Friedrich Kittler: 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. His most recent work on music and mathematics traced the historical development of notation systems from Ancient Greece onwards.

Of Gramophone a reviewer wrote, "A new and encyclopaedic vision of modern German literary, intellectual and social history, achieved through the optic of discourse analysis, psychoanalysis, and semiotic theory, analysed in a spirit of playfulness and impudent precision." In Gramophone Kittler cited the discovery of the telegraph during the Napoleonic Wars to demonstrate that conflicts give the impulse to the development of new media. Kittler had no theory of history but in his many works came to the depressing conclusion that technology is not an extension of man but, on the contrary, man is the servant of technology.

He became an assistant professor in German at Freiburg for a decade and during that time worked as a visiting lecturer and assistant professor at several universities in the US, including the Berkeley, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford University. He also taught at the University of Basel in 1986, and he was a membre associé of the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris, from 1983–86.

From 1986 to 1990, he headed the German Research Community's (DFG) literature and media analysis project in Kassel and in 1987 he was appointed professor of Modern German Studies at Ruhr University. From 2005 he was professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He was recognised in 1996 as a Distinguished Scholar at Yale University and in 1997 as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Columbia University.

In 2008 he went on TV, after several others had declined, as a personality who would admit to being a dedicated smoker. He died after a long illness.

Friedrich Adolf Kittler, German media researcher: born Rochlitz, Saxony 12 June 1943; married twice; died Berlin 18 October 2011.