Media Theory for the 21st Century

January 22, 2008

Unwritten Confession

Filed under: Discussion,Readings — moorekc @ 5:18 pm

I suspect this post will reveal more about my own critical inclinations than it will about those of Friedrich Kittler. But I feel it is necessary to confess that—probably because I am coming from a literary critical background—I allowed him to provoke me a bit. More than a bit, actually, and unexpectedly. This reached its peak in my experience reading the essay “There is No Software.” Kittler begins that essay by highlighting the importance of the dramatically increasing distance between the computer user who imagines him or herself to be writing and those who actually write the elementary functions of BIOS onto the physical silicon chip, a distance which, when we take into account of the size of the letters that appear on our word processing screen compared to the size of “a computer memory’s transistor cells,” may constitute “six orders of decimal magnitude” (147). He explains, “The bulk of written texts—including the paper I am actually reading to you—no longer exist in perceivable time and space, but in a computer memory’s transistor cells” (147). A fascinating scenario, and one that, if it posits in a new way the concealed practices of writing, does so at first without pushing terribly hard on the critical sense that might have crystallized in two or three introductory literary theory seminars. The issue seems, at the core, one of sort the postmodern literary critic is used to dealing with: coming down off structuralists such as Freud, Saussure, Lacan, Barthes and perhaps even the arguably poststructuralist Foucault, the idea that there is an dimension of the written text beyond the writer’s control is by no means alien. Kittler goes on, “This state of affairs does not only make a difference to history…It also seems to hide the very act of writing” (147). For the literature major still enamored with the romance of the codex, not to mention the autonomous creator-god, this is the limited heartbreak of “The Death of the Author” or “What is an Author?” all over again. If the fall seems a bit more bottomless, perhaps that is simply the vertiginous Of Grammatology spin Kittler adds to the matter (no doubt implied by the title, which seems an updated version of Derrida’s most famous one-liner). A momentary freefall, for sure, but ultimately a harmless one: Kittler will, for a moment, have his way with us, and at the end of day we will in return pick up an exceedingly useful term like “logical depth” and move on.


But as I continued to read, Kittler’s escalating rhetoric on the matter left me increasingly disconcerted. At the beginning of paragraph two, he writes—or does not write? It is hard to know how to put it—“As one knows without saying, we do not write anymore” (147). Here, the idea that “we do not write anymore” again pushes like the structuralists and poststructuralists upon the literary critical sensibility. But how do we account for that first part of the sentence: “As one knows without saying”? Kittler not only argues that the writer is dead. To use one of his favorite phrases, he suggests that we should always already know that. But if the point means something more than that here, might that be simply because it is deliberately provocative? Kittler seems to be cheating at the game of theory, to be throwing his assuredly destabilizing idea at us with more force than it naturally contains.


            In the middle of the essay, just as Kittler begins to deploy Luhmannian language—“In principle, this kind of descent from software to hardware, from higher to lower levels of observation, could be continued over more and more orders of magnitude” (150)—my hair stood on end. Kittler writes or does not write, “All code operations, despite such metaphoric faculties as call or return, come down to absolutely local string manipulations, that is, I am afraid, to signifiers of voltage differences” (150, italics original). Once more, the idea is a pill the literary critic can swallow: very well, writing does not occur, and even the “code operations” that give the illusion that it does still occur are reducible to (and again, these are Kittler’s italics) “signifiers of voltage differences.” But where I get hung up is on Kittler’s condescending “I am afraid.” The rhetoric is chilling, and not because it forces us to pause on the point about computing and writing but because it reminds us that we are nevertheless experiencing the point as part of the rhetoric of a scholarly essay. It is as if, in this world of new media in which writing does not take place and “There is No Software,” scholarly argument, with all its imperial demands, can take on a radical new anonymity.


            As I mentioned before, I am certain all this reveals more about me than it does about Kittler. Nevertheless, recall Kittler’s second line in “There is No Software,” which I quoted above. He writes or does not write, “The bulk of written texts—including the paper I am actually reading to you—no longer exist in perceivable time and space, but in a computer memory’s transistor cells” (147, italics mine). However parenthetically, we are clearly told from the beginning that this paper is also implicated in the new media writing problematic it seems to describe. Kittler in this way indicates that whether or not “we do not write anymore,” this is nevertheless a “paper,” and one with a readable conception of itself as such. Perhaps my anxiety, then, is the same rhetorical anxiety that has plagued critics since the beginning, or at least since Plato concealed his thoughts about writing in the famous written dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates. The new combination seems more than worth dwelling on: new media, but the same old, powerful rhetoric. So do the attendant questions of genre that seem to inevitably rise from the possibility that literary forms, which no longer exist as physical writing, can still generate the same old effects. What does a literary critic’s tongue-in-cheek confession become, for example, when we become aware it was written in a word processor, and for a blog post? What does it lose? What does it gain?

–Kevin Moore


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