Friedrich Kittler, 1943-2011

November 3, 2011

One of the leading media theorists of his generation, described by a peer as "brilliant, controversial and cantankerous", has died.

Friedrich Kittler was born in Rochlitz, Saxony, on 12 June 1943 and grew up in what was then East Germany until his family moved to the West in 1958 to ensure that he got the best possible education. It was this background, he once recalled, that made him "really engaged" with his studies in German, philosophy and philology at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, where he continued until 1984 for his PhD and habilitation.

Though he would later express considerable antipathy towards the US and its "shallow and often rather silly talk about the virtues of American democracy", Professor Kittler had a number of visiting positions in California before becoming professor of modern German studies at the Ruhr University in 1987. This was followed by a post as professor of media aesthetics and history at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1993, and finally professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, in 2005.

Notably wide-ranging in his interests, Professor Kittler first became known in the English-speaking world with the publication of Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1990), which explored how the ability of technologies and institutions "to select, store and process relevant data" determined what was "thinkable" at different times. Equally influential were studies such as Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), in which he examined how the media up to and including the internet have shaped our lives.

Though his mother often took him to the place where the V2 rockets were developed by the Nazis, there were many taboos about discussing the Second World War during Professor Kittler's East German childhood. This led to a fascination with "the military-industrial complex" and significant research about how military technology affects our lives.

He was "brilliant, controversial and cantankerous", said John Armitage, professor of media at Northumbria University. "In his penetrating examination of our increasingly militarised and 'mediatised' existence that, he argued, replaced human agency, Kittler outlined with great energy the post-human historical condition."

He added: "Perhaps his greatest academic transgression was to have such an emphatic sense of technology's triumph over the delusions of human agency, articulated in his writings on war and speed, mathematics and cryptography, in addition to the style of his claims, sculpted like a series of steps of military escalation, in imitative performance of the computerised world of total militarisation and technologisation that he portrayed."

Professor Kittler died in Berlin on 18 October. He is survived by his wife, Susanne Holl.

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