Reams of Reference in Kittler

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.


We type ourselves into Oblivion

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler scratches back and forth through time, narratives and technologies like a DJ electrified by one of Charcot’s hysteria seizures to describe the “situation” between media and man.  Kittler relates the technologies of the title in relation to Lacan’s axiomatic registers: the real (gramophone), the imaginary (film) and the symbolic (typewriter). For Kittler each technology represents some way in which (building off of Mcluhan) a new technology has extended and replaced some previous technology in some ‘inevitable’ way. To Quote Kittler, “Media determine our situation, which – in spite or because of it – deserves a description.”  More than replacement of the old, Kittler describes the death of old media which in part contributes to the dwindling of some human faculty like writing, thought and memory. He connects the dots between man and machine as each media is invented and replaces its predecessor in some darwinian war for fitness. He narrates each history through multiple quotes and evocations of psychology, philosophy and of wartime stories and technologies.

I was most interested in Kittler’s strong argument that technology determines us as well, specifically that as it extends us (Mcluhan) it also causes our faculties to dwindle.  I was speaking with my sister about this the other day. We were discussing the “loss” of words; that people don’t read the way they used to, and when they do the literature is watered down mass communication.  For example, my son described a Ford ‘Raptor’ truck as ‘aggressive’ with admiration in his tone. I asked him what aesthetic qualities in the design of the truck made it look aggressive? I was trying to get him to be more descriptive with his words, but he fumbled for some reason why he thought the truck looked aggressive beyond the fact he’d heard it described that way on some TV show.  Reading Kittler immediately brought all this into perspective with what I’d been thinking. Media competes with information in a battle for control. Information must appeal to a broader audience across multiple mediums in order to compete in the war for meaning, and because it must mean something in so many venues it loses specificity and elegance. Kittler writes about the typewriter:

“The Typewriter is a signless cloud, ie., a withdrawing concealment in the midst of its very obtrusiveness, and through it the relation of Being to man is transformed.  It is in fact signless, not showing itself as to its essence; perhaps that is why most of you, as is proven to me by your reaction, though well intended, have not grasped what I have been trying to say.” (Page 199.)

What Kittler is getting at is that we give over some or our faculties to automation, whether we ourselves use it, it still becomes a media which alters the nature of Being.  In gaining affordances and giving up faculties we become less adept at using them, making us more dependent on the technology and future technologies beyond that.  This becomes self evident when we look at our intellectual references (as Kittler does) and their method of communication.  In general, I find it hard to interpret many sources in my research.  I attribute this to my declining reading and increased binge watching.

I’m interested in discussing what other people thought about Kittler’s method of jumping around in his timeline? Did it confuse? Was it instructive? Did he need a better editor?

What is your take on his argument that we give up faculties to the technologies we invent?

Kittler’s Take

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler seems to be at least partially concerned with the connections between the oldest forms of media and the digital, and how the changes that took place in these evolutions have shaped us–and how digital technologies have pressed themselves into the histories of obsolete or older media. He explores the distinctions between the first technological media, the typewriter, film, and the grampophone from modern psychoanalytic and post structuralist perspectives. Kittler references McLuhan and Turing to situate a few of his stances: the first being that although newer media contains remnants that are always of past media forms (which should render these media understandable no matter the technology), he believes that the technologies that undermine the power of written language lose their meaning somewhere in all the bits and binary. One aim is to take us through the ways in which these technologies become impossible to understand (due to hegemony and illusion) contrary to McLuhan’s positions on understanding media, all while illustrating the ways that digital media have inscribed themselves into the pages of written media/communication. In relation to his reference to Turing’s imitation game, Kittler states that from the Turing machine onward, writing as a monopoly has been replaced (at least in public preference and fascination) with the digital, where people today increasingly discrete machines.

I found Kittler’s mention of media as a determining factor of societal situations, and the lens from which he views media because of this stance, as sort of lacking the emphasis on human agency on the impact, proliferation, and evolution of media that we saw in readings from media historians such as Gitelman. Although I appreciated his examples, the timeline was scattered and seemed random at some points, which made it difficult for me to follow the flow of how his examples told a story of each technology.

A Story of Stories…of a Determined Situation

Kittler presents a “story made up of stories” that unpack the situation that gramophones, films, and typewriters, or their historical account, have determined.  He begins with the very strong affirmation, “Media determine our situation,” reflecting the generally technological determinist view he presents. His focus is on the shift from the unified media of literary writing in books to the separation and differentiation of the optical, acoustic and written through “the first technological media.” These are the gramophones, films, and typewriters. He posits that the historical effect of their differentiation is the “methodological distinction” (Lacan’s) among the real, imaginary, and the symbolic. Writing, through the typewriter, holds the symbolic in block letters. Film holds the imaginary in that bodies were presented that “humans were able to (mis)perceive as their own. And the gramophone appealed to the real since it recorded all sounds of the voice regardless of meaning and without editing to that meaning. This dissociation results in an autonomy of media that “control all understanding and its illusions.” Here he calls on McLuhan, asserting that the important implication of this is the “very schematism of perceptibility.” Optical fiber networks, and digitization in general, attempt to erase these differences among individual media, but there are still media.

It is also important to note the eclectic structure Kittler uses. There is a relentless pace to the book with a dancing back and forth between philosophical references and technological examples. While chronology is sometimes significant, Kittler does not hold himself strictly to it. For example, sprinkling his discussion of memory and the phonograph in 1880 with references from the Beatles and Pink Floyd. This is quite different than a chronological history of technology – something Kittler decisively declares he is not presenting. It reads instead like a kaleidoscope of various smaller stories working together to deliver the story that is the situation determined by the technological media that fundamentally transformed both Man and society. As such, it warrants a questioning of these “stories”? What is missing? or left out? Is war the only context for technological discovery that should be considered?

Kittler Methodology

The term optical fiber networks drive Kittler’s approach to present historical digital information. The book thinks about how optical fiber networks have touched upon various media from television, radio, mail converge, to even the standardization of transmission frequencies. Kittler pulls from Marshall McLuhan to consider the various ways that technology is incorporated and used. McLuhan uses that concept that one medium’s content is always other media. For instance, the film is the content of the radio and so on. Kittler focus is to prove that the media pulls from various modes of communication and that everything is linked together and shows the interconnection of data. The constant topics that occur in the text are the importance of connection to occur in data across all types of media. It also draws from various modes and relationships of materials. The methodology that Kittler uses implements work from McLuhan and others to consider how data influences multiple methods of communication. The text seems to take this approach to examine how human interaction has evolved through the implementation of technology. He starts with this story of thinking about how the paper was the first form of technology to start these terms of communication. He states, “the minimal unevenness between stroke and paper can store neither a voice nor an image of a body presupposes in its exclusion the invention of photography and cinema” (pg 9). The primary goal of the texts is to show a historical approach to understanding the influence of human communication through film and typewriter. What I found most important from Kittler’s historical approach is that he is useful in providing various examples that show how communication has changed in its path and been influential. The discussion of culture is also integral and places the people at the center of the media.

Obscure Kittler

I enjoyed reading Kittler’s Gramophone, File and Typewriter despite its obscure content especially his first chapter that he rolled the wheel of technological determinism to argue that the media of the present influence the time, before and now. The technologies that he mentioned in the book, the gramophone, film, and the typewriter, as Kittler carefully defined, changed how people perceive the media. Intuitively, Kittler also spoke the fact that technology adopted by the media was not neutral at all as he was fully aware of the potential of the medium, and the users that play the media.

Despite his many quotes of McLuhan’s “mediatality” and “understanding media” and he does not agree extendedly on the possibility of grasping what media represented through a social movement approach. For Kittler, understanding what media can hold through his media discourse analysis can yield more significant results. Media is the thought. Although he concerned that formalist media study should focus primarily on media, he drew various resources from sociology literature, technical details to illustrate his points on the three artifacts, making the book, in my opinion, scattered. Such action also undermined the reality, a core element which I recognized to be important when reading an article especially when you could see Edison’s example jumping on and off frequently.

I wish I could understand more about Kittler’s approach as he sometimes bounces between technological determinism and a historical view. Maybe such situation could be explained by the fact that he believes an equation can be solved in multiple ways. I was also interested to know how handwriting could carry one’s personality, and how such a statement could be extended to understand our current digital era where information was passively collected. Does it matter if things are implicit instead of explicit?