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 Media Theory in North America and German-Speaking Europe

photos of conference presenters

The purpose of this conference: to deepen and expand transatlantic dialogue between North America and German-speaking Europe (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in the area of media theory. Areas of research and scholarship relevant to this dialogue include communication, philosophy, media literacy, and literary and cultural studies. 

 This conference took place at UBC Vancouver from April 8 -10, 2010. This Website documents this event via:

  1. Podcasts and video. Subscribe to all podcasts via RSS or view/download audio/video separately, below.

  2. The PDF version of the conference program and abstracts.

Comments, questions, corrections? Email: norm.friesen at

Thursday, April 8
Opening Remarks (N. Friesen, R. Cavell)
Norm Friesen is Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, and is author of Re-Thinking E-Learning Research: Foundations, Methods and Practices (Peter Lang, 2009) 
Richard Cavell is the author of McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (2002; 2003; digital publication 2007), which is the first book to examine McLuhan's work as foundational to the spatial turn in media studies.
Opening Remarks
KATHERINE HAYLES Tic-TOC:  Complex Temporalities in Digital Media (Intro. N. Friesen) Katherine Hayles
(Chair: Bob Hanke)
Tristan Thielmann Finding the Way over the North Atlantic Ridge: German Theory and American Practice of Geomedia
Since we have been interacting with a gigantic, global, disorganized but incessantly expanding mass of “born-digital” data and cultural content in the last decade, German media theory has lost its international supremacy. Is it impossible to track the profound structural change from “New Media” to “More Media” with traditional methods of media and cultural analysis? Or, did German media studies miss the ongoing reconstitution, namely two complementary drives that are currently determining the fields of research at the international level - on the one hand, the social and cultural practices acting on their media and, on the other, the media acting on their practices? [more...]
Michael Darroch Giedion and Explorations: Transatlantic Influences on the Toronto School
In the context of examining the continuing influence of Toronto School thinkers on contemporary theories of media and the materialities of communication in German-speaking Europe, it is vital to recognise transatlantic influences on the development of the Toronto School in the first place. This paper examines the influence of the Swiss art historian and architectural critic Sigfried Giedion on the collaborative work that developed during the Culture and Communications Seminar (1953-55) and the publication of the Explorations journal (1953-59) at the University of Toronto. [more...]
SYBILLE KRÄMER The messenger as a model in media theory. Reflections on the creative aspects of transmission (Intro. R. Cavell)
(Chair: M. MacDonald)
Christine Mitchell Language, Material Misfit
The study of media, culture and communication has undergone a theoretical and methodological turn towards ‘materiality.’ While language would seem to have been well accounted for in such materialist frameworks, it nevertheless sits uneasily within such discourses. This paper interrogates this discord by considering the theoretical/methodological provenance of ‘materiality’ and ‘materialism’ in approaches to language-based cultural forms. It then discusses a particular manifestation of this discord as it emerges in material/materialist contrasts between language and code(s) in studies of computers, software, and machine translation. [more...]
Till Heilmann Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet
Harold Innis and Friedrich Kittler are exemplary thinkers, if not founders, of two quite distinct fields in communication and media studies: The Toronto School of communication theory and German discourse analysis of media (Diskursanalyse technischer Medien). Though their work is separated by time, space, and intellectual heritage, for Innis as well as for Kittler the Greek alphabet holds a unique place in history and in their respective theoretical understanding of media. [more...]
Twyla Gibson The Translation of the Word: Homeric Formulas, Platonic Forms, and Media Theory
The theory of media associated with a group of scholars known as the Toronto School of Communication—Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter J. Ong—relied on the arguments of Milman Parry and Albert Lord concerning the oral-derivation of Homer’s formulaic poetry. Innis built on the Parry-Lord method of comparative history and warned that predominating technologies produce a distorting bias. Havelock argued that Plato’s dialogues mark the division between orality and literacy in ancient Greek culture. The advent of the phonetic alphabet promoted changes in vocabulary, syntax, and basic categories of human thought that entailed centuries of development time and a long period of tension and interaction. [more...]


Friday, April 9
GEOFFREY WINTHROP-YOUNG Kittler in the Anglosphere: "German Media Theory" and other Collateral Damage in Trans-Atlantic Theory Wars (Intro. R. Cavell)
(Chair: Roberto Simanowski)
Michael MacDonald Martial McLuhan
Although the work of Marshall McLuhan is enjoying a “renaissance for a wired world,” as Gary Genosko aptly puts it, scholars still tend to dismiss McLuhan as a “guru,” “oracle,” or “metaphysician” who mistook the global information ecology for a “media Eden” (Virilio). Paul Virilio, for example, contends that McLuhan was “drooling” over the spiritual properties of cyberspace, while Friedrich Kittler rejects McLuhan’s ideal of “understanding” media as a mirage produced by the “silent theology” that governs his media theory as a whole: the dominant media of our time, argues Kittler, “control all understanding” (not to mention our very “schematism of perceptibility”), and for this reason understanding media remains an “impossibility.” [more...]
Markus Krajewski Small Theory of the Time Table. Projectors, Technical Media, and Globalization around 1900
With nearly inflationary use, around 1900 the prefix “world” is placed before such diverse projects as Sandford Fleming’s “unified world time,” the implementation of a “world auxiliary language” (like Esperanto, Ido, or Volapük), the spread and circulation of a “world currency,” and not least the standardization of various national units of measurement into a “world format.” This unusual clustering of such heterogenous plans, all of which add the prefix “world” to their programmatic titles, constitutes a number of undertakings at the turn of the 20th century with maximum scope. [more...]
Daniel Gilfillan Knowledge Migration and Nomadic Broadcast: Flusser and Post-1989 Radio Space
Two live broadcasts produced by the orf Kunstradio programme form the focus of this paper. Each engages conceptually with issues of globalization in the context of the growing European Union. Given Austria’s geopolitical location and Vienna’s imperial history as center of the Austro-Hungarian empire, these broadcasts provide a medial and artistic layer to understanding Austria’s role in contemporary discussions about issues of migration within post-1989 Europe. State of Transition (1994) explores various geographical points and economic sites where human movement occurs (airport transit halls, market squares, border crossings) to diagnose larger questions of asylum, while Horizontal Radio (1995) combines the technical possibilities of radio transmission and the theoretical imagination of its designers to create a networked performance environment where artists from any of the 26 cities involved in the broadcast could collaborate. [more...]
KIM SAWCHUK Bio-mediations: Incorporating photography, digitizing specimens and J C B Grant’s An Atlas of Anatomy (Intro. N. Friesen)
(Chair: Jaeho Kang)
Anthony Enns Vibratory Photography: Integrating the Psychic, Perceptual and Photographic Apparatus
In the nineteenth century, physiologists frequently compared the eye to a photographic camera. Hermann von Helmholtz, for example, famously described the eye as a black box with a lens that perceives points of light just as individual grains are recorded on photographic plates. British physician Robert Hanham Collyer similarly argued that optical information is transmitted from the retina to the brain via the optic nerve in the same way it is recorded by a photographic apparatus, yet he also emphasized that its mode of transmission was vibratory. The notion of the eye as a camera thus led to speculation that the method of recording photographic images might also parallel the transmission of electrical impulses through the nervous system. [more...]
Darryl Cressman Music as Media: An Innisian History of Western Musical Culture
One of the recurring examples used by Max Weber to explain the rational character of Western society is music. Rationalization, for Weber, is both a material process and a mode of thought, and in this way musical culture is instructive for understanding the object of Weber’s sociological analysis. Asking, “why harmonic music developed from the almost universal polyphony of folk music only in Europe and only in a particular time period, while everywhere else the rationalization of music took a different path? [more...]
Rainer Leschke McLuhan and Medienwissenschaften: Sense and Sensation
McLuhan’s concern with an economy of the senses is well known, as is his emphasis on their relation to mediatic forms and transitions. It follows that it should not be difficult to combine McLuhan’s notion of a sensory economy together with an analysis of a media-system’s functions and in principle at least, to found a science of media (Medienwissenschaft) on that basis. But such an undertaking has yet to be ventured, and the potentially fertile ground presented by the senses remains conspicuously fallow. [more...]
Roberto Simanowski Against the Embrace. On Phenomenology and Semiotics in New Media Aesthetics
In his 1990 essay “Is There Love in the Telematic Em- brace?”, British artist and self proclaimed “visionary theorist” Roy Ascott updates his concept of “Behaviorist Art”, proposed more than 20 years before, stating: the traditional artwork, which “requires, for its completion, the viewer as, at best, a skilled decoder or interpreter of the artist’s ‘meaning’ [...] gives rise to the industry of criticism and exegesis, in which those who ‘understand’ this or that work of art explain it to those who are too stupid or uneducated to receive its meaning unaided.” As the quote reveals, what is at stake in behaviourist, interactive art is not only the work of the artist but also that of the critic. [more...]


Saturday, April 10  
DIETER MERSCH Beyond information theory and structural analysis. A new approach to the theory of mediation (Intro. N. Friesen)
(Chair: Till Heilmann)
Jaeho Kang Tactility of Media-Space: Marshall McLuhan and Walter Benjamin on Synaesthesia and Technological Innervation of the Body
Within the tradition of German and North American media studies, there have been claims that key elements of Walter Benjamin’s original account of the impact of the media on human perception have especially marked similarities with Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the technological extensions of human body. However, those arguments on affinities between Benjamin and McLuhan put forward by authors such as Arnold Houser, Jean Baudrillard, Norbert Bolz, and James Carey, to name a few, fail to address a core tenet of their theories, that is, tactility of media-space. [more...]
Jan Mueggenburg We Cannot Bid the Ear be Still. On Techno-Physiological Media and Bionic Ears
In his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage Marshall McLuhan expressively reinforces his famous dictum of technological media as “extensions of the human nervous system.” As McLuhan argues, “by altering the environment media evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions” and since “any one sense alters the way we think and act” media structure the way we perceive the world. While McLuhan’s concept of media as sensual prosthetics indisputably has been one of the most influential concepts in the history of media theory in the 20th century, much less attention has been paid to his general understanding of the workings of the human senses. [more...]
Nina Samuel "Die Bildszene" ("The Drawing- or Image-Scene“): Otto Rössler, Chaos and the Materiality of Thought
Chaos and the Materiality of Thought The emergence of a theory of complex dynamics in the 1970s would not have been possible without both analogue and digital computer technology as instruments of experimental visualization. Nevertheless, the pencil did not function merely as a supplementary tool of investigation but played a pivotal role in the formation of theories in this field. It was not in spite of but rather because of the emergence of computer-generated images that the pencil became an indispensable tool in the process of extracting a theoretical idea from the bulk of visualized data. [more...]
HARTMUT WINKLER Processing: The Third and Neglected Media Function (Intro. R. Cavell)
(Chair: Richard Cavell)
Bob Hanke University Discourse Network 2010 [video coming soon]
In 1957, Marshall McLuhan invited us to reconsider the education process by announcing that, with the advent of television, the “classroom without walls” had arrived. A half century later, we are working in the university without walls and the ict “revolution” is over. In “Universities, wet, hard, and harder,” published in Critical Inquiry in 2004, Friedrich Kittler reviewed 800 years of European university based media history to observe that “universities have finally succeeded in forming once again a complete media system.” [more coming soon...]
Bob Hanke
Sean B. Franzel The Lecture: A Case Study in the Intermediality of Academic Instruction
From early modern scholarly oratory to the streaming of university lectures online, the lecture has been both a central mode of knowledge transmission and a telling lens through which to track the intermediality of academic communication. The perception and practice of extended speech directed at a group of listeners/readers/viewers have been central to theories of pedagogy, media, and interpersonal interaction up to the present day. Indeed, the scholarly lecture has historically been thought (alternatively or concomitantly) to spread canonical doctrine; manifest the physical presence of original thought; make manuscripts available to audiences unable to purchase them; allow new kinds of virtual publics to emerge distinct from campus life; call ideal political communities into being, and more. In this context, I argue that rich and divergent accounts of the lecture’s status across orality, print, radio, and the internet reveal how societies imagine the social and cultural functions of the scholar/scientist, a figure who paradigmatically organizes information across a variety of media. [more...]
Catherine Adams &  Patti Pente Teachers Teaching in the New Mediascape: Natural Born Cyborgs or Digital Immigrants?
Andy Clark (2003) opens his Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence recounting the recent loss of his laptop, an experience he likens to “a sudden and vicious type of (hopefully transient) brain damage . . . the cyborg equivalent of a mild stroke” (4, 10). At a faculty development workshop on applying brain research to enhance instruction, a brief technical glitch prompts the presenter to humorously remark, “If PowerPoint crashes, my iq will drop 20 points!” Such anecdotes, jokingly hyperbolic in their account, nonetheless allude to the tight intimacies, the primordial interminglings, and, at times, the acute dependencies we find ourselves living with technology today. [more...]
Norm Friesen & Theo Hug Education of the Senses: The Pedagogy of Marshall McLuhan
Next to media themselves, pedagogy or education onfigured specifically as a “training the senses” (McLuhan & Leonard 1967, 25) or “sensuous education” (McLuhan 1964, 107)—is one of the most prominent themes in McLuhan’s corpus. It is the focus of numerous articles published throughout his career and of two significant albeit relatively obscure monographs that effectively book-end his work on electronic media (the 1960 Project in Understanding New Media and the 1977 textbook, City as Classroom). As Janine Marchessault says, McLuhan articulates “a specifically argued pedagogical enterprise” that is central to his “aesthetically-based, highly performative and historically grounded contribution to the study of media” (2004 xi, 10, 34). [more...]

Event Sponsors:
International Canadian Studies Centre
University of British Columbia 
New Media Studies Centre

  University of Innsbruck
     SSHRC - CRSH Thompson Rivers University Open Learning
   UBC Canadian Studies The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre