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Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real

by Bernhard Siegert; Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Translator
Fordham University Press, NY, NY, 2014
286 pp., illus. 66 b/w. $28.00
ISBN: 978-0-8232-6375-2; ISBN: 978-0-8232-6376-9.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

Bernhard Siegert's Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, a collection of papers, lectures and articles written between 2001 and 2011, explores underlying frames of hermeneutic reference that permeate the study of semantics, broadly conceived as practices, figurations, codes, sounds and institutional sign systems. These include relationships between man and machine; postwar media analysis and critical theory; expanded "anthropotechnic" studies; new media paradigms embedded in such forms of writing as calculus, time measurement and legal procedures; operative chains and micronetworks of technologies such as counting, image-making, noise production; and other distinctions between nature and culture. The book's value lies primarily in its perception of meaningful semiotic nodes that extend beyond individual disciplinary foci over time into the social fabric of disparate cultures. These are selections that in the aggregate reveal interwoven threads of signifiers, nuclei that may potentially interrelate in some yet to be defined network of Ur-forms, superimposed in the manner of collage, or paradoxically constitute irrecoverable basal conditions of devolution.

Siegert's 10 essays examine subjects that include the sign systems of contemporary communication theory and specific ways that typographic, telephonic and computer-generated media filter the symbolic from the real; anthropological reflections on sacred and profane symbology such as the Last Supper as a paradigm for Christian-occidental cultural distinctions; the mimetic (parroted) replication of sounds as a metaphor for communicatory rupture; bureaucratic records of migration to the New World whose certifications of identity are based on endlessly reproductive, frequently illegitimate testimony; representational, topographic, cartographic, 3-D and speculative grids as coordinates of subjugation, colonization and globalism; seafaring, tribal superstition, ritual and the anthropocentric gaze; classical principles of disegno compared with non-historical approaches to symbolic world orders derived from drafting, projection and scaling paradigms; a media genealogy of the trompe-l'oeil in seventeenth century Dutch still life painting as an outgrowth of medieval manuscript illumination whose frameworks may be perceived as instruments of reflexivity; the materiality of symbolic forms represented in Renaissance altarpieces as post-structural gateways to hallucinatory effects of contemporary electronic technology.

As webs of electronic circuitry, Siegert's often-brilliant succession of interlocking images connects remote reaches of time, place and history. He bounds for example from a discussion of Michel Serres' The Parasite (1980), a model of communication theory that challenges cognitive logistics, to fragmentary sixteenth century Ottoman inscriptions indicative of subjugation, to disrupted noise channels in Kafka's "Pontus Dream," to the interrupted computer-generated text of "The Monologue of Terry Jo," a 1968 radio broadcast that presented Claude Shannon's mathematical theory of communication as an approximation of language, followed by an essay on Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" as an inversion of logocentric carriers. Vaulting from fifteenth century depictions of the Last Supper to Dionysiac ritual and the cannibalistic taboos of Jewish dietary laws to the tableware of Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process he develops a line of inquiry that traces contamination of the symbolic to culminate in a horrific bloodbath in Thomas Pynchon's story "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna." Such touchstones exhibit an extraordinary breadth of learning grounded in history and art history, literature and literary theory, philology, philosophy, communication studies and in some instances, engineering. Resonant of Paolo Rossi's Clavis universalis and Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, the expansive scope of this collection girds a set of referents meant as central embodiments of cultural identity, constitutive of a history of ideas.

Anomalous amid his analyses of largely dystopic systems is an essay concerning the paradigm of naval architecture, "Waterlines: Striated and Smooth Spaces as Techniques of Ship Design." As a central thematic he cites Joseph Furttenbach's Architectura navalis of 1629 which compares the ship to human endeavor as "such a defiant and fearful thing as the human heart...for it dares, upon the wild and terrible element of the formidable sea, to tame it with a wooden, if mightily fortified structure..." [1]. He then invokes Ulysses in Dante's Inferno (Canto 26) in an existential appeal to "follow the sun," not to live as brutes, but to consider what it means to be human by seeking virtue and knowledge. Siegert goes on to mark out the history of naval design as a transition from craftsmanship (whereby the partially completed vessel was used as an instrument of its own design) to draftsmanship by means of mathematical calculations, geometric configurations and cosmic correspondences, procedures that included mezzaluna or whole-molding methodologies to realize curvatures and master frames. Among fifteenth century Portuguese shipbuilders, master shipwrights "recited aloud the essential details of their projects in verse" indicative of the seamless joinery of oral and material culture. (152) By designs of ships on paper in the later sixteenth century a master shipwright becomes identified as architect. English Royal Master Shipwright Mathew Baker's drawing of a master shipwright in his office may have been based on a woodcut by Dü rer, The Draftsman of the Lute (1525) which in turn references Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on disegno. These correspondences extend to Tudor Arches and the nave architecture of late Gothic churches in Britain, translations of the sacred into the traditional. Waterlines running along the hull resemble isometric lines used to map the topography of sea bottoms, with the ship's other abstract contour lines analogous to water marks left by tides along the beach. It is a study of coherence, cultural transmission and organic recrescence amid chronicles of disruption.

Siegert relies heavily on temporal binaries of Latinate terminology drawn from such figures as Vasari, Leonardo, Kemp and others: concetto, invenzione, circumscriptio, compositio, and post-structural constructs to be found in the writings of Foucault, Lacan, Adorno, Derrida and Deleuze indicative of a humanistic/post-humanistic purview. His approach often mimics graphic operations employed in the production of linear structures, trajectories, conduits and formations while deepwater semantics that include the study of such signifiers as grids, filters, doors and hinges run the risk at times of thin-film analysis that leaves interrogations of intrinsic meaning to individual disciplines. His engagement with the very post-structural appropriation of signifiers "unmoored" from the meanings and references he endeavors to critique tends to accentuate difference over likeness, particularly through abrupt or shifting juxtapositions. This causes one to ask whether the purpose of concatenating anachronistic sign systems is to recover truths that have been lost but that may yet retain universal value; to expose cross-fertilization or cultural transmission; or to delineate distinct conditions of irreconcilable difference? If the function is comparative, have striations of historical and semiotic contingency been sufficiently established as in the study of iconology or has a signifier been repurposed to compel and at times embellish (through classicizing cornices) theories of cultural demise that may be spoken in the borrowed langue of post-structuralism? Cassirer, citing Bertrand Russel's Principia Mathematica states, "An extension is an incomplete symbol, the use of which takes on meaning only through its relation to an intension. What holds the class together...is the circumstance that all the members united in it are thought of as variables of a determinate propositional function." [2] Siegert's propositional function, the "reconceptualization of the posthuman" by way of a more critical understanding of the distinction between man and machine, derives from a controversial underlying premise: the deconstruction of occidental humanism as a system of meaning production through its cybernetic or "media-system" affinities.

Siegert's Introduction takes pains to distinguish between "culture" and "media," interrelated categories germane to the humanities that vigorously intersect areas of mass media and communication studies, philosophy and linguistics. Distinct from mass communication technologies and content analysis, German media theory, whose roots lie in the humanities and cultural studies, especially literature, explores questions originating in Critical Theory, cognitism, systems theory and Foucauldian discourse, analyses that deal with the content, history and effects of mediated "texts." At the forefront of such studies are figures such as Friedrich Kittler and Niklas Luhmann writing in Freiburg in the 1980's. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young has written extensively in recent years on the subjects of German Media Theory (as media-theoretical paradigms), Cultural Techniques and Cultural Studies to greatly elucidate burgeoning areas of humanistic scholarship squarely countenanced by Fordham University's publication series "Meaning Systems" which explores interpenetrations of consciousness and communication. The series includes wide ranging inter and trans-disciplinary systems discourses from bio-semiotics to enactive cognitive science that connect the life of the mind and society with their natural and technological environments. Siegert's Cultural Techniques presents an important catalyst for debates occurring at the juncture of German media theory and American postcybernetic discourse.

In citing Alberti's veil (velum) from the treatise De pictura, Siegert posits the perspectiva naturalis as the ordering principle of a grid whose technological counterparts extend to twentieth century screen printing, neuronal signal processing, copperplate engraving, physiology, perception studies and textiles. He is crucially aware that with the velum as both seafarer's sail and material masque of the human imaginary, the racer looks for spinnakers to be as bonded as they are diaphanous.


[1] Joseph Furttenbach, Architectura navalis, Ulm, 1629; reprinted, Hildesheim & NY: Olms, 1975, 2.

[2] Ernst Cassirer, "Toward a Theory of the Concept," The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 3: The Phenomenology of Knowledge, Trans. By Ralph Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957, p. 295.

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