Ontogenetic machinery

Dossier: What is German Media Philosophy?

RP 169 () / Article, Dossier, What is German Media Philosophy?

Media, as considered by media philosophy, are not what you expect them to be. In the first place, they have almost nothing to do with information, or transmission, or communication, or storage. They do not as such produce sense or distribute meanings. If they do so, it is as a side effect or a secondary function. In the first place, media are complex assemblies of material objects, and operations, and handlings, mostly technical apparatuses and gestures, but not exclusively. But not only do media base themselves on, or integrate, physical or biological matter in operations and actions. The sociology of the so-called ‘actor network’ as developed by Bruno Latour, John Law, Michel Callon and others states that the inverse is as true: any physical practice, any relation to objects, and any making and producing of things is dependent on mediating processes, such as reference, or transformation, or translation. Since reference and translation are in their turn based on material media, we might say that through media things cooperate in the production and reproduction of things. Specific media thencould be seen as specific sets of material operationsby which the things involved in one medium producethings, reflect and represent things, and reproduce themselves as material collectives. Hence, media function as operators by which the material world which surrounds us is generated in the first place. Media are ontogenetic machines. To put it simply, they are operative things that produce and assemble and reproduce things, including themselves.And what is most surprising about media, and what distinguishes them from pure tools, is that they themselves know all of this. This is what makes a medium a medium, and not only a technical device. So, if you want to find out what media are, or what theywant, or what they in fact do, just ask them. They bear the answers. With the help of one tiny, most modest example, I would like to demonstrate this.

In his 1967 film Playtime, French genius film-maker Jacques Tati reaches for a further development of his cinematic reflection on the material world, which he had begun with his first film. In his previous comedies, Tati had already advanced a critique of things as counterparts and instruments of human action and a critique of objects as submitted to designation, to sense and to meaning. Now, in Playtime, he pushes forward to a more general critique of materiality as such. And, moreover, he investigates the assembly of objects and operations that a medium is: in his case, film. By doing this, he gives us some very useful hints at what media are as ontogenetic machines.

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