J Armitage on Mon, 4 May 2009 10:19:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> 'Debating German Media Theory in Siegen: The Word from Berlin

Hi all

Enjoying this thread on 'Debating German Media Theory in Siegen' and
Kittler et al and particularly Geoff Winthrop-Young's recent

Just to add to that and to the overall mix, I did an interview a while
back with Kittler entitled 'From Discourse Networks to Cultural
Mathematics: An Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler', during which I
asked him about his links to the media archaeology of Wolfgang Ernst. 

His reply is below.

Geoff is too modest to mention that he and Nicholas Gane edited a
special section on Kittler in the journal _Theory, Culture & Society_,
Volume 23, Nos 7-8, December 2006. Apart from my interview, there are a
number of articles by Kittler and his critics in the section, with an
especially relevant one to this discussion on German Media Theory by
Claudia Berger entitled 'Gods, German Scholars, and the Gift of Greece:
Friedrich Kittler's Philhellenic Fantasies'.




John Armitage: How does your work on the social history of technical
media relate, if at all, to the 'media archeology' of Wolfgang Ernst
(2002) who is also based here at Humboldt University? For example, is
the center of your concern, like Ernst's, non-linear historical and
technological development? Or are you more involved with the social
analysis of the appearance and disappearance of specific media

Friedrich Kittler: I must say that as an approach to the social history
of technical media it took me a long time to understand what the term
media archaeology means and the exact nature of Wolfgang's project. But
now that I do understand it, it is important to stress that his writings
have not arisen from my own. Yet there are similarities in the sense
that Wolfgang, like many others today, is trying to get out of narrative
approaches to history, a project that I accept and like very much.
Nevertheless, Wolfgang's concerns are not my concerns. Do not
misunderstand me. I like history. Actually, I am crazy about history and
have read it ever since I was a very small boy. However, what I have
learned, in part from Wolfgang, is that we have to stop narrating the
history of writing, computing, mathematics or music as linear history.
So this is what I have been attempting for some time now, as in the
essay 'Global Algorithim: The History of Communication Media' (Kittler,
1996: 1-16). Consequently, my feeling is that rather than focussing on
linear history we should instead think about what I call 'recursive
history', where the same issue is taken up again and again at regular
intervals but with different connotations and results.
          Take the case of the sirens, those ancient Greek sea nymphs
whose seductive singing was understood to lure sailors to obliteration
on the rocks they occupied. Is it not true that whenever we Europeans
take up the non-linear history of music or acoustics, that is, when
there is a technological jump in this field, the sirens are conjured up
once more either in memory or as a kind of mutation? In early
Christianity, for instance, the sirens returned as horrifying monsters.
Then again, in the high Middle Ages, as is documented in manuscripts at
the University of Oxford, written in Old French, the siren returned as
an amphibious being, as a mermaid, living both in and out of water, a
characteristic that was absent from the original Greek myth. And then,
in 1819, a young French engineer invented the modern technical siren
that emits a loud wailing sound. He named it a siren precisely because
it functions both in and out of water. Additionally, the technical siren
has been an important component of the modern theory of sound, chiefly
in the second half of the 19th century, when it was used in experiments
on the extremities of human hearing and others concerning the invention
and development of radio. Accordingly, for me, the siren is a good
example of recursive history because it comes back to us again and
          With regard to the appearance and disappearance of particular
media technologies, my answer is as follows. First, in Germany at the
present time, it is fashionable amongst professors to talk of the
Internet as if it were a technical medium that has been forged out of
other media, which are themselves still present and which will be
present forever. In spite of this, my suspicion is that in saying these
things such professors are really stating that they hope that their
professorships will be there forever as they have a vested interest in
making sure that technical media as an area of study does not disappear.
Thus I am very skeptical of the idea that technical media that appear do
not also disappear from history. For example, consider the ancient
system of writing whole volumes on scrolled paper. Paper of course is
still being produced, and we see it all around us even in our day. On
the other hand, would anyone argue that writing on scrolled paper has
survived? I do not think so. For it was the invention of the codex that
signified the shift from the scroll to the manuscript. And the codex was
so inventive and so victorious that it remains with us. Besides,
everything in the writings of antiquity shows that it was Christianity
that took the historical chance, the technological leap, from the medium
of scrolled paper to that of the codex. For instance, to my knowledge,
it is forbidden up to this very day to transcribe the Jewish Torah,
Judaism's religious teachings, from its scroll to a codex. And, in this
respect, it can be argued that it was Christianity that played the
successful modernizing role in the technological battles of late
antiquity whereas Judaism took a technologically conservative path. This
is obviously a very simple explanation. But what I think it shows is
that even as media technologies continue to appear and only a small
number disappear, it is nevertheless also accurate to say that media
technologies can and do become obsolete.


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