Reality, Representations, and the Nature of Media

The moment – the choke-on-your-coffee-and-snort-it-through-your-nose moment – snuck up on me unexpectedly. On the very last page of Friedrich Kittler's 263-page philosophical history on media development. I didn't see it coming. I don't think Kittler did either, despite his retrospectively quite adequate (perhaps too adequate) prediction from 15 or so years ago. But, let me share – just make sure you're not drinking any hot beverages. Kittler declares that

"Of all long-distance connections on this planet today, from phone services to microwave radio, 0.1 percent flow through the transmission, storage, and decoding machines of the National Security Agency (NSA) … By its own account, the NSA has 'accelerated' the 'advent of the computer age,' and hence the end of history, like nothing else. …the NSA is preparing for the future." (263)

It might be an overstatement to refer to "the end of history," although Kittler did just finish discussing the prevalence and popularity of 'spy novels' following a World War II incident in which information was leaked to Moscow. But perhaps 'the end of history' simply refers to a situation in which history has come full circle, and we start again. And end up in Moscow. At the airport.

And yet, this all-too-fitting reminiscence of very recent political events functions as an almost perfect thematic summary – perhaps even a metonymy – for the nature of Kittler's book as a whole. We're once again back at the beginning, using the examples of the gramophone, film, and the typewriter as mere synecdoches for the larger philosophical questions yet to be answered. Once again, it seems to me, we are generally talking about questions of representation, representability, and the creation of meaning – this time just on different examples. Early in his introduction, Kittler claims that "Media define what really is" (3). Really? Doesn't 'really being' also imply 'being real'? And if media is really real, then is the real real anymore? Or, is it, as Kittler later claims about the formation of meaning in sound, rather the case that "hallucinations become real" (37), meaning that the hallucinatory becomes reality, and reality hallucinatory?

Please excuse my excursion into Heideggerian wordplay (yes, our good old friend also makes his appearance in Kittler's book), but, if the real is reality, it really is, then we find ourselves in the paradox that the real cannot be representational, while simultaneously being (real) in a representational form. Since 'representation' means to be 'present' again ("re-"), it is, and in its being ("Dasein") it is therefore real. So, if what makes the 'real' real is its presence, then 'reality' is the state of being present – whether it be present again or for the first time. So, then, to use Salomo Friedlaender's short story as an example (quoted in Kittler), the artificially reconstructed larynx of Goethe is just as real as Goethe himself – perhaps even 'realier', since the reconstruction is present, and Goethe's own larynx has probably decayed by now (please excuse my morbidity here). Therefore, Goethe is sur-real in comparison to his representations, meaning, "above" the real, or "in addition to" to the real, which then makes him more real? Am I the only one whose head is starting to spin?

But, Kittler goes on. He claims that "[f]rom sound back to poem, from poem back to soul – that is the impossible desire to reduce the real (the physiology of a voice) to the symbolic, and the symbolic (an articulated speech) to the imaginary" (82-83). Uh-huh. That makes things clearer – not. So, what is real (at least in terms of the synecdochal gramophone) is the "physiology of a voice" – it's presence in a living body. Goethe is dead. We therefore reduce his reality (the presence of his voice) to the words on the page in a poetic work of his, which then, in turn, becomes revived in our imagination as we read it (remember: we're hallucinating here!). But, hold on a second. Haven't we already established that hallucinations become real through our ascription of meaning to symbols? So, is our representation of Goethe then less real or 'realier' than the real thing?

Before I throw the hopelessly gendered, albeit less phallic-shaped, tool I'm writing on against the wall in desperation, let me quickly ponder on the idea of "film" as representative of reality – or, perhaps, as more real than reality? I find it interesting how Kittler cites Doppelgänger films as "magnify[ing] the unconscious in mobile mirrors; they double doubling itself" (155, emphasis my own). So, in essence, they're a representation (in the sense of being present again) of another representation of the real (whatever that is). Now, think about reality television shows. Do they double reality? They are scripted, but designed to create the illusion of being real. So, then, does this creation of reality as it represents reality make what is more real than fictional shows? With this, I drop the microphone (figuratively speaking) and leave the stage.

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