Notes for Friedrich Kittler Discourse Networks, 1800/1900

Key concepts: phonetic reading.

Related theorists: .

The Scholar's Tragedy: Prelude in the Theater

The Mother's Mouth

Learning to Read in 1800
(27) Maternal instruction, in its positivity, was the input component of elementary acculturation techniques. Around 1800 a new type of book began to appear, one that delegated to mothers first the physical and mental education of their children, then their alphabetization.
(32-33) The revolution of the European alphabet was its oralization. . . . [quoting Heinrich Stephani] It has acquired a vibratory nature which has separated it from the visible sign and made it more nearly proximate to the note in music. . . . The new method opposed all rote learning and exteriority with an inner voice, which made letters (as if to illustrate the epistemological break) into “nothing but notes.” Stephani advised mothers: . . . Reading then consists in the art of playing our language instrument from the page of notes before us.

Reading as text to speech synthesis, like playing from a musical score.

(35) An accomplished Mother's Mouth at the end of its self-education no longer works in an empirico-dialectical manner, but becomes the mouthpiece of an “original voice sound” that generates all others.

Phonetc reading instruction produced standard pronunciation from interiority of sound, and creates an automaton from the human reader.

(36-37) With the planned normalization of speech circa 1800, a campaign against all dialects began. In 1779 the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg offered prizes to mechanical engineers and organ builders for constructing an automaton that would be capable of purely pronouncing the five vowels. . . . To speak plainly, phonetic reading instruction is thus a writing system, and not merely a method of speech. Only as such, through the regulation of pronunciation according to a hypothetically “accepted” norm, could it teach children orthography prior to any instruction in penmanship. The phonetic method, a revolutionary development equaled only by the invention of writing itself, and therefore of high culture generally, would have been a worthy recipient of the St. Petersburg Academy prize.

Programming human automatons; phonetic reading as early cybernetics.

(49) Mama or ma functioned as the most distinguished minimal signified in the writing system of 1800. It was the earliest one to be discussed, archived, and fed back into the system. Mama did not indicate, as it would a century later, the existence of a children's language beyond any national language, which could contribute to a general linguistics. Instead, it was pronounced by parents only so that it might recur in children's mouths—as a signature for the new education. What occurred, then, was true programming, which could thus be continued by automatons.
(49) The pedagogic movement took the curiosities and ephemera of contemporary techniques (because pedagogy could manipulate phonetics and the pragmatic linguistics of the minimal signified) and from them fashioned a functioning feedback-control system.

Motherliness and Civil Service
(55) Pedagogical discourses disappeared into the Mother's Mouth only to reappear multiplied in the form of a bureaucratic administration.

Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. Print.