The End of the Story
I went to Portbou to find Walter Benjamin, and I went with two friends, because, as one of them had said, we should not at the end of our lives be sad about all the things we had not done. We arrived on a cloudy evening by car from Barcelona. The first thing you notice about Portbou, where Benjamin killed himself in September 1940 after being told by the border police that he would be sent back the next morning, is the train station. It is huge and old and looks from the one side like a dam built of grey stone and from the inside like a small replica of something Parisian, something fin-de-siècle, something very European. And indeed, this is in all ambivalence of the word a truly European place, inhabited by a certain sad melancholia which is maybe kin to these kind of border towns and built in an ecclectical style in its purest fashion, if such a thing exists at all, pure ecclecticism. It is not a pretty village, but we came to like it, looking back, even to love it, for what it is and what it was: a place where you learn about what it was like to be a refugee.
We ate well the first night and had breakfast by the ocean the next morning. Then we climbed up the hill towards the French border, in the opposite direction from where Benjamin had come, carrying his heavy bag with, that is the rumor, a finished or almost finished manuscript inside, presumably another masterpiece, lost for ever. There were flowers in full bloom and a steady wind and a strikingly blue sky, and when we got to the top we came to the monument built there for the 500000 refugees who had fled in this direction, about 18 months before Benjamin had fled in the opposite direction: women, children, men who looked like Hemingway, all fleeing Spain after the victory of general Franco. This would be the testing ground for the following bigger war on a number of levels, the squashing of the liberal left between the right and the left totalitarians for one, but what struck me was the fact that the Spanish refugees had been put into camps once they got into France – presumably the same camps which were used for the Jews a little later.
What then are the forces of history? What do we know? We had come to look for a man and had discovered the legacy of hundreds of thousands of people. This is Europe. A place of perpetual displacement. Back in Barcelona for the night we walked by the city hall which is now run by a woman who came out of the people’s movement reclaiming the city from the capitalists. It is a constant struggle all over Europe these days. “Refugees Welcome” it said on a banner that was hanging from a balcony. The city was full ablaze with the celebration for the day of Saint Jorge. There were no refugees to be seen. And when I got back to Berlin on Monday morning, I got a call from my friend Renata Adler, author of “Speedboat” and “Pitch Dark”, legendary reporter and fierce essayist, the she was coming to Germany to write about the refugees. We have to talk about this, I said. And she said: Darling, of course we have to.
Brief ans Feuilleton (1)
ich möchte Dir einige Gedanken, die mich in den letzten Tagen permanent beschäftigen, aufschreiben. Sie drehen sich um Maxim Billers grandiosen Roman „Biografie“ und die Kritiken, die nach Erscheinen des Buches aufkamen.
Mein Alltag ist gerade ausschließlich Beethoven, Schostakowitsch, Bach und Rzewski. Ununterbrochen. In den einzigen Pausen, die ich mir nehme, lese ich Maxim Billers neues Buch. Ständig. Und ich bin total begeistert. Sogar an Stellen, die mir weniger gefallen, finde ich Begeisterung. Woran? An dem, was einige Deiner Kollegen als „Chaos“ bezeichnen. Chaos?! Würden dieselben Kollegen beim Hören der Beethovenschen Diabellivariationen auch von Chaos sprechen? Nur weil der Autor / Komponist keine Rücksicht nimmt auf „Regeln“, auf Vorhersehbares, auf Hör- und Lesegewohnheiten?
Bei den Diabellivariationen habe ich immer schon geliebt, wie Beethoven Zutaten zusammenmischt, die nie und nimmer zusammengehören, die nie und nimmer zueinander passen, die einander teilweise bekämpfen. Kälte, Wärme, Hitze, Schnelligkeit, Langsamkeit, Erstarrung, Einsamkeit, Aggression, Humor, seliger Humor, schwarzer Humor, Wut, Sorge, Kontemplation, Erregung, Hoffnung, allergrößte Trauer, allerhöchste Transzendenz, Spott und noch vieles mehr – all das auf allerengstem Raum! Man fragt sich, ich frage mich, jedesmal von Neuem, wie kann das sein? Wie geht das? Spinnt er? Ich verstehe nichts…und dann, am Ende, wenn nach etwa 60 Minuten aus dem eigentlich so plumpen Walzer ein so erfülltes Menuett wird, dann plötzlich wird klar: ja, so muss es sein! Natürlich! So und nicht anders! Welch Geniestreich!!
Ich möchte “Biografie” und Diabelli nicht vergleichen. Aber was wollen Deine Kollegen? Was gibt es denn Schöneres, ja Menschlicheres (!) als Unregelmäßigkeiten? Als unzählige, auf engstem Raum zusammengepferchte Eindrücke, Farben, Gedanken, Emotionen. Pures Durcheinander, natürlich!! Was denn sonst? Aber dann löst sich am Ende alles auf. Schritt für Schritt. Und dann versteht man es. Oder man versteht gar nichts. Ja, so what? Darum und nur darum geht es doch in unserem Leben. (Zumindest unter anderem…) Ganz zu schweigen davon, dass beinahe jeder Satz brillant geschrieben, ausgeformt, ausgearbeitet und formuliert ist…
Und dann, bizarr, bei diesem Plot zu behaupten, es gäbe keine Geschichte, außer „Pornografie“ ?! Haben die Kollegen das Buch gelesen? Haben sie es wirklich gelesen? Lesen wollen? Es sind teils ergreifendste Geschichten, ja Biographien, die Maxim Biller da beschreibt, und diese Biographien helfen sich eben in Extremen, sie leiden…und dann kommen Kritiker, und behaupten, in totaler Eiseskälte, es gäbe keine Geschichte?! Angstmenschentum ist das!
Noch einmal: Was würden die wohl bei den Diabellivariationen hören? Ich habe Diabelli zweihundertachtzig Mal gespielt und verstehe (!) es noch immer nicht. Es ist eine unendliche Geschichte, Erkundung. Und jedes Mal, wenn ich glaube, etwas entdeckt und verstanden zu haben, wirft mich das Stück an den Anfang zurück. Welch ein Glück!!
Was würden diese Kritiker bei einigen Schostakowitsch-Werken sagen? Was bei der Hammerklaviersonate? Was bei Daniil Charms? Was bei Gogol? Was sucht man? Ruhe? Einfachheit? Sogenannte Stringenz? Werke, die man eben „versteht“ und dann weglegt?
T.S. Elliott hat geschrieben: „We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time“.
Das ist für mich die Essenz von Kunst, von Musik-Machen, von so so vielem. Auch dafür steht für mich Maxim Billers Buch. Eine wundervoll menschlichste (chaotischste…), intimste, auch in vulgärsten Momenten intimste Lebensreise und Geschichte.
Und das totale Gegenteil drücken beinahe alle so genannten Kritiken aus, die ich darüber bisher las. Als würden sie sich das Gegenteil wünschen.
Es ist sehr traurig. Die Armen….
I received your email soon after the attacks in Brussels, Iraq, and closer to home, in Pakistan. What a strange time this is. Stranger still, to learn – from Marina Hyde in the Guardian yesterday– that the London Olympics saw the largest mobilization of British military and security forces since the second world war. In 2012, more British troops were deployed around the Olympic village in London than in Afghanistan.
This summer, Hyde informs us, Brazil will deploy twice that number – 85,000 heavily armed troopers in conjunction with a whole arsenal of military hardware – to stage a sports event to showcase the athletic attributes of the human race. Long jump, high jump, triple jump, and pole vault, all under the watchful gaze of soldiers wearing facial-recognition goggles. So I suppose this is a great time to be in politics, if your primary message is one of fear and besiegement.
I read your account of the recent elections in Germany with great interest. I suppose this rightward tilt is not all that surprising, or is it? I suppose it is part of a wider trend, and so you right ask: how do we counter the successes of right-wing radicals?
This is an interesting question – to answer this, let’s take a short detour.
Yesterday, I watched “The Factory” by Rahul Roy, a film about what could well be a turning point (it is perhaps to early to decide conclusively) in working class struggles in north India’s industrial belt: In 2011, workers in a Suzuki automobile factory went on strike, resulting in a production shortfall of about 83,000 cars in a single financial quarter. The following year – a fracas between workers and management resulted in the death of a manager and parts of the factory were set on fire.
Despite little clarity, and dubious evidence, on the perpetrators of this violence, over 100 workers were kept in jail for 4 years – without bail. In one instance, their bail petition was rejected as the judge felt that granting bail would affect the investment climate in India, and send the wrong message to multinationals looking to invest in the country.
The film sought to capture this battle between labour and capital – but the filmmaker, rather than focus on the afterlife of the conflict itself, trained his lens on the workings of the legal process. Thus his film ended up being a film about the martyrdom of the working class.
Rather than focus on the Suzuki legal case, if the filmmaker had chosen to trace how the Suzuki strike had lead to more industrial resistance in the hundreds of factories around the Suzuki plant, he could have made a very different film while still speaking of the miscarriage of justice that kept workers in prison at the behest of a multi-national company.
I bring up this example to suggest that focusing on the closure of an event often blinds us to the possibilities on its fringes.
Let us consider what we are seeing before us in Europe:
A radical event has occurred.
Several thousand people fleeing war have found safe haven in Germany. Their living conditions are far from ideal, a backlash is brewing, but at present – several thousand men, women and children, fleeing war are relatively safe in Germany. These arrivals have also forced the global community – which is selfish and mean-spirited bunch – to think seriously about how to end the war in Syria. This itself is an incredible moment that has occurred with a speed that has made it difficult to comprehend and theorize completely.
In a sense, the first round of this seesaw engagement has gone in favour of those welcoming refugees, in the same way that the first round of the Suzuki skirmish went in favour of the workers.
Now, we see an attempt to defuse the potential of this moment. Right-wingers are grumbling, the electorate is uneasy, the government is under pressure. This is all to be expected, as no radical change ever goes uncontested. Over the past year, the various governments of Europe have succeeded in shutting these routes and closing their borders – this is similar to when the Suzuki management leveraged the coercive arm of the state to imprison its workers.
But each agent in history’s long game traverses a finite distance and then passes her dice on to the next player in line. As a friend of mine in Delhi keeps saying, “Focus on the potential of every struggle, not on its depletion.” If the disproportionate punishment handed down to the Suzuki workers was intended to end industrial disputes – it has failed, rather factory occupations have continued apace and in some instances even increased. The forms of resistance have changed from outright confrontation to more subtle forms.
So I think we should see this moment as a victory for the Musafir and seek ways to expand the scope of this victory – i.e. how to continue to push for allowing freer movement and accommodation/integration of immigrants; rather than seeing this moment as a loss and looking for ways to contain this loss.
I’m really looking forward to my visit; I think the future might be brighter that it sometimes seems.
The Don Johnson of American Politics: Trump
Things we hate about Donald Trump, this is an easy question, it seems; but things we like about Donald Trump, the racist, the brute, the ignorant and hater? This is a more difficult task, this is what Sam Chermayeff and Georg Diez try in their conversation about the ‘Don Johnson of American politics’ (Chermayeff).
there were elections, state elections. The right-wing, radical party, AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), and their rejection of refugee policy achieved big successes. Some people are in shock, others are acting like nothing happened. I believe it’s a different country, that there’s been a rupture in time. And now the question of the before and the after comes back up. How can we recognize this rip in time, the one births misfortune, that leaks darkness? Isn’t there anything we could have done, have seen, have known?
But they’re everywhere, or am I fooling myself? The signs that we’re in a new era. And they resemble each other, they’re similar in many parts of the world. It’s an epochal break, and the contours of the new one, of the 21s century, are becoming more and more distinct. The values of the old word, the values that a large portion of humanity had settled on after so many wars and so much carnage, don’t seem to be so important anymore. They’re no longer attractive in a time when authoritarian politics are fueled by fear.
That’s what links Trump to Modi. That’s what I hear from you from what you recount in India; I hear it in the tragic, moving words of a man who killed himself because he was “against the nation.” It’s this foolish, deadly fiction, that’s primarily just a vessel of hate and violence and that gives people a sense of security; security that’s only achieved at the expense of other people’s insecurity. It’s prosperity that relies on injustice, peace that gives birth to war.
Europe is also transforming right now, and the refugees are just a trigger. It could have been anything. It was once the Jews. They could become the target of attacks again. But today it’s most notably the Muslims that have been pigeonholed as the bad guys, because they revere a vicious God – everyone knows this all of the sudden. Their God oppresses women and kills people. An Austrian politician just said in parliament, and wearing a red tie, that they’re the Neanderthals coming back, a species that was luckily eradicated in Europe a long time ago.
It almost makes me speechless. I wasn’t acquainted with this kind of language; at most, I’ve heard it in history books. I’m not religious, and I believe that all of the monotheistic religions have violent tendencies. Their logic alone tempts violence. But the aggression towards Muslims, and especially coming from educated people, surprises, shocks me. But what does that even mean – educated? People really like clinging to this catchword, which would suggest that you can describe where the evil is coming from – namely that there’s a different, dark cause, which is the opposite of an education, which is supposed to make sure that people know they’re not allowed to torture, that they have to stick together, that respect is the only path to peace. But is education a safeguard against stupidity?
Obviously not. A friend of mine is a musician. He calls me practically every day to complain about how racist the people in his milieu are when talking about refugees, how they generalize. They blame Angela Merkel for the migrant flows that have global causes; they obfuscate correlations that are so obviously clear and plain: Not only the wars and injustices that are causes of the refugees’ movements, but also internal injustices and conflicts caused by many years of wonky capitalism – capitalism that favored the rich above everyone else and gave many people the feeling that they’re no longer part of society, since promises of prosperity and advancement are hardly applicable anymore.
And if that’s the case? Then you can either get angry, which is one reaction – the authoritarian one. Or you think about how things could be different. That’s the other, constructive variant. I don’t say left or right, because these categories have lost their meaning in many respects. Authoritarian gist and fear are also inside people who would describe themselves as on the left. These categories have been offset – another part of the new world that we’re slipping into, without a plan, without certainties, fumbling, as we say here, for prospect, sometimes helplessly.
The thing people are afraid of is change. Hasn’t that always been the case? To me, being locked in an unchanging world is a dreadful idea. But the people who voted for AfD in three state elections en masse last weekend see things differently. Almost 25% in eastern Germany; 15% and 12.6% in the west. Concerned political commentators are now asking if they are all really right-wing radicals, as if there’s a litmus test for that.
I’ll tell you, I don’t care what people call them, whoever votes for a party that’s seriously discussing shooting refugees at the border, that’s spreading racist slogans and champions aggressive, egotistical nationalism, is so far away from what I consider democratically defensible, that one has to conclude that they want a different society. They don’t want a democracy. And so this election Sunday in March was really a break, and a cesura, for Germany, but also for Europe. It’s been hinted at already, this shift. It’s been proclaimed before. The pressure on Angela Merkel has been amplified by the media – her tone is a lot less humanistic recently than it was in summer and fall of last year. She increasingly seems to be returning to the old impulses of realpolitik. She does this even if many liberal or left-wing people see her as the only person to hope for, who they want to hope for, almost spitefully, since most of them didn’t used to have a friendly disposition towards this woman.
Are they deluding themselves? Or am I deluding myself? I’m don’t know exactly. A few days ago, I was sitting with a woman who has been committed to helping refugees for a long time. She’s part of a network of often very influential and powerful women. They’ve done a lot, I’d say. But that wasn’t enough for this woman. She was unsure of how she should continue. She had the feeling that the dynamics coming out of our civil society, everything positive that happened in recent months, has to be cast into a different form; that there has to be a transition into concrete policy perhaps; that the proposals and ideas, which have already changed society, need to become more visible, more sustainable and more resilient. And I think that’s right. The question posed by the success of the right-wing radicals, is how to counter them. To openly and consciously fight for the world that we want and that they hate.
A few days ago, three refugees drowned while trying to cross a little river on the Greek-Macedonian border. They were among the many thousands who for days, for weeks, have been held up on the border there, that was closed because European governments wanted it that way. That’s their policy. It’s official. It’s “on the record.” And later, when people ask once more, how could you guys have allowed that, nobody will have known anything about it. Now, according to lots of news reports, there were activists or aid workers on site – this speck of earth is called Idomeni – that supposedly encouraged them to get on their way, to find another route. They’re saying that leaflets were distributed that supposedly encouraged refugees to stop waiting. Some of these leaflets were signed, “Kommando Norbert Blüm,” after the former CDU minister, who is 80-years-old today and possesses the remnants of a conscious and spent a night in this camp – in the rain, in the mud – out of solidarity, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Or perhaps it was out of rage, or maybe he was just clueless.
But what does all of this mean? What are these reports trying to say? That it’s the aid workers’ fault, the people supporting the refugees, and not the governments who have publicly dismissed the idea of human rights? The Balkan route has been closed since Austria closed its borders. Greece and Italy will become giant detention camps. And Turkey is our partner in a deal that won’t work and is extremely immoral. But morals are the stuff of calmer times it seems. Morality has become a explicative it seems. Morality – this is what I always think – is something people are afraid of, especially in this country, because this word recalls what happened here in the thirties and forties, when the Germans got angry. Because they were the ones that killed all the Jews and waged all the wars, not Hitler.
What could we have known, what could we have done? The summer months will be hard, I’m afraid, and sad. There will be some hard, but in the end, hopefully good years ahead of us.
I’m happy that you’re coming to Europe soon. I hope I can accompany you on your trips to the edges of this continent, to the edges of humanity.
As always, my warmest regards,
Sometimes I Forget I'm a Woman.
Sometimes I forget I’m a woman.
What does it mean to be a woman anyway?
Lots of shitty feminist art to narrow down the answer.
I sometimes feel I’m a guy. Which is what I wanted to be when I was a teenager.
I sometimes feel pretty neutral regarding gender.
And then I remember I’m a woman.
I wouldn’t choose otherwise.
apologies for this long absence from our conversation. (Also, Thank You! I too am glad of your presence and this conversation which gives us space and time to contemplate the relentless cycle of events.)
I would gladly beam you up, but alas I’m not sure where to bring you. No place seems to be free of nationalist hysteria coloured by a fear of imagined enemies.
The newspapers in India too seem to be from a different time: the president of the student union of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru university has been arrested for “sedition” for chanting supposedly “anti-national slogans” at a university event. When he was produced in court, he was assaulted by flag-waving lawyers shouting “Long Live Mother India.” Journalists covering the event were beaten up as well.
There is a campaign to instill patriotic values in society; there is a proposal to install national flag, on 207 feet tall flag polces, on campuses to instill national pride amidst the student body.
In Hyderabad, a young man called Rohit Vemula from the historically-oppressed Dalit caste, hung himself from a ceiling fan in the student hostel – after he was hounded for “anti-national” activities.
He left behind an extraordinary note that offers fresh insights on each reading. I reproduce an excerpt below:
I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.
Over the past two weeks I’ve witnessed extraordinary solidarity between students and teachers in JNU. Classes have stopped and teachers are giving public lectures that unpack and decode this strange thing called “nationalism”. Thus far, the student body has presented a united face to the government and police, despite deep political divisions between various political factions on campus.
In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the student base – many are the first members of their family to clear grade 10, let alone make it to university.
Prior to his arrest, Kanhaiya Kumar – the JNU student leader arrested for sedition – made a speech on campus where he laid out the contours of the ideological battle we are all living through:
What are universities for? Universities are there for critical analysis of the society’s collective conscience. Critical analysis should be promoted. If universities fail in their duty, there would be no nation. If people are not part of a nation, it will turn into a grazing ground for the rich, for exploitation and looting.
If we don’t assimilate people’s culture, beliefs and rights, a nation would not be formed….
I want to know what kind of nation worship they are talking about? If an owner doesn’t behave properly with his employees, if a farmer doesn’t do justice with his workers, if a highly paid CEO of a media house doesn’t behave properly with the meagrely paid reporters, then what is this nation worship?
So it is the worst of times, but also the best of times – in that a generation of students seem to be forging a politics of their own.
They aren’t cowed down by this assault on their universities, rather they seem to be growing in confidence each day; their utterances revealing a subversive humour and political sophistication that is completely lacking in the politicians entombed in parliament. It is all very fascinating to witness.
The news you convey from Europe certainly seems bleak; I just read the latest update that a group of Balkan countries have decided to come up with their own restrictions on migrants without waiting for the EU to come up with a plan. But maybe there are some silver linings to be sought?
On hearing about our correspondence, my aunt asked me when the world “refugee” first entered public usage.
It turns out that the word “refugee” was first used in the context of the flight of the Huguenots from France to England in the late 17th century after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. So the first refugees – in the specific sense of the word – were Europeans fleeing religious repression in France. How can we interpret such coincidences or repetitions without being either cynical or facile?
Of late I have been reading a translation of medieval tales of fantasy, many of which are set in the bazaars of Damascus. Reading the rich descriptions of bazaars stocked with items most wonderous and magical, it seems impossible that such a world could end the way it has.
Perhaps the fate of the Hugenots, and Damascus, reminds us that it is a good idea to provide refuge to strangers as we never know when we might need the kindness of strangers ourselves.
Maybe that is the truly terrifying affect that the musafir or migrant produces: her or his appearance at the door is a gesture towards the ephemerality of our comfort. Could this ever be me? We think, before quickly suppressing the thought. I say this for all of us living in diverse and unequal societies – not just for Europe today.
It is not unlike George Orwell’s amazing insight in “Down and Out in Paris and London”, in the dialogue between Orwell and Boris, the Russian refugee who has taken it upon himself to show the young writer the ways of the street:
‘Do you think I look hungry, mon ami?’
‘You look pale.’
‘Curse it, what can one do on bread and potatoes? It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you. Wait.’
He stopped at a jeweller’s window and smacked his cheeks sharply to bring the blood into them. Then, before the flush had faded, we hurried into the restaurant and introduced ourselves to the patron.
I’ve read Down and Out several times and always find this section the most powerful.
So I hear you Georg, but we beamed ourselves away, we’ll miss our chance to think through this unsettling time.
Look forward to hearing from you, as always, and apologies once more for the late reply.
Conceived by Olafur Eliasson as a metaphorical green light for refugees and migrants in Austria and beyond, the project testifies to the agency of contemporary art and its potential to initiate processes of civic transformation. Green light consists of an artistic workshop and the learning platform Green light – Shared learning surrounding the making of lamp modules designed by Eliasson. The lamps are assembled on-site from materials and components that are made available at TBA21-Augarten. In addition to Augarten’s regular audience, young refugees, migrants, and university students are invited to take part in this process of collaborative artistic practice and learning, giving rise to a space of exchange and encounter for contributors from a range of linguistic, social, geographic, and educational backgrounds.
The Green light project responds to a situation of great uncertainty, both for refugees, who are often caught up in legal and political limbo, and for the European societies that welcome them. Through its communal fabrication, Green light constitutes a dynamic space that elicits various forms of participation. By collapsing the categories of production and reception, performer and audience, and art and social action, the project aims to open up the contested terrain between art and society, probing the question of what constitutes the “public” and negotiating a field of difference and similarity.
The crystalline Green light lamps are polyhedral units fitted with small, green-tinted light fixtures. Made predominantly from recycled and sustainable materials and designed to be stackable, the modules can function either as single objects or be assembled into a variety of architectural configurations. At TBA21–Augarten, the lamps will form a steadily expanding environment in the exhibition space that carries the narratives of its making.
You know what a Zirbelstube is? Well, think of it as a light brown hell built from wood. In Austria and other strange places people take this for Gemütlichkeit. Anyway, in such a place, at a rather early time of the day, philosophers Armen Avanessian and Mark Fisher, author of among others “Capitalist Realism” and “Ghosts of My Life”, met to talk about of course Accelerationism but also and mainly about smartphones, depression and the way academics like them live today, caught between the notion of freedom and the dread of poverty, yes, poverty. Because this is what thinking amounts to today: symbolically, maybe, a bit, financially, realistically, close to nothing. What does this mean? Well, listen.