A Critique of Operativity: Notes on a Technological Imperative

A Critique of Operativity: Notes on a Technological Imperative

Dieter Mersch (Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0616-4.ch014
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Abstract

The concepts of “operation” and “operational sequences” are central for Actor-Network Theory. They have also become key-terms for cultural and media studies and in specific the so-called German Media Theory. However—this is the thesis of the article—whoever starts with the assumption of operativity or privileges operational sequences in the context of cultural practices is already treading on the ground of the technical and thus has accepted what they set out to prove: the interpretation of culture solely on the basis of technical approaches and the prerequisite of an a priori of technique. Instead the article insists on the difference between operation and practice which serve as a criterion for a cultural analysis beyond any universalization of technology.
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Whenever we start insisting too hard upon ‘operationalism’ or symbolic logic or any other of these very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts.

Gregory Bateson (1972, p. 75)

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Terminological Ambiguity

In recent times, “operation” has become the cultural and Media Studies’—as well as some areas of media philosophy—catchall term for multifarious practices, without however providing a precise definition of “operation” or “operativity.” Related terms such as “act” or “action,” which mark the beginning of the philosophical history of the term, have gone out of style. Similarly, there has been no analysis of the relationship between operativity and performativity. It seems as if operations do not need to be performed, nor, apparently, do they exhibit performative power. The relationship between operation, praxis, and thought is just as unclear. Rather the popularity of the term, in particular in media theories that focus on the concept of “cultural technology” and build on Actor-Network-Theory, is the result of—and this is the thesis of this article—an entirely technical perspective. Whoever starts with the assumption of operativity or privileges operational sequences in the context of cultural practices is treading on the ground of the technical and thus has already accepted that which they set out to prove: the a priori of the technological. Put another way, praxis is interpreted as technology and thus strategically predetermined.1

The thesis at hand, which is a critique in the original meaning of krinein—to differentiate, to separate, and to judge—starts from a model that insists in contrast that there is a difference between operation and praxis and more importantly that operativity is not praxis, but that the latter precedes and first provides a foundation for the former. From this follows that when actions become operations, we are dealing with a reduction or limitation. Action itself is given a teleological form and placed within a technical register. It is thought of as function and syntax; that is to say, as a kind of vectorial space.

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