Mediamatic Magazine Vol.7#1 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1992

The Archeology of Computer Assemblage

The 'Ars Combinatoria' of Berlin philosopher-engineer Werner K

The Berlin philosopher and programmer Werner Künzel has hatched an ambitious plan to develop a genealogy of computer theory, written in 'the spirit of philosophy'. In the five books he has published so far, he discusses founding fathers like Lullus, Leibniz, Kircher and Babbage. The roots of high tech, says Künzel, reach back into the middle ages.


The Archeology of the Computer Assemblage -

In a bright, clear style this textual archaeologist delivers his rejoinder to anyone who believes the computer appeared on the scene only in the mid-20th century and who would write off the pre-electronic era as barbaric. Künzel: computer theory is currently so successful that it seems to have no use for its own history. Yet something is being lost. Artificial intelligence is a good illustration of this. People started researching it in the 19th century and ended up via philosophy and psychology in technological waters. Intelligence seems to have become a question of engineering, though you can treat it in an inter-disciplinary way as well. Küntzel's archaeological excavations blur those boundaries. He is addressing philosophers as well as hard- and software designers.

After teaching at Siemens during the day, by night Werner Küntzel enthusiastically hits the books in an effort to expose the 'secret origins' of the computer. It began when, after completing a dissertation on Foucault and Hegel, he trained as a programmer. A reference in an American book put him on a trail of 13th-century Spanish priest Raymundus Lullus. This inventor and missionary developed a blueprint for a symbolic 'text machine' which generates semantic combinations. Küntzel was surprised at how established philosophy had displaced the engineers within its own ranks and how it censured them outright. If there's anything the exponents of Pure Intellect thoroughly detest, it's the attempt to somehow mathematize the philosophical truth, writes Küntzel in his book on Lullus. ''In their eyes, nothing is so awful as the infiltration of mathematics into the realm of ideas.

According to Küntzel, since German idealism (around 1800), philosophy has withdrawn into its own territory and let the industrial revolution pass it by. The gulf between technology and the arts and letters did not arise in the 20th-century. At the moment I happen to be reading Gaston Bachelard's writings on epistemology, in which he accuses 19th-century philosophers of not having understood the technical developments of their time. The philosophy we know today gets the few opinions it has of technology from a period that was not yet technological - before 1800. In this case Bachelard is talking about electronics. 19th-century philosophy was oriented to the bourgeois consciousness, which was in fact so stable during this period that reflection on the upcoming technology was not needed to prove the validity of philosophy. Only in the second half of the 20th century have philosophers had to acknowledge that they have fallen behind. Heidegger, and also the Frankfurt School, tried to rewrite the history of philosophy, to trace the point at which it had gotten out of touch with the world, but none of them spoke of the natural sciences or engineering. Technology remained synonymous with 'catastrophe', an external threat to the world, but also to thought itself. That philosophers were, nota bene, present at the birth of the computer is not addressed in today's historical writing.


By analogy with Nietzsche's 'artist-philosopher,' you might call Küntzel an 'engineer-philosopher'. I asked him what this would denote.Küntzel: An engineer-philosopher is someone who derives his concept of reality from the media he works with. This is a huge break with the concept of reality as it has been taught up to the present, which is still based on Plato's Dialogues''. We still use a table, a chair or a tree for an example. It may sound curious, but our concept of reality hasn't changed in 2000 years. If we think from a technological media paradigm we're not supposed to take the possible loss of bodily powers of perception for granted. It's more about making a concession to the changed environment. The engineer-philosopher does not per se have to take these developments any further either, but he should at least think about them. We should at the very least realize what happens when knowledge is transferred and stored through media.

For Küntzel technology is more than a collection of machines; above all, it is a case of tinkering. And texts can be doctored, too. Küntzel practices 'Ars Combinatoria' in his own unique way: he proves that there is a promising future to thinking in rhizomatic bifurcations, applied at the interface between philosophy and technology. This goes beyond the use of a free, associative writing style in order to unlock hidden stories. Electronic media alter the structure of thinking itself. So the introduction of hypertext could have exciting consequences. How will the history of philosophy be received when all its basic texts, from the pre-Socratic to postmodernism, can fit on one cd-rom? Heidegger's Sein und Zeit will undoubtedly become much more accessible; you look at the word thrownness and are shown a short explanation of the term, an etymology, other passages and 'books' in which Heidegger uses the term, and in which other philosophers take it up. Compact hermeneutics will give interactive intervention in existing texts a solid, technical base; technology not only heightens the pleasure to be had in word-processing, it offers new communication opportunities. Küntzel: ''In contrast to film, radio and tv, which they used to say only made us into passive consumers, the computer activates us and makes us producers. This active aspect of knowledge production has brought about a great change in authorship. Until recently an author was someone who wrote books and gave readings. Interactive knowledge production via networks has so many consequences for authorship that philosophy and literary studies can't fully survey it yet.

Werner Küntzel, with his colleague Heiko Cornelius, has already provided an example of these technological possibilities and translated Lullus's Ars Magna into the 'higher language' of Cobol (available separately on floppy). They do not intend this adventure in programming as a bonus digital contribution only accessible to the technically literate. The structure of Cobol and Lullus's category code are elucidated step by step for the lay reader in a separate chapter. With a bit of perseverance, we can then 'read' the printout of the program to see how Lullus's combinations have been translated by Knützel and Cornelius into computer language.

According to Küntzel, Lullus designed the first text machine capable of producing truthful statements. With the help of connected geometric figures which communicate with each other according to precisely defined instructions, all possible statements are generated and placed in character sequences. The Lullus hardware consists of independently rotating disks, with nine words or terms on each disk. Together these elements can form a logically coherent sentence with a question (why, who), a subject (angel or living being), a 'divine attribute' like strength or virtue, a relational connection (different from, opposite of), and a good trait (loyalty, sympathy) or bad (hatred or greed). Lullus then assigned the five categories to characters, in such a way that if we give the wheel a spin a certain character sequence rolls out. He then ranged these in tables. According to Küntzel, the software consists of the strict rules imposed on the interpretation of the letter combinations. Lullus intended this machine to introduce consistence and transparence into thought by forcing the user to repeatedly use the same building blocks, all equipped with clear definitions. The underlying goal of the Lullus text machine, he says, was the formulation of universal rules, which could cross boundaries and cultures. It would create knowledge, which would also be useful in 'heathen' areas, which were not yet christianized.


Küntzel discovers a similar goal in the German philosopher Leibniz (1646 - 1716). He too, in civil war-torn 17th-century Europe, wanted to design a universal language, which would facilitate communication via a network of universities. Leibniz's cylindrical computer, never built, signified an important step forward from dead mechanical calculations to a flexible 'Ars Combinatoria', which would differentiate between the feeding in of data and the calculation itself, according to Küntzel. Leibniz also philosophized about a computer based on a binary numerical system. In 1679 he wrote, ''Despite its length, the binary system, in other words counting with 0 and 1, is scientifically the most fundamental system, and leads to new discoveries. When numbers are reduced to 0 and 1, a beautiful order prevails everywhere.

More important than his design for a computer are Leibniz's thoughts on monadology. As an indivisible component of matter or mind, the monad is technically a space drawn in upon itself, without windows, apparently completely closed off from the outside world. Although no images enter, a definite exchange of data nevertheless occurs. Küntzel makes a comparison between the sealed monad and the darkness inside the chips of the central processing unit (cpu).

For Küntzel, Leibniz's monad concept (after Deleuze's Le pli) exhibits an extraordinary timeliness: ''Classical philosophy rejected Leibniz's monad because it was thought to be too rigid and static. In Hegel, Marx and Adorno the subject is a dynamic whole, which continuously flows and transforms itself. According to Hegel, there is no substance that is not in motion; nothing exists which does not dissolve in motion. That partly accords with our experience, but at the same time we feel restricted. Our skin and our bodies impose limitations. So we don't have to take just motion as an assumption; we could also begin with the poles or the vectors of motion. You could then reason that individual bodies exist which are indeed constantly communicating with each other as entities, without being completely absorbed by it. They do not dissolve, but are connected to each other.

We can then ask ourselves about the nature of contemporary technological interfaces, what kind of openings or splices they are. The good thing about the monad concept is that the entity of the individual as well as its connections with the outside world and means of communication unite in it. For a long time the Ego was only part of a dialectical, larger whole. In contrast, the monad emphasizes possible openings and communication possibilities, which are not established ahead of time by laws.

Leibniz's monad cannot exist without a network. Michel Serres shows this in Hermes I and demonstrates that Leibniz's network is very economically constructed. Leibniz does not think in terms of cross-connections. For him all communication moves via the Divine Central Monad, and functions optimally this way. This may be inconvenient if there are only two monads, but it's demonstrably more efficient when a thousand monads are communicating with each other. The Central Monad then acquires a technical function and becomes part of a communication model. In this light, this network doesn't have be dismissed as a rigid, authoritarian model representing a certain world order or religion. From our point of view a network needs no interfering central authority. For us the central switchboard is no more than a technical necessity, and as an agent of power it disappears in the background. But for Leibniz, communication had yet to get underway, and he wanted to organize it. It's still worth the trouble for the engineer-philosopher to take the efficiency of this monad model seriously and not write off everything that was thought of before Hegel.

The monad is also sometimes associated with 'cocooning': the Western tele-citizen who locks himself away from the evil outside world and stays in contact with others only via telecommunications. It seemed legitimate to me to ask a promoter of the monad concept whether we are on the eve of a class struggle between monads and (dataless) nomads. Küntzel: ''The technological gulf between population groups and continents is indeed becoming ever wider. And for a long time the situation will remain such that the privileged monad will have the choice of whether or not to use e-mail or fax and the nomad will not. The equipment has gotten so cheap in the West that it's affordable for everyone. But that will probably soon become true of the entire world population - the Walkman is no longer an exclusively Western consumer good. This will depend heavily on to what extent urgent problems like hunger and environmental pollution are solved. What does an Indian in the Amazon area need a laptop for if his living environment is going down the tubes? Or people in Africa who have to flee from drought or a civil war?

Besides Lullus and Leibniz, Küntzel has been interested in the baroque charlatan/theorist Kircher, who saw Egyptian hieroglyphics as an arbitrary sign system and raised them to the level of simulation. Küntzel's latest book is devoted to the early 19th century philosopher/engineer Charles Babbage. He designed a computer and was simultaneously capable of debating with colleagues as a philosopher and a theologian. Babbage reflected on how creation could have functioned as a program. But he, too, remained an outlaw and faded into oblivion.

For Küntzel, these studies are merely small puzzle pieces taken from a great interdisciplinary investigation into the hidden history of technology: In my books I don't criticize the existing division of labour between technology and philosophy in such explicit terms. Rather, I take the position of the narrator, and add stones to a mosaic, making it possible to formulate a general critique. But that can only come about in a group context. This ambitious project could become Küntzel's life's work. But won't the connection with technology be severed in the process, if for example he gives up his job at Siemens and submerges himself in the archives full-time? The enthusiasm with which he is now so radically splicing historical texts with contemporary computer jargon might then fade. The play space of the engineer-philosopher in the modern academic world is still extremely limited. We must thus resort to nocturnal theoretical escapades to show us the way through the darkness of the chip.

translation laura martz


werner Küntzel/heiko cornelius
Die Ars Generalis Ultima des Raymundus Lullus, Studien zu einem geheimen Ursprung der Computertheorie, 5de ed., Berlijn 1991.

werner Küntzel/peter bexte Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Barock-Projekte, Machinenwelt und Netzwerk im 17. Jahrhundert, Berlin 1990.

werner Küntzel Der Oedipis Aegyptiacus des Athanasius Kircher, Das ägyptische Rätsel in der Simulation eines barocken Zeichensystems, Berlin 1989.

werner Küntzel Charles Babbage. Differenz-Machinen, Exkurse zur Karthographie der technischen Kultur im 19. Jahrhundert, Berlin 1991.

werner Küntzel /peter bexte Präsenz, Zeitspeicher und Time Machines, Essays, Berlin 1991.

These lavishly illustrated books may be ordered from Edition Olivia Küntzel, Holsteinische Str. 37/1, 1000 Berlin 31, Germany.