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?
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.