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Electronic Culture

by Timothy Druckrey
New York: Aperture, 1996

Reviewed by Andreas Broeckmann

Newsgroups and mailing lists have the advantage of making the path between writing and reading short and fast, thus creating the possibility for a form and intensity of intellectual discourse that can rival the journalistic exchanges in Paris in the 19th century, or those of Weimar Republic Berlin. The Nettime ZKPs are the fast condensations of the debates held on this list, and they are good examples of how the old Gutenbergian medium will slow down and substantiate the same words and ideas that previously sped across the wires as data packets. In analogy to the recent discussion of 'Englishes' it might be well worth reminding ourselves of the different reading habits and forms of intellectual appropriation associated with the various material forms in which we experience texts.

The New York photography publishers Aperture have just published a volume called 'Electronic Culture. Technology and Visual Representation', edited and introduced by Tim Druckrey. The book contains 31 essays by European and North American writers and spans half a century of critical writing about culture and technology. For me it was a welcome reminder of the historical dimension of current discussions about culture and technology, and I would here like to just very briefly point to its content which I feel is a very valuable contribution to a slowing down and substantiation of our considerations of digital culture.

The volume is divided into four main sections (History; Representation: Photography and After; Theory; Media/Identity/Culture) and deals with a broad spectrum of issues of technology, media and representation. Roughly speaking, it starts where Walter Benjamin broke off, i.e. where the image becomes associated with digital rather than analogue reproduction, and where technology moves from the industrial into the post-industrial age of cybernetics. And it finishes with the theoretical and cultural impact of VR technologies and electronic networks whose aesthetic impact remains as yet largely unexplored.

Given Druckrey's own and Aperture's special interest in visual representation and photography, the collection places a clear emphasis on digital imaging technologies, from post-photography to VR environments. However, Electronic Culture succeeds in placing digital imaging in the wider contexts of the histories of science theory and technology, of cybernetics and the social and political usages of technology, so that it offers not only useful analyses of theories of representation in the digital age, but contributions to a social and technological history of contemporary (visual) culture. On the whole, it is more interested in the art, science and technology complex than in popular culture, and its greatest achievement might lie in making available a series of media theoretical texts that show that there is a significant tradition of thought in this field that does not need McLuhan as its patron saint. It is worth noticing that more than half of the authors in this book are Europeans. In practice, this means that there is very little MIT-style techno-positivism, and a lot of historical and theoretical scrutiny.

Two minor complaints: an alphabetical index would have been useful, as would have been quoting the dates of the original publications, not least because it would have created a stronger sense of the chronological parameters of this most recent development in the history of visual culture. However, the book still communicates a clear sense of the historical depth of thinking about the impact of digital technologies in the 20th century, and unlike many of the hype-driven compilations that are hardly more than thematic special issues of art and culture magazines, this is a book that looks beyond the immediate interests of 1996, and that will last. It also makes us curious to read on, to follow certain thematic currents and authors, and to pay more attention to the interrelations between technology, culture and visual representation in an historical perspective. Slowing us down in this way could be a useful, humbling exercise which, if practised more widely, would probably save us from a lot of the intellectual redundancy created because of a lack of historical consciousness.

(Texts by Sandy Stone, Vannevar Bush, Martin Heidegger, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Arthur I. Miller, Jean-Louis Comolli, Bill Nichols, David Tomas, Kevin Robins, Roy Ascott, Raymond Bellour, Kathy Rae Huffman, Kim H. Veltman, Lev Manovich, Vilem Flusser, Florian Roetzer, N. Katherine Hayles, Siegfried Zielinski, Slavoj Zizek, Erkki Huhtamo, David Blair, Louise K. Wilson/ Paul Virilio, Friedrich Kittler, Peter Weibel, Sherry Turkle, Pierre Levy, Hakim Bey, Anne W. Branscomb, Geert Lovink, Critical Art Ensemble.)



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