I remain fascinated by the constant challenges human beings historically face when confronted with new means of expressing themselves through media. For Kittler, von Mücke, and Similon, what are at stake in these challenges? I’m also still interested on the topic of writing in response to orality, and then electronic media in response to writing. In this piece, those concerns appear again concerning issues of value:
Writing can store only writing, no more, no less. The holy books testify to this fact. The second book of Moses, chapter twenty, fixes a copy of what Jaweh originally had written with his own finger on two stone tablets: the law. Of the thunder and lightning, the dense cloud and very powerful trumpet that accompanied the writing-down on the holy mountain of Sinai, the Bible could store nothing but mere words (106).
With a striking end, and through the example of divine commandments, the authors aim in this passage to question that which is stored through the written word. For the authors, “writing can store only writing…” is not to say that ideas are corrupted when conveyed through words when written on a page, but is to say that even holy laws must (even taken as divine truths) instantiate themselves through writing. This does not remove their value, but instead, provides authority.
Thus, writing stores only the fact of its authorization. It celebrates the storing monopoly of the god who has invented it. And because this god rules over signs that are not meaningless only for readers, all books are books of the dead, like those from Egypt that stand at the beginning of literature. The realm of the dead beyond the senses to which they lure us coincides with the book itself. When Zeno asked the delphic oracle what was the best way to live, the answer he was given was: “‘To mate with the dead.’ Which he understood as the equivalent of to read the ancients” (107).
This authorization is essential to the valuation of writing, and it seeks to instantiate that value as it existed at that moment of authorization. If “To mate with the dead” is indeed to “read the ancients,” then humanity has surely placed a great amount of value on its own writing, to go so far as to say that our greatest connection to our ancestors must be to read their writing.
Taken as a form of media, I’m well aware of this challenge posed by the written word. This claim to authority is why I often find myself struggling to write: it forces me to act not only with certainty of what I believe to be true, but also with certainty of my own worth, and the worth of what I have to say on the written page.
To interact with the dead through reading written works is certainly valuable. It preserves ideas once held in the minds of great thinkers into the minds of current producers of thought.
However, for the authors, this interaction has become unobtainable as of 1987:
Electricity itself has brought this to an end. If memories and dreams, the dead and the specters have become technically reproducible, then the hallucinatory power of reading and writing has become obsolete. Our realm of the dead is no longer in books, where it was for such a long time. No longer is it the case that “only through writing will the dead remain in the memory of the living,” as Diodor of Sicily once wrote (110).
This is beneficial. We broaden our horizons through electronic media, and the history of our ancestors becomes available to us through new means. In 1987 those means existed in response to written media. Today, new means of communication exist in response to those responses and the media instantiated through them.
When writing seemed to some as though it would be replaced by television and radio, and that we would lose sight of all the dead experienced, the decades which followed showed what I perceive to be the opposite. Never before has humanity been so in touch with its predecessors, and as a resource, electronic media deserves some thanks.