Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
12th October 2014

Under Suspicion by Boris Groys

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71lSkq2hiXLUnder Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media by Boris Groys

A Review by John David Ebert

Boris Groys’ book Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media is a book that was published in German in 2000, and was recently translated into English in 2012 by Columbia University Press. In many ways, it is a kind of sequel to his earlier 1992 book On the New, which I have reviewed on this site below the present entry.

In that earlier book, Groys had made the binary distinction between the two spheres of what he called the realm of cultural values (composed of cultural archives in the form of museums, libraries and other such institutions) and the realm of the profane, a sort of extra-cultural Other from which “the new” is always drawn, since every truly innovative work maintains a tension between a profane element and a dialogue with previous cultural values and models. The “value boundary” between the two is always being stretched and reevaluated as each new work of art challenges its previously held assumptions and forces it to integrate more and more of the profane, while earlier values may slip out of the archive into a demoted “profane” status.

In the new book, now, Groys shifts his attention to the realm of cultural values, where he finds yet another polarity that is internal to the realm of culture itself: the archives, which now have a slightly less “material” connotation than the previous book (since it is not “books” that are in the archives but rather “texts” and not “paintings” but rather “images”), are composed of what Groys terms “sign carriers,” (essentially his term for “media”) which have a sort of surface world of signifiers which he terms the “medial surface.” But this realm of medial surfaces is opposed by a sort of medial unconscious which Groys terms “sub-medial space,” which is a realm that, according to him is always “under suspicion” as harboring a kind of intra-subjectivity that he terms “the sub-medial Other.”

The sub-medial Other is easy to grasp when we think of it in terms of the imagery of popular movies: in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, for instance, it is only when the daily programming is turned off (hence the medial surfaces disappear) that a portal to sub-medial space opens up inside the television set from whence the sub-medial Other in the form of the various spooks that haunt the family emerge. In the Alien films of Scott and Cameron, the aliens are themselves depicted as hostile Others who have emerged from the depths of sub-medial space to trouble the protagonists with their sheerly aggressive and non-communicative attacks. (From Zizek’s Lacanian point of view, however, the aliens of these movies are incursions from the Real that destroy symbolic systems).

Thus, the realm of medial surfaces–the pages of books, the surfaces of paintings, the latest video gadget–is normally “under suspicion” as harboring a sub-medial realm beyond it from whence the medial surfaces themselves are thought to have emerged. There is always a certain paranoia regarding the ontological nature of this sub-medial space and how it is characterized by the various acquisitions into the cultural archive.

Groys articulates his idea of an economy of suspicion which he describes as being central to the process of expanding the archives: for only to the degree that a work is regarded as being “sincere” is it thought of as harboring a potentially “true” insight into the “real” nature of sub-medial space. For Groys, the sincere is that which is unusual, abnormal and different: it is only when people or cultures are constantly repeating refrains and cliched and stale formulae that we suspect them of being “insincere” and of therefore containing material not fit for inclusion into the archives. When, on the other hand, such formulae are disrupted by singularities or “the exceptional,” it is only then that a work becomes regarded as “suspicious” of harboring a potentially true insight into the archive, and the more “suspicious” it is, the longer it is likely to remain in the archive as a permanent acquisition providing some measure of insight into the ontological nature of sub-medial space.

Groys’ concepts are brilliant, but the book suffers from a lack of attention to concrete examples and specific analyses of media dynamics. It does contain a section in its second half which analyzes the economy of suspicion, but the section has little to do with specific media. The reader would like to know more about how particular media interact with the archive and its dynamics of suspicion.

Unfortunately, Groys does not seem to have mastered the domain of media studies enough to provide such an analysis, and it is a telling fact that his chapter on McLuhan is mostly derisory, thus revealing a): the all-too-common (and by now cliched) European bias against American thinkers as having any real cultural validity and b): Groys’ failure to integrate even the most basic tenets of media studies, a discipline that was founded by American thinkers in the early 1950s.

Groys instead offers a rather trite and over-simplified critique of McLuhan as simply representing a continuation into theory of the already existent Cubist avant-garde privileging of form over content, but this attempt to boil McLuhan down to merely one dimension makes it very convenient for Groys to dispense with him. Groys fails to take into account that McLuhan’s sensibilities were actually closer to those of Pop Art than to the Modernist avant-garde, with his analysis of such “profane” ready-mades as typewriters, computers, satellites, book and clothes (which bears a certain similarity to the introduction by Pop Artists into the realm of cultural values of such profane objects as Brillo Boxes and Coke bottles). McLuhan, in other words, was not a displaced Cubist painter, as Groys would have him, but a displaced Pop Artist.

Groys also fails to notice that it was actually McLuhan’s reading of Harold Innis that created media studies, not just the transplantation of the Modernist denial of narrative in favor of form to the world of theory, for it was Innis’s notion in his books Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication that made McLuhan realize that the “medium is the message” since according to Innis, every form of communication such as clay or papyrus or print imparts its bias to the messages that travel through each particular medium. A civilization’s medial biases, furthermore, creates certain sensory biases within these civilizations as a whole, such as the bias toward the hand and the ear in the Medieval epoch or a bias toward the abstraction of the eye in the age of perspectival space. All of this, alas, is lost on Groys who seems not to have bothered doing his media studies homework. The reader has the impression that he has only ever bothered to read precisely one media studies book (albeit the most important one), namely, Understanding Media, and nothing else in the field of American media studies, which includes, in addition to Harold Innis, the very fertile works of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Albert B. Lord, Neil Postman and many, many others. Groys, in addition, seems to have failed to notice in his dismissal of McLuhan that without McLuhan, his own book Under Suspicion: a Phenomenology of Media wouldn’t even exist. Since Groys is generally positive toward nearly every other thinker which he references in his book, it becomes especially glaring that in a book which purports to belong to the field of media studies, Groys can’t even pay proper respect to its founding genius. It’s easy to dismiss what one doesn’t fully understand.

In short, this book must largely be regarded as a failure. There are one or two brilliant ideas in it–as is always the case with Groys–but they fail to add up to much and there is so little fleshed out in the way of specific or concrete examples that one is left to conclude that Groys is trying to pull a fast one here: he’s written a book on media studies without having studied enough media to make his points.

Better luck next time, Mr. Groys.

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