Driving the Spirit out of the Humanities

Computers, Brains, and Kittler

In recent years I have come to think of myself simply as a philosopher who, nevertheless, is keenly interested in the reality of things, as opposed to a philosopher who reflects on reflection, as it were. (Kittler in Armitage, 2006, pp. 17–38)

An intriguing quotation by the late Friedrich Kittler (1943–2011), an influential German scholar of media studies. His significant work centred around the concepts of “discourse networks”, a rather poor translation of the German term he used, i.e. “Aufschreibesysteme”, better translated as “notation systems”, the way we make records of data, whether in wax and clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, manuscripts (codices), printed books, phonographic records, film, or digital files. In other words, how we communicate when using technology.

Friedrich Kittler (Source: Alamy)

Beyond the purely technical aspects, Kittler defined discourse networks as “the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store and process relevant data” (Winthrop-Young, 2011). So the term “discourse networks” embraces these aspects as well, so this English translation is not so bad.

In his significant works, he meticulously describes the technology behind these systems and their cultural influences. We learn about codes, language code, Morse code, binary codes, amplitude modulation and frequency modulation, the Shannon-Weaver model of information transfer, yet strangely enough for Kittler, the bucket stops at the front door of the sensory organs of living things.

From the moment the patterns of light, as they enter the brain through the eye, acoustic vibrations as they come through the ear, or as touch (pressure), taste and smell (chemical information) reach the brain, the debate about what happens with all those excitations ends for Kittler, relegated to a black box called consciousness, spirit or soul. And yet, it is precisely the analogue and parallel processing power of the brain, followed by a course of action, which is the most important, and the most exciting part, of the information processing capacity of living things. Even this description is far too simplistic because, as Spivey (2007) says,

Actions take place over time and they continuously alter the stimulus environment, which in turn continuously alters mental activity, which is continuously expressing and revising its inclinations to action.

So there is a continuous loop whereby data input continuously modifies the output action, which in turn, alters what and how data is received and how it is processed, changing its output.

Going back to the Kittler’s epigraph, he declares that he is interested in the reality of things as opposed to a philosopher who reflects (only) on reflection, as it were. We understand what he means. But isn’t any reflection on representation by a philosopher, not a reality as well? What are the billions of excited neurones, the “chips” of the brain, embedded in a soup of neurotransmitters, continually exchanging information in distinct circuitries? Triggering actions of the muscular system through the pyramidal neuronal system, causing our endowed philosopher to turn a page, answer a phone call, take notes, pat the dog, and code and recode meanings gathered from the book? Our philosopher and his thoughts are as real as Kittler’s transistors or chip-based codes, enigma machines, or his favourite V2 rockets.

What shines through is the notorious German, disembodied, Hegelian spirit, whereby what goes on in the mind has nothing to do with the brain and is only accessible either via catholic confessionals or later by the use of Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalysis. Occasionally Kittler snubs on what goes on in the wet stuff up there. In Weinberger’s interview (2012), for example, he says, “I am always shocked by the way this is done in the United States when folks in the humanities sex up some neurophysiological finding, which is then all the rage for half a year.” Or further down he says, “Take the ongoing attempts to use the human brain as a point of departure for constructing the world. To me that’s nonsense. I believe that human brains only exist within language.”

Is he reducing the function of the brain to language?

We know more about these mechanisms today. The term ‘brain’ is in itself already limiting. The brain is only one part of a complex nervous system with multiple nodes distributed throughout the human body, organised in definable sub-networks, supported by the endocrine system modifying its activities. Language is only a tiny part of the output of the central nervous system. Fortunately, most of the information processing in the human brain happens unconsciously. Otherwise, a piano player would have a hard time to press “consciously” the right key at the right time.

So even though Kittler didn’t shy away from dabbling in computer code to understand digital technology better, he failed to do the same for the ‘wet’ computational apparatus, our brains and the central nervous system.

I would argue that although he tried to drive the spirit out of the humanities (Weinberger, 2012), he didn’t succeed that well. However, it does not diminish Kittler’s role and importance by pointing the finger to some critical questions.

The gap between the techno/biological and the communicational aspects as they present themselves in media culture still requires exploration. Recent insights in cognitive science and neuroscience, communication studies, media ecology, evolutionary psychology, complex systems theory, cybernetics, critical theory, linguistics and semiotics, and of course philosophy itself show despite all complexity and divergence, a unified theory of communication and consciousness may be possible, at least within particular cultural and neuroscientific boundaries.


Armitage, J. (2006). From discourse networks to cultural mathematics: An interview with Friedrich A. Kittler. Theory, Culture & Society 23 (7–8): 17–38. Retrieved from http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/23/7-8/17

Spivey, M. (2007). The continuity of mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weinberger, C. (2012). The cold model of structure: Friedrich Kittler interviewed by Christoph Weinberger. Cultural Politics, 8, 3–375- 384. DOI: 10.1215/17432197–1722109

Winthrop-Young, G. (2011). Kittler and the media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.