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

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.

day 4 – walking lucile street – the lucile street stairs

The Lucile Street Stairs - a 450ft long staircase that descends about 150ft in elevation through the Maple School Ravine, a 15 acre natural area that extends about a half a mile along the west side of Beacon Hill. A school photo and a large roly-poly found along the stairs.

Rain poured as we drove to the first segment of the walk, but we were not deterred. The rain relented respectfully and we made this walk without rain, but perhaps a little weary as our notes and photos were a bit light.

We walked a short segment of Lucile east of Beacon Ave and then hopped back in the car over to Lucile and 23rd Ave S for the walk down to 15th Ave S and back.

Lucile Street – we walked from 25th Ave S to 15th Ave S

Reflections

Walk reflection by Ms M – Illustrates and notes the hideout, a stump circle at the base of the Lucile Stairs, and Cafe Flora at 15th.
Walk reflection by Ms N – Illustrates the hideout and Cafe Flora’s facade on profile.
Walk reflection by Ms A – Illustration from a birds eye of the hideout.

The short segment East of Beacon Ave S reminded me that even on today’s walk we are encountering a memory connecting me to this part of my street.

Years ago, maybe in 2016 or 2017, I spent a day helping our then new friends Dave, Minda and their daughter Ms F move from a house near the corner of Lucile and 25th to their newly built home in Columbia City. There was a lot of heavy lifting that day, but I felt motivated to help see as much of it through as possible. As is with a move across town, stuff doesn’t have to be very organized and packed, which in some ways makes it harder, but Dave’s optimism and humour gave me an encouragement that maybe I hoped would help me earn a friendship.

Lucile Street - the short segment between 25th and 26th
Lucile Street – the short segment between 25th and 26th. A dead tree adds a sculptural quality against the towering electricity pylons.

Apart from this memory, I noticed that every home had security cameras, many sliding security grilles over windows, and a few “no trespass” signs. A “Slow Down – This is a neighborhood not a racetrack” sign added to the sense of insecurity which didn’t exist on any other segment we walked.


The following, longer segment of Lucile Street is a few residential blocks of mostly older homes with maintained lots. A noticeable number of windows and gardens on this stretch are adorned with small ornaments such as painted rocks and colorful trinkets and figurines.

Suddenly Lucile hits a wall of tall trees which it stubbornly cuts through with a 450ft long set of stairs. As we descend, all we see in either direction is dense and unrelenting thicket of brush and woods. There’s nothing to see in here or any discernible features or trails apart from the stairs, which appear to be losing the battle against the incursion of overgrowth.

Google Maps calls this forest the Maple School Natural Area, but the City of Seattle calls it the Maple School Ravine. Either name is odd, because there is no school adjoining this 15 acre forlorn forest. Maple Elementary is half a mile northwest of the Maple School Ravine, so what’s that about?

From what I could find a school used to be on Lucile St. Maple Elementary has a history as old as Seattle. It was founded in 1862 along the Duwamish River on today’s Boeing Field with land donated by Samuel Mapel and his brother John Westley Mapel as one of the first teachers. The school moved slowly up the hill, known then as Roosevelt Hill (or was it Maple Hill?), from the Duwamish river to its current location today.

Lucile Street – Maple School pictured on Roosevelt Hill, known today as South Beacon Hill, in 1907 and moved to 17th & Lucile to make way for Grover Cleveland High School. Photo: MOHAI (1983.10.7872.1)

The location of the Maple School at Lucile & 17th from 1909 to 1972 explains how this greenbelt gained the name. How did it look and how was it used back then? Today it is very overgrown and feels impenetrable apart from the hideout carved by an anonymous effort. The history of the stairway, however, is less obscure.


Lucile Street – Girl Scouts Troop 413 petitioning for the improvement of the muddy trail through the Maple School Ravine. Images courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, 74058 and 74060

As I register Ms A and Ms M for Girl Scouts this year, I came across records in the Seattle Municipal Archives of Girl Scouts Troop 413. These photos of girls with muddy shoes from June 1952 are of the troop petitioning for the improvement of the muddy trail between 18th and 20th Ave S. Once a muddy trail, thanks in part to the Troop 413, it is now a slip free neighborhood stairway walk.

Did these girls from Troop 413 live east of the ravine and trekked to school everyday at Maple on 17th and Lucile? Did their troop meet at Maple?


From the Lucile Street Stairs hideout we walked the flat few blocks to the Flora Bakehouse. My friend, Mike Kaiser, had a hand in drafting the plans for the Bakehouse when he was working for Atelier Drome.

The Bakehouse is beautiful and has a nice, welcoming rooftop patio with an area view across South Beacon Hill and Georgetown. The girls ordered a couple of warm chocolate chip cookies to share, hibiscus lemonades for Ms N and Ms A, and a caramel Italian soda for Ms M.

Dossier

Lucile Street - Ms A notes potted flowers and the little ornamental touches found at quite a few homes along this segment
Lucile Street – Ms A notes potted flowers and the little ornamental touches found at quite a few homes along this segment, west of Beacon Ave.
Lucile Street – At the base of the Lucile street stairs, Ms A finds and photographs a hideout crafted out of the overgrowth of the Maple School Ravine
Lucile Street – West of the stairs feels distinct with a church that has an impeccably manicured landscaping. The girls were intrigued by the mismatched handles on the front doors. Climbable trees and balance beam utility pole added to the fun of this segment.
Lucile Street - The Flora Bakehouse
Lucile Street – The Flora Bakehouse. A fine bakery with a good-sized rooftop patio for taking in a view of the area.
Sound recording on Lucile Street, east of the stairs. Sounds of birds, a comment about a dancing window ornament, and a plane.

Measurements

Date of walk: Wednesday, Aug 10th, 2022
Start time: 10:28
End time: 12:20

Cloudy, 64℉

Lucile Street from 25th Ave S to 15th Ave S. Elevation plot generated by Garmin Connect App.
Elevation plot generated by Garmin Connect App.

Max elevation: 318ft
Min elevation: 148ft