Obit Friedrich Kittler

Friedrich Kittler, the ‘Derrida of the Digital Age’, recently passed away. His work in theorising technological relations was hugely influential in cultural and new media theory. Kittler was neither a technophile, nor a technophobe but strongly and with great detail expressed the ways in which people were shaped by their technologies. From an excerpt of his obituary in the Guardian via Berkeley Center for New Media:

Kittler once wrote: “We are the subjects of gadgets and instruments of mechanical data processing.” He was entirely serious. In his extraordinary book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) he argued that “those early and seemingly harmless machines capable of storing and therefore separating sounds, sights and writing ushered in a technologising of information”.

Later technologies – the internet in particular – further extended technology’s domination over us. He told one interviewer in 2006 that the internet hardly promotes human communication: “The development of the internet has more to do with human beings becoming a reflection of their technologies … after all, it is we who adapt to the machine. The machine does not adapt to us.”

Kittler, sometimes dubbed the “Derrida of the digital age”, thus tapped into humanity’s fear of being neutralised by its own tools. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was written in the wake of such science-fiction fantasies as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) and the first Terminator movie in which übercyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger travelled back in time to destroy humanity. Kittler’s point was not that machines will exterminate us; rather that we are deluded to consider ourselves masters of our technological domain.

The work of recent cultural theorists like Derrida, Haraway, Latour and Kittler provides the most far sighted and yet grounded suppositions about the way in which humans and technologies operate. They have led the return to investigating the ‘stuff’ or material of communication and culture, balanced in a the web of social and power relations. The work of cultural theory casts a wide net over the social sciences for methodology and also over the material sciences for matter. The concern of cultural theory is very relevant for robotics.

Understanding the methodology and ‘use’ of cultural theory is perhaps harder to grasp. Two useful articles are Ien Ang’s ‘Who Needs Cultural Research?’ and Raymond William’s classic (but difficult) ‘The Uses of Cultural Theory’.

As Ang explains it, culture has little to do with ‘high’ or ‘pop’ culture and everything to do with how meaning and value are produced in the world. “In other words, culture is not only very ordinary, to speak with Raymond Williams, it is also fundamentally practical and pervasive to social life, as it is inherent to how the world is made to mean, and therefore how the world is run.”

“In short, the distinctive intellectual currency and social utility of cultural studies research lies in its capacity for inducing conjunctural questioning, rather than in providing positivist answers to set questions.” Ang admits this makes cultural theory resemble essay writing, however good cultural theory can provide both early response to emerging situations and the most challenging approach to accepted ones. “The very notion that culture is always contested, that meaning is always negotiated and constructed in concrete contexts, can be mobilised and applied in myriad strategic contexts in partnership with other specialist knowledge producers and users. There’s nothing more practical than that.”

I believe that Friedrich Kittler, like Ang and Williams, was immensely practical. His understanding of the relations between technology and war extends well beyond considering the military-industrial complex and the production of machines, but to the warring discourse networks of different technologies. His work will continue to be influential for anyone studying innovation and the global economy, and of course, human-robot culture.

Ang, Ien. “Who Needs Cultural Research?”, in Leistyna, P. (ed.), Cultural Studies: From Theory to Action. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005: 477-483.

Williams, Raymond. “The Uses of Cultural Theory”, in Williams, R., The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 2007: 163-176.

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