Gramophone, Film, Typewriter by Friedrich Kittler (book review)

Friedrich Kittler (1943–2011)

Friedrich Kittler’s spiky and complex masterpiece of multimodal media archaeology (published by Stanford University Press in 1986) was our first book for the Cambridge books-about-books group. Not an obvious choice: it’s not about books, but there again, books aren’t necessarily codexes any more. Something about media transmigration might free up our thinking.

By reputation it was going to be risky and fierce. Agreeing with the author is one of the great pleasures of reading – egocentrists very much enjoy the author agreeing with them – but this book was never likely to offer either kind of satisfaction. And why should it? Intellectual and social freedoms have to come from something more than people agreeing with each other – even in our book group.

Any decision to read any book is an agreement to comply with predefined roles in a relationship of non-symmetrical power: we decide to give our time and pay our money/attention to the author. The author (the publisher makes this possible) agrees to provide the reader, admittedly often from high to low, some kind of expert knowledge or life-quickening experience. This might also include Dada- and punk-style confrontation; in a world of sycophancy it might mean telling the truth; easy solutions might need difficulty or fragmentation. Traditionally (but not always) this is bad box office; artists, writers and musicians – and of course commercial companies – have usually tried to veil their most authentic responses from those they most need to please. Comedians have always made a edgy living on the borderline of truth and placebo.

Although cultural reception of his work might suggest some parallels, Kittler’s provocative intellectual bravura is not, at face value, of the punk or Dada variety. His command of themes as diverse as the poetry of Goethe and the varieties of typewriter used by Nietzsche is scholarly by the most traditional criteria. His depth of reading and fastidious selection of of unusual but highly relevant texts is a feature of the development of his argument. Underneath, though, there is perhaps a subversive play on conventional author–reader power relations. Kittler may be knowingly toying – with concealed fierce political scruple too? – with the author’s power of authority. Schizoidal jokiness/seriousness and affective subversion are understandable reactions in a country shocked by its own recent history; a ‘difficult’ complexity of response is the kind of behaviour we might expect from those, perhaps like Kittler, seeking truth, authenticity and at least a glimpse of freedom.

Anselm Kiefer, Zweistromland [‘Land of Two Rivers’]/The High Priestess (1986–89), Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo. Each of the lead ‘books’ weighs a third of a ton but can be removed and ‘read’. Image from anselmkieferoldandnew.blogspot.com

The premise of Kittler’s writing thus strongly reminds me of his artist compatriots Anselm Kiefer (1945– ) and Joseph Beuys (1921–86). One of Kiefer’s first works was a collection of photos of him in landscape settings across Germany, making Nazi salutes; Kittler’s enthusiastic youthful followers were apparently given to calling themselves Kittlerjugend (Kittler Youth). In some of Kiefer’s later work massive leaden books are a (jokey?) visual exploration of the kind of weight of determinism we seem to find in Kittler’s expositions of media history. Beuys’s absurdist and primitivist refusals to comply with expectations of his work that bury it alive recall Kittler’s mercurial transitions from pure lit-crit of Sturm und Drang poetry to his later anti-humanistic espousal of Shannon information theory and the teaching of computer studies. If you were born in 1943 and your middle name was Adolf you too might enjoy your humour very dark, or try to subvert relations of power, or need to assert some/any kind of response to the crushing moral catastrophe of twentieth-century German history. For example, Kittler’s parents used to take their child on holiday to the seaside resort of Peenemünde – which also happened, a few years earlier, to be the site of the development of the technologically revolutionary ballistic V2 missile. It seems oddly contrary to Kittler’s complex and postmodern exploration of media, narrative and literary effects that such a naively neat journalistic anecdote might explain his conviction that the primum mobiles of media technologies are the means of destruction (weapons) rather than production – but this really seems to be the case.

Joseph Beuys, Homogeneous Infiltration (1966). I am trying to find some kind of visual parallel to Kittler’s combination of lightness and heavy seriousness. Image from Wikipedia

For so it is that the first page of Gramophone, Film, Typewriter starts with a discussion of optical fibre networks: ‘People will be hooked to an information channel that can be used for any medium—for the first time in history, or for its end.’ Note this is deliberately left hanging, a hook of his own to hold our attention, while he writes about the effect of electromagnetic pulse from nuclear explosion on communications, and speculates about the intentions of the Pentagon. Then he gets to the punchline: ‘In the meantime, pleasure is produced as a by-product: people are free to channel-surf among entertainment media. After all, fiber optics transmit all messages imaginable save for the one that counts—the bomb.’

Throughout I enjoyed his fond imitations of pithy McLuhanesque turns of phrase – in this case I was thinking of ‘Is not the essence of education civil defence against media fallout?’ (Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 246). But instead of McLuhan’s empathic embrace of metaphor and his zest for commercial culture and advertising, Kittler here is grimly literal and censorious. He casts only the Pentagon as ‘far-sighted’; we readers are by implication dupes hooked to experiencing media pleasure as by-products of the military-industrial complex. I felt alienated from him straight away. Quite frankly it seems paranoid to think the Pentagon would or could somehow direct money for optical fibre networks into our front rooms simply for the purposes of communications after nuclear war. If the truth really is that much of a conspiracy, what Pentagonal purpose would be served by all us untermensch hanging around anyway?

The history of the internet as a many-to-many decentralized communication system after nuclear Armageddon is fascinating and highly relevant to his argument, but Kittler’s preference for rhetorical effects over measured and judicious attention to intermediate detail does not encourage a sense of trust. Note too the non-empathic position: ‘people’ are they rather than we; is he not a person too?

For all Kittler’s admiration and rhetorical emulation of McLuhan, the analysis throughout GFT is grittily scientistic and non-humanist. As his online biography says,

Friedrich Kittler sees an autonomy in technology and therefore disagrees with Marshall McLuhan’s reading of the media as ‘extensions of man’: Media are not pseudopods for extending the human body. They follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it.

For Kittler believes that the machines parted company with human-centred instrumentalities some time ago:

Digital signal processing (DSP) … set in [after the Second World War]. Its promotional euphemism, post-history, only barely conceals that war is the beginning and end of artificial intelligence.
In order to supersede world history (made from classified intelligence reports and literary processing protocols), the media sytem proceeded in three phases. Phase 1, beginning with the American Civil War, developed storage technologies for acoustics, optics, and script: film, gramophone, and the man-machine system, typewriter. Phase 2, beginning with the First World War, developed for each storage content appropriate electric transmission technologies: radio, television, and their more secret counterparts. Phase 3, since the Second World War, has transferred the schematic of a typewriter to a technology of predictability per se …

While this is a fascinating hypothesis that generates hundreds of dazzling connections throughout the book, on occasions (such as here) it seems both wild and oddly disengaged. If you portray the mass of humanity as not even looking at the machines as they rush us down the road of world history to oblivion, to what end would one want to write about it, to communicate and persuade others? Marx said the task of philosophy is to change the world, but for Kittler the end of history has arrived. There is no call to action. What is to be done? Nothing. We can read his book, of course, but why? And what, to use terminology I suspect he would not have approved of, does he feel about this? Not much – at least on the surface. How can anybody base their guide to living their life on any of this? I don’t know.

The major theoretical premise underlying the elegant structure of his argument and the book is the mapping of Gramophone–Film–Typewriter onto Jacques Lacan’s taxonomy of the relations of psyche and world, Real–Symbolic–Imaginary. At first sight this seems like a brilliant move, but the homomorphism is surely no more than a spectacularly audacious formalism – I can’t see why the very specific historical development of media technology from c. 1870 to 1920 should correspond to Lacan’s highly philosophical and non-historical schema except by coincidence or by force. What shared principles drive differentiation in each case? Kittler does not attempt a cybernetics of history, which would have been fun. Perhaps, as Lacanians might say, it is present by its absence. Kittler tells us that Lacan refused to discuss psychoanalysis with anyone who had not studied cybernetics; in Écrits (tr. Alan Sheridan, New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 329) Lacan indeed says that ‘Human language constitutes a communication in which the emitter receives from the receiver his own message in an inverted form’. But as for Kittler, if he claims human consciousness is now just a sideshow I can’t imagine a rationale by which he might want to borrow the language of psychoanalysis, or for that matter write, or read, or live …

Of course Kittler may perhaps have been disingenuous. Writing a book like this must have been a labour of love, the fruit of years of study and thought, with little prospect of personal reward. For all the complexities of postmodernism and irony, though, there must be a foundation, which surely has to be based on who we are, as people who think and feel. Regardless of whether the machines are now dominant or not, do we have any choice? Parallel to Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur, perhaps Kittler had something in common with the text from John 8:32 in the lobby of the CIA HQ in Langley, VA: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ Perhaps provocation and irony are half-truths, paradoxically given so magnanimously that the re-centred recipient may then have the gift of feeling complete.

Coda

I am making no judgements here, I am simply offering similar but divergent texts for your interest.

Steve Jobs died on 5 October 2011. This is from the very end (pp. 570–1) of Isaacson’s biography:

One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden and reflected on death … “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”
He fell silent for a very long time. “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.”
Then he paused again and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

Friedrich Kittler died on 18 October 2011. Gill Partington’s excellent obituary of him in Radical Philosophy 172 (March/April 2012) takes its title and closing sentence from Kittler’s final words:

Someone for whom the human and the technological were inextricably linked, Kittler was kept alive in the end by life-support machines until his final command: ‘Alle Apparate ausschalten.’ Switch off all apparatuses.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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