Photograph by Isabell Schrickel
Friedrich A. Kittler, Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and Media Studies at the Humboldt University, died October 18th, 2011, following a protracted illness. He was 68 years old. In a career that spanned more than three decades and well over one hundred publications, Professor Kittler contributed to a profound reassessment of literary and media production. At the center of his work was the controversial claim that “media determine our situation.”
The conventions of obituaries and elegies seem ill-suited to praising an author who consistently exhorted his readers to eschew the mirage of the author in favor of an empirical analysis of the apparatuses, procedures, institutions, and techniques that regulate discourse. Even so, a brief summary of the life and work attributed to the name “Friedrich A. Kittler is in order. Friedrich Adolf Kittler was born in Rochlitz, Saxony, in 1943. During his childhood, his mother would sometimes take him to visit the site where engineers had devised the V2 rocket, and he carried memories of World War II and subsequent occupation throughout the rest of his life. In his sweeping accounts of media and technological change in the twentieth century, both the war the rockets would return as protagonists. In 1958, his family fled to West Germany. From 1963 until 1972 he studied Romance languages, German, and philosophy at the University of Freiburg. He subsequently taught at his alma mater as a graduate assistant while completing his postgraduate studies.
Kittler gained international recognition for his 1985 book Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900, originally prepared for his habilitation. The text proved so vexing and controversial that it had to be reviewed by a team of thirteen senior professors (instead of the usual committee of three) before finally being accepted—ruefully, by some accounts—as a worthwhile contribution to the study of German literature. In it, he proposed a radical reinterpretation of Romanticism and modernism as two distinct modes of discursive production whose style and logic derived from what could be translated as the “notational systems” or “discourse networks” peculiar to their epochs. He defined these networks as “technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data.” According to Kittler, in the early nineteenth century the universal alphabet, the techniques of maternal instruction, and the rise of widespread literacy were among the most decisive features of a discourse network that produced the techniques of authority and interpretation characteristic of the great Romantic works. Kittler argued that the authors of these texts—most notably Goethe—were artifacts or illusions of this system of textual production and reception rather than the immaculate origins and originators of meaning. Taking eccentric inspiration from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the madman Daniel Paul Schreber, Kittler argued that in the twentieth-century literature was dislocated within technical media systems that destabilized authors and psyches alike. Despite the lukewarm reception of Kittler’s thesis by some of his supervising professors, the book became a sensation in literary studies and a foundational text for the then-emerging field of cultural studies.
His subsequent book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) elaborated and radicalized his earlier analysis to develop a new approach to media history based on specifying, in ever-greater detail, the networks of inscriptions, transmission, and receptions (what other critics might refer to as novels, movies, musical recordings, or psychoanalytic case studies) that developed in and around a host of modern media. Though often seen as a celebration of the end of the written word—Kittler claimed that media had shattered the monopoly of writing on modern culture—Gramophone, Film, Typewriter mapped out new methods by which literary criticism could extend its analysis to laboratories, factories, mathematics, circuit boards, or any other site for the recording, processing, or reception of inscriptions.