I find it remarkable how contributors on this mailing list recall the
personality and intellectual style of Friedrich Kittler, but little is
being said about the insights and theory he left to the contemporary
media criticism/activism/arts field. Interestingly, Kittler never had
a chair for media studies, but for literature and later aesthetics.
His main concern - and partial success at least in the German-speaking
humanities - was to establish technical media (in the sense of
information technology) as a fundamental paradigm, if not a
fundamental ontology, of cultural history and humanities, not so much
- at least in his later years - to contribute to more specialized
fields of contemporary media studies and criticism. In this sense,
Kittler's insistence on 'media' was comparable as well as in
competition to the insistence on the 'sign' in structuralist
semiology, and the earlier insistence on 'geist' ('spirit') in
Hegelian intellectual history, or the insistence on 'culture' in
cultural studies.

What remains perhaps most problematic and contradictory in Kittler's
media theory is the question of (human/cultural/social/political)
agency in relation to technology. Ostensibly, he strictly followed the
post-war Heidegger (and, by implication, other thinkers of the German
early 20th century 'conservative revolution'), considering technology
second nature and condition of human existence and cultural history -
instead of something constructed by humans, and shaped by human
interests. In other words: He proposed a 'Kulturwissenschaft' based on
an ontological techno-materialism as a counter-model to cultural
studies based on cultural materialism. On the other hand, his
insistence on the military roots of information technology - and his
passionate hatred for Microsoft products and love of Linux, among
others - suggested the opposite. As a rule of thumb, and not unlike
German punks in the early 1980s in their provocations against hippies,
he liked to insist on the position that would upset old-style
humanities and liberal leftists the most.

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.


blog: http://en.pleintekst.nl

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