• 1800 and 1900 constitute two turning points in the technology of the literary system: universal alphabetization and technological data storage. Kittler writes these histories as foundational to pushing Foucauldian discourse analysis past the limits of the archive.
  • Note: Winthrop-Young’s introduction to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter has a useful précis of Discourse Networks.


  • “discourse network”: “The term discourse network, as God revealed it to the paranoid cognition of Senate President Schreber, can also designate the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data. Technologies like that of book printing and the institutions coupled to it, such as literature and the university, thus constituted a historically very powerful formation, which in the Europe of the age of Goethe became the condition of possibility for literary criticism” (369).
  • “psychophysics”: the mathematical approach to psychological phenomena, as in the scientist who counts and measures his memory capacity (207);


1. 1800

  • We open with an equation: what does it mean to start a putative work of literary criticism w/ an equation??? It’s Euler’s formula; a description of the relationships between trigonometric functions. It was published in the mid-1700s.
  • And then we start properly with Faust and an elaborately post-structuralist reading of its signs, signifiers, maternal psychoanalytic struggles—the whole pot of mid-century French theory. I’m going to work past it for now because I have one goddamn day to read this book and I want to get to the media stuff.
  • “The Mother’s Mouth”: full-on Lacanian psychoanalytic post-structuralism; but what Kittler is trying to get at here is the role of the Mother (as psychoanalytic category) in the development of language instruction in 1800 (remember we’re working with hard dualities here): Kittler is interested in the development of “a new type of book . . . one that delegated to mothers first the physical and mental education of their children, then their alphabetization” (27).
  • The thrust of this section: by moving from written to oral (by way of the mother) language instruction, the alphabet becomes freed of its relationship to textuality and becomes a medium, a writing system in its own right (37); as a system, it then becomes ripe for disciplination on the level of the body (qua Foucault); “Every culture has different techniques and standards to govern the concrete manipulation of language. The threshold that determines the possible extent and usefulness of analyses differentiates discourse networks from one another” (42).
  • This book is entirely too long for me to conquer in a single day so we have to fillet it: the value of this first section is in Kittler’s method, which combines psychoanalytic poststructuralism with a resolutely materialist analysis, a kind of big data before the fact. He’s interested in language as a science, in the inscription of letters and the emergence of linguistic systems.
  • “With a master signifier above and nature as signified below, philosophy in the writing system of 1800 was the effacement of sexual difference. It mediated the two authorities, state and Mother, that otherwise remained unwritten in its discursive network. When educational officials administer the complex functions of writing and mothers administer the elementary function of alphabetizing, the resulting writer, upheld by both authorities, is a true human being— because he ‘attempts to moderate and find a counterweight for the character of the sex, rather than exaggerating it, for after all that character is an inborn, natural endowment,’ until his ‘humanity’ finds itself ‘at home’ ‘in the middle’ between male and female” (66).

2. 1900

  • Skipping forward to 1900, we’re already off to a slightly better start: “The historical adventures of speaking do not form a continuum and so do not constitute a history of ideas. They are marked by breaks that in a single stroke can consign entire discourse networks to oblivion, and they have plateaus that make one forget the advance of armies and hours even during the winters of world wars” (177).
  • Locating McLuhan in the 1800’s: “Zarathustra’s curse strikes at the technological-material basis of the discourse network of 1800: universal alphabetization. Not content or message but the medium itself made the Spirit, the corpus composed of German Poetry and German Idealism, into a stinking cadaver” (178).
  • “Considered apart from the ostensible truth-telling demands of moralistic or even educative voices, language is no longer the translation of prelinguistic meanings, but rather one medium among others. Media, however, exist only as arbitrary selections from a noise that denies all selection” (186).
  • “Ever since Nietzsche, the logic of the signifier has become a technique of sparseness and isolation, and minimum signs release maximum energy. Hermeneutic theories, with their notions of context, are inadequate to such a calculus. They are familiar only with organic relationships and with a continuous—that is, psychological or historical—narrative representation of them. The relative value of signifiers, by contrast, is given mathematically; its articulation is called counting. To counter words—in the days of romanticism this was the ridiculously outmoded fixed idea of a Fixlein with his kabala of the Bible; in the age of media is becomes a primary and elementary necessity” (190). Take the rhetoric of the postal system as an economization of the signfier: “Once there is a postal system, signfiers have standardized prices that mock all meaning. Once there are telegrams and postcards, style is no longer the man, but an economy of signs” (191).
  • “The logic of chaos and intervals was implemented as a technology by the discourse network of 1900—through the invention of the typewriter” (192). I imagine this is all going to get elaborated in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.
  • “Never before had such passion been devoted to syllables . . . The discourse network of 1900 was the first to establish a treasury of the signifier whose rules were entirely based on randomness and combinatorics” (210).
  • What we’re getting at here is the total abolition of meaning—a pure deconstruction. “Thinking and intending, however, are the imaginary acts that led the philosophers of 1800 to assert the primacy of the oral” (211); “The cultural-technological standards do not represent Man and his Norm. They articulate or decompose bodies that are already dismembered. nature does its own work before any experimenter arrives” (215).
  • The overall project of the “Great Lalula” section is to begin a project of literary technodeterminism: that in the technology of the typewriter we find the roots of a decomposition of meaning that goes on to inform the production of c. 1900 mathematized and calculable literary projects, e.g. Mallarmé.
  • “Standards have nothing to do with Man. they are the criteria of media and psychophysics, which they abruptly link together. Writing, disconnected from all discursive technologies, is no longer based on an individual capable of imbuing it with coherence through connecting curves and the expressive pressure of the pen; it swells in an apparatus that cuts up individuals into test material. Tachistoscopes measure automatic responses, not synthetic judgments. But they thus restore the reputation of spelling, which had generally come to be viewed with contempt” (223).


  • This seems to be the only place where Kittler speaks plainly.
  • Kittler tries to get “outside” of the systems of systems (if such an outside is possible) through Foucault’s discourse analysis; Kittler argues that Foucault’s discourse analysis depends on the “alphabetic storage and transmission monopoly” of the library as a technology; when that regime was destroyed, so too was Foucault’s method (369).
  • “Archaeologies of the present must also take into account data storage, transmission, and calculation in technological media. Literary criticism can learn from an information theory that has formalized the current state of technical knowledge, and thus made measurable the performance or limits of information systems. After the destruction of the monopoly of writing, it becomes possible to draw up an account of its functioning” (369–70).
  • We need to investigate how books are “data processing” devices (this is Kirschenbaum’s research); “what remain to be distinguished, therefore, are not emotional dispositions but systems” (370).

Archive and Impact

  • The introduction contends that this is a work suffused by post-structuralism; the major intervention, it seems, is a move toward post-hermeneutic or post-interpretive criticism: “It abandons the language game and form of life defined by the hermeneutic canons of justification and enters into domains of inquiry inaccessible to acts of appropriative understanding” (ix). “In Kittler’s analysis, however, this myth 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).
  • His theoretical intervention is a “positive research program for a post-hermeneutic criticism” through an ideal blending of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan with the following components: the “presupposition of exteriority,” or an adaptation of Foucauldian discourse, “we care not what is written but that is it written”; a focus on inscription or notation systems (the original German title); and most importantly the “presupposition of mediality”, “The decisive methodological step undertaken by Kittler is to generalize the concept of medium, to apply it to all domains of cultural exchange. Whatever the historical field we are dealing with, in Kittler’s view, we are dealing with media as determined by the technological possibilities of the epoch in question. Mediality is the general 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). Final branch: “presupposition of corporeality,” i.e., that “the body is the site upon which the various technologies of our culture inscribe themselves” (xiv).