Kittler and the Sirens

Tom McCarthy remembers Friedrich Kittler

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 émigrée 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 protégés 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 Hölderlin 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 Dictaphone.

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 Volksbühne’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 Hölderlin’s Bread and Wine were embroidered on it:

wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?
Aber sie sind, sagst du, wie des Weingotts heilige Priester,
Welche von Lande zu Land zogen in heiliger Nacht.

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.


  • 9 November 2011 at 4:14pm
    outofdate says:
    No need to posit an individual where none exists; a certain type of German windbag all look like that. Here's Raddatz and here's Brock, both more fun.

  • 16 December 2011 at 11:29am
    Benthie says:
    Hello Tom,

    I would really be interested in how you got hold of the information what exactly Kittler's last words were. Who was the source of this information?

  • 27 December 2011 at 8:36pm
    Tom McCarthy says:
    Hello Benthie,

    Joulia Strauss relayed them to me.

  • 28 December 2011 at 9:49pm
    Benthie says:
    Concerning Kittler, this information is really really precious. Someone like Kittler - a man I really really love and admired - saying: Alle Apparate ausschalten, is something staying in my mind and heart very deeply. Thank you very much for the article, Tom.