Archibald Post 8: Kittler and posthumanism

In his chapter “Media Theory and New Materialism” Jussi Parikka undertakes an interrogation of German and Anglo-American media studies, and I was especially convinced by his readings of Friedrich Kittler’s work. Kittler falls under the broad (and sometimes incorrectly labelled) group of German media theorists who merge close material readings of technologies with critical theory. Kittler particularly draws on Lacan, Foucault, and McLuhan in his focus on media hardware. His approach privileges the processes of media storage and transmission over the social and representative, in a tightly interwoven framework of arts, science, and technology. Like many modern media theorists, he recognizes the increasing imagined immateriality of media in the recent period of digital innovation.

I’m particularly interested in Kittler’s reading of the posthuman: Parikka writes of Kittler’s theoretical model that

We do not speak language, but language speaks us, and we have to participate in such systems of language, which are not of our own making. But language in the age of technical media is not just natural language; it is the new technological and physical regimes introduced by media, such as the typewriter, and later computer software languages, which should methodologically be seen in a similar way – they impose new regimes of sensation and use to which we have to accommodate ourselves in order to be functioning subjects. We are secondary to such systems.  (70)

He then goes on to discuss the type of power that is now inscribed in such systems and therefore over our bodies. Here Kittler advances a world view by which humans are absorbed into information systems, who are “secondary to such systems.” The human psychologically and physiologically becomes a conceptual reflection of the media systems themselves; he is describing a type of machinic agency whereby the human is programmed into specific kinds of behaviors. He always refers to the human as the ‘so-called human being,’ which again makes me question where the posthuman begins if we read the posthuman as being unable to separate the human and machine. During our last class, I suggested that posthumanism could be evidenced all the way back to humanity’s first moment of bipedalism. Sure, this is a controversial and perhaps totally inaccurate claim, but it plays into the way that I see the technological and human as inherently intertwined: technology has always acted as a kind of social prosthesis, and the human thinks through and alongside media. Our class proposed that the advent of the digital has merely highlighted this reciprocal relationship in a heightened manner, and this is reflected by the new currency of fields such as game studies, platform studies, and software studies. Kittler himself demonstrates that the posthuman can be applied much earlier than digital media’s explosion by analyzing painting and the typewriter, and Parikka also discusses Bernhard Siegert’s analysis on the postal system as a media network that manifests the posthuman.

Kittler additionally publishes a line from Nietzsche—that “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts”—which plays into my view of the posthuman (72). Media drives epistemic changes, as it impacts cognition and corporality—in this case the human body becomes an inscription surface for the act of writing. At the same time, it is human thought that has created this writing tool, and although the tool shapes human thought through its material affordances, we can still use the writing tool for a host of differentiated purposes. Therefore although we live in a seemingly cyborg society, technology can be regarded as having always driven our social organization, and our individual psyches and bodies.

As others have noted in their posts for this week, Kittler’s methodology seems too extreme in taking the human out of media studies, but Parikka doesn’t seem to endorse this; he acknowledges the hardware focus of new media theories “in addition to social contexts,” and at the conclusion of his chapter he recognizes that “a variety of media studies methodologies are now insisting that we should not only engage in textual analyses of media culture, but be prepared to tackle what goes on inside the machine as well” (65, 89). For Parikka, the ultimate question seems to boil down to “how to rethink familiar media technologies in new material constellations and in ways that lead to new modes of using, consuming and institutionalizing media,” a formation that readily applies to the nature of DH as a process or methodology (64).

Connecting Kittler’s theoretical work to lab spaces,[1] CU Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab (the MAL) seems the perfect space to explore such relationships between the human and machine (http://mediaarchaeologylab.com/). The MAL houses a host of dated inscription technologies, ranging from projectors and typewriters to personal computers and gaming consoles (and even a few ‘cutting edge’ devices such as its 3D printer). Unlike other media labs such as MIT’s “The Trope Tank” and Washington State University Vancouver’s “Electronic Literature Lab,” the MAL has open hours and doesn’t require any type of supervision or training to access and use its collective media, even allowing students to dismantle the hundreds of old technological parts and pieces to examine their material workings. During our class visit, we started to interrogate the implications of machinic agency on notions of space and embodiment. Furthermore, the MAL’s motto that “the past must be lived so that the present can be seen” directly alludes to the notions of the pre-digital and the imagined invisibility/immateriality that Kittler finds so important in his reading of postmodernism.

Works Cited:

Parikka, Jussi. “Media Theory and New Materialism.” What Is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. 63-89. Print.

[1] On the topic of lab spaces, I wanted to briefly note a great line from Parikaa where he writes (of Hugo Münsterberg’s work) that “Cinema is a laboratory of sorts for manipulations of states of mind and brain” (73). The same can certainly be said of writing as a laboratory of the mind, which supports our claim that DH should not be limited in scope to mere ‘doing,’ but include the ‘thinking’ of traditional humanities scholarship.

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