The Desert of the Real

As I was reading Friedrich Kittler’s book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, I found myself repeatedly asking, where exactly is this going? One part history of media, one part philosophy of technology, and one part dystopic vision, Kittler’s book offers a complex pastiche of musings on media. Even though “computer” is not one of the technologies included in the book’s title, the age of digital technology is clearly at the heart of Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.

At the crux of Kittler’s media exploration is the notion of “reality.” According to Kittler, with the advent of technologies like film, reality has become blurred – the differences between real and unreal, waking and dreaming, human and non-human, become indistinguishable: “That means that films are more real than reality and that their so-called reproductions are, in reality, productions…The age of media renders indistinguishable what is human and what is machine, who is mad and who is faking it.” This view becomes further complicated when applied to computers, since they embody the ultimate act of remediation. Like a picture of a picture of a picture, the computer become part of a chain of representation that at first glance seems to positions us one-step further away from “the real,” even as it creates a new type of reality for us. I found one of the most interesting elements in Kittler’s book to be the observation that, before the computer, media were distinct. In this light, the gramophone, film, and typewriter are more than innovative technological advances; they are three separate mediums that are recreated in the computer.

I’m noticing that there seem to be two different approaches to discussing digital media theory: the first is that the computer represents a rupture in the history of media, the second is that the computer is simply the next logical step in an evolving chain of media. To some extent, Kittler’s approach embodies both of these viewpoints: computers are revolutionary in that they are the first media to absorb all previous media, but at the same time this very fact ensures a type of continuity, since one medium’s content “is always in another media.” Perhaps I am misunderstanding Kittler’s argument, because I’m left wondering whether his claim about previous media being distinct is completely true. Doesn’t film allow for complex acts of remediation? What about films that capture theater productions? What about diegetic sound?

I was also interested in Kittler’s claim that the relationship between technology and the human body is incredibly important. Perhaps this is where computers truly do demonstrate a distinct difference from previous media. If the gramophone is a mechanized ear, film a mechanized eye, and the typewriter a mechanized hand, than it would seem as if Kittler is hinting at the fact that the computer, as a compilation of all of the above, is a mechanized human. I wonder how this impacts human computer interaction. Kittler talks about how the gramophone produces “the real of bodies,” a mechanized echo. Alternatively, films “take over all of the fantastic or the imaginary” providing windows into the psych. I typically think of computers as both windows and mirrors. On the one hand, computers allow us to look outward into a seemingly limitless public space (like Smith’s vision of a doorway into a new type of perception). On the other hand, tools like Skype, Face Time, and Facebook can functions as mirrors that allow us to recreate and re-envision out own personal identity. If when watching a film viewers become a homogenous public isolated in a dark room, what would Kittler make of the Internet’s complex relation between public and private space? What is the difference between watching, and perhaps identifying, with an actor on a screen and watching a mirrored image of yourself move about on the computer screen in real time?

As a final note, I found Kittler’s dystopic undertones at times unconvincing; most of these undertones come from his constant claims about the militarization of technology: “if the joysticks of Atari video games make children illiterate, president Reagan welcomes them for just that reason: as a training ground for future bomber pilots. Every culture has its zones of preparation that fuse lust and power, optically, acoustically, and so on.” While I am not entirely dismissing Kittler’s point, it is hard to take statements like the above seriously. Kittler seems to fall into the “video games turn children into illiterate violent killers” argument. Which again, isn’t completely without merit, but is also an oversimplification. I’m not sure if Kittler is saying that technology is inherently evil, or if he is arguing that it has been used for evil ends. I did feel though, that he doesn’t really offer much of a solution. If Heidegger and Habermas suggest that we confront technology’s underlying ideology in order to break away from its insidious influence, what exactly is Kittler proposing we do? Since Kittler ends his book with the claim that technology has eradicated history, is he saying that there is nothing we can do because it’s too late?

5 thoughts on “The Desert of the Real

  1. I really enjoyed all your insightful comments about this book! Like you mention on your third paragraph, I believe that Kittler’s thoughts about the gramophone, the film and the typewriter as being an extension of a limb but distinct from each other a bit blurry. Being their function to help or assist people, it is not possible to differentiate them drastically – of course they are different artifacts with different material, manner and outcomes – but, at the end of the day they were invented as an adjunct to our limitations as humans. As such, I render the computer in the same way; it happens to assemble ear, eye and hand in a unique body, but it was created as “the next logical step in an evolving chain of media,” as you say.
    Its importance lies in how its use has altered our perception of reality, but all of them contributed to this remediation in one way or another. In connection with this idea, I understand that Kittler is saying that technology has been used for evil uses but does not offer a true interpretation to it – I got to this conclusion due to the fact that the book begins by explaining how the optical fiber has been developed to avoid nuclear offensive via copper cable, and finishes with the statement “literature has nothing more to say,” it’s “the end of history,” after talking about the use of technology during the World War II.

  2. There is, in Kittler, a fear of the technological as a corruption of culture. I think this has a lot to do with his involvement in the Frankfurt School of criticism, a school that scorned mass culture as low culture and a corruption of high culture. Want to upset the apple cart? Take a whack at The Dialectic of Enlightenment, where Horkheimer and Adorno talk about the reversion to the mythological in the Enlightenment and through enlightenment. We are doomed to operate in mythologizing, they seem to say.

    I read your final paragraph with deep interest: video games are our new mythology. Students have retold me Myst, the Legend of Zelda, Bioshock, in more detail than they could ever retell The Odyssey or The Illiad. But are the understandings about the world so poor? are they do different? or do they know a different, more personally engaged story telling?

  3. Thanks for this great post, Gabi.
    I share your perplexity about the differentiation and separation of distinct media as operated by Kittler, and this is why I called it “triumvirate” in my post. I see why he chooses to describe them in the way he does, but I don’t “buy it.” And I also agree with you about the overwhelming negativity of the final “there is nothing to do about this, we are screwed” that the ending of the book seems to convey. It reminded me a lot of Foucault’s descriptions of power in this sense.

  4. Good stuff Gabi. I’m with you in being frustrated by Kittler’s “warning without a hint of a solution,” dystopic message, and the likening of it to the oft-used “video games teach kids to kill people” argument seems very apt. And what’s more, it seemed that much of the time his comparisons and analogies concerning evil uses of technology amounted to nothing more than some clever word-play (the admittedly-awesome “discursive machine-gun” phrase that Laura points out among them…).

  5. I can’t help but read Kittler’s book in the a Cold War context. It seems to me the threat of material technological death pervades the entire text. In some ways, I think Kittler wrote the book with much more of a sense of contingency than we read it with today. Of course, I don’t know that the threat of nuclear annihilation is much less today than it was in Kittler’s time, but at least we’re able to gloss it over.

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