Wednesday, November 09, 2011

First paragraphs and last: Kitler and the Sirens
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.

...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.
Obituary in the Guardian
But doubtless Kittler attended Bayreuth for opera rather than celebrity worship. Indeed, his lifelong obsession with music was such that the most important event of his undergraduate years was attending a lecture by György Ligeti. Later, he wrote several essays for Bayreuth festival productions of Wagner. By the time of his death, one volume of a projected monumental tetralogy on music and mathematics had been published.

Arguably, Pink Floyd meant more to him than Foucault. In his 1993 book Dracula's Legacy, he meticulously analysed the band's song Brain Damage from the 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, arguing that its three verses move from mono to stereo to "maddening" surround sound – the hi-tech version of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk. According to admirers, he would have liked to have played in the band.
Like brilliant drag queens, some avatars of absurd self-indulgence evade criticism simply by virtue of commitment.

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