Nancy Mauro-Flude on Tue, 15 Nov 2011 05:32:23 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Friedrich Kittler

Hello all.

A warm reverie / eulogy from the 'intellectual salon'; 'Kittler and the
Sirens' Tom McCarthy 9 November 2011
-pasted below-

> hi Florian,
> On Sat, 29 Oct 2011, Florian Cramer wrote:
>> In the humanities, the intellectual provocation of new technology -
>> and techno-determinism - has worn off. At least in an environment
>> like Nettime, I do not see many people left who would seriously
>> dispute the social/political/economical/cultural constructedness of,
>> and agency in, media and technology. This is why I think that,
>> pragmatically, his greatest legacy and impact on media studies and
>> media criticism will be the hacker legacy: his insistence that one
>> needs to have technical understanding of the systems one analyzes
>> and criticizes. In a world where scholars identify with terms like
>> "digital humanities", apparently without knowing more than the
>> colloquial meaning of 'digital', this remains a painfully important
>> message.
> painful, well said.

Kittler and the Sirens

Tom McCarthy 9 November 2011

Tags: theory

In 2004, after I gave an artist?s talk in a gallery in Berlin, a group of
people strode up to speak to me. They were, they told me, followers of the
media theorist Friedrich Kittler, members of his entourage ? or, to give it
its semi-official name, the Kittlerjugend. They used this last term not
without irony; but it was the type of irony that masks seriousness, in the
way that Hamlet?s pretending to be mad acts as a cover for him actually
being mad. The shoulders of the lead delegate, a charismatic Russian
?migr?e named Joulia Strauss, were wrapped in a hand-woven silk shawl
bearing a large reproduction of al-Jazeera?s test pattern. My art project,
they informed me (it involved a narrative of radio transmission and network
infiltration), met with their approval ? that is, with the approval of the
man himself, or at least (and perhaps equally importantly) of his aura.
Great, I said. I?d heard all about Kittler: ?Derrida of the digital age?
whose vision combined the circuitry of Lacan?s models for the psyche, and
Foucault?s archaeological conception of all knowledge and its systems, with
the material hardware of technological transcription and recording:
typewriters, tape recorders, film projectors and their non-analogue
offspring. We all went to a bar. The next day, the Jugenddelegation whisked
me off to a screening, in another gallery, of Debord?s In Girum Imus Nocte.
The gallery was operated by a media-activist group called Pirate Cinema;
its whole programme was composed of illegally downloaded films. They?d been
hit with a punitive fine for this some months earlier, which the German
Bundeskulturstiftung had paid for them. I asked if Pirate Cinema were part
of the Kittlerjugend. No, Strauss said; but they have good relations with
them ? they?re also his former students. And so, she added, are half the
members of the Bundeskulturstiftung?s grants committee.
Kittler?s aura seemed to hover over the whole city; by the end of my stay
there I wondered whether taxi drivers and Imbiss-stand operators might be
prot?g?s or associates as well. He seemed to lurk, invisible, beneath the
intersection-points between the worlds of art, philosophy and politics, his
bodily presence transmuted into riffs that multiplied like echoes across
exhibition catalogue essays and club fliers and general public banter.
Whenever I heard someone mention Ovid and feedback loops or H?lderlin and
binary code in the same sentence, I knew that I was listening to the
master?s voice piped down a hotline from the inner sanctuary at Humboldt
where, like Hegel two centuries before him, he?d established his HQ.
A year or so later, back in London, I received another summons from the
Kittlerjugend: they were decamping, en masse, to the Starr Auditorium at
Tate Modern, where the London Consortium had convened a symposium on
Kittler?s work. When I arrived, Strauss, dressed in a catsuit, was
demonstrating Delphic intervals on a lyre to a bemused English audience,
while a colleague at a mixing desk dropped in the odd annotation. They
cleared the stage and the great man himself came on. He looked like a
retired porn actor: grey, shoulder-length hair; big moustache; glasses that
framed eyes with a permanent sensual glint in them. He delivered a
mesmerising lecture on Sappho and Pink Floyd, Heidegger and Wagner, that
linked classical notions of geometry to Beckenbauer?s mastery of football,
nymphs prostrated before godheads to Hendrix?s multiple visitations on his
groupies. Afterwards, Strauss and her companions introduced me to him, with
all the pomp and ceremony (again, sprinkled with irony to disguise its
earnestness) of viziers granting Marco Polo an audience with the Khan.
Kittler was charm itself: friendly, indulging, modest. He asked me whether
Shakespeare?s work contained motifs of music and transmission; I suggested
Ariel?s broadcast to Ferdinand in The Tempest; he thanked me profusely,
though of course he would have already known the passage inside out.
I still hadn?t read his work at this point. While I was writing C, friends
kept telling me I had to check out Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. But I held
off, not wanting to cloud my primary research on technology and melancholia
with academic ?takes? on the subject. I read it as soon as I?d finished
though, and boy was it good:
What remains of people is what media can store and communicate. What counts
are not the messages or the content with which they equip so-called souls
for the duration of a technological era, but rather? their circuits, the
very schematism of perceptibility.
This was not just the new Hegel: even better, it was the anti-Hegel,
deliriously following through on his avowal to chase Spirit (Geist) out of
the Humanities (Geistliche Wissenschaften), to celebrate the poetry of
materiality and the materiality of poetry. Here was someone who ? at last!
? had charted the genealogy, or transmission lines, of writing?s interface
with bodies, from Sade to Kafka, Marinetti to Pynchon. Most exciting of
all, he lucidly and irrefutably articulated something I?d been trying
ineptly to persuade people of for years: that Dracula is a book about the
I met him one more time, back in Berlin a year or so later, when I was
launching the German edition of Remainder. Five minutes before my reading
in the Volksb?hne?s Red Room, the Jugend swept in and formed a pocket into
which he slipped, to a gasp from the audience. The box office refused to
let him pay: I think the cashier was a former student; I know my publicist
was. Kittler nodded approvingly when I mumbled, in response to a question
about my novel?s pairing of trauma and repetition, something about Freud
having a mechanical conception of our psychic apparatus ? a point he?d made
twenty years previously.
Afterwards, he told me he?d been testing out the Sirens episode in the
Odyssey. He took the three most prominent sopranos from the German National
Opera and placed them on the very rocks on which Homer locates them (these
can be identified with total accuracy, he assured me) and, instructing them
to sing, had himself conveyed past them in a yacht, to see if they could
actually be heard. The rocks, he explained, don?t drop directly down into
the sea but slope in with a shallow incline that makes it impossible for
boats to pass close by. The singers were inaudible.
Maybe there?s more other noise now, I suggested: aeroplanes, motorboats,
general modern static. Not at all, he insisted: the spot is extremely
isolated; there?s no noise pollution there at all. ?Which means,? he
concluded, ?that Homer was deliberately setting a false trail: what he?s
telling us between the lines is that Odysseus disembarked, swam to the
rocks and fucked the sirens.? Maybe he?d been a porn actor after all. I
asked who?d funded the project. The Bundeskulturstiftung, he said. Can you
imagine the Arts Council, with its craven adherence to government criteria
of ?productiveness? and ?outcomes?, footing the bill for such a venture?
Not long afterwards, Strauss sent a hand-woven shawl to my newborn
daughter. Lines from H?lderlin?s Bread and Wine were embroidered on it:
             wozu Dichter in d?rftiger Zeit? Aber sie sind, sagst du, wie
des Weingotts heilige Priester, Welche von Lande zu Land zogen in heiliger
            what use are poets in desolate times?
But they are, you say, like the high priests of the Wine God, Who wandered
from country to country in the sacred night.
When I thanked her by email, she replied with three words: ?Deutschland
wird Griechisch!? (?Germany becomes Greek!?) We corresponded again last
month, after Kittler?s death. ?The arrival of the gods,? she said, ?took
place after the four machines that kept him alive were turned off.? He?d
given the command himself: his last words were ?Alle Apparate auschalten? ?
switch off all apparatuses.

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