J.B.M. - An important part of your work is concerned with
the relationship between culture, literature and technology.
Have some changes in this domain of studies taken place?
Friedrich Kitler - I believe
that, in Ancient Greek times, this relation of technology
and physics, science, and mathematics is absolutely close,
and very founding, but in modern Europe this relation between
technology and culture, and also the arts, began to be forgotten,
in a sense, and that is why we still tend to oppose technology,
as a technical, physical part of the world, against another
part of the world, that we call humanistic, literary or artistic.
of computers is an historical event that has empirically proven
that the ability to process textual, acoustical or optical
data compounds, in a sense, the beforehand different cultures
of writing and counting. And in my eyes this is no pessimistic
or catastrophic event of European culture. On the contrary,
sitting here on the seashore, I reflect on the very limited
possibilities traditional art and text and poetry had to handle
this more or less chaotic or fractal event of sea waves. And
only with the advent of computers it has become possible to
develop a more logical sense of what can be done, what can
be computed, what can be simulated, what can, in this mathematical
or cultural sense, be understood. It’s true that,
when human emotions are concerned, scientists will still fall
short of them in one way or another, but probably computers
are not tools invented by mankind to make our life easier
but rather tools invented by nature to understand herself.
J.B.M. - You
don’t believe, then, that there are two cultures, one
scientific and another literary…
Friedrich Kitler - It was
an Englishman who invented this opposition of two cultures.
Americans probably wouldn’t have thought about this
opposition or cleavage between cultures.
Do you think there are a lot
of differences between the invention of writing – a
kind of technological invention – and the invention
of computation – a new kind of codification, as in digital
language… Do you find there is continuity or, rather,
a radical change between these two inventions?
Friedrich Kitler - There is
continuity at first sight. Alphabetical writing, invented
about 800 BC (in Greece), was the first to have not only vocal
significance but also numerical significance. Alpha was at
the same time A and one, and Beta was two, while at the same
time being B, and this very coincidence between letters and
numbers is the origin of a culture that can be digitalized.
Without this Greek idea that numbers are letters and letters
are numbers we couldn’t have arrived at computer machines,
which came out of mathematics. The physical aspect of the
machine in the first ten years was much less important than
the mathematical dimension of it. And so we shouldn’t
be afraid of these machines. After all, the alphabet was understood
as a help to mankind, because it articulated what we were
unable to articulate before. But nowadays, the speed and the
complexity and the inhuman aspect of what goes on inside computers
is difficult to explain to people who are not clerks and programmers.
In this sense, mankind isn’t helped.
J.B.M. - The
foremost critics tend to focus on hermeneutical issues –
on meaning as concerning the ancient technology of writing,
meaning as central to textual organisation – and now
some people fear that there is no meaning, that there are
only mechanical or computational procedures, that meaning
has vanished. What do you think of this hermeneutical critique?
Friedrich Kitler - Unfortunately,
that’s not a question I would dare to answer. Probably
there are hermeneutical forms, not in the world but in our
hearts, that are difficult to translate into algorithms, and
as long as we are able to proceed without this kind of semantics,
so much the better. Let’s see how far we can go on using
a sheer syntax, without any semantics. In cases in which this
proves impossible, surely we will have to go back to hermeneutics.
Things have gone astonishingly far without semantics. In Chomsky’s
time the automatic analysis of language was supposed to go
through all these embedded systems of Chomsky’s syntax
and grammar. But this would have been, in computational terms,
much too near to human language and heavily expensive. These
days, researchers take the absolutely contrary way and just
make up statistics. In computational terms, to understand
what I say, in translating, for instance, what I say, here
and now, into some computer output, there are no hermeneutics
involved, just the computational statistical probabilities
of my phonemes and morphemes.
J.B.M. - I believe
some people try to impose on us the idea of interactivity
as a kind of new ideology. According to them, we are living
in a new world of interactive freedom, without authoritarianism,
where all asymmetries end, and all the gaps are closed. This
new world will demand a connected body. Do you think that
we are facing a new beginning or, rather, an ending of our
Friedrich Kitler - I’m
not so deep into this discussion but nevertheless I believe
I should distinguish between the leftist Hegelian approach
to this issue and connectivity as a new kind of basic democracy
and open source and so on and so on… and this I find
at least nice and sympathetic. On the other hand there is
the position of Alvin Toffler and others, who link the liberal
and, let’s say it, capitalist structure of American
society to this new connectivity built up by the Net and imagine
a sort of triumph of immateriality and spirit over materialism
and Karl Marx and so on, as it is written down in the Cyber
Manifesto. I’m not very fond of this stance. But left
or right, connectivity is conceived as this optimistic use
of the world as connectivity or linkage between those who
communicate, without even putting this system into question.
problem is that the subjects of connectivity are the computers
themselves: we are just numbers or multi-users sitting as
passive clients, while machines communicate with each other.
Every Microsoft Windows XP end user communicates with the
big server in Redwood, Washington, unwillingly giving away
his most personal secrets to Microsoft and other connected,
linked companies, for advertising and so on.
And this is the bad side of things, but the good side of things
is that computers are not standing alone any more, as in the
old days of personal computing, when we had standalone, heavy
desktops; they have become so linked and connected, in worldwide
terms, that their computing power grows exponentially.
Any serious problem in mathematics is nowadays solved by this
connectivity. By night I can link my computer to the question
of whether there is or not extraterrestrial intelligence and
my computer will contribute to answer the question in ten
years because ten thousand computers are connected and calculate
answers out from the electromagnetic spectrum and probably
some intelligence will show up or not. And software transfer
over the world is made so much easier than in the time when
you went into the shop and you bought floppy disks and after
two days the floppies were floppy and you could throw them
away. And now you load down your source code, thanks to God
your source code and not only your binary on the net, and
you can look into your source code, you can say “oh,
there’s a bug in my source code” and you can tell
the developers and they change it in 24 hours. That’s
connectivity in my eyes.
J.B.M. - I believe
that this ideology considers the Master-Servant dialectics
finished, thanks to technology.
Friedrich Kitler - The Masters
are now called servers and the Servants are called clients;
it’s the same concept. Servers have privileges clients
have not. Firewalls, for instance, show that servers remain
servers and clients remain clients. Dialectics should hopefully
work more but it doesn’t …
J.B.M. - Last
question. About your characterisation of music and mathematics
( I know you have a new institute in Berlin University): what
are you aiming at, in this new development of your thought?
Friedrich Kitler - Well, this
is a serious question… In German academics, two big
issues were up during the last 20 years – text and image
and text and orality. This was OK but a little bit narcissistic
in my eyes. Texts mirror themselves in pictures and the other
way around and the same goes for orality. In this new project,
I think that if we take into consideration the threefold relationship
between texts and images and numbers (that is, mathematics)
we will be able to get an acceptable view of European culture
insofar as only this culture, by exploding and expanding into
America, Asia and so on, probably eroding itself, invented
Modernity. It’s difficult to explain the triumph of
Portuguese navigators in terms of Botticelli, or even Dante.
It’s easier to explain their success through people
who invented maps and geography and astronomy and astrolabes
and, for instance, all this Arabian and Jewish and Christian
knowledge in the Middle Ages. Our proverbial fear toward mathematics
turned it into a hidden force in European culture. And
my personal concern lies, paradoxically enough, not in pictures,
not in texts, not in numbers, but in sounds, because sounds
are so impossible to retain, to write down and to calculate
and to enumerate. I find music so compelling and different…
another side of the world that poses so many difficult problems
to mathematics and to writing. So I try to discover how music
has needed mathematical developments since Greek times and
how mathematical developments, on the other hand, made possible
newer and more extreme and wonderful forms of music. And sitting
on this seashore I think of Ulysses and the Sirens and I believe
that all began with those songs.
J.B.M. - I remember
your analysis of Rilke’s primal sound and your remarks
on the fragmentation of perception. Do you believe that your
new studies in sound will recompose our notions of media and
Friedrich Kitler - I
hope so. I’m not sure. There is a rather mystical belief
in me that, in the end of my life or so, a new synthesis will
be possible, feasible for me, because after having written
so few books and given so many lectures and so many talks
throughout the world you’ve got that feeling you repeat
yourself more and more and this should be a second beginning.
That’s why I start with Ulysses.