Kittler: software’s materiality

For Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Kittler “refuses to betray the hardware for something delusional conjured up by the software” (2010: 118). He is of course right to draw out Kittler’s media archaeological emphasis on the materiality of media objects and object-relations. Like Crary, Friedberg, Zielinksi and Kirschenbaum, Kittler’s project is one of reclaiming the material apparatuses as objects not only worthy of study but also as ontologically significant – actants in their own right and in their own relations. Although these writers do not talk of Actor-Network Theory, speculative realism or Object Oriented Philosophy per se, they are of a mind with those perspectives in terms of their willingness to take object-apparatuses seriously within a flat ontology and to trace the regimes of visuality and governmentality as enfolded with those object-apparatuses.

Where one can perhaps expand on Kittler’s account is treating software (and protocol) in the same way. Moving on from addressing software as just “burnt into silicon” (Kittler 1997: 150), as enfolded within the material apparatus, to approaching it as a material actant itself is not to stray from a materialist account into some idealist, virtual or caricatured hyperreal view of data simulacra. Rather it is to analyse software in its specificity, to understand that it can withdraw from view but still be powerful; to embrace its working through becoming as evidence of its materiality. It is to identify another key actant in the network.

In his provocatively titled There is no Software Kittler says:

“The criminal law, at least in Germany, has recently abandoned the very concept of software as a mental property; instead, it defined software as a necessarily material thing. The high court’s reasoning, according to which without the correspondent electrical charges in silicon circuitry no computer program would ever run, can already illustrate the fact that the virtual undecidability between software and hardware follows by no means, as system theorists would probably like to believe, from a simple variation of observation points. On the contrary, there are good grounds to assume the indispensability and, consequently, the priority of hardware in general” (Kittler 1995).

Here software (for German law or Kittler) is not material in and of itself, it is a ‘material thing’ because of the ‘priority of hardware’ wherein it gets its existence. Later in the same article he says: “This all-important property of being programmable has, in all evidence, nothing to do with software; it is an exclusive feature of hardware, more or less suited as it is to house some notation system”. A more object-oriented, processual approach however would see software as not secondary to (or even a dangerous supplement to) hardware.

The problem of pinning down protocol within software is clear evidence that it has its own existence. While it is possible perhaps to argue that a word processing package has its existence and certainly its use value in terms of its location within hardware, the same cannot be said of a protocol or a standard  that while instantiated within particular software packages and hardware configurations – or indeed my digital imag(in)ing apparatus – has a power full location  (a becoming) in the network (in an ANT rather than purely technical sense).

  • Kittler, F 1995, There is No Software, Ctheory. net. Retrieved February 14, 2011,  from http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=74
  • Kittler, F., 1997, Literature Media Information Systems, Johnston, J. ed. OAP, Amsterdam.
  • Winthrop-Young, G., 2010, Kittler And The Media, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.