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Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011)

Writing anything after hearing about the death of Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011) is not really easy, even if it surely will boost the academic publishing industry into a range of publications. Somewhere I read him characterized as the “Derrida of media theory” and where the writer (probably Winthrop-Young or Peters) added that of course, Kittler would like to be called “Foucault of media theory”. But then again,

I think he would have liked to be thought of as, well, I guess “Any-Band-Member-of-Pink-Floyd – of Media Theory”.

Quite emblematically, as happened with the translation and cultural import of French theory to English speaking academia, things got mixed. German media theory became a general term that mostly hide a lot of differences between writers. Same thing had happened with French Theory when it arrived in the US. In media theory, Kittler became however the leading figure, due to the two translations: in 1990, Aufschreibesystem got its English form as Discourse Networks, and in 1999 Gramophone Film Typewriter came out. Meanwhile, his essays started to pour into English language.  On computers, literature, psychoanalysis, music and sound, and optical media – the classes he gave in 1999, translated into English later as Optical Media (2010). He wrote a lot, and his amazing expertise from literature to physics and engineering produced something eclectic – a weird world of Pynchon and voltages, of Goethe and dead voices of phonographic recordings, a mix of sex, Rock’n’Roll and philosophy. Pink Floyd was as important to him as Foucault (see the wonderful little book by Winthrop-Young), and he never really believed in Cultural Studies.

We had the honour of hosting his last talk at Sophienstrasse, and probably his last public talk ever. The Medientheater was jam packed, primarily because of Kittler, talking at the last event of the Sophienstrasse 22 address. Even then he continued along the same line of thought: critique of the standardization of university worlds. He was an adamant defender of the old(er) ideas of university, before the subsuming of the education system to short-term market terms, the creative industries, the psychobabble that is unscientific and leads to a deterioration of intellectual goals. Despite being a fan of “Old Europe”, he was against the BA-MA structure reforms (the Bologna process) that offered standards for degrees across Europe. Similarly as he was offering meticulous analysis of the work of standards in computing, he did so in terms of education system, which, as we know, is just another program. It programs us, into suitable subjects – from Goethe-zeit, to the neoliberal programming of little entrepreneurs.

For such universities, Heidegger, Deleuze, Whitehead, Kittler might be seen at times too difficult, which means that we should push them more. The legacy of Kittler has been debated already during his lifetime, with Winthrop-Young in Kittler and the Media nicely remarking: “Is there a ‘Kittler School’? Yes, but it is not worth talking about. As in the case of Heidegger, clones can be dismissed, for those who choose to think and write like Kittler are condemned to forever repeat him.” Instead, continues Winthrop-Young, we need to be aware of the Kittler-effect and the impact he had to so many discussions. For me, personally, this happened through the combination of Kittler and Deleuze; reading groups in the late 1990s in Turku (largely because of a couple of people at the University: professor Jukka Sihvonen, and my friend, colleague Pasi Väliaho, along with our Deleuze-reading group together with Teemu Taira).  That provided another road already, one that Kittler never really took, and which lead to thinking technics and Deleuze-Guattarian philosophy in parallel lines. Kittler might have hated that, but that is the point; keeping his legacy alive means new ideas and combinations. What I would like to sustain from his fresh, radical, anarchist ideas are the eclectic method of crisscrossing ontological regimes across science and arts; his keen historical (some would say “archaeological”) focus even if not always correct in details; his materiality, and no-nonsense attitude to theories and analysis of for instance digital media. That is much more than most of the current writing can still offer. Of course, there is so much that I refuse to take aboard, but that should be part of any intellectual reading and adaptation.

People often remember his older writings – and the idea of discourse networks, then developed into media theory. Yet, the past years he was occupied with the Greeks and what remained mostly an unfinished project: Music and Mathematics. He never reached the final book of the series on Turing-zeit, unless somewhere in his study there is a manuscript waiting to be found. Fragments for sure.

The amount of inspiring ideas he was able to pack even to a one sentence – where you were not always sure what it even meant, but you got the affective power of it. One of my favourites was the quote from Pynchon with which he started his Gramophone Film Typewriter: “Tap my head and mike my brain, Stick that needle in my vein”.

In a way, Kittler wrote media theory with Heidegger, but also with Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is one key to his early writings, when you realize the style, but also the ontology behind it. Subjectivities wired to technologies, and high physics being the language “behind” the everyday appearance and seeming randomness that is just an effect of the complexity of science and engineering. The V-2 is one reference point for modern technology in general. It has a special relation to human sensorium:

“As the pendulum was pushed off center by the acceleration of launch, current would flow—the more acceleration, the more flow. So the Rocket, on its own side of the flight, sensed acceleration first. Men, tracking it, sensed position or distance first. To get to distance from acceleration, the Rocket had to integrate twice—needed a moving coil, transformers, electrolytic cell, bridge of diodes, one tetrode (an extra grid to screen away capacitive coupling inside the tube), an elaborate dance of design precautions to get to what human eyes saw first of all—the distance along the flight path.”

In short, what Guattari summed up in short that “machines talk to machines before talking to humans”, for Kittler is an elaborate work of physics and engineering, even before we see what hit us. And hear it afterwards.

Pynchon, and Gravity’s Rainbow, tie of course to Kittler’s other passion where the rocket technology took us after the war. The moon, Pink Floyd‘s moon to be specific. One is almost expecting to hear Kittler’s rusty voice whispering at the end, after the crackling LP almost finishes…”There is no dark side of the moon really…as a matter of fact, it’s all dark.”

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  1. November 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Hi. I will be leading a two-week online discussion on Kittler this coming February and would like to find people who know his work not only in English but particularly in German, since so many of us on the list do not read German. I would love it if you could participate as one of the main commentators.

    Also, I am looking for any students of Kittler’s that would like to participate, and other scholars who could help us understand the breadth of his work and ideas. Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

    Gabriela Vargas-Cetina

    • November 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      Hi Gabriela, sounds interesting! Please get in touch via email, eg via my contact section!

  2. Mark Stafford
    November 14, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Hi, Many things inspired me and moved me in your comments about Kittler, whose work i can only say i am a student of and certainly not very familiar with. However i would just add that on the basis of my reading particularly of Optical Media, what Kittler brings to the study of systems, any form of system, is a very great sensitivity to litererature(rather than philosophy) and the way in which literary practice, specifically poetics, provides a ground for the adaption to new forms of semantic systems. I think this is what he saw as remarkable in Pynchon’s work, which brilliantly responds to the paranoia of totalizing techno-scientific systems with the only means, literature, that could produce a critique “from within”. No doubt the affinity you see with Deleuze is very important, but also i would add because Deleuze was always about to set aside certain “philosophical” pre-occupations and orient his thought to the practice of “imaginative” ( perhaps one might say irrational) forms of fiction. McCluhan , who was barely literate in philosophy , had a similar intuition and it served him very well in giving to technology a relation to the lived experience of the non-rational aspect of the human body. I’ve already gone on too long, but i think that there will certainly be fruitful future encounters with the work of Kittler if we appreciate how drawn he was to psychoanalysis and its potential to produce a theory of the subject without the traps inherent in ontologies of the subject. Thank you for giving me this space to throw some intellectual ashes on a great thinkers virtual tombstone,
    Mark Stafford

    • November 14, 2011 at 10:20 pm

      thanks Mark for the comment! Yes, nice ideas there. Of course, Lacan was such a huge influence to K. I think he somewhere has said that only if he had read Deleuze at some point…but then it was too late. Of course, later, during the past 10 years, he was more drawn back to the at least seemingly human (or godly?) world of Ancient Greece, love, wine…

      His Lacan was always the Lacan who read cybernetics. As for Deleuze, indeed, there never was a proper link for Kittler. It was more of a personal comment about my theoretical trajectory.

      thanks again
      J

  3. February 21, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    I wish I could have read his “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter” book translation in 1986. Honoring and appreciating Friedrich’s research and its enduring messaging, “it is we who adapt to the machine. The machine does not adapt to us”…he valued arts and sciences. Are we not together, again?

  1. October 18, 2011 at 10:05 am
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