Friedrich Kittler

By Childs, David | The Independent (London, England), November 21, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Friedrich Kittler

Childs, David, The Independent (London, England)

Media theorist influential in the fields of literary and cultural studies

The newspaper Die Welt believed there was no one in Germany who looked more like the archetypal crazy German professor than Friedrich Kittler, with his mop of snow-white hair and heavy moustache. Yet this media historian had many fans in Germany, in the United States and elsewhere.

The German media theorist Friedrich Adolf Kittler (given the name Adolf after his father, and not after Hitler) was born in 1943, in Rochlitz, Saxony. His brother, Wolf, was 19 months younger. The Second World War and its aftermath played an important part in their lives: their older half-brother was a radar engineer; their uncle was incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp; their father served in both wars as a military geologist. The small town of Rochlitz was captured by the Americans in April 1945, but handed over to the Soviet Army. Their father, the head of a gymnasium (grammar school), was sacked. As children they went on holidays to the Baltic coast and saw the remains of the V-rocket installations. No adults spoke about them.

In 1958, when Kittler was 15, the family fled to West Germany. He attended the gymnasium in Lahr, then studied German, romance philology and philosophy at the University of Freiburg. He went over the border to Strasbourg to hear Jacques Lacan lecture, and was also influenced by another French poststructuralist, Michel Foucault.

In 1976, Kittler was awarded his doctorate for a thesis on the 19th century Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer; then, until 1986, he worked as an academic assistant at the university's Deutsches Seminar. In 1984, he earned his higher doctorate in the field of Modern German Literary History, but only after it had been agreed by 13 examiners, instead of the usual three.

This work, later translated as Discourse Networks 1800/1900, and his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986), were his best-known books. They reflect on the nature, impact and history of technologies and have been influential not only in literary and cultural studies but also film studies, social theory, digital art and the "open source" movement - a network of people who believe that technology should be produced altruistically.

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