Notes of a McLuhan Conference

In february I visited the Re-reading McLuhan conference in Bayreuth — well actually in Thurnau, a little village 20km from Bayreuth: Very worthwhile as I don’t visit these types of conferences very often, and I do not get a chance to hear & speak to the German media theorist every day. There was only one internet-connection, so I did not do any live-blogging, but I made some notes while listening to the talks. The notes were sitting on my desktop for over a month & I’m publishing them here…

… bear in mind, these are just notes made while listening to talks…


I do not get the idea behind the ICE-trains (or the Thalys for that matter) – which is to say that the concept is surely not aimed at me as a customer. The best thing of traveling long distances by train is that you get to see the landscape. But both the ICE & Thalys are often running through a corridor – one could as well be in an airplane. You win a bit of time, but it has a price. (And let’s not go into all the different pricing schemes). The best bit of the travel to Nürnberg until now is the detour over the “Holzbaubahn” (resulting in 15 minutes delay) through a beautiful valley to Würzburg.

A man on the train

… I was almost sure that he was also on the way to the conference: the shy thin man, clothed in black, that entered the train to Bayreuth. He looked vaguely familiar. He was indeed on his way to Bayreuth. He was Jay David Bolter.

Derrick De Kerckhove

… gives a powerpoint, sort of an overview of McLuhan’s thinking concerning alphabets, visual thinking, linearity, left and right hemisphere of the brain and much more. American-style one idea follows another, before one gets the chance to put the idea of aphorism into question (which is really necessary, since at least half of the statements are quite doubtful — although yes, McLuhan said it) the next idea is stated. I didn’t find it so bad, but then I only considered it as a quick overview of some of McLuhan’s stuff. And De Kerckhove is charming. That helps.

Why do we know so little of German media theory?

German media theory is a very rich field. Many books, many theoretical debates. Why do we know so little of it? Well, one reason is the language. This is an international McLuhan conference, with speakers like Mark Poster and Jay David Bolter. What happens: many German speakers do their lectures in German. (Jay David Bolter and many others turn out to know enough German to follow, but some need simultaneous translation). Being used to international festivalswhere English is the lingua franca to me hearing German is strange. And although I am very sympathetic to the argument that using one’s mother tongue enables more subtlety, it becomes clear too that is makes communication and circulation of ideas outside a certain language-circle (okay a large circle) difficult. One needs translation, translation needs time and extra money, and well, just try to do a simultaneous translation of an academic paper… My German luckily is quite okay. And well, almost everybody here understands German. But still. At least Claude Pias excuses himself for using German.

How important are the Culture Wars?

The Culture Wars — conservatives against liberals/democrats — are raging in the United States. How deep this affects American culture and the humanities becomes apparent in the talk of Jay David Bolter. It is an attempt to analyse the ‘scopic regimes’ of contemporary America and projects his looking through / looking at dichotomy on the culture wars. The conservatives demand transparance, a transparant relation between (media) representation and reality, (leading to, showing one, single truth). Hybridity stands at the other side, shown by the use of YouTube (fragmentation, manysided, showing how media transforms). Bolter interpreted a few scenes from 24 from this perspective, and showed how they use a certain hybridity in form but are directed to making sure that there will be a transparent relation between representation and reality (that’s what the plot is always about). (He gave a few other examples, dealing with for instance Intelligent Design, and how ID demands (or assumes) that biology (sic) can be read transparently. His talk was very politically charged — and that also Bolter gives a talk like this on (and excuses for his generalizations — and I excuse for a further generalization of his views) is a sign of how deeply the Culture Wars affect the States.

Note: in the Netherlands there is a literal demand for transparence, for instance in policy and medicine — mostly this refers to transparency in procedure, leading to a clear accountability. At least, that what I always took it to be. I now wonder if I am completely correct in that…


Funny. In the past 2 years I’ve encountered more mathematics — well, history of mathematics — than in the 20 years before. In almost all cases this concerned set theory and Kantor. Also today in another lecture here: Kantor again (in the talk of Alexander Firyn). (Only ATD brings in many others too…). I know so little of all this, so my curiosity grows and grows. (Human beings need new ‘input’ all the time…) Later on in the conference, mathematics comes back again when I talk a bit longer with Dieter Mersch, who did study mathematics — and who in his paper mostly talked about Flusser.

History and re-reading McLuhan

Claude Pias (who doesn’t know how grateful I am for his putting online of many scans of old texts of Bense and Moles) reminds us that McLuhan hardly ever speaks about the computer, but only about electricity. He never uses ‘cybernetics’ as a name for a field of science, but only as a name for processes… Of course, the popular magazines of the fifties were full of computers, ideas of computers taking over human tasks, about automatization. Pias mentions that the concepts of the hacker and the user arise at the same time. The first ‘hackers’ begin to see the computer not as a ‘computing, a counting machine’, but as a medium, they do this because they have read McLuhan — and only then they can envision what one can do with computers in daily life. In the seventies (think: Lee Felsenstein, and Mindstorms — influenced by both Piaget and Montessori) the computer becomes to be seen as a machine to think with (together with) — who learns to programme, learns to think, and computers were fusing constructive and formal thinking. (For Piaget constructive thinking takes place from 6 yrs. old, formal thinking from 12 yrs. on). Why have we forgotten this?

In the European early computer art interactivity plays no role — everything takes plays in batch processing. And from cybernetics and information aesthetics the abstractness of ‘learning automata’ seeps into pedagogy, and through this dominance of ‘Automaten-theorie’ learning in the electronic age appears not at all with a certain alternativeness, a cry for another kind of learning, a new curriculum. It only becomes a question of ‘rentability’, of learning to compute better, of saving money, only about systematics. However exciting the early German computer art is, this is quite depressive… There is no counter culture in German computer culture.

In a sense it’s the abstract art of Frieder Nake vs. Space War; Helmar Franke vs. Ted Nelson; it’s pure systematics vs. countercultural play…

Can You See Me Now

Klaus Bartels speaks about the location-based games of Blast Theory. And for instance Rex Flora. in Regensburg. Public space becomes an arena for entertainment… And then connects this with McLuhan.


Spiritism and magical thinking turn up when there’s no scientific or rational explanation for a phenomenon. (Says Winkler, who quotes Hagen). Well, (I think) this explains Pynchons interest in spiritism too — because it is clear, to me, that nonwithstanding all of Pynchon’s farcical scenes involving drugs, outer body experience, traveling under sand and what have you, he always adheres to a scientific world view. But a scientific world view that encapsulates everything, and want to research everything and takes everything seriously (well at first), and will make fun of everything too. (When you cannot make fun of something, something is wrong).


The term Kulturtechniken — developed in the past 10 years — bridges the gaps between different German school of media theory and media history. Kulturtechniken (translates as cultural techniques) are techniques that enable cultures to reflect on themselves (at least so runs the very short definition given here…). And no, it has nothing to do with that ugly (imho) word technoculture. (A term that I find unusable since it does not clarify anything — that our culture is technological is one thing — and as such it’s doesn’t say that much — what counts is what technologies, and what does it do, what does it bring forth, what does it enable).

It’s science fiction all!

… says Derrick de Kerckhove, who came to McLuhan through reading Teilhard de Chardin (when he was 18); he relates that as a young shy student he went up to McLuhan asking him what he thought of Teilhard. And McLuhan answered immediately and very nastily: “It’s science fiction all!”. Teilhard was expelled from the Roman Catholic church — and now De Kerckhove askes McLuhan what he thought about this, and McLuhan answered, not nastily at all: “Well, he was agnostic”. Note: Teilhard was a Jesuit who revolutionized the Catholic faith in the 20th century — or tried to (he was very influential in the sixties). McLuhan was an orthodox catholic; McLuhan and Teilhard are often compared and have quite a lot in common. Hartmut Winklers lecture dealt with that aspect, amongst others.

McLuhan did not understand the digital

… is what Wolfgang Ernst stresses, and shows quickly how nowadays the digital nears the analogue so closely that there is no reason to pose the difference between both as a question. (The human senses canoot see or hear the difference). He stresses as well that McLuhan never made the leap from the electric age to the electronic age — the second begins when electrons can be steered through mathematics (logic). (The wedding of electricity and mathematics). Electricity is time, is made out of small time events — when McLuhan speaks about the acoustic, this has to be understood in this sense. He mentions Max Bense who wrote that computers work on the smallest possible scale of time — a nanoscale, electronic events taking place in a-millionth of a second. It’s a new kind of theatre, on a non-human scale. Ernst stresses also that computers nowadays are faster in processing of signals than our nerves, so ‘realtime’ — although still a process where things are nog really simultaneous, but take place in time — comes across to our ‘wahrnehmung’ as, well, realtime. This all is talked about (also during discussion) in a highly philosophical manner.

Andreas Broekmann

.. talks about the reception of McLuhan by Nam June Paik. Was Paik the kind of artist that McLuhan had in mind when he said artists should experiment with a medium — but then he did not look at the work of Paik? Would McLuhans idea of the medium have changed had McLuhan looked at the work of Nam June Paik as closely as Paik looked at the work of McLuhan? Broekmann gives a very nice & interesting overview of Nam June Paik’s work, and — honestly — thank to this talk I understand Paik much better than before.

(As for the term media art — it fits the work of Nam June Paik very exactly. But the term is not really fitting for most artistic production that goes on today & which uses the computer — says Andreas Broekmann).

Mentions the Emmett Williams died earlier this week. I did not know.

McLuhan and Latour?

Doetzler argues that McLuhans idea of the fluid boundaries between laboratory and society is comparable to Latour’s conception of how science is being done, how scientific truth is being made. (Because it all becomes a medium?). I could not really follow his argument, but to me it seems that he’s stretching the point and makes a comparision that is not productive. His paper dealt with different issues — this was just a sidepoint. (But well, whenever Latour is mentioned, I point my ears).


Hagen talks about the influence of Wyndham Lewis on McLuhan. A lot I know, but he brings it very good and makes it very clear to what extent Lewis influenced McLuhan (deeply). He and relates that ‘vortex’ was derivered from William Thomson’s ‘vortices’, a model for atoms that was in use before Rutherford’s discoveries. What the ‘vortices’ were for Lewis and Pound, became media for McLuhan. This means that McLuhan’s media-model is actually anti-modern and romantic. Very good talk.

Et cetera

So many talks that I do not mention here. Like Jeremy Bernstein — developer of MAX/MSP — and Dominic Busch, Peter Bexte, Jens Hauser’s very clear overview of bio-art, et cetera. Or the little concert of Kangding Ray of raster-noton (superficial images, good crispy sounds, typical raster-noton, not really current, but nice anyway, especially to get it here in Thurnau).


At the end of the night (the programme here mostly runs from 9.00 till midnight, 9.00 in the morning that is) we get a presentation of Machinima-movies, selected by someone from Some classics I’d already seen, and of course The Journey is there. Interestingly he also shows a (not totally succesful) effort of using Machinima in a theatre piece (I think it’s called Blumenfeld). And states that Machinima possible will be dead by the end of next year, simply because they’ve become full-blown animation-movies, or more precise: it doesn’t matter whether a movie is made in a game-engine or in for instance Blender. Only when it evolves as its own niche-genre, with specific characteristics (of the type ‘use only 16K’) it might ‘live on’ as a term.

Poster & an American view on French theory

Poster criticizes (rightly in a sense) the lack of thinking about the medium in French poststructuralist thinking. But doesn’t that only show that its genealogy is really different? At length he talks about the little ‘societies of control’ text of Deleuze (citing, strangely, Deleuze only via Hardt & Negri) and shows that it is not so much beyond Foucault, as with Foucault (yeah, of course). Then critizes Hardt’s understanding of Deleuze and shows — this is more interesting — the lack of thinking of mediation in Hardt & Negri.

But what irritates me is that he throws a lot of thinkers in the container ‘cultural studies’: Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Flusser. (Sloppy) American reception, where (okay, that’s was a slip) Benjamin could’ve quoted or read McLuhan since the English translations of Benjamin were made after McLuhan. (Later on McLuhan enters Derrida’s De la Grammatology in Cavell’s talk who reads that book as coming through McLuhan, hmmm. Nice, sure. Can be fun, sure. And sure in his last book Derrida does go into McLuhans treatment of ‘touch’ and haptic space — I believe Cavell on that. But this kind of play is, I’m afraid, not much more than play. Please write a book, a theory in which mediation gets its central place, rather then re-writing Derrida through McLuhan or the other way around).

Well, in Flusser mediation is central — it is already present in his conceptualization of writing, whereas in Derrida’s treatment of writing there’s no mediation. (But Derrida’s theory is writing can hardly be taken as a media history — it is an experiment (in the scientific sense) in undermining metaphors on which our philosophy and thinking is based).

So well, how interesting is evaluating the difference between Flusser and Derrida? Do they at all write about the same subject?

(In Paper Machines Derrida sees the medium (paper) as purely transparant).

Of course Poster is totally right in identifying the problems of deconstruction in thinking about media — that is why I have ‘gone on’ from reading Derrida to reading Flusser. And it is true that here’s a big problem of cultural studies of the American type, and that is why it’s often so unproductive a field of academic thinking (IMNSHO) — because it’s surfing over waves (and produces nice waves to surf on) whereas I like to know about the waves.

Then also treats the subject of time (and photography) via Stiegler (and brings up Husserl, Bergson). And proposes to treat time not as transcendental, not from a purely human view, but from the view of man-machine-interfaces.

So Peters mentions a few French thinkers that do write about McLuhan (Morin, Barthes, Goldmann), and wonders why only McLuhan — why not also Mumford, the Chicago School?

Again, certainly Poster is right in researching the lack of ‘mediazation’ in the thinking of the theorist who constitute the fundaments for contemporary cultural studies. And rightly identifies Heideggers and Adorno writing about media, as writing abut technologies (like the phonograph analysis of Adorno) — and not as a problematization of the medium and the structuring forms of media.

Another thing that comes back in this context is the question of McLuhan as a technological determinist — as he was received in Europe in the seventies. According to Poster and many others here that is an error: McLuhan is not a technological determinist, as technological determinism means projecting the working of mechanic machines on media, something that McLuhan was (already) beyond.

Michael Cartier

Talks about the future of the future — well, about Web 2.0, oh no, the new knowledge society of 2010 (and that means re-writing McLuhan).

To study the internet you have to know the about 15 levels of what the internet consists of, different field (audio, video, encyclopedias, &c.) with different histories.

Well, his is a consultants-talk (comparable for instance to those I know from Bert Mulder) — not saying so much anything one doesn’t know already, but putting it all into one integrated overview. It’s a summary. And typically he sees it as his task to develop tools to enable politicians to deal with problems in an integrated way. The design approach to technology: finding solutions for problems. And there’s problem with that, because it simplifies, it fails to take the complexity of societal processes into account (except for the dimension of posing a problem and designing a solution).

(Someone in the audience identifies the talk as a religious story… with salvation and doom. Probably that’s true of all linear stories devised to make politicians and managers understand where we’re going).

Stefan Heidenreich

“I failed to re-read McLuhan because I’d like to understand media, not McLuhan.” (Or something like that).

Sketches on overview of the arrival of new techniques, ending with AJAX and open API’s (ah, we get to the present!). Then he states we have to focus on formats now… Hmm, isn’t that only relevant in a technological scheme? Whereas we have to focus on use, on social behavior? (We need to think about formats in relation to that). Not sure that I understood him right there…

Richard Cavell

Sketches the contours of McLuhans resonance… “ “McLuhan did nothing but re-read McLuhan. He wrote loops. He constantly re-wrote. He did not write books, he was not in the visual regime that books belong to. McLuhan played the clown, he thought processual, he was not a product-thinker.” Mentions 11 points for re-reading McLuhan. 1. McLuhan re-reads himself constantly. (McLuhan is absent from a lot of media-discourses because he is that discourse — he’s quoted massively in the dictionary). 2. his theories are theories of displacement. And then it goes on till number 11, touching on many McLuhanisms.

German woods…

Beautiful weather and I took a walk, a short one, trough the woods here. I managed to make a circle and end where I started, which is tricky in a forest you don’t know. My orientation told me I was nearing the spot where I started, but at that point also the panic started to set in — what if that feeling was mistaken? I was planning to simply go back the way I came, but, well, it felt like a circle, the route I was taking, and I kept on going almost half an hour longer than I had considered wise beforehand. Of course, it was all quite straightforward, but still, exactly when it looks all easy, you can be wrong. It is a forest after all. Well, it was a circle, I ended where I started and the walk I did probably was just the normal walk-with-a-dog-walk for the inhabitants of Thurnau.

Helmar Schramm

Makes a comporision between Gertrude Stein and McLuhan. McLuhan found Stein’s writing infantile, but both wrote “unverständliche” texts (refers to Schlegel here). Both had a feeling for something that was beyond the limits of grammar. Both researched and experimented with language. Then showes a lot of Cage — which is lots more interesting. And then Heiner Müller (Hamletmaschine). Then Vico, yes, Gian Battista and his wordplay, and words as picture-archives, the centrality of philology for the new science. He has like 50 slides more than he can show in half an hour, and in a sense does not even get to the point of his talk. Or didn’t I understand rightly? Rhythm, repetition, avant-garde, and Kampf der Kulturen.


Why did I want to stay until sunday? Because Sloterdijk was scheduled to speak on sunday morning? Because the conference was going to last until monday? I should’ve known that 2 days on a conference is more than enough and one sees that the majority did not have the time to stay so long (too much work at the universities, family on sunday). I did not have so much time either, but did not want to travel 8 hours for just 2 days, or arrive late. Now I have done a conference like this — in a little castle. Ever again? I don’t know. It was quite a good conference (contentwise, also because it was more than only academic lectures), met nice people, had good talks, and most of all, it has been another wake-up call for me to work hard on my own articles.

Georg Christoph Tholen

… as last lecture we get a real lecture, done in lecture style, reading out of a paper where every word goes over my head and lands somewhere in space. I hear the words, … umbruch des digitalen medienverbunds, sondern an sich selbst… The sentences are far too long. I get that he speaks about media theory and that Hegel and many others, and “das Digitale”. I hear every word, understand every word, get the syntax thanks to the intonation, but I cannot follow one bit of his argument. This type of lecturing has never worked for me and certainly not at the end of a conference. You have to speak with your audience, not to your audience. Here at least. I counted, every sentence consists of at least 5 subclauses inside a clause. (Are those the right terms for the Dutch ‘hoofdzin’ and ‘bijzin’?) At the end I get that he has been talking about the aesthetics of new media (at the end he shows the ugly stuff of Brunner & Pfannenberger), but then mostly from the perspective of digital photography and painting, and overloads that with a lot of interpretation that to me comes across as superfluous. I have the impression that it is a very good paper, only I do not get it. (Lots of Kant & Hegel so to say).

But certainly some of these people should talk more with either people who make computers (design chips) or use computers creatively.

During the discussion I begin to get something. These people take for instance Sassen’s and Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, and then wonder how to think this in mathematical terms, in terms of topology (where we should get rid of Euclidian space because ….). That is interesting but it is also mixing-up. And then at once he talks about DumbType and its aleatoric choreographies. The man is very well-read.


It’s fun to re-read McLuhan. Big fun. It’s fun to research and re-read McLuhan. It is inspiring to. But it does not lead to many insights – except for insights into the history of (the perception and conceptualization of) media…

blogging,en,research | March 26, 2007 | 13:40 | comments (1) |

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your mini-reviews. I was unable to be there, but your overview helps. I wish I had heard Hagen on Lewis. I just discovered in Time and Western Man Lewis’ comments on Joyce and Nashe and their similar style. This was published in ’27. Ten years later McLuhan took up Nashe at Cambridge for his thesis concluding with comments on Joyce. Though the Lewis relating Nashe and Joyce has been taken up by Joyce scholars none have noted this back to McLuhan. One may profitably speculate that McLuhan got his thesis topic from Lewis, I think. I heard as well that a follow up session in Berlin at the Canadian embassy pitted Cavell against Ernst with Ernst and his students dissing and dismissing McLuhan altogether.

    comment by michael edmunds | 23 June 2007 | 13:45 |

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