Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011)

25 Oct, 2011

Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011)

We mourn the passing of the influential media theorist Friedrich Kittler, who was a member of BCNM's international advisory board.

Below is the obituary from the Guardian:

Friedrich Kittler
Philosopher and media theorist known as the 'Derrida of the digital age'

The eclectic German post-structuralist philosopher and media theorist Friedrich Kittler, who has died aged 68, once wrote: "We are the subjects of gadgets and instruments of mechanical data processing." He was entirely serious. In his extraordinary book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) he argued that "those early and seemingly harmless machines capable of storing and therefore separating sounds, sights and writing ushered in a technologising of information".

Later technologies – the internet in particular – further extended technology's domination over us. He told one interviewer in 2006 that the internet hardly promotes human communication: "The development of the internet has more to do with human beings becoming a reflection of their technologies … after all, it is we who adapt to the machine. The machine does not adapt to us."

Kittler, sometimes dubbed the "Derrida of the digital age", thus tapped into humanity's fear of being neutralised by its own tools. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was written in the wake of such science-fiction fantasies as William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) and the first Terminator movie in which übercyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger travelled back in time to destroy humanity. Kittler's point was not that machines will exterminate us; rather that we are deluded to consider ourselves masters of our technological domain.

Hegel had suggested that the march of history culminated with absolute human knowledge and freedom. Kittler turned that philosophy on its head. His biographer Geoffrey Winthrop-Young argued that Kittler's project was to trace "not the triumphal emergence of humanity into freedom, but our exit from the fulsome enjoyment of our taste for ourselves that assigns humanity a place to which it has no right".

Gramophone, Film, Typewriter began bracingly: "Media determine our situation." Later Kittler added: "What remains of people is what media can store and communicate." Kittler took issue with the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who saw media machines as human prostheses that extended our domination of space and time. He countered: "Media are not pseudopods for extending the human body. They follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it."

That logic of escalation was best understood, for Kittler, by considering military innovation. He was struck, for instance, by how Nazi military experiments spurred Alan Turing's second world war code-breaking work at Bletchley Park and thus hastened the development of the computer. Kittler argued that technology changed the nature of war: "It has become clear that real wars are fought not for people or fatherlands, but take place between different media, information technologies, data flows."

Kittler's focus on military innovation was probably in part prompted by the fact that he had been a war baby, born in the aftermath of the Nazis' defeat at Stalingrad. He was born in Rochlitz, Saxony, and one of his earliest memories was seeing from a distance Dresden ablaze, bombed in February 1945 by the allies. He also recalled being frequently taken by his mother to a Baltic island to visit the site where Hitler's V2 rockets had been developed. "What fascinated me about these sites and rockets," he once said, "was that no one said a word about them. And yet the traces of this particular aspect of the German military industrial complex, which were located on a very romantic and idyllic island so as not to be seen, were everywhere."

His parents left East Germany in 1958 to enable Kittler to get the best German university education possible. "This experience probably explains why I was such a keen student at university and why this separated me to some extent from my many friends." From 1963 to 1972 he studied German literature, Romance philology and philosophy at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg. The aura of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi-supporting philosopher and the university's former rector, hung over the town. Kittler, who wrote his PhD on the poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, was not beyond Heidegger's shadow. He took from Heidegger the idea that we are at risk of being eclipsed by technology.

At Freiburg, he also became one of the first German intellectuals to appreciate the French post-structuralist thinkers Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault. Like Foucault, Kittler diagnosed the present through what he called discourse analysis – the excavation of the underlying structure of human practices. But in Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1985), Kittler went beyond Foucault. For him, Foucault had focused on the production of discourses, not the channels through which discourses were received. Kittler sought to remedy this.

But what is a discourse network? Kittler defined it thus: "The network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data." A discourse network was therefore a discourse of institutional power and of selection. The original German term for this, Aufschreibesysteme, was coined by the German judge Daniel Schreber, whose 1903 memoirs of his psychotic illness led to a book-length case study by Freud and influenced Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's Anti-Oedipus (1972). Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Kittler's thesis for his "habilitation", conferring the right to lecture in German universities, was inspired by the notion that "the madman [ie Schreber] sought to imply that everything he did and said within the asylum was written down or recorded immediately and that there was nothing anyone could do to avoid it being written down, sometimes by good angels and occasionally by bad angels". Kittler joked that it was unusual for a German intellectual to get tenure by being inspired by a madman's text.

Unlike Foucault, or indeed other leading media theorists such as Jean Baudrillard or Paul Virilio, Kittler steeped himself in physics, engineering, optics, the science of fibre-optic cables, and even wrote computer code – arguably gaining a more profound insight into media than his contemporaries.

Kittler presented himself in interviews as a shy and socially awkward man – one who kept his personal life private, revealing only what impinged on his work. We know that he was married, for instance, because he reported that his interest in Lacan caused arguments with his wife "as she wished to remain professionally faithful to Freud".

Winthrop-Young records that while others among Germany's Achtundsechziger (the students of 1968) were marching in the streets, Kittler stayed at home listening to Beatles and Pink Floyd LPs out of, as he said, "50% laziness and 50% conservatism".

On one occasion, he saw a laughing Foucault surrounded by admirers during an interval at the legendary Boulez-Chéreau 1976 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Ring but, although Kittler said he used to await the publication of the French thinker's books as impatiently as "rock LPs or the approaching steps of a lover", he remained frozen, unable to approach his idol.

But doubtless Kittler attended Bayreuth for opera rather than celebrity worship. Indeed, his lifelong obsession with music was such that the most important event of his undergraduate years was attending a lecture by György Ligeti. Later, he wrote several essays for Bayreuth festival productions of Wagner. By the time of his death, one volume of a projected monumental tetralogy on music and mathematics had been published.

Arguably, Pink Floyd meant more to him than Foucault. In his 1993 book Dracula's Legacy, he meticulously analysed the band's song Brain Damage from the 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, arguing that its three verses move from mono to stereo to "maddening" surround sound – the hi-tech version of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk. According to admirers, he would have liked to have played in the band.

An appealingly perverse, cross-disciplinary and radical thinker who taught widely in Germany and the US, Kittler was appointed professor of media aesthetics at Humboldt University, Berlin, in 1993. After an academic career lasting more than 30 years, during which he wrote and edited more than two dozen books, he retired in 2008, remaining Humboldt's guest professor in media philosophy.

• Friedrich Adolf Kittler, literary scholar and media theorist, born 12 June 1943; died 18 October 2011