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altered that intimacy, placing different apparatuses in between the sound being heard (for example) and the throat that originally made the sound.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). 

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