Seminar: “The Ends of Perfection: On a Limit Concept in German Film and Media Theory”

This talk examines the concept of perfection against the backdrop of today’s digital mediascape, where the latest screen technologies promise sharp, pristine images with lossless compression. While, in Hito Steyerl’s account, the circulation of “poor” or “imperfect” images can disrupt hegemonic media logics, I demonstrate that the very ideal of perfection is an engine of semantic instability in German modernity. Intervening in contemporary debates about “rich” and “poor” images, and “high” and “low” definition, my lecture offers a differentiated and historically dynamic understanding of perfection as a limit concept in German film and media theory. I argue that moving images played a crucial role in the redefinition of perfection, as classical conceptions of the term gradually and unevenly gave way to perfectionism, perfectibility, and an aesthetics of imperfection. Integrating Reinhart Koselleck’s method of Begriffsgeschichte into the study of moving images, my talk reconceives the history of German film and media theory as one of semantic persistence, change, and radical novelty of meaning.


Nicholas Baer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University. He is author of the forthcoming book, Historical Turns: Weimar Cinema and the Crisis of Historicism, and co-editor of The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933 (University of California Press, 2016) and Unwatchable (Rutgers University Press, 2019). Baer’s research on German film and media, aesthetics, critical theory, and intellectual history has been supported through yearlong grants from the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald, Fulbright Commission, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and Leo Baeck Institute/Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. His writings have been translated into six languages and honored with the Karsten Witte Prize from the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft. In Spring 2023, he will be an Auerbach Fellow at the Erich Auerbach Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Cologne.