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  Friedrich Kittler

  [ Entrevistado por José Bragança de Miranda]

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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. The emergence 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.

J.B.M. - 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 asymmetrical culture?

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.
But the 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 perception?

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.