Kittler: discourse on discourse channel conditions and Pink Floyd

Geoffrey Winthrop Young characterises Kittler’s later work as a shift to dealing with “technological” as opposed to a  “communication” medium. “Writing operates by way of a symbolic grid which requires that all ‘data pass through the bottleneck of the signifier’ 9Kittler 1999: 4), whereas phono-, photo- and cinematographic analog media process physical effects of the real” (Winthrop-Young 2010: 59).

Winthrop Young’s distinction arguably narrows down our (and Kittler’s) conception of media. Of course writing works at the semiotic level. The sign does not equal the referent. The same truism applies to visual representational media. But more importantly, the symbolic system of writing is enfolded in the technological medium of writing apparatuses, the pen, the typewriter, the PC, the phone.The two cannot be separated and part of the power of Kittler’s approach is his willingness to deal with the technological, material as part of the medium enfolded with the representational. The ‘bottleneck of the signifier’ operates alongside the technological assemblage. It is only by being willing to entwine these processes and practices that Kittler can engage in his media archaeological account of ruptures. The rupture is not the move from a semiotic medium to a material one but rather a shift from one semiotic/material regime to another.

Kittler’s project is a material one and a media one. His early work on literature as much as his later work on typewriters is a study of he operations of media power, not wielded by a human subject or reducible to a more basic foundation or essence in class struggle, patriarchy or even discourse, but emergent within material/semiotic regimes. As Winthrop-Young has it: “an autonomous media-technological evolution driven by an internal dynamic” (Winthrop-Young 2010: 65).

In his work on texts (what Winthrop-Young would perhaps classify as analysis of a communications medium), Kittler says his objects of analysis (whether Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Goethe’s Wanderer’s Nightsong  or Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage) are “discourse[s] on discourse channel conditions” (Kittler 1982: 473). They are not objects to be interpreted but rather events, performances as much about the conditions of possibility for a particular discourse as about vampires, nature or mental illness. Those conditions of possibility are semiotic but also material. In the case of Pink Floyd’s song , Brain Damage is not just a song about mental illness or even about sound technologies for Kittler, it is “a highly seductive techno-acoustic event – one whose seductive qualities arise from a sophisticated and self-conscious performance of advances in sound technology […] a musically staged genealogy of rock music that manages to link its self-performance to the question of how technology relates to madness” (Winthrop-Young 2010: 54). The song/text is enfolded in the technologies, media and materiality of sound. Of course it would not have been possible without that technology but the semiotic-material/technological relation is more fundamental than that. The text, its writing and reading is the instantiation of the material/technological as well as discursive conditions of possibility.

This approach is all the more appropriate to read/write media such as software and the Web, a subject Kittler knows something about.

  • Kittler, F. 1982, England 1975 – Pink Floyd, Brain Damage, in K Lindemann (ed), Europalrik 1775-heute. Gedichte und Interpretationen, Schöningh, Paderborn, pp. 467-77.
  • Kittler, F.A., 1999, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Translated by G. Winthrop-Young & M. Wutz. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif..
  • Winthrop-Young, G., 2010, Kittler And The Media, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.