Relaxed Stagnation

Diederichsen, Bolz, Kurz and the German Cultural Condition

Martin Heidegger came up with the out-of-the-blue question: “Why do we remain in the provinces?” And Lou Reed answered: “There is only one good thing about a small town. You hate it and you know you have to leave.” Were someone to pose the question again, in these young days of the Berlin Republic, the answer may turn out be: because only provinces remain. The manufactured image of Berlin as a “young capital” has a glaring, painful wanna-be aspect. With a diminishing population, a chronic bankruptcy of the city, weak industry and finance sectors, the urban spin doctors now turn to a mythology of Berlin in the early Nineties. A once thriving techno culture which has been neutralized (and evicted) by the same odd mix of petty commerce and boring bureaucrats who now are called upon to leave their creative landscapes for the “new Berlin”. In that case, why Germany? One must have personal reasons. After having accepted its ugliness, finally knowing how to deal with the deeply rooted bad moods and immanent tendencies toward self-destruction, I can say at least, I simply love it, its culture and language. Adoring Germany is a problematic hobby. It helps to keep in mind the slogan of the autonomen, “Germany has to die, in order that we can live!” Kodwo Eshun has done groundwork here, declaring Kraftwerk’s Duesseldorf of the late 1970s and early Eighties the Mississippi Delta of techno. That same Kraftwerk is now composing the jingle for the Hannover Expo 2000. The usual attitude of foreign observers is to neglect this part of Europe and deal with less traumatic, less difficult, more exotic places. So we are stuck with a view of Germany as a raw reality park, full of dynamic history components, oscillating between romanticism to barbarism. Its full stock of poets and thinkers, judges and executioners, are highly trained in the art of condemnation, negation and deconstruction of a country that can supposedly no longer exist after Auschwitz.

In the German mental landscape subtle melancholy and profound sentiments all of a sudden turn into strong passions and outbursts of violence. There is nothing more brilliant under the sun than the contorted obsessions of the post-war generations as they analyze Germany past and present, in order to sabotage its future. Forget Timothy Garton Ash. These Anglo-Saxon observers of the Teutonic Bestie, looking down from their superior Rational Observatory will not guide you through the mesmerizing conceptual palaces of German thought. Their analyses have been numbed by the desire for normalization which is now about to become the official ideology in Germany and the world.

Some advice: you need to have a passion for the problematic side of things. Not for actual problems, because Germany does not have that many, really. Certainly not more then an average EU country, being the world’s third richest industrial power. Get ready to indulge yourself in rich cultures of complaint. Take part in their collective rituals of (self) critique. There is a growing emphasis on the therapeutic aspects of reinscription, and less concern about the rhetoric of the general meetings, where representatives of a movement or scene stand up, recite a list of ‘theses’ attacking this or that position or person and then open up the meeting for a lengthy discussion. Think of all, and especially your most intimate friends as possible traitors, always ready to sell-out, proto-fascists, renegades, failed democrats, spies, Stasi-agents, ready to join the army of History, in name of the Idea, this nightmare from which German culture has yet to awaken. Don’t exclude yourself from scrutiny. Participate in the culture of suspicion and public positions, and do in a passionate way. Notice that all those good intentions ultimately erect Konzentrationslager. Without exception. One day you will stand accused yourself, having thus reached the highest possible level of the mediated discourse, becoming part of the German Question yourself. Be prepared for the real Auseinandersetzung. Confront yourself, in this case with German theory, and enjoy.

The three titles under discussion here have all been written in the same period, in the second part of 1998. They appeared in the spring of 1999, before the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia and in the shadow of Oskar Lafontaine’s mute resignation. Written too early to address any changes, as if still under the spell of the ‘reform backlash’, they reflect the Nineties in the moment of their appearance as a historical topic, in the days of the political transition from the bankrupt social market state of Kohl to the Red-Green coalition of Schroeder.

Diedrich Diederichsen is the former editor-in-chief of Spex, a Cologne-based independent pop magazine, and occasional contributor to Art Forum and October. His latest collection of essays and record reviews, ‘Der lange Weg nach Mitte, Der Sound und die Stadt’ (The Long Way to Mitte. The Sound and the City) carries a double reference. Mitte is the emerging neighborhood in former East-Berlin, with all its cafes, art galleries, and, as of late, yuppies. It is also the “neue Mitte” (new Centre) as the political center, the imaginary object of the Schoeder-Blair pact. Marked by a concern for the average, liberal family with a house, car and two children now caught in the pressures of coping in “societies undergoing rapid change”, the neue Mitte is the name for the project of severing the very last ties of Social Democratic politics to the welfare state, in order to re-establish Germany as a ‘respectable’ nation, with a ‘decent’ nationalism. The project also accommodates a popular culture that can accompany the process, cool fellow travellers of the Third Way. ‘The Sound and the City’ of the subtitle refers to specific urban settings that produce specific styles of pop culture, which then mix into a specific identity. Like London and jungle, Paris and rai, New York and hiphop, there is Berlin and techno. Diederichsen describes these ‘inner cities and inner spaces’ in terms of four poles of their expression: atmospheres and situations, melodies and grooves. But soon after such theoretical explorations, Diederichsen retires to that inner space more familiar and congenial to the cultural critic: the tragedy of pop power. Intellectuals, like Diederichsen, who had never really been involved in techno of the late eighties (due to leftist guitar rock backgrounds), are not exactly the right people to mourn over the Fall of Techno. His postition is that of a leading ideologist of cultural activists and contemporary artists, who came into techno after having made a theoretical analyse of where power had to be located, and which idiom to use in order to widen the possible cracks on the surface of information capitalism.

Norbert Bolz, who’s earlier books I reviewed in Mediamatic (1990-92), has meanwhile undergone a transformation from a Berlin philosophy professor and Walter Benjamin scholar into a Zeitgeist figure, known for his appearances in a television spot for Deutsche Telekom. Bolz now teaches Design and Marketing at the university of Essen, an unusual career for someone coming from the field of ‘negative theology’. There are very few who would not approve of this as a personal development. Bolz would be the ideal Schroeder type. Bolz represents the business-oriented, easy going, happy German who has gotten over the collective metaphysics of dusty pessimism and scepticism that seemed to be the only possible attitude of intellectuals during Germany’s long and winding recession. Bolz’s latest book, ‘Conformists of Difference’, reads as a critique of the type of PC Pop Left, as exemplified in the pages of Spex, but leaves out naming any actual enemies and examples. The collection of essays takes a very general category of the ’68 critical theory representatives as its target – a generation which now by all accounts should be in power, but has lost its grip on the discursive machines. Bolz has found easy victims in these few Adorno-Horkheimer scholars left, a once dominant cultural discourse in the late seventies but now outflanked by middle of the road post-modernism, market-driven cultural studies, lifestyle journalists, and an emerging stratum of essayists to which Bolz himself belongs.

The writings of Robert Kurz suddenly appeared out of the blue in 1991 when he was ‘discovered’ by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Enzensberger published Kurz’s study ,’The Collapse of Modernization’ in which Kurz predicted the German economic crisis of the mid-nineties. His method was simple but shocking for the Germans, who thought they had gotten rid of those nasty marxists. With the financial newspapers in one hand and some basic marxist economic theory in the other, Kurz argued that the economic downturn was the obvious outcome of the re-unification. His conclusions turned out to be uncontroversial. Even the business press at the time gave a cautiously positive response to Kurz’s realistic, grim analysis. Kurz is a member of the group called ‘Krisis’, a name which is both concept and program. The particular problems caused by globalization, ecological robbery, gender and race specific exploitation accompany the general and even more destructive drive towards commodification of all aspects of life. This leads in Kurz’s analysis to an almost totalizing ‘crisis’ of structural, titanic proportions. Kurz has worked his way through the failures and catastrophies of real existing socialism as well. No belief remains in any sort of proletariat, class, trade union or even political party.

Unlike many of his generation, Kurz has not gone the way of the new social movements. Consequently he did not turn into a Green party adviser. Nor did he become a red-green consultant of the modernization wing of the SPD, as did Ulrich Beck. Instead, Kurz retreated into another position symptomatic of our times: a critique without subject. Like his other famous topic, ‘casino capitalism’, the analysis can be so radical and imprecise, because it is as free floating as the virtual stocks and bonds. Every attempt to materialize crisis theory into some practice would be confronted with drugs, internet, underground music and all the commodification problems which go together with the current forms of resistance. An example here could be Reclaim the Streets and the June 18 (1999) action day against global capitalism. Protest and party are one here, a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) full of pagan elements. Once again, radical theory and autonomous practice are drifting away from each other, with a growing grey zone of dirty pragmatism in between the two. Kurz latest book is a departure from his former work inasmuch as it does not deal with economic issues of Germany’s reunification and its position within the processes of globalization. In analogy to Schopenhauer, it is called ‘The World as Will and Design’. Kurz addresses here for the first time the topics of postmodernity and the ‘lifestyle left’, referring to Diederichsen and Bolz as symptoms of the ‘aestheticization of the crisis’. Barbara Kirchner’s review of Kurz in Spex 07/99 praised the book. Not a single sentence was questioned. For Kirchner, what makes Kurz worth reading is his outsider’s view as a political economist, uninvolved in cultural politics and all the intrigues and identities that accompany this specific form of abstract work. Finally, there is someone again who is negative about culture as such and all our efforts and projections about its assumed room for alternatives.

In these three positions, the points of agreement are clear enough. All three theorists are deeply anchored in the experiential horizons of the post-war Bonn Republic. They lived and grew up in West-Germany, and this remains their reference. It is remarkable to see to what extent ‘1989’ is a black hole for them. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the following reunification do not seem to merit reflection. For Bolz, Diederichsen and Kurz, these events mark the starting point of the ‘crisis’, but in no respect a moment of liberation. These are not the right critics to analyze the conditions in Berlin at the transition to the Nineties; the early Berlin Love Parades, squats, labels, club culture, those celebrations so different from the dark Eighties with its guitar-based punk rock. The three theorists have a common disinterest in the breakup of the East block or the wars in Former Yugoslavia. The same can be said of European integration, the Schengen agreement, and the introduction of the Euro as a common currency. Contemporary theory has yet to address this major economic and political shift, which may turn out to characterize the Nineties more than the pop culture adventures of the German province, where culture is German, American and English, in that order. The problematic German reception of gangsta-rap remains the hot issue, not the politics of the Balkans. The ‘backwardness’ in the Eastern outposts of the Reich lack the hipness of the poverty in Brooklyn, Harlem or South-Central. Multi-culturalism is at best a dominant ideology, not a messy reality, let alone a living pool of references. The same can be said of the internet and cyber-culture. Though Bolz and Diederichsen, as media theorists, and Kurz as a well-informed economist, each know parts of the story, new media has yet to become an integral part of their analyses. Diedrich Diederichsen’s ‘anti-Odyssee’ circles around the growing cultural necessity to deal with Berlin, the metropolis in transition, step by step becoming Germany’s new capital, of which no one exactly knows if it might become the power center of a new German empire. Berlin did achieve mythical status as a center of techno music in the early to Mid – Nineties. Cheap, empty warehouses, lofts and clubs in the Eastern part of town created a temporary playground. Diederichsen, and his Spex crew, operating from Cologne, weren’t prepared for this. Even though Diederichsen himself moved there last year, suspicion about Berlin’s intentions remains, and this resentment is only growing. I am not refferring to the justified critique of its corporate culture, Daimler’s Potsdamer Platz and Sony City, the dominant position of sponsers, the lack of public funds due to the bankruptcy of the city, the provincial character of its politicians, the dubious role of visual arts, fashion, design… and techno’s complicity in selling a glamorous image of the young capital. This is all true. What makes Diederichsen such an interesting theorist is the way in which he is inventing a counter-position to this unproblematic Gruenderzeit atmosphere. Unlike Kurz, Diedrichsen has a constituency, and he knows it. West-Germany in the Nineties managed to build up a ‘Pop left’, a loose grouping of a few thousand artists, activists, DJs, critics, and other cultural workers who built up their own reference system. Keywords: Minimal Club, Beute, Die Goldenen Zitronen, ID-Archiv, Texte zur Kunst, Spex. A particular collection of events, clubs, exhibitions, labels and bands, buzz words, book titles, fanzines, names. One needs to have a solid background knowledge of the post-war ‘boheme’ counter cultures, including the cultural history of armed struggle. No attempt has yet been undertaken to make this counter culture available to non-German audiences, and this is now complicating international exchange. It will be quite a task to translate the dogmatic commands of Texte zur Kunst, of what is right and wrong, especially because we will never find out to what extend the leftist art elite is not an imaginary category alltogether. Who is there to be guided anyway? In Germany, including some more places such as Zuerich and Vienna, there are at least still small pockets of resistance, related to an imaginary construct, a simulated entity to which the art scene belongs, or relates to. This subject is in constant need of critique, strategy, morals and directives. In the past this might have been the people, working class, the party, which then turned into the urban ‘scene’. Today’s floating clientele of the culture industries is labeled as (virtual) communities.

The SPEX-centered counter culture is obsessed with the failures and loss of the pop subject, starting from the moment of decay. This tribal storytelling is in the end its theory, but it lacks the usual initial or authentic experiences which then turn into the myths of orgin. For Diedrichsen Berlin is synonymous with a ‘widespread discomfort’. This is a polemic against the idea that there is a new beginning for Germany. But what lacks in this radical negation is self-confidence, humour, irony — and actual stories. We do not get an account of the wild things which happened around the turn of the Nineties. Just that it is not there anymore and others have now highjacked the Pop & City complex and put it in a nationalistic German setting. Theory sets in in best owl of Minerva fashion only when the TAZ has been dissolved long ago. Only in the aftermath can Diederichsen states that there is a ‘crisis in contemporary diagnostics’. In this void, according to Diederichsen, an ‘outcry for more reality’ is heard. This pop left faction is about to lose its direction and disintegrate. The reason for this, in my opinion, lies in the dogmatism and the inability to make coalitions with the more hedonistic, less theory-schooled youngsters who speak a direct, visual language and are inventing new forms of direct action. An opening up could bring forth a radical attack on the hegemonic culture could be disruptive. But we do not speak about strategy here. For Diedrichesen this is not possible. These are dark times. ‘Capitalism cannot only buy up and commodify its negation, it can even formulate it.’ Much of the productive moments in which groups tried to counter-act this, ‘remained moments.’ Today’s condition of electronic solitude, producing alone, at home or in the studio, is not exactly the ideal situation to break through the stagnation. Diederichsen here cries over his lost subject, which he needs as a critic in order not degrade into a post-modernist chronicler. To sum up: pop culture has become an ideological state apparatus (Althusser), is an integral part of the cultural production (Bourdieu), and develops ‘technologies of the self’ within the larger framework of the ‘control society’ (Deleuze). Even the road back to the elitist sound art, is blocked because ‘music no longer can be depopularized.’ All in all, the concept of pop as a way to deal with the condition of modern life is no longer transcending anything. The crossings themselves have been contained. Norbert Bolz should be read as a clownish low-tar philosopher. He stands on the ruins of modernism and oversees the landscape of broken concepts and ideas. But as the very model of a most post-modernist philosopher, Bolz is not brave enough to put aside the works of Luhmann, Nietzsche, Warburg, Simmel, etc. So we end up here with a unique German jumble of mostly traditionalist, if not cultural pessimist thinking combined with quotes from lifestyle magazines, Jeff Koons, comedy television series, circling back again to Hegel and Schopenhauer. It is still acceptable in these official circles to ignore what communication sciences and cultural studies have researched about popular culture and its reception for the last twenty years. The Anglosaxon discourse of ‘cultural studies’ has by now reached German universities. Recently two readers with translations with key texts of Hall, Ang, Greenberg etc. have appeared. Cultural studies has long been an important point of reference in circles of Spex and Texte zur Kunst, but the universities, outside of this smallish art circuit of the ‘pop left’, have until recently remained traditional and dusty, with philosophy and German literature dominating the field of (new) media, not those with a background in the social sciences. It is easy to complain about this backwardness. But the why not turn the deficit into an asset? Research in most other places in the world lacks the very conceptual richness which is still present in Germany, now in danger of finally being pushed aside by a more pragmatic cultural management approach, in which the Anglosaxon/SPEX school of cultural studies is playing such a odd role, of simultaneously criticizing and promoting corporate media cultures.

At least we see here a constant reproduction of structural distrust against all buzzwords. Metaphysical tradition and critique of the ruling cultural managerial class are producing odd hybrids here. Norbert Bolz, by pointing at this phenomena is himself very much part of this “conformism of difference”. Bolz is a German master in stating the obvious. Nothing he writes is controversial, let alone breaking new grounds. His “protest is the message” could have been from a dull sociologist of Sixties, explaining the parents that ‘underground’ is in fact mainstream and that there is little to worry about. “Modernity produces its own criticism.” The critique of society is merely a by-product of the system itself. Negation is not a gesture or sign of resistance, but has been integrated in the system and assigned the function of raising complexity. The paradox that Bolz is pointing out here is very visible in today’s Germany. Critique has increased the immunity of capitalism. It sounds masochistic, but it works just fine. The more harsh, precise, merciless the criticism, the more flexible the system can respond to changes and demands.

Deviations are good business. A well defined and designed difference will immediately be picked up by the information-hungry culture industry. As a scientistic gesture, Bolz favors description of current phenomena, rather than critique. But Bolz himself fully fails to observe even a single topic or item, and can therefore not advise us on the tools or spectacles we should use. He is too much in love with rhetorics and style, which Bolz judges as valuable and unavoidable tools in the struggle over cyberspace. Adorno as researcher of fashions and trends remains too clean and formal to really dive deep into popular media culture, no matter how much Bolz is embracing the surfaces. “Nonsense is desire, consensus no desire.” That’s very primitive Bachtin-like carneval culture. Nonsense is the pathos of the Germans as a good and well mannered, tamed Western people. It is true that Germany’s left still has a long way to go in embracing trash. While discovering popular culture for the first time, so it seems, his conclusion is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of the Eighties. The mood is fine: “Germany is becoming lax, funny, relaxed.”

Robert Kurz would analyse Bolz’s position not in its opposition to the left, but as a high point on the long and winding road “back into the system”. The lifestyle-left is now the dominant ideology, with Bolz as the most sophisticated postmodern spokesperson of the cynical modernization wing within the SPD. Ulrich Beck even is too cautious for this, having a bad conscience about the negative consequences of globalization for the average German workers. The left has replaced its economist reductionism of the seventies for a similar dogma of culturalism. It can not bring capitalist structure to dance. Instead, the postmodern left is trying to keep up with the melody, and sings, “in the hope of getting some of the chocolates.” For Kurz, the emerging cultural industries do not form an economic sector like the others. The “theatre of creativity”, for Kurz, is nothing else then a crisis symptom of the decaying middle class as it comes under intense pressure in the process of globalization. Lacking a “fundamental critique of the commodity character” of culture, there are no longer options for a “radical transformation”. The last option for the self-proclaimed “resistance media” is to beg for some attention — and funding. This results in an “unconditional affirmation” of the slackish McJob-Generation X, including its pop leftist wing and their “opposition within the affirmation”. Still, it remains unclear where and when the decay originates. And would the return to the unspoiled source do us any good? Suppose we would reject the model of decay and defeat alltogether, would it then be desirable to operate without any imaginary revolutionary subject?

If Deleuze and Guattari have to be abandoned, demasked as the philosophers of micro expectations in the age of deminishing resources, who then will replace them? What is to be found beyond decay and decline (Kurz/Diederichsen), and market peptalk (Bolz)? Who will question the intrinsic corruptive role of “culture” as such (music, media, fashion, etc.), without ending up in some weird protestant, purist sect, which is dedicating itself only to the Cause, worshipping the Words (of the Master), eager not express anything in public, in danger of appropriation. This is not only a ridiculous idea, it has also been proven a sheer impossibility. Every attempt to resist has to cope with the mechanisms of appropriation. This includes Kurz and his Krisis, the Zapatistas, Hakim Bey’s TAZ, Electronic Civil Disobedience, People’s Global Action, No One is Illegal, etc. Only if the tricky mechanisms of culture and politics within today’s network economy are understood, there might be temporary ways out to come to theory and practice on the run. The German ability to show us around in the rich world of problematic concepts is a useful counter balance to Anglo-saxon “cultural studies”, which is increasing unable to formulate, and implement, a meta-discourse on the role of “culture” in a networked economy. Can culture as such be dissident or will all forms of expression end up as a welcome innovative force? A cultural cryptography is under way which makes it impossible to hack subversive vitalities. Who will invent the second ENIGMA? And will it run this time on Berlin-based machinic logic?

[edited by Anita Mage]

Diedrich Diederichsen, Der lange Weg nach Mitte. Der Sound und die Stadt. Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1999. Norbert Bolz, Die Konformisten des Andersseins. Das Ende der Kritik. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1999. Robert Kurz, Die Welt als Wille und Design. Postmoderne, Lifestyle-Linke und die Aesthetisierung der Krise. Berlin: Edition Tiamat, 1999.