The remarkable science called media history, should have a preference for technologies that read or write. This is the program of Germany’s most important media theorist Friedrich Kittler, who recently moved to Berlin to head the new Aesthetics Institute at the (purged) Humboldt University. Kittler feels a profound repulsion for graphic user interfaces and multi-media visualisation for the masses, the so-called handy software that results in a Babylonian program tower. He wants to get to the heart of the matter: the hardware, algorithms, blueprints and circuit diagrams. Kittler’s story sounds like a myth of creation, complete with original sin and exile from paradise. There was once a time when the computer made no distinction between instructions and data. But that disappeared forever with the introduction of user-friendliness, according to Kittler. Since then, people are doomed to remain people. The result is that the chip is becoming more and more inaccessible. Everyone has become dependent on the firm Microsoft and reduced to Windows’ slave. A contemporary Foucaultian analysis should therefore search for power in the chip itself and not get stuck on the surface.
Beginning with the 80286 chip, a protected mode began being built into Intel-processors to keep the application software away from the operating system. The encodings are not provided the handbook informs us. Kittler sees a return to military logic with this in-built difference between the protected mode and the real mode; part of the technology is released, while the secret nucleus remains in the hands of military researchers. This media principle recurs throughout the entire 20th century and has returned with these privilege levels in the heart of the oh-so-democratic computer, according to Kittler. Users don’t get what they want, but what they need.
Kittler compiled this varied collection of previously published articles for the refurbished East German Reclam Universal Bibliothek, one of Germany’s oldest publishers. It opens with a long interpretation (1982) of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the richness of the literature used by Kittler is a good indication of the poverty of Coppola’s film version). As far as I know, it’s the first story in which Kittler develops his thesis of the woman (Mina Harker) who controls the registration apparatus (in this case, the newly invented typewriter) as medium of the man. From that moment onwards, we all become subjects of machine-based discourse processing gadgets and instruments. This claim is developed theoretically in the essay The World of the Symbolic — a World of the Machine.
It was Lacan who elevated psychoanalysis to the level of high-tech. His separation of the imaginary, the real and the symbolic is reflected by the trinity of storage, transmission and computing. While philosophy is still preaching `the familiarity of one’s self’, psychoanalysis sticks to the view that `consciousness is only the imaginary interior of medial standards’. Psychoanalysis is inconceivable without cybernetics and there is no such thing as post-modernism, only the modern post. In the second part, we find an essay about Romanticism- Psychoanalysis-Film, in which Kittler uses Otto Rank to discuss the technical phenomenon of the double. He then deals with the text Problemen der Lyrik (Problems of Lyric) by Gotfried Benn, whose biography was closely tied to the medium of radio. As a poet, it would seem that Benn lends himself as description of the relationship between literature and media (as Kittler and Klaus Theweleit prove). Benn’s nihilism was a razor-sharp registration of the influence of the media in literature. A classic criticism of pop music concludes this part. In God of the Ears, Pink Floyd’s `Brain Damage’ from the album Dark Side of the Moon is analysed as a circuit between mixer, ear, brain and lunacy (The lunatic is in my head).
Kittler is not in habit of holding the reader’s hand. The style is stiff, like the rhetorical tone. Kittler sternly addresses his hermeneutic colleagues and tries to catch them out on their technical and mathematical ignorance. And that, of course, is like taking candy from a baby. The third part of the book draws on classic informatics texts: Turing’s Universal discrete machine, Claude Shannon’s Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, Von Neumann’s Principles of automata and Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics. This part includes the actual `technical writings’ like Real Time Analysis, Time Axis Manipulation, with the thesis that only that which can form a circuit, exists, the above mentioned Protected Mode and an essay with the significant title There is no Software.
While popular scientific writing about chaos theory, complexity and artificial life only briefly mentions the founders of informatics before delving into the revolutionary innovations of the genius adolescents of the seventies and eighties, Kittler says nothing about such recent developments. He sees more of a degeneration than the growing stream of paradigm exchange we hear so much about from California. We are moving further and further away from the pure, bare, abstract machine and this profoundly disturbs Kittler. Increasing comfort is at the expense of our insight into machine logic, with all the consequences that entails. But who is willing to listen? Computer hackers will doubtless agree with Kittler. They, too, curse DOS, Windows and of course Mac’s Apple, the introducer of the toddling menus. But the power of images remains a terra incognita for Kittler. Why do human beings in the form of wetware remain stuck to the screen’s surface and why do they become so easily excited by the idea of VR, interactivity, 500 TV channels and real-time video on Internet? Why are cheap categories of image like horror, art and porno still so firmly ensconced in the scheme of things? The plea for a micro-physics of hardware power runs into steel boundaries here. Those with superior knowledge of the core of the machine may have right on their side, but (like other users) must stand on the sidelines and indignantly witness the hype surrounding the raging growth of software. This chasm can only be closed by a rapprochement of image producers and hardware programmers.
Kittler offers a number of elements to this dialogue. He emphasises the calculation aspect of digital image processing. According to Kittler, we’d all be one step further along if knowledge of its mathematical basis were made more widely accessible. But for those who don’t believe in conspiracies and ghost stories, software is just a specific tool (and one limited in its uses) designed by others, that does not deprive us of anything essential.
Making Kittler’s work and sources accessible might form a precondition for such a dialogue. It is still relatively easy to read through a few dusty remains of Germanism. But that does not apply to his technical interpretation of the psychoanalyst Lacan. While Barthes, Baudrillard and Foucault have found their way into technoculture, Lacan, whose point of departure included cybernetics, is still eminently unknown. Slavoj Zizek succeeds in this, but he writes about film and mass culture and not about hard informatics. Because Kittler does not attempt a dialogue with non-programmers, it is becoming more and more difficult to apply his rich thesis of the technical a priori of the media to other areas and to accept it as a foundation of media theory. It is difficult for technical laymen to accept that all meanings, all data, the whole cultural kit and kaboodle is literally, and figuratively, trivial refuse of the technical media to Kittler’s media theory. It’s not a happy message: the user is not king, but a subject of technology.
The question is not so much whether we subscribe to Kittler’s view, as to what the everyday political, cultural and aesthetic consequences are. A radical continuation lands us at a technological variant of economic determinism. Kittler seems reluctant to deal with this fear, probably because this criticism belongs to the realm of aspersions. But it is not easy to give an answer to the accusation of a relapse into subject philosophy, if we reject the technical a priori. The subjects do not perceive it as their problem that they behave too much like human beings and grope their way in the midst of the static towards a handful of meaning. And thus, the gap between technicians and users continues to exist. After years of research and a long series of publications, it is time that the theory of medial materialism was debated, preferably in an international context, outside of the realm of aspersions.
(translation: jim boekbinder)