Discourse Networks, 1800

How did literary production shift from the Classical to the Romantic?

How can that be perceived through an examination of the medium, the technology?

What is the main analog technology of the 1800, homologous to Euler’s equation of linearity that form a Serpentina?

To Kittler, things are not so simple as a signifier having a direct relationship to a stable signified. In Kittler’s text, signifiers exist within a network of cultural, social and linguistic associations that may have nothing to do with their meaning (signified). Therefore, signifiers form a symbolic texture he calls discourse networks that organize the world.

The Scholar’s Tragedy

Kittler uses the tragedy of Faust to introduce the discourse network of the 1800s. Faust is the emblem of the Republic of Scholars, that is, the academy as it functioned pre-hermeneutics in the Classical age: as an “…endless circulation of words, a discourse network without producers or consumers, which simply heaves words around” (p. 4). That brings to mind medieval academics copying text ipsis leteris, Latin as the only language for writing in the academy, words being meanings themselves, being authority themselves.

Faust tries to insert Man into the discourse of the symbolic, marking the beginning of “German Poetry” (p. 4). At first, there was only the free-floating signifier, “archaic ideograms” (p. 7) from immemorial times. Faust then invokes a human author, de-authorizing God. It is the first attempt of Romanticism to insert Man into the erstwhile autonomous symbolic network. Next, Faust designates a voice to read the signifier: “Where the Republic of Scholars knew only pre-given externalities, a virtual and supplementary sensuality emerges” (p. 6). The “magic power of signs to liberate sensual and intoxicating powers” creates a consuming reader. It is the second attempt to insert Man into the discourse of words. Finally, a successful insertion: Faust not only translates the signifier into German Poetry but also interprets it. To Kittler, “Faust’s Germanicization of a sacred original solely on the basis of sincere feeling is an epistemological break” (p. 10). The symbolic texture of the world thus assumes a new relationship to man: words are no longer meanings, but they carry meaning (Spirit), devaluing the signifier (so sacred to Adamu Jenitongo in last week’s reading, for example) and emphasizing the signified. Man breaks into the network of the symbolic, which before was independent. From now on, “texts and signs are all designed to be understood and to correspond to understanding” (p. 22). As a consequence for the literary sciences, hermeneutics replaces rhetoric.

The tragedy of Faust is the tragedy of the Republic of Scholars, the demise of the old erudition, the one based on copying, citation, and translation. To show how the new Romantic discourse network of the 1800 takes place, Kittler shows in the following chapters the changes in technologies and discourses that were reflected in Faust’s tragedy.

In the 1800s:

“Kittler begins with the new pedagogy of the late eighteenth century, a discourse that addressed itself to mothers and thereby constituted the Mother as the agency of primary socialization. It is the Mother who initiates the child into reading and writing, and in so doing invests this aura with an aura of erotic pleasure. Fascination with orality, inner speech, aural envelope” (p. xxiii). Kittler pays attention to the technologies that modified the relationship between signified and signifier (alienated from one another in the 1800s): In schools, primers replace the Bible, featuring German Poetry. Primers teach the sounds the letters mark. They are used by Mothers, whose presence marks henceforth the origin of primary orality: “Her voice substituted sounds for letters, just as in the course of his Scholar’s Tragedy Faust substituted meanings for words” (p. 34). Primers also link the body to the letter, connecting letters to positions of the mouth.

Poetry becomes the translation of the language of nature. Representation and hallucination characterize the Romantic hermeneutics of the signified. “In the discourse network of 1800, the Book of Poetry became the first medium in the modern sense. Following McLuhan’s law, according to which the content of the medium is always another medium, poetry supplemented the data of the senses in a way that was reproducible and multiplicatory” (p. 115). Writing is thus the medium du jour for storage and transfer of kinesthetic data.

“Alphabetization could hardly accomplish a more elegant translation of Gutenbergiana into phantasmagoria. The writer of an old book becomes an inner voice; the frontispiece becomes an inner image; the list of characters becomes a scene; and the chronicle’s cold medium becomes a time-series of sounds and sights – it is sound film avant la lettre…Such sensuousness (and sensuality) stored in Poetry is characteristic of an age in which the medium of the book is first universal – for all realms of the senses and people – and second without competition from other sound and media. Not until the emergence of a technical storage capacity, such as that which shaped the discourse network of 1900, would hallucinatory sensuousness renew its commitment to the ascesis that knows only black letters on white paper.” (p. 117).