code and programs, and technology--all of which most often operate well beyond human
ratios of perception, or well beyond the speeds of either embodied interaction or conceptualization. This is
most evident when purely technological and machinic agency drives the artwork, but it appears in video
installations and hyperfictions depending on human interaction as well--for example, in Bill Viola's work
with technological and media-specific slowness or acceleration as paths towards the delimitation and/or
reactualization of affect in Anima (2000), or in Urs Schreiber's sometimes rather radical
departures from printed text, literacy, literariness, and the tradition of the book in Das Epos der
Maschine (2001). Would it be possible to see in your recent work the emergence of a more visible
limit, border, skin, communicative membrane, or level of structural coupling between sense making and "presencing": constitutive of meaning in various ways and yet vanishing in the
very birth to presence of sense, sensation, and the sensible? What would the prospects be, do you think, of
approaching meaning-effects and presence in the area of digital art and aesthetics via your reflections on
such an in-between, perhaps more specifically via your notions of rhythm, oscillation, and speed?
HUG: No doubt you are right. I think my old "Oedipal" and radical denial of the hermeneutic dimension
has morphed into an insistence on the difficult, tense, always complex and never "natural" cohabitation of
"meaning" and "presence." When I talk about "oscillations" between meaning and presence, I mean "oscillation"
in the sense of a pluraletantum--there is a variety of such oscillations--and given that the variety
might be endless, I am simply not sure at this point whether it makes sense, as I used to think, to work
towards a "typology" of such oscillations. Clearly, however, the proportion--the "weight," if you will--of
"meaning" in relation to "presence" is different for different media. It would certainly be hilarious to
say that, in reading a novel, the material "presence" effects of the book are as important as the meaning
conveyed by the text. Instrumental music might be the opposite: we can certainly not help but produce
associative meanings while we are listening to music--but I believe that these meanings are highly personal,
futile, and that they ultimately draw our attention away from what only music can provide: the beautiful
feeling of being wrapped in the light and soft touch of the materiality of sounds.
UE: In your more recent engagements with art and aesthetics you explicitly reintroduce the distinction
between the beautiful and the sublime, but now with the intent of foregrounding and granting a different
privilege to beauty and the beautiful. Perhaps this move has an element of surprise to it and is not
immediately part of the intuitive horizon of expectation for many readers--considering the import of the
limits of the Kantian imagination for, say, Heidegger's relatively early work, the attention paid to the
sublime in several strands of what often passes under the somewhat homogenizing rubric of poststructuralism,
the role played by overwhelming complexity in a Luhmannian notion of art as a social system, or the emphasis
in many other efforts towards a contemporary aesthetics that cares for the avant-garde or for the
strict singularity of the experience of art. So, my question is triple, I think: What is at stake in this
actualization and bringing into movement of the beautiful, under what conditions do digital works of art
present beauty from your perspective, and do the experience of art as well as art as a social system retain a
distinguishable or even privileged role in contemporary culture?
HUG: Again, you have it right--and I am beginning to be scared by how familiar you are with my
thought, far beyond what I make explicit and (sometimes at least) have come to understand myself. But there
is nothing terribly programmatic or symptomatic about my "preference" for the beautiful (in comparison to
"the sublime"). As I said before, it seems to lie in my temperament that I want to
speak about "the beautiful," but everyone else seems to concentrate on the sublime (about "the
non-hermeneutic," when everyone else discusses interpretation), about literature "itself," when everybody
feels that theory is the only thing, and so forth. In this very (ultimately banal) spirit, some of my
colleagues and I, back in the early 1990s, had planned to work towards an issue of an academico-intellectual
journal on "Beauty"--but, fortunately for us, the journal did not survive, and some of its projects shared
this fate. A project from the same journal that did survive, by the way, is the volume on Benjamin that we
have discussed. The one case where I have used the concept of "the beautiful" quite systematically (and to a
certain extent: to my surprise), was my book In Praise of Athletic Beauty. While I am of course
not saying that watching sports does not have any "sublime" moments, I am convinced that, in most cases of
spectator sports, "beauty" (according to Kant: the impression of purposiveness without purpose) is the more
feeling concept than the sublime. Not unexpectedly, several reviewers have taken issue with this
opinion--but, interestingly enough, they never argued about it. It was as if they wanted to say that there
was one and only one category to describe aesthetic experience, and that was "the sublime."
UE: The field of digital art has focused from the late 1980s to the last half of the 1990s on virtuality and thus on immersion, simulation, and abstract or even
transcendent self-reference as aesthetic paradigms--witness such works as Charlotte Davies's
Osmose (1995) and Ephemere (1998)--the history and structures of which have been
charted quite engagingly in Oliver Grau's book on virtual art. However, already with Jeffrey Shaw's
Eve (1993) and ConFIGURING the CAVE (1996), the focus has shifted not only towards the use of
physical and architectural structures to achieve immersion effects, but towards opening up embodiment and the
relation between the body and space as altogether dominant issues. When one considers the subsequent
developments in the field, one is tempted to diagnose symptoms of what one might call "the physical turn" of
digital art. For instance, the works in tele-presence by Roy Ascott, Ken Goldberg, and Eduardo Kac,
the broadening of interest in transgenic art and artificial life, the entry on stage of augmentation not only
in everyday and commercial culture but also in more classical art forms such as in Christian Ziegler's dance
performance scanned I-V (2000-01), and the very recent peaking of interest in pervasive
computing--all of this bespeaks amarked change of aesthetic focus which seems to bring us far away
from the Cartesianism evident in William Gibson's early exploration of the notion of "cyberspace" or
in most earlier artistic and critical theoretical engagements with virtuality. But perhaps this change is most
visible and tangible in the rather radical widening of the field of digital art and aesthetics concerned with
the body--Stelarc is an obviously provocative example, but a visitor to Medien Kunst Netz will
confront around 200 digital artworks that explore the body, embodiment, and
social or psychic effects of framing and/or identity-formation. Or, as Manovich formulates this predicament
more generally, the 1990s
I was wondering how one would want to think about this physical turn in digital art, and, considering your
inquiry into the materialities of communication as well as the beauty of bodies that matter, how you approach
this emergence of digital body art. In particular, I was struck by the impression, when confronting the
research in the field, that Cartesianism and more or less strict dualisms of body and mind are not so easily
left behind. In the middle part of your Production of Presence you devote quite some energy and
reflection to reconsidering Heidegger's thinking of "world" and "earth" in "The Origin of the Work of Art,"
and you rightly emphasize Heidegger's critique of Descartes in that context. In a recent essay, Katherine N. Hayles--whose study How We Became
Posthuman was instrumental in provoking a more differentiated and qualified critical debate over the
posthuman, which Friedrich Kittler has also enriched in so many ways--reconsiders her position and recognizes
that she is still haunted by the incessant returns of such dualisms. That later essay sketches out a relational
notion of emergence from a dynamic flux both of the body and of embodiment, a relationality that departs in a
different way from Cartesianism than her
earlier work does. How do you think of the emergence or presencing of
embodiment and of the experience of beauty in a digital age--on the other side of Cartesian and posthuman
temptations both? In particular, how would one want to consider the beauty of digital art and embodiment in
their concretely specific differentiation and materiality--even on that level of gendered difference which
Lyotard brought into his work on the inhuman, or on that level of "an erotics of art" which Susan Sontag was
thinking of in Against Interpretation?
were about the virtual. We were fascinated by new virtual spaces made possible by computer technologies. The
images of an escape into a virtual space that leaves the physical space useless and of cyberspace--a virtual
world that exists in parallel to our world--dominated the decade . . . It is quite possible that this decade
of the 2000s will turn out to be about the physical--that is, physical space filled with electronic and
HUG: Of course, "dualisms like body and mind are not so easily left behind." For my part, I do not
believe that I have ever promised (!) to leave either "body" or "mind" behind (I may have said that there are
other tasks for the mind to get engaged in than interpretation). In this spirit, I am convinced that the
provocative power of the concept of the post-human has long since worn out. When Foucault (if it
was Foucault) first used it, it was beautifully provocative because it made us aware that a certain concept
of the "human" that we had thought to be metahistorical and transcultural was indeed both culturally and
historically very specific (i.e., it was rooted in the eigtheenth century). So Foucault's provocation helped
us to not feel forever obliged to live up to the eigtheenth-century concept of the "human." For example, we have
become much less optimistic regarding the natural generosity of "humans" towards other humans--and we no
longer even think that this is such a devastating insight. But will we ever become post-human, in the sense
of not living through (in one way or the other), this dualism (or should I say oscillation) between "body"
and "mind" (and again, what would be wrong with this)?
UE: I know that Luhmann's work and his intellectual impact on the academy have been of extraordinary
import to you and, naturally, the lasting fascination with his social systems theory has left many traces in
your own production. On the one hand, I wonder how you see the fate of Luhmann's work today, in the face of
a pervasively digital culture? Specifically, how do you evaluate and handle the absence in Luhmann's work of
a refined and differentiated set of concepts and distinctions relating to new media, including the questions
raised, and debated by many of Luhmann's readers, by the introduction of the notion of the "code" versus
the eventual discreteness of information in The Reality of the Mass Media? On the other hand, you
yourself on occasion gesture towards what you find to be relatively unelaborated aspects of Luhmann's work,
his concepts of time and space in particular. How would you describe
your own departure here towards different notions of form, event, position, distance, movement, and the
widening of the present as a dimension of simultaneity?
HUG: Two or three years ago, in Copenhagen (indeed), I was invited to give the closing lecture for
the (at least then) "largest Luhmann Congress ever." I accepted--but I did feel slightly uneasy, because, by
then, I had somehow ceased to be "Luhmannian." My solution to this (emotional, rather than cognitive) dilemma
was to start the lecture by confessing (and this is still true) that "Niklas
Luhmann's work was the intellectual love of my life." It had never before happened with the same intensity as
in the case of Luhmann's work--and I anticipate that it will never happen again in my intellectual life: I
absolutely had to read each new book, each new article by this author. It wasn't even a question of whether I
agreed or not; I fear (but why am I saying "fear"?) that "rapture" would have been the adequate word here. I
was in a true Luhmann-fever--it was something like a novel released in serial form, to see how he
complicated his thought and his philosopy in a way that I found aesthetically fascinating. This is
the one side. On the other side, however (and this is the simple reason why I am no longer a Luhmannian--a
reason, of course, that doesn't say anything against Luhmann's work), what I have increasingly concentrated
upon over the past decade, i.e., the dimension of "presence," does not have a place in Luhmann's work. Now,
this fact is altogether undramatic. Each philosophy, programmatically or preconsciously, opts for certain
problems and concepts that it can deal with--and thus automatically excludes others. What my friends and I
used to call "materiality" (and what today I refer to as "presence") is something that Luhmann's philosophy
could not capture from the (very foundational) moment Luhmann decided to make meaning
(Sinn) the key-concept of his work. In this sense, it is perhaps more than a bon mot to
say--rather it is an ultimately laudatory description--that Luhmann's philosophy is the "hermeneutics of the
digital age." I do not know whether his concept of "communication" was deliberately or unintentionally
adapted to electronic communication--but I imagine that it would work beautifully and gloriously to describe and
to analyze our technological and mainly electronic communication environment. Now, I insist:
all of this is not a criticism of Luhmann; rather it explains why I don't have much use for the entire
Luhmann's philosophy. Nevertheless, his name still plays an important role in my ongoing work--and it is not
derogatory if I characterize this role by saying that Luhmann has become my "main provider of punch lines."
Like many other stunning intellectual talents (he certainly belongs to the five or even three most
intelligent persons I have ever seen), he was fantastic at coming up with sharp and always surprising (i.e.,
counterintuitive) definitions. Many of these definitions function as healthy thought-provocations even if you
do not buy into the entire complexity of Luhmann's system. And this is how I use him today. Let me end with
one further comment on your question--which indirectly also refers back to our Benjamin discussion. That
author "X" (Niklas Luhmann, for example) does not provide a full-fledged theory of phenomenon "Y" (in which
you happen to be interested), does not mean that author X is not interesting. Here it is again, for me: this
feeling of a taboo imposed on independent thinking. Unlike your generation, I have to say that I am always
(and not only secretly) happy when I see that my great intellectual heroes (even my great
intellectual heroes) have their limits.
UE: You chose "Beyond Meaning: Positions and Concepts in Motion" as the title of the third, very
important chapter of The Production of Presence. I was very taken by the possibility of inquiring further
into the notion you develop there of presence in movement, for bodies in space as well as for the
conceptualizations proper to
more mindful bodies, so as to sense in it the delimitation of an aesthetics of movement for
digital art. I was perhaps particularly piqued by the kind of approach you brought out here to such
movement--since it not only encompassed the dimensions of "vertical" movement (emergence into being-there so
as to occupy space) and "horizontal" movement (being qua appearance or something that moves towards
or against an observer), but paid special attention to the more difficult dimension of negativity in
movement, i.e., the dimension of "withdrawal" as in some (non-)sense prior to and (de)constitutive of both
verticality and horizontality, emergence and appearance. You draw to good effect on the admirable work of
Nancy and Bohrer here, as well as on Seel's ingenious ways of pointing out the limits of human control of
"appearance" via his notion of Unfervügbarkeit. In a way, then, my question is disturbingly simple: what would, for you, constitute a
"composure" for Dasein in relation to the happening or taking place in movement of the text, images,
sound, and touch of contemporary digital artworks, a "composure" that cares for the ontology of the digital
work of art so as not to forget either the Unfervügbarkeit of its appearance or its "birth" to
presence, nor simply denying its movement of withdrawal and dis-appearance into discreteness?
HUG: Well, let me confess that, honestly (not the least thanks to your influence), I am
increasingly trying to expose myself to digital art whenever I have the chance to do so. Sometimes I find it
terribly pretentious, and it triggers that horribly petit bourgeois question in me of whether the (aesthetic)
effect was worth all of the financial and technological investment. Sometimes I find that there is too much
self-reflexive ambition--as if self-reflexivity were, without any question, the best thing our life can
offer. But sometimes I am impressed, I like what I see, I could and would stay forever--and then, at the
moment that I have to go or decide to go, I find it consoling to know that this digital work of art will not
only continue to exist, but will continue to "play," even in my absence. While there is nothing terribly
surprising in this description, I think it is already the main effect of Gelassenheit. To be able to
let go, to know that certain things are unverfügbar (strange, by the way, that German, of all
languages, has such a differentiated repertoire for describing this state of mind). So, yes, for once I am
able to associate digital art with something that is dear to me, i.e., Gelassenheit. Now this is an
effect that has a strange, not to say decisive, existential impact for me. I hope (and would perhaps even
dare to claim) that I am not a complete control freak. But if I am not a complete control freak, as I hope,
my belief in the capacities of human agency, despite all theoretical and philosophical reservations, is
unlimited. Yes, subconsciously and pre-philosophically, I seem to assume that you can achieve whatever you
want enough to achieve. So it is good, it makes a huge difference for me to realize that I cannot "force"
certain things--not even what matters most to me--my children's success, my wife's good humor (on a Friday
night), and the success of my favorite sports team, the Stanford (American) Football Team. As I am trying to
answer you, I realize that there is astonishingly little to say about Gelassenheit. Perhaps I should
add, however, that Gelassenheit could always be an anticipation, a blank cheque, so to speak,
of that desire for (as I call it) "being in synch with the things of the world." It is true and
embarrassing, at the same time, that, in this very sense, I find certain animals terribly attractive--and the
way I describe this attraction is to say that, most likely, they don't have problems with their
self-reflexivity. These days, I am specifically impressed by a population of sea elephants (I hear there are
only a couple of hundred left on the planet) that happen to mate on a Pacific shore not too far from
Stanford. When you first see them lying on the dunes, they look like stones, like things. From time to time,
they move around, slowly. Yes, I tend to believe that it would be beautiful to be a sea elephant--if you only
don't take me too seriously here. And let me add that, as a mating ritual, sea elephants seem to engage in
the cruelest and most bloody fights.
UE: In 2001 the media installation artist David Rokeby opened the work n-Cha(n)t to the
public at the Banff Centre for the Arts, a work that won prizes for interactive art the year after. Rokeby
described the motivation for the work as "a strong and somewhat inexplicable desire to hear a community of
computers speaking together: chattering amongst themselves, musing, intoning chants." The work is an advanced
elaboration of the effort over ten years to make rather intelligent "Givers of Names," i.e., linguistically
intelligent IT-systems that can recognize objects on location and give them names. In n-Cha(n)t
the human interactants encounter a community of networked "Givers of Names," where these intercommunicate
among themselves in order to synchronize their "states of mind." This communicative process of
synchronization goes on semi-organically; left to their own devices, the "Givers of Names" will eventually
arrive at a coherent and shared chanting. The human interactants, however, constitute a channel of disruption
of this communication, a source of disturbance, distraction, perhaps fragmentation or at least slowing down
of the speed of shared chanting of the "Givers of Names." This is how Rokeby describes that part of the
In one of the most recent of his works, SubTitled Public (2005), which is about pervasive
computing (rather than forming a part of the ongoing series of works concerned with relational architecture),
Raphael Lozano-Hemmer created an empty exhibition space where human visitors are tracked with a computerized
infrared surveillance system and specific texts, or subtitles, are projected onto their bodies, following
them everywhere they go. No matter what kind of body-movements the
visitors perform, these textual brandings of individuals are impossible to get rid of--except when you touch
somebody else, in which case the words are exchanged with the other. Lozano-Hemmer's work makes obvious and
ironic reference to the security-specific, juridical, and political problematics of pervasive computing, in
this case the dimension of surveillance in particular. But again, as
in Rokeby's work, it is noteworthy that a posthuman dimension informs the work: human
bodies, interaction, and communication pose at best as minor modes of suspension or temporary interruption of
When left uninterrupted to communicate among themselves, they eventually fall into chanting, a shared stream
of verbal association. This consensus unfolds very organically. The systems feel their way towards each
other, finding resonance in synonyms and similar sounding words, working through different formulations of
similar statements until finally achieving unison.
Each entity is equipped with a highly focused microphone and voice recognition software. When a gallery
visitor speaks into one of the microphones, these words from the outside "distract" that system, stimulating
a shift in that entity's "state of mind." As a result, that individual falls away from the chant. As it
begins communicating this new input to its nearest neighbors, the community chanting loses its coherence,
with the chanting veering towards a party-like chaos of voices. In the absence of further disruptions, the
intercommunications reinforce the similarities and draw the community back to the chant.
Even such an impressively humanistic artist as Bill Viola works on and with
that sort of inhuman speed in his video installations, in this case very often by using analog
and digital video-technology to achieve (almost) imperceptible effects of slowness rather than radical
acceleration. In Viola's case, one notices an incessant effort towards crossing back and forth over the
limits of human affect at the micro-physical or micro-perceptual level and always via digital speeding or
slowing down. Witness the series of works in The Passions, for example.
You deal with the problematic of speed in various places in your texts, at least one of them directly
relating to the question of the materialities of communication. On
that occasion you describe speed as yet another aspect of coupling and resonance. From this systems-theoretical
perspective "rhythm" gains a new relevance, because "rhythm" can be understood as speed that
facilitates coupling. You also note that
such reflection upon coupling and its conditions might furnish interesting ways of rephrasing
the contemporary philosophical tendency to problematize concepts such as "agency" and "subjectivity." I was
struck by the ways in which this approach to speed seems so much cooler and formally dry than, say,
Virilio's very important, but tendentially catastrophic diagnosis of an information society touching upon the
absolute speed of light, on the other side of the modern transmission revolution, but also displaying much
more interesting critical potential than such utopian-minded thinkers of the speed of posthuman robotics and
intelligence as Moravec and Minsky. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I want to ask you how you would flesh out
your notion of speed in relation to digital works of art whose tempi and rhythms touch upon the limits of
human affectivity, interfaces, as well as modes of communication.
I wondered whether one can get far enough here to meet an all too common
reaction to the question concerning posthuman speed: "Yes, sure, digital technology, mediation, and
communication introduce accelerations that go beyond the human in quite a few ways, but, then, what does it
matter?" Particularly in the area of digital art and aesthetics people often shrug off
this question of speed, typically with a remark to the effect that, if indeed we cannot perceive it nor place it in the sensible nor make sense of it, we are not talking about art anymore
anyway. And to a certain extent I understand that response, at least if one can describe it as the urge to
abandon the question when we are not even dealing with coding and hence with information--information in
Luhmann's sense. That is, I can understand it as a response of
this kind: "If this thing about speed is supposed to have to do with 'digital art,' then 'digital art' does
not matter--what difference does it make?" The question becomes somewhat more pressing, however, once we are dealing with speeds of coding and information, for what to make of works that at
least in part move too fast, or too slowly, for the human sensorium, language, or thought, but achieve artful
or aesthetic effects nonetheless? Hence the title of this interview: how are the speeds that grant beauty to
digital artworks, and how are we humans and our bodies, placed in relation to this?
HUG: Again, this weird and passé concept of the "post-human." What would be "human"
speed--and why should any kind of speed, so to speak, bother to be "human"? Isn't this ridiculously
anthropocentric, once you agree that the entire dimension and category of the "sublime" (which we discussed
earlier) could not possibly exist if it were not for all of those (endless, innumerable) phenomena that
exceed the different human capacities for decomplexification? Let me just suggest a very simple comparison:
we know that each of the different human senses only covers or captures a limited range of
what other living beings can capture, and therefore perceive and even experience. There are levels of speed
(and slowness) that we may be able to calculate, but for which we will never have any mental or physical
affinity. So what's the big deal? I suppose that any kind of speed or slowness that can ever become
aesthetically relevant cannot be post- or meta-human. In this sense, I believe that those phenomena
and works of art that we like to call "sublime" are those that exceed the capacity of the human senses just
by a bit. The extent of this universe may be "way too big to be sublime." The same is true for speed. If
certain digital artists produce effects of speed that are appealing to some or many viewers (seemingly not to
me), then these viewers must be capable of relating to this speed. What I call "rhythm," I assume, helps to
relate to different speeds in the perceived transformation of phenomena, without of course being a necessary
condition of such relating. Now I define/describe "rhythm" as a form given to (wrested from) a "time-object"
in the proper sense, i.e., an object that exists in an ongoing self-transformation. So I assume that our
possibility for capturing the speed of such transformation is greatly enhanced if these transformations take
place in a rhythmic form. Of course there might be transformations that do have a form and that do take place
at a rate of speed that simply exceeds our perceptive capacities.
What I do not understand is why and how, for example, it would be a "catastrophy" to discover (if
this were ever the case) that the speed of information comes close to the speed of light. Can channels of
information that have to do with electricity ever have been much slower? And why would we want to perceive
all of the screams and waves of technologically-produced electricity (for example) that surround us? Would it
not only be to give us the right to complain about present-day culture?
Department for Cultural Studies and the Arts
University of Copenhagen
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1. See Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer, eds., Materialities of
2. See, for instance, Gumbrecht, "Epistemologie / Fragmente" in Gumbrecht
and Pfeiffer, eds., Paradoxien 837-50, 839.
3. For Gumbrecht's remarks on this text, see Making Sense 12.
4. See Cubitt, Couchot, Hansen, Stiegler, Mitchell, and Crary.
5. See Manovich, Image Future.
6. See Gumbrecht, Lob Des Sports, translated as In Praise of Athletic Beauty.
7. See, for example, "'Dabei Sein Ist Alles'," "It's Just a Game," "Epiphany of Form," and In Praise of
8. In Russian, see Gumbrecht, "From Oedipal Hermeneutics"; the original
English version appeared in Telos.
9. Gumbrecht writes in more detail about Derrida's work and the
institutional impact of deconstruction, in the U.S. in particular, in "Deconstruction
Deconstructed," "Who Is Afraid of Deconstruction?" and "Martin Heidegger and His Interlocutors."
10. See Gumbrecht, Production of Presence 65-67.
11. See Hayles, "Flesh and Metal" 297-99. Hayles's text is also available at
Medien Kunst Netz (<http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/search/?qt=hayles>. That site includes half
a dozen rich critical articles that work towards rethinking "cyborg bodies" today; see <http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/cyborg_bodies>.
12. See Gumbrecht, "Form without Matter." Note also Gumbrecht's turn to Heidegger in The Production of Presence when engaging in
a rethinking of space and bodily presence.
13. The latter translated as Aesthetics of
Appearing (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005).
14. A four-minute video of the work is available at <http://www.fundacion.telefonica.com/at/rlh/video/subpub.html>.
15. ZKM arranged an important exhibition on precisely this, and the
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