The Blog as a Discourse Network

My interest in Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1985, pp. below from 2000 Stanford University Press ed.) is in what Kittler might have to say about blogs and the blogosphere, and this is an attempt to distill some of my thoughts after reading this hefty work.

Really, Kittler would have served his readers better by putting the Afterword to the Second Printing up front, because it is only at the end, after meandering around lots of obscure (to me, anyway…) German lit references, that he really clarifies and explicitly states exactly what he means by the title:

The term discourse network…[designates]…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…became the condition of possibility for literary criticism.

…All libraries are discourse networks, but all discourse networks are not books. In the second industrial revolution, with its automation of the streams of information, the analysis of discourses has yet to exhaust the forms of knowledge and power. Archeologies 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.

Traditional literary criticism, probably because it originated in a particular practice of writing, has investigated everything about books except their data processing…Discourse analyses, by contrast, have to integrate into their materialism the standards of the second industrial revolution. An elementary datum is the fact that literature (whatever else it might mean to readers) processes, stores, and transmits data, and that such operations in the age-old medium of the alphabet have the same technical positivity as they do in computers…

What remains to be distinguished, therefore, are not emotional dispositions but systems. Information networks can be described only when they are contrasted with one another. The source, sender, channel, receiver, and drain streams of information, Shannon’s five functions, in other words, can be occupied or left vacant by various agents…Whether data, addresses, and commands circulate among pedagogy, Poetry, and philosophy, or among media technologies, psychophysics, and literature, the difference changes the place value of each word. (pp. 369-370)

So, from this a few things are clear. Kittler’s work centers on the question of literary criticism, how today (or, rather, since modernity…), criticism and analysis must account for systems — discourse networks — rather than simply the work-at-hand. As such, Kittler criticizes Foucault’s discourse analysis as centered on the book and the archive/library, which were made obsolescent once “data-processing methods destroyed the alphabetic storage and transmission monopoly” (p. 369). Kittler is examining the technologies of discourse, and how media shapes, and is shaped by, culture. Referring to Shannon, Kittler is placing cybernetics in the guiding principle behind this work, looking not just at, for example, the “book,” (or typewriter), not just at the production side of communication, but the “sender, channel, receiver” of it all. Communication, for Kittler, is about data, and how data flows, and is stored within, a system of discourse.

In that sense, for Kittler, the medium is very much the message.

His work begins at “1800,” a time when discourse networks were centered around orality. The pedagogy of the day was directed at and performed by mothers, as they introduced literacy to children through “ABC books,” books that contained a “phonetic method.” By stressing sounds before the alphabet, before reading, Kittler argues the discourse network of 1800 was primarily one of orality, one that “culminated in the description or prescription of a new body. This body has eyes and ears only in order to be a large mouth” (p. 33).

At the center of this discourse network was the book. In contrast to an earlier era, when manuscripts produced a “scribal” culture where only the privileged could write, the discourse network of 1800 was “a culture in which reading and writing were coupled and automatized. The purpose of this coupling was an alphabetization that connected reading and writing by linking both back to a singular kind of listening” (p. 108). In addition, books provided the “serial storage of serial data. They had been reproducible since Gutenberg, but they became material for understanding and fantasy only when alphabetization had become ingrained” (p. 116).

By “1900,” things have taken a much more systematic and mechanical turn, when the “alphabetization-made-flesh gave way to technological media” (pp. 177-178), epitomized by the image of “Nietzsche as typist.” Here, discourse moves from orality to spatiality and tactility: “In typewriting, spatiality determines not only the relations among signs but also their relation to the empty ground. Type hits paper, leaving an impression, or sometimes even a hole…the typewriting uses a blind, tactile power” (p. 195). Kittler notes with the advent of the typewriter, media becomes disconnected from meaning, a radical break from a network that produces “writing” to one that “writes writing”: “it is possible to inscribe more and different sorts of things than any voice has ever spoken…such notations have no purpose beyond notation itself” (p. 212). In a sense, Kittler, discussing the typewriter, anticipates computer animation, and what Lev Manovich calls “perfect vision” — the hyperreal computer-produced image (such as those in Jurrasic Park), which are completely synthetic and disconnected from human vision. For Kittler, the typewriter represents the automation, the mechanization, of human communication.

The technologies of this era, typewriter, gramophone, phonograph, film, enable data to be stored externally, outside the realm of writing. The discourse networks of 1900 represent a break, as the inscription “medium” becomes plural — writing moves from the sole permanent communicative form to one of several technologies. Communication, language, becomes mechanized, inscribed, stored, and transmitted over multiple media technologies, and multiple networks: “In the discourse network of 1900, discourse is produced by RANDOM GENERATORS. Psychotropics constructed such sources of noise; the new technological media stored their output” (p. 206).

The above reading, or recounting, of Kittler, as anyone who has read the book knows, leaves out much of his work (Freud, gender, etc). Again, the intention here is to read Kittler in terms of a theoretical approach to blogosphere.

To that end, then, what’s first noticed is his notion of orality as the center of the discourse network of 1800. I have previously written about what I call the “orality of blogging“; that is, a conceptualization of the blogosphere as a form of speech, rather than text. If we think of the blogosphere in terms of Ong’s notion of “secondary orality,” one can argue that what Kittler saw as a break, as the discourse networks of 1900 moved from orality to visuality and tactility, perhaps this break was not as sharp as he described. Or, perhaps we’ve arrived at another break, another shift in the discourse networks as the era of Web 2.0, the material conditions of today, the culture, the software, the social practices, have returned the emphasis on orality.

What’s might be more interesting, in terms of theory, is to contrast Kittler’s 1800 with Walter Ong’s study of Ramism. In his work titled Ramus, Method, and the decay of Dialogue, Ong examines the educational reforms of the Ramism movement, which emphasized dialectic (logic) over rhetoric, and the visual over the oral:

For at the heart of the Ramist enterprise is the drive to tie down words themselves, rather than other representations, in simple geometrical patterns. Words are believed to be recalcitrant insofar as they derive from a world of sound, voices, cries; the Ramist ambition is to neutralize this connection by processing what is of itself nonspatial in order to reduce it to space in the starkest way possible. The spatial processing of sound by means of the alphabet is not enough. (Ong, 1958, p. 89)

Ong found that with this pedagogical approach, by turning words into “things” that could be referenced (“look at page three, second paragraph”), Ramism set the stage for reading, and for the dominance of print and literacy: “The orator is perhaps not extinct, but he is now permanently eclipsed” (Ong, 1958, p. 314).

So how to account for this difference? Perhaps it’s geography, as Kittler was studying the pedagogy of Germany, which, while influenced by the 16th century Ramism movement, may have, by 1800, returned to orality. Or, perhaps is simply a matter of emphasis and perception — where Ong saw visuality, Kittler saw orality. In any case, the difference between these two is probably worth studying a bit closer.

Both the above two points, though, may be missing the more important connection between Kittler and the blogosphere, which is that, in many ways, the blogosphere is not all that new. This point addresses a criticism I’ve heard more than once, as I think there’s tendency, for whatever reason, for academics, when faced with something “new media,” to react by “proving” something is not new. And, to a certain extent, I would agree. As McLuhan has said, a “new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.” Blogs, for example, don’t replace books, just as books did not completely replace writing.

Kittler’s analysis addresses the “what’s new is not so new” about blogs in a fundamental way. As perhaps Kittler would say, the blog is a discourse network, but not all discourse networks are blogs. That is, if we view the blog as a system, as a particular instance of a network comprised of senders, receivers, data, and channels, we see that, structurally, the blog is a communicative system as any other. The blog is a “network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data.” The particulars may be different — we “comment” instead of “write.” We “post” instead of “publish.” But, in the overall sense of Kittler’s work, the blog is a discourse network. More importantly, the blog is mechanized, automated. The blog is a machine, a system with which we interact, one that disconnects storage with writing, and holds within that storage our speech, our orality.

So, I think we can trace some of the antecedents of the blog, through Kittler’s analysis, in two ways. First, the “orality of blogging,” the emphasis on speech in producing the kind of culture we see in the comments section of a blog, is something that was seen in the discourse networks of 1800, when sound came before alphabetization. Second, the notion of a discourse network, the confluence of media technologies and institutional, social, and cultural factors that constitute a communicative form, is very much present today in the blogosphere, as point of mediation that inscribes thoughts, personal expression, and knowledge, persisted in a database, and made accessible through the web.

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