Ernst and Kittler: To Write with Ink or Light?

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 by willm2

I’m curious about the possible connection between Kittler’s theory of writing and Ernst’s treatment of histoire and discours. Specifically, do both men prefer the openness of writing compared to the black boxing of later media?

Kittler privileges writing – despite its nature as pan-media in the late 18th, early 19th centuries – because it relies upon human imagination to work. The author, presumably writing with an artistic intention, can encode the text with audiovisual data that flows from their imagination, through their physical form into a stylus, and then onto the page. There is some actual scientific truth to this idea. The human body’s electromagnetic field (‘the body-map’) can expand and envelop various tools which the human uses, rendering them into surrogate limbs or prostheses. The pen is one such device that can be integrated in this way. On the other end, the reader, or user, uses their imagination to recreate the coded audio visual data. Not only sensorial perception, but an encounter with the dead (through history) becomes possible, making written media the location of a very real afterlife. This is why the type-writer is so menacing for Kittler. It eliminates the poetic from the written document, simultaneously destroying the imagination and the afterlife in the process.

This narrative of the dead resonates with Ernst’s concept of discours. Discours is the brazenly subjective mode of history performed until the fall of writing as pan-media at about the time of the Daguerreotype in the 1820’s. The mechanical eye of the photograph, the ‘pencil of light’ as Talbot puts it, enables history to be represented as objectively true. Gone is the human narrator, replaced by the technological apparatus. Of course, Ernst does not believe that the content of the technological apparatus is ideologically pure. The mediatization is only hidden, where as before, in the case of written history, it was transparent. In discours, we understand that the past is formed by a subjective narrator, while in histoire, we are under the false perception that the photograph is presenting something objective. In the case of the latter, Ernst puts forth glitch theory as a method for exposing the hidden agenda of the ‘cold-gaze’. A forged photograph, for example, shows the biased inner-workings of the mechanism.

So, my question is this: Would Kittler agree that written media is preferable because it does not the hide its subjectivity? Does the poetic imagination that is encoded by author and decoded by reader broadcast the truth that there can be no objective history? That all history becomes personal, not only in its writing, but in its reading?


One comment on “Ernst and Kittler: To Write with Ink or Light?

  1. dparker90 says:

    See, my problem with Kittler’s treatment of pre-typewriter culture is that he focuses on writing at the expense of print. On the whole, I doubt most 17th- to 19th-century readers would’ve encountered an author’s handwritten text, but rather one that had been edited, printed, and copied by a publisher or bookseller. So maybe he’s right that writing encodes something uniquely human, but does that matter if most readers weren’t encountering texts in that medium? In that way, pre-typewriter publications are doubly mediated: once by the writer, and again by the printer. I’m not sure his argument for writing as personal holds up under this additional degree of mediation.

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