Subjectivity as medium of the media

Dossier: What is German Media Philosophy?

RP 169 () / Article, 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.

This formula refers to the subject that can be called the master subject: the subject that is able to formulate and communicate its intentions, its thinking, its message. Mastery over communication is revealed by contemporary media theory as a subjective illusion. But one can still ask: Who is the subject of this subjective illusion? Who is the subject of the desire to master the communication in the name of one’s own thinking? Who is the subject of the desire to be a subject? And, obviously, deconstruction, as well as other forms of contemporary critical theory, presupposes the existence of the subject of desire to be a subject. In fact, Derrida has often stressed the central importance of this desire to become a subject – because in the absence of this desire deconstruction itself loses its critical edge. Now, whatever can be said about the ontological nature of the subject of desire to be a subject, it is fair to say that this subject is meanwhile well aware of contemporary media theory, including the discourse of deconstruction. Earlier, I mentioned the mass-cultural status of the formula ‘the death of the subject’. Today, the contemporary subject is fully prepared to give up its spirit (seinen Geist aufzugeben) by entering the material media and flows of communication. Alexander Kojève wrote before World War II that writing is a prolonged form of suicide. At that time only a few others knew that. In our time this knowledge has become a truly democratic one. The post-deconstructive subject has capitulated in its struggle for dominance over the media. It gave up …