Friedrich Kittler is, even in English, one of the best-known figures in the flourishing field of media studies, thanks to the excellent translations of Discourse Networks (Stanford 1990), Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford 1999) and Literature, Media, Information Systems (Routledge 1997). Distinctive to Kittler's approach is his theoretical ambition, standing directly in the tradition not only of Foucault and Lacan, but also, in his later work, of Heidegger. Kittler's work not only combines the unearthing of forgotten historical and archival materials with interdisciplinary linkages from literature to music and the hard sciences, but also makes powerful and sweeping theoretical claims in highly polemical fashion. This has gained him no lack of critics and outright enemies, especially since Kittler's name has been synonymous with German reception of "French theory" from the late 1970s on. In contrast to the more skeptical and cautious commentary of Manfred Frank (What is Neostructuralism?), Kittler's zeal for anti-humanism led him to a direct attack on the Frankfurt School, [End Page 161] which has opposed French influence, most famously in the work of Habermas. (Interestingly enough, Kittler has been less hostile to hermeneutics. This may not be so surprising given Derrida's debt to Heidegger, for example.) In Germany, Kittler's work has given rise to an entire school of followers and an idiosyncratic writing style known as Kittlerdeutsch. Only the French themselves can be said to have had the same kind of influence in the US.
Geoffrey Winthrop-Young's introduction is the first monograph in any language devoted entirely to Kittler, and the author does not shy away from the many problems and questions thrown up by his subject's controversial position. Among those larger problems would be: what is the ultimate status of Kittler's work? The often-noted historical and philological inaccuracies in his writing can only be compensated for by the larger theoretical claims made. Although he is clearly more than a mere critic or commentator, does his thinking truly attain philosophical originality, or is it only an epigonal derivative of French predecessors? Second, we cannot ignore Kittler's political implications, especially given his loud and frequent declarations of loyalty to Heidegger. Does his overt rebelliousness against older scholarly convenus not mask an underlying conformism or authoritarianism?
Thirdly: how does Kittler's model of media theory relate to the institution of art, particularly literature? In a deliberately Nietzschean inversion of Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of mass culture that preserves the Frankfurters' direst predictions only to affirm them, Kittler's media-driven history tends to make art the inevitable casualty of media. What drove Neil Postman to despair, or causes William Paulson concern, is for Kittler something to be affirmed in a nihilistic amor fati: namely that media can only produce a Pavlovian "stupidity" (Dummheit) annihilating all old print-driven cultural reflectivity. In this, Kittler is a McLuhan without the latter's Romantic illusions of a "global village" or "retribalization." As Winthrop-Young points out (15), Kittler has here only produced yet another Hegelian historical grand récit with all attendant teleology and determinism. He does so, moreover, with all the impossibly preposterous exaggerations of McLuhan. (One of his essays, titled "There is no Software," declares that "As we all know and only won't say, no one writes anymore." [Drakulas Vermächtnis, 226]). This obsolescence not only of literature, but also of writing itself, is hardly one of Kittler's most widely accepted ideas. Many media theoreticians have pointed out that media theory does not so much render literature passé as view it in a new light, i.e. as a medium. This may be less sublimely provocative and shocking [End Page 162] than Kittler's post-humanist, post-high cultural nihilism, but it is also ultimately more productive.
Winthrop-Young's book combines a freely essayistic discussion of these and other questions with an expository overview...