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25/10/2011

"We only have ourselves to draw upon"

An interview with German media theorist, Friedrich Kittler, who died on 18 October. By Andreas Rosenfelder

Friedrich Kittler lives in a solidly bourgeois turn-of-the-century apartment in the Berlin district of Treptow, not far from the Soviet War Memorial. His bookshelves contain first editions of the works of Stefan George, on his desk lies a computer magazine and a book on opening chess moves, plus a stick of Benson and Hedges cigarettes which has been opened. A few lines of programming language are scribbled on a scrap of paper.

There is probably no one in Germany who more embodies the cliche of the crazy professor than this literary academic, born 1943 in Saxony, with his shock of snow white hair and his full moustache. And there are no other humanities scholars who have ventured so far into the media thicket, writing about not only gramophone, film and typewriter but also electric guitars and artillery rockets. Since last year Kittler, who completed his PhD and habilitation [conferring the right to lecture in German universities] in Freiburg and went onto become a professor in Bochum and Berlin, has been emeritus. His manuscripts, diaries and letters, which also include correspondences with big name philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, he donated to the German Literature Archive in Marbach just a few weeks ago. And hereby what has been perhaps the wildest undertaking in recent German intellectual history achieves the preliminary closure of a lifework.

Welt am Sonntag: Herr Kittler, doesn't it feel slightly creepy to be in the Marbach Archive while you are still alive? It is a dead poets' society after all.

Friedrich Kittler: I'd rather not talk about the moriturus aspect, my mortality in other words. The people in Marbach were not interested in having a complete lifework, they wanted notes and drafts. And they want the electronic stuff, when I'm gone. When I was a student, my favourite lecturer always quoted Aeschylus: Knowledge is a torch, passed on from generation to generation.

Most German professors have trouble answering just their own emails. You'd already started tinkering with your computer in the 80s. Is an edition of your collected hard drives on the cards?

I have tried to save the data at least. But most of the old CDs are broken now. My boxes of notes, however, are still here in the next door room. Written on a typewriter in a most orderly fashion.

What will they mean for future generations?

When I turned 33, the age of Christ, I looked at my box of notes and realised how many topics I had assembled that I still wanted to write about. But this life is not long enough. All the colours that poetry has used to describe the moon, for example, are listed on A6 orange cards. I am consoled by the thought that someone who wants to know what my unwritten books may have looked like can reconstruct this pretty well, in case I keel over all of a sudden.

You should at least be able to reach Ernst Jünger's age, whose legacy is currently on display in Marbach.

Well, let's hope so. My doctors are happier with me than I am.

You have already passed on the torch of theory. You have produced some well-known students, Norbert Bolz for example, and people even speak about "Kittler youth".

Recently in Vienna a freshly baked doctor of philosophy waltzed into my hotel room on a Sunday morning and handed me his dissertation, which was all about my habilitation thesis, "Discourse Networks 1800/1900" ("Aufschreibesysteme" - lit. systems of notation). When I met him for the first time a few years ago, he made an orderly impression, very straight. Now he looked a little dishevelled. His work, by the way, set out to demonstrate that "Discourse Networks" is all about drugs, madness and intoxication.

Is his analysis correct?

In my understanding it has always been more of a cool, classical work. But it was certainly not bourgeois. And the Freiburg Germanists, who needed 13 appraisals instead of the usual 3 to rubber-stamp the habilitation thesis, were bourgeois to the core. From the after-work theatre visits with their wives to church on Sunday.

How much intoxication is there in your theory?

It's always difficult to find the first sentence. And with "Discourse Networks" where everything was at stake, namely my profession, it was more difficult than ever. So I rolled a joint and wrote the first chapter, about Goethe's "Faust", mildly stoned. My father raised me as a demonstration child, so I'd known "Faust" by heart since a very young age and didn't have to have to refer to the text once. For the later chapters, though, I had to do plenty of reading, and that was only possible sober.

Normally pop songs at the most are written under the influence of drugs, not essays.

Some people have suggested that Hegel wrote his "Phenomenology of the Spirit" under the influence of hashish. He consumed "strong tobacco", which around 1800 was a snuff infused with cannabis. Just like babies' dummies at that time contained laudanum, opium in other words. It was only in 1903, as Thomas Pynchon noted, that cocaine was taken out of Coca Cola. Pynchon also writes drugged on the one hand and with extreme technical precision on the other.

But unlike Pynchon you accommodated this into a institutional/university career.

I was always fascinated by the forbidden parallel lives of German professors. The philologist Friedrich Kreuzer had an adulterous affair in 1800 with the poet Karoline von Günderrode, which ended in a scandal when his lover killed herself. Hegel fathered a illegitimate son with his lodger in Jena, whom he so despised that the unfortunate boy signed himself up with the Dutch colonial forces and died of malaria in Indonesia. There are anecdotes about the great minds of the old Federal Republic which I could recount as long as your recording device has space.

You have written essays on Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Have you ever made music yourself?

In my flat in Freiburg I built myself a monophonic synthesizer. My friend, the philosopher Klaus Theweleit, used to play it with one finger. I took care of all the knobs and effects.

As someone who likes tinkering with computers, you must feel at home in the hacker scene.

I've been a frequent guest at the Chaos Computer Club. This little chip here is a Soviet ROM, a Read Only Memory which you can erase through this window here, using ultraviolet light. A lady from the CCC gave it to me as a decorative pin.

Hackers love conspiracy theories.

I share their paranoia a bit. For example, it was actually Alan Turing and the British intelligence agents who built the first functioning computers. But England was so dependent on the US dollar that it signed away all its computer secrets in 1944. The existence of computers was then kept secret from the rest of the world until 1974, or at least the fact that it was computers that had cracked the Wehrmacht codes. It was strictly forbidden to talk about such things so that the same algorithms could be used against the Red Army and the KGB. Truman and Churchill decided in Cecilienhof in Postdam not to let Stalin in on this. It was claimed that General Walther of the Wehrmacht Oberkommado had leaked the secret codes. But no such person existed.

Are you interested in Facebook?

No, not remotely. It gives me the uncanny feeling that normal people have become so unimportant for those in power and business that self-presentation is the last resort. When I arrived in California for the first time and went up Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley heading for campus, I passed a playing field full of exhibitionists running about. People dressed as harlequins begging for money or smoking dope. When I then entered campus and looked at the people there, they lowered their eyes. People either seem completely depressed or they put on a huge show and telephone loudly in the train restaurant.

Have you seen "Social Network" the film about Mark Zuckerberg?

No.

Basically, Mark Zuckerberg invents Facebook because women are not interested in him.

That leads me to one of my favourite questions: the connection between post-adolescent asceticism and innovation. Men today are able to father a child at the age of 13. In my generation most of us didn't sleep with a woman until the age of 20 or 21, only then exposing ourselves to the risk of having children. In the meantime we would come up with incredible ideas. The programmer Linus Thorvalds writes in his autobiography: "I never drank beer, I never had a girlfriend, I wrote Linux." When secondary school kids are already having sex at 14, then this period of latency shrinks. What this means for the culture of the future is an open question. Will it lead to another form of fantasy? Will fantasy disappear?

Does that mean that young geniuses need to be sexually undernourished?

This is pure empiricism, I am not trying to sell any Christian morals here. I went to school in the GDR, I lived in a village in Saxony where we stayed until we escaped to the Republic. All the other boys and girls in the village had their first sex at 14 or 15. None of them went on to become Linux inventors.

You were born in 1943 and your name is Friedrich Adolf Kittler. Was Hitler your namesake?

No. My father had to apply for special permission to call me Adolf. Otherwise every fifth newborn would have had that name. I'm called Friedrich after my uncle, who was killed in the war. And Adolf after my father. He was born on the day after the Battle of Lutzen, and was named Gustav Adolf after the Swedish king. My father suffered with the name Gustav and dropped it over the course of his life. It's the same thing with me and Adolf.

Did any one ever call you Adolf?


As a child I was just called "Azzo" which must have been the nickname given to my father by a woman he'd had an affair with. It was not until 1975 that I decided to go by the name of Friedrich to avoid having to explain myself. My nearest and dearest, however, still call me "Azzo". I've got used to the name "Friedrich Kittler", but when my wife just calls me "Friedrich" I still flinch.

It almost sounds as if your even your name is a complicated code.


My God, I was given so many awful anomalies at birth. I was left handed and had to learn everything new when I started school. Before that I was writing backwards. At home we were German National but in school I had to pretend we were communists. It all felt like a curse. Once when I was a child I opened up a biography of Frederick the Great and started copying a picture of a rider on a rearing horse. My mother looked over my shoulder and asked: "Why is your horse facing right when the one in the book is facing left?" It must have been a terrible shock for me, I have a blackout about it.

Many of your generation had major conflicts with their fathers.

Everyone has these sort of conflicts at some stage but I didn't have it bad with my father. I'm his child - I can't tell you to what extent I'm his son. My father was the headmaster of a large gymnasium school in Saxony. The Russians threw him out, so he had the whole day to teach my brother and me. The teachers at the village school, who had been handpicked as staunch communists, simply couldn't compete.

You've always been interested in the topic of learning, of literacy.


We have no other sources. We only have ourselves to draw upon.

Do you have children yourself?

No, but I married for the second time in 1994. My wife has recently done a magnificent job of looking after me during various bouts of illness. I was the cook in this marriage when we met. Now she cooks for me. Unfortunately since an operation on my digestive tract last year I have a terrible lack of appetite.

Much of your work has been about war and the media and even rock music as a byproduct of the war.

I'm still very much a child of the Second World War. My older half brother was a radar electrical engineer in the war, my uncle bled to death in a Russian prisoner convoy. My father was enlisted in 1914 as a bog-standard infantry man and in 1917 he was a lance corporal and military geologist. Obviously he was measuring out trenches instead of dying in them. In the Second World War, as a major in France, he was put to work assessing which bridges could be crossed by which German tanks.

You've have never had a weapon in your hand yourself?

No. My brother Wolf is a lieutenant in the Reserve Army with the communication units, and extremely proud of it. They wanted to conscript me in the third semester but it was not allowed.

Where does your keen interest in the V2, the Nazi "wonder weapon" come from?

As a child I always spent the summer holidays on Usedom. There I used to stumble across traces of bombs from the port of Peenemünde, which no one in the GDR was allowed to discuss. Later, in California, I read Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" and the scales fell from my eyes. On Usedom everything was covered in asphalt after the end of the war, despite all the British bombs. Even the smallest woodland track was fitted out for V2 transport. This screams out at any not completely blind ten-year-old: What's the mystery here?

You have never expressed an opinion on war, never written an anti-war theory.

At my one and only five-minute meeting with Jürgen Habermas, it was in Amsterdam, he took me aside and reproached me, saying my historical analyses were okay, but I had never showed any commitment to a cause.

In 1968 when the students in Freiburg were demonstrating against Vietnam, you brandished a sign with the Heidegger solution: "Being and Time". A conscious distancing?

Yes. As a child you cannot imaging how fascinated I was by Napoleon.

Are you also involved in the current, so-called "new wars"?

One of my PhD students is a lieutenant colonel in the Luftwaffe, acting commander of a squadron. He has flown Tornado jets, and now he's training people to fly the Eurofighter. At the end of May he's off to Afghanistan, and we have to get his doctoral viva out of the way beforehand. The man advocates a genuine warrior ethic. He says that the Bundeswehr officers have huge respect for the Taliban commanders and vice versa. This applies in part to the US army, but only in part. Because although the US army obeys the laws of war, the Special Forces come in at night and kill women and children.

What's your officer writing his PhD thesis about?

About the fact that it makes no sense to plan a war on a computer and to wage it like a computer game. In situ decisions cannot be simulated.

Does he want to return to a time when there were no computers?


He wants to return to Clausewitz and Prussian assignment tactics. These work on initiative. The commander outlines the objective and the soldiers find the means. In the US army, by contrast, it's all about drilling soldiers into slavish obedience. This is also described by the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld: a WWII Wehrmacht soldier was ten times stronger in terms of fighting abilities than an American.

So war has nothing to do with V2 missiles and cipher machines?

It's about courage, if you can call it that. And the "Discourse Networks" were probably also an act of courage, I fear.

Recently you've moved your focus away from war and turned to the opposite pole, love.

I don't want to talk about love at the moment. I was not always so courageous there.

What interests you about love?

What interested me about love? The orgasm. When you see nothing but the whites of your partner's eyes, then you are gone yourself. "All men, in the vertiginous moment of coitus, are the same man," Borges once wrote.

Can theorists love?

My first marriage, which was sworn on life and death, shattered on my anarchistic research, and my habilitation problems. I was at Stanford then, with a ten-hour time difference, and my wife must have found out that a number of people in Freiburg thought I was nuts. When I came back, she had moved out. I was cock of the roost among young female seminarists but that was no consolation for a lost woman. All the happily married fathers among my friends say: They have the children, I have the books.

As a student in Freibug you travelled to Strasbourg to hear the famous psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan talk. Did you ever undergo analysis yourself?

Yes, of a completely run-of-the-mill kind with a charming psychiatrist who was much more interested in my ideas than my nicotine addiction or sexual tribulations. I believe he analysed away my writer's block. We were all in a bit of a state back then, because of the hashish for one thing. Once in Hamburg I had a horror trip, it came after we'd been drinking some very bad Portuguese wine. My wife thought I was briefly psychotic which is why I took to the couch of a nice old man who was very like my father. He was extremely talented at interpreting Grimms' fairytales and would always turn them on their head. He said that the evil step-parents are actually good and are trying to save the children from the family mire. The children should go into the woods, they can't sit around at home for ever. And you, Herr Kittler?

Isn't the allure of psychoanalysis all about fabricating literature on the couch?

Yes, and perhaps I have also done some of that today.

*

This interview originally appeared in Welt am Sonntag on January 30, 2011.

Andreas Rosenfelder is the deputy
head of the culture pages of the "Welt" and "Welt am Sonntag".

Translation: lp


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