book review: gramophone, film, typewriter by friedrich a. kittler

Hansen's Writing Ball
Hansen's Writing Ball, also known as Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. 1906-9. Science Museum Group Collection Online.

Why did the record player (gramophone), a fairly simple mechanism, take so long to be invented? This is one of the curious kinds of questions that Friedrich Kittler will raise and explore over and over again through this book.

While I feel invited now to learn more about the context of this book and the discussion it fits into, here’s my impression. Through the media technologies of the gramophone, film, and the typewriter, Kittler assembles a triune model for understanding the development of communication technology as an analogy for understanding ourselves and a mode of history.

As an analogy, for example, the very development of film and its language of shooting was developed alongside the development of machine guns and mechanized warfare. “The entertainment industry is … an abuse of army equipment,” says Kittler in one of his occasional one liners that seems to playfully summarize a section of analysis. Also, loads on how we can understand development of ideas by the seeing and recording mechanisms that were used to develop them.

As a mode of history, for example, Kittler describes computers as accelerated typewriters and an object of and over which a tension between men and women develops. Typewriter signifies both machine and woman, he says. Hm, okay.

Kittler seeds suspicion of military redirection in all media technology development. “Every culture has its zones of preparation that fuse lust and power, optically, acoustically, and so on. Our discos are preparing our youths for a retaliatory strike,” he writes. Goodness. What would he think of TikTok and other viral reel-formatted social media (vireel media?). Bootcamps for fascism!

Although record players are back in fashion (glamor is just a Scottish corruption of grammar, he says), much of this triune model feels difficult to track forward to today where the framing of word processors, note apps, cloud computing, and interface hardware exponentially amplify the dimensions by which we can understand writing, but also risk disappearing much faster with a single software update or dependency deprecation. Easier to look back at the Hansen Writing Ball and connect it with Nietzsche’s one-eyed thought.

The subject technologies – record players, movies, and typewriters – as a mode of history also seems dated, in part because history doesn’t feel like it is closing in the way that he maybe thought it was in 1986 when the book was published, but also because the convergence of the audio, visual, and writing modes are now solidly subsumed by information computer and network technology.

It is Kittler’s ontological ideas that I think I’ll come back to, though. In particular, I’m interested to follow further the thread of his discussion of Carl Schmitt’s The Buribunks – a kind of allegory about a people who all have to maintain diaries, that they are always writing, that exist because they write, and where “writing is nothing but anticipated publication”. Our increasingly always online experience of life, means we too are continuously etching marks in databases of our movements, our interests, our reading, our trace through our day and through life. Part of that is unintentional, but part of it is very much in anticipation of going viral, of something happening.

Why read this book now? I think we’ve hit a strange kind of stride with media communication technology development that ties back to the curiosity of the gramophone question – of missing the painfully obvious. On the one hand there is this great vision of immersive virtual worlds (metaverse!) or of decentralized finance (bitcoin!), but on the other hand – literally in our hands – is basically the same computer and mobile computer technology we’ve had for 20 years.

In the hyperkinetic landscape of quick social media networks over higher capacity network technology, the vector of technology development seems to set now on the same course as commercial aircraft since 1980s – pack more in and use less fuel / increase pixel density of images and video, reduce power consumption relative to computational processing ability.

At the same time, faith in institutions and professions have eroded while lies and violence gain acceptability as legitimate political action. “You used to call me on my cellphone.” Now I need to read into the meaning of your likes. The culture is sending many into silence – the trolls control the comments, the influencers post perfect lives, the rest of lurkers nibble at the bait in the streams.

Mobile computing technology (cellphones, laptops) and the contemporary discourse on privacy was the product of the Global War on Terrorism. It brought us a surveillance state where agencies track individuals and masses of peoples as foreign actors. Individually, users of mobile technology monitor the state of subjects of concern – their location and condition – with a latent sense of the individual burden of responsibility modeled by superheroes in all the movies or the counter-terrorism agent of take-your-pick long running series. We’re now tired of all the notifications, sending them to daily summaries or filtering them by focus mode. Still, how well do you sleep at night? Haunted by a feeling of missing the painfully obvious.

In this context, I think it is relevant and necessary to pick up the thread and to experiment with other models for describing the historical development and mode of being through media. For in them we live, and move, and have our being. Not that we must continue to do so, but for now we are their offspring.

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