Kittler: burnt into hardware

Kittler rises to Lev Manovich’s challenge: “if we are to focus on software itself […] it helps to practice what one writes about” (Manovich 2008: 8). Kittler not only knows about software, he has taught it and advocates programming as a practice (Kittler 1995, 2008). What is perhaps interesting is how he approaches software less perhaps as a material object but wither as an element in hardware apparatuses or as a component in a new discourse network or regime.

Kittler takes a materialist view, software is enfolded in hardware. “Not only no program, but also no underlying microprocessor system could ever start without the rather incredible autobooting faculty of some elementary functions that, for safety’s sake, are burnt into silicon and thus form part of hardware” (Kittler 1997: 150). This hardware has been “explicitly contrived to evade our perception” (p 148) and as such has power-full implications.

It is in this that he returns to his broader theme of discourse networks (the enfolded technological/semiotic regime). “Through the use of keyboard like user-interface, user-friendliness or even data projection, the industry has damned humanity to remain human” (Kittler 1997: 157). This is his wider critique of the human subject –  or as Winthrop-Young has it “homo faber, man the toolmaker” (Winthrop-Young 2010: 75). Kittler attacks user-friendly software as implicated in our narcissistic belief in our importance in the assemblage (the sort of critique Latour would warm too). It tricks us into seeing the human subject as in charge.  Software is the opium of the masses and those willing to engage with programming are Neo-like heroes battling the Matrix.

In 1986 he predicted: “The general digitization of channels and information erases the difference among individual media […] Inside the computers themselves everything becomes a number, quantity without image, sound, or voice […] Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping –  a total media link on a digital basis will erase the very concept of medium. Instead of wiring people and technologies, absolute knowledge will run as an endless loop” (Kittler 1999: 1-2). He was of course right to see software-empowered shifts in the information economy and media ecology, but what is important is how, in Kittler’s work, the emphasis is on the epistemic shifts in which software-within-hardware is enfolded (and potentially the hardware apparatuses) rather rather than software as a material actant itself. This is an analysis of a new media assemblage where software is a material actant only insofar as it is burnt into hardware. The regime/discourse network is the prime mover and point of interest.

His latest work on sign systems continues this location of software as an element in a broader material/semiotic regime but not a distinct actant. Here software code is addressed as a sign system within a genealogy of other codices. “If every historical epoch is governed by a leading philosophy, then the philosophy of code is what governs our own,” he says (2008: 45). Once again there is the concern with the epistemic ruptures and regimes. This is not to say that his has become an idealist critique. Those codes/philsophies/discourses are enfolded within material assemblages and technologies. Software whether “burnt into silicon” or circulating as philosophy is part of the discourse network. Where perhaps we can extend Kittler’s account is by addressing software as material not only in terms of its location in hardware but also in its own ontological status – an object actant in the world.

  • Manovich, L., 2008, Software Takes Command. unpublished ms., 2008, unpublished ed. .
  • Kittler, F 1995, There is No Software, Ctheory. net. Retrieved February 14, 2011,  from
  • Kittler, F., 1997, Literature Media Information Systems, Johnston, J. ed. OAP, Amsterdam.
  • Kittler, F.A., 1999, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Translated by G. Winthrop-Young & M. Wutz. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif..
  • Kittler, F. 2008, Code (or, How Can You Write Something Differently), in M Fuller (ed), Software Studies : A Lexicon, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London, pp. 40-7.