Kittler: early, late but always media

For Friedrich Kittler too, the “subject’ is a core concern. This is obviously apparent in Discourse Networks, 1800-1900 (1990) where he draws connections between pedagogical techniques and the mergence of the modern subject through a merger between Foucauldian archaeology and Lacanian psychoanalysis. For early Kittler biopower was at the heart of the discourse networks he defined as: “the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store and process relevant data” (1990: 369).

It would be a mistake to see the early Kittler as somehow less interested in media technologies. Even here in his account of German child rearing and language learning, technologies are enfolded in that pedagogic subject construction. The child’s development as subject works in and through her cursive handwriting – a practice but also a media technology of representation. The tools of handwriting with the basic strokes that Kittler sees as constitutive of historically located subjectivity are apparatuses for writing and articulating but also imag(in)ing.

Writing for Kittler is enfolded in and through technologies. Talking of his more recent interest in alpha-numerical sign systems  he says: “When you program a computer, something is constantly happening. It’s almost like magic. You write something, strike ‘enter,’ and then what you just wrote happens” (Griffin et al 1996: 740).

Of course Kittler is interested in programming and programmes as a language (cf Kittler 1995) but also as material technologies. This does not just mean the obvious material boxes of keyboard, screen, hard-drives and servers but also the software (and protocols). These are sites of subjectification. The striking of a keyboard in authoring, executing or live hacking a programme, like practicing one’s cursive Germanic handwriting, is enfolded with the magic of biopower – doing things, establishing subject (and object) relations whether that is an algorithm data-mining consumer behaviour or just printing ‘Hello World’. The practice of programming, like handwriting is implicated in subjectivity but also a material technology operating as an actant in the world – forming alliances, becoming an everyday black box, transparent but power-full.

The constitution of the subject is also at the heart of his more explicitly media archaeological work around technologies and apparatuses (1999, 2002). As with Foucault, Kittler is keen to unseat “man”. Just as Foucault sought to behead the king in terms of theories of power, so Kittler looks to unseat the actor from history. As he says: “A history like this doesn’t need individual bodies or a subject that expands in and through the media – such a history can do without the subjective agency of a historical actor” (Griffin et al 1996: 738). This is not just a post-structuralist anti-author(ity) gambit for the sake of philosophical or hermeneutic coherency. This is rather a rebalancing of the subject-media relation. For Kittler as for Crary and Friedberg, the best way of unpicking the operations of biopower is through material technologies as sites of the construction of subjectivity. The subject is an effect of power not its source. Technologies, whether pen and paper, typewriters, camera obscuras, iPhones or protocols are enfolded in those processes and operations. As he says in a critique of Foucault “Even writing itself, before it ends up in libraries, is a communication medium, the technology of which the archeologist simply forgot” (Kittler 1999:5)

What links the “early Kittler” interested in literary texts with the “middle period Kittler” of media archaeology and the “latest Kittler” approaching sign systems, is a consistent emphasis on the enfolding of subjectivity and media technologies or apparatuses as well as a willingness to take those technologies seriously as material sites of that subjectification – to perhaps engage with a flat ontology.

  • Griffin, M., Herrmann, S. & Kittler, F.A., 1996, Technologies of Writing: Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler, New Literary History, 27(4), pp. 731-42.
  • Kittler, F.A., 1990, Discourse Networks, 1800-1900, Translated by M. Metteer & C. Cullens. Standford University Press, Standford, Calif.
  • Kittler, F 1995, There is No Software, Ctheory. net. Retrieved February 14, 2011,  from
  • Kittler, F.A., 1999, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Translated by G. Winthrop-Young & M. Wutz. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif..
  • Kittler, F.A., 2002, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, Translated by Enns. Polity, Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA.
  • Kittler, F. & Banz, S., 1996, Platz der Luftbrücke: Ein Gespräch, Oktagon, Berlin.