Media after the "Medial a Priori"
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Media after the "Medial a Priori"
Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy, by Sybille Krämer, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, Recursions Series, 2016, 270 pp, €79,00, ISBN 978-9-08964-741-2, €39,95, ISBN 978-9-46298-308-3

Sybille Krämer's ostensible aim in her recently translated book, Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy, is to rehabilitate the out-of-fashion concept of "transmission" in media studies. By doing so, this book attempts to develop an avowedly metaphysical answer to media studies' fundamental question, "what is a medium"? (24). We might situate Krämer's approach to media in this book by citing the touchstones and antagonists she invokes in its prologue: Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's conception of information, positioned as transmission's avatars, which she pits against Jürgen Habermas's dialogical conception of communication. But Krämer's "media philosophy" emerges just as crucially from a critique of what has come to be known—in the anglophone world at least—as "German media theory." This book's most striking goal is to displace the foundational autonomy that media is often granted under the auspices of this term.

As what Geoffrey Winthrop-Young calls an "observer construct," "German media theory" probably never accorded with the facts of Medienwissenschaft on the ground (2011: 15). This term nevertheless developed a certain utility for anglophone scholars. "German media theory" has ossified into a theoretical formation—more crassly, a "brand" (Horn 2007: 8)—that connotes a set of theoretical tenets. These include an emphasis on the materiality of media; close attention to media artifacts; or a post-Foucauldian, genealogical approach to media history. In the past few years, though, a series of newly translated collections and monographs have exposed anglophone readers to the alternate theoretical positions that have been brewing in [End Page 259] Germany since its canonical works of media theory were first translated. These include, most notably, the "media archaeology" approach advocated by Jussi Parikka, in English, or Wolfgang Ernst, in translation, or the concept of "cultural techniques" developed by theorists like Bernhard Siegert and Krämer herself. What unites these distinct, recently translated works is that they don't conform to our usual (mis)conceptions of German media theory. In the case of Medium, Messenger, Transmission, we are presented with an approach to media that Krämer and other commentators refer to as "media philosophy" (Winthrop-Young 2013: 14). Like Siegert's "cultural techniques" approach, Krämer's version of media philosophy advocates a turn away from the media apparatus. Where cultural techniques focus on the media techniques—like writing, numbers, and so on—that are formalized by media apparatuses, what media philosophy advocates is an engagement with the mediatic process, broadly construed. Krämer calls this "mediality."

One of the basic claims of Medium, Messenger, Transmission is that mediality should be understood as nothing less than "an elementary dimension of human life and culture" (75). The figure that incarnates this claim is the topos of the messenger. The messenger is also the agent of the book's more fundamental metaphysical claim: that we ought to understand media as that which disappears in the act of making a message appear for its receiver (84). The implications of this claim are wide ranging. At first blush, this interplay between appearing and disappearing seems to suggest a Heideggerian conception of media as "ready to hand": the idea that media become obstinately present only when they aren't working properly. But Krämer's media philosophy isn't concerned with either the media apparatus or the question of whether it is present to us. What she proposes, rather, is that media should be understood using a "representational vocabulary" (206). The touchstone she uses to develop this vocabulary, and the basis for her avowed turn to a metaphysics of media, is Plato. Using the key terms making perceptible (Wahrnehmbarmachen) and making appear (Erscheinenlassen, 25), Krämer argues not only that media aren't apparent when they're working but that media must be understood as functioning behind the layer of what is perceptible, that is, their message. Accordingly, Krämer argues...