Archive for February, 2014

‘User Friendly’ – Is It All Relative?

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 by lola192

The last time I played around in the MAL, I started to think about the notion of user friendly and user intuition. I found that technologies that seem intuitive with regard to how you use them i.e. turn them on, insert paper or cartridges, produce something, become less intuitive and thus less (not?) user-friendly the further they are removed from present technology. For example, after losing my patience with the 56K dial up, I joined Lauren and played around with the typewriters. I assumed that loading paper would be simple, just like loading paper into a printer. It wasn’t. After several attempts, the paper slipped into its proper place. I assumed typing would be straightforward, just like on my laptop. It wasn’t. Despite pressing various keys, the ink deposited itself on the paper in roughly the same place each time. Unlike computer laptops and keyboards, especially the flat, perfectly square keys of Macs, which allow you to type and produce words on the screen at an incredible pace, typewriters make you to slow down, forcing you to somewhat respond to it rather than having it respond to you.

Having grown impatient with the typewriter – I’m sure it’s quite a cathartic writing experience once you settle in to its rhythm – we decided to play some video games on the NES. Nothing could be more user friendly than a simple gaming console, right? Wrong. If you didn’t put the game cartridge in exactly the right way, it either refused to stay in the console, or the screen became oddly divided, showing blocks of bright green amidst partial images from the game’s welcome screen. After a couple of attempts, Mario was ready to do his thing and we commenced playing. After 5 minutes or so, we switched to DuckTales, a game we both remembered from our childhood. We fiddled with the cartridge again until it successfully slotted into place. The game was much harder than either of us remembered. I decided that the game was now difficult because the controller offered less options than contemporary gaming controllers. Instead of two joysticks (sorry if my terminology is incorrect – I’ve never been a gamer), 8 buttons (LB,LT,RB,RT,X,Y,B,A), and an arrow pad, we had two buttons  (A,B) and arrow pad, none of which seemed to work in combination with another. As a self-professed often successful button masher, the button mashing capabilities that brought me Streetfighter fame were of no use in this antiquated world of gaming.

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Kittler’s Literate Anxiety

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 by willm2

Kittler does a powerful job articulating how media is key to the concept of Foucauldian discourse networks. He criticizes Foucault (rightfully so) for ignoring how media works. Writing, as the original monolithic media, shaped discourse in innumerable ways. That which was not writing did not get to be ‘history’, banished instead to the uncivilized non-academic realm of ‘orality’.

Kittler seems to want to draw a connection between the pan-media of writing to the (at that point) future pan-media of fiber-optic cables. Just as writing collapsed all kinds of pre-existing media into a single mode, fiber optic cables have done the same by eliminating the rifts between film, radio, TV, and the rest. If the old-media replaced by fiber optic cables represented the isolated, yet still immensely powerful disciplinary institutions of the past, then the new pan-media is the society of control written about by Deleuze. In the past, the subject was forced into discrete institutions, each one beginning the process of subject formation anew (the home –> school –> military/factory –> prison/hospital); the society of control, on the other hand, can accommodate itself to the subject, creating a seamless pattern of shaping that extends well beyond the traditional workday/workweek of western civs. The pan-media of the internet is the ‘tool’ by which this modulation is accomplished.

Kittler is justifiably concerned over this turn of events. What confuses me, however, is why Kittler does not try to apply this same critique to writing in the past. He laments the loss of ‘poetic’ writing to the mechanistic discourse of the typewriter. For him, poetic imagination cannot be transmitted by a typewritten document. Kittler even seems to enjoy the pan-media nature of writing. He speaks of audio-visual data encoded into texts by the author and decoded by the reader. Writing/reading is a creative practice that is swept away by the compartmentalization of audio/visual data into separate systems like film and radio. Kittler even infuses writing with the power to bring memory, and thus, the dead, back into the present (words “quiver with sensuality and memory”). How can writing, a type of media just as pervasive as Kittler’s prediction of the fiber-optic world, be privileged in this way? Is Kittler just a German Romanticist at heart?

news and articles relevant to our class from the last week

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 by Lori Emerson

Over the last week I keep coming across articles online that are perfectly relevant to our class – and eye-opening. My top picks for the week:

A Letter on Technological Maintenance from the Army

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by contromal

In What is Media Archaeology, a quote from Kittler outlines how the military has set trends for “contemporary media technological culture” in motion:

“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 Seccond World War, has transferred the schematic of a typewriter of predictability per se; Turing’s mathematical definition of computability in 1936 gave future computers their name.'” (Kittler qtd. Parikka loc 1805)

This week, I (and a thousand others with my technical job in the Army) received an unclassified email from a General in the Logistics Corps (which is attached to the end of this blog post). The author of this letter discourages soldiers from attempting to maintain or repair two pieces of their equipment, for which the maintenance is being outsourced through civilian contracts. This letter signals, to me, the necessity of adding a Phase 4 to Kittler’s observations about the relationship between the media and our culture’s resultant technological culture. Phase 4 would focus on the inability of the individual to understand, maintain, or tinker with developing technologies. It separates man from the understanding the machine and cultivates his role as consumer alone.

Although I am incredibly familiar with how the maintenance system in the Army works, I did not question why the maintenance system works like it does, until I received this email. When the Army purchases new technology, it primarily awards contracts to the “lowest bidder.” The Army’s “Bottom Line Up Front” answer is that they choose the the most affordably priced product from the vendor, which can meet the needs of the Army. But what I question is the cost of extended warranties and the effect of relegating the soldier to the role of consumer.

The Army will argue that it is better served by building its maintenance on this model of disconnect. The Army does not have the proper parts, particular training, or sufficient time. It will say that military manpower is better utilized by evacuating specialty items to be worked on at a centralized location, developed for the precise purpose of specialty repairs. It will cite the importance of a warranty repair and the availability of civilian personnel to complete this maintenance. It will laud the hired technical experts it employs. It will assure the public that the soldier can be a more competent, focused, and efficient war-fighter, because he or she is not distracted by menial maintenance tasks.

But warranties only last for awhile and much of the military’s equipment sticks around for decades. Someone must continue to ensure that technology does not fail, so someone must be paid to complete essentially eternal repair contracts. More importantly, the creativity of a soldier, who has been scolded for trying to solve his/her own technological malfunctions, plunges. Instead of being an active problem-solver with the ability to control his equipment, he/she becomes subjugated to the never-understood complexities of mandatory technological advancement. Freud’s hypothesis about dreaming parallels the fourth phases’s control of technological creativity. Freud “famously designated dreaming as a cordoned-off arena of primitive irrationality: ‘What once dominated waking life while the mind was still young and incompetent seems now to have been banished into the night… Dreaming is a piece of infantile mental life that has been superseded.'” (qtd. in Crary 107). So, too, has creative repair been discouraged. The soldier has been denied access to the physicality of his machine. The soldier’s skills have been deemed “crude,” “unsophisticated,” and “futile no matter what the talent level of
the maintainer.”

This crushing of creativity can be seen in various artifacts outside of the military, especially since the personalization of the computer. It is obvious in the ways that Apple has shut off access to their products. It is apparent in cars, which have moved increasingly towards governance by onboard computer units. Phase four replaces the tinkerers and thinkers by stealing away their reasonable ability to mess with the machine. The sellers have taken away the tools.

I wonder, then, which came first? Did Phase 4 surface in the civilian sector or the military first? Are these moments of influence, continuing to trend in the direction Kittler assumes?

***********
“On 5 February members of PM SMS traveled to the OEM’s facility for the
AN/PSQ-20 and AN/PSQ-20A (5855-01-534-6449 & 5855-01-603-0489 respectively)

Enhanced night Vision Goggles (ENVG). During our visit the PM was invited
into the repair and maintenance shop of that facility. The OEM teamed showed
the PM several goggles that had obviously been opened in an attempt to
repair them. The attempt to repair or maintain the goggles was obvious as
some of the work was quite crude. Unauthorized and unsophisticated
soldiering techniques were used that were quite visible and resulted in
additional damage to the goggles.

As you know these two particular ENVGs are largely supported by
CLS, which is accomplished through the OEM. Any repair or maintenance task
that requires the housing to be breached shall be done by the OEM and if
performed by the Soldier will void the warranty. Additionally there are no
internal parts or components that are stocked in the Standard Army Supply
System and no TMDE or Test Sets are available to the Soldier so any
maintenance at that level will be futile no matter what the talent level of
the maintainer.”

Thoughts on Copier Art

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by dparker90

The issue of Copier Art, with its reproductions of artists’ copier-made portraits and collages, is an important event in the variantologial spectrum of media art. Not only does it challenge notions of artistic originality, it also manipulates a technology – the copier – for creative purposes that are at odds with its intended function. The artworks in the volume disrupt conventions regarding artistic authenticity:  the work can be copied without losing any of its value, because there are no originals when everything’s a copy. In this respect, I find Copier Art to be a singular moment in the deep time of media that challenges our notions of the proper use of technologies in the present. Much like glitch art, the book, as both manifesto and guide, usurps a technology of control in order to redistribute power.

In teaching readers how to operate copiers and create copier art, the writers of the book continually emphasize the ease and accessibility of this methodological approach. It requires no technical expertise or expensive materials. The copier itself is easily accessible in a public library. However, we know that those who work in offices or other corporate environments would likely have access to this technology. Indeed, the copier was built precisely for these settings. In my view, the corporate worker is the ideal copier artist. However, from my experience working as a paralegal in a corporate law firm, the idea of making art on the office’s copier seems laughable; my manager would have thought it a waste of company resources and time. But that’s the point: waste! In his Variantology, Zielinksi urges us to conduct research and undertake artistic projects that cannot be put to use. Copier art undermines the intended purpose of the copier as a tool for corporate productivity by using it to produce artistic waste.

Finally, I think copier art (and maybe glitch art) challenges Kittler’s assertion that “media determines our situation” (xxxix). Yes, the range of what’s artistically possible in copier art are determined by the constraints of its media – specifically, the functions of the copier – but aren’t we asserting control when we use it for purposes other than those for which it was intended? When we create art from a technology originally intended for productive corporate operations, we’re making media play by our rules.

Copier art

Patrick Firpo, “Look Both Ways Before You Cross”

Ramblings on Kittler, Impressions, Music, and Self-aware Art

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by lasu9006

Last Monday night, I spent some time tinkering with these bad boys:

Image

I spent the most time with the Smith-Corona Sterling, cajoling the paper into the slot and around the rotating dowel-thingy, spinning the wheel, and then hammering away on the keys. Much to my delight, the machine responded in a cacophony of sound: “clunka chunka chunka ding!” But while the machine was certainly vocal, the letters that it inscribed upon my painstakingly loaded piece of paper were dim and subdued, hardly legible at all. How fitting, I thought. In the case of this particular typewriter, the space between writer and text became dilated and stretched—the apparatus situated between author and text resulted in a fuzzy or indistinct impression.

Kittler offers an explanation of the different types of impressions: “Impressions tend to belong to either of two classes: they either possess greater intensity, a unique sharpness of outline and fixity of line, or they are weaker, more blurred and imprecise, but nevertheless arranged in a certain order that imposes itself on us” (31). The impression that the Sterling Corona made upon my piece of paper was of the latter description: “weaker, more blurred and imprecise.”

I don’t want to be too critical of the Sterling Corona, because I found it an incredible and lively machine. Instead, I think that any content expressed through a medium necessarily loses a bit of itself. Kittler makes reference to the ways in which recordings or reproductions of any one thing are always somehow inferior to the original. For example, Kittler refers to the strange sensation of hearing your own recorded voice played back to you. As Kittler notes, there is a strange, cold, tinny quality to the recorded voice, and you find yourself asking, “Is that really what I sound like?” I think it would be easy to delve into a discussion of simulacra and whatnot, with Baudrillard in my back pocket, but I’m not going to do that right now, because I have some other things on my mind. Namely, I am interested in further discussion of the concept of distance and gaps, especially as that distance applies to recorded music.

I thought it was super cool when Kittler started applying his analysis of sound and music to Pink Floyd’s “Fat Old Sun.” The lyrics of the song implore the listener to experience the song in a certain way, to sit in silence, to “pick your feet up off the ground,” and to await a “silver sound from a time so strange.” As Kittler says, “Nobody knows who is singing—the voice called David Gilmour that sings the song, the voice referred to by the song, or maybe the voice of the listener who makes no sound and is nonetheless supposed to sing once all the conditions of magic have been met.” In this way, lyricist and listener become conflated—singer and hearer are one. Kittler continues: “An unimaginable closeness of sound technology and self-awareness, a simulacrum of a feedback loop relaying sender and receiver. A song sings to a listener ear, telling it to sing. As if the music were originating in the brain itself rather than emanating from stereo speakers or headphones” (37). Indeed, the song seems to strip bare the process of listening and experiencing music, and, in so doing, to bridge the gap between voice and listener. Sometimes, when I am just about to fall asleep, I can hear an entire song played in my head, exactly as it would be played through the speakers of my computer. It’s a strange phenomenon of dormant memorized impressions rising to the surface of my subconscious, and I think it relates well to Kittler’s notion of music that comes from the brain, rather than from a recorded device. Suddenly, the music seems to transcend the medium used to express it. Suddenly, it becomes one with the listener, and the distance between the two collapses.  

 Kittler provides an excerpt of Rudolph Lothar’s The Talking Machine: A Technical-Aesthetic Essay,” in which Lothar contends that, “Only when we forget that the voice of the singer is coming from a wooden box, when we no longer hear any interference, when we can suspend it the way we are able to suspend a stage—only then will the talking machine come into its own artistically” (45). I disagree with Lothar whole-heartedly. While I think it is indeed valuable to dissolve the distance between artist and listener, as Pink Floyd did in “Fat Old Sun,” I think it is equally valuable for an artist to call attention to his/her medium. The Beatles, for example, are famous for their inclusion of anomalies within their recorded works—beeps, squeaks, and voices that don’t belong, recording glitches, sounds of rustling paper, etc. While most recorded music from the Beatles’ time invariably includes some anomalies, since recording technology was still evolving, the Beatles’ music is particularly fraught with anomalies, to the point where they cannot go ignored, or cannot be merely chalked up to shoddy recording work. Instead, I think that the inclusion of anomalies speaks to a level of self-consciousness, meta-awareness, or self-awareness within the music itself.

I’m pretty excited because I intend to spend my night listening to “The White Album” on vinyl because I feel it has the most anomalies in it. I just think there’s something lurking behind the anomalies, and I intend to find out what that something is. (And no, I won’t jump on the “Paul McCartney is dead!” bandwagon.)

“Ghost Fork” and “March of the Sad Lady”

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by angelarovak

I have fond memories of playing with the giant copy machine as a child at my mother’s office. Such thoughts made me incredibly excited to read and inspired by Copier Art. The possibilities seemed endless! And, partially frightening, as the text asks “Does the machine have a creative soul of its own? One begins to wonder” (107). During my experiment creating some copier “art” (in scare quotes because I am not sure I would label my results as such), I had to wonder if the machine was influencing my intent. And what I discovered is that it is incredibly difficult, and would take significantly more time in planning a piece than I dedicated today. I made two pieces to explore two basic concepts of copier art, zoom and density. My piece playing with the zoom capabilities of the machine, titled “March of the Sad Lady,” proved to be the most difficult. After several failed attempts at arranging the paper in the manual input tray to guarantee the images were aligned on the page correctly, I began placing my image, moving it about, and changing the zoom. What I discovered is how difficult it is to picture a percentage of zoom on the large glass space in terms of how it will be represented on an 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper. Below are my results:

March of the Sad Lady

I feel particularly bad for the teeny tiny sad lady in the middle, obstructed by two larger sad ladies, whom I was intending to be closer to the bottom left hand corner. If anything I can say that at least my efforts were successful, it does look like quite a march of the sad, automaton ladies.

My second experiment was in density, or the saturation of image. This was accomplished by using the same source material, in this case a large fork with pasta, moving it about and changing the input. We can call this one “Ghost Fork.” I was expecting larger contrast between the lightest setting and the darkest, but overall I am pleased with the results:Ghost Fork

After a few minutes experimenting, the controls of the machine became familiar, and I found myself laughing and smiling with excitement as things turned out and frustrated and scoffing when they did not. I was reminded of the instant gratification benefit of embarking on creative endeavors such as these described in Copier Art. The technology has advanced, although it appears to still be within the realm of those described in the 1980s. What interests me most is the ubiquity of the machine and how it no longer seems to have such an appeal, an aura of wonder, as it may have decades ago. Do children still place office supplies and found objects on the glass and make souvenirs from their trips to their parent’s office? The process reminds me of another long lost interest of mine, photography. Learning to use the dark room, to manipulate light and create your own saturations and zooms for your art came back to me in another rush of nostalgia. Like copier art it seems that the widespread use of such skills and techniques is fading from the general public as more digital means of image manipulation take hold. I am reminded of the introduction to Copier Art where “copier visionaries predict such marvels as instant copies of what a person sees, shot directly off the back of the eye’s retina” (18). While this still seems to be in our future, devices like Google Glass make it seem all too real.

Dramaturgies of Difference

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by eadodge

While reading through Chapter 9 of Zielinski’s “Deep Time of the Media,” I came across this explanation of an example: “Brecht’s Short Organum for the Theatre (1948) is a theoretical and practical plea for operational dramaturgy — that is, for a dramatic art, that does not invite its audience to illusion and catharsis but that encourages thinking to continue during pleasure” (Zielinski 259). This is found under the heading “Cultivating dramaturgies of difference is an effective remedy against the increasing ergonomization of the technical media worlds that is taking place under the banner of ostensible linear progress.” A mouthful, to be sure, and one that I want to take the time to unpack.

Part of this chapter heading is concerned with an idea that Zielinski debunks earlier on in his text, about the myth of linear technological and media progress. As well, throughout his text, Zielinski takes as an assumption that technology is highly standardized, which he laments limits some media activists’ access to information (255). As such, I find myself agreeing with Kittler that “‘media science’ (Medienwissenschaft) will remain mere ‘media history’ as long as the practitioners of cultural studies ‘know higher mathematics only from heresay'” (Kittler xiv). This was a quite disappointing and motivating realization for me. I think that studying artifacts of media is useful from a cultural studies’ perspective, but I ultimately agree that the technology itself and programming therein are even more important to study in relation to action and change. As a particular glitch artist pointed out, “Part of the process [of creating glitch art] is empowering people to understand the tools and underlying structures, you know what is going on in the computer. As soon as you understand the system enough to know why you’re breaking it then you have a better understanding of what the tool was built for” (“Glitching Files”). In order to understand the artifacts in the MAL or even in my own home, I find myself wanting to learn lines of code that result in interfaces and frames. I want to learn how to alter existing media and how to create new media that does not follow a standardized format. And I have a neighbor who creates applications for Android and Apple systems — I’ll see if I can’t get some information from her about the programs and processes that she uses and maybe learn a few things while I’m at it. (/digression)

I think that Zielinski’s idea to create dramaturgies of difference is a fitting solution. Critical thinking and awareness would seem to affront the standarization of code and components, the valorization of the magical/smooth/effortless technology, and the blackboxing that companies inflict on their products. If we agree with Jean Luc Godard that “designed or formed time must give back to people something of the time that life has stolen from them” (Zielinski 274), then we recognize that it is a danger that media consumers will simply allow the media to dazzle and occupy them without a larger thought or idea ever generated. Combatting this with awareness of internal processes and thought-provoking media could work.

I hope to continue this thought, with some basic knowledge of programming if I can manage, over the rest of the semester.

Works cited:

http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2012/11/glitching-files-for-understanding-avoiding-screen-essentialism-in-three-easy-steps/

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Trans. Gloria Custance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

SWALLOWS & Control

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by asobol

After reading Angie’s post on “SWALLOWS” I wanted to experience camel wisdom for myself. And having gone through “SWALLOWS” what I walked away with was this terrifying sense that there is no escape. No escape from notions of time and/or control. I’m afraid that this may come off sounding dire, so I want to preface all this by saying that “SWALLOWS” was quite enjoyable, even if it did make me question my sense of freedom, whether with regard to a machine or something more abstract.

Class already has me thinking about how much control/freedom we have when using a machine. How much influence does it have on us, and how much can we manipulate it, really. So when “SWALLOWS” presents the concept of the puppeteer, I’m immediately asking if this puppeteer is supposed to be me (vaguely controlling the program), Zelevansky (who designed the possible choices provided), the people who made the machine I’m watching “SWALLOWS” on, or some clockmaker deity who set all of us into motion, or the universe itself. Depending on how wide you want your perspective to be, you could conceive an argument that every possibility can play puppeteer.

The shifts between one puppeteer to another are frustrating and ambiguous. At one point, the text tells someone to drink a glass of milk, and at the end it’s the puppeteer who drinks milk and goes to sleep. But was that first imperative directed at me or someone else? Was it directed at the puppeteer? If so, who has the authority to tell the puppeteer what to do?

Control keeps slipping away. I feel in control of the camel menu, but I am also aware this is a false notion. My choices are limited and eventually leave me with only one direction: to move forward. But “SWALLOWS” wants to undermine that idea constantly. The story repeats itself in different ways throughout each chapter, suggesting there’s no true forward movement. There are only cycles here.

Moreover, “SWALLOWS” constant insistence on time and “TIME PASSES” screens, makes you aware of how much time you’re spending while experiencing this story. Patience becomes a necessity. One screen literally ticks away, mimicking the sounds of a clock as it counts up. It’s these screen that suggest that I have no control whatsoever. Wait for the program to continue, wait for time to pass. All you can do is watch images float across and sometimes turn the page. Waiting for the story to continue and then realizing it doesn’t really progress but swirls, I get frustrated and wonder what it’s getting at, what’s its endgame. But “SWALLOWS” prefigures that too, eventually quoting a rabbi who says that it’s the experience that matters, not necessarily finishing or comprehending everything (as best as I can remember the sense of the quote, anyway). Even my frustration is taken away from me. It’s also part of the program.

 

Kittler’s Foreclosure of Forms of Resistance

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by brandontruett

Friedrich Kittler seductively begins Gramophone, Film, Typewriter with the oft-quoted claim: “Media determine our situation” (xxxix). While pithy, this statement seems myopic in its wholesale underwriting of technological determinism as the only way in which humans are determined. Of course I think he’s correct in checking the delusions of personal agency, but I am worried that this media-determinist logic might ignore other, as it were, more humanist determinations. Mark McGurl has recently pointed out that “the problem with media theory is less in asserting the dominance of technology over our naïve dreams of personal agency than in inexcusably cheating us of a view of the full range of our determinations, from the materiality of geological and microbial evolution, near one end, to the intimate force of nationalism and other ideologies toward the other” (537f8). Indeed, Kittler overemphasizes (not unwarrantedly) the extent to which media have structured our lives at the expense of other institutions and ideologies, such as the nation-state, empire, and global capitalism. Since admittedly I am not well-versed in media theory, I would like to better understand media determinism in both the Kittlerian and Zielinskian traditions because I think each theorist heavily relies on this doctrine. As we have discussed in almost every class, media theory has the tendency to elide social relations and the hierarchizing of power.

Relevant to what I am suggesting here is how, I think, Kittler’s posthumanism informs technological determinism in his work. He argues that “[o]nce the technological differentiation of optics, acoustics, and writing exploded Gutenberg’s writing monopoly around 1880, the fabrication of the so-called Man became possible” (16). Drawing on Nietzsche’s insight that “[o]ur writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Kittler elucidates the fabrication of “so-called Man” as coinciding with the machine that spliced human faculties and routed them through various media (qtd. in “Translator’s Introduction” xxix). As Kittler goes on to say, “[h]is essence escapes into apparatuses” (16). Kittler obviously marks the end of “humanness” with the introduction of the typewriter. My question, then, is: how does Kittlerian posthumanism inform technological determinism in his work? What are the limitations of technological determinism, and can such a perspective be inimical when it eclipses other critical inquiries? More pressingly, doesn’t technological determinism foreclose any glimmer of resistance through human agency?

Works Cited

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. 

McGurl, Mark. “The Posthuman Comedy.” Critical Inquiry 38 (Spring 2012): 533-553.

Let’s argue with Kittler for a moment . . .

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 by sdileonardi

I am trying to work my way through Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter because I find his arguments to be fascinating and because the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries that he finds so pivotal also defines the area of my own personal interests. But rather than present myself as a proponent of Kittler yet again, I wondered if I could challenge an assumption that he requires his readers to make from the very beginning of his work.

In the preface Kittler describes the titular “electric trinity” of gramophone, film, and typewriter as “[t]hose early and seemingly harmless machines capable of storing and therefore separating sounds, sights, and writing [that] ushered in a technologizing of information that, in retrospect, paved the way for today’s self-recursive stream of numbers” (xl). In order to understand the contemporary effects of this tripartite technological phenomenon we assume that sounds, sights, and texts are being separated from their sources and authors for the first time, that before these technologies, there was some quasi-intimate act of creation when writing on paper or singing that travelled directly from the throat of a singer and not the funnel of a gramophone. These devices altered that intimacy, placing different apparatuses in between the sound being heard (for example) and the throat that originally made the sound.

Of course, this position is debatable, as Will pointed out in a comment to my post last week. Even the most primitive of inscription technologies—pencils, charcoal, etc.—separate the human hand from the paper. Does the typewriter actually function in a fundamentally different way? Furthermore, as Kittler acknowledges, the gramophone was hardly the first device to capture sound, just as film was not the first invention to capture light (what about the moon, let alone magic lanterns and camera obscuras?). Do these previous instantiations of separating medium from source dissolve or frustrate Kittler’s larger argument about the significance of the “electric trinity”? Or does the year 1900 represent the acme or culmination of this phenomenon with the implicit understanding that no time period can stand in perfectly for a specific kind of technological phenomenon? – especially if we consider that “to understand is to remember,” since all inventions begin with remembering a previous invention (30).