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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
United States President Barack Obama, right, uses actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play the part of 'Luther, President Obama's anger translator'
video
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions