Friedrich Kittler

Discourse Networks 1800/1900


Post-structuralism and post-hermenutics

Kittler’s work is deeply influenced by post-structuralism.  Post-structuralism criticism corresponds to a post-hermeneutic condition of criticism.

The premise to post-structuralism is that hermeneutic understanding is not a foundational condition for the processing of the significant marks. Rather, it is a contingent phenomenon within the evolution of discursive practices in Europe; it rests of a host of preconditions such as alphabetization, the expansion of book production, the organization of the modern university, etc. (p. x)

Hermeneutics is suffering a crisis. It’s an obsolete discourse. Instead we should look into a post-hermeneutic criticism, based on a set of preconditions:

Presupposition of exteriority . (p. xii)

Presupposition of mediality (p. xiii)

Literature and the crisis of the subject:

Kittler work leads to a radical historicism that finally dissolves the universality of the concept of literature. Literature plays on the difference between meaning and non-meaning. Crisis of the subject as an ontological, universal entity.

Subject is replaced by the concept of body (xv), a transformation that disperses (multiple bodies), complexifies (bodies are layered) and historices (body if finite and contingent)

Two methodological consequences:


Crisis of the logos, rational thought and its language of expression:

Nietzsche can be considered the last real philosopher. He was a maker of words, almost close to poetry. With him the shift from Romantic to Modern occurs.

Educational choices and institutions play a fundamental role in the definition of discourse networks. (This was the key to understanding the literary discourse network of 1800.)

Language is just a medium. So it is writing. They both have specific historical determination. The modernist discourse network unravels language, reduces its wholeness and centeredness to a tangle of nervous, sensory-motor threads, to a scatter of differential marks.


The mechanization of thought:

In order for this detachment of writing from subjectivity to occur, however, inscription had to become mechanized, and this happens with the typewriter. (…) The typewriter frees writing from the control of the eye and the consciousness; it institutes spacing as the precondition of differentiation; it stores a reservoir of signifiers that strike the page much as Ebbinghaus’s syllables strike the body’s sensory surface. (xxx)

One way of formulating the discursive effect of psychophysics and the typewriter is to say that only with them language becomes perceptible as a medium. The development of this technology around 1900 is co-emergent with other medial technologies, in particular the gramophone and film, both of which figure centrally in modernism. (xxx)

The emergence of technological media around 1900 represents a decisive historical and discursive caesura that alters the structure, placement and function of cultural production. Benjamin argues that modernism is the destruction of aura, that is of the sacral distance and otherness of the art work stemming from its singularity. With film, a mode of artistic creation comes into being that, from the beginning, is fashioned as reproducible. The film knows no authentic singular instance, has no original, and for this reason it marks the historical emancipation of art from its mythic-religious roots. (p. xxxi)

Shocks: unforeseeable and instantaneous perturbations, key components of experience in modernism (p. xxxi)

There is in Kittler’s analysis of the emergence and significance of technical media no sense of an overriding narrative that event would instantiate. Like Benjamin, Kittler sees the modernist intervention as a break or rupture, but he refuses to invest this transformation with the historical-philosophical meaning of “emancipation”. (..) Kittler is an evolutionist in the sense that he attributes no a priori directionality to historical change. The medialization of modernist discourse is a contingent event, an historical clinamen, not the realization of a project unfolding across the centuries. (p.xxxii)

Discourse Networks 1900


Nietzsche mediates between 1800 and 1900 discourse networks. His language is fragmented, physiological. His approach with word breaks away with education. It’s compulsive, instinctual and poetic. Nietzsche plays with words like poets or children.

Physiological nature of language.

Whereas in the discourse network of 1800 an organic continuum extended from the inarticulate minimal signified to the meanings of factual languages, there is now a break. Language is not the truth. (..) Nietzsche’s theory of language, like his aesthetics, proceeds from nervous impulses. (p. 187)

Once there are telegrams and postcards, style is no longer the man, but an economy of signs. Nietzsche experiments with the telegraphic style. (p.191)

The logic of chaos and intervals was implemented as a technology by the discourse network of 1900 – through the intervention of the typewriter. (p.192)

Nietzsche’s blindness and the typewriter: a new discourse is born.

1888, Toronto: the universal standard QWERTY keyboard is defined.

Writing and the machine

In the play between signs and intervals, writing was no longer the handwritten, continuous transition from nature to culture. It became selection from a countable, spatialized supply.

Our writing materials contribute their part to our thinking (p. 196)

The Great Lalula: randomly generated poetry.

In the discourse network of 1900, discourse is produced by Random Generators. Psychophysics constructed such sources of noise; the new technological media stored their output.

Hermann Ebbinghaus, On Memory. He conducted auto-experiments on memory. Introspection is not an accurate methodological approach for Ebbbinghaus. Memorizing nonsense material is not much different from memorizing meaningful material.

Nietzsche and Ebbinghaus presupposed forgetfulness, rather than memory and its capacity, in order to place the medium of the soul against a background of emptiness and erosion. (p.207)

Thinking as a psychological experiment

The victory of psychophysics is a paradigm shift. Instead of the classical question of what people would be capable of if they were adequately and affectionately “cultivated”, one asks what people have always been capable of when autonomic functions are singly and thoroughly tested. (p.214)

Writing, disconnected from all discursive technologies, is no longer based on an individual capable of imbuing it with coherence through connecting curves and the expressive pressure of the pen; its swells in an apparatus that cuts individuals into test material. (p. 223)

Since Nietzsche, “aesthetics is nothing but a kind of applied physiology” (p. 225)

The ability to record sense data technologically shifted the entire discourse network circa 1900. For the first time in history, writing ceased to be synonymous with the serial storage of data. The technological of the real entered into competition with the symbolic registration of the symbolic. (p. 230)

As technological media, the gramophone and film store acoustical and optical data serially with superhuman precision. (..) they launched a two-prolonged attack on a monopoly that had not been granted to the book until the time of universal alphabetization: a monopoly on the storage of serial data. Circa 1900. the ersatz sensuality of Poetry could be replaced, not by Nature, but by technologies. The gramophone empties out worlds by bypassing their imaginary aspect (signifieds) for their real aspects (the physiology of the voice). (p. 246)

Writers were justified in complaining that “the world is gradually losing credit” and “is already something somewhat too conspicuous and at the same time oddly undifferentiated for us today”. To use Lacan’s methodological distinction between symbolic, real, and imaginary, two of these three functions, which constitute all information systems, became separable from writing circa 1900. (p. 246)


Untranslatability and the transposition of media.

To transfer messages from one medium to another always involves reshaping them to conform to new standards and materials. In a discourse network that require an “awareness of the abysses which divide the one order of sense experience from the other”, transposition necessarily takes the place of translation. (p. 265)

Psychoanalysis and its shadows

Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, in the date of its title page proudly displaying the zero number of a new century, inaugurated the transposition of media as science. (p. 264)

If Faust marked the moment in the history of signs in which there was no awareness of the paradigmatic axis, the Interpretation of dreams conducts the analysis of signs solely according to the place values of discrete elements. It does not establish the status of a symbol in the classical sense – in other words, a transcendental signified, which previously absorbed all words. In this place there are now separate subsystems of signifiers, in which the parts of the rebus must be tentatively placed until they fit into a subsystem. (p.274)

With Freud, dream interpretation presupposes cutting apart any continuous series of images before syllables or words can substitute for them. (p.274)

All of Freud’s case histories demonstrate that the romanticism of the soul has yielded to a materialism of the written sign. (p. 283)

Psychoanalysis occupies the systemic position taken by Poetry in the discourse network of 1800. The position consists in the place of initiation. If voices and dream images are to be grounded in the logic of the signifier, they must first cross the threshold of psychoanalysis. (..) The discourse network of 1900 places all discourse against the background of white noise; the primal soup itself appears in psychoanalysis, but only to be articulated and thus sublimated via writing proper.

A simulacrum of madness

Literature in the discourse network of 1900 is a simulacrum of madness. As long as and insofar someone writes, his delirium is protected from the loss of the word. (305)

Writing circa 1900 necessarily addresses operations and apparatuses as the only two approaches to the real. In fact, there can be no miniature portraits of the real, as they were cherished by inwardness and produced by the imagination. Circumstances that are composed by many individual details escape the grasp of any hermeneutics; they have to be scored up and denumerated. The reason is simple: there are only constructed facts or circumstances. Programs, diagrams and number exist in order to encode the real (328).

What is the discourse network of 2000?

Is it maybe the discourse of digital (and maybe wireless) networks?

Some key feature of our discourse network: