University of Amsterdam, Tuesday 11 December 2012 “Discourse Network: 2000 – Reading (Around) Friedrich Kittler,”

Melle Jan Kromhout On Friedrich Kittler’s “Signal‐Rausch‐Abstand”
The article under discussion – “Signal‐Rausch‐Abstand” (Signal to Noise Ratio) was published in a book called Materialität Der Kommunikation, edited by Hans Gumbrecht & K. Ludwig Pfeiffer in 1988. In 1994 a similar volume by the same editors appeared in English under the title Materialities Of Communication. Although the English version is not the same as the German, its introduction by Pfeiffer gives a pretty concise account of what both volumes set out to do: “The main culprit […]” of the books “was, and to some extent is, the “privileging of the semantic dimension”. Cosmologies, philosophies of history, of ethnic, period, or natural spirits, and finally of communication, hermeneutic and otherwise, have been allies and successors in that privilege.” A few sentences later he specifies: “communication here is not supposed to connote understanding, coming to terms, mutuality, exchange. It unfolds an open dynamic of means and effects.” Those familiar with the work of Kittler will immediately understand why his work is included in a book launching such an attack on semantics, such a shift away from interpretation and hermeneutics and such a focus on materiality. The German and the English version of Materialität der Kommunikation/ Materialities of Communication contain two entirely different essays by Kittler. In German, there is the present article, “Signal‐Rausch‐Abstand,” in English, there is an article called “Unconditional Surrender” (on the unconditional surrender of Germany at the end of WWII). Significantly, the only overlap between the two pieces is a focus on self‐guided weapons towards the end. In “Signal‐Rausch‐Abstand”, this comes rather



technical systems are always self‐guided. machine‐ subject: self‐guiding and operating independent from human agency. and its theoretical complexity are way to vast to cover in a short presentation – not to mention some of its mathematical complexity. Although. on the other hand. both the scope of Kittler’s article. specifically in mathematician Claude Shannon’s 1948 Mathematical Theory of Communication (to which Kittler wrongly (but significantly) refers to as Mathematical   2 . I’ve tried my best to narrow it down.’ The phenomenon of noise and its fundamental position in information theory. Apologies beforehand if I’m too long. A few pages later. no materialities that are information or establish communication by themselves. and matter without information are inseparably connected. it is (or at least seems to be. Only Shannon and Turing […] calculated these systems through digitally to take the decisive step from radio waves and differential equations to the pulse technology of radar or to the algebra of computers. I quote from the concluding remarks of “Unconditional Surrender”: “The self‐guided weapons of World War II eliminated the two modern concepts of causality and subjectivity and introduced the present as the age of technical systems. […] Whether digital or analog. there is no meaning without physical support. ultimately. as I haven’t read the article thoroughly) a more logical continuation from the main topic of the article. in the case of “Unconditional Surrender”.” What becomes very clear from this quote is that. the topic of both these essays is the removal of the central position of human subjectivity and the development of a new. but.unexpected (since the rest of the essay does not explicitly deals with war or weaponry). which occasionally is sadly somewhat beyond my grasp – I will attempt to outline the most important elements of Kittler’s argument. “Signal‐Rausch‐Abstand” sets out with an explicit reference to the general theme of the book Materialität Der Kommunikation: on the one hand. Kittler therefor explains that ‘information without matter.

and lastly between messages on the   3 . Only at the very end becomes clear what Kittler set out to do all the while: showing how human subjectivity disappeared through the advances of technical media – after which one can start reading the essay once more. By taking up Norbert Wiener’s use of the Brownian movement in developing a ‘Linear Prediction Code’ (as Kittler calls it: the mathematization of chaos). Subsequently. modern times started with differentiation. he extends this analysis to technological media and the entertainment industry. the turns he takes in the text can be rather confusing and baffling: first. he ends up at the use of this code for air defence systems against Germany’s self‐guided weapons of World War II.Theory of Information) is crucial in Kittler’s understanding of the connection between materiality and communication. only to return to physics once more by explaining the importance of chaos and irregularity of the ‘Brownian Movement’ in modern physics. Taking this interconnection as its focal point. to start with the beginning: the telecommunication technology of the 19th and 20th century made Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalisation of communication possible. the ‘Signal to Noise Ratio’ – a mathematical tool calculating the ratio between noise and information in a given signal – is introduced as the key to assess the importance of this connection in a wide array of subjects. In this case differentiating between (types of) messages. as well as signal and noise. Next. he turns to the topic of German poetry. Since Kittler doesn’t bother to lay out what these are at the start of the essay. between interpretative meaning and statistical information. for him. Hence. he sets out by extensively explaining the importance of Shannon’s theory and some of the practical and theoretical consequences of its separation of message and meaning. Goethe and its exclusion of ‘noise’ (rather familiar grounds for readers of Discourse Networks 1800/1900). As Kittler often emphasises.

By doing this. indeed: noise).one hand and their material carriers on the other hand. the possibility least likely to occur – contains the maximum amount of information. This separation of statistical information and interpretative meaning is most significant for Kittler’s understanding of the importance of Shannon’s paper. accelerate the speed of the ‘control flow’ up to the speed of electricity or light. as Kittler calls it. This to be able to.   4 . What Shannon did in his famous paper was to reduce the problem of the transference of messages to a statistical one.’ no matter of what kind. and here Kittler’s own theoretical interest becomes apparent. signals imitate noise. just like random noise is distributed more or less equally over the entire frequency spectrum.” or: statistically. one could. For the matters at hand. however. the most significant consequence of Shannon’s reduction of the problem of communication to one of probability is that the highest rate of improbability – or. in other words. once it became immaterial. it becomes very hard to separate it from any random disturbance (or. the maximum of information is nothing but the highest statistical improbability. Kittler extends on this ‘similarity’ between signals and noise by explaining how the highest information‐rate occupies all the frequency‐bands available (“full bandwidth”). If. This prompts Kittler to conclude that “signals practice mimicry to disturbances. namely calculating the probability of a message arriving in good order at its destination. separate the “pure control flow” (Befehlsflüss ‐ the control over messages) from their content or meaning. as it reduces messages to mere statistics and gets rid of the necessity of dealing with meaning as such. thereby separating the meaning from said message from its formal being as nothing but the presence or absence of ‘information.

making it possible to manipulate noise‐levels. engineers treat signals as if they derive from not one. manipulate communication itself. is the “noise that all matter (or materiality) emits. Now. but two separate sources: a signal‐source and a noise‐source. separating information from the noise that necessarily occupies its material channels. the best example of such random noise is so‐called “thermal noise. explaining why Alan Turing. in which the latter tried to statistically recreate something resembling the English language. by means of a process called idealisation. the mathematician who stood at the birth of the computer. and matter without information are inseparably connected. again statistically.Furthermore.” which. Kittler illustrates this point by a writing experiment conducted by Shannon. the experiment produced rather   5 . First.” It is exactly this inseparable crosslinking of signal and noise on the one hand and noise and matter on the other hand from which Kittler concludes that ‘information without matter. as Kittler calls it. when heated.’ One could say it is noise which ties information to its materiality. Kittler starts making his move toward language and poetry (and therefor toward the territory he covers in Discourse Network 1800/1900). and central in his entire oeuvre) that ‘the experimental linking of information and noise’ made traditional discourse of secondary importance. concluded (according to Kittler) that natural sciences can be replaced by crypto‐analysis. With a reference to an unfinished text by Paul Valéry on – not very surprisingly – Faust and the devil (“who’s very elementary science was of course speech”) Kittler poses the central assumption (both central in this essay. and. The Signal‐to‐Noise‐Ratio calculates the amount of each of these two. by just randomly generating letters. thereby. as such. inseparable. After a short detour on encryption. interconnected parts of a signal (noise and signal).

unreadable chains of letters.” proved that letters can be treated in much the same way as numbers. nineteenth century poetry won’t allow for any noise. this experiment. In contrast. is able to calculate the entire spectrum of any   6 . communication is always “communication in the presence of noise. Or. denying its own materiality. it is not possible to separate the channel from the content. The Fourier analysis. or the operation from its elements. Human ears hear ‘sounds’ (and not individual frequencies) because our ears can’t differentiate above 60hz. suspending poetry and music. and secondly. however. or indeed: noise. For Kittler.” writes Kittler. the result of which.’ At approximately the same time that Goethe was called the Klängefänger (“sound catcher”).” Firstly. “Poetry. It thereby puts the signal to noise ratio at its very maximum. the system from its meaning. Jean‐Baptiste Fourier developed a method (the so‐called Fourier‐analysis) that made all physical signals – whether complex or not – quantifiable. constituted the mathematical return of this ‘old chaos.” Hence. But it became increasingly successful when the basic elements were already organised according to the probable occurrence of some letters. already resembles something like Finnigan’s Wake. “excommunicates inhuman sound in name of the articulate communication. because channels themselves always emit noise.” But media. In short: one can’t separate signal from noise. Eventually. That is to say: statistically. Shannon’s experiment produced English‐like words and sentences. as Kittler puts it: “Signals and noise can be defined numerically. since messages itself can be generated statistically as a selection (or filtering) out of noise. The “poetic function” exclusively aims at transferring signals and just signals. or meaning from words. he concludes with Shannon. which he calls an “attack on writers by noise. Kittler observes. With the medium of writing. Kittler explains. or small groups of letters.

whereas poetry. constitutes just an important and fundamental change in treatment of signals. with Robert Brown’s eighteenth century discovery of the phenomenon that came to carry his name: the Brownian movement – a spontaneous. the Fourier analysis. modern mathematics and physics made it possible to analyse and quantify every complex signal in its entirety. Kittler returns to what he set out at the beginning: materialities of communication. we return to physics and materiality. it is European art itself that perishes. dealing with signals in a fundamentally different ways. With a metaphor based on this ending of The Ring of the Nibelungs. argues Kittler. many application in future technological developments. For Kittler this is why “media replaced art”: the methods of art where surpassed by the scientific developments of media. as was the invention of the alphabet. for Kittler. Wotan’s two ravens. Goethe and Wagner. yes the “message” and noise coincide. Given it’s many. the mathematical prove of Brown’s observation. Götterdämmerung means materiality of communication and communication of matter. the transmission and emission of their tidings. do not speak and do not sing. after this detour along poetry and music. irregularity in all kinds of natural phenomena. the Gods and Walhalla are succumbed by flames. Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen was the first example of this practice: the first chords of the tetralogy approximate a Fourier‐analysis and the end ‘liquidates’ the Signal to Noise Ratio entirely (as the music “collapses” back into noise). in the second half of the 19th century. at the end of Götterdammerung. When.signal. made it possible to   7 . First. With their flight. unable to separate signals from meanings.” So. excluded all noise. “dark messengers or angels of media‐technologies. he writes. So. As he stretches in many articles. stochastic.

Norbert Wiener mathematized the Brownian movement in a way that could statistically predict its course: his Linear Prediction Code. but was driven by the necessity to predict where a bomb was most likely to hit.” The computer. Most importantly. this tele‐ communicational approach to the unconscious liquidizes the Imaginary. writes Kittler. Lacan’s Real. Kittler starts to reveal what it actually is that concerns him. Wiener developed the ‘Linear Prediction Code’ not for human communication. finally. surpasses the Imaginary – that most mysterious and most human of Lacan’s triptych – altogether. in the 20th century. which. Secondly. irregular movements.statistically represent this random noise of all matter. and his Symbolic is built on top of (or rather filtered out of) this noise. Tellingly. Whatever to make of this exactly. “Thirdly. Here. that enables the prediction of the future by the statistical exhaustion of possibilities.” Kittler concludes “only by means of psycho‐analysis all the strategic opportunities of a subject can be game‐theoretically calculated. the symbolic medium par excellence. random. as a function of “in advance”‐optical pattern recognition stipulated the philosophical concept of knowledge as a misjudgement. to be able to work with it. this comes with a reference to Lacanian psycho‐analysis: for Kittler. Through the use of the ‘Linear Prediction Code’ the allied were able to predict the future position of   8 . calculable through statistical probability (in a way not dissimilar to Shannon’s writing experiment). Consequently. both Shannon’s mathematics of signals and Wiener’s mathematics of noise return in Lacan’s structural psychoanalysis. but no less strategic subject: self‐guided weaponry. made it actually possible to predict unpredictable. that is to say: exhausted. is white noise. mathematicians began to formulise this irregularity and chaos itself. the shift toward the subject and subjectivity enables Kittler to make his final argumentative move: what can be calculated by computed mathematics is a different.

bombs. most importantly the computer – made human subjectivity an historical anomaly. exactly the transition described in this article is nicely summed up by Geoffrey Winthrop‐Young In Kittler and the Media: “This is maybe the shortest. Ever since its Greek origin. the burden of subjectivity has been lifted from our shoulders. After all. one can no longer be sure the addressee of these media is still called Human. Indeed. Notwithstanding all consumer marketing. introduced a new kind of subjectivity: that of self‐guided technology. Ever since its Romantic origin. the limits of poetry and hermeneutics have been crossed and media have been established.’ In the very last paragraph of the article. they could ‘minimize the effect of incomplete information’ (after all. Together with the operational limits of the systems of everyday speech. To quote Kittler at the end of his article: “In less than two hundred years. This interpretation cleansed the interior of all noise. The physical and mathematical formalisation of this relationship – and the consequential development of technical media. and. mathematical telecommunication made the Signal to Noise Ratio into a throughout manipulable variable. one does not know beforehand where a bomb is going to drop) or. which nevertheless never ceased not to cease in deliriums and wars. and   9 . Kittler sums up what he set out to do all along: to use the theme of the Signal to Noise Ratio to assess the inseparable relationship between materiality and communication. instead. poetry served to reduce a sonic chaos into writable and therefor articulable tones. Hermeneutics served to scientifically secure this reduction of complexity once more: by attributing to the addressee a poetic subject called Author.” In the end. most economic way to summarize the switch from the Discourse Network 1800 to 1900. automatic Weapons are subjects themselves. as Kittler calls it more poetically.Ever since noise in the interception of enemy signals is no longer confronted by means of the interpretation of articulated speech or tones. to minimize ‘the noise of the future.

  10 .then on to Discourse Network 2000 (a term Kittler hardly ever uses): from Geist to Rauschen.” And with this. I’d like to finish. from the guarantee of an always already meaningful world to an environment of meaningless noise that can at best be momentarily arranged into allegedly significant patterns. from philosophically promoted poetry and naturalized hermeneutics to stochastics and information theory.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful