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Frank Hartmann (by way of pit {AT} contrib.de (Pit Schultz)) on Wed, 5 Mar 97 04:41 MET


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nettime: Communication Materiel / on the position of F.A. Kittler


Communication MatŽriel

Frank Hartmann

Towards a philosophy of media? The position of leading german
media theorist Friedrich Kittler - a critical orientation.
(These notes were originally prepared for a public discussion
with Kittler held in Berlin, Oct. 1996, and will be printed in
Bastard Magazine / Arkzin, Zagreb-Vienna)

A literary scholar trained both in German and Romance
approaches, Kittler escaped in his intellectual career, as he
himself put it, "Freiburg University's Heideggerianism" by
having access to the original writings of Jacques Lacan and
Michel Foucault of the late sixties and early seventies.
Furthermore, he refused to submit to the negativism of the
Frankfurt School, favoured reading Hegel over Marx, and
enthusiastically plunged into the psychodelic music of Pink
Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.

Through discourse analysis inspired by the post-structuralism
of the seventies, Kittler developed an objectivity of some
technical argumentation which is strictly set against the
"making sense" of German hermeneutics: neither intentions,
feelings nor sayings should be the objectives of humanities,
but the underlying structures which, as the conditions of
hardware, are of purely a technical nature. Discourse analysis
becomes materialistic in doing justice to the standards of the
second Industrial Revolution, by accepting "information" as its
paradigm as well as "labour" and "energy". In consequence for
theorizing, the clearing work Kittler practices as a structural
activity under technical manners decodes the modern enigmas of
communication. This is the starting point for his analysis.
Neither subjects nor their consciousness, but wirings determine
what is real and culture is to be seen as data processing.
Therefore, a methodical transgression from literary to a
comprehensive media analysis was to be established. Without
making the technical realm (in which storing, broadcasting and
computing takes place) any topic of their discussion,
traditional philosophical theories nowadays would simply turn
euphemistic. Philosophy as Kittler suggests it, on the other
hand, is not committed to enlightenment, but rather to
demystification; he proposes the perhaps last possible form of
a critique of metaphysics by reconciling cultural theory with
the technical order of things.
Provocating the philosophical guild, Kittler introduces Aquinās
"Summa Theologiae" as historically well placed word processing,
or Hegelās "Phenemonology of Mind" as a mere transcription,
consciously covering up the traces left behind by the
philosopher's encyclopedic excerpts collection. According to
his approach, the "Gelehrtenrepublik" - the scholarly universe
- forms itself through crucial, yet hidden technical
operations: any humanist's text tends to make the involved
media technology disappear. Only the feedback loop of a
repeated lecture reveals what any great Philosophical text owes
to material conditions, the traces of which are consciously and
continuously erased. Therefore, the scholarly discourse can be
demystified as an endless circulation of texts or an
"Aufschreibesystem" (= scriptorial system) which, without even
any conscious producers or consumers involved, circulates words
in and by itself. And its products, right at the front: books,
are media, not carriers of some metaphysical value.
Furthermore, this system exists with the unbearable burden of
meaning, that is with the promise of an understanding, which
plays the role of a supervisor in the discourse itself. As if
that ultimate state of understanding could be achieved and not
just effects of programming were taking place. In other words,
the written always states itself as an effect of what, on whose
or whatever grounds should be written. Yet how could one become
aware of this essentially hidden normativity?

In terms of book culture, the normativity is an already broken
one. Since we know that "our writing tools are assisting to our
thoughts", as Friedrich Nietzsche already stated, if any, then
this is the leitmotif to Kittlerās study "Grammophon, Film,
Typewriter", published in the mid-eighties. Humanities as well
as literature, as Kittler elaborates, have built up their
autonomy by fading out the technical condition for any
potential of knowledge. Whilst these conditions are being
transformed with the innovative leap of the digital computer
(Alan Turings universal discrete machine), there is a
possibility for critical reflection, a chance for media
philosophy. But let us be cautious here - not philosophy in the
academic sense of a discipline, but research on the technical
conditions of electronically mediated communication is
Kittlerās achievement, for which I think the term media-
archaeology would be best appropriate. The theoretical
influence of Jacques Derrida crops up here and there; Kittler
is criticizing Philosophy for accepting the pseudo-humanism in
the notion of "thought" without reflecting on the aspects of
its mediation, wherein "script" playes a major role versus any
purity of thought. What claims validity in Philosophy as an
argument, a proof or a quote owes a lot to the technical
difference, to the context of its own hidden material
reference. Hence, any philosophy of media should start off with
the media of Philosophy. With this, Kittler not only took
serious Marshall McLuhanās slogan of the medium being a message
in itself, but radicalized it as such. While the prerequisites
of communications engineering are systematically ignored by
Philosophers, these form the true schematism of perception. Not
messages or contents make the reality of media, but their
assembled hardware. (Kittler holds it against the so-called
computer community that they tend to hide hardware behind
software aspects, or electronic signifiers behind interfaces.)

After disassembling the world into letters and numbers, frames
and pixels, only the hardware system still keeps it all
together. Now this clearly is a variation to the rhetorics of
the "death of the subject" (Foucault); just because the analogue
communications process of storage and broadcasting also replace
human sense organs (as prosthetic devices, which Norbert Wiener
recognized in the context of wartime conditions), this fact
fosters our illusion that there still is something "human" to
it. European Philosophy is to be blamed for the omission of
noticing the hardware of thought (such as papyrus, or city
structures, or the silicium microchip). Whilst considering the
relationship between body and mind like the one between
hardware and software, Philosophy is not able to acknowledge
thought detached from a body, thus leading to a final,
corporeal objection against technology. Now Kittler's approach
rather works on the the question of how media technology has
shaped the human and cultural-historical dispositions. Within
this view, metaphysical problems like those concerning
consciousness simply disappear, because they reveal themselves
as effects of technology - not as bodily functions, but as
discourse strategies which are, again, determined by media.
Here we might ask why such an approach is hardly to be found in
the reflections of philosophers so far. Kittler argues that
there never was need for a theory of mediality, simply because
within traditional theory, symbolic action necessarily meant
writing. The necessity of media theory derives from beyond the
priviledges of the book culture as the organisational principle
of social knowledge.

As the modern media development manifests, even language proves
to be a historically contingent storage medium. At present,
with microprocessing, script retreats into the machines, which
not only makes its perceptability in time and space disappear
but also the act of writing as such. The hardware engineers of
Intel corporation, Kittler states in his recent "Technical
Writings", may have performed the last historical act of
writing in the late seventies in designing the architecture of
their first integrated microprocessor on 64mu of tracing paper
to prepare the engravings in a silicon microchip. This
diagnosis of the disappearance of script radicalizes, in
consequence to the new technical order of things at the end of
the industrial revolution - the vanishing of the human, as
Foucault put it. While transcending lingual codes, computer
technology turns out to be more than a mere infrastructure for
knowledge. Kittler still pursues a technological hermeneutics
of sorts, which implies a decoding of the social process which
has written itself into media technology. Current media culture
indicates a communicative transformation perceived as
liberating at the one hand, yet industrialising consciousness
on the other (as the Frankfurt School approach suggests).
Obviously, Kittler does not even attempt to pursue the quest
for a "critical task" any more. Instead, he suggests that the
technical order of things remains to be re-written as hardware
theory, although this seems to be a bit of a performative
contradiction. Where some (in the sense of democratising the
access to information) tend to see useful graphical interfaces,
Kittler decovers acts of concealing - of those acts of writing
which remain inevitable for programming, producing user
interfaces by which "a whole machine is being withdrawn from
its user".
In the end, what can we know about those information machines
themselves? This question reveals a fundamental difficulty:
the novelty with technical data processing is the phenomenon
that electronic media networks no longer function as mere
"technical ampifiers of verbal communication" (as defined by
JŸrgen Habermas in his "Theory of Communicative Action"). With
the new media culture, Kittler claims, the human factor stopped
making sense, for it functions not on the basis of languages,
but algorithms, causing effects which paradoxically no speech
will sufficiently be able to describe. Furthermore, Kittler
also dissociates himself from any metaphysics of numbers (i.e.
digitised information): numbers as well as letters exist not by
and in themselves, but as historical aprioris, under operative,
hence mediated conditions.

Since under conditions of progressive technologies there is no
subject in complete control anymore, this provokes the question
of the role of experts and of intellectuals. Will their
knowledge and critical reflection be taken over by some
universal machine memory, the surrection of which seeming to be
the aim of human existence? Humanist ethics or well-intended
media literacy efforts, still dealing with the human subject,
become an abstract criticism in the face of technical media
transformation, forgetting about technology as a knowledge
which firstly grants power and control. If Philosophy bars
itself from the questions of media theory (as it traditionally
does at large), its fate will be the abhorrent edifying
discourse, enforcing its actual loss in socio-political
relevance, which then will be taken over by scientists and
engineers. Critique, in this case, seems to be at grasp
depending on the level of consciousness by which the difference
between "word text" as a decisive derivate and the "clear text"
of programming language may become a topic after all. Not the
difference between information rich and information poor, but
between programmers and programmed determines future media
reality.
Supported by the silence of the engineers within the socio-
political discourse, it may seem adroit to quarrel about
computer technology and its functions: after all, itās "only a
tool". And yet, an immanent critique of instrumental reason has
to admit that these "tools" themselves have become deeply
symbolic. Therefore, computers a more than plain tools. Kittler
now dares the contention that "there is no software", on the
grounds that somehow software is always an effect of the
existing hardware: a theory of hardware then becomes a paradox,
because it stresses a matter of expression which again would
systematically conceal its own technical implementation.
Kittler makes his point with a subversive seriousness, always
staying within the frame of know how for technical
installations on which he practiced himself - at least in
miniature editions. This goes as a criticism of an intellectual
abstraction, which supports a discourse completely off the
existing media reality. His readings, aiming at a level of
circuit diagrams beneath user interfaces and practiced in the
hacker-form of trial and error, seem more like a securing of
evidence than a second-level form of technical hermeneutics.

One could argue against this that the technological foundations
are not necessarily revealing the social impact of any
technology. The Internet recently has developed as a social
phenomenon and not as a purely technical one, owing its
existence not solely to the conditions of hardware (of computer
architecture). However, such technical products contain some
subversive potential which allows usage of power against their
producers; this is an insight against which Kittlers position
probably would have no good reason to object. His theoretical
position is plausible as a coming to an end of the
structuralist approach, and yet is specifically determined.
Kittler places too much implicit trust into technologies as a
revolutionary subject of sorts, and its pseudo-nature of
progress puts an automatism into history which, by the way,
makes any media theory itself superfluous. The communication
matŽriel does not reveal any semantics and moreover, the
abundantly troubled facticity of war puts the social process,
which gave essential shape to media development, into oblivion.
If it really would be about technology running wild, then the
dismissal of the human subject would not have to be celebrated
with such propagandistic enthusiasm, left alone in technical
writings.

Frank Hartmann runs the Forum Sozialforschung (http://www.ad.or.at/fsf ),
an association membered by non-university research institutes in Vienna,
and lectures on media theory at the university of Vienna. He recently
published "Cyber.Philosophy - Medientheoretische Auslotungen" Wien:
Passagen Verlag 1996 (in German)
http://www.fsf.adis.at/fsf/public/cyberphilosophy.html

Friedrich A. Kittler teaches at the Humboldt University Berlin. The article
"There is no software" is available at http://ctheory.com/a32-no_software.html
other (english) sources:
Discourse Networks, 1800/1900; Friedrich A. Kittler, Michael Metteer
Systems Networks 1900-2000 : Literature, Media, Information (Critical
Voices); Friedrich A. Kittler, John Johnston; (Not Yet Published)


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