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Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet (Till A.




Till A. Heilmann
Institute for Media Studies
University of Basel
Paper presented at
Media Transatlantic
Vancouver, 8 April 2010

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There are good reasons (both historical and systematical) to assume that writing is the single
most important object of media studies.
In its narrow, traditional sense, writing was the first medium that allowed human culture to
store, transmit and process data. And since its beginnings over 3000 years ago, it has been the
basis for every complex form of social organization and technology. Writing in a more general
sense is, as Derridas analyses have shown, the precondition of all signification. It is also (and
always will be) the only way to mediate languagethat which most decidedly sets man apart
from all other known beings and thingsin a lasting, symbolic form.
Among all historical manifestations of writing, the script of the Greek alphabet is considered
by many to be the exemplary, if not perfect, case of a notational system designed to represent
language. Scholars such as Harold Innis, Eric A. Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Derrick
de Kerckhove, Vilm Flusser, and Friedrich Kittler have described the alphabet as particularly
efficient1, historically unique2, the means of creating civilized man3, Western worlds first
brainframe4, a code of pure, conceptual thinking5, and the foundation of occidental culture6.
This paper examines Innis and Kittlers assessment of the Greek alphabet. While Innis and
Kittler are founders of two quite distinct fields in communication and media studies (the
Toronto School of communication theory and German discourse analysis of technical media), the
alphabet is the central element in eithers theoretical and historical framework. Reviewing and
contrasting their arguments, I will try to highlight some important similarities as well as the
crucial differences in Innis and Kittlers approaches to the Greek alphabet.



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In communication and media studies, Innis is best known, of course, for his concept of time- and
space-binding media, which he elaborated in several lectures and articles and his principal
monograph on the subject titled Empire and communications (1950). The systematic coupling
of the two fundamental dimensions (time and space) with the materiality of media allows Innis
to distinguish between technologies that emphasize either storage (transport through time) or
transmission (transport through space) of information. Reliance on one sort of technology will
lead to a communicative imbalance and a monopoly of knowledge that will ultimately destroy the
respective regime.
This distinction can and has been applied by Innis and others following him to all kinds of
information and communication technology, from cuneiform writing to the printing press to
radio, television, and the Internet. It seems obvious, though, that Innis designed his concept
first and foremost to distinguish different types of writing technology. Almost all the examples
he gives and the cases he studies are instruments of the written word: media such as stone, clay,
papyrus, parchment, or paper and writing systems such as cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and the
alphabet. Notable exceptions are film and radio but, as far as I can see, Innis says very little or

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Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet (Till A. Heilmann)


nothing at all about technologies like photography, telegraphy, phonograpy, or telephony. His
focus on technologies of writing is apparent, for example, in the introduction to Empire and
communications where Innis deals exclusively with media of writing.
My thesis is that the concept of time- and space-binding media is based not, as it might seem,
on the distinction between durable and portable writing material but is in fact derived from
another distinction: the one between oral and literal tradition, the difference between the
spoken and the written word. And it is the difference between the spoken and the written word
that helps explain Innis appreciation of Greek culture and the Greek alphabet, not some
material aspect of alphabetic writing. I will try to show this refering to Innis (to my knowledge)
earliest text on the history of communication: Minervas Owl, a lecture given in 1947.
In Minervas Owl, Innis takes the same macro-historical perspective on empires and
communications as he does in his following studies. But most of his later key terms and concepts
are missing: Not once does he use the words time-bias or space-bias. Neither does he use the
categories of time or space in a systematic way to describe the success or failure of empires.
Related distinctions like centralized and decentralized structure or religion and administration
are also not mentioned. Innis main argument about the dynamics of competing media and
monopolies of communication is plainly there. The competition, however, is not (yet) between
time- and space-binding media. What matters is not (yet) the materiality of writing but the
complexity of its code.7 Complex writing systems like the Egyptian hieroglyphic script require
highly trained scribes and lead to rigid grapholects far removed from the vernacular form.
In Minervas Owl, this is the exemplary case of monopolies of knowledge or, as Innis
sometimes calls them, monopolies in language8. They occur whenever large parts of society
cannot participate in public discourse because the dominant media of communication remain
the exclusive property of an elite thus becoming instruments of power and control. In this early
formulation of his communications theory, Innis academic background in economics is most
clearly visible. In the same way as economic monopolies hamper the competition for goods and
services, monopolies in language interfere with the competition of ideas and opinion making.
[Justice Holmes] stated that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted
in the competition of the market without appreciating that monopoly and oligopoly appear in
this as in other markets.9
The antidote to a discourse monopolized through the regime of a complex writing system is
the flexibility of the spoken word. In writing, the flexibility of oral communication can only be
preserved by a simple code that adapts well to the vernacular. For Innis, the paradigmatic case of
such a code is the Greek alphabet and that is why his investigation of ancient Greece is the
pivotal element in his understanding of media in general. In all his studies of epochs and
empires, Innis always concentrates on competing media of writing: stone and papyrus in Egypt,
stone and clay in Babylonia, papyrus and parchment in the Byzantine Empire, and so on. The
one exception is ancient Greece where Innis deals only with the interplay of the spoken and the
written word.
The greatness of Greek culture, according to Innis, was due to the power and vitality of the
spoken word: Greece had the advantage of a strong oral tradition10; Richness of the oral
tradition made for a flexible civilization11; Ionian culture reflected the contact of a vigorous race
with the earlier rich Minoan civilization and the emergence of a potent oral tradition.12; The
significance of the oral tradition was shown in the position of the assembly, the rise of
democracy, the drama, the dialogues of Plato, and the speeches including the funeral speech of
Pericles in the writings of Thucydides.13 The Greek oral tradition could rise to the highest
reaches of cultural expression only because it commanded a suitable system of writing: The
Greeks took over the alphabet [from the Phoenicians; T.A.H.] and made it a flexible instrument
suited to the demands of a flexible oral tradition by the creation of words.14
The difference between oral and literal tradition, I would like to argue, is the conceptual
nucleus of Innis future distinction between time- and space-bias. It is not that speech is one

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Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet (Till A. Heilmann)


case of time-biased media and writing is either time- or space-biased, depending on the material
and code. It is the other way around: Speaking and hearing are the principles of
time-orientation, whereas writing and reading are the principles of space-orientation. Many of
Innis key distinctions related to the time- and space-bias correspond to qualities commonly
associated with oral and literal tradition. The spoken word is affiliated with time, continuity,
dialogue, decentralization, hierarchy, spiritualism, and collectivism, while the written word is
affiliated with space, discontinuity, monologue, centralization, democracy, materialism, and
Since Innis stressed the need for a balance between the time- and space-orientation of a
culture, one has to ask how this idea of balance applies to the dynamics of the spoken and the
written word in ancient Greek civilization? As we have seen, only a writing system that adapts
well to the vernacular can prevent the emergence of a monopoly in language with all its cultural
consequences. In Empire and communications, Innis describes the unique characteristics of the
Greek alphabet in more detail. Unlike all other writing systems, the alphabet maps spoken
language on the elementary linguistic level: It marks down phonemes, the smallest distinctive
sounds of spoken language. Distinctiveness was combined with simplicity of form. Sounds of
human speech were analysed into primary elements each represented by a separate visual
symbol.15 In contrast to the complex codes of Egyptian or Sumerian script, the Greek alphabet
is a flexible, simplified type of writing for efficient representation of sounds characterized
by its adaptability to languages.16
For Innis, the Greek alphabet is such a outstanding writing system because its own forms
withdraw completely behind the forms of spoken language. As a medium, it is perfectly
transparent to its content. Alphabetic writing erases itself, as it were, in favor of the voice it
carries. Its success is the success with which writing linked the written to the spoken word.17
Writing is most effective when its own materiality is least manifest. Therefore, at the level of the
fundamental distinction between the spoken and the written word there is no balance of
competing media. Instead, there is the primacy of the voice.
Innis view of language and writing in general and the alphabet in particular is clearly
phonocentric, as Derrida would have called it. And he never made a secret of it, as his texts are
full of unambiguous remarks. In his talk at the 1948 Conference of Commonwealth Universities
he declared: My bias is with the oral tradition, particularly as reflected in Greek civilization, and
with the necessity of recapturing something of its spirit.18 In the introduction to Empire and
communications he points out the derivative character of writing: [W]riting as compared to
speaking involves an impression at the second remove and reading an impression at the third
remove. The voice of a second-rate person is more impressive than the published opinion of
superior ability.19 Throughout the book he stresses the powerful tradition of orality, its
freshness and elasticity and warns of writings dead hand that threatens the spirit of
Western man.20 Finally, in the preface to Bias of Communication he reminds his readers: The
letter killeth and the concern has been with the diverse means by which different types of letters
bring about their deadly results.21

Kittlers occupation with the Greek alphabet is complicated by the fact that his professional
attitudes and premises have changed over time. His academic development has convincingly
been described as a gradual shift in disciplines roughly coinciding with his moving from one
university to another:22 from literary studies in Freiburg to media studies in Bochum to a
German style graecophilic cultural studies (Kulturwissenschaft in the singular) in Berlin.
Another way would be to emphasize the changes in Kittlers methodological approach to one
and the same object, i.e. the diversity of media forming the technological infrastructure of mind
and culture. One could then distinguish between these three phases: 1. a historical one,

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comprising Kittlers early work on the Age of Goethe, culminating in his analysis of the Discourse
Networks 1800 / 1900 (1985); 2. a systematical one, following the publication of Gramophone,
Film, Typewriter (1986), dealing primarily with so-called technical media and digital computers;
3. an ontological one, beginning around 2000 with Kittlers project of a comprehensive
occidental cultural history, laid out in several articles and the first two volumes of his opus
magnum Musik und Mathematik (Music and Mathematics, 2006 and 2009). It is important to
note, however, that these shifts do not imply a simple replacement of the earlier perspective by
the later. Instead, the new perspective complements, incorporates, and subtly alters the old one.
Therefore, the systematical phaseusually identified with Kittlers turn to media studies
properis also deeply historical but in a slightly different way than before. And Kittlers recent
ontological thinking is informed by both the historical and systematical frameworks of his earlier
work but, again, reformulates some fundamental theoretical assumptions and concepts.23
The changes in Kittlers perspective on media are also apparent through the shifts in his
leading authorities: The main point of reference during his predominantly historical phase is
Michel Foucault, as Kittler tries to ground Foucaults discourse analysis in a thorough
examination of the materialities of communication. The retrospective systematizing of media
history in his second phase is guided mainly by the definite and therefore, allegedly, historically
unsurpassable mathematical models of information and computation presented by Claude
Shannon and Alan Turing. Finally, Kittlers ontological rewriting of European cultural history
owes primarily to Martin Heideggers later philosophy and his idea of a history of being
The Greek alphabet features right at the beginning of Kittlers seminal study on the Discourse
Networks 1800 / 1900. In the Prelude in the Theater, Kittler describes Doktor Fausts tests
and efforts to insert Man into the empty slots of an obsolete discourse network, i.e. the old
Republic of Scholars.24 After having failed with a reading of Nostradamus autograph
manuscript first and of unsayable magic ideograms and Hebrew letters next,25 Faust finally
turns to a book composed of quite ordinary Greek letters: the New Testament.26 Instead of
further testing the roles of producing author and consuming reader, Faust switches to the role of
Man as hermeneutic interpreter. He sets out to translate the Gospel of John, first chapter, first
verse: : In the beginning was the Word / Mind / Force / Act. Thus, the
Greek alphabet marks the starting point for Fausts grand project of free translation and writing,
establishing a new discourse network that seeks to turn human beings for the first time into
human beings:27 the academic freedom of universities granted by the state.28
The investigations in Discourse Networks are concerned with what Kittler calls the
materiality of language.29 Around 1800 the alphabet operates as a medium that ensures, as
demonstrated by Fausts act, effortless translation and interpretation of material signifiersi.e.
lettersas pure signifieds. Meaning is the general equivalent to enable large scale circulation of
written texts in society,30 and creative imagination as the wonderful sense that can replace all
our senses31 trades the written letter for hallucination and phantasmagoria. Thus, in the
Discourse Network 1800 poetry becomes the first modern medium in accordance with
McLuhans definition: It is a medium containing other media, namely voice, sound, and image.32
The object of Kittlers analysis is this new status of letters and books.33 Kittler is not
interested in the alphabet as such but in particular discursive practices and institutions. At this
stage of his work, he is not looking for a distinctive logic inherent in the alphabet but tries to
identify the rules governing the production, distribution, and consumtion of discourse through
the alphabet. In the case of the Discourse Network 1800, the main regulating factor is a certain
way of teaching and learning how to read and write. Educational measures aim at naturalizing
and individualizing the alphabets technicity.34 Only perfectly alphabetized bodies make written
texts completely consumable.35 Kittler hence concludes: The revolution of the European
alphabet was its oralization.36 If it were only for the alphabets logic as such, the Discourse
Network 1800 would have been with us since the invention of the Greek alphabet around 800

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BC. In his Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900, Kittler regards the monopoly of writing not as a
simple structural condition resulting from the absence of other media like photography,
telegraphy, or phonography but as a historical construction brought about by specific
procedures at a specific moment in time.37
Already in Kittlers subsequent book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter from 1986, there is a
small but significant shift. Now alphabetical writing holds (or held) a monopoly simply because it
is (or for centuries was) old Europes only storage technology.38 In his second phase of work,
Kittler concentrates much more on technical measures and devices than on heterogenous
network[s] of technologies and institutions.39 Media studies as the rightful heir to Foucauldian
discourse analysis is about media technologies, about storage, transmission, and processing of
information. And the question is all about what code supports what medium.40 Kittlers
analytical method of choice is no longer the juxtaposition of two discourse networks. Instead, he
carries out an orderly comparison and classification of the varying technical capacities for
information handling throughout history from the invention of writing to the advent of digital
computing. The historical regulations and procedures that dictate the production, distribution,
and consumtion of discourse, Kittler supplants by the systematic trinity of storage, transmission,
and processing.
As a consequence of studying communication systems as information systems,41 writing and
the alphabet are assigned new places in Kittlers historical and theoretical framework. The
medium of writing in its most general sense coincides with two of the three basic functions of
media: storage and transmission; and its predominant European codethe alphabetis
regarded as the determinant of what information can be stored and transmitted: everyday
language exclusively in symbolic form.
In stark contrast to this, Kittler puts so-called technical media. Analog technologies like
phonography and cinematography expand information handling beyond the symbolic into the
domains of the real and the imaginary, while digital technology supplements and supersedes the
functions of storage and transmission by automated information processing. Accordingly, Kittler
sees history as an evolution of media technology rather than as a succession of discourse
networks. Retracing the emergence of modern information theory by following the decoupling
of interaction and communication, and [] of communication and information,42 he divides
history into two large parts: a first one, dominated by writing and its mechanization, and a
second one, characterized by multiple analog media and a single, integrating digital medium. As
a result of this, the historical uniqueness of writing and the alphabetin Kittlers previous work
an effect of the Discourse Network 1800has become the immemorial43 or age-old monopoly
of writing44, spanning from ancient times to the industrial revolution. The monopoly ended only
when technical media bypass[ed] the written word for the first time and achieved
[i]nformation rates which exceeded all performance limits of writing.45
This recount of media history is, I would say, a lot less surprising and extravagant than
Kittlers earlier discourse analytical reconstruction. His assessment of the Greek alphabet is also
quite conventional, if not orthodox. He notes that the alphabet was developed in the course of
commercial and translation intercourse with semitic consonant scripts and, refering to
Havelock, claims its success was due to the unambiguity of its phoneme allocation and the
minimised the effort required for literacy.46 More unusual and interesting, though, is the new
duality replacing the old dichotomy of Discourse Networks 1800 and 1900: alphabet and
computer. In this polar relation, digital technology is not simplyas analog media arewritings
other. In historical perspective, alphabet and computer seem to be technologys opposing
endpoints. Systematically, however, they mark a major meeting point of media technology. For
Kittler, computers are nothing but an ingenious implementation of the discrete symbolic regime
that was first realized with the alphabet: Digital technology functions like an alphabet but on a
numerical basis.47 The digital computer, modelled by Turing after the most simplified
typewriter imaginable, reduces the alphabets twentysomething distinctive letters to the

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elementary distinction of only two different states. Hence, Kittler comes to see media history as
a recursive process, in which the same fundamental logic of data processing undergoes several
escalating transformations until it reaches its final, unsurpassable form. This is what Kittler
means when he argues that with digital computers the history of communication technologies
will literally come to an end.48
In Kittlers third, his current phase of work, things get even more basicor simplistic, if you
Around 2000 Kittler started his latest undertaking: to give a complete account of European
cultural history from its beginnings in ancient Greece up to the present day. This is the topic of
his ambitious four-part, eight-volume book titled Musik und Mathematik, which concentrates
on the interrelated development of music and mathematics. To date, only the first two volumes
covering the Greek period have been published. In his approach and method, Kittler follows
Heideggers ontological thinking. Reinterpreting or updating Heidegger, Kittler reads cultural
history as a history of being (Seinsgeschichte), in which enowning events (Ereignisse) are
marked by the appearance of epoch-making technologies. Historys fundamental
Medienereignis or media event was the invention of the Greek alphabet. On this technology,
the culture of ancient Greek civilizationand in consequence of all Europe and the Occidentis
based: [T]he Greek vowel alphabet [] remains the unique and datable founding event of our
unique culture. Ever since, it does not stop being called up again in ever new recursions.49 Now,
one particular writing system is thought to be the ground and recurring cause of all Occidental
thinking, including its, in Kittlers mind, unfortunate early aberrations and fallacies in the wake
of Socratic and Platonic philosophy. Therefore, media studies is charged with the
straightforward duty of revealing the letter as a medium behind the veils called substance and
form, ore and image, mat(t)er and semen.50 The ontological shift in Kittlers approach to media
alters the status of the alphabet once again. This change becomes apparent, above all, in its
relation to literature and to the world as a whole.
Identifying the beginnings of the Greek alphabet (the when, the where, the how and the why)
is, as is often the case with technological inventions in Kittlers work, rather straightforward. The
chronology in the appendix of the second volume of Musik und Mathematik gives the following
dates: 1498 [BC] while searching in vain for his sister Europa, Cadmus follows a cow to her
sleeping place where he founds Thebes and brings Phoenician letters to the Achaeans of
Boeotia"; 815 [BC] Homer sings the Iliad; 800 [BC] Homer dictates the ILIAD to an adapter
who devises the Greek vowel alphabet on Euboea".51 The origin of the new writing system is a
simple and certain fact: There is the Iliad, there is the Odyssey. They have been with us in their
wording since forever. [] The sense of being lies in that there is Being. [] The singer sings [
S]omeone writes it down. Thats it.52 In accordance with Barry Powells controversial thesis,
Kittler claims that the Greek alphabet was invented only to write down the songs of Homer. The
crucial step in the development of the alphabet, i.e. the addition of vowel letters to the Northern
Syrian consonantal writing system, occured for the exclusive purpose of transmitting the
oral-musical Iliad and Odyssey down to the present age.53
With consonant and vowel letters, the logic of writing switched from encoding meaningful
units of languageas do semasiographic, logographic, and to some extent even syllabographic
signsto meaningless elements of speech. For the first time, Kittler claims, a notational system
could fully record the sound of speech by representing all individual phonemes in a given
language. Whereas in his first and second phase of work, Kittler analysed alphabetic writing as a
symbolic technology enabling interpretation and (potentially) inducing hallucination, he now
focuses solely on the alphabet as a medium of sensual experience:
[I]t is not the meaning of signs to make any sense, they are there to sharpen our senses rather than
ensnare them in definitions. It is not the meaning of media to transmit meaning; rather, they are to
pass on to the senses of others what would otherwise fade away in the present[.]54

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This notion of media, of course, entails a realignment of alphabet and literature. Remember that
in Discourse Networks literature and poetry in a narrow sense were made possible only through
alphabetization and oralization by way of the phonetic method around 1800. Now, the invention
of the alphabet simply coincides with the existence of literature. In the introduction to their
edited volume Die Geburt des Vokalalphabets aus dem Geist der Poesie (The Birth of the Vowel
Alphabet from the Spirit of Poetry) from 2006 Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst note: Under the
conditions of the vowel alphabet, literature and poetry are no longer simply a by-product or
misuse of the alphabet but its genuine essence, indeed its very condition of being.55
More important still is the fact that the Greek alphabet was the firstand in a way remains the
singleuniversal medium. Although they were originally devised to signify speech sounds only,
the letters of the alphabet could eventually also stand for numbers and for musical notes.
Recursive recoding of the character set (from consonants to vowels, from sounds of song and
speech to numbers and musical notes) brought about a technology that for the first time in the
history of being revealed what Kittler calls the essential unity of writing, number, image and
tone.56 In Pre-Socratic times, poetry, mathematics, and music were not separate arts or
disciplines but different aspects of the same holistic episteme structured by alphabetic writing.
And philosophy had not yet degenerated to a thinking of abstract sense as in Platos theory of
Ideas but was still concerned with beings manifest to the senses.
Kittlers favorite example for this is the lyre. Musical intervals like octave, fifth, and fourth can
be described by ratios of even and odd numbers (2:1, 3:2 and 4:3) and, by implication, be written
down with alphabetic letters, for example: in the case of the fourth. Pythagorean
philosophers called these ratios or intervals . So, unlike the later Aristotelian , these
do not mean abstract arguments or definitions but give instructions to produce harmonies
which in turn make being manifest to the senses. Such manifestness appears to be the only
meaning of meaning, that is, the only meaning that logos can take on under computerized
The monopoly of the alphabetfirst a discursive construction around 1800, then a structural
condition of the overall media systemhas turned into an ontological primacy. In this third
phase of his work, Kittler sees the Greek alphabet as the first medium that unites all senses and
thus holds together being and thought. The Greeks, and they alone, had with their alphabet a
medium that made true the logos in its very gathering or joining.58 Through multiple recursions
and over the course of more than two millenia, alphabetic technology finally leads to digital
computers. According to Kittler, these machines mark the return of the unity of being and
thought that was ancient Greece. The binary code as the ultimate recursion on the Greek
alphabet can produce numbers as well as writing, images, and sounds. In the Greek alphabet
our senses were presentand thanks to Turing they are so once again.59 After ages of futile
metaphysical thinking and disjoined domains of knowledge, logic is not only implemented in a
universal code but also in a universal medium: [O]ntology or the logos of Being, has
materialized in computing machines.60

Innis and Kittlers recent works have a lot in common (and the same could also be said of their
academic biographies).
First, there is the impressive scope of their projects and their ambitious goal: Both tell grand
narratives. Following the development of dominant media technologies, they try to write a
complete history of the Western world from ancient times to the present day. It is not surprising,
then, that in an interview in 2006 Kittler explicitly refered to Innis pioneering work as the
inspiration for his own cultural history:
[A]s a model for myself, I knew there was only Harold Innis who had given a truly imperial series of
lectures at the Imperial College London in 1950 [actually the Beit lectures at Oxford from 1948 resulting

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in the publication of Empire and communications in 1950; T.A.H.] which he began with the old
Egyptians and Babylonians and, historically perfect, covered all the facts, at least the ones concerning
writing and written communication and correspondence.6 1

Secondly, both authors reserve a special place in the history of mankind for ancient Greece (at
least the early periods), which, in their mind, marked the pinnacle of occidental culture. Both
attribute this cultural triumphalbeit in different waysto the workings of the Greek alphabet,
a writing system they both hold to be unique. The continuity from Innis to Kittler is strongest in
this issue. For both, the alphabet is not just any medium, not one among others, but the single
one around which their whole respective theoretical frameworks are built. The alphabet is a
singularity. A bit like the giant black hole at the center of our galaxy, it holds everything together
but does not obey the same laws as everything around it.62
But at the same time, the alphabet also makes the biggest difference between Innis and
Kittlers approach to media. This difference is maybe best described by what German
philosopher Sybille Krmer has called the Scylla and Charybdis of media theory:63 the
opposition of media marginalism and media generativism, i.e. the notions that media are either
indifferent means of communication or mediation, or that they are autonomous forces
fabricating and shaping that which they communicate and fabricate. When dealing with the
Greek alphabet, Innis is clearly a media marginalist. The alphabet is the only writing system that
can truly represent the spoken word. It is the perfect instrument of oral tradition, lending itself
completely to this content. At the center of Innis theory of media, therefore, we find not media
but immediacy: the immediacy of the voice and of the alphabet as its transparent medium.
Kittler, on the other hand, is a strange kind of media generativist. His cultural history appears as
a recursive process of revealing being, driven by ever new and escalating recodings of alphabetic
technology: Greek consonant and vowel letters brought about poetry, mathematics, and music,
later on algebra and cryptography, and finally digital computing. The alphabet is the great
generator of things, emancipating itself, step by step, from human beings and speech untilin its
binary formit runs all by itself in Turings universal machine.
The difference between Innis marginalism and Kittlers generativism is most clearly visible in
their respective analyses of the decline of Greek culture. For Innis, the decline set in when too
much emphasis was put on the written word and Greek culture began to rely on the literal
tradition only. In philosophy, this shift is exemplified by the work of Aristotle: He marked the
change from oral instruction to the habit of reading. The immortal inconclusiveness of Plato was
no longer possible with the emphasis on writing. [] The scholar became concerned with the
conservation and clarification of the treasures of a civilization which had passed. Minervas owl
was in full flight.64 For Kittler, it is quite the opposite: [I]t is utter nonsensethough one that
media theory unfortunately keeps copying from Innis and McLuhanthat Greek culture was
destroyed by writing as such (rather than four to five centuries later by Socrates and his ilk,
including Aristotle).65 It is not that Greek culture put too much emphasis on writing, on the
contrary: too little. The decline of Greekand with it all occidentalthinking is the forgetting of
being (Heideggers Seinsvergessenheit), more precisely: the forgetting of the medium or
technology of being, i.e. of the alphabet. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle cut off logic from
alphabetic technology so that logic became a matter of abstract reasoning detached from the
reality of things. What is, is alphabetic. This, only this, metaphysics forgets.66
Both Innis marginalism and Kittlers generativism paradoxically work towards the same goal.
Whether the medium alphabet vanishes behind the spoken word or whether it reveals being as a
whole, its effects are totalboth in its negativity and its positivity. Coming back to the analogy of
the black hole: It captures everything that comes into its gravitational field, devouring it,
reducing all things to a single point, making everything its own, leaving nothing but itself. Media
studies still have to find a way to deal with this black hole called the alphabet without being
sucked in.

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Harold A. Innis: Empire and communications, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972,
p. 53.

Eric A. Havelock: The Muse Learns to Write, New HavenLondon: Yale University Press, 1986,
p. 59.

Marshall McLuhan: Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill,
1964, p. 84.

Derrick de Kerckhove: Brainframes. Technology, Mind and Business, Baarn: Bosch & Keuning,

Vilm Flusser: Die Schrift. Hat Schreiben Zukunft? 5th ed., Gttingen: European Photography,
2002, p. 35.

Friedrich Kittler: Musik und Mathematik I, Hellas 1: Aphrodite, Mnchen: Fink, 2006, p. 127.

Harold A. Innis: Minervas Owl, in: The Bias of Communication, Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2008, pp. 3-32, here p. 4.

Ibid., p. 29.

Ibid., p. 32.


Ibid., p. 11.


Ibid., p. 10.


Ibid., p. 7.


Ibid., p. 9.


Ibid., p. 7.


Idem: Empire and communications, p. 43.


Ibid., pp. 53-54.


Ibid., p. 54.


Idem: A Critical Review, in: The Bias of Communication, Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
2008, pp. 190-195, here p. 190.

Idem: Empire and communications, p. 11.


Ibid., pp. 66, 57.


Idem: The Bias of Communication, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. xliv.


Geoffrey Winthrop-Young/Nicholas Gane: Friedrich Kittler. An Introduction, in: Theory,

Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006), pp. 5-16.

While Kittler has always been an inconvenient thinker, his writing has lately become more
provocative in tone and content. For critiques of some of the political issues in Kittlers work,
including his recent turn to an idealized ancient Greece, see, among others, Geoffrey WinthropYoung: Friedrich Kittler zur Einfhrung, Hamburg: Junius, 2005, Claudia Breger: Gods, German
Scholars, and the Gift of Greece. Friedrich Kittlers Philhellenic Fantasies, in: Theory, Culture &
Society 23.7-8 (2006), pp. 111-134, and John Durham Peters: Friedrich Kittlers Light Shows, in:
Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, pp. 1-17.

Friedrich Kittler: Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. by Michael Metteer/Chris Cullen,

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 4.

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Ibid., p. 6.


Ibid., p. 7.


Ibid., p. 14.



I cannot fail to notice that the great translation from Greek to German is just what Professor
Kittler, famous representative of Humboldt University of Berlin and by consequence, I would
say, himself an agent or at least descendant of the Discourse Network 1800, has been doing in
recent years.

Kittler: Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900, p. 28.


Ibid., p. 70.


Ibid., p. 119.


Ibid., p. 115.


Ibid., p. 116.


Ibid., pp. 34-35.


Ibid., p. 34.


Ibid., p. 32.


Ibid., pp. 28, 109.


Idem: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young/Michael Wutz,

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 13.

Idem: Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900, p. 369.


Idem: Draculas Vermchtnis. Technische Schriften, Leipzig: Reclam, 1993, p. 8; my

translation, T.A.H.

Idem: The History of Communication Media, July 30, 1996, http://www.ctheory.net




Idem: Draculas Vermchtnis, pp. 8, 184.


Idem: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 18.


Idem: The History of Communication Media.




Ibid.; my emphasis, T.A.H.


Ibid.; my emphasis, T.A.H.


Idem: Musik und Mathematik I/1, p. 127; my translation, T.A.H.


Idem: Number and Numeral, in: Theory, Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006), pp. 51-61, here
p. 55; my emphasis, T.A.H.

Idem: Musik und Mathematik I, Hellas 2: Eros, Mnchen: Fink, 2009, pp. 295-301; my
translations, T.A.H.

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Idem: Musik und Mathematik I/1, p. 121; my translation, T.A.H.


Idem: Number and Numeral, p. 55.

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Ibid., p. 57.


Wolfgang Ernst/Friedrich Kittler (eds.): Die Geburt des Vokalalphabets aus dem Geist der
Poesie. Schrift, Zahl und Ton im Medienverbund, Mnchen: Wilhelm Fink, 2006, pp. 9-10; my
translation and emphasis, T.A.H.

Kittler: Number and Numeral, p. 52.


Ibid., p. 56.


Idem: Musik und Mathematik I/1, p. 293; my translation, T.A.H.


Idem: Number and Numeral, p. 59.


Idem: Universities. Wet, Hard, Soft, and Harder, in: Critical Inquiry 31.1 (2004), pp. 244-255,
here p. 250.

Friedrich Kittler/Antje Wegwerth: Rock Me, Aphrodite (Interview), May 24, 2006,
http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/22/22695/1.html; my translation, T.A.H.

Swiss classicist Rudolf Wachter has used the analogy of the black hole to describe the
problems one faces when trying to investigate the origin of the Greek alphabet; see Rudolf
Wachter: Ein schwarzes Loch der Geschichte. Die Erfindung des griechischen Alphabets, in:
Wolfgang Ernst/Friedrich Kittler (eds.): Die Geburt des Vokalalphabets aus dem Geist der
Poesie. Schrift, Zahl und Ton im Medienverbund, Mnchen: Wilhelm Fink, 2006, pp. 33-45.

Sybille Krmer: Was haben Performativitt und Medialitt miteinander zu tun? In: idem
(ed.): Performativitt und Medialitt, Mnchen: Wilhelm Fink, 2004, pp. 13-32, here p. 22.

Innis: Minervas Owl, p. 10.


Kittler: Number and Numeral, p. 52.


Idem: Musik und Mathematik I/2, p. 157; my translation, T.A.H.

Cite as
Heilmann, Till A. Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet. Paper presented at Media
Transatlantic. University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 8 April 2010.
Till A. Heilmann (Dr. phil.) is a researcher at the Department of Media Studies <http://www.unisiegen.de/phil/medienwissenschaft/> at the University of Siegen <http://www.uni-siegen.de/> .
He studied German, media studies, and history. Assistant at the Department of Media Studies at
the University of Basel <http://www.unibas.ch/> (20032014); doctorate for a thesis on
computers as writing machines (2008); visiting scholar at the University of Siegen (2011);
Fellow-in-Residence at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies
<http://obermann.uiowa.edu/people/till-heilmann> at the University of Iowa
<http://www.uiowa.edu/> (2012); assistant at the Department of Media Studies at the
University of Siegen (since 2014); book project on the history of the push-button and the
concept of digitality (ongoing). Publications include: Handschrift im digitalen Umfeld
[Handwriting in the Digital Domain]. Osnabrcker Beitrge zur Sprachtheorie 85 (2014):
169192; Medien als Metaphern oder Metonymien? [Media as Metaphors or Metonymies?]
In: Interventionen. Ed. together with F. Haase (2013): 123142; Textverarbeitung: Eine
Mediengeschichte des Computers als Schreibmaschine [Word Processing: A Media History of
the Computer as a Writing Machine] (2012); Digitalitt als Taktilitt: McLuhan, der Computer
und die Taste [Digitality as Tactility: McLuhan, the Computer and the Key]. Zeitschrift fr
Medienwissenschaft 2 (2010): 125134. Fields of research: Media history; media theory; media

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Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet (Till A. Heilmann)


semiotics; history of media studies. Research focus: Digital media and digitality; cultural and
technological history of keys and buttons; Canadian School and media archaeology;
(hand-)writing and algorithm.
Impressum und Haftungsausschluss <../impressum.php>

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