Dr. Nicholas Baer

Alfried Krupp Junior Fellow
(Oktober 2021 - September 2022) 

  • Studium der Film- und Medienwissenschaften und der Kritischen Theorie an der University of Chicago und der University of California, Berkeley; Gastwissenschaftler an der Freien Universität Berlin, der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin und der Universität zu Köln
  • Visiting Assistant Professor für Filmwissenschaft und Philosophie an der State University of New York at Purchase; Collegiate Assistant Professor und Harper-Schmidt Fellow an der University of Chicago
  • Assistant Professor für Film- und Medienwissenschaften an der Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

Fellow-Projekt: „Perfektion: Über einen Grenzbegriff in der globalen Film- und Medientheorie“

Das Konzept der Perfektion besitzt in der heutigen digitalen Wirtschaft enorme Bedeutung. Die neuesten Smartphone-, Tablet-, Laptop- und Fernsehermodelle versprechen scharfe, unverfälschte Bilder mit verlustfreier Komprimierung und maximaler Realitätsnähe. Während Hito Steyerl das „unvollkommene“ Bild als Gegenmittel zu hegemonialen Medienstrukturen verteidigt, zeige ich, dass der Begriff der Perfektion selbst alles andere als stabil oder eindeutig in seiner Bedeutung ist. In gegenwärtigen Debatten um „reiche“ und „ärmliche“ Bilder sowie „hohe“ und „niedrige“ Auflösung bietet mein Projekt ein differenzierteres und historisch dynamischeres Verständnis von Perfektion als Schlüsselbegriff der globalen Film- und Medientheorie. Das Projekt etabliert die ästhetische Kategorie der Perfektion als ein entscheidendes Element der theoretischen Untersuchung im Zeitalter digitaler Technologien und allgegenwärtiger neoliberaler Logik.

Ergebnisse des Fellowships

The pandemic has radically accelerated the mediatization of everyday life through digital technologies. As individuals around the world spend ever-greater amounts of labor and leisure time in front of screens, it becomes increasingly urgent to theorize the operations of media and to refine the aesthetic criteria by which we assess the quality of images. The overall aim of my fellow project at the Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Study, “The Ends of Perfection: On a Limit Concept in Global Film and Media Theory,” was to reclaim perfection as an important limit concept in the history and theory of moving-image media, tracing the shifting and multivalent meanings that are only peripherally addressed in existing research.

Although largely neglected within scholarship over the past decades, perfection is a key category in Film and Media Studies with broader implications for adjacent fields including aesthetics, philosophy, and the history of ideas. With multiple equivalents in other languages (e.g., Vollkommenheit, Vollendung, and Perfektion in German), the English noun “perfection” derives from the French perfeccion and the Latin perfectiōn- and bears a wide range of meanings, including flawlessness or purity, absolute or comparative excellence, the epitome of a quality or type, and the process or state of being fully developed or completed (also indicated grammatically by the perfect tense). In the history of aesthetics, perfection has denoted varying qualities—from a classical emphasis on symmetry, harmonious unity, and singular, timeless beauty to a modernist concern for seamless construction and unerring, industrial functionality. As a term of film and media analysis, perfection is often invoked with reference to issues of form and style, technological and aesthetic innovation, realism and representation, and the human body and its sensory and performative capacities.

The hypothesis of “The Ends of Perfection” is that the concept of perfection becomes temporalized in the modern age: a promised end dissolves into an open future; a sense of timeless completion gives way to a processual logic; and the classical attainment of perfection is supplanted by a more romantic notion of perfectibility and of infinite pursuit or progress. As my project argues, modern media played a crucial role in this process of temporalization. The advent of the moving image at the fin de siècle challenged classical conceptions of perfection and contributed to a modernist redefinition of the term, which became integral to Marxism, postcolonialism, and further political liberation movements of the twentieth century and beyond.

In examining perfection as a pivotal category in global film and media, “The Ends of Perfection” adopts German historian Reinhart Koselleck’s practice of conceptual history. Koselleck developed conceptual history as a method of analyzing the relationship between the history of concepts and material history, or between language and sociopolitical conditions along with their transformation. Koselleck identifies three different groups of concepts: “traditional concepts […] whose meanings have persisted in part and which, even under modern conditions, retain an empirical validity”; “concepts whose content has changed so radically that, despite the existence of the same word as a shell, the meanings are barely comparable and can be recovered only historically”; and, finally, “neologisms reacting to specific social or political circumstances that attempt to register or even provoke the novelty of such circumstances” (2004, 83). He emphasizes that a concept can traverse all three groups, involving persistence, change, and novelty of meaning.

“The Ends of Perfection” is innovative in character by integrating Koselleck’s conceptual-historical approach into the study of moving-image media. Showing that perfection extends across the three types of concepts identified by Koselleck, the project recasts the history of film and media theory as one of semantic inheritances, resignifications, and the formation of neologisms such as Cuban filmmaker, theorist, and cultural leader Julio García Espinosa’s “imperfect cinema.” At the same time, the project challenges Koselleck’s framework, particularly insofar as García Espinosa invoked the first world’s “culture of waste” that has contributed to global climate crisis. Where Koselleck argues that the modern era is characterized by a widening chasm between the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation”—that is, the future is no longer preordained and circumscribed, but more mutable, contingent, and open-ended—García Espinosa highlights the unsustainable material practices that are rendering the future menacingly foreclosed.

In offering a conceptual history of perfection, “The Ends of Perfection” stages an original intervention in the contemporary field of aesthetics. In her book Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), the American cultural theorist Sianne Ngai identifies the categories of the “zany,” “cute,” and “interesting” as “best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism” (1). Ngai sets out to analyze these “minor aesthetic categories” with the same degree of seriousness that Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant accorded to the “beautiful” and the “sublime.” While sharing Ngai’s interest in rethinking and reinvigorating the field of aesthetics for our global present, this project argues that even a major, perennial category like perfection remains a vital site of philosophical inquiry in the age of digital technologies and pervasive neoliberal logics.

Not least among its key objectives, “The Ends of Perfection” marks a timely and relevant scientific contribution to ongoing debates sparked by Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009). In this influential essay, the German artist and theorist endorses the “poor” or “imperfect” images of dubious, often-illicit provenance that circulate widely in the digital economy. Since the publication of Steyerl’s text, a growing body of literature has examined questions of image definition and resolution, and many scholars have focused on the phenomena of glitch, error, accident, malfunction, failure, blur, and noise in the habitual operations of media. For such scholars, imperfection can be an index of realism or authenticity, and it can also serve as a new domain of creative practice, aesthetic innovation, institutional critique, or political possibility. The imperfect often challenges the ideology of seamless flow in today’s digital economy, involving moments when media technologies do not work smoothly; when the intended message is interrupted; or when users become aware of the infrastructure and power relations undergirding digital media.

           While Steyerl and subsequent commentators have defended imperfection as an antidote to dominant media structures, “The Ends of Perfection” crucially demonstrates that perfection itself has hardly been stable or unequivocal in its semantics across the history of film and media. As the project shows, perfection undergoes a shift in the modern age, as the concept gradually and unevenly gives way to perfectionism, perfectibility, and an aesthetics of imperfection. The goal of this project is thus to offer a more differentiated and historically dynamic theorization of perfection as a key aesthetic concept in global film and media theory. Linked to multiple properties of the moving image (e.g., style, form, industry, technology), the concept of perfection has accrued an irreducible plurality of meanings in a modern epoch in which the timeless completion of the artwork is supplanted by an often-politicized sense of its mutability.

“The Ends of Perfection” thus traces a move from an Aristotelian sense of perfection as that which lacks nothing to perfection as a limit concept. For Kant, a limit concept is a formal ideal or conceptual construct without definite content. While necessary to postulate, such limit concepts are of negative use in making recognizable the limits of our sensory experience and knowledge. In a similar vein, “The Ends of Perfection” ultimately suggests that perfection highlights the limits of what we can perceive and know, calling to mind the ends of cinema and other media: their constraints and obsolescence, their historical and contemporary uses, and, not least, their ongoing promises and potentialities.

During my year as Junior Fellow at the Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Study (October 2021 to September 2022), I completed the foundational research and conceptual work for “The Ends of Perfection,” advancing my thinking in productive exchange with scholars across multiple disciplines. I presented my research in a fellow lecture at the Alfried Krupp Institute, benefiting from valuable feedback during the Q&A, and I participated in Professor Eckhard Schumacher’s research colloquium at the University of Greifswald on “Neuere Deutsche Literatur und Literaturtheorie,” discussing the latest research on glitch aesthetics. Beyond Greifswald, I gave a talk on my project at the annual conference of the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies in Bucharest in June 2022.

I am continuing my project in Fall 2022 as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI) at the University of Bremen, where I will present my research in the ZeMKI Research Colloquium. Beyond this fall, I will deliver a lecture on perfection at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at a conference on “Theory Now in Film and Media Studies” in February 2023. I have also refined my conceptualization of the project in exchange with editors and peer reviewers as I prepared a publication on perfection for Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture (accepted for publication with revisions).

During my time in Greifswald, I was active with further projects on film and media theory. In November 2021, I held a workshop on my book manuscript Historical Turns: Weimar Cinema and the Crisis of Historicism, where I solicited detailed feedback from two international experts. I integrated their suggestions and submitted the complete book manuscript to an academic press for formal peer review. I presented my research on Weimar cinema at the Alfried Krupp Institute during a fellow lunch in March 2022 and at the fellow workshop on “Zeit: Erfahrungen, Begriffe und Geschichten zwischen den Disziplinen” in July 2022. Farther afield, I delivered the Siegfried Kracauer Lecture in Film and Media Theory at the University of Frankfurt in February 2022, and I gave talks on Weimar cinema at various conferences: the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (online), “Nosferatu: 100 Years of Horror” (online), Visible Evidence (University of Frankfurt), the German Studies Association (online), and “Educational Film as Practice: Settings, Procedures, Agencies” (Austrian Film Museum).

One of my key fields of interest is critical theory, especially thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. This past year, I published an essay, “Unity in Suffering,” for a special issue of Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy marking the 60th anniversary of Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and I delivered a lecture, “‘Films of Thought’: On Hegel, Adorno, and the Good of Cinema,” in Vanderbilt University’s Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar. My translation of Siegfried Kracauer’s “Mass and Propaganda: An Inquiry into Fascist Propaganda,” was also reprinted in Siegfried Kracauer: Selected Writings on Media, Propaganda, and Political Communication (Columbia University Press, 2022).

My final endeavor this past year was co-editing the Spring 2022 issue of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies. This special issue features 10 essays on rumors, gossip, making a case for their epistemological relevance in today’s global mediascape. While the contributions take seriously the democratizing potential of rumors and gossip as alternative forms of knowledge that empower minoritized voices, they also engage with the more sinister connotations of unverified beliefs and claims in the post-truth era. From feminist whisper networks and queer fabulations to virally proliferating misinformation, fake news, and conspiracies, the 10 essays in this special issue assess rumors and gossip across the vast landscape of contemporary media. As co-editor, I co-wrote the introductory essay and moderated a roundtable discussion with Mladen Dolar, Richard Dyer, Alexandra Juhasz, Tavia Nyong’o, Marc Siegel, and Patricia Turner.

This year brought some professional developments: I began a new position in September 2022 as Assistant Professor of Media, Arts & Society in the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. I joined the editorial boards of “The Key Debates: Mutations and Appropriations in European Film Studies” (Amsterdam University Press) and WeimarCinema.org, and I was interviewed for two articles for National Public Radio. Finally, I co-supervised three PhD students, one of whom successfully defended his dissertation at New York University in May 2022. I am grateful to the Alfried Krupp Institute for its generous support and for facilitating a wonderful intellectual environment, with many rich, generative, and ongoing exchanges.