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Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages:

An Approach to the Study of Media before the Media

Erik Born

Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Volume 52, Number 2, May 2016,


pp. 107-133 (Article)

Published by University of Toronto Press

For additional information about this article


https://muse.jhu.edu/article/619778

Access provided by New York University (10 May 2018 19:53 GMT)
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques,
and the Middle Ages: An Approach to the
Study of Media before the Media
Erik Born University of California, Berkeley

This article surveys recent work in media archaeology, explicates the related theory of
cultural techniques, and considers the utility of these recent developments in new German
media theory to the analysis of medieval and early modern mediality. In doing so, the arti-
cle also attends to disciplinary similarities between media studies and medieval and early
modern studies. The aim of the article is neither to suggest a hybridization of these fields
nor to systematize the approaches of media archaeology and the study of cultural techni-
ques, but rather to highlight productive points of contact, contention, and possible
exchange, and to indicate avenues for future research on insufficiently studied topics in
medieval and early modern mediality. As a point of reference for this theoretical over-
view, the article focuses on Nicholas of Cusa’s treatise On the Vision of God (De visione
Dei, 1453) and mentions other examples from medieval German literature and culture
where relevant.
Keywords: mediality, media archaeology, cultural techniques, linear perspective, reli-
gious icons, spiritual exercises, Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei

Of the many unusual ways of viewing an image, one of the most remarkable
comes down to us from the threshold of modernity. Asked in 1453 to explain the
opaque subject of mystical theology in more accessible terms, Nicholas of Cusa
provided the following instructions in the preface to his treatise On the Vision of
God (De visione Dei): mount a particular kind of religious icon on the wall and
have three monks observe it from the front and the sides; next, have them walk
around it in a semicircle while keeping their eyes fixed on the eyes in the icon;
and, finally, have them discuss their experience of this experiment. The eyes in
the icon should seem to follow the viewers around the room. Although each
monk may perceive the icon’s frontal gaze to be directed at him alone, the
monastic community can extrapolate from this individual experience to an
understanding of mystical theology. Just as the icon’s gaze is addressed to each
viewer simultaneously at every position in the room, so too, Cusa explains, does
the benevolent all-seeing gaze of the divine accompany all creatures everywhere
and at all times (par. 1–5).1 Why was the mediation of an image, rather than a
scholastic definition or disputation, necessary to make this conventional point of

seminar 52:2 (May 2016)


108 ERIK BORN

Christian dogma about the dual nature of visio Dei, which will be the subject of
the remainder of the treatise?2
Along with the treatise On the Vision of God, Cusa also claims to have sent
a “painting” (tabellam) that he calls the “Icon of God” (eiconam Dei) to be used
in the viewing procedure (par. 2). Though this use of an image may seem to be a
solution to the problem of illiteracy (cf. Heidenreich), the instructions in the pref-
ace remain embedded within the treatise and related to the Benedictine practices
of lectio divina (see Bond). As Michel de Certeau argued in his seminal article
“The Gaze: Nicholas of Cusa,” the function of the preface is twofold—not only
to construct a sacred space for experiencing the divine but also to open up a dis-
cursive space for the treatise to follow (10–11). The preface, then, is at once an
experience and an experiment, meanings that intersect in the Latin root experior
and in the twofold meaning of a “devotional exercise” (par. 5: praxim devotio-
nis). Designed to create an experience of divine omnivoyance, the experimental
instructions in the preface are able to overcome the privileges traditionally attrib-
uted to both experiential authority and theological jargon (Certeau 11). The main
insight of Cusa’s spiritual exercise is that understanding need not precede prac-
tice: just as the interpretation of results usually follows the performance of an
experiment in a laboratory, an understanding of mystical theology should follow,
conceptually and chronologically, the practice of viewing an icon according to
the instructions in the preface. In other words, doing something becomes a con-
dition of possibility for saying something (Certeau 11).
As the monastic community turns from the treatise to the icon, the change
of medium is signalled by framing statements, at the beginning and end of the
preface, about the necessity, in any manuduction into mystical theology, of
using a “sensible figure” (par. 2: sensibilem . . . figuram) or “sensible appear-
ance” (par. 5: sensibili apparentia). In fact, the experience operationalized in the
preface obtains only owing to the mediation of an image—only for certain per-
spectival pictures under specific viewing conditions. The impression of being
followed by a painting requires the portrayed object to face the viewers, so that
when they change position, comparing the viewpoints from orthogonal and obli-
que angles, they perceive the object as continuing to face them (Koenderink
et al. 526). There has to be a picture: viewing any other object from different an-
gles will have no effect. By deploying this visual effect, novel at the time but
still operative and compelling today, Cusa’s unorthodox instructions for viewing
a religious icon subvert the typical use of this medium, thereby calling on the
potential of visual media to disrupt, defamiliarize, and dehabituate vision with
their non-human gaze.
Surprisingly, the content of the icon is less relevant for Cusa, being specified
only as “the image of someone omnivoyant, so that his face, through subtle pic-
torial artistry, is such that it seems to behold everything around it” (par. 2: imag-
ine omnia videntis . . . ita quod facies subtili arte pictoria ita se habeat, quasi
cuncta circumspiciat). Cusa’s examples of such a figure cover a wide range of
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 109

subjects and media formats, an indication that his main concern was not the
content of the icon or the rules of art but the artificial quality of the image
(Simon 64).3 In this case, the medium is the message, the material properties of
the omnivoyant figure being more important than the depicted subject. As a
medium, however, the icon in Cusa’s experiment does not function in the sense
of Marshall McLuhan’s famous understanding of media as “extensions of man,”
but as an exemplum of the divine, which serves to generate the category of the
human according to Friedrich Kittler’s dictum that “media determine our situa-
tion” (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter xxxix). Ultimately, the sacredness of the
omnivoyant icon does not lie in any concept of an icon, iconoclasm, or iconol-
ogy; it must be produced through a particular artistic technique and a specific
viewing practice. The preface to Cusa’s treatise thus raises questions about the
distinction between medium and message, the periodization of the Middle Ages
against modernity, and the priority of practice over concepts – three points that I
take up, in turn, in the following sections, in an effort to tease out ways of ad-
dressing these questions through recent developments in media studies.
In this article, I offer a brief survey of recent work in media archaeology,
explicate the related theory of cultural techniques, and consider the utility of
these recent developments in new German media theory to medieval and early
modern studies. First, I consider the controversial question of applying a modern
concept of media to the Middle Ages, a period before the realization of commu-
nication as a discourse, before the materialization of devices capable of auto-
matic storage, processing, and transmission, and before the formation of
information theory as a means of understanding and optimizing these develop-
ments. In light of these difficulties, I analyze an idiosyncratic proposal to reserve
the concept of media strictly for modernity, and to apply a different concept to
premodern mediality – namely that of Kulturtechniken, or cultural techniques
and technologies.4 Before explicating this concept and laying out its implica-
tions, I examine how debates about the applicability of terminology are informed
by questions of periodization and historiography. In recent years, media archae-
ology has become an established field for dealing with these difficulties, and is
already widely known in Anglo-American cultural studies. However, the study
of cultural techniques and technologies, another outgrowth of new German
media theory, may be even more significant for medievalists and early moder-
nists. I conclude the article with reference to recent studies of the elementary cul-
tural techniques of reading, writing, and counting in the Middle Ages and the
early modern period, suggesting where further studies may be made of cultural
techniques beyond those pertaining to images, words, and numbers. The aim of
this article is neither to systematize media archaeology and the study of cultural
techniques, which largely resist systematization, nor to suggest the adoption of
media studies as a meta-discipline, but rather to indicate productive points of
contact, contention, and possible exchange with developments in medieval and
early modern studies.
110 ERIK BORN

There Are No (Medieval) Media


There are no medieval media. This was Wolfgang Ernst’s provocative solution
to the minefield of conceptual difficulties inherent in applying an already overin-
flated concept of media to the Middle Ages (“‘Medien’” 347). In recent years,
the concept of media has become more expansive, encompassing not only “new
media” like film, radio, and the computer but also “old media” like the book, the
manuscript, and the human body. “Nichts ist kein Medium,” as Stefan Rieger
puts it (qtd. in Ernst, Rev. of Geschichte 461). Still, a basic distinction is often
made in historical studies of mediality between media sensu stricto, meaning
modern electronic technologies, and media sensu lato, referring to more univer-
sal symbolic forms of communication (e.g. Wenzel, “Medien- und Kommunika-
tionstheorie” 129). Rather than vacillating between these two conceptions of
media, Ernst proposed reserving the concept of media strictly for the study of
modern electronic technology, and adopting the concept of cultural techniques
for the study of premodern mediality: “Verkürzt gesagt, eskalieren mittelalter-
liche Kulturtechniken erst postum zu Medien” (“‘Medien’” 347). The claim that
there are no medieval media, even if it is not a claim to “Definitionsmacht im
Namen der Medienwissenschaft” but a “ganz ideosynkratisches [sic] Definition-
sangebot” (“‘Medien’” 347), might seem out of place in a special issue of Semi-
nar on the topic of medieval and early modern mediality. However, the
argument for this claim warrants consideration, especially if it helps medievalists
and (early) modernists alike to clarify the terms and stakes of studying mediality
in historical periods.
Needless to say, Ernst’s untimely proposal, made at the congress Mediävis-
tik im 21. Jahrhundert, did not meet with resounding applause (“Zusammenfas-
sung” 359). In the discussion following his paper, some contended that
rendering the Middle Ages a period of amediality would only reinforce disciplin-
ary problems, creating a further division between medievalists and modernists.
Others rightly pointed out that medieval and early modern studies hardly need to
“usurp” any concept of media, since some of the founding figures of media stu-
dies, though not historians per se, developed their approaches to media in direct
reference to the Middle Ages and the early modern period.5 The main objection
to Ernst’s claim, however, came with understanding it to mean that medieval cul-
tural techniques should only really become media proper in modernity, given
that medieval images, at the very least, were always tied to a material support.
To these objections, I would add that, even in a generous reading, the critical
gesture of substituting one controversial term for another might be understood as
a sort of bait and switch, perhaps successfully debunking the problematic con-
cept of media, only to replace it with the not unproblematic concept of cultural
techniques.
In a broad sense, there obviously were media in the Middle Ages, many of
which are still around today in the same or similar forms. There were manu-
scripts and books, the dominant media for storing information, as well as many
alternative writing surfaces, such as wax tablets, walls covered with graffiti, rolls
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 111

and scrolls, sculptures, and skin. There were air and water, the “elementary
media” required for transmitting the human voice and transporting goods and
passengers (see Peters, Marvelous Clouds 3, 19–21), as well as anthropomorphic
figures of transmission, such as angels, spirits, and messengers. Though often
overlooked, there were also science and technology in the Middle Ages, the sub-
ject of an entire field of research (e.g. White, Medieval Technology; White,
“Study”; Popplow) often treated in isolation from media studies. There were
numbers and scientific instruments for processing information, as well as lists,
catalogues, tables, and notational systems. Nevertheless, none of these premo-
dern forms of mediality fulfill the conditions of modern electronic media – at
least not in the quantitative sensu strictissimo of modern information theory –
namely the automatic storage, processing, and transmission of information
(Ernst, “‘Medien’” 347).
Dedicated to Horst Wenzel, who was responsible for pioneering interdisci-
plinary work in media studies and medieval studies in Germany, Ernst’s paper
can be understood largely as a response to Wenzel’s repeated proposal to apply
models from modern information theory to the Middle Ages (“Einleitung” 11;
“Medien- und Kommunikationstheorie” 129).6 The main obstacle for this research
agenda, as Ernst observes, is that the dominant model of modern information
theory, Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, is a difficult fit
for pre-modern mediality (“‘Medien’” 347). An electrical engineer, Shannon was
primarily interested in the efficient transmission of information, and not in seman-
tics, hermeneutics, or semiotics. This disjuncture serves as a deterrent to applying
information theory to literary and cultural studies, though it should not be under-
stood as a prohibition against doing so (Schweighauser 146). One main point of
divergence, as Ernst emphasizes, is that modern electronic media are always indif-
ferent to their contents, whereas medieval communication often contained a sym-
bolic surplus: messengers, for instance, were not expected to be as indifferent to
the contents of messages as are electronic media (“‘Medien’” 348).
In a broad sense, there were also concepts of media, information, and com-
munication in the Middle Ages, though their meanings differ from current usage
(Hoffmann 24–28). For example, the medieval concept of information initially
denoted the imparting of form to matter. In the medieval and early modern peri-
ods, “repetition and similitude are not the source for information; they are the
quintessence of its form” (Geoghegan, “Information”). Similarly, communica-
tion was a frequent topic of medieval rhetoric, politics, and theology, but com-
municatio did not signify symbolic connection, nor did it evoke modern
expectations of mutual recognition and dialogic understanding (see Peters,
Speaking 7; Kiening, “Medialität” 306). Perhaps the most similar to contempo-
rary usage, the medieval Latin term medium primarily conveyed a sense of “mid-
dle,” “median,” “means,” or “mediator,” and occasionally even a sense of “in-
betweenness,” the latter being a crucial aspect of the current understanding of
mediality as a form of dynamic, topological relation. However, the term never
referred to the material conditions of information storage, processing, and
112 ERIK BORN

transmission (Kiening, “Medialität” 287–88). Ultimately, none of these medieval


concepts took into account the materiality of media, a neglect characteristic, in
Kittler’s analysis, of the entire history of philosophy since Aristotle, whose “on-
tology deals only with things, their matter and form, but not with relations
between things in time and space” (“Towards an Ontology” 23–24).
Despite their disregard of materiality, the medieval concepts of media,
information, and communication might still be salvaged through studies in his-
torical semantics and conceptual history. As Christian Kiening and Martina
Stercken warn, abandoning these concepts entirely runs the risk of overlooking
the specificity of medieval mediality and the unique range of formal, epistemo-
logical, and, above all, ontological and theological valences of medieval terms
(4–5). After all, mediation was a central concern of medieval theology, and
medieval Christology was constantly negotiating questions of representation
and transmission, presence and absence, or immanence and transcendence (Ki-
ening, “Mediologie”). The mystical tradition is especially rife with thinking
about mediality, not only in terms of reflections on Christology as a form of
mediation, but also in terms of recursive thinking within the mystical tradition
itself, as in Johannes Tauler’s sermons on Hildegard of Bingen’s images. If the
modern understanding of mediality is usually limited to the domains of infor-
mation, communication, or materiality, then mystical theology can provide
entirely different figures of mediation, as Eugene Thacker’s philosophical stu-
dies of Meister Eckhart (“Dark Media”) and John Ruusbroec (“Wayless
Abyss”) have shown.
In a similar manner, the omnivoyant icon in Cusa’s experiment challenges
the modern presumption of a distinction between medium and message: though
bound up with a material support, the icon cannot be understood solely as a
devotional object, since its content is less relevant than the effect it creates. In
other words, the sacred character of the icon is not a given but a result of a com-
munal viewing practice, and the mediation at work here is a matter not of com-
munication but of ontology – of establishing a relation between the human and
the divine, two orders of the real that are separated by what Cusa calls the “wall
of Paradise” (par. 39: murus paradisi). This figure, in turn, serves as an “Urbild
des Medialen: zugleich trennend und verbindend repräsentiert es die Hinder-
nisse, die sich dem auf Vergleichen und Unterscheiden gegründeten Denken
entgegenstellen” (Kiening, “Mediologie” 26). Eschewing the Aristotelian cate-
gories of identity and difference, Cusa conceives of mediation in terms of the
coincidence of opposites, exemplified by the figure of Christ as the theological
mediator absolutus and the ontological medium absolutum (Kiening, “Mediolo-
gie” 26). Admittedly, the particular concepts of mediality at work in this specific
case, in other mystical texts, or in medieval theology in general are difficult to
generalize. Ultimately, the historical semantics of mediality remain problematic
because these concepts are a function not only of everyday speech but also of
cultural techniques and technologies that determine the range of possible state-
ments in particular historical discourses (Ernst, Rev. of Geschichte 461). In
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 113

short, some historical discourses of mediality do not correspond to contemporary


usage, whereas no historical discourse existed in situations that resemble the
understanding of mediality today.
Ernst’s claim that there are no medieval media might appear less radical if
understood against the background of the claim that there are no media whatso-
ever, arguably a constitutive claim of new German media theory. Neither a uni-
fied research program nor even an attempt to create a theory of media, this
dynamic constellation of approaches to media history and theory remains united
perhaps only in the refusal to join in the chorus of recent debates about the haec-
city of individual media or the quiddity of media as such (see Horn; Winthrop-
Young, “Cultural Techniques”; Parikka, “Archival Media Theory”). Instead, the
new German media theory is more concerned with the “‘technological-medial a
prioris’ of culture” (Horn 7), an implicit concept in Kittler’s work that elicited
suspicions of technological determinism (e.g. Gitelman). After Ernst’s paper on
the question of “‘Medien’ im Mittelalter?,” for instance, one audience member
evoked the term technological a priori to voice a suspicion that the “Schule der
Kulturtechniken” was guilty of a “restriktiv-herrschaftliche Ambition,” of draw-
ing a border around themselves and shoring up their own authority in the hopes
of establishing media studies as a kind of meta-science (“Zusammenfassung”
359). Even if the notion of a technological a priori came to be a hallmark of Ger-
man media theory in the 1980s and 1990s, the new German media theory that
developed in the 2000s increasingly refined its approach to the term, which was
probably always more of a heuristic than an axiom (Geoghegen, “After Kittler”
66–70; Siegert, “Introduction” 2–3). What is most controversial, in my analysis,
is not the concept’s validity but rather the commensurability of a prioris, a sub-
ject that remains insufficiently theorized.
Even though there were broad senses of information, communication, and
media in the Middle Ages, there were no medieval media in the senses of mod-
ern information theory – a claim that is actually not terribly radical. Still, the
claim deserves emphasis because it can help sharpen the distinction between
forms of mediality in different historical contexts. At the heart of Ernst’s argu-
ment for this claim is the conviction that different medial contexts demand differ-
ent forms of analysis (“‘Medien’” 347). Reserving the concept of media
exclusively for modernity, and thereby rendering the Middle Ages a period of
amediality, will remain a difficult sell for medievalists, even though, as Ernst ar-
gued, the manoeuvre could ultimately benefit medieval studies by helping
sharpen the contours of the discipline. As Ernst argues, the currency of medieval
studies for contemporary media culture goes beyond any superficial connections
between the supposed oral and visual period that came before the monopoly of
the printing press and the audiovisual period that is supposed to come after it
(“‘Medien’” 348–49, 351). Instead of looking for evidence of a return to the
Middle Ages or identifying supposed precursors of modern media, medievalists
could take up the apparent similarity between forms of medieval mediality and
those of the present, precisely in order to clarify the distinctions between
114 ERIK BORN

historical periods and make historical differences visible (“‘Medien’” 357). This
critical gesture is at the heart of media archaeology.

Media Archaeology: Of Periods, Artifacts, and Materiality


Despite the contested status of the concept of media, most medievalists and
(early) modernists will readily agree that drawing overhasty analogies between
“old” medieval media and “new” modern media not only misrepresents the state
of both phenomena but also comes at the detriment of both disciplines (see “Zu-
sammenfassung” 360; Müller). In media studies, there have been a number of
recent attempts to rethink the “digital divide,” according to which new (digital)
media are separated from old (analog) media by a technological, economic, or
historical abyss (e.g. Bolter and Grusin; Chun and Keenan; Gitelman; Thorburn
and Jenkins). From these studies, it is clear that new media do not simply replace
old media in a singular historical moment: the transition from one medium to
another is always a more gradual and complex process, a mixture of tradition
and innovation, more evolution than revolution. While scholars still tend to
devote more attention to the period in which old media were created or devel-
oped (see Balbi), studying old media entails observing not only their inception
but also their obsolescence, decay, and death. Even after the presumed lifespan
of a medium is over, it can be revived, remediated, or resurrected (Parikka,
Media Archaeology 3–5). Among recent approaches to the study of relations
between old and new media, media archaeology stands out for its strict, if not
somewhat dogmatic, stance on questions of historical difference and alterity.
Once a nebulous concept to which different authors tended to attach differ-
ent agendas, media archaeology has developed into an established constellation
of research over the past few years. While the field remains resistant to any
monolithic definition, the contours of media archaeology are now much clearer
thanks to recent overviews, translations, and collected volumes (e.g. Huhtamo
and Parikka; Parikka, Media Archaeology; Ernst, Digital Memory). Drawing on
Michael Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, media archaeology provides a
non-linear model of historiography that aims to highlight ruptures and disconti-
nuities in common narratives of media development (Parikka, Media Archaeol-
ogy 6). In film and media studies, media archaeology has often been associated
with new film history, a revisionist approach to early cinema, and with more
recent paradigms of “artistic research” and “tactical media” – that is, disassem-
bling black-boxed media and reassembling them in different configurations
(What is Media Archaeology? 10–14). Both of these aspects of media archaeol-
ogy could be beneficial to medievalists and early modernists, encouraging fur-
ther reflection on the process of working with digital facsimiles (e.g. Trettien),
on the one hand, and enabling the writing of alternative histories, on the other.
Indeed, several productive points of contact already exist between media archae-
ology and medieval and early modern studies.
Many medievalists and early modernists share the concern in media archae-
ology for respecting alterity and allowing for historical difference. Siegfried
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 115

Zielinski’s programmatic statement, “Do not seek the old in the new, but find
something new in the old” (3), often quoted as the foundational statement of
media archaeology, resonates surprisingly well with D. Vance Smith’s reflection
on countering the affective turn with insights from vernacular theology and the
mystical concept of self-annihilation: “We can do more than to keep rediscover-
ing ourselves in a work that wills us to die” (92). For Hans Robert Jauss, the
medievalist responsible for popularizing the concept of alterity, the printing
press was “das Ereignis, welches mehr als jedes andere die Kultur des Mittelal-
ters als ‘die Zeit davor’ für uns verschlossen hat” (16), since it enabled the cru-
cial philological equation of literary tradition with a culture of writing and
literacy. Even though Jauss’s hermeneutic category of alterity is no longer tena-
ble as a descriptive historical category (Braun 21), attention to the otherness of
material objects can provide a productive counterweight to the textuality of nar-
rative history (Ernst, “Irony” 43–51). While historical difference can authorize a
critique of the present while also allowing the past to develop as a special attrac-
tion, attention to the alterity of medieval objects and practices can provide med-
ievalists and scholars of media studies alike with a means to avoid reaching out
to touch the past and remake it in their own image.
Each of the different Anglo-American and German inflections of media
archaeology, the former interfacing more directly with literary and cultural stu-
dies than the latter, provides a robust method for dealing with the recurrence of
tropes over time – an especially relevant issue for Cusa’s text, which intervenes
in perennial debates about the nature of icons and about conventions governing
visions of the divine (McGinn). At first glance, Kittler’s study of “Isolde als
Sirene,” Claus Pias and Timon Beyes’s analysis of premodern secrecy and trans-
parency, and Markus Krajewski’s “recursive historiography,” the practice of
studying media anachronistically so that one returns to the present with increased
knowledge of the past, and vice versa, may appear commensurate with Erkki
Huhtamo’s transhistorical investigation of “media topoi” in explicit analogy to
Ernst Robert Curtius’s famous catalogue of rhetorical topoi. However, as Huh-
tamo admits, media topoi are not strictly dependent on the materiality of media,
and recursive historiography, as Krajewski emphasizes, includes reflection on
first-order operations of recursion, as in his outline of a medieval history of the
equals sign. Developing a different example, in “Telling versus Counting” Ernst
likens the practice of media archaeology to that of medieval annals in terms of
their refusal to separate “narrated time” from “calculated time” (148). If the mod-
ern historian separates narration from calculation when integrating events into a
linear discourse based on causality, the media archaeologist, like the medieval
annalist, registers events as a discrete sequence. For Ernst, the medieval practice
of “telling-as-counting” embodies an “aesthetics of computing,” an ideal mode
of media archaeology (“Irony” 45).7
Further disciplinary parallels between medieval studies and media archaeol-
ogy are evident in Kittler’s programmatic outline “The History of Communica-
tion Media,” which condenses the history of writing into two main fields of
116 ERIK BORN

study. On the one hand, the medium of writing is composed of various scripts
that act as a semiotic system of reference. In medieval studies, the study of these
historical writing systems falls under the purview of paleography. On the other
hand, the medium of writing can also be understood as a coupling of storage and
transmission processes operating on a material substrate, and thereby determin-
ing the longevity, durability, and portability of written information. According to
Kittler, “the second series of variables has received considerably less attention,
possibly because it is so material in nature,” a conviction shared by new philol-
ogy and the field of manuscript studies that developed out of the traditional disci-
pline of codicology. Nevertheless, media studies tends to ask different questions
about writing surfaces and writing implements than does codicology, manuscript
studies, or even the history of the book. Whereas new philology aims at produ-
cing readings of texts, continuing the legacy of paleography and codicology as
auxiliary disciplines to philology, Kittlerian media studies is more interested in
reading the materiality of communication for its own attractions.
If the history of the book often relies on a linear developmental narrative
(manuscript – book – hypertext), and an archaeology of the book decomposes
texts into the materiality of writing implements (quill – pen – button) and writing
surfaces (parchment – paper – pixels), a media archaeology of the book would
“circuit-bend” the latter’s insights onto the former’s assumptions, emphasizing
historical ruptures and unexpected connections among different historical peri-
ods. Citing Vincent Gillespie, for example, Ernst suggests “that the contempo-
rary user’s experience of hypertext ‘seems . . . to be similar to a medieval
reader’s experience of illuminated, illustrated and glossed manuscripts contain-
ing different hierarchies of material that can be accessed in various ways’”
(“Discontinuities” 121). Notwithstanding aesthetic continuity in the layout of
manuscripts, books, and hypertexts, the information retrieval practices involved
in working with manuscripts resemble those involved in working with hypertexts
more than either resembles practices involved in working with the printed book.
In a somewhat similar vein, Haiko Wandhoff has compared the virtual spaces of
modern computer monitors and medieval texts (“Im virtuellen Raum”; “Der
Schild als Bild-Schirm”), a trend catalyzed by Wenzel’s transhistorical work
(“Initialen”). While Wenzel identified similarities between computer icons and
manuscript initials, Stefan Heidenreich connected computer icons to religious
icons as means of training “idiots,” that is, laypeople. The danger of these com-
parisons, as with any transhistorical study, is that they can lead to drawing over-
hasty analogies between old media and new media.
To circumvent the hazards of analogy, media archaeology emphasizes that
technological media are not only the rarefied objects of historical analysis but,
even more importantly, a condition of possibility for current historiography. As
Ernst puts it, media are not only the object but also the subject of medieval his-
tory (“‘Medien’” 349–52). In other words, digital media are not merely “tools”
for research; they impose themselves on research methods and inform questions
of periodization. Ideally, media archaeology and the digital humanities may have
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 117

“the ability to transform not only how we study but what we see in the past”
(Trettien 190), though this claim need not be taken optimistically. Media archae-
ology should not only draw further attention to the mediated nature of current co-
dicological, paleographical, and editorial practices, underscoring the differences
in working with medieval artifacts in person, in critical print editions, and in dig-
ital form. It could also disclose the role of cultural techniques and technologies
in the historical development of medieval and early modern studies as a disci-
pline. One of the earliest cultural techniques for recording the history of technol-
ogy can be found in early modern catalogues and inventories of inventions
(White, “Study” 521), a technique that developed in tandem with the standard-
ization of maps, cosmographic tables, and scientific instruments (Siegert, “Ani-
mation” 119). While photography played a key role in the nineteenth-century
genesis of paleography and codicology, allowing manuscripts to be studied at
remote locations, the computer made another groundbreaking contribution to the
revaluation of these disciplines. Arguably the first project in digital humanities
was Roberto Busa’s concordance of Aquinas and related authors, a collaboration
with Thomas J. Watson at IBM (Hockey 3). As early as 1979, Bernhard Bischoff
could observe: “With the aid of technological advances paleography, which is an
art of seeing and comprehending, is in the process of becoming an art of mea-
surement” (3). Only with the advent of computing, one might argue, did manu-
script studies finally recognize itself in its objects of study, the production of
medieval manuscripts always already having involved a great deal of measure-
ment and counting. Was it a coincidence, one might further ask, that new philol-
ogy developed in tandem with the rise of hyperlinking, new advances in
cataloguing, and other early digitization projects (e.g. Gruijs; Cerquiglini 72–82)?
Old media, new media. Analog, digital. Software, hardware. Techniques,
technologies. These useful conceptual distinctions may unintentionally foreclose
the study of mediality in historical periods, forcing medievalists into writing
either a “Vorgeschichte” or a “Gegengeschichte” of media proper (Kiening and
Stercken 3–4). The problem is not merely choosing a side. In either case, modern
media tend to serve as a foil for medieval media, preserving stereotypical histori-
cal ruptures: the “revolution” of writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries,
that of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and that of alphabetization in
the eighteenth century (Kiening and Stercken 3–4). By contrast, media archaeol-
ogy can establish its own periodizations on the basis of media themselves,
thereby complicating common references to the invention of the printing press as
evidence for a historical divide between the medieval and early modern periods.
For example, Nicholas of Cusa has long been a Janus-faced figure in debates
about periodization, starting with those about the “emergence of modernity”
among Hans Blumenberg, Ernst Cassirer, and Hans-Georg Gadamer (see Moore;
Hoff). From the perspective of media studies, on the other hand, the manuscripts
containing the treatise On the Vision of God are more conventional, since book
production was, in many respects, relatively stable from the thirteenth to the se-
venteenth centuries.8 Still, a media archaeology of Cusa’s experiment with the
118 ERIK BORN

icon might situate it within a broader constellation of “proto-cinematic” viewing


practices (Berns), thereby disrupting the dominant historicist reading of the text
in relation to Renaissance portraiture (Wolf 253–67). Furthermore, a media
archaeology of Cusa’s experiment with the icon could help draw attention to the
differences among holograms, lenticular images, and a computer simulation de-
signed to test for the correction of perceptual distortion that results in the impres-
sion of being followed by the eyes in a picture (Koenderink et al. 527–28).
Media archaeology has had its detractors, even within the field of new Ger-
man media theory itself: Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan remains suspicious of
the “trendy designation” of media archaeology and the “the media-archaeologi-
cal determinations of an episteme founded on a well-defined technological a
priori” (“Untimely Mediations” 420). From the perspective of medieval and
early modern studies, moreover, Kiening has questioned the utility of transhis-
torical media studies in general: as “faszinierend” as comparing media in
different periods may be, “ergeben sich daraus vor allem Einsichten in die
medialen Dynamisierungen, die im Laufe des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts die
technischen Experimente mit neuen bewegten Bildern vorbereiten und begle-
iten” (“Medialität” 323–24). In other words, while modernists stand to benefit
from the results of comparative studies, what would be the return for medieval-
ists and early modernists? As Jussi Parikka argues, the emerging field of media
archaeology is best understood as what Mieke Bal calls a “traveling concept,”
an approach without any permanent institutional home (Media Archaeology
15). In my analysis, media archaeology works best when used as a revisionist
and oppositional strategy within individual disciplines, rather than as a meta-
science. Ernst’s robust formulation of media archaeology is the only variant I
know of to have been formulated with extensive reference to the Middle Ages,
though it is by no means the only significant development in new German
media theory that could have a bearing on medieval and early modern studies.
While media archaeology has already become an established field of research
outside of Germany, the study of cultural techniques and technologies is only
beginning to do so.

Cultural Techniques: Reading, Writing, Counting, and Beyond


Reading, writing, counting – these cultural techniques are all abilities aimed at
creating, manipulating, and interpreting signs in the form of images, words, and
numbers. Not only is mastering these elementary cultural techniques a prerequi-
site for being able to function in many societies; these cultural techniques them-
selves give rise to the very ontological distinctions at the heart of culture, such as
inner and outer, sacred and profane, human and animal, self and other, signal
and noise (Siegert, “Introduction” 14). Several of these categories are at stake in
Cusa’s experiment, particularly in his emphasis on the mathematical and geomet-
ric properties of the figure constructed by the monks viewing the icon. Further-
more, cultural techniques and technologies elude the common understanding of
culture as text. If the semiotics and structuralism that dominated cultural studies
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 119

well into the 1980s tended to turn all culture into “text,” the study of cultural
techniques that developed in the 1990s and 2000s returns to the materiality of
culture, particularly the material culture of image, script, and number (Krämer
and Bredekamp).
In the study of cultural techniques and technologies, a concept not without
its own internal contradictions (Wedell, “Einleitung” 9–11), the main dividing
lines tend to fall around objections to the concept’s expansiveness and lack of
historicity.9 So that the concept of cultural techniques does not cover every
imaginable technique, technology, and cultural practice, Harun Maye argued that
the concept is better understood as “Technik der Kultur und nicht als Kultur der
Technik, des Körpers oder des Sozialen” (135). In a similar vein, Thomas
Macho attempted to limit the concept of cultural techniques to second-order op-
erations like writing, painting, and film, which can all be self-referential, as
opposed to first-order operations like cooking, plowing, or making fire (“Sec-
ond-Order Animals” 31). For Bernhard Siegert, on the other hand, first-order
techniques can still be understood as cultural techniques, even if they cannot the-
matize themselves: cultural techniques involve dynamic, processual “chains of
operations and techniques,” rather than “static concepts of technologies and sym-
bolic work” (“Introduction” 13). Regardless of whether they are taken to be first-
or second-order operations, understanding cultural techniques as dynamic, con-
tingent processes helps move the field away from anthropological universals and
toward specific historical contexts (Wedell, Zählen 87). To this growing field of
research, then, medievalists and early modernists can contribute insights into the
historical specificity of cultural techniques.
Cultural techniques have served different purposes in different cultures –
“techniques of acculturation” being another possible translation of the term Kul-
turtechniken. As Geoffrey Winthrop-Young points out, the study of cultural
techniques pushes back against the antithesis of Kultur and Zivilisation, as in
Norbert Elias’s seminal formulation, by referring the elevated meaning of culture
back to the etymological roots of agricultural engineering (“KULTUR” 378–80).
In medieval studies, the civilizing force of cultural techniques could be examined
further with reference to C. Stephen Jaeger’s disputed theses on the origins of
courtliness, along with Joachim Bumke’s seminal work on courtly culture. The
concept of cultural techniques could help further explain the acculturation of the
German nobility through French models (Bumke 61–102), as well as the courtly
culture of architectural construction, clothing and dress, weaponry and horses,
food and drink (103–202). Festive protocols governing eating, knighting, and
jousting (203–74) would lend themselves especially well to the framework of
cultural techniques, as evident in Siegert’s preliminary studies of medieval com-
munication (“Parlêtres”) and Macho’s examination of medieval identity forma-
tion through the cultural techniques of creating calendars (“Zeit und Zahl”), or
those of impression, such as stamps, seals, badges, and pins (“Second-Order An-
imals”). Ultimately, as the editors of the recent volume Kulturtechniken des Bar-
ock emphasize, the orientation of the field to Bruno Latour’s actor–network
120 ERIK BORN

theory should not merely replace Elias’s concept of the “courtly society” with a
concept of the “courtly collective” (Nanz and Schäfer 10).
“What is so new about cultural techniques?” asks Parikka, citing parallels
between “(German) cultural techniques” and “(Anglo-American) cultural prac-
tices,” insofar as both draw on French theory: Michel Foucault’s “technologies
of the self,” Marcel Mauss’s “techniques of the body,” and Pierre Bourdieu’s
notion of “habitus” (“Afterword” 149). If there is a difference, Parikka suggests,
it lies in new German media theory’s emphasis on the interdependency of human
and non-human actors, especially technical and technological objects, in the con-
stitution of culture (151). In recent years, there have already been several exem-
plary studies of the elementary cultural techniques of reading, writing, and
counting in the Middle Ages and the early modern period (e.g. Bredekamp and
Schneider; Contreni and Casciani; Grube, Kogge, and Krämer; Krämer; Macho,
“Second-Order Animals”; Macho, “Zeit und Zahl”; Wedell, “Einleitung”; We-
dell, “Numbers”; Wedell, Zählen; Wenzel, “Einleitung”; Wenzel, “Initialen”;
Wenzel, “Medien”). For further studies of the cultural techniques of reading,
writing, and counting, Martin Steinmann’s outstanding sourcebook Handschrif-
ten im Mittelalter has recently provided many other possible primary sources,
though further studies are needed of medieval and early modern developments
beyond image, script, and number.10

Medieval Reading as a Cultural Technique


In media theory, writing and images are often contrasted on the basis of a geo-
metric distinction – namely dimensionality, a property attributed to the nature of
different media. However, as Kittler argued in the article “Perspective and the
Book,” the contrast between the presumed linearity, or one-dimensionality, of
printed books, and the non-linearity, or two-dimensionality of images, overlooks
the fact that many books are not read in a linear manner: “Though the lines of a
book have looked linear since Gutenberg, the page of a book has been two-
dimensional since the Scholasticism of the twelfth century at the latest” (39). In
the incunabula period, the main attraction of the printing press was not mass
serial production but elegant two-dimensional pictoriality. To this end, Johannes
Gutenberg’s press developed the medieval scribal practice of using a grid system
to create page layouts so that it would accommodate any arbitrary piece of mov-
able type (40); around the same time, Leon Battista Alberti’s method for linear
perspective also relied on a grid of interwoven threads to assign visual data vari-
ous place values (44). In this respect, Cusa’s experiment challenges assumptions
about the place of linear perspective in the history of representation. The domi-
nant narrative of Renaissance perspective holds that there is only one place from
which an image is legible, only one position with an ideal view – the place, in
Foucault’s famous analysis of Las Meninas (The Order of Things 3–18), occu-
pied by the king and queen; or, more commonly, the monarch’s seat at the centre
of the theatre for which the stage’s perspectival scenery was drawn. While this
ideal view may apply to an audience of immobile spectators, the participants in
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 121

Cusa’s experiment are mobile – they have to be mobile to produce the desired
effect – and as a result the image is equally legible from any position. Ultimately,
the figure they construct, at once visual and verbal, turns a representation of
space into a mapping of space, inviting us to reconsider the relation of words
and images at the threshold of modernity.
The close connection between the medieval techniques of reading words
and reading images can also be seen in the fact that Cusa sent not only a treatise
but also an icon to Tegernsee Abbey, suggesting that a similar technique of read-
ing applied here to both the words and the image (see Bond). Significantly, one
composite manuscript containing On the Vision of God (Clm 19352), produced
on parchment at Tegernsee in 1453–55, was designed to include many printed
graphics, among which was probably a woodcut in the style of the Vera Icon
mentioned by Cusa, though this and most of the images are now lost. However,
another manuscript (München ms. Clm 18711 = Tegernsee 711) still contains a
pasted-in miniature of the Holy Face, making the book itself into a devotional
object (Schmidt 163) and raising questions about what practices would have
enabled it to function in the context of Cusa’s instructions. While the practice of
including devotional images at the front of manuscripts was common for psalters
since the eleventh century, it was introduced into private prayer books only in
the fifteenth century (164), thereby generating new cultural techniques of cutting,
copying, and pasting.
While orality and literacy were once taken to be mutually exclusive terms,
perpetuating the assumption that all reading in non-typographical societies was
necessarily reading aloud, Dennis Green brought the two categories together in
his seminal study of the “mixed culture” of medieval German reading and listen-
ing practices. For Green, the mixed culture of reading and listening is captured
in the formula “lesen oder hoeren,” an indication of two possible audiences con-
sisting of readers and listeners (337). Sara S. Poor developed another productive
dual notion with her concept of the “double agency” of authorship, a reminder
that studies of the medieval practices of reading and writing should consider
both the historical person of the author and the author function of the medieval
text created in the course of multiple redactions over time (10–11). These and
other recent approaches have shown reading to be a cultural technique that pro-
duces identity in a dynamic medieval society. For example, the immediate audi-
ence for Cusa’s treatise is composed of the abbot and brothers at Tegernsee
Abbey, whom he addresses directly as the “most beloved brothers” (par. 1: dilec-
tissmis fratribus) and the “very beloved brothers” (par. 5: fratres amantissimos)
in the preface to the treatise, though the remainder of the treatise is addressed to
a singular “brother contemplative” (par. 10: frater contemplator), a gesture at a
future community of readers.

Medieval Writing as a Cultural Technique


In the semiotic tradition of media studies, the medieval manuscript is conceived
of as a text and, by extension, a form of written language – a conception that can
122 ERIK BORN

be traced back at least to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s famous distinction


between the spatial nature of the visual arts and the temporal nature of poetry.
However, the conception of the medieval manuscript as written language, and,
by extension, of medieval culture as a collection of texts, overlooks two main as-
pects of writing as a medium: the iconicity of writing as a pictorial phenomenon
consisting of inscriptions on a surface, and the operationality of writing, which
becomes possible through manipulating fixed signs. If writing is understood not
as written language but as a graphemic technique, the iconic and operational po-
tentials of writing can be examined as part and parcel of culture (Grube, Krogge,
and Krämer). For example, the architecture of the medieval book does not
always have correspondences in written language: many reading, writing, and
counting practices operate with spatial configurations that do not have analogues
in oral speech, such as page layout, footnotes, empty spaces, and the use of cur-
sive, diagrams, and formulas – many of which features are related to the medi-
eval ars memoria. As Mary Carruthers has shown, practices of information
retrieval, which were initially based on a mnemotechnical scheme of spatial
organization, eventually produced visual schemes for organizing the layout of a
manuscript (99–152).
As a predominantly manual activity, the cultural technique of writing in-
volves routine hand movements, through which a text arises letter by letter
(Gertz et al. 589). The manual operation of writing is based on cultural conven-
tions, including not only the choice of a semiotic system and writing materials
but also the acquisition of a specific posture and appropriate gestures. Through-
out the Middle Ages, for example, writing was generally an activity that in-
volved both hands: the quill was held with three fingers in the right hand, while
the left hand supported a pen knife, used to sharpen the quill, erase mistakes, and
keep the parchment page laid flat (Bischoff 18–19). Yet, conceiving of writing
as a cultural technique means understanding the act of writing not only as a prac-
tice conditioned by culture but also as a practice that constitutes culture (Zanetti
7, 31–34), with writing techniques themselves giving rise to new literary forms
and media formats.
The iconicity and operationality of writing are especially evident in maps
and diagrams, which can be understood not only as representations of space
but also as spaces of representation. To Certeau’s observation that the figure
constructed in Cusa’s exercise is theatrical, mathematical, and cosmographical –
evident not only in Certeau’s explicit reflections on figurae but also, implicitly,
in his own use of illustrative diagrams in the article as visual evidence – I would
add that all of these techniques depend on the diagrammatic potential of writing.
Among various writing techniques, a diagram has the unique ability to express
several levels of meaning explicitly and simultaneously. While most representa-
tions signify only one thing, the same schema in a diagram can accommodate a
number of concepts and a number of different inscriptions (Evans). This is cer-
tainly the case with Cusa’s figura paradigmatica from On Surmises (De coniec-
turis), a double pyramid of oneness and otherness that simultaneously shows his
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 123

theories of ontology, cosmology, and optics. Elsewhere, in On the Vision of


God, Cusa presents a number of what he calls similitudines, mathematical, geo-
metric, or mechanical examples that correspond to lessons in seeing, hearing,
and speaking, including a clock (par. 46; 39–41), a mirror, a book, and the eye
(par. 32), along with the famous wall of Paradise (par. 39).11 In the Renaissance
episteme of similitudes, moreover, many spiritual exercises required the use of
an image or a figure, just as classical geometric demonstrations required the con-
struction of a figure.

Medieval Counting as a Cultural Technique


The cultural technique of writing is imbricated with that of counting. As Certeau
argues, the ambiguity of the term one poses a problem of both writing and count-
ing in Cusa’s “mathematical liturgy” (14): “[T]he term ‘one’ designates either a
unit that belongs to the series of numbers and that is followed by 2, 3, 4, etc., or
else the principle that generates the sequence and that therefore ‘precedes the
number’” (28). In other words, the term one can be understood either as part of
the series of numbers or as a concept of unity, since, even in the fifteenth cen-
tury, there was not a common algebraic notation with an accompanying theory
of the zero for distinguishing between these two positions. “However, as a ge-
ometer he sees this unwritten distinction as the relation of the center with the
points of the circumference” (28). In recent years, aspects of Cusa’s theologia
geometrica, including his reflections on optics and the problem of squaring the
circle, have started to receive more attention (e.g. Albertson 169–276). Though
the cultural technique of counting has not been sufficiently studied, it remains
one of the most promising avenues for future research on medieval mediality.
As Moritz Wedell argues, medievalists are confronted with a stubborn
image of premodern numerical knowledge based on straightforward shifts “from
mysticism to ratio, from symbol to science, from a primitive to an elaborate
mathematical culture” (“Numbers” 1205). While modern scholarship tends to
conceive of numbers in terms of “abstraction, mathematical rationality, and sci-
entific progress,” medieval cultural techniques of counting involved a different
kind of “numerical knowledge in terms of materiality, performance, and commu-
nication” (1205). Although medieval numerical knowledge is commonly studied
in terms of religious symbolism or modern rationality, the study of medieval
counting as a cultural technique reveals it to be a practice that was also bound up
with technologies of power and the “assignment of rank – quantitative, qualita-
tive, and social. After all, applying numbers in the first place meant determining
what was countable, i.e. answering the question: What counts?” (1260).

Medieval Cultural Techniques beyond Images, Words, and Numbers


As Siegert observes, not every history of paper, the telescope, or the postal sys-
tem is necessarily a media history; only when the histories of these phenomena
are taken as a system of reference for the analysis of some historical
124 ERIK BORN

development do they become a media history proper. Media are embedded in


contingent historical practices, and “history is itself a system of meaning that op-
erates across a media-technological abyss of nonmeaning that must remain hid-
den” (“Introduction” 5). In other words, media and technology are both a frame
of reference for historical studies of cultural techniques and a condition of possi-
bility for historiography itself. This crucial desideratum for the study of cultural
techniques in historical perspectives is perhaps best illustrated by Siegfried Gie-
dion’s pioneering media archaeology, which he called “anonymous history.”
“How did people sit in the Middle Ages?” asked Giedion in Mechanization
Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History. To answer this deliber-
ately naive question, Giedion viewed the medieval history of posture through the
framework of furniture design, arguing that the medieval conception of comfort
was more solemn, more improvised, and more mobile than in modern concep-
tions of design (261, 265). Unlike most ancient and modern furniture, medieval
furniture did not conform to the shape of the human body: low stools, often set
up in informal and improvised arrangements, made sitting into crouching and
squatting (264). Hence, medieval seating arrangements usually encouraged inti-
macy or crowdedness, in contrast to the distance and isolation of modern seating
(266). Though functional considerations certainly went into the arrangement of
medieval furniture on the floor, Giedion’s main point is that the medieval idea of
comfort, based on a respect for the “dignity of space,” differs from the modern
idea of comfort, based on designing furniture to fill space (299–304). Ultimately,
Giedion’s curiosity about the history of posture and the differences between
medieval and modern design should serve as further inspiration for future studies
of cultural techniques in art, agriculture, navigation, textiles, timekeeping, and
the university.

Conclusion: Media Studies and Medieval Studies


Nicholas of Cusa’s “little book on the icon” (libellus iconae), as he would later
call the treatise On the Vision of God, has played a surprisingly large role in de-
bates about the emergence of modernity, initially in terms of the history of sub-
jectivity and more recently in terms of the history of representation. However, if
media are still commonly conceived of as representations of the sacred, a cate-
gory situated in God, human beings, or religious objects, the study of cultural
techniques and technologies can reveal how the sacred is constituted through
medial practices that establish the links in these chains of human and non-human
actors (see Balke, Siegert, and Vogl). In Cusa’s exercise, the omnivoyant icon is
not a representation of the sacred; the incorporation of a sacred element into the
image demands a particular artistic technique and a collective viewing practice.
Even though this practice clearly never became routine, thereby becoming a cul-
tural technique proper, Cusa’s manuduction remains significant in the history of
practices related to icons. While the surface of an icon typically indexes the
traces of those who have touched it for multiple generations, thereby becoming a
sort of palimpsest of devotion, Cusa’s experiment indexes the depth of
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 125

devotional images for a contemporaneous community of mobile, distant viewers


at the cusp of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period.
In other words, cultural techniques of engaging with icons are prior, concep-
tually and historically, to any concept of an icon, iconoclasm, or iconology.
While the first wave of German media theory might have overlooked this insight
owing to its focus on the “materialities of communication,” as Geoffrey Winthrop-
Young characterizes the changing field, the new German media theory would cap-
ture it in terms of the “materialities of ontologization” (“KULTUR” 387). Just as
German media theory deconstructed “symbolic constructs into signifying prac-
tices,” the new German media theory analyzes “cultural, material, and biological
constructs into operating chains of practices, techniques, technologies, and linked
actors” (387). Ultimately, media archaeology and the study of cultural techniques
are assets to medievalists and early modernists because they offer a means of ana-
lyzing practices of mediality before there was a concept for media as such.
Although the emerging fields of media archaeology and cultural techniques
are not without their own conceptual difficulties and methodological drawbacks,
I propose that they can become a useful approach to the study of medieval and
early modern mediality. Ultimately, the approach of media archaeology should
resonate with medievalists and early modernists familiar with meta-history and
concerned with multiple temporalities. Likewise, the study of cultural techniques
complements the study of cultural practices, providing a useful theoretical edge
for analyzing the material culture of images, words, and numbers. Despite these
similarities with established concepts in Anglo-American cultural studies, media
archaeology and cultural techniques remain unique concepts, primarily informed
by debates in German media theory about the technological a priori and debates
in new German media theory about anthropology and the historicity of tech-
nology. Even though Anglo-American cultural studies and German Kultur-
wissenschaften will remain incommensurable academic landscapes, further
intercultural exchange on media archaeology and the study of cultural techniques
can help broaden the scope of current research on medieval and early modern
mediality. Questions of audiovisuality, word–image relations, and orality versus
literacy can be redirected to the fields of arithmetic, geometry, and information
so crucial to the understanding of modern technology, or to the cultural techni-
ques of reading, writing, and counting at the heart of medieval culture. Against
the present culture of technology, media archaeology and the study of cultural
techniques, particularly those of premodern periods, can help bring to light the
historically contingent practices that give rise to different cultures.

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge Niklaus Largier for introducing me to Nicholas of


Cusa, and to thank Kenneth Fockele, Jake Fraser, Valentine A. Pakis, and Moritz
Wedell for their incisive comments, helpful references, and extensive correc-
tions. I also thank Ann Marie Rasmussen, Markus Stock, and the editors of
126 ERIK BORN

Seminar for their help in seeing this article through to completion. This article
was composed during my research stay as the Fulbright/IFK Junior Fellow at the
Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (IFK) in Vienna, Aus-
tria. I am grateful for the financial support of these institutions and for discus-
sions with my colleagues on the topic of this article and many other topics.

Notes

1 In citations of Cusa’s treatise, I refer to the paragraph numbers (par. 1–114) in Jasper Hopkin’s
English-Latin edition (100–269), which is prefaced by an interpretive study (3–97); for the
standard critical edition, see Adelaida Dorothea Riemann’s Latin “Heidelberg” edition (Nicho-
las of Cusa, Opera Omnia).
2 On the Vision of God (De visione Dei) explores two potential interpretations of the title: visio
Dei can be taken as a subjective genitive, that is, God’s vision of human beings, or as an objec-
tive genitive, that is, human beings’ vision of God (Hopkins 17–28). Within the longer tradition
of Western mysticism, Cusa’s On the Vision of God draws on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius,
Johannes Scotus Eriugena, and Meister Eckhart, though it does not fit easily into either the tra-
dition of scholasticism or that of vernacular theology (McGinn). In the context of the fifteenth-
century Devotio Moderna movement, On the Vision of God can be read as an attempt to reform
everyday visual practices through the repetition of a spiritual exercise (Bocken).
3 As examples of omnivoyant figures, Cusa refers to the pictures (pictae) of a centaur shooting the
arrow that unites heaven and earth in the constellation of Sagittarius; Roger van der Weyden’s self-
portrait, a three-quarter view turned toward the spectator amid a crowd; a “Veronica,” meaning
either the Vera Icon, that is, the holy face of Christ that Veronica shows on her cloth, or the face of
Veronica herself; and, finally, the painting of an all-seeing figure that Cusa possesses, sends to the
Benedictine abbey at Tegernsee, and calls the “Icon of God” (par. 2: mitto tabellam, figuram
cuncta videntis tenentem, quam eiconam dei appello). The common assumption (e.g. Belting;
Simon 70–72), based on Cusa’s allusion to Veronica, is that the icon was a kind of Andachtsbild, a
devotional image of one highly affective moment drawn from the narrative of the Passion. Despite
many attempts to determine the exact provenance of the image (see Wolf 255, n. 286), we will
probably never know what exact painting Nicholas of Cusa sent to Tegernsee Abbey.
4 In this article, I use the term cultural techniques, and, where relevant, cultural techniques and
technologies, as a standard translation of the German term Kulturtechniken. For an overview of
the difficulties in translating the term, see Geoffrey Winthrop-Young’s “Translator’s Note” in
Bernhard Siegert’s Cultural Techniques. An expanded version of Winthrop-Young’s note can
be found in his introduction to a special issue of Theory, Culture and Society on cultural techni-
ques. In “After Kittler,” a contribution to the same issue, Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan also
provides arguments in favour of the term cultural techniques.
5 Though names were not named in the discussion, the inventory of foundational work on media
studies featuring discussions of the Middle Ages would have to include Harold Adams Innis,
Vilém Flusser, André Leroi-Gourhan, Niklas Luhmann, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong,
Paul Virilio and arguably even Friedrich Kittler (e.g. “Universities”; “Buchstaben”). For an
excellent summary of Flusser’s, Leroi-Gourhan’s, Luhmann’s, Ong’s, and McLuhan’s ap-
proaches, particularly with regard to the question of media change, see Wenzel, “Medien- und
Kommunikationstheorie” 126–30.
6 As Christian Kiening points out in an overview of “Medialität in mediävistischer Perspektive,” few
medievalists and early modernists have actually answered Wenzel’s call to apply information
theory directly to the Middle Ages, and those who have done so have actually produced some inter-
esting insights (309–10). Furthermore, Wenzel’s call for “die Übertragung nachrichtentechnischer
Modelle” need not be understood as restricted to Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication
Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques, and the Middle Ages 127

alone, especially since Wenzel’s interest seems to lie more in a broader sense of media. In his
paper “Zum Stand der Germanistischen Mediävistik,” delivered at the same congress as Ernst’s
paper, Wenzel admitted: “Dieser Medienbegriff erscheint zwar extrem weit in der Verbindung bio-
logischer, physikalischer, technologischer und soziologischer Aspekte, ist aber für eine kulturhistor-
ische Fragestellung auch ganz besonders produktiv” (158).
7 Although annalistic practices would change over the course of the Middle Ages, the medieval
aesthetics of computing remained evident in the late medieval technology of bells signalling
the canonical hours (Ernst, “Telling” 149) and in early modern travel writing.
8 On the Vision of God is transmitted in over thirty manuscripts (Nicholas of Cusa, Opera Omnia
xi–xxiv; Hopkins 101–05). The most significant of these is Codex Cusanus 219 (C), a collec-
tion of Cusa’s work commissioned and checked during his own lifetime that nevertheless still
contains some errors (Hopkins 45–46). As I argue below, two further manuscripts designed for
the inclusion of pasted-in woodcuts are also significant for the understanding of word–image
relations in the incunabula period.
9 As Geoghegan observes (“After Kittler,” 67), the two main understandings of cultural techni-
ques and technologies tend to fall along institutional lines, with a more robust definition being
adopted by scholars at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and a more idiosyncratic definition
in Lüneberg, Siegen, and Weimar.
10 For (new) German media theory, the Middle Ages have primarily been of interest for the inven-
tion of a notational system for music and the introduction of algebra and the Indian counting
system, a “mittelalterliche Zeichenexplosion” that blew up “die dreifaltige Einheit von Buchsta-
ben, Ziffern und Noten” (Kittler, “Buchstaben” 44).
11 To mention only one central example of a similitude, cultural techniques of reading function, in
chapter 8 of Cusa’s treatise, as another means of generating the category of the human as a
media effect: “When I open a book, for reading, I see the whole page confusedly. And if I want
to discern the individual letters, syllables, and words, I have to turn to each individually and
successively. And only successively can I read one letter after another, one word after another,
one passage after another. But You, O Lord, behold at once the entire page, and You read it
without taking any time” (par. 31: Cum aperio librum ad legendum, video confuse totam char-
tam; et si volo discernere singulas litteras, syllabas et dictiones, necesse est, ut me singulariter
ad singula seriatim convertam. Et non possum nisi successive unam post aliam litteram legere
et unam dictionem post aliam et passum post passum. Sed tu, domine, simul totam chartam re-
spicis et legis sine more temporis). While human reading practices may be based on the succes-
sive processing of linear signs, non-linear reading is the primary condition for Cusa’s definition
of the transcendent. Having three monks view the icon at the same time provides a taste of this
simultaneity and non-linearity.

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