Media theory as ghost lore

In an interview, Boris Groys explains his suspicion that there is something substantial hidden in the submedial space, and reflects on aliens and the failure of media theory

In conversation with Thomas Knoefel and following his last essay on the phenomenology of media (cf. Die Medien lugen (nicht)), Boris Groys reflects on some of his central ideas, which are situated between art theory and media theory. Behind the pompous title "Politics of Immortality" conceals a remarkable level of reflection on the functional principle of art- and media-theoretical discourse.

Dressed and with his hands folded on his chest, the figure lying in a barren room on a kind of ward bed looks as if deceased. Next to it, on a small table, some papers and a reading lamp. On the wall of the bare room likewise leaves, work samples perhaps, an open tower. This photo on the cover of the new booklet by Boris Groys shows the author from a less favorable side, like a corpse. The photo was taken in connection with an installation by Ilya Kabakov, the Russian conceptualist who has become known for the background irony of his works. Groys remembers Lenin in the mausoleum. Stalin – open tower! – has already been picked up in the meantime.

The archive. What – and above all who – remains? Does one become immortal in this way, by ironizing a staging?? Certainly not, but the contextual evocation at least arouses attention. One may confidently take this hint as a reading instruction to recollect whenever Groys’ statements seem a bit hard to digest: Caution, irony – but even that only possibly.

I am not interested in the orgy

Knoefel: Did you, the person Groys, see yourself as a philosophical readymade?? Groys: Yes, I can certainly do that, but I don’t feel obliged to do it.

Groys unabashedly places himself with his ambitions in a context with Kierkegaard, Husserl and Wittgenstein. These are all philosophers of subjective evidence who struggled with their relationship to the cultural environment. For Groys it is indeed a strange confusion that philosophy somehow has to do with the common good, while it is only a subjective form of life in which performance and self-positioning pay off.

Philosophy is a way of life, from the beginning. This also means that philosophy is not teachable to all, not transferable to all: it has basically no meaning for people who do not practice philosophy as a way of life. (…) Philosophy is not an objective scientific knowledge, which is equally available to all and can be objectively increased.

A form of life, however, with quite physiological consequences. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is the source of the bon mot that the results of philosophy are nothing more than bumps that the mind has picked up while running up against the limits of language. Well, says Groys, it is perhaps quite good to have such bumps and to be a little ill. Health is perishable, sickness and plagues always come back. Scientists may think therapeutically and want to cure or improve something, philosophers and artists, on the other hand, are something like diseases that keep plaguing humanity. And that is good. For this reason, they, the theorists, are left to their own devices, in company with the dead, whom they – like the culture as a whole – have left to their own devices Archive – never really get rid of. The philosopher orients himself not to life, but to the realm of the dead; he has to Egyptian interests: the drive to philosophy is self-preservation in the sense of striving for immortality in the work. So neither diagnosis of time nor criticism of wrong conditions?

Self-preservation in the symbolic space creates a society of the dead – who, however, remain undead as figures of the cultural heritage. Of course, this is not good for one’s own state of mind, as anyone who has ever faced this competition can understand. The philosopher is cut off from life, he faces the dead and reads a book, while life celebrates its parties. "I am not interested in the orgy", Groys confesses, in order to become personal with a skilful turn: no debauchery, rather reading and taking a walk, "I don’t really have such good health". That’s just it – I, philosopher. The subtle staging of the cover photo is now more than ever understood.

Wittgenstein in the cinema

But Groys is not only a philosopher by his own grace, he is also an art theorist and cultural critic. The classical principle – ars longa – vita brevis – also comes into play here, when art and culture have to do not with diagnosis of the times or criticism, but with the striving for immortality. Groys quite laconically explains his theses about the new and the archive, about Russia and about the media, without adding anything essential to them.

Again, the interesting thesis about the logic of the archive, from which there is no escape, emerges clearly in the discussion. In his essay on the phenomenology of media Groys has worked out that all media signs increasingly refer to the medium itself and not to a super-medial reality. In the mass media, the level of verbal communication is undermined in two ways: on the one hand, there is more and more trash and so-called entertainment, because the media have nothing more real to communicate and market than themselves. On the other hand, as a matter of course submedial forms of communication are cultivated as a matter of course, because where no common language can be found, one can always push or blow up explosives. Pulp fiction let dig. When the linguistic critic Wittgenstein went to the cinema, which he liked to do, it was not without reason that he was most enthusiastic about the western movies.

Metaphysics of the media

The media theorist is also a part of media culture: "The media theorists themselves have already become a part of mass culture." A necessary component, so to speak, but not necessary in terms of mass culture, as Groys claims: Harald Schmidt is probably more successful on television than a philosopher, even if the latter has turned into the "Fragment of the media surface" makes like Sloterdijk at present.

Groys sees himself as the enunciator of media ontological suspicion in a world that has long become accustomed to the supposed truth of the media surface. This has theological qualities of revelation: I tell you, there’s something else. This submedial space is inaccessible, but through the expressed suspicion it exists. Just as the artistic avant-gardist lets the canvas shine through, which carries the picture, the metaphysician today becomes a media theorist. Instead of speaking of politics and economy or of the real interception of the media networks, Groys drifts into the spiritualistic-metaphorical and speaks of damons and aliens that inhabit the submedia. He doesn’t do it below that, that would probably be too banal media theory or even ideology criticism.

At some point one begins to suspect that behind the inconspicuous surface of well-familiar people and things there are aliens hiding, who have a different message than these people and things themselves. And one would like to investigate this question and examine the situation more exactly. But it soon turns out that the alien needs much less time to kill such a researching observer than the observer needs to stop his research.

Media research without a chance

It is already fatal: priests, philosophers and artists are replaced by the profane researcher, who penetrates into the interior of things with technologically truncated methods. In the scientific world there is no more contemplation. But since media, according to Groys, cannot be researched at all, because they lose their medial status as objects of research, he proposes a return to philosophical contemplation. In former times the traditional theory and formed together with the promise of uncovering something special in the process uncover, the successful philosophical positioning strategy of Heidegger. It is no coincidence that this philosopher has recently become popular again, and it is no coincidence that Groys is following in his footsteps.

Nevertheless something can be learned from it. On the one hand, the technological determinism of German media theory, for example, emerges quite clearly as a bastard of metaphysics and Marxism at the same time. On the other hand Groys demonstrates – he is not interested in the work, but in the way it comes about: not the achievements of the players, but their strategies and the descriptions of their field – that there are quite elegant continuations of McLuhan’s thesis that the medium is already the message. Finally, there is Groys, the ironist: and he knows one thing for sure, namely that failure can also be quite successful.

Boris Groys: Politics of Immortality. Four conversations with Thomas Knoefel. Edition Akzente, Hanser Verlag, 208 pages, EUR 15.90

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