Why Read Kittler?

Friedrich A. Kittler. Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

The “Translator’s Introduction” (xi-xxxviii) helpfully catalogues (and complicates) media studies in the present, situating Kittler amidst his contemporaries and predecessors. Marshall McLuhan,  Vilém Flusser, Paul Virilio, Arthur Kroker, Jean Baudrillard, and Régis Debray are a few names, as well as Foucault, Adorno, Brecht, Benjamin.  Twentieth-century debates revolving around Marxist claims about use-value are parced as they pertain to media technology (xv) (highlighting the link between ideology and medium). Forays into Lacan beginning around page xvi are baffling and intriguing to me. “Nowadays, Kittler noted disapprovingly, even newspapers regurgitate Lacan’s famous dictum that the unconscious is the discourse of the other, ‘but that this discourse of the other is the discourse of the circuit is cited by no one.'” (xix)

Linguistics and modernism, see page xxvi:

“This alternation between foreground and background, and the corresponding oscillation between sense and nonsense on a basis of medial otherness, a logic of pure differentiality — which on a theoretical level was to emerge in the shape of Saussure’s structural linguistics — typifies the discourse network of 1900. The transcendental signified of Classical and Romantic poets has ceded to the material signifier of modernism.”

Bolz and Lacan — “[…] what Bolz calls a ‘media theory of the unconscious,’ appear as the ‘theory’ or historical effect’ of the possibilities of information processing existent since the beginning of this century.” The translators continue, “Kittler continues to pay sustained attention to the coincidence of psychoanalysis and Edisonian technology, and includes a suggestive discussion of ‘psychanalytic case studies, in spite of their written format, as media technologies’ (89), since they adhere to the new, technological media logic positing that consciousness and memory are mutually exclusive.” (xxviii)

On Nietzsche, Kittler, and “brackets” — pg xxix-xxx

“Building upon Benger, Jochen Schulte-Sasse has for one taken Kittler to task for conflating the history of communication technologies with the history of warfare while ignoring the network of enabling conditions responsible for breakthroughs in technological innovations.” (xxxvi)

Reactionary postmodernism; technological progress and fascism, see page xxxvii


But first, a quote from the 1985 preface:

“[…] number series, blueprints, and diagrams never turn back into writing, only into machines.” (xl)

-Transposing understanding of human consciousness upon technological apparati, and Guyau, pg 33 — Writes Kittler, “Phonographs do not think, therefore they are possible.”

-“A brain physiology that followed Broca and Wernicke’s subdivision of discourse into numerous subroutines and located speaking, hearing, writing, and reading in various parts of the brain (because it exclusively focused on the states of specifiable material particles) had to model itself on the phonograph –– and insight anticipated by Guyau.” (38)

-Quote from Rudolph Lothar’s The Talking Machine: A Technical-Aesthetic Essay (1924): “But the capacity for illusion that enables use to ignore boxes and interference and furnishes tones with a visible background requires musical sensitivity. This is the most important point of phonographic aesthetics: The talking machine can only grant artistic satisfaction to musical people. For only musicians possess the capacity for illusion necessary for every enjoyment of art.” (46)

-Quoting Rilke, in regards to Turing and Churchill, a division of “‘the one order of sense experience from the other.'” More on WWII around this area, too. (49)

-Machines and magic; philosophy becoming “delirious,” pg 77.

-In relation to kooky story about Goethe’s larynx, “And once Pschorr has train wheels ‘defeat his victorious rival, Goethe’s larynx,’ the engineer has finally beaten the author.” (78)

-Poetry as archival technology. (80)

-“Lowbrow and highbrow culture, professional technology and professional poetry: the founding age of modern media left us with those two options. Wildenbruch’s third way was eliminated. ‘So listen to the sound of what I declare, and Ernst von Wildenbruch’s soul will be laid bare,’ the imperial state poet rhymed, as if one could simultaneously speak into technological machines and claim an immortal name. From sound back to poem, from poem back to soul–that is the impossible desire to reduce the real (the physiology of a voice) to the symbolic, and the symbolic (an articulated speech) to the imaginary. The wheel of media technology cannot be turned back to retrieve the soul, the imaginary of all Classic-Romantic poetry.” (82-83)

-“Freud introduces his ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’ with the audacious avowal that his written ‘record’ of hysterical speeches has a ‘high degree of trustworthiness,’ though it is ‘not absolutely — phonographically — exact.'” (89) In this same vein: “The psychoanalyst’s love of non-sensical speeches has no written or cryptographic equivalent. As if well known, only printed works of literature, not illegible commonplaces, solicit interpretations.” (92)

-What is “n+1″? (pg 111)

More synthesis ought to proceed these ear-marks, but one thing I can say off the cuff is that Kittler’s work has allowed me to consider the how the connection between aesthetics and representation also necessitate considerations of media (and medium); I find his excavations of the historical and material rooting of these links to be mostly delightful and aphoristic, and to appropriately explore literary and historical canons to serve as demonstrations of his arguments.

Attempting to Translate “The Mass Ornament” (TBC)

Siegfried Kracauer. “The Mass Ornament.” In Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 74-86.

An excavation which proceeds sectionally, as does Kracauer:


In the first paragraph of this essay, Kracauer sets his readers up for the analysis of popular culture that is to follow, kneading us into a receptive mode through which we might grasp the significance of studying synchronized dancers:

The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. Since these judgments are expressions of the tendencies of a particular era, they do not offer conclusive testimony about its overall constitution. The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things. Conversely, knowledge of this state of things depends on the interpretation of these surface-level expressions. The fundamental substance of an epoch and its unheeded impulses illuminate each other reciprocally. (75)

Earlier in the spring I stopped after this mysterious first paragraph, wondering how I might apply Kracauer’s explanation of “reading the surface” to my own continuing curiosities about a domain of popular culture which, by its own declaration, pertains more to health and fitness than it does to passive entertainment. Already a few questions emerge here: what does it mean for an expression to be inconspicuous — is it by definition what we are so accustomed to that we overlook its meaning? How useful is the translation of marginalia to decipher the moment when it seems possible that only retrospectively can we decipher its era, when inevitably our own judgments interfere with our ability to discern such relevancy in fringe or frivolous expressions of culture? Continue reading “Attempting to Translate “The Mass Ornament” (TBC)”