Almost daily, we are confronted with reports of internationally groundbreaking developments in prosthetics, robotics, biogenetics, military technology, communication technology, AR/VR, AI and medical technology. These reports raise fundamental questions about how to understand and locate human modes of existence in the face of these invasive changes. Where does human existence begin? Where does it end? How are the shifts in conventional distinctions concerning daily life – such as those between man and woman, self and other, human and non-human, nature and technology, past and future – to be dealt with? While everyday life in the 20th century was dominated by two world wars, a global rise of democracies and the advent of mass media, computer technology and nuclear warfare, nowadays human modes of existence are impacted by new pervasive developments. Medicine, politics, economics, science, entertainment and art – all are equally influenced by global trends of digitalisation and neoliberalism. From this problems result concerning the control or even simply intelligibility of our environments – i.e. problems of knowledge and power. However, solution to these problems can no longer be supplied by any singular or sovereign entity. Insecurities resulting from these global changes ultimately affect human existences on the levels of their self-reflection, ethics and their plans for the future.
The seamless integration of media technologies into our everyday lives also goes hand in hand with new modes of behaviour and practice – such as emailing, texting, chatting, gaming, tweeting, posting, liking, etc. – which have long since become part of our normal, daily habitus. Habitus, however, has for a long time been regarded as giving shape to our existence. And since the ordinary can rarely be made conscious, some already consider the present age to be a postmedial age that tends to elude direct perception. As a result of this, efforts of existential self-examination or self-determination in our present time are increasingly fragile and open-ended. They demand a media-anthropological investigation.
In 1985, Friedrich Kittler issued a dictum which put German Media Studies on the map: »Media determine our situation, which (despite or because of this) deserves a description.« This desire for a description immediately raises methodological questions: How and from what point of view can one approach an ongoing situation that is neither distant enough to allow for an appropriately critical reflection, nor homogeneous enough to be considered in total? Every reflection and analysis requires a distance from its object if it is not to blindly perpetuate what it is itself a part of. This problem has been the subject of intense debate, particularly in the field of ethnology, where it has led to innovative approaches such as »participant observation« and »thick description«, which are also applied in other fields of research such as Science and Technology Studies or Production Studies. Another approach to the same problem can be found in Media Anthropology and Media Studies. From Benjamin to McLuhan to Kittler and others, one generally encounters two closely connected modus operandi: first, historically based comparisons of technology and media that facilitate a separation of the known from the still unknown; and second, an experimental mix of methods and theories, bringing together approaches that were originally concerned with different subject matters, such as psychoanalysis and literature, or aesthetics and the history of technology. In his book Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, Kittler programmatically focused on the ability of technical media to effectively create and shape reality. The grand narrative of this book, which also incorporates ideas from literature, philosophy and aesthetics, amounts to a description of a media-induced obsolescence of the human that has been increasing since the onset of modernity. In the era of information technology, Kittler argues, the alphanumeric code has culturally replaced the symbolic code that was centered on meaning and purpose. The »so-called human being«, as the symbolic animal is thus relegated to the margins of history. Only from these margins could the »old media« process the developments of newer media, which fundamentally tend to elude attempts at direct recognition. In addition to its epistemological content and its methodological proposal for analysing an opaque, ongoing situation, this statement also contains a decidedly media-anthropological thesis. It is a negative one, which states that anthropological matters can be summarily ignored.
A sizeable part of German Media Studies has, with good reason, taken up this anti-anthropological impulse. Another part, however, has continued to examine the consequences that media-technological developments have on human self-understanding. The work of the GRAMA follows these latter approaches.
The fundamental insight into the media-technological condition of existence and the hybrid conditions of existence in which human bodies, actions, and cognitions are embedded necessitates a shift in perspective. This shift in perspective frames the GRAMA’s research and study programme: Instead of taking human experience or any kind of so-called human nature as a given, that is then changed by technological developments, we start from the spectrum of existential operations that always already entangle media-and-humans. Individual media milieus – such as theatre, museum or cinema, but also games, digital platforms, fashion shows and more – can then be questioned with regard to how they configure, effect and change certain modes of existence. The particular focus in this respect is on the reciprocity between milieu and user or inhabitant. Possible questions then include: How does the behaviour of gamers shape the designs and logics of games and vice versa? How do cinematic practices and methods of creating illusions change in the post-cinematographic age and how does this affect their reception? How do new practices of self-documentation, e.g. via mobile phones, shape identity and to what extent do they inform the aesthetics of contemporary documentary film? These and similar questions center on the entanglements of media-and-humans and on the various operations and milieus that affect, employ, design, interpret or register them. With a focus on the existential effects of these relations, the GRAMA follows a relationalist approach.
While it is commonly assumed that relations can only exist between two relata that already exist on their own, in this case it is the other way around: the relationality is thought of as prior to the relata themselves – i.e. the relations and entanglements of humans and media precede their analytical separation. Starting from a primacy of relationality has three decisive heuristic advantages: First, it helps to avoid falling back into substance-metaphysical characterizations of the essence of a supposedly ahistorical and generic human being. Second, it helps to avoid supporting anthropocentrism. And third, the relationalist approach is able to consider a plurality of modes of existence as they emerge in specific and observable milieus. These modes of existence do not need to be integrated into an abstract, uniform whole. Their effects and implications are of medium range and cannot be universalized.
The work of GRAMA also explicitly engages with other relationalist concepts. For example, philosopher of technology Günther Ropohl speaks of »sociotechnical systems«, the inseparability of technology and human bodies, such as in the context of text processing. Donna Haraway speaks of »cyborgs«, characterized by the amalgamation of different material and discursive elements. And Bruno Latour speaks of »hybrid actors and collectives« which he identifies as nodes in the networks of human and non-human factors. Many modes of existence of everyday life can also demonstrate logics of hybridisation and entanglement, such as motorists, assembly-line workers, users or prosumers. They all consist of and emerge from interconnections of organic and non-organic bodies. They emerge at intersections or interfaces that, unlike computer programmes and algorithms, are accessible both practically and epistemically. In some cases, even very ephemeral modes of existence can arise in the entanglements of human and medium or technology. In their interaction with mobile phones, game consoles, monitors, as well as in front of a stage, a showcase or a movie screen, users and viewers are addressed and configured as such. It is imperative to take into consideration the milieu-specificity and internal logics of these modes of entanglement. Media Anthropology is therefore fundamentally dependent on interdisciplinary exchange and intermedial comparisons. A post-graduate program is ideally suited as a format to meet these requirements.
Media-anthropological research of the 20th and 21st centuries, consisting of the works of various individual authors, serve as foundational texts for joint readings and as background for the historical-systematic orientation of the work of GRAMA. The doctoral and post doctoral research projects of the GRAMA can contribute to current research in at least three ways: First, they can systematically relate previously isolated media anthropological approaches and concepts to each other and thus help to develop them as a field of discourse in its own right. Second, they can relate these media-anthropological ideas to other fields that are less explicitly informed by media studies – for example to Aesthetic Anthropologies, Visual Anthropology or Cultural Studies Anthropologies. These disciplines nevertheless offer important concepts critical of anthropocentrism and eurocentrism, as well as perspectives sensitive to questions of gender, class, race etc., that are central to the work of GRAMA. Third, the research and doctoral projects of the GRAMA examine and reflect on current, interdisciplinary questions regarding the existential changes in media-technological habitats with the aim of providing innovative answers.
How to adopt a methodical distance that is indispensable for media-anthropological reflection? This questions leads the GRAMA to emphasize aesthetic and artistic milieus as its preferred (although not the only) areas of research. From the beginnings of aesthetics in the works of Baumgarten to the media aesthetics of our time, these milieus can be regarded as media-based realms for the production and observation of notions of self and world. Not only do they function as illustrative materialisations of a zeitgeist, they also contribute to its construction. The ability to produce world and existence, as well as their public appeal and their self-reflexiveness, mark aesthetic milieus and existences as ideal objects of media-anthropological research. Their entanglements of aesthetic procedures, practices, institutional framings and human and non-human bodies make it possible to examine in detail how perceptions, self-conceptualizations etc. are constituted in a milieu- and media-specific way. Forms of digital media emphasizing strategies of immersion – not only in films and games, but also in digital archives, conferences, VR and AR installations in museums and so on – allow for engaging with media-anthropological milieus outside of a more traditional area of aesthetics.
Furthermore, the investigation of aesthetic modes of existence and milieus can engage with the challenges of their own digital transformation. Digitalisation in this case refers to the information technological transformation of production, distribution and reception that impact each milieu in different ways (e.g. Post-Cinema; digital aesthetics; the introduction of platform-based methods of communication and design in theatre, performance and music; transformation and expansion of archives; changes in television, museums etc.). Aesthetic milieus are themselves constantly changing in technological and discursive ways, their existential effects changing along with them. The anthropomedial entanglements resulting from this come into focus in GRAMA as milieu-dependent and milieu-productive in equal measure. The shift to aesthetic milieus and modes of existence offers an additional pragmatic advantage for the research at the GRAMA. Observations of aesthetic ensembles – which can also include fiction – make it possible, in a way, to watch the reciprocal processes of action and formation between milieus and modes of existence at work. As aesthetic milieus bring together several aesthetic and media technological dimensions, they also performatively negotiate what it means to bring anthropomedial entanglements into being.