- Friedrich Kittler’s Media Scenes—An Instruction Manual
Brigadier Whitehead, a veteran of World War II, is taping his heroic adventures at the “Battle of Palermo” on a reel-to-reel, portable tape recorder. Roving about the cluttered room, he speaks animatedly into the microphone, which is plugged into the recorder by a long wire. “As you can hear, gentlemen,” the Brigadier announces portentously, “the zero hour is approaching. Invasion is imminent. We must counter-attack right away.”
Six antique phonographs, arranged in two rows, trumpet out the sound-effects of a massive artillery barrage, which the Brigadier orchestrates by running from one record player to another, extending his microphone to capture specific effects.
Just arrived in Catalia when messenger drove up. I tore open dispatch. News was bad—I’d lost my battalion commander. I had to reach O Group. I grabbed the bike from the messenger, and rode off to headquarters. Suddenly, a grenade exploded. I jumped for cover.
This theatrical recording session continues until a peculiar, undulating sound interrupts the narrative, enveloping the scene of virtual warfare in its electronic drone. In a blinding flash of light, Brigadier Whitehead is thrown to the floor, where he will be found lifeless, still clutching a phonograph record, his entire body bleached white by a murderous ray of light. The Brigadier is down, but the tape machine goes on recording....
Thus we have, in John Steed’s words, “The swan song of one Brigadier Whitehead.... Officer, gentleman, deceased Brigadier Whitehead. He died as he lived in the thick of the battle, facing the enemy.”
“An enemy without a face,” replies Emma Peel, with characteristic wit.
At least, that’s how Steed and Peel sum up this perplexing scene. And puzzled viewers have to wait out the remainder of this Avengers episode to discover the enemy’s true identity. After replaying the tape recording of the scene—a cacophony of phonograph artillery drowned out by a mysterious drone—for countless suspects and experts, the following conclusion is reached about the murder weapon:
“Sound of light amplification of stimulation of radiation.”
“In a word, a laser beam”
“A laser beam. Of course. It has a bleaching effect, and boils liquids.”
“Plus a very distinctive sound.”
“Where are they used?”
“All over the place: dentistry, communications, eye surgery...”
and of course, they are used in military strategy; although such details were not yet public in 1967.
Digital/laser technology is recorded in analog on Brigadier Whitehead’s outdated tape machine, and it is the “eye surgery” clue that eventually leads Steed and Peel to the ultimate villain, Dr. Primble, an ocular surgeon who sneaks about with a powerful laser gun strapped to the top of his “U.F.O.,” a chrome-colored sports car.
Obviously, this scene has not been pulled from a bastion of the Western literary canon or from a great philosophical text. We are dealing here with a piece of pop-cultural trash, the detritus of a late-‘60s Cold-War obsession with espionage, governmental conspiracy, and garishly fantastic technologies. And yet, there is still something “scholarly,” something theoretical, philosophical, even, in this scene, that invites further investigation. There is a certain intersection here of communications and warfare, information transmission and military strategy, media and artillery that permits us to view this scene as a node through which a network of discourses—historical, technological, political—all travel. I would go so far as to say that in this single scene, we might trace all the ingredients for a transdisciplinary project on the nature of media in a visual age—complete with ocular surgeon.
At least that’s how I sum up the scene, investigating it through the critical magnifying glass of Friedrich Kittler’s theory and practice of criticism. Kittler’s recently published collection of essays entitled Literature, Media, Information Systems provides a wide-ranging demonstration of what his followers have known all along: “the intelligibility and consequent meaning of literary texts is always and only possible because its discourse is embedded in and operates as part of a...