David Wellbery – Post-Hermeneutic Criticism

Foreword to Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900 S. xi-xvi

Kittler’s work cannot be classified as Derridean, Foucauldian, or Lacanian; rather, it grounds itself on what might be termed the joint achievement of the three. Perhaps this is the major methodological innovation of Kittler’s book. By eliciting from the divergent elaborations of post-structuralist thought a collective epistemological apparatus, Kittler establishes a positive research program for a post-hermeneutic criticism.

The first component of this program–the premise that determines its overall perspective–might be termed the “presupposition of exteriority.” The task of Kittler’s critical investigation, in other words, is not to reabsorb the scattered utterances and inscriptions of the past into an inwardness that would endow them with meaning, be this inwardness the reflexivity of the subject as in Romantic hermeneutics or the reflexivity of language itself as in Gadamer. Rather, he practices what Foucault, in an early essay on Maurice Blanchot, called the “thinking of the outside,” the thinking of language as a domain recalcitrant to internalization. Later in his career, Foucault named this domain “discourse” and set out to develop a lexicon of exteriority–series, event, discontinuity, materiality– with which to describe it. Kittler’s discourse analysis follows the Foucauldian lead in that it seeks to delineate the apparatuses of power, storage, transmission, training, reproduction, and so forth that make up the conditions of factual discursive occurrences. The object of study is not what is said or written but the fact – the brute and often brutal fact–that it is said, that this and not rather something else is inscribed.

Inscription, in its contingent facticity and exteriority, is the irreducible given of Kittler’s analysis, as the original German title of his book– Aufschreibesysteme–makes evident. That title, a neologism invented by Dr. Schreber, can be most literally translated as “systems of writing down” or “notation systems.” It refers to a level of material deployment that is prior to questions of meaning. At stake here are the constraints that select an array of marks from the noisy reservoir of all possible written constellations, paths and media of transmission, or mechanisms of memory. A notation system or, as we have chosen to translate, a discourse network has the exterior character–the outsideness–of a technology. In Kittler’s view, such technologies are not mere instruments with which “man” produces his meanings; they cannot be grounded in a philosophical anthropology. Rather, they set the framework within which something like “meaning,” indeed, something like “man,” become possible at all.

Writing (or arche-writing) as the condition of possibility of metaphysical conceptuality: this, of course, is a major tenet of Derrida’s work. In Lacan, the cognate notion is that our existence is a function of our relation to the signifier. Kittler concretizes this post-structuralist theme by situating his analysis not at the level of writing or the signifier in general, but rather at the level of the historically specific machineries–scriptural and otherwise–that in their various arrangements organize information processing. His post-hermeneutic criticism, in other words, renders explicit and productive the tendency toward a radical historicism that is in fact immanent to the work of all the post-structuralist thinkers. To be sure, this historicism is no longer the narrative of a subject–a hero of knowledge, labor, or liberty–in the manner of the master plots of modernity; nor is it a particularist anamnesis of the lived past such as the socalled new historicism pursues. Like Foucault’s, Kittler’s historiography has a systematic thrust, tends toward the delineation of types. These types, denoted simply by the dates 1800 and 1900, are the discourse networks – the linkages of power, technologies, signifying marks, and bodies–that have orchestrated European culture for the past two hundred years.

The presupposition of exteriority, I claimed, determines the overall perspective of Kittler’s post-hermeneutic criticism. The field within which that criticism operates, its domain of inquiry, is carved out by a second major premise, which I shall call the “presupposition of mediality.” Here too Kittler develops insights that emerged within post-structuralism, for instance, in the investigations of the cinematic apparatus carried out by Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry, investigations themselves strongly influenced by the Lacanian notion of the unconscious as a machine. Of course, the studies of Metz and Baudry are concerned with the medium of film alone, and it is principally in the area of film studies that, in both Europe and the United States, the concept of medium is broadly employed. The decisive methodological step undertaken by Kittler is to generalize the concept of medium, to apply it to all domains of cultural exchange. Whatever the historical field we are dealing with, in Kittler’s view, we are dealing with media as determined by the technological possibilities of the epoch in question. Mediality is the general condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like “poetry” or “literature” can take shape. Post-hermeneutic literary history (or criticism), therefore, becomes a sub-branch of media studies.

This reclassification of literary criticism necessarily elicits a rethinking of its object of study. First and most obviously, if literature is medially constituted–that is, if it is a means for the processing, storage, and transmission of data–then its character will change historically according to the material and technical resources at its disposal. And it will likewise change historically according to the alternative medial possibilities with which it competes. In this regard, too, Kittler’s work leads to a radical historicism that finally dissolves the universality of the concept of literature. Moreover, this dissolution does not bear merely on distant epochs such as the medieval period, where the question of orality versus literacy has long been a focus of research. It operates in our own historical backyard, severing, as Kittler shows, Romantic “poetry” (produced under the monopoly of print and universal alphabetization) from modern “literature” (where writing enters into competition with the technical media of phonograph and film). From this perspective, the typewriter, still a component of our historical a priori, can be seen to initiate a fundamental mutation in the mode of existence of language.

But the notion of mediality recasts our notion of literature in another sense. As soon as we conceive of literature as medially instantiated, then we must view its meaning as the product of a selection and rarefaction. All media of transmission require a material channel, and the characteristic of every material channel is that, beyond – and, as it were, against – the information it carries, it produces noise and nonsense. What we call literature, in other words, stands in an essential (and again, historically variable) relation to a non-meaning, which it must exclude. It is defined not by what it means, but by the difference between meaning and nonmeaning, information and noise, that its medial possibilities set into place. This difference, obviously, is inaccessible to hermeneutics. It is the privileged locus, however, of post-hermeneutic thought.

A criticism oriented by the presuppositions of exteriority and mediality has no place for creative human subjects, allows no room to psychology and its internalizations, refuses to anchor itself in a notion of universal human being. This non-anthropological bent of Kittler’s work will seem disturbing to many readers of the book, who will rightly ask: What is the interest that motivates this critical enterprise? Where are its bonds of solidarity? An answer to these questions, I believe, is implied by the third premise of post-hermeneutic criticism, the premise that defines not its analytical perspective (exteriority), nor its domain of study (mediality), but rather its point of reference and focus of concern. I call this premise the “presupposition of corporeality.”

The reason that the concept of corporeality defines the point of reference for post-hermeneutic criticism is clear. The body is the site upon which the various technologies of our culture inscribe themselves, the connecting link to which and from which our medial means of processing, storage, and transmission run. Indeed, in its nervous system, the body itself is a medial apparatus and an elaborate technology. But it is also radically historical in the sense that it is shaped and reshaped by the networks to which it is conjoined. The forerunner of this thinking in terms of corporeality, of course, is Nietzsche, whose philosophy follows, as he put it, the body’s guiding thread and whose aesthetics, as he often insisted, is a physiology. Among the post-structuralists, Foucault cleaves most closely to this aspect of the Nietzschean program, especially in his work on the history of punishment and on sexuality. But in Lacan, too, for whom subject formation takes place at the intersection of the body and the sign)fier, and in Derrida, whose reading of Freud focuses on the question of intra-psychic inscription, the theme of corporeality is insistent. One widespread reading of post- structuralism claims that it eliminates the concept of the subject. It would be more accurate to say that it replaces that concept with that of the body, a transformation which disperses (bodies are multiple), complexifies (bodies are layered systems), and historicizes (bodies are finite and contingent products) subjectivity rather than exchanging it for a simple absence.

The presupposition of corporeality has two major methodological consequences for post-hermeneutic criticism. The first is that the question of agency recedes into the background. The body is not first and foremost an agent or actor, and in order to become one it must suffer a restriction of its possibilities: the attribution of agency is a reduction of complexity. As a result, culture is no longer viewed as a drama in which actors carry out their various projects. Rather, the focus of analysis shifts to the processes that make that drama possible: to the writing of the script, the rehearsals and memorizations, the orders that emanate from the directorial authority. This (in my view) important conceptual shift can be formulated somewhat less metaphorically as follows: post-hermeneutic criticism replaces the foundational notion of praxis (the materialist version of subjective agency) with that of training. Culture is just that: the regimen that bodies pass through; the reduction of randomness, impulse, forgetfulness; the domestication of an animal, as Nietzsche claimed, to the point where it can make, and hold to, a promise.

The second methodological consequence of the presupposition of corporeality is that the sufferance of the body, its essential pathos, becomes a privileged locus for the analysis of discourse networks in terms of both their systematic character and their effectivity. In other words, the point at which discourse networks reveal most sharply their specific impress is in the pathologies they produce. Just as post-hermeneutic criticism focuses on the difference between information and noise, sense and nonsense, that defines every medium, so too it attends to the difference between normal behavior and aberrance (including madness) that lends every cultural formation its identity. The victims who people Kittler’s book–the Bettinas, the Gunderodes, the Nietzsches, the Schrebers–speak the truth of the culture they suffer. Whoever would look for the bonds of solidarity that orient Kittler’s investigation will find them here: in its unmistakable compassion for the pathos of the body in pain. Hermeneutics would appropriate this corporeal singularity in the construction of a meaning. Post-hermeneutic criticism, however, draws its responsibility precisely from the unassimilable otherness of the singular and mortal body. This is the ethical reason it stops making sense.

2 comments

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  2. New here, from Toronto, Canada

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    Mike

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