What Was Left Was Dancing
Roehrensee: Skalitzer Straße, Berlin, 1987 (CC)
by Stuart Walton
The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion 1960-1990
Philipp Felsch, trans. Tony Crawford
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021, 324pp
The First Days of Berlin: The Sound of Change
Ulrich Gutmair, trans. Simon Pare
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021, 212pp
What passes by the name of Theory now – occasionally Critical Theory, at considerable risk of confusion with the work of the Frankfurt School’s founding generation – was once known as philosophy. The latter, which lived on despite its speculative rustication at the hands of Marx, aimed at an account of reality that could withstand comparison with those of the ancients. Nietzsche wanted people who read his philosophy, a combative enterprise for which only the mental equivalent of a hammer would suffice, to put its enjoinders and imperatives into practice in their own lives, so that each individual would fully become who they potentially were. That way madness lay, as it turned out, and philosophical writing at the outset of the twentieth century lent itself instead to matters arising from sociology and politics, with deep interstitial penetrations into the aesthetic realm.
This at least was the current that flowed through the European philosophical heartland of Germany, from the tributaries of Kant’s three critiques and Hegel’s ameliorative theory of history to the late-Marxist attempt in Frankfurt to explain the failure of the revolutionary masses to set an upside-down world on its feet. Philipp Felsch opens his survey of the fate of theory in western Europe in what he calls the ‘Federal Republic of Adorno’, whose luminary role in the Institute of Social Research, notably its rich exilic period in the wartime United States, had made him into something very like a public intellectual in postwar West Germany.
In the generation that followed Adorno’s final decade, the 1960s, the theory enterprise received an axial turn, its centre of gravity shifting decisively to Paris, where, despite the avowed leftist commitments of many of the practitioners of post-structuralist, semiotic and deconstructive theory – or ‘discourse’, as it became known – the focus was not on addressing the proletariat, or changing the world, or changing anything particularly, but on its own hypnotic linguistic procedures. If Adorno’s Negative Dialectics had recommended the termination of a Kantian transcendent subject that established the truth about the world in relation to itself, in exchange for what its damaged relic could attest about the withering of subjective experience itself, in the work of Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard and company, the subject became its own self-legislating, but infinitely mutable, ironic and sceptical authority.
Felsch narrates these developments through the corporate biography of an independent publisher, Merve Verlag, founded by Peter Gente and Heidi Paris, in offbeat imitation of the Theory series launched by the Frankfurt publishing house, Suhrkamp, in 1965. Gente and Paris were imaginative pioneers of the intellectual era in which they found themselves, punctilious to a fault in keeping abreast of developments in France, where they courted Michel Foucault and published many of the more gnomic, ludic, deliberately opaque ruminations of the post-68 generation. The principal shift in the transition from German to French theory, which Felsch captures with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, is the abandonment of any ethical duty to the biggest picture of all, that of society. Walter Benjamin may have remarked that a world of historical significance might be encoded in the ruffle on a dress, and Adorno that metaphysics in the post-Auschwitz world had migrated into the micrological (the tiniest concrete details of existence that bore the scars of the totality), but those details still pertained to the fractured social whole. Under the magnifying lenses of the Parisian theorists, tiny details mattered only for themselves. “The semantic field of the microscopic that conquered theory around the mid-seventies,” Felsch comments, “betrays the end of faith in the power of the masses.” Counter-intuitively, it would sit alongside calculated imprecision, indeterminacy and foggy vagueness in the stoned idiom, as a favoured rhetorical strategy.
What is remarkable now, from the retrospect of the era beyond the end of Felsch’s remit, is that some of the most irruptive theoretical upheavals were still taking place in German writing of the late 1970s and early 1980s: the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas; the mythographic speculations of Hans Blumenberg; Klaus Theweleit’s monumental two-volume pictographic study, Male Fantasies (1977-78); and the early work of Peter Sloterdijk, whose Critique of Cynical Reason (1983) built on Theweleit’s formal procedures to outline a theory of the permanently generative potential of cynicism’s obdurate stance towards an alienated world. Any of these writings now bears favourable comparison to the effluvia of Deleuze and Guattari, whose privileging of infantile perception and the consciousness of the deranged in this era has now acquired a thick fuzz of historical mould. Klaus Laermann’s 1986 Die Zeit essay, ‘Lacancan and Derridada’, on the unthinking surrender of German theory to Parisian discourse, is only one snapshot that cynical reason took of the long theoretical shadow cast by French expatiating, an umbral zone into which Anglo-American philosophy had also crept.
Humour and mirth, the ubiquitous wordplay, became the predominant mode, as subversive chuckles replaced dialectical labour. Laughing and dancing, often at the same time, were better than “being right”, as Felsch puts it, a temperament inspired by Deleuze’s convulsively amused readings of Nietzsche, via the malevolent pranking of the Situationists, and the rebellious streak in alternative comedy. Why this should particularly arise in the dismal 1970s – the era of Red Army Faction terrorism, permanent economic crisis and the ingrained fixity of Cold War paranoia – is a question that oddly perplexes Felsch, but laughter and silliness, the enunciation of words and gestures freed of rationalised meaning, had once been the affective response of the Dada movement to the Great War.
The other great leitmotif of the 1970s and 1980s was desire, on which, as Lacan advised in the idiolect of the self-improvement meme, nobody should give up. That such a sentiment was entirely consonant with the imperatives of consumer society helped make it hugely popular as an intellectual fashion. Its reverberations continue today in the pitiful belief that merely wanting something, particularly somebody’s body, is excitingly transgressive. Political desire was the only kind that wasn’t worth cultivating, as was roundly articulated by Jean Baudrillard, for whom environmental concerns, indeed social change itself, were the chimerical remnant of an epoch that had not yet realised that its own demise was literally, not just polemically, imminent. The world was ending, just as art and philosophy, locked in a zero-sum struggle to declare each other dead all through the previous century, had surely ended. What was left was dancing.
There are outbreaks of festal dancing towards the end of The Summer of Theory. Those whose stomachs have recovered from the recent spectacle of the British government minister Michael Gove on an Aberdeen dancefloor might find some much-needed subversive amusement in imagining the ungainly, rollnecked Foucault in the disco, even the hieratic Umberto Eco. “Did you know,” Gente vouchsafed to a correspondent, “that Roland Barthes was a passionate disco-goer?” These are thoughts that lie too deep for tears. David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop all lived in West Berlin in the late 1970s, contributing an air of cool urbanity to a city landlocked amid the sterility of the official socialist state, soundtracking its stark realities in electronic moodscapes, bursts of ersatz romance, and a trash aesthetic imported from the entrepot of a bankrupt and decaying New York. At least some of this work felt more intellectually nourishing than Baudrillard.
At the close of Felsch’s narrative, the figure of Niklas Luhmann is birthed amid the clouds over Bielefeld, soaring above, in his own resonant phrase, “the extinct volcanoes of Marxism”. A theory of society that abandoned the critical voice Adorno had thought essential to it and adopted the system-building approach he considered fatal – incorporating a dismissal of the ideal of collective endeavour so axiomatic it could be dispensed with as the unquestionable assumption of half a paragraph in the Theory of Society (1997) – was what was left of German theory. In France, a return to the human, an attempt to forge a path between a discredited humanism and the technological fetishes of the post-human, has surfaced in the past decade. At its butt-end, it sounds as a basso continuo in Anglophone philosophy’s favourite cliché, “what it means to be human”. We are all human, more or less. Will that do?
This autumn, Polity is also bringing out an English translation of Ulrich Gutmair’s valuable 2013 memoir, The First Days of Berlin, an account of the fleeting epoch of liberation marked by the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the resulting explosion of anarchic social and cultural improvisation that followed the reunification of the city. Squats, raves, underground clubs, vanguard art endeavours and new experiments in communal living swept through the previously divided metropolis. For a while, entrepreneurs of the self at every level of consciousness, from cheerfully malcontent to creatively dippy, fanned out through Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and the Mitte, challenging a civil authority that seemed, for a few years at least, only too happy to let them get on with it. Not every initiative was welcomed – “anarchy doesn’t mean there are no rules,” Gutmair deadpans – and the dissemination of heroin through the squatters’ scene introduced a shade of squalor that the crumbling, often half-demolished buildings had failed to.
One of Gutmair’s interviewees, the radical journalist Thorsten Schilling, remembers becoming disenchanted with the Marxism-Leninism he was officially studying at the Karl-Marx-Universität in Leipzig, following an intense encounter with French post-structuralist theory, in innocent attestation of Philip Felsch’s account. By the 1990s, it was possible to achieve a seamless weave between Lyotard and banging techno, which might have been bad news for critical consciousness, but at least swept away the rancid vestiges of the 1970s, when a heroin-skinny Bowie still obsessed with Hitler toured the city with Iggy Pop, in search of locations even tangentially connected with the Führer. Gutmair is a good journalist himself, his brisk narrative taking wing next to the monochrome depression of the photographs. He opens his story with an account of the sulphurous smog that typically blanketed the divided city on bad days, and which was measured on strikingly different environmental scales in West and East. It is more or less the same urban miasma that swirls through the opening of Bleak House in the 1850s, an index of industrial development and the economic and political muck with which people learned to live.
There are continuities between the late twentieth-century Then in which both Felsch and Gutmair close their books and the reunified Now. In Berlin, the rental sector still accounts for around 85 per cent of residents’ homes, and the politics of property, expressed through communal freelance initiatives and occasional embittered standoffs in rent strikes, is an abiding feature of city life. Small arts enterprises flourish in the avowed heartland of Europe, even if official subsidy has the tendency to mute their radical edge. Turkish and Vietnamese are spoken amid the phlegmatic, coarse-grained Berlinerisch. Galleries and design houses now extend the length of the Unter den Linden, which once ended dead at the Brandenburg Gate, its eastern extension viewable from small platforms on the western side of the Wall. Prussian officers in communist insignia could be seen patrolling with their dogs in the murk, or peering through binoculars from guard-towers as straggles of curious westerners alighted from the elevated train that sailed in over a razor-wired no-man’s-land. In the restaurant at the top of the Television Tower, you could eat a plate of beef stew grey as the smog, served with a dry slice of bleached white loaf and a glass of dirt-cheap Bulgarian Cabernet. History’s dialectic had finally arrived at a standstill.
About the Author
Stuart Walton’s most recent book is An Excursion through Chaos: Disorder Under the Heavens (2021). He has also written a monograph on the Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno, as well as studies of the emotions, the five senses, and intoxication. His novel, The First Day in Paradise, was published in 2016.