The introduction to Passage des Digitalen gives, in only eleven pages, a good taste of the scope and complexity of the book. I quickly came to the conclusion that any honest attempt to adequately summarize shatters on the sheer density of the argument and the richness of the material. Nonetheless, I would like to kick off our blog with an attempt to outline what I think are the main themes and threads in the book as introduced in the Vorwort. I identified four:
- Firstly, the “specific figure of a ‘beginning’ of electrical (electromagnetic, electronic) media.”
- Secondly, a discourse analysis of “sign practices” [Zeichenpraktiken].
- Thirdly, a history of (mathematical) analysis.
- Fourthly, the identification of a rupture, rift, crack or break [ein Riβ] in the classical representational order of writing.
Furthermore, two figures or tropes constitute a conceptual undercurrent throughout these four themes: the idea of the digital (which “infinitely blinks in our world”) and the continuous presence of the sea. On a metaphorical level, the connection between these two becomes clear when Siegert, in the penultimate paragraph of the Vorwort, summarizes his project as an account of how “the elementary space of the sea has become the elementary space of digital media.” This transition from the continuous noise of the sea toward the continuous blinking of the digital is also where Siegert’s analysis of an emergent concept of the unconscious comes in.
Obviously, these four themes and two undercurrents are intimately interwoven and any clear-cut separation would defeat the whole purpose of the book’s larger narrative. Schematically, however, their interconnection could be summarized as follows:
The book aims to uncover the “specific figure of a ‘beginning’ [notably a verb, MK] of electrical media” as both a “historical” beginning and a beginning “without an origin.” In explaining these two ideas of a ‘beginning,’ Siegert stresses that “the digital and the analog are not episodes in a history of media, but, instead, the technical media are an episode of the digital and the analog, of the era of graphé.” Studying this larger “era of graphé” – of inscription – requires a study of sign practices.
More specifically, it means studying “sign practices that go beyond the speakable,” such as lists, tables, coordinates and mathematical notation: signs practices that are used to map and order things in the world. Judged by the table of content and reading Die Rede der Hirten und Pächter, these kinds of practices take up the first section of the book. Most importantly, however, the last item of the list is “the graphé of events that write themselves down, which are implemented in the Real of technical media.” This shows that Siegert’s study of sign practices is ultimately concerned with the gradual development of those specific technologies that are governed by signals they are able to write down themselves, as such practices enabled “the release/liberation [Freisetzung] of electrical media.”
This discourse analysis of sign practices leads to the broader narrative of a history of analysis: the story of “the appearance of modern analysis as a universal order(ing) of knowledge and a real practice of data-storage.” The first part of the book, again, deals with the ‘great bureaucracy’ made up by practices such as lists, tables and coordinates; practices that aimed to describe and analyze the world in full. In contrast, part two and three, roughly from Leibniz onward, deal with the development of a modern analysis, which is, in exact opposition to its classical predecessor, concerned with things that fundamentally cannot be described as such: “the non-calculable/computable [Nichtberechenbares], the non-representable, what exceeds the limits of calculation.”
This transition from the first (classical) to the second (modern) type of analysis, finally reveals what Siegert describes as a rupture, rift, crack or break [ein Riβ] in the order of classical analysis. An order that was based on the representational ability of writing as a means to fully disclose the nature and order of things. Modern analysis constitutes the mirror image of this ideal. It is a “a deterritorialised analysis” based on “deterritorialised sign-practices” that triggered a “drift of the non-representational.” It ultimately caused a complete “removal of ground/reason [Grund].” Therefore, since Euler, Siegert writes, analysis became “a practice that bases its productivity on its own continuous deconstruction” in which “representability [Darstellbarkeit] is no longer given, but has to be proven.” It is, I think, this description of an epistemic break in the representational order of writing, that Siegert ultimately aims for: a description of how the “abysmal realm of the non-analytical,” the loss of a believe in firm ground and reason, “releases the passage of the digital and opens up a space for technical media.” Technical media are the product of the Riβ in the idea of representation. Indeed, like a closed circuit, this brings us back to those ‘originless beginning’ of electrical media.
In the end, Siegert wants to show how, instead of a recent episode in the history of technical media, the digital has always been part of the analog and vice versa; how both are tied up in a larger history of graphé, of inscription. The book starts with the very contradiction that lies at the heart of it: two words, “there is” (also, in an all too literal, but not insignificant translation “it gives”), anticipate Leibniz’ mysterious statement “a thing is, is not.” Throughout the Vorwort, this digital logic appears over and over again in the form of on and off, ab und zu, make and break, fort und da, plus and minus, zero and one, negative and positive, electricity and magnetism. The digital blinks. It ends as soon as it starts. It is present in its absence. It is exactly this fundamentally contradictory aspect of the Symbolic that is introduced in the first part of the book proper, Die Rede der Hirten und Pächter. By means of tables meant for the systematic counting of everything, it became suddenly possible for things to not be. Something only is insofar as it is at a place where it could also not be. Ein ding ist, ist nicht. And so it begins.