Innis and Kittler:
The Case of the Greek Alphabet

Till A. Heilmann
Institute for Media Studies
University of Basel

Paper presented at
“Media Transatlantic”
Vancouver, 8 April 2010

Note: A heavily revised version of this paper has been published as: Heilmann, Till A. “Innis and Kittler: The Case of the Greek Alphabet.” Media Transatlantic: Developments in Media and Communication Studies Between North American and German-speaking Europe. Ed. Norm Friesen, Cham: Springer 2016, pp. 91–110. Please refer to and cite the print version.

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 Derrida’s analyses have shown, the precondition of all signification. It is also (and always will be) the only way to mediate language—that which most decidedly sets man apart from all other known beings and things—in 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, Vilém Flusser, and Friedrich Kittler have described the alphabet as particularly “efficient”1, “historically unique”2, “the means of creating ‘civilized man’”3, Western world’s first ‘brainframe’4, a code of ‘pure, conceptual thinking’5, and the ‘foundation’ of occidental culture6.

This paper examines Innis’ and Kittler’s 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 either’s 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 Kittler’s approaches to the Greek alphabet.


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 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: “Minerva’s Owl”, a lecture given in 1947.

In “Minerva’s 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 “Minerva’s Owl”, this is the exemplary case of monopolies of knowledge or, as Innis sometimes calls them, “monopolies in language”8. 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 tradition”10; “Richness of the oral tradition made for a flexible civilization”11; “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 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 individualism.

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 writing’s “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


Kittler’s 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 Kittler’s 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, comprising Kittler’s 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 Kittler’s 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 phase—usually identified with Kittler’s turn to media studies proper—is also deeply historical but in a slightly different way than before. And Kittler’s 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 Kittler’s 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 Foucault’s 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, Kittler’s ontological rewriting of European cultural history owes primarily to Martin Heidegger’s later philosophy and his idea of a ‘history of being’ (Seinsgeschichte).

The Greek alphabet features right at the beginning of Kittler’s seminal study on the Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900. In the “Prelude in the Theater”, Kittler describes Doktor Faust’s 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: ‘Εν αρκη ην ο λογος’: ’In the beginning was the Word / Mind / Force / Act.’ Thus, the Greek alphabet marks the starting point for Faust’s 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 Faust’s act, effortless translation and interpretation of material signifiers—i.e. letters—as 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 senses”31 trades the written letter for hallucination and phantasmagoria. Thus, in the Discourse Network 1800 poetry becomes the first modern medium in accordance with McLuhan’s definition: It is a medium containing other media, namely voice, sound, and image.32

The object of Kittler’s 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 alphabet’s 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 alphabet’s logic as such, the Discourse Network 1800 would have been with us since the invention of the Greek alphabet around 800 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 Kittler’s 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 Europe’s 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 Kittler’s 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 Kittler’s 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 code—the alphabet—is 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 alphabet—in Kittler’s previous work an effect of the Discourse Network 1800—has become the “immemorial”43 or “age-old monopoly of writing”44, 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 Kittler’s 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 simply—as analog media are—writing’s ‘other’. In historical perspective, alphabet and computer seem to be technology’s 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 alphabet’s twentysomething distinctive letters to the 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 Kittler’s third, his current phase of work, things get even more basic—or simplistic, if you will.

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 Heidegger’s 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. History’s fundamental ‘Medienereignis’ or ‘media event’ was the invention of the Greek alphabet. On this technology, the culture of ancient Greek civilization—and in consequence of all Europe and the Occident—is 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 Kittler’s 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 Kittler’s 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 Kittler’s 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. That’s it.”52 In accordance with Barry Powell’s 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 language—as do semasiographic, logographic, and to some extent even syllabographic signs—to 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

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 first—and in a way remains the single—universal 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 Plato’s theory of Ideas but was still concerned with beings manifest to the senses.

Kittler’s 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: δ και γ in the case of the fourth. Pythagorean philosophers called these ratios or intervals λογοι. So, unlike the later Aristotelian λογος, these λογοι 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 conditions.”57

The monopoly of the alphabet—first a discursive construction around 1800, then a structural condition of the overall media system—has 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 present—and 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 Kittler’s 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 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.”61

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 triumph’—albeit in different ways—to 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 Kittler’s approach to media. This difference is maybe best described by what German philosopher Sybille Krämer 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 until—in its binary form—it runs all by itself in Turing’s universal machine.

The difference between Innis’ marginalism and Kittler’s 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. Minerva’s owl was in full flight.”64 For Kittler, it is quite the opposite: “[I]t is utter nonsense—though one that media theory unfortunately keeps copying from Innis and McLuhan—that 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 Greek—and with it all occidental—thinking is the ‘forgetting of being’ (Heidegger’s 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 Kittler’s 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 total—both 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.


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

2 Eric A. Havelock: The Muse Learns to Write, New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 1986, p. 59.

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

4 Derrick de Kerckhove: Brainframes. Technology, Mind and Business, Baarn: Bosch & Keuning, 1991.

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

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

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

8 Ibid., p. 29.

9 Ibid., p. 32.

10 Ibid., p. 11.

11 Ibid., p. 10.

12 Ibid., p. 7.

13 Ibid., p. 9.

14 Ibid., p. 7.

15 Idem: Empire and communications, p. 43.

16 Ibid., pp. 53-54.

17 Ibid., p. 54.

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

19 Idem: Empire and communications, p. 11.

20 Ibid., pp. 66, 57.

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

22 Geoffrey Winthrop-Young/Nicholas Gane: Friedrich Kittler. An Introduction, in: Theory, Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006), pp. 5-16.

23 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 Kittler’s work, including his recent turn to an idealized ancient Greece, see, among others, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young: Friedrich Kittler zur Einführung, Hamburg: Junius, 2005, Claudia Breger: Gods, German Scholars, and the Gift of Greece. Friedrich Kittler’s Philhellenic Fantasies, in: Theory, Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006), pp. 111-134, and John Durham Peters: Friedrich Kittler’s Light Shows, in: Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, pp. 1-17.

24 Friedrich Kittler: Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. by Michael Metteer/Chris Cullen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 4.

25 Ibid., p. 6.

26 Ibid., p. 7.

27 Ibid., p. 14.

28 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.

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

30 Ibid., p. 70.

31 Ibid., p. 119.

32 Ibid., p. 115.

33 Ibid., p. 116.

34 Ibid., pp. 34-35.

35 Ibid., p. 34.

36 Ibid., p. 32.

37 Ibid., pp. 28, 109.

38 Idem: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young/Michael Wutz, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 13.

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

40 Idem: Draculas Vermächtnis. Technische Schriften, Leipzig: Reclam, 1993, p. 8; my translation, T.A.H.

41 Idem: The History of Communication Media, July 30, 1996, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=45.

42 Ibid.

43 Idem: Draculas Vermächtnis, pp. 8, 184.

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

45 Idem: The History of Communication Media.

46 Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

53 Idem: Number and Numeral, p. 55.

54 Ibid., p. 57.

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

56 Kittler: Number and Numeral, p. 52.

57 Ibid., p. 56.

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

59 Idem: Number and Numeral, p. 59.

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

61 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.

62 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, München: Wilhelm Fink, 2006, pp. 33-45.

63 Sybille Krämer: Was haben ‘Performativität’ und ‘Medialität’ miteinander zu tun? In: idem (ed.): Performativität und Medialität, München: Wilhelm Fink, 2004, pp. 13-32, here p. 22.

64 Innis: Minerva’s Owl, p. 10.

65 Kittler: Number and Numeral, p. 52.

66 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. <http://tillheilmann.info/mediatransatlantic.php>.

Till A. Heilmann (Dr. phil.) is a researcher at the Department of Media Studies at Ruhr University Bochum. He studied German, media studies, and history. Research Associate at the University of Basel (2003–2014), the University of Siegen (2014–2015), and the University of Bonn (2015–2021); 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 at the University of Iowa (2012); acting professor of Digital Media and Methods at the University of Siegen (2020–2021); book project on Photoshop and digital visual culture (ongoing). Fields of research: Media history; media theory; media semiotics; history of media studies. Research focus: digital image processing; algorithms and computer programming; North American and German media theory. Publications include: “Blackbox Bildfilter. Unscharfe Maske von Photoshop zur Röntgentechnischen Versuchsanstalt Wien [Black Box Image Filter: Unsharp Mask from Photoshop to the X-Ray Research Institute Vienna].” Navigationen 2 (2020): 75–93; “Friedrich Kittler’s Alphabetic Realism.” Classics and Media Theory. Ed. P. Michelakis. Oxford University Press 2020: 29–51; “Zur Vorgängigkeit der Operationskette in der Medienwissenschaft und bei Leroi-Gourhan [On the Precedence of the Operational Chain in Media Studies and Leroi-Gourhan].” Internationales Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie 2 (2016): 7–29; “Datenarbeit im ‘Capture’-Kapitalismus. Zur Ausweitung der Verwertungszone im Zeitalter informatischer Überwachung [Data-Labor in Capture-Capitalism. On the Expansion of the Valorization Zone in the Age of Informatic Surveillance].” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 2 (2015): 35–48; “Reciprocal Materiality and the Body of Code.” Digital Culture & Society 1/1 (2015): 39–52; “Handschrift im digitalen Umfeld [Handwriting in the Digital Environment].” Osnabrücker Beiträge zur Sprachtheorie 85 (2014): 169–192; “‘Tap, tap, flap, flap.’ Ludic Seriality, Digitality, and the Finger.” Eludamos 8/1 (2014): 33–46; Textverarbeitung: Eine Mediengeschichte des Computers als Schreibmaschine [Word Processing: A Media History of the Computer as a Writing Machine] (2012); “Digitalität als Taktilität: McLuhan, der Computer und die Taste [Digitality as Tactility: McLuhan, the Computer and the Key].” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 2 (2010): 125–134.