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

Harold Innis and Friedrich Kittler are exemplary thinkers, if not founders, of two quite distinct fields in communication and media studies: The Toronto School of communication theory and German discourse analysis of media (Diskursanalyse technischer Medien). Though their work is separated by time, space, and intellectual heritage, for Innis as well as for Kittler the Greek alphabet holds a unique place in history and in their respective theoretical understanding of media. Innis was among the first scholars to ground the study of communications in the analysis of media and to consider the effects different technologies had on culture and society. Emphasizing the materiality of media--particularly that of writing systems--Innis developed his now well-known concept of time- and space-biased communication. The notion of time- and space-bias, in turn, is derived from Innis’ distinction between oral and literal tradition. It is in the context of this distinction that the Greek alphabet stands out: According to Innis, the alphabet’s simple code and flexible notation of speech make possible a perfect meeting of the spoken and the written word. Of all writing systems, Innis contends, only the Greek alphabet can truly represent the oral tradition and therefore ‘erase’ itself, so to say, as a medium of communication. In Innis’ view, the cultural triumph of ancient Greece is based on this self-effacing technology. Kittler, following his analyses of technical and digital media from the 1980s and 1990s, has in recent years also turned his attention to ancient Greek culture. In Kittler’s mind, the greatness of pre-Socratic Greece and the singularity of its writing system are not due to the transparent linking of spoken and written language. The Greek alphabet is such an exceptional medium because its letters were once used to denote not only sounds of speech but also numerical values and musical notes. This feature--the integration of speech, mathematics, and music--forebodes the power of the digital computer which, through its universal code, can combine all former media. Thus, the Greek alphabet and the computer each mark a moment in history where ‘being’ as a whole is revealed in a single code. Innis’ and Kittler’s analyses tell two very different versions of media history. Seen through the eyes of Innis, history appears as the struggle between oral and literal tradition in which different media serve mankind as instruments more or less suited for the control of either time or space. In this, the Greek alphabet can be seen as a paradigmatic medium for balanced human communication and prospering culture. According to Kittler, on the other hand, history is the result of a circular evolvement of media and codes, only some which relate to human faculties. These technologies are not so much brought into being by humans as they themselves bring about, among others, beings such as speaking and writing humans. The proposed paper explores Innis’ and Kittler’s examination of the Greek alphabet to highlight the similarities in their arguments as well as the fundamental differences in their divergent approaches to media studies.