Christensen: The Digital Passengers Find Themselves in a “Raum ohne Passagiere” (Session 10)

The following is an attempt to summarize some of the moves of this wonderful, wide-ranging chapter.

At the close of the final chapter, the reader finds herself in the elemental space of the waves. But this is no sailing trip from Spain to the New World. Instead, we are navigating in a world after Eccles’ and Jordan’s flip-flop, which made its debut in 1918. In this epistemic order, human subjects are “legible as functions of signal-processing instruments, machines, and codes” (416). In this “calculating space,” the smooth and the striated collapse in on each other; “im electronischen Zeitalter wird das Zählen und der Raum aus demselben Medium ereignet, das durch eine leichte Modification entweder zum Raum wird oder zum Schreiber” (417).

The central figure of this chapter, which eventually places the reader in “calculating space,” is a familiar one: the relay. Here a rather different history and theory emerges from that traced in the earlier text Relais. Geschicke der Literatur als Epoche der Post, one that is less concerned with the relays of the postal system (though the history told here still centrally involves the telegraph, of course). In this book, the relay begins with the late-in-life musings of Julius Robert Mayer.

Mayer’s articulation of the First Law of thermodynamics emphasized the interconvertibility of heat and motion. More generally, all of the various expressions of the Law of Energy Conservation emphasized just that, conservation and equivalence: “double-entry bookkeeping become ontology” (370). Later in life, however, Mayer considered a rather different situation, one where the magnitude of cause and effect did not appear to be in balance. The tiny, even “vanishingly small” impulse needed to fire a weapon did not appear to equal the explosion that followed (372-373). Mayer called the relationship between “vanishingly small” cause and much larger effect an Auslösung – a trigger or release. The historian of technology Hugo Theodor Horwitz gave this “physics of Auslösung” a new name: the relay principle. In the case of telegraphy, the relay principle meant that energy did not have to be sent along the line each time with the signal; instead, “the only work that the signal must execute along the line is to actuate the relay, thereby triggering the arbitrarily large energy of the battery” (373). This development in the history of the telegraph represented nothing less than the differentiation (Ausdifferenzierung) of information and energy.

The relay goes through a number of mechanical, mathematical, and philosophical permutations over the course of the remainder of the text. From the relay, a theory of signs emerges (see: Nietzsche’s interest in Mayer) in which words and actions are no longer thought to stand in a relationship of straightforward cause and effect, but rather one of triggers and inductions (“Auslösungen und Induktionen”) (383). Meanwhile, the differentiation of the sign into information and energy leads to the discovery that the word is nothing more than a “Kommandowort,” a military order (380), and thus, according to Siegert, a new order of things emerges, a control-dispositif of operationally closed systems (384).

The perfection of such an operationally closed system would entail the minimization of the energy necessary to send a signal, something that became possible with the massless switch of the electronic relay and the cathode ray tube. Finally (skipping over much highly interesting material), we find ourselves at Eccles’ and Jordan’s flip-flop relay. By arranging two vaccuum tubes together, one bit of memory (1 or 0) was produced. The new binary logic of counting (1 – 1 + 1 – 1) that electronic doors (406), the flip-flop relay (404-407), and the thyratron (407-414) inaugurate must be viewed, according to Siegert, as one of the “Ereignisse, in denen sich Brüche der Geschichte der Kulturtechniken spiegeln und neuerlich brechen” (415). The mathematical, political, and aesthetic are inextricably interwoven in such techniques and ruptures, as the various sections of this chapter illustrate. The relay demands its own techniques of mathesis and graphé, political orders, and metaphysics.

This final chapter points us forward and backward in Bernhard Siegert’s work. We loop back to the topos of the Relais, find ourselves in the midst of a Lacanian logic of the door, and learn that we are no longer (or not yet) in the waters of Passagiere und Papiere.

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