Grey Room

Operations of Culture: Ernst Kapp’s Philosophy of Technology

Jeffrey West Kirkwood, Leif Weatherby


Tracing the origins of what has come to be called “new German media theory” leads to an unlikely location far from Germany—Texas—and by way of an even less evident path: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. A German émigré, Ernst Kapp, reading Hegel in the rural expanses of central Texas in the middle of the nineteenth century, penned what is arguably the first philosophy of technology. Elements of a Philosophy of Technology: On the Evolutionary History of Culture (1877) has shaped and predicted the course of much of contemporary media theory. The deeper one goes into the sedimented record of Kapp’s role in the history of media theory, the broader and more decisive his impact appears to be. He is equally detectable in Sigmund Freud, André Leroi-Gourhan, and Marshall McLuhan, and his central notion of “organ projection” offers a powerful theoretical bridge from Friedrich Kittler to cultural techniques (Kulturtechniken). As the legacy of media-theoretical concerns now hinges on a contest between operations and ontologies that has propelled a riot of new materialisms in recent years, Kapp’s dialectical treatment of technology stands to make a timely intervention.