Tuesday, 4 June 2019

German Media Theory and Education

I'm discovering a branch of media studies which I was unaware of before Steve Watson pointed me to Erich Hörl's "Sacred Channels: The Archaic illusion of Communication". Hörl's book is amazing: cybernetics, Luhmann, Bataille, Simondon & co all spiralling around a principal thesis that communication is an illusion, and that many of our current problems arise from the fact that we don't think it is. The "illusion" of communication is very similar to David Bohm's assertion that "everything is produced by thought, but thought says it didn't do it". This is not "media studies" as we know it in UK universities. But it is how the Germans do it, and have been doing it for some time.

Just as Luhmann has been a staple of the German sociology landscape for undergraduate sociologists for 20 years now, so Luhmann's thinking informed a radical view of media which Hörl has inherited. He got it from Friedrich Kittler. Kittler died in 2011, leaving behind a body of work which teased apart the boundaries between media and human being. Most importantly, he overturned the hypothesis of Marshall McLuhan that media "extend" the human. Echoing Luhmann, Kittler says that media make humans. Just as Luhmann pokes the distinction between psychology and sociology (he really doesn't believe in psychology), Kittler dissolves the "interface" between the human and the media.

The result is that practically everything counts as media. Wagner's Bayreuth was media (Kittler wrote extensively about music, culminating with a four volume work he never finished, "Music and Mathematics"), AI is media, the city is media. So is education media? Not just the media that education uses to teach (which educational technologists know all about). But education itself - the systemic enveloping of conversations between students and teachers - is that media?

As Erich Hörl has pointed out, these ideas are very similar to those of another voice in technology studies who is gaining an increasingly dominant following after his death, Gilbert Simondon. Like Kittler, Simondon starts with systems and cybernetics. Simondon's relevance to the question of education and technology is quite fundamental. Kittler, I don't think, knew his work well, and Hörl acknowledges that he has further to go in his own absorption of the work. Simondon made a fundamental connection between media, or machine, and human beings as distinction-making, individuating entities. The individuation process - that process which Jung saw as the fundamental process of personal growth - was tied-up with the process of accommodating ourselves to the media which comprise us. This accommodation was achieved through levels of "transduction" - the multiple processes which produce multiple levels of distinctions, from the distinctions between our cells, to the distinctions in our language, and the distinctions with our environment. What happens in education, basically, is that the media which make us us are transformed through changes in the ways the transductions are organised at different levels.

I described a lot of this in my book, albeit not in the elegant fashion that Kittler, Hörl  (or Simondon) would have done. Kittler, Simondon and Hörl have got me thinking in a new way about how we think about education. There's much more to say about this however, because Kittler and Hörl's approach opens the way for a more empirical approach to understanding education as media. I was privileged to have learnt about Luhmann through one of his best disciples, Loet Leydesdorff. Leydesdorff's work has been dedicated to making Luhmann's theory empirically useful, which he has done by relating it to Shannon (which Luhmann did in the first place), and to the mathematics of anticipation by the Belgian mathematician, Daniel Dubois.

Here, we may yet have a science of education which straddles the boundaries between technology, critique, pedagogy and phenomenology whilst maintaining an empirical focus and theoretical coherence. That is the best way of getting better education. This science of education may well turn out to be exactly the same as the empirical and coherent science of media that Kittler and Hörl are aiming for, which transcends the sociological critique of media (seeing that as simply more media!), by providing a meta-methodology for making meaningful distinctions about our distinction-making processes in our media-immersed state.

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