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Discourse Networks 1800/1900

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Friedrich KittlerEdit

Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Aufschreibesystem) [German 1985 | English 1990]Edit

Dense and theoretically devasting, Discourse Networks was Kittler's seminal work of media archaeology, making good on the work of the French post-structuralists (and the under-acknowledged influence of Marshall McLuhan). In this work, Kittler argues against the universality of hermenuetics, arguing that interpretation is not the primary state of man, and that meaning is not the goal of the search, or as Wellbey puts it in the forward, "not a foundational condition for the processing of significant marks" (x). Rather,

"it is a contingent phenomenon within the evolution of discursive practices in Europe; it rests on a host of preconditions such as alphabetization, the expansion of book production, the organization of the modern university, the emergence of the civil service [...] [the myth of the silent inner voice] appears less as a philosophical hallucination than as a function of instructional practices and technologies. Far from being our natural or human condition, hermeneutics merely results from a specifically trained coordination of children's eyes, ears, and vocal organs. It is a discipline of the body" (x).

Thus, hermeneutics is a historically contingent phenomenon, rather than ultimately infinite as the truth of our inner self (reminded here of Kittler's assertion that we are simply apes with a virus--it is how we organize and train the virus that matters).

The major theoretical achievement of Kittler's work is "By eliciting from divergent elaborations of post-structuralist thoughts a collective epistemological apparatus, Kittler establishes a positive research program for a post-hermeneutic criticism" (xii). The first part of this program is to come to terms with no longer seeking to endow our inscriptions and utterances with meaning (refusing that they bear a reflexivity of the subject who produced them). Rather, in a move mimicking Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, Kittler demands we understand such inscriptions as discursive, produced outside our sense of subjectivity. However, rather than focusing on the inscriptions, Kittler steps back to make the move on which media archaeology is contingent--it is not the content of the inscription but the fact that the inscription exists in the material forms that it does. Discourse analysis gets pushed back to the level of the media--"a level of material deployment that is prior to questions of meaning". They are more than mere instruments and cannot be grounded in a "philosophical anthropology" (post-phenomenology?). To trace these material deployments is the condition of media archaeology: "Mediality is the gernal condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like "poetry" or "literature" can take shape. Post-hermeneutic literary history (or criticism), therefore, becomes a sub-branch of media studies" (xiii). Ultimately, Kittler's radical historicism leads to disillusion of the universality of literature.

What is the object of study, then, is the material channel through which the transmission passes. And since all material channels contain noise (non-information, non-meaning), then literature is defined not by what it means, but by its difference "between meaning and non-meaning, information and noise, that its medial possibilities set into place" (xiv).

Similarity to Derrida--writing is the condition of possibility of meta-physical conceptuality. Similarity in Lacan--our existence is a function of our relation to the signifier. Kittler's "post-hermeneutic criticism, in other words, renders explicit and productive the tendency toward a radical historicism that is in fact immanent to the work of all the post-structualist thinkers" (xiii).

Rightly so, there is a concern over the motivation and utility of a criticism that presupposes exteriority (its analytic perspective) and mediality(its object of study) (no creative human subjects, no internal psychology, no "universal" humanist claims"). What addresses these concerns, however, is a presupposition of corporeality. Thus, it is not that there is no subject, but rather than the subject is replaced with "the body, a transformation which disperses (bodies are multiple), complexifies (bodies are layered systems), and historicizes (bodies are finite and contingent products) subjectivity" (xv).

This formulation reduces questions of agency, suggesting that "culture" is not a social phenomenon of expressive behaviors; rather, there is a greater emphasis on what makes those behaviors emergant to begin with, the processes that shape the possibilities of engagement. Thus, it is not the emphasis on praxis (material subjective agency) but on how we are trained.

But because of a reduction to corporeality, there is a consequential interest in the sufferance of the body. Because discourse networks express themselves most clearly when they produce pathologies, what we should attend to in human behavior is the distinction between the normal and the aberrant (like information and noise). The bodies of those who suffer in this world become the point of solidarity in post-hermeneutic analysis: "the unassimilable otherness of the singular and mortal body" (xvi).

Kittler does not utilize the concept of ideology, as his theory of media has no room for an opposition between reality and its "distorted representation" (thus Kittler is counter to Marx, Althusser, etc.). Texts hold neither hidden truth, nor reflect ideological modes of production; all worth uncovering is already present, "precisely because this surface materiality of the texts themselves--their inscription within a discourse network--is the site of their historical efficacy" (xvii).

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