Frank Hartmann on Wed, 23 Feb 2000 01:56:35 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Does hermeneutics matter to media theory?

What is hermeneutics? More than skiing with
Heidegger? And does it matter to media theory?
Some notes for the concerned mind of the 21st

As James Allan recently made public on this
list, along with the conservative press, German
philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer just celebrated
his 100th birthday. To become that old, what an
achievement for true (maybe the near future will
propose a "german philosopher's diet"). Gadamer
is known for bringing the term "hermeneutics" to
new life in the German philosophical discourse
of the 50ies [which according to Malcolm
Bradbury ("My Strange Quest For Mensonge", 1987)
was awfully overruled by the West Coast
Marxist-Feminist Gay Collective Press in their
"His- and Her-Meneutics" publishing series im
the 80ies].

Hermeneutics is all about "Verstehen"
('understanding') as a method for the
humanities, and opposed to 'interpretation'.
Hermeneutics therefore, is not an exact method.
In greek mythology, the gods would not talk to
humans (they preferred sexual intercourse as a
proper channel of communication). For the
purpose of lower communication, there was
Hermes, who carried the messages of the gods to
the people. In this sense of the term,
'hermeneutics' claims to translate - or rather:
transpose - texts and tongues of strange origin
into known idioms. Translate, transpose,
interpretate: it depends on the context how one
chooses the term. Aristotle's text "Peri
hermeneias" in latin is "De interpretatione". Of
course, this method became a topic for
theologists, namely since Laurentius Humphrey's
publication "De ratione interpretandi" in 1559.

And so on. When Gadamer published "Truth and
Method" in 1959, he tried but did not quite
succeed to step out of the shadow of his teacher
Martin Heidegger (which was why it never ever
was considered  a 'cool' book, it simply tried
to save traditional grounds), he called it a
report of sorts on the last philosophical
romanticism which ended with Heidegger:

"Als das Buch erschien, war es mir keineswegs
sicher, dass es noch zur rechten Zeit kam. Die
'zweite Romantik', die der Industrialisierung
der Welt in der ersten Hälfte unseres
Jahrhunderts zur Seite ging, neigte sich
offenkundig ihrem Ende zu. Eine neue, dritte
Welle der Aufklärung war im Anrollen." (Gadamer:
Philosophische Lehrjahre, 1997, p. 181)

Gadamer was ever present, but never very popular
in the academic discourse. His world is one of
the communicatice dialogue, not even one of the
texts or - talk of the devil - media. Gadamer
seems like one of the last knights to defend the
'face-to-face' situation against the
'interface'. In the age of machine-to-machine
communications, when media theory has to
consider protocols, codes, scripts, and
bandwith, this romanticistic approach does not
account for much any more. It simply is not
about just texts any more.

Or is it? In the interviews the old man gave on
the occasion of his centennial birthday, it
became very obvious that he is defending
rhetorics against information. This is how
Gadamer maybe matters to media theory:
information emphasizes on the relevance, like a
command - it puts an exclamation mark - , while
rhetorics emphasizes on the context - it puts a
definite question mark (Habermas once politely
put it like this: "Gadamer urbanisiert die
Heideggersche Provinz."). Further,  rhetorics as
a method is largely excluded from academic
philosophy, while at the same time, it produced
some of the most fruitful results. Rhetorics
now, is based on rituals. Most of the things
which are claimed to be communication processes
turn out to be pure rituals. The text is it's
context, there is no final interpretation. Alas,
a dialogue with Derrida, Eco, and others never
took place. Gadamer, the last philosophical
monolith from Heidelberg, how pathetic. Honour
the man. a 10-volume "collected works" just has
been published, worthwile reading or not, as
long as there is business involved.

To finish, a quote:
“Rituals Are Important” - SPIEGEL interview with
Hans-Georg Gadamer on the opportunities for and
limitations of philosophy: “One entirely
unjustified expectation is to think philosophy
can replace any type of science … It would be
even more unjustified to think that philosophy
should or could itself become a science.
Demonstrability using scientific methods is not
the business of philosophy … I think a great
task is for us to learn to ask questions once
again, in other words not to think from the
start that everything has been settled.”

Well, well. Next question, please.


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