Distraction Free Reading

Three Videos of Dead Media Theorists

One of the benefits of access to YouTube’s vast sea of content is that by finding and watching videos that relate to our scholarly interests, however indirectly, we are able to tell ourselves that there is something productive about time spent drifting around the internet. There are, for example, plenty of videos of old lectures by our favorite thinkers and authors floating around out there. However, as the three theorists featured in this post would well understand, the conventions of this sort of presentation do not make the most of the medium. It can be a lot more revealing to see concepts and arguments we usually encounter on the written page play out in formats that are more unusual and more dialogic. In this post, I’ve collected a few of my favorite examples of the sorts of casually meandering discourse I find particularly illuminating.

1. Marshall McLuhan vs. Norman Mailer on the CBC

If you want to watch Marshall McLuhan trying to get his ideas across to resistant or uncomprehending interlocutors, there are a range of options, but this televised debate from 1968 in which he and Norman Mailer clash is probably the best. Neither public intellectual emerges unambiguously victorious, but it is clear that Mailer is not quite able to keep up. Of course, he did not have the benefit of being informed by several decades of thought about media and technology shaped by his opponent. His agitated, confrontational style evokes McLuhan’s characterization of the pre-televisual personality he considered too “hot” for TV. McLuhan, meanwhile, is nonchalantly enigmatic, displaying something of the blurry looseness he argued was favored by the medium.

2. Interview with Vilém Flusser: On writing, complexity and the technical revolutions

Evidently, Vilém Flusser shared Mailer’s revulsion against at least one aspect of McLuhan’s contribution: its sinister political implications. “He proposes an attitude toward the image that I consider absolutely fascistoid,” he exclaims in this interview conducted at a German arts festival. Worries about a potential rise of techno-fascism aside, Flusser acknowledged that McLuhan got many things right, and his debt is as obvious here as anywhere. What is certainly different about Flusser, however, is the degree of conscious intervention into the functioning of technology Flusser thought possible. The eclipse of human autonomy by automation, he thought, could not be prevented by simply ignoring the ongoing processes of technicization. It could only be countered on its own terms: that is, through the codes by which the dominant media themselves function. In 1988, at the dawn of the end of history and with the internet on the horizon, Flusser thought the time for communicating only through words had passed, and that the need for humans to learn to communicate in the language of technical images was urgent.

3. Friedrich Kittler – Unberechenbarkeit

No media theorist has prophesied the course of inexorable technological change with more exultation than Friedrich Kittler. In this interview, he calls the improvement of computer technology the next stage of nature, one in which ever greater processing speeds are enabled by ever finer configurations of matter. As in much of his writing, Kittler himself acts as a highly efficient machine for information processing, whirring through an impressive number of disparate areas of scholarship and linking them into a coherent network.

There is not a lot of immediately available information about what the occasion for this interview was, or even when it was. If you know anything about it, leave us a comment.

Unless you know German, you’ll want to turn on the subtitles.

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