Kromhout: An attempt to sketch the main themes and ideas (session 1)

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 representationIndeed, 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.


11 thoughts on “Kromhout: An attempt to sketch the main themes and ideas (session 1)”

  1. A note for the last two paragraphs of Melle from Agamben’s Potentialities, where he discusses about Es gibt (“there is”). It reads in page 133 as following:

    “This impossibility of grasping the Es itself in the propositions Es gibt Zeit and Es gibt Sein becomes transparent if one recalls that the imper­sonal pronoun es is originally a genitive (the genitive of er, hence es ist Zeit, ich bin’s zufrieden, etc.). Over time, the genitive es in expressions of this kind ceased to be perceived as such and became equivalent to a nom­inative in linguistic use. An analogous process lies at the origin of the Ital­ian impersonal pronoun si (in the phrase “it is said,” si dice, or in si fa), which represents a dative or an accusative (the Latin sibi, se). A pronoun that, as genitive, indicates a predication of belonging, the being proper of something to something else, becomes a subject in a verbal syntagma that therefore appears as impersonal. If es is a genitive and not a nominative, it is possible to understand why Heidegger, attempting to consider the es of es gibt Zeit, es gibt Sein, was obliged to grasp it as an Ereignis, as an ap­propriation and an ac-customing. In Ereignis, time and Being belong to each other; they appropriate each other. But to whom and to what? As es and as genitive, Ereignis does not exist and does not give itself; like the Italian si, es does not exist as a lexical entity.
    The thought that wants to think the Proper (like the thought that wants to think *se) cannot lead to any lexical entity or existing thing. In­sofar as it is itself what destines, the Proper, the ethos of humankind, re­mains unnamed in philosophy. Unnamed, it is thus without destiny: an
    untransmissible transmission.”

    My intention is not to bring Heidegger into scene but to give a hint about the implicit connotation, to my mind, which heavily underscores the Vorwort. In page 17 Siegert writes: “The technical media are grounded in withdrawal of the ground.” Thus, the unrepresentable comes into the Open. The Riβ does not happen in somewhere over the clouds but happens as the materialization of the technical images. Technical/Electronical images are the in-between of 0 and 1. In page 9, Siegert writes “But between 0 and 1 ‘there is’ -gibt es- no time. Thus there is -es gibt- the World of symbolic. It is the withdrawal of the Real, through which the symbolic is.” I would like to suggest that 0 and 1 are the Real. They are there, as being coded on the electrical (on cables, metals etc.) hardware. But the “symbolic” is the passage from 0 to 1 or vice versa. Between on and off, ab and zu , Siegert tells, the inner time gets operationalised. He calls this the hindrance, another name for Derrida’s differance. Then, what is at stake is the transmission or the passage between the two, like life in between existence and death. In Es gibt, we see the passage between 0 and 1. Maybe we can call this passage their co-belonging. To my mind, this is what Siegert calls the eintritt of the Symbolic. But eintritt of the symbolic comes into being as, in or through the Real. In page 11, Siegert writes: “The point is that, on the one hand, to think of the beginning of the electrical media as a historical beginning, and on the other hand as a groundless that is opposite to the moment of a permanently postponed origin’s beginning. ” (apologies for the bad translation…) So, what is put in the beginning (passage from 0 to 1) is the beginning itself. It is repetition in the medium or the mimetic aspect of the beginning to begin in/as the medium. What came to my mind from this passage is the following: The technical media media are coming into existence in their permanent postpone, that is in their permanent passage from 0 to 1. Thus, the passage is what happens in real. Though we tend to think of this passage as a trick of the software, it is what Really happens, it is the hardware. It is the happening of Real as passage in the medium which is itself a “codified” material. To come back to quote from Agamben; medium (he would call it the pure medium, or medium as such: Language) is the untransmissible transmission, unpassable passage.

    I would like to pose a question that also makes me think of: If the technical/electrical medium is, as Siegert calls it, the permanent postponement of the beginning, then is there a difference between language as such and the technical media with respect to their “functioning”?



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    1. I am interested in the degree of action in the objects in Siegert’s book.
      According to me Siegert does not indicate the semiotics, but shows how objects, like the Doomsday Book, specifically operate in particular situations.
      Siegert mentioned Latour in the preface, and I believe he (at least partly) sympathizes with Latour’s Actor Network Theory, as his first epistemological premise corresponds to a Latourian position:

      ‘Es geht nicht um Semiotik, sondern um Kulturtechniken des Schreibens, Lesens, Zeichens, und Zählens.’ (14)

      That is, he doesn’t depart from the representation of the sign to the outside world or the context of the sign, but from the actions the techniques perform. As Latour states in ‘Reassembling the social’: Action should remain a surprise, a mediation, an event. (45) This action is not reserved to humans only; it involves non-humans as well.
      So Latour can be traced in the distinction between an active and a passive notion of media. This distinction returns in Siegert’s analysis of the Doomsday Book.

      Samet’s question was ‘is there a difference between language as such and the technical media with respect to their “functioning”?’ Based on my conception of Latour, and the first chapter, my answer would be: yes, at least according to Siegert there is. The quality of the action of the media does not reside in their semiotics/meaning but in their actions. As Siegert states,

      ‘In Medium der inquisition transzendiert Schrift die Metaphysik ihres eigenen Ursprungs, indem sie Dinge und Ereignisse speichert, die nicht aus dem Logos ableitbar sind wie der Satz des Pythagoras oder die christlichen Dogmen. […] Man muß die Ordnung der Dinge darauf zurückführen, daß der Doomsday-Diskurs – bzw. der Diskurs der mittelalterlichen inquisition überhaupt – nicht underscheidet zwischen „Gültigkeit“ und „Existenz“.’ (31)

      The Doomsday Book recorded possessions that did not necessarily exist as well as the presence of absent possessions, and immortalized them. So there is a certain incommensurability, at least between language in action (Logos: reasoning) and media in action, which Latour has localized as well (by which means he criticizes the sociology of the social). I believe this difference furthermore indicates the special relation the (technical) media have to the temporal domain. Is this an (one) answer to your question or did I answer a similar, but different question?

      Might perhaps Siegert’s ‘Medium’ refer, in one way or another, to Latour’s mediator?

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      1. Thanks for this comment, Nina! I’m no expert on Latour, but just as a complementary quote from Siegert. In the Introduction he specifically writes about a “Zeichenpraktik”:

        „Das, was Signifikanten leisten, bedeuten und sein können, [ist] abhängig […] von einer zeichenproduzierenden und -transformierenden Aktivität.”

        And he subsequently mentions Latour’s ‘Drawing Things Together,’ taking “drei epistemologische Prämissen” from it:

        “1.Es geht nicht um Semiotik, sondern um Kulturtechniken des Schreibens, Lesens, Zeichnens und Zählens.

        2.Zeichen sind keine idealen Objekte, sondern ausgedehnte Dinge; sie gehören zur Welt der res extensa und nehmen deswegen einen Platz ein. Die Welt der Symbolischen ist die Welt der Maschinen – wobei diese auch aus Papier sein können.

        3.Zeichenpraktiken sind mit jeweils besonderen institutionell definierten Raumen verknüpft, bestimmten wie „Semiotopen,“ wie man sagen könnte: das Büro, das Schiff, das Atelier, das Labor, die Akademie usw.”

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      2. Nina, I think the nod to Latour is intriguing and seems to fit well with (if not necessarily give rise to) medium-centric writings on media.

        Somewhat related, I heard Bruno Latour speak over the weekend on increasing our sensitivity–an idea which was a little hazy in his talk but I think can be traced to his work on “matters of concern” (rather than “matters of fact”) in the past decade. I wonder whether an emphasis on dualities (0 and 1, ab und zu, etc.) begins to foreclose the possibility of enhanced “sensitivity”? Of course, that sensitivity can be manifest digitally: for example, an instrument could be made to respond to a finer gradation of inputs (and thus turn “on”), or any number of other possibilities. But on some level, it seems like an overemphasis on the (proto)digital mediality of things suggests a brute dichotomy that doesn’t always conform to lived (perceived?) realities.

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  2. Wow, Samet, although I’m struggling to grasp the lengthy Agamben-quotes, it does add a lot to the understanding of the complexities of this “es gibt.”

    I also like your observation that the symbolic is located in the ‘non’-time or ‘zero’-time between 1 and 0. But I’m not entirely sure, though, whether I completely agree that “0 and 1 are the Real.” You say that “the hindrance, another name for Derrida’s differance” is located there and that “the passage is what happens in real.” After all, its own withdrawal is the very essence of the Real and the Symbolic is build on top of, or filtered out of it. Hence, doesn’t it make more sense to say the they Symbolic ordering of 1 and 0 with a “zero time” in between is a Symbolic abstraction of the actual, but non-representable, passage that happens betwéén 1 and 0, of the analog moment within the digital? Of the hindrance that constitutes its very existence?

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  3. I probably should have posted this question on this thread rather on the other, but on inscription: Why use a term like graphé? Is this to embrace other media (phonography, photography, etc.) beyond writing or to draw something from (Greek) antiquity into the present?

    Or something else?

    As for that opening passage, can it be read as “it is given” in the way that, say, a math proof would be written? Or even more generally.


    1. Both, the original title of the book was “Mathesis und Graphé. Graphé refers to the Zeichenpraktiken, to the diagrammatical logic of writing rather than to the written content.

      “Es gibt. Es gibt eine Schaltung – ein einfaches Relais. Das Relais: es gibt eine Null, es gint eine Eins.” This is a maybe misleading, Heideggerian phrasing. I read this as the relais, when set to work, “produces” Ones and Zeros, or the Symbolic. There is nothing like Ones and Zeros in the world, in the Real, but only things/beings and events – a relais and the flow of electricity. The electrical current, when exceeding or falling below a certain threshold, causes the relais to switch states. So while the Real (the current) is an analog signal, a continuous function in time, the resulting Symbolic (the state of the relais) is a discrete signal, in the case of the digital or binary, a “blinking” signal. The relais “gives” or “represents” (if I may say so) the passage of the current over or under the threshold at “a given time”. That’s why the term “data” is also etymologically “the given”—it’s a state of the Real registered at a certain time, thus transformed into the timeless domain of the Symbolic. So other than a mathematical prove the graphemisms of the signal relate the timeless Symbolic to the temporal Real.

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  4. I have been wondering about the Graphé as well. I think both your suggestions make sense, but I also think it is a term from Dérrida, which makes sense given his reference to On Grammatology. This is, however, not necessarily my forte, so it would be nice if someone else could clarify a bit more.

    As for the “it is given”: I have a feeling (both based on Dutch and on my knowlegde of German) this is not entirely off, but I guess it requires a native speaker or German expert to know whether that could indeed be the case or not…!


  5. For me, the idea of the graphé relates to a general trend in recent German media theory: the notion that communication media should be envisaged more as technologies for recording and registering than for the communication of meaning. Media are technologies for the inscription of the real in technical apparatuses. In fact, this is explicitly suggested by the use of the typically kittlerian expression “Aufschreibesysteme” in page 14. Media are essentially “notation systems”. This is also not distant from Flusser’s idea of the technical apparatus as the material realisation of a scientific code or program (pro-gram) (see, for instance, Für eine Philosophie der Photographie). To be sure, Derrida is clearly and explicitly implied in the idea, since the origin of the subject (and metaphysics) is connected to an act of essential writing or inscription not unlike the notion of program – equally present in Cybernetics (Cf. De la Gramatologie, p. 19).

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    1. Erick, interesting thoughts here, pulling Kittler, Flusser and Derrida together into a conversation. I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with a term like “inscription” (though I use it a lot myself–probably too much). It’s a term that makes a lot of sense for so much of what Derrida writes about and also most of the Aufschreibesystem 1900 (most prominently gramophone, film, typewriter).

      But as someone deeply invested in sound, I find it harder to think of tape or many digital formats as being “inscribed.” CDs/DVDs, sure. Digital sound files more generally (i.e., on a computer or mp3 player), not so sure. Photography (and by extension, film), again, not so sure. I’m willing to be convinced but it seems like media may not always be just Aufschreibesysteme (discourse networks, notation systems, inscription apparatuses, however we translate that).

      I find it even harder to buy into Graphé wholeheartedly in the context of Siegert because of his fantastic writings elsewhere on “cultural techniques” (Kulturtechniken) like doors. If doors are a form of medium (though perhaps that’s a misreading), Graphé seems like it poorly captures the richness of such an idea.

      In any case, it will be interesting to see how these threads emerge through this book. What is a medium, for Siegert? How does it relate to Kulturtechniken (and maybe a broad notion of technologies in general)? What kind of relations emerge between writing (Graphé, graphein, aufschreiben, inscription) and the digital?

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      1. Although I completely understand your hesitation about “graphé” (and your enthusiasm about Kulturtechniken), I do think it’s good to point out that Siegert specifically refers to the materiality of signs: “Zeichen sind keine idealen Objekte, sondern ausgedehnte Dinge; sie gehören zur Welt der res extensa und nehmen deswegen einen Platz ein.” Hence, he is explicitly emphasizing the material, inscribed existence of any sign, be it analog or digital (or maybe even more so: the inscription is always only the analog basis of the digital). “Der Begriff der Zeichenpraktik impliziert jedoch, daß das, was Signifikanten leisten, bedeuten und sein können, abhängig ist von einer zeichenproduzierenden und -transformierenden Aktivität.” The concept of “cultural techniques,” obviously, is much broader. Sign practices, as the material inscription of signs, prior to their symbolic significance, is but one example.


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