Review of Sybille Krämer’s Medium, Messenger, Transmission: An Approach to Media Philosophy
By David W. Hill, University of Liverpool
The telephone in my office doesn’t work. I can make outgoing calls but no-one can ring me. I know I ought to get this fixed – it’s been like this ever since it was installed, about two years ago – but there’s a certain advantage to this unilateral arrangement of communication. In the workplace there seems to be an obligation to be available to communication, to be ready and willing for it at any time, a sort of spontaneous escalation of one’s duty to work. That phone ringing might be blue bloody murder. Best it doesn’t. So instead the labour of communication migrates to the email client, an infinite cascade of incitements to work, but one that is less immediate, less invasive, and altogether easier to control. It seems to abstract the human out of the exchange, which in turn greases the wheels of communicative labour. The other person is always the tricky part when it comes to communicating.
Medium, Messenger, Transmission is the first book by German media philosopher Sybille Krämer to be translated into English, and it acts as an introduction to her approach to the question of communication, an approach familiar to that of her compatriots, with its attention to materiality, subject formation and the extension of the human. Krämer sets out two broad and antagonistic theories of communication that she terms the postal principle and the erotic principle. These might be more familiar to us as, respectively, transmission accounts of communication and dialogic accounts of communication, the former perhaps best encapsulated by the work of John Durham Peters (a prominent reference point in the arguments developed in this book) and the latter by Jürgen Habermas (who gets a few explicit mentions but on my reading is present throughout this text as a sort of shadow boxing opponent). In the postal account, communication is understood as the production of connections across distance whilst in the erotic, it aims at the synchronization and standardization of previously divergent individuals. In the latter, communication properly conceived envisages the merging of individuals, the overcoming of the difference between inner-worlds. The postal bridges the distance of difference without annihilating it; it is about communicating despite difference without overcoming it or aiming at sameness. The erotic overcomes difference to establish community. With the postal, the medium is essential, since without it there can be no bridge across distance; for the erotic, it remains on the periphery since the ultimate goal of communication is the unmediated coming together of individuals, wherein the existence of the medium disturbs the melding of inner-worlds. Krämer’s aim in this book is to rehabilitate the postal principle at a time when she believes the erotic, with its promise of coming-together, is in the ascendency – despite a lack of evidence to suggest that successful community-building has dialogic foundations.
Krämer provides short but illuminating accounts of the theorists who have influenced her thinking on communication, such as Benjamin, Nancy, Serres and Debray, but it’s her reading of John Durham Peters, ‘the Levinas of communication theory’ (68), that draws the reader to the sort of moral work that Krämer expects of communication. Our proximity to others is always also distance – Levinas calls this ‘the stranger in the neighbour’ (2008: 123) – and the other’s inner-word is always closed off to us. We remain foreign to each other, understanding cannot be fully accomplished – to assume we do is what Levinas calls ‘the imperialism of the same’ (2007: 59) – and the idea that communication is a reciprocal dialogue is illusory. Communication, for Krämer, is an act of sending, a non-reciprocal and non-dialogical dissemination. What many understand as dialogue is simply taking it in turns to transmit to each other. As such, we should communicate with an acceptance that others may not understand us, and that we may not understand others, and settle on respecting their otherness. It is in this respect for difference – and not in the erotic overcoming of it – that we find some communality, in co-ordinating behaviour rather than unifying inner-worlds, which Krämer sees as a kind of dance: ‘Contact is occasionally possible, but trust is also necessary’ (74). Communication is about attempting to show something hidden to each other rather than expecting we can share the secret. The medium acts as a messenger, carrying something across the distance of difference, bridging this distance without effacing it, in order to make something perceptible despite our otherness. But something can only be made perceptible to others when its singularity is neutralised and so what is transmitted is only ever a trace of the strange, a mark of something hidden; it does not reveal the inner-world of the other but is a marker of its hiddenness. The active role in communication is then that of the receiver, not the sender, since the opacity of the transmission compels them to respond, with respect for an unbridgeable difference and with a responsibility derived from the humility of accepting that we cannot understand. Communication, as Levinas would attest, initiates the relationship with the other as an ethical act.
Krämer concludes that ‘it is a remarkable coincidence that Levinas’s concepts […] are reminiscent of the messenger model’ (182). Her tongue must be firmly in cheek as, far from coincidence, this book reads to me as a project of revisiting and revitalising the work of Levinas for a media theory audience – a project I have a great sympathy for and one that here is achieved with skill and wit. Gilles Deleuze (1997: 115-118), in the afterword to his essay on the philosopher Henri Bergson, asked what it meant to return to a thinker. He warns that such a return should not merely be a renewed interest in the thinker’s work but rather an extension of their project ‘in relation to the transformation of life and society’ (115). Krämer, by exploring the messenger model through Levinas, and Levinas through the messenger model, provides an account of the moral vitality of communication where the medium may be the radio or the telephone, but more likely email or instant messenging (or, of course, simply language itself), so that we can come to terms with the technological extension of communication and the transformation of life and society.
‘How nerve-shattering’, asks Krämer, ‘is the resignation to pick up the phone?’ (72). I don’t have this problem. My phone is broken. But the resignation with which my communicative labour has ossified in my email inbox is manifest. Communication at work seems to consist of a more or less brute exchange of information. Our colleagues become lost in a system of signs, where communication takes place at an abstracted, informational level. The demand for time-saving forms of communication seems to strip the transmission of its human trace. Under such conditions, argues Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (2009: 70), the ‘experience of the other is rendered banal; the other becomes part of an uninterrupted and frenetic stimulus, and loses its singularity and intensity – it loses its beauty’. Krämer reminds us that the face-to-face contains no fewer barriers to transmission than communication mediated by technology, but I’m also reminded that the sort of community of difference that she argues communication ought to aim at is difficult to achieve under certain conditions, not least of all the instrumentality of the contemporary workplace. A book such as this compels us to ask: What do we lose in communication when we never have to approach the unavoidably opaque inner-world of others? I wouldn’t say that my co-workers have lost their beauty, but that a world of work organised around high-volume exchange of emails fails to transmit any trace of their singularity, and that the invitation to responsibility is consumed by the obligation to work faster through communication. The sort of media philosophy provided by this engaging and rigorous book is essential if we want to re-imagine the role our communication technologies play in our everyday lives.
David W. Hill is Lecturer in Digital Communication and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK. His first book, The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. For correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
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