News/ 7 July 2019
Week of the Festival: Hausacher Leselenz, Hausach, Germany
Instrument or Weapon?
Notes on Contemporary Literature
Exactly 140 years ago, the well-known Nationalist, historian, and anti-Semite Heinrich von Treitschke published the essay “Unsere Aussichten” [Our Views] in which he outlined his demands on a Jewish population which had only eight years earlier—with the founding of the German Reich—been bestowed their civil rights. Treitschke writes:
What we require of our Israelite citizens is easy: They should become Germans. They should quite simply feel that they are Germans—without prejudice to their beliefs and their ancient, holy memories which are venerable to all of us. For we do not wish for the thousands of years of Germanic civilization to be followed by an era of German-Jewish cultural mix.
Today, the question of German Leitkultur [guiding culture] has lost none of its currency. I would like to begin by providing a plea precisely for the preservation of this “cultural mix.” The “thousands of years of Germanic civilization” were a self-deception then—and they remain one now, recast as thousands of years of ‘Judeo-Christian tradition.’ I consider the debate which is gaining currency again over the question of who belongs in Germany (and who doesn’t) to be the expression of an excessive, encroaching arrogance which should not be spared comparison with Heinrich von Treitschke.
I won’t waste any time demonstrating how an idea like German Leitkultur is based on notions of völkisch harmony which refute themselves as soon as they are called to question by the instruments of historical science. The borders of German culture have always been open, it had no center, and was - like the many political states that comprised it - plural. This commentary is concerned with something else. Namely, the questions: What relation has art—and in particular, literature—had in these political developments, what relation does it still have today? And should there be a relationship at all?
I maintain that literature is not the cure, but rather part of the problem we call society. Following Bourdieu, I could also say that literature is symptomatic of the society in which it originates. For when I say society, I mean society’s fragmentations, its concept of normality, and the discrimination and functionalization of minorities this concept entails. To the extent that the fields of art and literature are part of a society, they reflect this discrimination and functionalization as well.
And so we know (or at least we could know) that art has played—and still plays—a specific function in each era for its corresponding society. In German society, for example, it is difficult to deny that art took center stage in the development of a Romantic, völkisch-nationalism in opposition to Napoleon’s Grande Nation. Furthermore, if we consider that the models developed then continue to play a role in the present, one is led to ask: What function does literature fulfill today?
I was socialized as a poet during the 2000s. The concept of political poetry was frowned upon back then because it represented a kind of ‘agitprop’ poetry [agitation-propaganda] which, without a doubt, often fell short of poetry’s full potential as an artform. Political poetry meant bad poetry. But this is an aesthetic judgment. Positing that good poetry is not political has the perfidious effect that an assessment of quality replaces discussion of poetry’s political aspects. I will come back to this.
To be sure, art—including literature—is not political in the proper sense of the word, since politics play out on their own field, by their own rules. But art is socially relevant. And the question of whether an artist reflects on this sociality or not is already a part of the relevance. I will come back to this, as well.
Symptom or Cure
There are many authors—entire schools and institutions even—who object to attributing a political dimension to literature. A striking example of this can be found in the recent debate around a poem by Eugen Gomringer which, after a few years, students at a vocational school in Berlin wanted to have replaced with another work.
Let’s recall for a moment what exactly happened here. The director of the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences Berlin was gifted a poem by Eugen Gomringer in appreciation for having received an award from the institution for his poetry. Apparently honored in turn, the director then decided on her own to have the poem written across the façade of the university building, facing the S-Bahn station, for all to see. That was all well and good for a while. Until it wasn’t: The students demanded a vote to see whether the majority of them wanted this poem to remain on their university’s façade. The majority decided it was time for a new poem.
One basis of the (not merely student) critique of Gomringer’s “avenidas” was a feminist analysis of the speaker’s position in this compact poem—a lyrical I who reveals himself as an admirer of avenues, flowers, and women. Now of course one can have different opinions on content and interpretation. But it is not a question of opinion that feminist literary critique has existed for more than half a century (perhaps slightly less at German universities). The reactions from PEN to the Ministry of Culture—arguing against any kind of political reading of this poem in particular, and all poetry in general—were not merely counterfactual, they also represented a confirmation of the (feminist) thesis on the complicity between aesthetic judgment and the power of social interpretation.
But the problem didn’t stop there. In the course of their vehement rejection of a theoretically normative interpretation—and with it, the question: In what way is poetry symptomatic of its present? (Gomringer’s poem was written in the 1950s)—they also deny literature one of its essential dimensions: contemporary relevance. And that, for me, is at least as grave a crime as the reproduction of a masculine structure of interpretation (regardless of the gender of the apologist). In their apologetics for Gomringer’s text, these self-appointed defenders of a literature free from politics neglect precisely the sociality of the art form, which remains every bit as indisputable as the sociality of the material with which it operates: language.
This means, by implication, that if one wanted to present a consistent defense of Gomringer’s text as apolitical, one would also need to prove that language was neutral. I will return to this in a moment. But even if one wanted to make a claim for the neutrality of language (and I do not), literature’s reception remains a point after which its embeddedness in a society can no longer be denied. There is no doubt that the rejection of any and all meaning can represent noncompliance with a bellicose rhetoric in a given society. Just look at Dada: During a period which demands unequivocal, ideological affirmation, a polyvalent text can be a political critique or commentary—in a given society. GDR poets like Adolf Endler, Elke Erb, or Uwe Kolbe have their stories to tell.
To be sure, a textual rejection of any and all meaning can also just be well-concealed boredom: the lament of a uniquely German literary postmodernism that everything has already been said and nothing new can be written. Perhaps, with this complaint, the speaker reveals much more about themself than about contemporary literature. Because in some circumstances, there is nothing more behind this attitude of boredom than a lack of interest in the problems which language and the present-day assign. The postmodern claim that everything has already been said carries with it the assertion that things should stay the way they are. If you already have everything, you can only repeat yourself.
Literature as Coming to Terms with the Present [Gegenwartsbewältigung]
Today, of course, there are any number of themes which demand more than just writing. Things which have not yet been sufficiently de-scribed. And with this I don’t simply mean the rampant political developments which offer us new analytical (and so, artistic) challenges on an almost daily basis. I also mean that working with the German language has not been the same since 1945. Because the language has not stayed the same.
1945, in some ways, has meant a reset for our work with the German language. While literary traditions like Romanticism undoubtedly remain points of reference for our writing, we observe these reference points through the incendiary lens of the 20thcentury. And once we accept this distortion, very different things become apparent which—perhaps—some might have preferred not to see. And with this, I return to the topic of language and its supposed neutrality: the claim to an innocence which never existed and still does not exist today. The violence of society’s history and present are written into its language; this violence continues to shimmer on its surface, even as it settles to form part of language’s structure for the present day.
In a poem which I wrote together with the Berlin poetry collective G13 and later included in my second book, Jubeljahre, I tinkered with Matthias Claudius’ famous lullaby “Abendlied” [Evening Song] (I later discovered that the East German poet Franz Fühmann had pointed to a similar interpretation more than two decades before):
[…] it would require sufficient authority to say “love”
yes, love! when we think of germany, the markish sand, think of the moors or cast iron, to hum: the risen moon is beaming, little golden stars are gleaming, in heavens bright and clear. stars are yellow and have six points, DAMNIT, the stars are distant clouds of: gas, DAMNIT
we hum: the woods stand still and hold their silence, and from the meadows rises white mist wonderfully. the woods, the friendly closemouthed german woods and their unparalleled diversity: birchwald, oakwald, buchenwald, DAMNIT from the meadows rises mist, wonderfully white smoke, DAMNIT
ear to the tracks one time too long, and already the fir trees are burning. before us on the rails, the forest consumed by smoke. climbs into cellars, dusts off cushions, lonely thoughts: what’s the deal with the boredom, this german amnesia?
one or two strikes with a metal rod suffice to forget the whole story. what more do our fists know of their fathers than what they destroy? sleeping booby trap beneath a moon with open helm
and so we squat in transit and raise our heads out from freight cars. actually we still have nothing in our hands, just an album of white photographs. reminders of the things we did not live ourselves
(from Jubeljahre [Jubilees] 2015, Verlagshaus Berlin, 59-61)
The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, a student of the Frankfurt School, once observed that the Holocaust had never really arrived in Sociology: Sociologists registered the historical fact, but the Holocaust remained largely without consequence for their specific discourse or theoretical models. I’d like to suggest that the same applies to literature, to the extent that literature still, to this day, seeks to divest itself of historicity and so the symptomatic nature of its own material—and to disguise this rejection, in some cases, as a postmodern lament. In a post-1945 Germany, the sheer presentism, the meaningless intertextuality, and the lament of boredom smell like repression to me…
I’m returning to my starting point: Regardless of the degree to which authors consider themselves part of society, their texts certainly are. They are composed in a language which is the language of society, of discrimination and exclusion—but also of the radical diversity which comprises both Germany and German literature today. Which comprised them yesterday, as well. The genealogy of German discourse on belonging and Leitkultur also includes those writers whose self-declared autonomy from the present is perhaps nothing more than poorly thought through ideology. And ideology here is also a specific term for the lack of knowledge about one’s own position in the present and the material with which one works.
It follows, that I can only conceptualize literature as a more or less conscious form of coming to terms with the present. As work on the present, as it were, and as work towards a concrete future which is by no means innocent. A work which—mindful of all those things that are at stake—can never be innocent. One of the central tasks of this work, for me, seems to be becoming aware of the roles we play as artists, curators, and funding institutions. Of where art provides affective space, where it makes voices audible, and where it opens conceptual space for thought. And also where art shies away from designations, where it is the lust for forgetting, property rights, and bourgeois pettiness.
For far too many people in this country, as well, the droning coquetry of l’art pour l’art behind a glass of scotch means, as it always has: not simply art for its own sake, but rather art for the lucky few. And this brings me, at my conclusion, back again to Bourdieu—because a particular, normative concept of art stabilizes social positions of power. The statement that good poetry is not political has the insidious effect of precluding discussion of political questions or positions from the very onset. Habitus conferred as taste, aestheticizing the German desire to forget. Aesthetic judgment excluding a feminist reading of art or a thematization of the presence of Nazism in the German language as bad poetry.
These are not luxury questions. My plea for a greater openness in our poetological concepts is not an act of charity. The categories for degenerate art are being deployed again today by the AfD and the New Right. Art cannot be neutral given this development—regardless of how much its advocates might wish for it to be. Art is inevitably entangled in the political-ideological conflicts of the present-day. The extent to which a particular desire for forgetting or for freedom from the present shifts to the center of artistic aesthetics is a symptom of these conflicts. To the extent to which art represents a conscious coming to terms with the present, it becomes—albeit not the cure—part of the diagnosis for the collective sickness we’re suffering.
English translation by Jon Cho-Polizzi
Max Czollek was born in 1987 in Berlin, where he lives and writes today. In 2016, he received his PhD from the Center for Research on Antisemitism at TU Berlin. Since 2009, he has been a member of the Poetry Collective G13 and a co-editor of the magazine Jalta – Positionen zur jüdischen Gegenwart [Yalta – Positions on the Jewish Present]. In May 2016, he co-organized Desintegration. Ein Kongress zeitgenössischer jüdischer Positionen [De-Integration Congress] at the Maxim Gorki Theater’s Studio Я together with Sasha Marianna Salzmann. He has published two collections of poetry with Verlagshaus Berlin, Jubeljahre [Jubilees] (2015) and Druckkammern [Pressure Chambers] (2012). His non-fiction work, Desintegriert Euch! [De-Integrate Yourselves!] (2018), was published by Carl Hanser Verlag. A new collection of his poetry is scheduled for publication in 2019.