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Amodern 9: Techniques and Technologies
April 2020

Historical Dictionary of Media Usage

MEDIA-IN-USE

On the Usefulness of the Concept of Media Usage

Hannes Mandel

“Media are what their usage makes of them.”
Historical Dictionary of Media Usage

For decades, despite its stellar career in academia, the concept of “medium/media” has surprisingly remained somewhat elusive. Few disciplines operate under as loosely, or at least as variously defined a name as Media Studies, and the already hackneyed German phrase Irgendwas mit Medien (“something having to do with media,” a popular career aspiration among college students in Germany) can rather easily – albeit polemically – be used to characterize many a university curriculum in the field. On the graduate level, meanwhile, students learn how asking about the underlying concept of a medium (the Frage nach dem Medienbegriff, whether genuine or ill-intentioned) effectively effaces almost any presenter’s argumentation and derails almost any Q&A.

And yet, there is no occasion for scorn. The success of the field speaks volumes, and it appears that the terminological indeterminacy has actually been a productive factor rather than a methodological shortcoming. While in some cases the indeterminacy went hand in hand with a cobbling together of existing study programs into new media studies degrees, in many others the field has actually, one can argue, successfully answered for once the perpetual call for interdisciplinarity in academia. A few years ago, at the conference Media Theory on the Move: Transatlantic Perspectives on Media and Mediation at the University of Potsdam in Germany, Claus Pias made a strong case for the inherent non-disciplinarity of (German) media studies itself, and offered a compelling answer to the question of what “media” should be then, after all. “Media,” he argued, “shall exist in all those places where one succeeds in asserting their validity [sollen überall dort sein, wo es gelingt, ihnen Geltung zu verschaffen].”1

Historically speaking, and painting in broad strokes, these “places” of the media in German media studies have shifted from early (mostly) condemnations of the mass media, to comparatively straightforward histories of technology, to Habermas’ conception of the public sphere, to Kittler’s insistence on a media-technological a priori of all human thought, to Luhmann’s systems theory, to the focus on cultural techniques at the Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik (HZK) in Berlin, and to the latter’s variation at the Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) in Weimar, where a recent research program set out to at least partially re-ontologize the more operational conceptualizations of media in the deliberately paradoxical concept of “operative ontologies.”

While all of these endeavors have “successfully asserted the validity of media” in their various “places,” it is the most recent such assertion, an ambitious multivolume dictionary project out of Potsdam, Cologne, and Princeton, that this Special Section intends to introduce to an English-speaking audience for the first time. The Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs [Historical Dictionary of Media Usage], rather than in mere technological devices or in always already (over-?)theorized practices, locates the reality of the media in their Gebrauch – German for “use,” “usage,” “practice,” and “custom” alike. Its hitherto 72 entries in two volumes (a third one is currently in the making) range from media usages such as posting, browsing, and serializing, to filming, typing, and imitating. Strategically undermining not only popular histories of technology, but also conventional periodization, the Dictionary offers a whole array of new historical vistas that inform our present as much as they provide new insights into the past.

Following the present reflection on the usefulness of the concept of media usage, both for media studies and in higher education at large, the editors Heiko Christians, Matthias Bickenbach, and Nikolaus Wegmann briefly explain in their “Instructions for Use” the format as well as the reasoning behind the structure of the dictionary. Heiko Christians’ preface “Conceptual History as History of Usage” develops the project’s epistemological promise, whereas Nikolaus Wegmann’s entry on bilden [educating] illustrates how the concept of media usage, along with the dictionary’s well thought-out design, can yield new, transversal insights on even as heavily researched a topic as the German concept of Bildung [education], for example.

 

The Perennial Crisis

In one of his less contentious aphorisms, McLuhan remarks that “Concepts are provisional affairs for apprehending reality; their value is in the grip they provide.”2 At the risk of taxing the patience of an audience now eager for the main act, the present essay makes the case that the concept of media usage not only provides media studies with a firm additional “grip,” but that it also suggests a promising response to the current – or rather ongoing – crisis of the humanities.

Of course, it is an old trick to invoke a crisis when trying to “sell” something new. Talk of a crisis of the humanities specifically has become so commonplace in articles on higher education that the inclusion of a preemptive acknowledgement of the commonplace is itself on track to become commonplace. And yet, there are reasons to believe that the current state of affairs is more serious than the ordinary state of emergency. In lieu of the full parade of alarming statistics, suffice it to note that, as Eric Hayot reports, “at many institutions, the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50 percent,” and that although public funding for higher education has returned, in many states, to its pre-2008 levels, numbers show that this recovery has largely left out the humanities.3 This monetary side of the coin – to use a perhaps appropriately skewed metaphor – is notoriously difficult to influence, of course. More amenable to adjustments is the curricular and methodological side of things. Although here, too, good advice is hard to come by. (Hayot’s own suggestion, for example, consists in the final platitude: “It is time to be creative, time to look for new ways to connect with our students, and help them love what the humanities can do for them.”4) And here too, the territory is full of commonplaces: that the age of the big theories and grand narratives is over; that the canon wars are over, far from over, or will not solve the problem of canonicity itself; that imperious (re)assertions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful won’t cut it; that a forever-postmodern “anything goes” is not the solution either.

If the self-understanding of society today and trends in the humanities over the past few decades are any indication, one way or another the answer to the contemporary crisis will have “something to do with media.” In Germany, the field of media studies has seen extraordinary growth, continues to attract students, and has no doubt influenced a number of fields in the humanities in addressing their particular – as the German has it – “media oblivion.” In the United States, it is the field of Communications – defined as an aggregate of programs in “Communication (General); Speech Communication and Rhetoric; Mass Communication/Media Studies; [and] Communication and Media Studies (Other)” – that according to the AAAS’s Humanities Indicators has more than resisted negative trends and grown considerably over the past 30 years.5 And while it is likely that the Digital Humanities are eventually going to lose their awkward distinguishing adjective and become an integral part of the humanities again, their existence and momentum obviously have everything to do not only with the availability of so-called new media, but also with an interest in the old ones.

Yet, despite these past and ongoing successes, and as touched upon earlier, a more substantive consolidation and successful “disciplinarization” of the field of media studies and its access paths to knowledge may yet have to be achieved. Introductory textbooks certainly exist in considerable numbers, but where they do not simply provide vocabulary, they tend to compress media histories, analyses, and theories into bite-sized token knowledge whose value – beyond testability in college exams – is questionable, at the very least. A different kind of textbook, the media readers popular for undergraduate instruction in the United States, typically assembles briefly introduced excerpts from primary texts on issues related to media. While such texts may serve better to represent cultural debates and generate seminar discussions, their topicality tends to cause them not only to go stale over time, but to cast their lot with either vain cultural criticism on the one side, or facile technological optimism on the other.

 

The Usefulness of “Media Usage”

It is in and out of this constellation, at the sweet spot between research article, encyclopedia, and practical textbook, that the concept of media usage as conceived and realized in the Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs [in the following: HWMG] has the potential to make a significant difference. Granted, the difference between media usage and a handful of similar concepts – such as “operations,” “practices,” “praxes,” “cultural technologies,” or “cultural techniques” – may not immediately appear all that pronounced. Yet the German term Gebrauch – which, as mentioned above, can translate to “use,” “usage,” “practice,” and “custom” alike – introduces an additional conceptual dimension that, in a sense, runs transversely to those alternative media theoretical concepts of media practices: a diachronic dimension, one of increased contingency and agency. For Gebrauch as a habitualized and popularized, yet variable and deliberate form of cultural practice always already knows both: the affordances of tradition, and the potential to deviate from (or even break with) the latter; the timelessness of human communicative purposes, and the contingency of media technological means to achieve them; the old (as in: “used”) technology, and the new (as in: technological innovation at the stage of its adoption into use – rather than at its allegedly world-changing moment of invention).

The benefits of this semantic space are not to be underestimated. First, it almost automatically dispels those gravitational forces of vain cultural criticism and facile technological optimism. “Mere” media usage (in the sense of Gebrauch) invites much less self-righteous judgment than concepts of media consumption for example, while in its ostensible ordinariness it does not lend itself to enthusiastic narratives of technological revolutions either. Use or usage is simply what has always already been done anyway, except somewhat differently now and then.

Second, despite this ostensible ordinariness, it is, after all, only ever in use that media can plausibly “determine our situation” (Friedrich Kittler). The concept of media usage does justice to this self-evidence by allowing for the detection and observation of the workings of media and their users in situ – that is, in the field, in context, and in circulation.

Third, as Heiko Christians points out in the HWMG’s preface, the concept avoids the unwitting perpetuation of historical, political, or technological eras that are often, and often too easily, taken for granted.6 Where common histories of technology continue to have a penchant for breakthroughs and revolutions, for great inventors and clear-cut periodization, the concept of media usage can render visible the continuities, and pick up on the more subtle changes, in the varied ways people make, and used to make, use of technology.

Fourth, and most importantly, the methodological challenges of studying the contingency and agency involved in media usage – the fact that “even now the most widespread use of a medium is always just one possibility of dealing with it” – might point toward solutions to the greater problem that is the crisis of the humanities.7 That challenge is: how does one derive sufficiently generalizable insights from something as contingent and protean as media usage across the centuries? Ethnographic fieldwork is difficult enough in localized and time-limited settings. As a dictionary in the venerable German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte [conceptual history], the HWMG obviously bets on tapping the wisdom of language, but not only. What distinguishes it from some of the monumental disciplinary standard works it is modeled on – the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, or the Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft – is a time-honored human form of coping with all kinds of worldly contingencies: storytelling.

In addition to the more common heuristic sections that structure and organize the knowledge within each article (i.e., Etymology, Contexts, Fluctuations, Antonyms, Perspectives of Applicability, Directions of Research, Recommended Literature, References, and Bibliography), all of the articles start out prominently with an illustrative and often surprising Anecdote. In stark contrast to the “grand narratives,” these “little” stories do not claim to explain everything, but they also are not just stories either. Showing media usage in context and in action, they relate more than just themselves: they suggest constellations and characteristics of the media usage, its purposes, successes and/or frustrations. Illustrative in the best sense of the word, they clear up and elucidate beyond their specific historical moment, and as any illustration, they always already imply and invite other, perhaps similarly or even more illustrative anecdotes, including those – and this is important – from the present-day. For, in contrast to media technologies, which in refutation of Riepl’s Law have repeatedly proven themselves to be capable of “dying,” media usages rarely die – or they at least go extinct at a much slower rate.8 Using them as common threads that run through the coming and going of ages, generations, and versions of media technology, one can begin to see continuities, similarities, and differences that elucidate the present as much as the past.

In a feature article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung from August 2018, Jan Söffner, professor of Cultural Theory and Analysis at the Zeppelin University in Germany, makes a compelling case for the reappreciation of such storytelling in the humanities. “When things get serious,” he writes, “one begins to tell a story. Economists and advertisers know this, when they bail out companies or products by means of a beautiful story; therapists know it, when they have patients give form and meaning to their lives; politicians know it, when they are on the campaign trail, or facing serious crises. […] Teenagers tell stories, when they invent themselves in old-fashioned diaries or on modern Instagram accounts; adults do it, when they work themselves up into or try to solve a marital crisis. There is no society or community that does not tell stories and that has not developed its own narrative culture. Only the humanities [Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften] appear to have forgotten about storytelling.”9

While one can certainly argue that Söffner is overstating his case here, his unequivocal thesis – delivered prominently in his article’s headline – might well have some truth behind it: “If the humanities want to have a great future, they will have to tell more stories again.”

The unmatched appeal of storytelling, in any case, becomes very much apparent as one reads the HWMG, also. While the depth, length, and quality of the anecdotes vary across the articles, even a perusal of the dictionary will confirm the predominant role the introductory anecdotes play in the insightfulness and effectiveness of the entries. Even as the other subsections in each article provide the hard facts, the research findings, the “data,” the articles tend to stand and fall with the quality of their anecdote. In an intuitive, yet perplexing way, it is the often academically belittled format of the anecdote that unlocks the curiosity and the potential for knowledge in the history of each media usage.

The challenge lies, of course, in finding such anecdotes. For the present context, suffice it to reiterate that the concept of media usage, thanks to its sufficient openness and sufficient specificity, is particularly perceptive of, and conducive to, said anecdotes. Where the word “operations” immediately teleports to the abstract heights of theory, where the catch-all term “practices” suffers from a lack of specificity, and where the phrase “cultural techniques” – derived after all from agricultural techniques on the one hand, and techniques of the body on the other – tends to reduce its objects of inquiry to a set of basic, quasi-anthropological practices, the term “usage” is able to capture interactions with media in a more versatile and, quite literally, more relatable way.

This may well be true in comparison to a differently oriented approach to the study of media, i.e., that of media archaeology. Especially in the form of Siegfried Zielinski’s “an-archaeology” or “variantology,” media archaeology, too, draws on the heuristic potential of storytelling.10 But as the metaphor of “archaeology” already suggests, these accounts tend to start out from a kind of deliberate obfuscation (the premise of a need for “excavation”), and their “an-archaeological” attempts at narrative reanimations of “dead media” by means of speculative alternative histories often leave the dead media technology deader than before: as relics among now alternate universes whose relationships to the actual present is ever more obscure. Rather than reducing contingency, the stories revel in its multiplication. While the value of such an approach should not be categorically dismissed, a recent tweet by the Germanist and media scholar Bryan Klausmeyer perhaps expresses the skepticism here most efficiently, albeit polemically: “My next book on German media theory will begin with a cold open: the quadratic formula, followed by a fictional mise-en-scene of Turing and Heidegger, as relayed from a radio inside the Wolfschanze. Then, a close reading of the Apple II circuit board.”11

A focus on media usages, on the common denominators of media technologies across the ages, quite naturally escapes the risk of fluffy techno-centrism (as well as the corresponding ridicule), without discounting the crucial role of media technology either. “Media are,” the HWMG’s editors write, “what their usage makes of them.” The paradoxicality is key, of course: the contingency is mutual, and the productive forces – within the limits of a capitalist economy – are evenly shared: “Innovation and creativity are not only contained in the technical apparatus, they also exist on the side of media use.”12

 

Methodological Implications

Speaking of innovation, lastly, it should be noted that the call for increased attention to the role of use or usage of technology is not entirely new. Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approaches have taken into account the constitutive role of users for the development of technology for decades. As their very name suggests, however, their focus has traditionally been on the construction of technology, i.e., on inventions and innovations, rather than on uses or usages of technology as permanent significant phenomena in their own right. Perhaps nobody then has more insightfully insisted on the relevance of the actual ongoing use of technology, than the British historian David Edgerton. In his eye-opening book The Shock of the Old (2007), Edgerton exposes with the greatest of ease the fundamental bias toward the New in both society and the historiography of technology.13 He does so by simply pointing out the massive empirical predominance of the Old, of legacy technology that continues to be in active use, under maintenance, in repair, and in re-use around the world – regardless of the widespread disregard for it in commercial as well as academic discourses. And as early as 1999, Edgerton made the compelling case for a proper “history of technology-in-use” that would at the very least complement the history of inventions and innovation and do justice to the actual technological prevalences in present and past societies.14

As perceptive as Edgerton’s valuable work is, however, there are differences that distinguish it from the approach in the HWMG. Besides the former’s focus on technology as the key term (as opposed to use or usage in the latter), and besides the latter’s more specific focus on the use of media technology in particular, the main difference relates to methodology. While Edgerton primarily recommends the activation of historical knowledge in the academic/disciplinary sense,15 the HWMG’s conceptual historical [begriffsgeschichtlich] and deliberately “anecdotal” approach (in a most positive sense of the word) entails a methodology that Harun Maye has discussed as an instance of “media philology:” “The dictionary’s unusual design asserts an analytical perspective that presupposes there is a distinct Knowledge of Literature [Wissen der Literatur, i.e., knowledge in or by literature, HM] about the media that cannot without loss be substituted by the aesthetics, theory, or history of the media. Also implied in this is the thesis that the political, historical, or theoretical views of the media equally entail a narrative dimension that should not be underestimated and that needs to be accounted for analytically. […] The intention then appears to be to avoid a mere history of theory and to strategically transcend the distinction between user and medium, theory and object, use and apparatus, as well as history and stories.”16

It is in this down-to-earth transcendence that one can derive new insights about the media and our uses of them – provided, Maye argues, one possesses a “media philological competence that is trained in dealing with stories and other media techniques” – a competence, of course, that the HWMG undertakes to impart. Where a “historiography of usages” sounds immediately paradoxical (as usages rarely make history), the detection and telling of multipliable significant stories offers an alternative route to insights, and specifically at the ideal Humboldtian intersection of teaching and research. Useful as efficient introductory texts in undergraduate education, most of the articles in the HWMG, thanks to their “Directions of Research” and “Recommended Literature” sections, also constitute excellent starting points for further investigations.

At Princeton University’s Department of German, where the HWMG partly originated, undergraduate courses are reported to be disproportionately well-attended by students from Computer Science. If Edgerton’s observation that “Invention and innovation rarely lead to use, but use often leads to invention and innovation” is correct,17 these students might possibly be onto something. The following original translations will allow the readers of Amodern to form their own opinions of the Historical Dictionary of Media Usage – based on their own (albeit somewhat limited) use of it.


  1. Pias made the statement in the context of his talk “What’s German about German Media Theory?” given on May 22, 2009. My personal notes do not indicate whether the statement was part of the talk itself, or of the ensuing Q&A. A more recent article by Pias, published under the same title and presenting the same arguments, does not contain the statement explicitly. Cf. Claus Pias, “What’s German about German Media Theory?” transl. Katharina Wiedemann, in Media Transatlantic: Developments in Media and Communication Studies between North American and German-speaking Europe, ed. Norm Friesen (Cham: Springer, 2016), 15–27. 

  2. Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride. Folklore of Industrial Man (New York: Vanguard Press, 1951), vi. 

  3. Eric Hayot, “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?” Chronicle.com, 1 July 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-as-We-Know-Them/243769

  4. Hayot, “The Humanities.” 

  5. American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “Bachelor’s Degrees in the Humanities,” Humanities Indicators 2017, https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=34. According to the same source, Bachelor’s degrees in “Communication (excl. professional)” surpassed those in “English Language & Literature” for the first time in 2014, and the gap continued to grow thereafter: https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=36. For a catalog specifying the categorization of study programs into disciplines, see: http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/cmsData/xls/Degree_Program_Code_Catalog.xlsx

  6. Cf. Heiko Christians, “Begriffsgeschichte als Gebrauchsgeschichte,” in Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs, ed. Heiko Christians et al. (Cologne: Böhlau, 2014), 11–32. 

  7. Heiko Christians et al., “Gebrauchsanweisung,” in Historisches Wörterbuch des Mediengebrauchs, ed. Heiko Christians et al. (Cologne: Böhlau, 2014), 7–10, here: 9. [Translation by John Bednarz]. 

  8. The philologist and journalist Wolfgang Riepl, himself the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper, argued in his dissertation in 1913 that new, more advanced forms of communication technology never entirely replace the preceding ones, but rather force them into alternative areas of activity. Cf. the Wikipedia stub at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riepl’s_law

  9. Jan Söffner, “Wenn die Geisteswissenschaften eine grosse Zukunft haben wollen, müssen sie wieder mehr erzählen,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, August 27, 2018, https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/erzaehlen-heisst-leben-ld.1405108. [My translation]. 

  10. Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). 

  11. Bryan Klausmeyer, Twitter post, October 22, 2018, 10:15 a.m., https://twitter.com/bryklaus/status/1054375717541199874

  12. Christians et al., “Gebrauchsanweisung,” 9. [Translation by John Bednarz]. 

  13. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 

  14. David Edgerton, “From Innovation to Use: Ten Eclectic Theses on the Historiography of Technology,” History and Technology 16, no. 2 (1999): 111–136, https://doi.org/10.1080/07341519908581961

  15. Edgerton, “From Innovation,” 129. 

  16. Harun Maye, “Braucht die Medienwissenschaft eine Philologie der Medien?” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, no. 12 (2015): 158–163, here: 163, https://www.zfmedienwissenschaft.de/heft/text/braucht-die-medienwissenschaft-eine-philologie-der-medien. [My translation; emphasis in the original]. 

  17. Edgerton, “From Innovation,” 123. 


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Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).