TABLE OF CONTENTS

MATERIAL WORLD: AN INTERVIEW WITH BERNHARD SIEGERT

IF ANYONE could bring the art world down to earth, it would be BERNHARD SIEGERT. The pioneering thinker has made his name by relentlessly grounding philosophical idealizations, insisting instead on underscoring the empirical historical objects and operations that make up the means through which we make meaning. If such subjects were formerly the province of media theory and media studies, Siegert has redefined and expanded the concept of media into the broader notion of “cultural techniques.” He has revealed the vast networks—the conduits, channels, and intermediaries—that underlie the formation of culture, from the invention of the postal system and its impact on literature to practices and devices such as trompe l’oeil painting, eating, seafaring, and maps. Here, scholar GEOFFREY WINTHROP-YOUNG, who translated Siegert’s new book, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real (Fordham, 2014), talks to the German theorist about the tools—and their infinitely varied applications—that make culture possible.

Joris Hoefnagel, Maltese cross, mussel, and ladybird (detail), 1591–96, watercolor, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment, 6 5/8 x 4 7/8". Verso of a page from Mira calligraphiae monumenta, 1561–96. Photo: The Getty Center, Los Angeles/Open Content Program.

GEOFFREY WINTHROP-YOUNG: Why don’t we start with the Old Man himself: Friedrich Kittler, father of so-called German media theory, the ornery paterfamilias one has to talk about before one can talk about studies in media, culture, and technology today.One formulaic way of assessing Kittler’s heritage would be to describe it as the switch from materialism to materialities. In other words, from the depths of philosophy to the shallows of operations; from a focus on the representation of meaning to the conditions of representation themselves; from the myth of the weightlessness of information, wherein concepts float above and beyond any material substrate, to an insistence on the materialities that make information possible. All of which was captured by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s famous phrase, the “materialities of communication.” The great problem is that within this term materialities, there are very different inflections.

So how do you see Kittler’s concept of materiality? What did he have in mind?

BERNHARD SIEGERT: That’s an important question, because if you don’t clear up his concept of materiality, you might easily confuse it with more recent discourses of new materialisms.

Kittler was skeptical about any kind of Marxist notion of materialism. There is definitely a historical materialism in Kittler, but one that subscribes much more to the idealistic tradition of Hegel, of which he was a great admirer.

Materiality, for Kittler, first of all, means an abyss of non-sense: that which has no meaning. That is the most important definition of what materiality means for Kittler. It is a polemical word: It has to do with his never-ending fight against sense-making systems like hermeneutics and philosophy and pedagogy and psychology—a battle guided by a deeply antihumanist rejection of the tradition of Enlightenment and of hermeneutic interpretation, of discourse systems. He wanted to show that these sense-making machines, these sense-making dispositifs or apparatuses, all are based on materialities that themselves do not make sense, are blind, dumb—but are all the more powerful for it.

And these are: storage media, transmission media, processing media, and so on. They have no spirit. They are geistlos, Kittler would have said; the spirit is processed, produced, by a hardware that is completely free of spirit, of meaning. Media technology is a huge abyss below ideal systems of making meaning.

GWY: And would you go so far as to say that one of the main features of this materiality is that it actually creates, in the first place, the distinction between meaning and nonmeaning? The difference between sense and nonsense? So that media materiality lies in a kind of third position, outside of (1) meaning and (2) nonmeaning, just as media function as actors that create the positions of sender and receiver in the first place? In the same way, one could say that media materialities create the conditions of possibility—in any given historical moment, which is determined by a specific state of media technology—for distinguishing meaning from nonmeaning.

BS: This is something I could have said, but I think that is too sophisticated for Kittler. He would have seen it much more brutally.

Kittler simply showed with all his strength that the transcendental signified, the origin of all meaning, has a place in the empirical world. That is his discovery of the “mother’s mouth” as a very concrete, historical equivalent to what Derrida called the transcendental signified. For Kittler, the mother’s mouth is the place from which all meaning—via literacy and alphabetization and so on—originates. So I think it’s no more sophisticated than that.

GWY: Icebreakers are by necessity very tough ships. They are not subtle, and that is one of the problems with Kittler’s work.

GWY: ONE OF THE basic differences between your work and Kittler’s is that, in your first book—Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System [1993]—you actually brought a very factual gestalt, a factual framework, to Derrida’s theory of difference. So already as a younger scholar you were trying to negotiate Derrida and Kittler, bringing them together.

BS: Yes. That was the ambition: to read Derrida in a materialist way. But some of the motivation to do that came from Derrida himself, because in his La Carte Postale [1980], he says, “Someone should write the history of the postal systems.” [Laughter.]

GWY: For me, the best way to explain the main idea of Relays is the Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street [1947]. You’ve got Kris Kringle, Macy’s in-store Santa, with his uncanny expertise in child psychology and reindeer management, who is put on trial to prove that he is indeed Santa Claus. He can’t and won’t. But in comes a parade of mail carriers who dump all the letters addressed to Santa that have piled up in the dead-letter office on the desk of Kris Kringle. And his lawyer says, “Your honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The post office has delivered them. Therefore the Post Office Department, a branch of the federal government, recognizes this man, Kris Kringle, to be the one and only Santa Claus.”

So you are not a preexisting identity. You are brought about by the delivery structure. And that was one of the crucial points of Relays. You have a broad model of a delivery apparatus that, in a way, creates what is later said to preexist the apparatus itself.

And this examination of the postal system in Relays is part of the move away from the Pavlovian identification of “media” with mass media: Instead, we have to include everything down to index cards, typewriters, the blackboard, the piano, and other inconspicuous technologies or instruments of knowledge. This is one of the broad contributions of German media theory. (Even if, in North America, related work was already being done, interestingly, in other fields, such as the history of science.)

GWY: KITTLER’S BEST ANALYSES, from his reading of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Golden Pot” to his take on Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage,” are all about texts or songs that perform their own medium.

BS: Kittler had a beautiful systems-theoretical formalization for that. He once said: “Self-reference is always a way to enable external reference.” By referring to itself, the system opens up reference to the outside, makes itself observable from the outside. And this is a crucially important point. The system can make reference to the outside only by dealing with its own aesthetic properties.

GWY: And in your more recent work, you’ve got a number of brilliant examples of this. One is your analysis of the bureaucratic travails people in sixteenth-century Spain had to go through to emigrate to the New World.

Let me just run this synopsis by you, and you can correct it. I am, for instance, the wife of a Spanish peasant and I want to join my spouse in the New World. I now have to go through an immense, labyrinthine bureaucratic apparatus by stating who I am, by producing witnesses, getting documents, parroting standard phrases, obtaining signatures, and so on and so on.

At first glance, it looks as if we’re dealing with a fairly straightforward Foucauldian grid that is slowly lowered onto the great unlettered masses. And that would presuppose that you and I are preexisting identities that enter into a system of records. But we are actually brought about by the recording itself.

And now comes your special point. This recording is a self-enclosed procedure. You have written about the Kafkaesque fact that you have scribes attesting to scribes attesting to scribes, each trying to establish the authenticity of the one who came before. So the bureaucratic system closes in on itself, and this closure of the apparatus produces the individuals that it then processes.

BS: Right. And it is not only the subject—that is, the legal Spanish emigrant as a subject—that is produced or constituted by these procedures of writing. What is also produced is the flip side of the legal subject: the vagabond, the idler, all these figures that are denied access to the New World.

And this whole bureaucratic machine runs on paranoia. On the one hand, there is this paranoid conviction that Spain was rife with secretly practicing Muslims and Jews—that the Moriscos and Marranos, the descendants of Muslims and Jews who had converted to Christianity, so-called nuevo cristianos or reconciliados, had never really converted at all, and so even the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain had not really purified the kingdoms. On the other hand, there was suspicion that all these people who are willing to leave Spain are mere adventurers with nothing on their minds but gold and war—and that is a depressing prospect for an already bad economy. According to economic theories of the day, the emigration weakened agricultural production at home by depopulation and prevented the production of profit abroad because laboring farmers were supposedly turned into idle adventurers. So the truth procedures of bureaucracy produce, on one side, identities and biographies of normal, mostly illiterate individuals, and on the flip side, a vast discourse about how all identities and biographies are false; that everyone could be someone else, that everything is faked.

While researching this, I found, to my surprise, a very wrinkled piece of paper overwritten many times by different hands, hard to decipher. It turned out to have been issued by the king of Spain, Philip II, and what he is saying is that he thinks that everything that is produced in this huge bureaucratic machine is fraud. All the witnesses are lying. All the documents are wrong, false. Everything is fiction. So this is a moment in which literature is born in a very different way than historians of literature have imagined.

At the same time that this huge writing machine produces facts, it also produces fiction. Fact and fiction are of the same origin. You have a material procedure consisting of the materialities of reading, writing, hearing witnesses, issuing licenses, registering people: discursive practices, as Foucault would have called them. And they are neither on the side of the facts nor on the side of the fiction. They are, at that moment, producing a difference between fact and fiction.

GWY: The system is so incredibly productive precisely because it’s closed in on itself. So in a way, Philip II is already Derrida. He already suspects that identity arises from a form of citation that cries out for deconstruction.

BS: It was never necessary to invent deconstruction. It was always with us. [Laughter.]

BS: OF COURSE, there are also examples closer to art history, of a self-referentiality that allows a text or an image to make itself visible as part of a media apparatus.

Part of my current research concerns the very early Dutch still life, and I’m working on this with an art historian, Helga Lutz, focusing on trompe l’oeil. It all started with a theory that I call the “Two-Fly Theorem.” It concerns the little fly, the ever-present fly that sits in the Dutch still life. The theorem says that when you have a trompe l’oeil fly, you will always have a second fly. Perhaps more. There is never just one.

You have one diegetic fly that is sitting somewhere on a table, clearly within the fictive space of the image, and then you have another fly, the partner, which produces the illusion that it sits on the image support itself. There is a constant oscillation between the transparency of the illusionary pictorial space and the material opacity of the support.

Normally, trompe l’oeil is seen as an effect added to the still life to enhance its illusionary qualities. But what we are trying to show is that the trompe l’oeil is not added as manneristic embellishment to the still life. Rather, both trompe l’oeil painting and still-life painting are the precipitate of an unfinished—and never successfully completed—rejection of the trompe l’oeil from another medium: the illuminated book.

Still-life trompe l’oeil paintings retain a form of self-reference that we can trace back to late medieval Netherlandish book painting, where, since roughly 1470, you have an abundance of trompe l’oeils. When you study these book illuminations, which are traditionally seen as part of the Ghent-Bruges style from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, you encounter various stages of a process in which miniature, text, and border are differentiated, in order to establish a new “ontology” of the elements found on a book page—like letters, border decorations, perspectival images, grounds. And in the course of this process, the trompe l’oeil begins to disappear, to get pushed out from the page. Yet trompe l’oeil persists in another form: still-life paintings. These later manifestations of trompe l’oeil in paintings are evidence that the process of disappearance was never completed.

The argument, in short, is that in the last thirty years of the fifteenth century, book painting comes under pressure from two sides. First, panel painting is increasingly becoming the medium for artists. It is no longer restricted to altarpieces. Second, you have the printing press. The book becomes a different medium: It is no longer handwritten or handpainted. So you have a divide between writing and image, between the two-dimensionality of the printed text and the three-dimensional space of the picture, and you have the distribution of writing and image into new media—which does not produce, as one might think, the vanishing of the illuminated manuscript, but instead a very rapid development of certain elements of high self-referentiality. It is as if the illuminated book page becomes aware of its own mediality.

And you can see that everywhere. You have these interesting phenomena where the ground of the borders looks as if it were doubled. On the one hand, it is what it is: for instance, gold-covered parchment. On the other hand, it presents itself as a substance that is represented on that page.

You have the image ground, illuminated in gold or in green as the support for objects rendered in trompe l’oeil: flowers, insects, shells, plant tendrils. And at the same time the ground may show folds, may be curved instead of flat, may recede into some kind of imaginary depth and so appear as a depicted object itself.

So you have this doubling of the image support: the actual ground, on the one hand, and its representation, on the other. And the border occasionally develops into a niche structure, in which objects that formerly appeared as trompe l’oeil—seeming to sit on top of the image support, in “actual” space—now appear as part of the depicted fictive space. Hence the niche, which you encounter so often in early still lifes—think of Hans Memling—can be explained as a strategy to integrate the diverging medialities of the border and the miniature. In other words, the niche reconciles the orientation toward the material image support and the orientation toward the fictive image space.

So something that is usually thought of as a matter of style, a history of style, can instead be ascribed to a history of the differentiation of a medium. And with this, we arrive at the possibility of describing painted things like the niche as a reentry of the material side of one medium into the content side of another medium, or as the result of compromises between contradictory aspects of a medium that is in the process of differentiation.

GWY: You can, of course, have endless discussions about the way in which the trompe l’oeil both confirms and deconstructs the ideas of mimesis and of representation. But all these discussions, subtle as they are, presuppose the very idea of representation. And you’re replacing that more synchronic analysis with a diachronic analysis of what in American scholarship would be called remediation.

What I find so beautiful here is the idea that a certain way down the road, a media type refunctionalizes something that was already present in its history, or to a certain degree even reacts to the fact that there is something still there that it no longer needs. So the medium turning on itself, to put it bluntly, allows precisely for the effect of representation. It is via self-referentiality that the closed system becomes lucid, for looking through.

And that is one of the core ideas of what you could call cultural techniques.

GWY: I THINK, at this point, we should actually say what a cultural technique is. [Laughter.] Or, rather, what components it involves.

BS: I wouldn’t want to give a mathematical, axiomatic definition. And we should mention that not everything we’re talking about is consensus among scholars.

GWY: Well, let’s rephrase the question. What are your components for cultural techniques?

BS: One dimension of cultural techniques is already rather old. Starting in the 1970s, “cultural techniques” referred to all kinds of symbolic work: reading, writing, and arithmetic; later, television and other communications technologies. And traditionally, these cultural techniques were still linked to a rather limited, upper-middle-class concept of culture.

GWY: Capital-C culture.

BS: It expanded the role of the book in nineteenth-century middle-class notions of culture to other, newer media.

And so it was a concept that also focused on the dangers of new technologies, technical media like television—

GWY: If I may interject here, we should stress that this particular instantiation of the term Kulturtechniken is very ambivalent. It seeks to inscribe notions of high culture: “These are important cultural things and activities.” But it also, of course, admits the importance of technology. This was, not coincidentally, in the days when the PC industry was starting to take off and with it the ubiquity of electronic media. So the very term itself shows a resistance to the new but also a fascination with it.

BS: Absolutely. Now, however, cultural techniques may be seen to encompass everything from gadgets, artifacts, and infrastructures all the way to skills, procedures, technologies. Not only machines but legal procedures, sacred rituals, and so on. And we might say that if Kittler’s version of media theory was antihermeneutic, cultural techniques may be called posthermeneutic. Media and technology are no longer playing the bogeyman to meaning. Instead, we can look at a door, for example, as both a material object and a symbolic thing.

And the concept links up with other disciplines, for instance anthropology, or the history of religion, or legal history, or ethnology. Take the example of legal history: For thousands of years, there have been written histories of law, from the Romans to the British Empire. And if you look at this as a legal historian, what do you do? You study the institutions. You study the written wording of the laws and the commentaries, and you connect it to the development of these institutions.

But if you looked at this from the side of cultural techniques, you would do nothing of the kind. Instead, you would study the concrete techniques by which law is processed, and then you would see that law is not an institution. It is not in the institutional text. It is in the files—the processing of files. One of the earliest scholars who contributed to the field of cultural techniques, Cornelia Vismann, demonstrated precisely this in her beautiful book Files: Law and Media Technology [2000]. It’s a great example of what cultural techniques do differently.

GWY: The materialities of jurisprudence.

BS: The law is always bound to certain spaces. Law is not everywhere. It cannot be here in this restaurant. It can only be produced in certain spaces, and these spaces are clearly marked by instruments, by techniques.

GWY: And in a later book, Vismann says that a court of law is almost identical to theatrical space. You’ve got a stage. You’ve got opponents. You’ve got people cordoned off.

BS: Yes, and then she voices her great concern with the dissolution of these spaces today. Especially with regard to evidence, in the traditional sense of producing the law and producing justice, evidence only becomes evidence in the space of the court. It is only evidence when it’s produced there.

Now we have a completely different scenario. We have evidence that is produced long before a trial starts by circulating information, via taped sounds and taped images from all kinds of surveillance cameras or witnesses. You have recordings in the media long before a trial can start. So the evidence is always globalized and seen by millions, and millions have already made their judgment about this evidence before it can be produced in court.

That was a great concern of Vismann’s work. What is happening to the production of the law if evidence is already everywhere produced? And so what we have here since the turn of the century, I would say, is a broadening of the concept of cultural techniques. It’s no longer limited to reading, writing, calculating; now it concerns the production of differences.

And there are elementary differences by which one culture in a basic way can be distinguished from other cultures. Take rules of eating, which since Lévi-Strauss have been one of the prominent ways to differentiate between cultures. One tribe boils the opossum, and the other one roasts it, and it’s a way to communicate, because you know that by roasting the opossum—this is a funny example, because nobody eats opossums, by the way.

GWY: The fatal flaw of Lévi-Strauss’s argument.

BS: The hare is a better example. By boiling the hare, you distinguish yourself from the neighboring village where the hare is roasted. Cultural techniques are concerned with those techniques that create differences by which cultures can refer to themselves, and therefore identify themselves and distinguish themselves from other cultures.

But you usually speak of these differences and therefore of culture as something that is given. You presuppose a culture to explain something about it. And that is not our approach.

Our approach is concerned with how these differences are brought about in the first place. How do these differences, or this making of differences, change us over time—and what are the means and operations by which differences can be raised?

In a way, you can describe the business of cultural techniques as the opening up of black boxes. If you think of concepts or even symbols as black boxes, when you open them up, what comes out are cultural techniques. One of the things I’ve been studying recently is the discussion of the digital that took place in this country during the ’50s at the very famous Macy Conferences. All these star thinkers there—Norbert Wiener, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch—had no clear concept of what the digital was.

And a group of neurologists wants to describe the nervous system as a digital machine. That is what McCulloch and Walter Pitts already had in mind in the ’40s: They were interested in a concept of the digital that lies in the real, in the natural. They really thought that nerves, synapses, work digitally. And so there is great confusion.

Then Wiener says that the digital is actually produced by artificially excluding certain phenomena from reality, from nature. He speaks of “times of non-reality” that lie between two stable states, like on or off, zero or one. Because nothing in nature makes this binary switch from zero to one—not in the nervous system or anywhere else. Natural phenomena are always continuous. So to define the digital, the transitional moment in the intermediate state between two discrete states has to be deemed not real, or “forbidden ground,” in Julian Bigelow’s words.

And the study of cultural techniques is interested in precisely these medial conditions of whatever lays claim to reality. Because what divides analog media and digital media is not ontologically given, not even on the level of concepts or on the level of a history of ideas. Instead, this difference has to be produced by people who actively declare that the transition states between discrete states “do not exist,” as the psychologist John Stroud did.

So, in the ’50s, the digital appeared in scientific discourse as something that had to be created by a verdict, a declaration. It is something like a pseudolegal speech act. And that speech act is then translated into technology. Later, you have scanning/OCR mechanisms that do this conversion for you, converting text into bits, binary values, one or zero.

GWY: A kind of a performative, linguistic perforation of the continuity of the analog takes place.

Joris Hoefnagel, Maltese cross, mussel, and ladybird, 1591–96, watercolor, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment, 6 5/8 x 4 7/8". Page from Mira calligraphiae monumenta, 1561–96. Calligraphy by Georg Bocskay. Photo: The Getty Center, Los Angeles/Open Content Program.

GWY: I HAVE ONE RELATED QUESTION, which you’re not going to like that much, but I think it might be of interest to some of the more philosophically inclined readers. To what extent is everything you’ve been explaining a modern update of the fundamental ontological differentiation by Martin Heidegger? Because what the approach of cultural techniques criticizes is very much what Heidegger criticized, namely the illegitimate confusion of beings and being.

BS: Answering your question means taking into account the discussion of cultural techniques that links up with certain kinds of new ontological thinking, which ranges across different fields—

GWY: Across continents.

BS: In many places, a new discourse of ontology, or ontologies in the plural, has arisen. You have speculative realism. You have OOO [object-oriented ontology], you have agential realism, and you have ontologies in anthropological perspectivism.

Of course, these depart from the way ontology was once thought or done or operated, and then rightly condemned. The interesting thing is that, for these new materialisms, ontology no longer occupies the role of philosophia prima.

Ontologies are, instead, produced. Within the context of cultural techniques, the production occurs via what we call ontic operations, or chains of operations. This goes back to a concept that was first brought up by André Leroi-Gourhan. Bruno Latour and others then extended this into the idea of recursive chains of operations.

We use the concept of recursive chains of operations that are completely ontic. So the operation of a door or a switch—these are all techniques that are producing a difference and thereby creating what they differentiate. It’s not given before, but it’s created by these techniques.

Through these operations, an ontology is produced: the ontology of the digital, for instance, which is produced by declaring parts of the analog continuum of the world as nonreal. So ontic operations produce ontology. In terms of Heidegger, one would say that we have the ontic/ontological difference, and systems-theoretically speaking, we have a reentry of that difference into the ontic. So we have a difference and a reentry. And the reentry concerns one side of the difference, the ontic side.

That is a bit abstract, but a fair way to describe what cultural techniques are doing is reinscribing the ontic/ontological difference onto the side of the ontic. This difference itself is produced in the immanence of the world. So this is a theory of immanence. It does not know any transcendences.

GWY: And what about the relation of cultural techniques to Latour’s actor-network theory [ANT] and his notion of symmetry between objects and subjects?

BS: Indeed, an interesting application of cultural techniques or even a further development of the theory of cultural techniques would take into account what Latour called symmetrical anthropology.

In the initial ANT work of Latour, long before he started to speak about this kind of symmetry, he developed the concept of the “immutable mobile.” There you see a clear convergence between the perspectives of ANT and cultural techniques, because what Latour calls immutable mobiles, we could call cultural techniques—maps, diagrams, perspectival representations, but also other systems and tools. Latour later defined immutable mobiles in a way that fits even better with the rubric of cultural techniques: as “hybrid objects” that connect matter and form via a discontinuity (a gap). Thus the world is not divided between material objects on the one hand and language on the other, as Platonic philosophy and modern science have often claimed. Rather, language and objects, signs and referents, are connected by chains of hybrid elements, which produce the articulation between matter and form. These hybrid elements, which generate the world of distinctions and which Latour calls immutable mobiles, are cultural techniques.

But let’s go one step further, to this renewed interest in objects. Symmetrical anthropology is concerned not only with human actors but also with nonhuman actors. Cultural techniques also attempt to rethink the relationship between subjects and objects. And here we have the same approach coming from ANT and post-ANT: We are not interested in the difference between subject and object. We are interested in the operations that first create this distinction and see it as an unstable process.

The question of stability is, in fact, something to which the study of cultural techniques can contribute greatly. And it’s even, I think, one of the most interesting new developments of this kind of research—finding out how something is stabilized in the first place.

In classical philosophy since Aristotle, it was always the question: How can something change? How is the new produced? How is it possible that something becomes different? So—speaking again in ontological terms—being is always considered as something stable, solid, unchangeable, eternal.

Now we have a completely different picture. The question now is not how something can become different and change, but how we can have something stable. Because nothing is stable by itself; it has to be stabilized.

This is why, in recent discussions, the distinction between objects and things has become so prominent. Everyone who is talking about the agency of objects now quotes Heidegger’s essay “Das Ding,” even if it’s the only text of Heidegger they’ve ever read. They can use that text to produce this difference between the object as an assemblage, an aggregation of processes that have been black-boxed, and the thing as an open object, as a very unstable, constantly growing and changing network of operations and practices.

So one wonderful example is pots. What is a pot or a vessel in the broadest sense? It is a cultural technique because it produces a difference. And that difference is only produced in an ontic way.

With a pot, the difference between empty and full comes into the world. You need a pot to have this difference. So the pot is an ontic technique or technology that produces the ontological difference between emptiness and plenitude. And this is extremely interesting for archaeology. How do pots produce a reality in which all kinds of cultural differences related to “empty” and “full” are produced?

In the Moche culture in northern Peru, for example, you have incredible pots—and now there is a very interesting theory about them. For a long time, people did not know what to do with these pots. They are theriomorphic, anthropomorphic, theomorphic vessels, some with very explicit sexual forms, some depicting extremely violent scenes of killing (for instance, a man falling prey to a huge animal). Some of these pots are modeled after body parts that are open, that you can drink from, and so on. We can now relate these forms to a theory that has to do with symmetrical anthropology, namely, anthropological perspectivism.

This theory says that these vessels are not carriers of meaning. They are not symbolic objects. They are actors. These pots are stabilizing an unstable reality by exhibiting the connection between different realities, between humans and spirits, for example—but also by letting liquids flow from one part of a pot into another. In order to be closed, the body has to be open with respect to the other. Something can be a whole only by having a hole.These pots are not closed objects; instead, they show that all things, including humans and pots, are ontologically ambiguous things that can exist in two forms and in two realities, as the archaeologist Benjamin Alberti puts it. Animals, human beings, and demons constantly have to figure out—

GWY: Who they are.

BS: And the main concern is keeping these different realms of reality apart, to prevent ontological predation of one reality by another. You do not want to see your fellow humans like a puma, or like some evil spirit sees them.

The interesting thing is, again, that this is not an ontological given. This is not a cultural given. These vessels are technologies that produce a stable reality. You can see that a material object and practice are connected via filling and pouring, and using the pot is a means by which difference is produced. So this is, in a nutshell, everything that cultural techniques are about.

GWY: But it seems like the danger of some of these other new ontologies is that they often become the very thing that they are supposedly trying to suppress or deny: another kind of humanism or anthropomorphism. The chicken lays the egg from which it then says it hatched.

BS: Exactly, yes.

GWY: It’s a fascinating idea, because things—not objects—in the realm of cultural techniques are akin to conceptual attractors. They stabilize highly unstable processes by creating certain stable behavior patterns.

The other closely related question is: How do things actually change? Do they rework themselves, as it were, by going back, looking at themselves, and reprocessing their properties?

I think this is, on a very abstract level, the core of cultural techniques—and this also clearly sets that approach off from those it challenges, which presume a pregiven existence that would then deny such a form of change. The cultural-techniques approach also sets itself off from the idea that change automatically involves the addition of something new, or that change involves some kind of system that already maps out the change beforehand. Both no longer apply.

BS: And that counters the assumption of change as always being inherent to technology. In traditional histories of technology, technologies will always be inscribed into a larger context of explanation, be it social history or—

GWY: Edison’s brain or something.

BS: The genius of inventors, Edison’s brain, social history or economic history or even anthropologic evolution. With cultural techniques, at least there is the attempt to see a much more complex field in which you can hardly ever say what is preceding what, which is also very similar in ANT. And this throws overboard the idea—an idea that is very dear to the field of science and technology studies in the United Kingdom—that the social constitutes everything else.

So we have this much more complex and networked concept of how different factors link into one another, but we also still have, as the heritage of French theory and German media theory, an insistence on the agency of the object, which is constituted by chains of other objects, practices, techniques, and technologies.

GWY: And actors.

BS: And actors, but not necessarily human actors. We can consider all kinds of different actors. Images can be actors, microbes can be actors, and so on.

GWY: WHAT KINDS OF OBJECTS of inquiry might you look at next?

BS: The book I’m writing right now focuses on the ship. The basic idea is that seafaring is an even more fundamental cultural technique than the phonetic alphabet, which the Old Man loved so much.

GWY: The Old Man and—or next to—the sea.

BS: One of the earliest texts that we have in Western culture is Sophocles’s Antigone. In their famous first song, the choir sings about the uncanniest being in the world, which is man. And why is man the uncanniest being that walks on the surface of the earth? Because man is inventing techniques that tame and discipline and control beasts, but most of all because man has devised a way of using ships to go out into the frothing waters of winter storms.

This original figure of man has been widely interpreted in terms of anthropology: man as a land-bound animal that transgresses its own definition as a species by leaving the ground to which it is fundamentally bound by nature or by God.

So this can be used as an initial way to speak about cultural techniques: the difference between land and sea, which brings in another problematic figure.

GWY: Uncle Carl.

BS: Yes, Carl Schmitt, who wrote widely about the difference between land and sea as a fundamental difference for the history of the world. But again, from the point of view of cultural techniques, this difference has to be produced. Neither land nor sea is given by nature or by God. They have been produced and thereby are historically contingent on techniques and technologies. And seafaring is the technique that divides the sea from the land.

From this Sophoclean concept, you can right away jump over thousands of years to, let’s say, the invention of the container ship. The modern invention of the container redefined the difference between land and sea in an absolutely radical way, because it was invented to bridge infrastructures that are land-bound and infrastructures that are sea-bound. So the same container travels over land and is transferred smoothly onto a ship and then back onto land, and so on. It’s an American invention and, not by chance, the first container company was named Sea-Land. The brand name tells you everything.

The history of the ship is also, as Foucault once said, one of the greatest cultural archives of metaphors—ideas—that mankind has. What has not been described in terms of seafaring? The church, the state, but also madness. The journey of life and the afterlife. Just think of Dante. And even, of course, the Internet has been largely described in terms of the sea and techniques of navigation. We speak of surfing; Netscape’s early browser was called Navigator. You remember the ubiquitous ship’s-wheel icon. So from the earliest antiquity until today, our culture has described itself in terms of concepts that can be anthropologically explained by this original act of leaving the land. And that act is also our great fear—because leaving the land is the original sin. This belief pervades our culture. In this way, we can write a different kind of art history, a different kind of history of technology, a different kind of history of literature, and even conceive of a different way of looking at representation in the political sense.

A couple of years ago, the Getty [Research Institute] in Los Angeles announced a new research focus on seafaring. And they had in mind topics such as the communication between the West Coast and Japan: how the first ships came over the Pacific to the West Coast and how images thereby began to migrate to and fro.

But the Getty did not have in mind a project like mine. They were not so much interested in the ships but in the “meaning”—again, this content problem. I’m not interested in the content as such. I’m only interested in the content if it relates to the condition of possibility of content.

So I’m extremely interested, as you might imagine, in the work of J. M. W. Turner. Because of the work of Turner, art itself is schematized as something that has to go through changes with respect to the ocean. Think of his incredible painting in the Tate, where the legend says that you see a steamboat in a snowstorm [Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, ca. 1842].

And the famous story is that Turner was allegedly on board that ship. His greatest admirer, John Ruskin, had a lot of problems trying to explain to his contemporaries that there was a ship on this canvas at all. [Laughter.] The others could only see blotches of paint.

The criticism was that there is no ship. We cannot figure out where the ship is. And the interesting thing—back to self-referentiality—is that somewhere in this chaos of elements you actually see a flag, and you realize that that is where the ship is. And nearby, you see a signal rocket. One of the clear-cut white blotches in the image is a shooting signal. It’s so beautiful. What is a flag? A flag is a sign. And what is a rocket? It’s a signal. So you have here, at the beginning of the information age, the switch from literacy, from signs that you can read, that you have to interpret in symbolic terms, to signals.

What’s more, you are entering a completely new dimension in which the image is no longer a question of iconography, but a question of the distinction between signal and noise. That change is what the painting is about.

And therefore it is hard to identify the steamboat, because the steamboat itself becomes an object that first of all has to be produced within the image by distinguishing between signal and noise. You have noise, a chaos of colors, and you have a rocket that is saying, “Hey, the image is a signal.” If you can recognize anything in the image, it is because there’s a ratio between signal and noise.

GWY: It seems to me that there were two phenomena that in Turner’s career were extremely important for explaining this low signal-to-noise ratio. One, as you’re saying, is his connection to the sea and water. The other is war.

Think of Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps [ca. 1812], but think also of his depiction of The Battle of Trafalgar [as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of Victory, 1906–08]; these are documentary snapshots that no longer allow you any overview of what the hell is happening there. It’s just this little moment in time and it demonstrates that you’re dealing with chaotic phenomena, that you have to extract certain signals to make meaning of the noise behind it. As Victor Hugo once put it, to depict a battle we need a painter with chaos in his brush.

BS: Absolutely. And part of this new book looks at the modern seascape and the turbulence of modernity, starting from Turner and dealing with painters like Delacroix, Monet, [Holger] Drachmann, and even Mondrian.

I mean, Mondrian started as a marine painter. And then in 1911 he goes to Paris and becomes infatuated with Cubism, then goes back to the Netherlands and continues to paint the sea, now in a Cubist way—which is extraordinarily funny, because the idea of Cubism was to deconstruct three-dimensional objects into surfaces. The favorite subject of Cubism was therefore the human figure or still life. Think of Picasso. But how can you apply the method of Cubism to surfaces? The sea is already a surface. It cannot be deconstructed as—

GWY: Figure and ground. That’s the problem.

BS: So in Mondrian, these surfaces, these seascapes, consist only of vertical and horizontal lines. But they still have a reference: a pier and an ocean, the ripples of the waves, the light reflections. These are the horizontals and the verticals. So you still have a small, very faint reference before it becomes completely abstract.

GWY: Again, it’s the fly, remembering where it came from. [Laughter.]

BS: Here the sea is, again, the starting point of a story, of the movement of art out of referentiality into abstraction. As Rosalind Krauss says in the beginning of The Optical Unconscious [1993], “The sea is a special kind of medium for modernism, because of its perfect isolation . . . its opening onto a visual plenitude that is somehow heightened and pure, both a limitless expanse and a sameness, flattening it into nothing, into the no-space of sensory deprivation.”

GWY: Well, I think it’s not by chance that Yve-Alain Bois actually describes the Pier and Ocean paintings [1914–15] as the moment that Mondrian “digitizes” the painterly mark into a binary system.

BS: Absolutely. And take, for example, Ellsworth Kelly’s Seine [1951]. This is an incredible work in which the visual effect of the water surface is combined with a digital process: The piece consists only of binary elements, black and white, that are arrayed according to an algorithm of chance, which determines the distribution and placement of squares within each column. And an early study of the work is not even painted. Kelly simply uses little pieces of black and white paper—bits.

So here again, the sea—or the River Seine—is a pretext for a momentous move: the move from signs to information. Because Kelly is literally following the rules of how information theory describes a message: He works with bits. It’s amazing. The motif of the sea is the starting point for a new dimension, a new conceptualization in art.

GWY: There’s a famous interview with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which was also taped in a restaurant, and at the end they say, “OK. Let’s plug the charisma leak.” [Laughter.]