Friedrich Kittler’s 1986 Gramophone, Film, Typewriter reads—where other books of media theory may be akin to leisurely strolls—like a relay race, or perhaps a triathlon. Its titular division into three is appropriate, given that Kittler rarely seems to care for slowing down once his argument sets off. From each of the three chapter heading, Kittler’s erudition unfurls through reference after reference to the likes of Lacan, McLuhan, Freud, Kafka, Goethe, Rilke, Pynchon, and Pink Floyd. This technique lends the work a surprisingly associative character. The wide scope of Kittler’s observations and generalizations is couched in the variety of work to which he makes reference. It’s obvious that great care has been taken to link each reference to its neighbors; but nevertheless, the effect of the work overall is almost improvisational. In my reading at least, Kittler appears to truly savor the interstitial—to vamp, to riff.
Kittler’s overall argument can be boiled down to a deterministic position. “Media,” he writes in his introduction, “‘define what really is’; they are always already beyond aesthetics” (3). In “Typewriter,” Kittler goes so far as to say that media systems have proceeded through three distinct phases—analogous in their beginnings to the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II, respectively—“in order to supersede world history” (in the imperial and literary sense) itself (243).
One of Kittler’s preferred rhetorical devices is the exemplary work of fiction. Kittler quotes a number of short stories in their entireity based on their evocation of the arcane qualities of media with which Kittler concerns himself. My personal favorite, by Salomo Friedlaender, recounted the resurrection/recreation/remediation of Goethe’s allegedly melodious larynx. Connected to a fantastical machine, the ersatz voice box is able to retrieve long-diffused reverberations of the original’s speech. I couldn’t help but draw connections to contemporary fears of (social) media permanence. It may be my own predisposition to close reading and implication of philosophical and theoretical context within works of fiction, but this was one of Kittler’s more successful rhetorical moves in my opinion. I was wondering if others found such examples similarly effective.