Miscellanea on Friedrich A. Kittler (1943-2011)
Recently, on the 18th of October 2011, one of our most prolific thinkers in art, media, and culture died: Friedrich A. Kittler. You might have read this some time ago in some sort of news. Today, on the 17th of November, he was buried. His final place to rest is a well known graveyard: Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin with prominent neighbours, such as Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller, Georg W.F. Hegel, Johann G. Fichte, Herbert Marcuse, amongst others.
The sudden but expected death of Kittler - after a long and severe illness - allows us to take a break and think a bit about his possible contributions to the academic landscape, as he considered universities to be his larger or extended "kind of" family. In doing so, we need to neglect for a while the permanent and all-round dispute and criticism of him as a person, as a scientist, as a cultural thinker, or as a media philosopher. I would like to give a few miscellaneous comments or subjective impressions, as I could collect some while being one of his students some time ago.
Around 1994 I was studying philosophy and cultural studies in Berlin. In a seminar on postmodern issues we got a recommendation to go and listen to lectures from a new professor. Friedrich Kittler just arrived from Bochum a year ago at his new chair at Humboldt University. He impressed us a lot. The most, I can say, especially looking back. I followed him, then, for some considerable years...blindly, of course, probably as all students follow their teachers blindly for some considerable time. I owe him a lot, especially if I start to think about it. More than I would like to admit. My first ever published essay in 1995 was co-authored with Kittler. We were writing against Microsoft, against a new version of Windows, Windows 95, against MS-Office and against Internet Explorer as a cultural plague. Also he dropped my name to others, for instance to Peter Weibel. In retrospect I found out that I was one of the students that Friedrich Kittler felt worth mentioning upon inquiring how he felt on his new chair in Berlin. I wrote my MA thesis at his chair and I was for some considerable time an integral part of the so-called "Berlin School of Media Studies".
In Stanford, Vancouver or Boston this type of thinking is called "German media theory". In Germany the followers of that school have been teased as "Kittler-Jugend". For my doctoral thesis and other inquiries I had to go and quit Berlin suddenly and dramatically. The situation with Kittler became simply unbearable for me. For various reasons not to be elaborated here. In addition, I could not understand or would not be able to forgive certain things, like the way Kittler favored Sparta over Athens, Feuerbach over Marx, the way he ignored any critical thinking since Kant in favor of his hero Hegel, or all these references to Stefan George in that particular way, etc. Kittler's remarks on the October Revolution 1917 or his claims on the conditions of possibility of the fall of the Berlin wall, nevertheless, are striking, and as history is most of the time a sad story, unfortunately, his comments need to be taken into consideration.
During these times I also followed lectures by Axel Honneth at the Free University in Berlin. Honneth together with Dietmar Kamper were the only other professors you would not want to miss while being a student in Berlin - in the 1990s. I mention this since only two academic streams in post-war Germany have made some sort of reputation in the humanities abroad, in the sense that there was some sort of "school": the "Frankfurt School" and the "Berlin School". The former is associated with Habermas and Honneth, who succeeded Horkheimer and Adorno. The Berlin School is associated with Kittler and his more or less known followers - all the time they dispute who is or even could be a legitimate successor - unfortunately not with fair or within academic rules.
The "end of philosophy" and it's "Aufhebung" in media
Thus, the so-called "Berlin School" is probably not really a school, just a considerable bunch of more or less passionate, more or less clever, more or less blind followers who try to be part of history as Kittler promised them to be. The "first generation" of Kittler's students are: Bernhard Siegert (Weimar) and Bernhard Dotzler (Regensburg), in a way also Wolfgang Schäffner (Berlin) and Wolfgang Ernst (Berlin). They knew him from his time in Freiburg. There are a lot more people strongly influenced by Kittler: the "second generation", all of them professors today as well. This is the generation which knew Kittler since his times in Bochum and which followed him to Berlin. I belonged to the "third generation"... the generation which did not follow him to Berlin, but which encountered him in Berlin for the first time.
In Berlin - when I was a student - things were made simple and clear. Sometimes Friedrich Kittler started his introductions to media history with the remark that Hegel, coincidentally, almost two-hundred years ago, lectured at the same university in Berlin - now Humboldt University. Just in the room somewhere next to where Kittler would stand himself those days - the famous "Hörsaal 6" (Lecture Hall 6). Therein Hegel held his lectures on aesthetics and on the philosophy of art in the 1820s.
This meant - Kittler proceeded - he - Kittler - could be considered to be a successor of Hegel. He went empirically through all the names of those professors who more or less legitimately or illegitimately "occupied" the chair of Hegel as successors - describing nicely all the changes of faculties and departments in the course of history - and then he would prove somehow in the end that his new chair - Kittler's chair for "Aesthetics and History of Media" - would also empirically be Hegel's old chair. Thus, he is the legitimate successor of Hegel in our times.
He was more serious on this than we thought he would be. First, we took it as a joke. Somebody was trying to make himself seem important here, through history. But then - once you start reading Kittler - you discover that he indeed makes the case again for "Aesthetics" like Hegel, just this time also with the "History of Media". He reminded us - then - that Hegel declared in his famous lectures nothing less than the "end of art" and it's "Aufhebung" in philosophy for the first time ever in history. But now, again, some two-hundred years later, the situation changed and he - Kittler - was now standing there and needed to declare the "end of philosophy" and it's "Aufhebung" in media.
Well, you can see, things were made not only simple and clear, things were also put in context. As students, of course, we double-checked and we could read that such views had already been confirmed within established academic circles, such as in the United States, for instance. If Marx claimed he turned Hegel back on his legs, Kittler was already considered as having turned Hegel back again upside down. However - if one may add - this time Kittler not only turned Hegel back, but also hammered the head of Marx into the ground, for instance with his remarks on telegraphy. We all believed this story and there was no need for a critical debate about these apparently evident facts. Certainly, today we know that this might not be that simple. Kittler, however, always enjoyed to tell stories. As a media scholar he knew that this would stay in the memory of his listeners...
Rewriting the humanities in terms of media
In similar attitudes and gestures we were told to hate the Frankfurt School and humanism or sociology or the humanities in general. Basically all branches of science especially within the humanities which would resist including some elements of new media or computing within their methods or approach of study. We were trained to be suspicious towards everything which was text-only. For instance, Kittler told us the story that the humanities as separate disciplines had existed only since arbitrary developments originating in the 18th century. Kant's questions "Was ist Aufklärung?" and "Was ist der Mensch?" with all their implications are interesting for the purpose of study, but what is more important are their "conditions of possibilities" themselves, their "Bedingungen der Möglichkeiten", which are mostly: changes in governability.
Indeed, Kittler himself and researchers around him could show strong links between these questions by Kant and the state of Prussia (like Foucault and Deleuze indicated that, too). There were no humanities or soft sciences, separate from natural sciences or hard sciences, prior to Enlightenment and its consequences. The humanities as we know them today came to be as some sort of simple or complex dispositif. Distinctions between humanism, humanities, anthropology, or the like, unfortunately, were never made with or around Kittler's chair. There was just a general anti-humanism in place, which itself was inherited from Martin Heidegger and French post-structuralism. Kittler - just similar to Foucault - would not believe in signs as a model of knowledge. He wanted us to question everything, to start all over again, or - at least - that is how we took it.
What could the new sciences and methods be, then? We learned that Jacques Lacan rewrote Sigmund Freud with the help of new media, with computing, in short, since Freud's psychoanalysis was based only on the first industrial revolution, not the second. Subsequently, we were also asked to rewrite the history of whatever branch of or in the humanities in terms of media. That was the task, his aim, or our goal. And we learned many other stories relating theories with technical media... That McLuhan was actually a scholar in literature and that he was strongly inspired by Harold A. Innis and his book "Empire and Communications"... That the famous sentence "The Medium is the Message" was "stolen" from the Bell Labs and was originally called "Fitting the Message to the Line"...
Kittler - he - would go during these days much further than McLuhan and Foucault together. Foucault ended with the typewriter, Kittler evidently claimed. Indeed, we don't read from Foucault anything on radio or on tv or on vinyl as such. Just a bit on the typewriter. The theoretical distinction by Jacques Lacan, the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary, got with Kittler a "historical base": We learned to read RSI as gramophone, typewriter, and film. And so on and so on... In addition, nobody else except Kittler would talk to us about media like Godard or Straub and Huillet. He was the only one in Berlin. So, of course, we went to his lectures again and again. Without question, and questioning Kittler - for us - was a "New Foucault", a Foucault of media - of old media, and with new media in particular.
Kittler was radical
Since my studies in Berlin I miss something which was characteristic of Kittler: He was very radical and always ready for trouble. When students at Humboldt University were on strike against the disciplinary education machine - the introduction of the Bachelor and Master - he held speeches on and off campus and pleaded for a revolution with some quite new takes. Not only accordingly to Kittler the new BA/MA system kills to a certain degree the condition to know. The Bachelor of Arts as a certificate is inhuman, Kittler said, a better term would be derived from medieval practices: Baccalaureus Artium.
Kittler had an ambiguity which I find quite strange: He would be on the side of students, on the side of resistance, always, similar to Foucault and Deleuze, but he wouldn't hesitate to be on the side of power, too, no matter which power. No doubt about that! What belongs to the culture of being a student, especially today, in times of uncertainty and fragility, is to be part of trouble. Kittler had the gift of making things simple and operational. You can use his thinking and his writings in a certain direction quickly. Today, in our fragile and uncertain times, the universities also should be able to make things more operational and encourage, thereby, trouble. Who else could seed so easily new social movements?
One does not need to go into extremes, like Kittler, into anarchy and hierarchy, one could also make other social models more operational, such as heterarchy, mediating constantly between rules and no rules. It would be interesting, if the Kittlerians these days would turn their hate not against contemporary poetry and art anymore, but towards contemporary structures of power, as Foucault did. The questions by Foucault were a) empirical b) they implied relations between theory and practice, and c) they were contemporary.1 Kittler was more close to that than we as Kittlerians are. What one misses these days is: Demonstrating the ability to be useful to others, being radical and operational, like Kittler. Nevertheless, upon reading, the complexity of thoughts would appear gradually, of course.
Kittler's media were music and love
I like Kittler's writings. He wrote plain and open, not hidden. Always with music in his mind and in his sentences, actually. He wrote - as his former classmate from Freiburg officially stated just days after his death - posthumously - "scientific prose". Kittler wrote honestly. He was doing more or less - to put it in the language of the 1990s - some sort of source and channel coding. He would compress, but not cipher. Later he would start to re-code history, not only attempting to code it, to write with media. In his writings there is not that much to "decode". Even his last two books - which are considered to be more difficult to read - are not cryptic.
Kittler published a volume called "Technische Schriften" indicating in the title already that media (including technical languages) and natural languages are both integral and equivalent parts of the essays or thoughts expressed or written therein. He just thought with media and this is not - as he has so often been accused - some sort of "media determinism". To call it "media determinism" is not ok. In my opinion, those who call this sort of thinking "media-deterministic" might be trapped in a wrong short-cut attempting to avoid a longer-term problem. What is the problem? It is media, of course. Media being part of our writings and thinking, which are more than just natural languages. Is there something deterministic about that? Kittler reminded us, again and again, of the very question, the question of "prima philosophia": What are the media of our thoughts, actually? Which are the media of our writings? Are they languages and/or scripts? Which languages? Dead one's, living one's, poetical one's, technical one's? Rock Me, Aphrodite. His media were music and love.
Bridges between classical and contemporary thinking are possible
In my classes I read with students just one essay by Kittler. I contrast radical Dutch media practice vs. radical German media theory, Geert Lovink vs. Friedrich Kittler. But what Kittler has to offer goes, of course, way beyond this. Kittler is one of the few who bridges between classical and contemporary thinking, the Greeks and new media, for instance.
Just one aspect I would like to highlight: Kittler always reminded us that the vowel alphabet was distinct to other writing systems in high cultures as it was "invented" not only to write down Homer, as it had also a farce and a tragic effect on European science and culture, and - Kittler claims - as it "gave birth" to mathematics, thus, to science as such. If this is true, Kittler will be considered as having gone further than Martin Heidegger in "his" question for or of being, with the help of his teacher, Johannes Lohmann. Kittler criticized Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida, for not including mathematics in their historical approaches. Now, this very alphabet, the vowel alphabet of the Greeks - Kittler claims as well - is closer to new media than most of the other languages, such as roman scripts. Why? Because letters in the vowel alphabet could also be numbers and the codes of new media for the first time in history again are also numbers and letters at the same time, just as binary digits.
Consequently - Kittler explains: This "new" and at the same time "old" structure - the possible identity of numbers and letters within the "elements of media" is the reason why new media similar to the vowel alphabet has or had such a dramatic effect on our cultures and sciences. Maybe one can say: Not necessarily the way, the methods, or the particular arguments, they are all disputed, but the fact is astonishing that Kittler reminded us that bridges between classical and contemporary thinking are possible - through media. Michel Serres did this, too. Very beautifully. It is difficult to get there as a single author these days. Probably it would be better and less risky to work in groups to bridge past and present, especially if you read the horrific reviews Kittler received. Most of the comments by other scholars are whips of disciplinary patterns... Kittler-bashing is a fashion, until today.
Zero tolerance in the humanities
Kittler's way, his methods and his style of thinking film, music, literature, even theatre, and the arts are currently not present enough within the academic world, considering the presence of media. We still need more Kittler! His contributions to arts, culture, and media are more relevant than one would like to admit. Probably simply because of the way he made technical media part not only of his thinking, but also of his writings. His thinking, his methods and his style are highly controversial, still. Academia tried to avoid him as much as possible. His "Habilitation" in the 1980s needed 13 referees to get through. Usually you need three referees. And then it got through only disguised as a certain type of history, as most of us found out later. Disguised it got through! Structures in the sense of post-structuralism above the history he submitted were and are still a kind of taboo.
Up until today it is still a scandal to be radically scientific, especially in the humanities. And that makes Kittler in a way a contemporary of us. The literature scholars would simply not accept his purely scientific claims. He was always a "persona non grata" in the humanities. Kittler was thinking with media and yet he was denied of being scientific. Zero tolerance here! He suffered from that a lot - I suppose - and I guess this made him appear quite strange to most of us. Just imagine: Your book is a scientific work and it is not accepted and there is a constant and real hate by colleagues and scholars which goes on not for months, but for decades. What type of personality can somebody develop or what kind of attitudes? Even international recognition later can hardly compensate for those years of a person's life, of Kittler's life.
Thus, we need to forgive him a lot for his particular appearances and also a lot of his strange attitudes which he certainly had. It must have been horrible. We don't know the details or personal and academic perils he had to endure. Not as bad as Benjamin, though. He has received a broad reputation abroad during his life-time. The way he analyzed an entire era of German poetry is seminal. He re-wrote the history of German literature. Today, this is undisputed. In Canada his "Habilitation" is dubbed the most important one of the entire post-war era in Germany. This is a lot. If you re-write the history of an entire era, the arts and culture of that era, and this is also acknowledged internationally. Kittler had the style and still has the tools to do so.
In 2008 I was on a sabbatical. By coincidence I was in Berlin, too. Kittler was giving his last lectures and his last seminars. The last ones on his chair. Later, he was guest professor at Humboldt University and he continued to lecture, but he complained that he was a "guest" now in his own house... Even though I had not been around for years, I certainly wanted to take the chance to show my respect to my old teacher. I went to all his last "official" lectures and to all his last "official" seminars, one entire term, his last term, as a student, again, and as an observer. The lectures and seminars were tremendously terrific. He surprised everybody again and again. He unfolded a theory - to give just one example - why Jesus was crucified and he claimed he is one of the few who would really know! Wow! It would not be funny, if it turns out that he is indeed among the few who knew this in our times. What would that tell us about us or about our times?
I thought that all the Kittlerians would line up in the first row like pearls on a needle to listen to these last lectures. I thought that there would be fights and quarrels to be as close as possible to Kittler in the lecture or seminar room. Like the days of Lacan, Foucault, or Deleuze. To my surprise none of the Kittlerians who were not "on duty" would ever show up. I was the only one from any former generation who went as a student again to his lectures and to his seminars, to show at least my respect to him in that way, trying to sit in the first row again. In the very last session of his seminar entitled just "Hegel" he expressed his wish to us to be purely Hegelian: To bend a wreath of flowers as in Antiquity and to present this as teachers to future students. These were, actually, his last official spoken words, in class.
The last public appearance occurred on the 18th of July 2011 in his Sophienstraße 22a. His last words in hospital, after having been trapped in the medical machinery for weeks, were - Peter Berz reports: "Alle Apparate abschalten!" - "All instruments off!" In his last "official" lecture something unexpected happened. Kittler received during his life-time standing ovations, after free speeches and within more or less buttoned up situations. He was already very, very fragile. His hair was white, not grey anymore, and his hands were trembling, constantly. On the last day of his teaching, sadly, there were no flowers given to him. Nobody stood up to give him a standing ovation. Nothing like that. I forgot that, too. Nevertheless, what he probably wished to happen occurred just on this last day - as a gesture: Two very young female students pulled their bras from beneath their clothes and threw it towards him! Wow! Instead of long-lasting applause, standing ovations, or flowers, he actually got what he wanted: They got his message! Being is female.2
"How did it happen in Europe that we love knowledge, but don't know anything about love?"
As an old man, he - still - rocked his students. He always wanted to be a real poet, a singer or a song writer. He wrote novels, fragmented and unpublished. At his flat he even showed me once his never published "artworks", nicely arranged in a photo album, light drawings by him in the style of Lissajous curves, captured on Polaroid and on other photographic material. Instead of becoming a poet or an artist, he said, then, it just happened that he became a teacher and wrote prose of thoughts, rather than poetry of imagination.3
It is not a bad thing to be a failed artist, it just tells us something about our disciplinary society and our world. Kittler was just honest not only to himself when he reminded us that most of the professors in literature are failed poets, most of the cultural theoreticians and critics are more or less failed artists or unhappy curators, and most of the professors in philosophy probably never had a chance to become "real" philosophers. Kittler - as he described himself - was entirely Pythagorean.4 That is the school he claimed to be in. That this type of "ideal" thinking has been overcome - just a bit more than two-hundred years ago - did not bother him. It just happened that he eventually lectured on the Dionysian aspects of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, or on Pink Floyd. He did not write songs - as far as I know - but he played saxophone to us, his students and followers, especially when he wanted to ease our souls at his house. Thus, in a way, in his demonic way, he - not on stage, but on campus - was a singer, too.
In the last period in Berlin he started the impossible: He began to re-write the history of European philosophy and science as such and in scientific prose. Nothing less, I suppose. Maybe a short-cut helps: If Foucault's "The Order of Things" or his volumes on the "History of Sexuality" were meant to be "An Archaeology of Knowledge and Human Sciences" and "An Archaeology of Psychoanalysis", then one could say that Kittler's latest volumes on "Music and Mathematics" are meant to be nothing less than "An Archaeology of European Arts and Sciences". Certainly such a short-cut does not do justice and - what archaeology exactly is - is disputed by all of us, too. Kittler wrote only the first two of eight intended volumes. His views on the romans, the medieval courtly love as a stroboscopic rebirth of Aphrodite, the way he would have described Turing's theory of computation as counter-christian, we will never be able to read this now.
Kittler characterized his last works as follows: "How did it happen in Europe that we love knowledge, but don't know anything about love?" He was thinking at these borders of knowledge. His sudden death is a tremendous loss. Since he fell asleep some weeks ago and since we buried him today, forever, one just wishes - I wish - to become a bit more Kittlerian, again. His symbolic remains, including unfinished thoughts, are waiting to be studied in the literature archive in Marbach.
The funeral speeches were held by Peter Berz, Raimar Zons, Avital Ronell, Luzia Braun, Tania Hron, and Paul Feigelfeld, with vocals and music by Joulia Strauss. His bodily remains, his ashes are now at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin, just a few meters away from those of Georg W. F. Hegel. Ach, Friedrich... (Axel Roch)