How can German literature, philosophy, and cultural history help us to make sense of our own media environment and technological present? What do the histories of reading and writing, film and sound recording, teach us about the social, political, and aesthetic implications of a still unfolding media revolution, one marked by the rise of digital computing, data aggregation, automation and tracking?
German-speaking Europe occupies a unique and troubled place in the history of media, the site of both groundbreaking technical innovations and some of their most nefarious applications – from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, through the extensive use of radio and film for political propaganda during the Third Reich, to elaborate networks of state-sponsored surveillance in former East Germany. Not surprisingly, Germany has also produced some of the most influential theorists of media and played an invaluable role in the development of media studies as an academic discipline.
This winter semester the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures will once again offer the seminar “Media Matter: From Print to Screen Culture,” which explores this complex history and the critical insights it has engendered. Cross-listed with American Culture and Screen Arts & Cultures, the seminar also moves beyond the German-speaking context to examine parallel developments in the United States, thereby making it of interest to students from a variety of majors and minors.
The seminar’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity and Transatlantic exchange is reflected in the range of topics covered over the course of the semester, including German print culture around 1800, the typewriter and female labor, German colonialism and phonographic sound archives, Nazi radio, Afrofuturism and the development of techno music in Detroit and Berlin, data aggregation on social media, surveillance and tracking at Amazon warehouses and the Disneyland theme park, online book clubs, ‘genetic art’ and biological design. In addition to engaging with scholarly articles, literary texts, films and audio recordings, students are asked to create their own politically oriented photomontage in the style of the German Dadaists.
Each semester, the seminar mines the remarkable reservoir of resources on campus and in the Ann Arbor community. Students visit the Orson Welles Archive at the Hatcher Graduate Library with Film Studies Field Librarian, Philip Hallman, to sift through boxes of archived letters from Welles’ infamous 1938 radio play War of the Worlds. Other events have included visits to Duderstadt’s Computer and Videogame Archive on North Campus, exhibitions and sound installations at UMMA, and film screenings on media-related topics at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Finally, the course utilizes the department's own speaker series, which regularly features lectures on related topics by prominent scholars of media from around the world. In the past, students attended a presentation by the media preservation specialist, Patrick Feaster (Indiana University), who, among other things, was involved in playing back the world’s earliest sound recording. This coming semester the course will tie in with lectures on nineteenth century ‘paperwork’ and Nazi technoscience by contemporary media theorists Petra McGillen (Dartmouth) and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (U. of British Columbia).