Friedrich Kittler's Technosublime

Friedrich Kittler's Technosublime

1999-12-30
Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz
Friedrich Kittler
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Bruce Clarke reviews the new translation of Grammophone, Film, Typewriter, a requiem and good-riddance for the era of so-called Man.

In the 1970s a number of texts came into English translation bearing titles with a 1-2-3 punch, mixing exemplary authors with generic modes and methodological issues; for instance, Roland Barthes’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola and Image, Music, Text, containing the essays “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein” and “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers,” and Michel Foucault’s Language, Counter-Memory, Practice with the essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” The title Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, a cognate translation of the German, echoes these theoretical signatures. Matt Kirschenbaum tries his hand at this with “Media, Geneology, History,” his review of Bolter and Grusin

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter Kittler contrasts the restriction of Foucault’s discourse theory to textual archives with his own wider media band, in which phonographic and cinematic data streams decenter the channel of literary writing. But his commentators agree that Kittler’s “media discourse theory” follows from Foucault as the prime member of the triumvirate Foucault, Lacan, Derrida. Lacan runs a close second. Kittler writes: “Lacan was the first (and last) writer whose book titles only described positions in the media system. The writings were called Writings, the seminars, Seminar, the radio interview, Radiophonie, and the TV broadcast, Television ” (170). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter partakes of this same postsymbolic media literalism.

I write about Kittler from the standpoint of a scholar of British and American literature who dropped from the tree of Columbia’s core humanities curriculum to the seed-bed of canonical romanticism and modernism and the theory culture of the 1970s and 1980s, then passed through the forcing house of literature and science in the 1990s, to arrive at the threshold of contemporary media studies. In the process I seem to have become posthuman, but Kittler’s work reassures me that I had no choice in the matter: “media determine our situation” (xxxix). Kittler parlays high poststructuralism into a historical media theory that humbles the subject of humanistic hermeneutics by interpellation into the discrete material channels of communication. Media studies bids to become a hegemonic site within the new academic order of a wired culture. For Kittler, media determine our posthumanity and have been doing so in technological earnest at least since the phonograph broke the storage monopoly of writing.

As a kind of media theory of History, a requiem and good-riddance for the era of so-called Man, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter transmits the tenor of its own historical moment. The German edition appeared in 1986, the year after the opening of MIT’s Media Lab and the release of Talking Heads’ post-hermeneutic concert film and album Stop Making Sense. Other resonant events in American culture include the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Donna Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985), and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89). Memories and premonitions of mushroom clouds loomed over these three speculative and/or scholarly scenarios published during the final decade of the Cold War; each text imagines the form of a posthuman or post-nuclear world. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter posits its posthumanity on the premise that the Strategic Defense Initiative has already set off the fireworks, that the future is always already a prequel to Star Wars. The text begins with the observation that optical fiber networks are “immune…to the bomb. As is well known, nuclear blasts send an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) through the usual copper cables, which would infect all connected computers” (1), and the book ends with before-and-after photos of Hiroshima (262).

Many of Kittler’s sublime effects result from a kind of hyperbolic digitality, i.e., all-or-nothing assertions pressing seemingly local instances into global histories. For instance, Kittler is fond of audacious chronologies that parody the popular media’s demand for appearances of journalistic exactitude: “around 1880 poetry turned into literature” (14), or “around 1900, love’s wholeness disintegrates into the partial objects of particular drives” (70). One thinks of Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum: “in or about December, 1910, human character changed,” and, thanks to Kittler, perhaps now we know why. A related rhetorical scheme mediating the grand transformations of modernism is the from/to formation: “literature defects from erotics to stochastics, from red lips to white noise” (51), or as combined with an audacious chronology: “from imagination to data processing, from the arts to the particulars of information technology and physiology - that is the historic shift of 1900” (73). Again, and as the volume is coming to a conclusion with the arrival of Turing’s universal computer, “the hypothetical determinism of a Laplacian universe, with its humanist loopholes (1795), was replaced by the factual predictability of finite-state machines” (245).

Kittler wrote Gramophone, Film, Typewriter just as chaos theory was arriving to throw a wrench into such stark digital determinism, precisely through the operational finitude as well as non-linear iterations of “finite-state machines.” As John von Neumann pointed out in 1948 in “The General and Logical Theory of Automata,” digital computers could produce perfect results, “as long as the operation of each component produced only fluctuations within its preassigned tolerance limits” (294). But, von Neumann continued, even so, computational error is reintroduced by the lack of the infinite digits necessary to carry out all calculations with perfect precision. Kittler melodramatizes Turing’s work, it seems to me, because he is captivated by the towering image of an informatic colossus.

Such an all-determining and inescapable imago of media induces a productive critical paranoia. The media are always already watching us, putting their needles into our veins: “humans change their position - they turn from the agency of writing to become an inscription surface” (210). Neuromancer ‘s Wintermute is everywhere, or as Kittler phrases it, “data flows…are disappearing into black holes and…bidding us farewell on their way to nameless high commands” (xxxix). At the same time, he enables one to see the particular and pandemic pathologies of modern paranoia precisely as psychic effects driven by the panoptic reach of media technologies in their surveillance and punishment modes. Not for nothing is the apocalypse according to Schreber’s Memoirs a prophetic book of prominent proportions in Kittler’s media cosmos.

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter the objects of science are subsumed into the will-to-power of media technology. By way of contrast, despite his coinage of “technoscience” to underscore the sociological inextricability of the two, Bruno Latour sorts science and technology into separate treatments and preserves their disciplinary and epistemological distinctions. Yet one should not see Kittler falling under Latour’s blanket indictment of (Baudrillardian) postmodernism: “Instead of moving on to empirical studies of the networks that give meaning to the work of purification it denounces, postmodernism rejects all empirical work as illusory and deceptively scientistic” (Latour 46). Kittler busts open the realm of the real to examine the nonsymbolic and nonimaginary residues of communication technology, all that which cannot be posted: “Bodies themselves generate noise. And the impossible real transpires” (Kittler 46). Where Latour finds the proliferating quasi-objects of mediation, Kittler finds the literal networks of communications media.

For the most part Kittler elides the history of physics concurrent with his media history - the cross-over from late-classical determinism to statistical mechanics, from thermodynamic entropy to information entropy. On the one hand, he scants the ether and the electromagnetic field theories which made possible many developments from analog to digital processing, and from pre-electrical storage technology (photography, phonography) to broadcast transmission (radio, television), electronic storage and manipulation (tape deck, video camera), and digital computation (microprocessor, fiber optic cable) technologies. But on the other hand, that lacuna has opened the door for major efforts among Kittler’s German and American scholarly associates, including the editors of Stanford’s Writing Science series, who have both midwived Kittler’s delivery into North American discourse and paralleled Kittler’s media emphasis with research projects that bring to science studies a thoroughgoing “materiality of communication.”

“Once the technological differentiation of optics, acoustics, and writing exploded Gutenberg’s writing monopoly around 1880, the fabrication of so-called Man became possible” (16). I take it that the “fabrication” in question here is not the discursive construction of the humanist subject but the simulation of its spiritual activities by media devices. One notes Kittler’s detour around physics in the continuation of this passage: so-called Man’s “essence escapes into apparatuses…. And with this differentiation - and not with steam engines and railroads - a clear division occurs between matter and information, the real and the symbolic” (16). Missing from this formulation is the mode of energy, which would correspond by structural default to the Lacanian register of the imaginary. Indeed, Kittler runs up against numerous phantasmagorias of energy, but elides them by metonymic reification in media receivers and inscription devices.

The phantasmagorias of energy I have in mind are those that emanated from the nineteenth-century wave theories connecting the physics of optics and acoustics through an analogy between vibratory media - the air and the luminiferous ether. As sanctioned by the first law of thermodynamics, i.e., the conservation and interconvertibility of energy, the optical imaginary of ether waves is easily displaced to sound waves propagated through the air. We see this concatenation and transposition of physical and technological media in a delightful short story by Salomo Friedlaender, “Goethe Speaks into the Phonograph” (1916), which Kittler republishes in its entirety.

Friedlaender’s comic narrator unveils the thoughts of Professor Abnossah Pschorr, Edisonian inventor-extraordinaire of media gadgetry: “When Goethe spoke, his voice produced vibrations…. These vibrations encounter obstacles and are reflected, resulting in a to and fro which becomes weaker in the passage of time but which does not actually cease” (60). Pschorr extends to the air trapped in Goethe’s study a hypothetical characteristic much discussed in the late nineteenth-century popularization of the ether, its cosmic storage capacity. For instance, in 1875 British thermodynamicists Balfour Stewart and P. G. Tait wrote that the luminiferous ether

may only be an arrangement in virtue of which our universe keeps up a memory of the past at the expense of the present…. A picture of the sun may be said to be travelling through space with an inconceivable velocity, and, in fact, continual photographs of all occurrences are thus produced and retained. A large portion of the energy of the universe may thus be said to be invested in such pictures (156).

While rehearsing the same imaginary accessing of physical (as opposed to technological) media archives, Kittler leaves unmentioned the contemporary vogue connecting the spirits of the dead to the storage and transmission capacities of the luminiferous ether. Kittler cites from another (unnamed) Friedlaender story the assertion that “all the waves of all bygone events are still oscillating in space…. All that happens falls into accidental, unintentional receivers. It is stored, photographed, and phonographed by nature itself,” and comments, “Loyally and deliriously, Friedlaender’s philosophy follows in the wake of media technology” (77). But it also follows from prior scientistic anticipations of new storage capacities projected onto the ether medium. In an 1884 discussion of ether as a surface that forms at the interface of the third and fourth dimensions of space, hyperspace theorist Charles Howard Hinton completed this technoscientific circuit by conceiving the ether medium itself as a cosmic phonograph:

For suppose the æther, instead of being perfectly smooth, to be corrugated, and to have all manner of definite marks and furrows. Then the earth, coming in its course round the sun on this corrugated surface would behave exactly like the phonograph behaves. In the case of the phonograph the indented metal sheet is moved past the metal point attached to the membrane. In the case of the earth it is the indented æther which remains still while the material earth slips along it. Corresponding to each of the marks in the æther there would be a movement of matter, and the consistency and laws of the movements of matter would depend on the predetermined disposition of the furrows and indentations of the solid surface along which it slips (196-97).

My point is that the multiplicity of the concept of “media” extends beyond its particular technological instantiations to include both scientific and spiritualistic registers. A history of media could concern itself as well with the luminiferous ether and the Anima Mundi, the subtle fluids and strange angels that intermingled with the departed souls and trick shots of phonography and cinema; but for the most part, Kittler displaces this business to premodernist media:

the invention of the Morse alphabet in 1837 was promptly followed by the tapping specters of spiritistic seances sending their messages from the realm of the dead. Promptly as well, photographic plates - even and especially those taken with the camera shutter closed - furnished reproductions of ghosts or specters (12).

The telegraph and daguerreotype remain outside Gramophone, Film, Typewriter’s primary historical field. Even here, however, the Kittler effect opens up research corridors by insisting on the material basis, and thus empirical examinability, of the media that mediate the cultural imaginary: “The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture” (13).

Beyond that I have nothing but admiration for this volume. Kittler’s fundamental derivation of Lacan’s real, imaginary, and symbolic from the data channels of phonograph, cinema, and typewriter is an astonishing theoretical event. It offers a comprehensive reading of psychoanalysis into technoscience that grows more convincing the more one gets acclimated to Kittler’s methods of channel processing across the cybernetic bridge from the nervous system and its “psychic apparatus” to the Aufschreibesysteme of his media discourse networks. In this reading, the hallucinatory powers and spiritual effects of literature derived from a storage-and-transmission monopoly that could only funnel and traduce the real and the imaginary into the narrow band of the symbolic. As the translators remark in their excellent Introduction: “in short, people were programmed to operate upon media in ways that enabled them to elide the materialities of communication” (xxii). It is both exhilarating and disquieting to submit to Kittler’s deprogramming. But the institutional regimes that sustained the privileges of literary discourse networks (and of us who still inhabit them) are increasingly caught up in the media transformations Kittler describes. The daemonic angel of our history is being driven by the electronic differentiation and digital reintegration of data flows.

At another level, Kittler passes on a wealth of useful engineering expertise: matters of time-axis manipulation from Edison to Jimi Hendrix; the historical mathematics of music and sound: “Overtones are frequencies…. Intervals and chords, by contrast, were ratios” (24); the non-negligible difference between a phonograph and a gramophone (the latter is restricted to playback, the former also records); the physical differences between acoustic and optical waves, such that “cuts stood at the beginning of visual data processing but entered acoustic data processing only at the end” (117-18); the reasons why the first mass-produced typewriters were developed for blind people by arms manufacturers; the pervasive loops between warfare and media, e.g., the revolving cylinder that unites typewriters, film-projectors, and machine-guns, and the collusion of the piano, the typewriter, and Turing’s universal computer; the enigmas of the Enigma machine.

And then, in the midst of this media mayhem, a canny persuasion - a literary core of archival gems. In addition to valuable translations of Friedlaender’s “Goethe Speaks into the Phonograph” and “Fata Morgana Machine” (which limns the eversion of virtual reality eighty years before Marcos Novak), this volume also contains complete texts of Jean-Marie Guyau’s “Memory and Phonograph” (1880); Rilke’s amazing meditation on the phonograph, “Primal Sound” (1919); Maurice Renard’s audio phantasms in “Death and the Shell” (1907); the sonnet “ ‘Radio Wave,’ which the factory carpenter Karl August Düppengiesser of Stolberg submitted to Radio Cologne in 1928”; Richard A. Bermann’s spoof of the sex war between male poets and female typists “Lyre and Typewriter” (1913); and Carl Schmitt’s facetious but telling “world history of inscription,” “The Buribunks: A Historico-Philosophical Meditation” (1918).

In sum, ranging over literature, music and opera from Wagner to acid rock, philosophy, cinema, psychoanalysis classical and structural, history, mathematics, communications technology, and computer science, Kittler’s broadband scholarly panoptics afford a sublime techno-discursive vista, and in particular a point of lucid observation on the ongoing relativization of literary production. Kittler transposes Kant’s mathematical sublime into the mechanical transcendence of communications technology over individual subjects, displacing human psychology into machine being, setting off repeated implosions by which so-called Man is apocalypsed into infinite media loops. His high-prophetic meld of Lacan’s laconism and Zarathustra’s hammer facilitates a neuromantic network of discursive intensities. Under the conditions of technological mediation, however, theory remains viable, or inevitable. Ineluctably funneled through the “bottleneck of the signifier” (4) but pieced out with a tremendous portfolio of period graphics, Kittler’s illuminated writings operate a machine aesthetic tooled to the posthumanist discursivities of his intellectual heroes, but going beyond them to place the stylus of technology on the groove of inscripted bodies.

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works cited

Butler, Octavia. Xenogenesis: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago. New York: Warner, 1987-89.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, eds. Materialities of Communication. Trans. William Whobrey. Standford: Stanford UP, 1994.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-108.

Hinton, Charles Howard. “A Picture of Our Universe.” Scientific Romances, 1st series. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1886; reprint 1st and 2nd series. New York: Arno Press, 1976. 1:161-204.

Johnston, John. “Friedrich Kittler: Media Theory After Poststructuralism.” Kittler 2-26.

Kittler, Friedrich. Literature, Media, Information Systems: Essays. Ed. John Johnston. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Lenoir, Timothy, ed. Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

Schreber, Daniel Paul. Memoirs of my Nervous Illness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

Stewart, Balfour, and P.G. Tait. The Unseen Universe or Physical Speculations on a Future State. New York: Macmillan, 1875.

Wellbery, David E. Foreword. Friedrich A. Kittler. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. vii-xxxiii.

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey, and Michael Wutz. “Translators’ Introduction: Friedrich Kittler and Media Discourse Analysis.” In Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, xi-xxxviii.

von Neumann, John. The General and Logical Theory of Automata. In Collected Works. Ed. A. H. Taub. 5 vols. New York: Pergamon Press, 1961-63. 5:288-328.

Woolf, Virginia. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” The Gender of Modernism. Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 634-41.