Kittler‘s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, published in Germany in 1986, provides a thorough journey from the first attempts to create the phonograph to the end of the World War II. However, his is not a regular history book. In his Introduction to the book the author already prepares the readers to the philosophical historiography that they are about to read. Philosophers such as Benjamin, Ong, Foucault,Hegel; writers like Goethe, Poe or Strauss; and Edison, Hansen, Turing or Von Neumann as innovators, are already mentioned as a brief example of the whole picture. It is important to notice that Lacan’s ideas about the symbolic together with McLuhan’s “the content of one medium is always another medium” (12) are (in my opinion) the ones that are going to permeate the text.
In some way, this media theorist is going to unite the anxiety yet caused by mass media, technology and its military applicability. Responding to the question from last week: Can machines think? and analysing Guyau’s “Memory and Phonograph” (1880) Kittler states that “phonographs do not think, therefore they are possible” (33). But he also implies the question: why are they possible? What do we need them for? How are they changing our system of communication, our perception of reality? Let’s clarify here that the words real and reality are going to plague the work, sometimes to the confusion of the reader: “media define what really is” (3).
Connecting technology with art, Kittler points out that the advance of the first has completely changed they way one interacts with the second. Nonetheless, that progression was not always a blunt one. It took quite a lot of time to move from paintings to photographs, but cinema became soon after since it implemented the past, in splices, to create new artifacts. That crossing of media was inclusive of the gramophone and the typewriter too.
For the purpose of trying to understand/explain both Benjamin’s and Kittler’s concern about the reframing of human perception due to the introduction to mechanics in daily life, I would like to pay attention to the typewriter. By means of explaining how what we now usually take only as the word that defines the “machine with keys for producing print like characters one at a time on paper inserted around a roller” (Dictionary), also used to refer to the female typist, Kittler introduces the first consequence of the mechanization of writing: an inversion of “gender of writing” (183) was carried out. While men were the ones who could write and publish freely, women were subjected to use pseudonyms to see their words printed. With the invention of this artifact, though, came a “desexualization of writing, sacrificing its metaphysics and turning it into word processing” (187). Literature changed.
By redefining the writing values, mechanized writing and “the symbols of a standardized keyboard makes humans (and women) as equal as equal signs” (231). Is that so? As far as I am concerned, equality in writers was improved; but a lot of humans were left out nonetheless, either due to an-alphabetization, lack of means to use a typewriter, or being part of a community were the sign is an oral one.
Later, the second consequence is introduced. With the development of a system of electro-mechanics into human communication it became possible to create the Enigma machine at the end of the World War I. Used since as a service for military and governmental correspondence it highly impacted communication, as used for war purposes. Turing and his mates at Bletchley Park were able to create an “automatized oracle to interpret fully automatized secret radio communication” (256), to what Kittler calls “War of typewriters.”
Connected with this last idea it is necessary to mention that the text is well aware of the not so distant path between upper class traditions with the so call mass culture. It provides a good insight of the complications and implications that the transvaluation of human values since the introduction of technology in daily life. As pointed out in the introduction, entertainment, the media culture that acts as a manipulation of society, was just a by-product of a more serious issue than giving Western world access to the Internet and reality shows. Technical development is to “accommodate the enormous rates and volumes of bits required, spent, and celebrated by electronic warfare…the bomb” (1). Though new realities emerge from the distortion of the real, many real instances are lost in the way.