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Technology and Culture 42.1 (2001) 174-176

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Book Review

Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. By Friedrich A. Kittler, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. xli+315. $55/$19.95.

Friedrich Kittler's thesis is simple enough: "Media determine our situation, which . . . deserves a description" (p. xxxix). And so he describes the cultural environments in which the recording of sound, vision, and words took place between the 1860s and 1940s. The sound recording, filmstrip, and keyboard, as Kittler's technologies may be more generally defined, changed the language of perception. By changing the language and behavior of the people using them, the technologies constructed their users.

In this approach Kittler builds on Marshall McLuhan's emphasis on "mediality," Michel Foucault's descriptions of the relationships between printed texts and the control of the body, and his own work on the construction of readers and families in the age of Goethe. Here, Kittler applies media discourse analysis to the modern era. He defines "culture" through writings on the effects of the storage of sound, sight, and thought. Analysis [End Page 174] of these short stories, poems, letters, memoirs, articles, commentaries, and the attendant discourses lets him argue for the technological determinism of culture, if not history.

Those leery of theoretical interpretations will be thankful for the relative paucity of jargon. On the other hand, the translators take twenty-seven pages to explain Kittler's background and goals to those unfamiliar with the post-1960s debates over power, language, and free will. And Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz acknowledge a number of causes for negative reactions to Kittler's method and agenda.

First, Kittler is not a historian of technology or anything else. He is "the enfant terrible of the German humanities" (p. xxxiii), a poststructuralist who views history as a tool for overthrowing concepts of the self. Kittler mixes source material from a wide array of fields to make his points, one of which is the discontinuity of technological development. The result is a superficial pastiche of dated secondary sources, hearsay, literature, and technical explanations. In contrast to this cosmopolitan scholarship, Kittler retains a Germanic admiration for engineers, from Edison to Turing, and indulges in a "virtual fetishism" (p. xxxv) of the military origins of communication technologies. He justifies his derision of "so-called Man" (p. xxxiii) by describing the trend toward digitization and fiber-optic networks that serve to reunite and recycle all sensory data.

Finally, there is the challenge of the book's structure and Kittler's writing. Each technology receives a lengthy chapter in narrative form, vaguely chronological and offering few pauses for the reader. There is no index. The translators have done a fine job of rendering the complexity of the author's sentences into English. They defend Kittler's "stylistic jouissance" as intended "to assault and shock conventional scholarly sensibilities" (p. xxxii), particularly those of the academic tradition within which he works.

All of these issues are apparent in the ninety-three-page gramophone chapter. Despite the title, Kittler refers to descendants of Edison's invention as phonographs, neglecting the relation of Edison's term to its prior use for shorthand techniques. Kittler contributes usefully to the issue of the timing of invention, but then claims that home recording on Edison's cylinders nearly wiped out literary letters as a format (p. 59) and that the phonograph led Wilhelm II's military command into "the age of technology" (p. 78). This chapter runs into magnetic recording, which Kittler credits to Germany's wartime development of the magnetophone, and radio, whose development he attributes to the two world wars. Similar assertions will be found in the other chapters.

Most useful are the analyses of the effect of these technologies on literature and psychology. The texts that Kittler draws on are generally obscure, at least to this reader. However selective the evidence, his analysis of Nietzsche's intellectual evolution as he switched from manuscript to Malling Hansen typewriter to a (female) typewriter provides a fascinating [End Page 175] example of the interplay of...


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