Subjectivity as medium of the media
Dossier: What is German Media Philosophy?
Contemporary, let us say ‘post-modern’, discourses on media, communication, information and so on are functioning in our society in at least two different – if interconnected – ways.* First, they describe scientifically the functioning of contemporary media and their growing role in our society. But the development of media theory during recent decades was, in a very obvious way, motivated not only by a pure scientific interest in the make-up of the new information age, but also by a desire to undermine the role and position of ‘the subject’ and to get rid of the philosophical tradition that had the subject as its main point of reference. We heard from Marshall McLuhan that the message of the medium undermines, subverts and shifts every individual message using this medium. We heard from Heidegger that die Sprache spricht (language speaks), and not so much an individual that is using the language. These formulations undermined the subjectivity of the speaker, of the sender of the message, but the hermeneutical subjectivity of the listener, reader, receiver of the information is left by them relatively intact. However, Derridian deconstruction and Deleuzean machines of desire got rid also of this last avatar of subjectivity. Here, an individual reading of a text or the interpretation of an image drowns in the infinite sea of interpretations and/or is carried away by the impersonal flows of desire.
These flows are understood by contemporary media theory as being material and driven by powerful material forces. The subject, on the contrary, is traditionally understood as being ‘spiritual’, immaterial – and as such completely powerless vis-à-vis the material universe that is no longer perceived as being subjected to any ‘ideal’ metaphysical order. Without the superimposed metaphysical order the interplay of material forces presents itself as pure chaos. The merely spiritual, immaterial subject has no power that would allow it to take control over this chaos and subject it to a certain order. Accordingly, the subject also cannot produce, stabilize and communicate its message using media of communication because these media are also material. The ultimate message of the media is the chaos of material forces that manifests itself as a zero message, as nonsense – beyond any subjective power of control or interpretation, beyond any individual attempt to give a meaning to this chaos. This incapacity of the subject to formulate, stabilize and communicate its message through the media is often characterized as the ‘death of the subject’. This is the standard mass-cultural formula covering the subtleties of all the different media theories – and it is this formula that I would like to discuss now.