Friedrich Kittler – Optical Media


Polity Press
, 2009
, 332 pages
, English, 
ISBN-13: 978-0745640914
Finally available in English after eight years, “Optical Media” is an influential book by one of the major and more controversial media philosophers: Friedrich Kittler. The book is the transcript of a fourteen-lecture series he presented at Humboldt-University, Berlin in 1999, and it’s meant as a “popular exposition” (as John Durham Peters defines it in the revealing introduction) of a substantial body of work. It can also be described as a history of technologies used to transmit, process and store images – essentially looking at “light”. But, predictably for Kittler, this is not at all a sociological or economical history of technology. His idiosyncrasy in focusing on machines, hardware and engineering opposes all the humanist approaches (including McLuhan’s “media as extensions of men”), something that comes across strongly in the book (although he shares with McLuhan an affinity for making bold and outrageous claims). After a few chapters that concern the prehistory of optical media (a must for media archeologists), there’s a turning point with the analysis of “camera obscura”, the first device to enable optical transmission of information and optical storage. Based on Shannon’s information theory, Kittler’s analysis is always rich and involving, describing a complex path of theoretical and factual relations. The book goes on with inspired research on the history of photography, film and television and ending with the computer as a convergent medium, where all the optical singular media die in a new sublimation of the omnipresent “algorithm”.