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On Refugees

Georg Diez+Aman Sethi
81 min
Georg Diez

(In cooperation and with the generous support of Goethe Institute New Delhi / Max Mueller Bhavan)

Dear Aman,
I’d be happy to describe to you what’s going on in Germany at the moment – at least I’d be happy to try, because actually I don’t understand it myself. And incidentally that’s the way it is for most Germans – except for the ones who set refugee homes on fire: at least they know that they hate, and hate is what they’re looking for because they often have little to hold onto in their lives.
Everyone else, on the other hand, finds it difficult to say what kind of country they live in. Sometimes it seems like a dark Germany that scares them because the citizens flock together to form an obtuse mass. Then again it seems like a bright Germany that gives them courage because the citizens unite in solidarity. And then it seems like a dark Germany again in which the politicians cut their values and their humanity down a notch while the citizens provide the necessary help for everyone who needs it.
And there are many – 40,000, 80,000, 1.5 million people, from Syria, from Iraq, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea or the Balkan states. They come because they’re fleeing from war and persecution in their homelands or in search of a better life for themselves and their children. Those are the numbers for this year, for Germany alone, and as always politics are made with those numbers, images are used to manipulate opinions, the media come under suspicion of being biased, etc.
Could we have known that these people were coming? No, say the politicians who have been looking the other way for years, who have ignored the war in Syria, who were hoping the refugees would stay in the camps in Jordan or Lebanon, who thought the journeys would be too far and the ocean too wide and the fences too high – they didn’t know human nature very well, that’s evident once again; they’re not acquainted with the despair, they don’t know what volition all those people have who set out with only a plastic bag in their hand.
Yes, say those who’ve been dedicated to the refugees’ cause for years, who’ve been interested in the war in Syria, which has been like a gaping moral wound in the West for four years; yes, say those who think in historical dimensions and understand the large-scale geo-political devastation wrought by the Americans since they invaded Iraq and threw the country into turmoil because they weren’t willing or able to create a democratic order there the way they did in Germany after World War Two.
We could go back even further, to 1919 and Woodrow Wilson’s betrayal when, after World War One, he broke his promise of independence for many countries, or back even further to the nineteenth or even the eighteenth centuries to the havoc caused by colonialism, and perhaps we’ll get there in the course of our correspondence: as you can see, I really just want to tell you what’s happening here right now, in Berlin, where I live and where the refugees find themselves confronted with a bureaucracy that often comes across as sadistic in its Kafkaesque opacity – and no sooner do I start than the entire vast history of the world washes over me.
But perhaps that’s also quite apt for the current situation: because the fates of the individual human beings who come here mingle with fears that are older, raise questions that are more fundamental, open dimensions that are more permanent. When there is talk – rightly or wrongly – of a “new Völkerwanderung”, then already that choice of words alone suggests that we’re facing something between the Mongol invasions of Europe and the Turkish march on Vienna. And indeed, the fears that are often invoked are fears of “Überfremdung” (foreign infiltration) and in particular the “Islamisation” of the so-called “Abendland” (occident) – another word I haven’t heard for a very, very long time.
In a certain sense it’s as if Europe had woken up out of a slumber that lasted twenty-five years – and now that reality is breaking over this languishing continent in all its vehemence, many people seem overwhelmed. Until now, for example, Germany has had a hard time admitting that it’s an immigration country – at least conservative politics have refused to accept that reality. In the present situation that’s backlashing, because the country that essentially grants unqualified right of asylum – a circumstance rooted in the history of Nazi Germany – has no immigration law that corresponds to the current needs.
So much for today. There’s plenty I can still tell you: about our chancellor, who confuses everyone except herself, about scenes of the kind I’ve never seen in Europe, scenes of readiness to help and scenes of chaos, about my hopes and doubts, about optimism and pessimism. But I’d be more interested in your perspective on all this, which seems to Germany like a historic watershed, but to many parts of the world naturally doesn’t.
Warm regards,

(In cooperation and with the generous support of Goethe Institute New Delhi / Max Mueller Bhavan)

Aman Sethi

Dear Georg,
I read your mail with great interest. The current situation across Europe is very intriguing, and I look forward to more details on how Germany is engaging with this sudden arrival of over a million people.
This morning I saw this arresting image (attached with this mail) of thousands of men, women and children walking in an orderly file through Slovenia en route to Germany. Clearly we are only just beginning to understand the origins and repercussions of this great migration.
I am also fascinated by the resurrection of old phrases and categories like “Abendland” or “the Occident”, and by this wonderful sentence where you say, “no sooner do I start than the entire vast history of the world washes over me.” It sent me down a digression that may be relevant in our thinking about the present moment in connection with the “new Völkerwanderung”.
You mention that many of the people moving through Europe come from Iraq, Syria, and the Turkish Syrian border, which correspond to the region once known as Mesopotamia – home to one of oldest recorded urban civilisations. The early Mesopotamian settlements traded extensively with the Harappan civilization, the ruins of which were found in present day Pakistan (another country you mention in your mail).
Recently a friend alerted me to historical research that contemplates the existence of a Harappan enclave – i.e. a colony of migrants from what is now called Pakistan – founded in in Lagash, a settlement in present day Iraq, in the second half of the third millennium B.C. It seems that the dawn of urban civilisation as we know it carries within it the seed of migration, and the history of the world is a chronology of struggle between the entropic, or disorderly, desires of people and the negentropic, or order-seeking, impulses of states.
Perhaps Europe’s current “crisis” signals a new moment in our shared histories? Perhaps this moment – when nation states in some of the oldest continually inhabited regions of the world (like Syria and Iraq) collapse – shall result in a re-fashioning of the critical categories of thought and language that we are accustomed to.
There are signs of this re-ordering already, with journalists, politicians and policy wonks wondering how to refer to this tide of humanity – are they migrants, or immigrants, or expatriates, or refugees, or asylum seekers?
Perhaps for the sake of this conversation we can refer to them as “Musafir” – an Urdu word common to Arabic, Persian and Turkish with slightly altered meanings in each language – A musafir is a traveller from a strange land, in some languages she is a pilgrim, a seeker of paths and truths, and in Turkish (I could be wrong here) I think, a musafir is a guest.
But why does this Musafir travel? Here we may consider a wonderful Persian phrase – of the concept of the ashina-zada, which refers to the feeling of tiring of all one’s acquaintances and desiring the company of strangers.
Perhaps this fluid category – of the Musafir, motivated by impulses that are not always obvious – is helpful in alluding to the long journeys taken by these people without diminishing the hardships they have suffered, or pre-judging the reception they will receive in Europe (as you mentioned, in some cases they have been met with violence, and in other cases with solidarity).
Your mail sent me down another line of inquiry, which is the narrative of the desperation of the Musafir – of course I have seen the pictures and read the harrowing accounts of boatloads of people drowning, of death by asphyxiation in abandoned freight trucks; the horror is real, visceral and immediate.
The amplification of this horror makes clear that the only politically feasible way Europe can engage with this situation is through the trope of humanitarianism. This narrative obscures the fact that in the years after World War One, it became a criminal offence to seek one’s fortune in a foreign land. While finance capital moves across the world with ever increasing velocity, we are fettered by our passports. There is, of course, a parallel imperial history of the passport – which we can consider another time: Who is to decide that I am Syrian, or German, and what does the act of name and fixing entail?
The current narrative of “rescuing the desperate” allows European nations and commentators to speak of humanitarian rescue and “European Values” without engaging with the strange, policed landscape that we live in, and accept the eternal policing of borders and residents as normal. What is the process by which it became normal and desirable for BMW to invest in a automobile factory in South Africa, but almost impossible for a young woman in a village somewhere in southern Africa to gather money from her network of friends and family, catch a flight to Germany, walk into a government office and register herself as someone seeking a job without constantly fearing imprisonment and deportation?
I think this “march of the musafir” offers us a moment to reflect on the long shadow of the twentieth century and the strange new categories it presented us with – borders, aliens, people smugglers, camps for those who cross a border without permission. It’s all a bit bizarre isn’t it?
Thank again for your thought-provoking email. I really look forward to this conversation and your descriptions of what’s happening on the ground in Germany. It is these details, after all, that shall help us think further and deeper.

Georg Diez

Dear Aman,

Thank you for your mail, which sent me in two different directions. Way back to Mesopotamia, to where everything started. And to a future which is only just beginning to take shape. But that’s the way we live at the moment, time moves simultaneously backward and forward. This in turn – so goes the rapid script for our cascade conversation – reminded me of something that I read a couple of days ago, an article in the New York Times about the new findings of quantum mechanics. According to the report, physicists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands conducted an experiment in which they proved that objects – in this case, the smallest of particles – affect each other even when far removed from each other.

Albert Einstein always rejected this theory, claiming it was as though God were playing dice. What bothered Einstein was the question of whether, in addition to the universe we know, there could be more – potentially infinite – universes. Whether, in addition to the reality we accept, there are other – potentially infinite – realities. Whether, in addition to the world we call our own, there are other – potentially infinite – worlds. Or as John Markoff describes it in the New York Times: ‘……the existence of an odd world formed by a fabric of subatomic particles, where matter does not take form until it is observed and time runs backward as well as forward.’

The wording is fascinating in many ways. Particles that take shape, in other words become reality and are therefore perceptible only when observed. Perception constitutes reality. And time that runs backward and forward. Here we have the question of whether time that runs backward processes all that went before. The modern in reverse – the results, forms and triumphs of the modern age change back into what was there before. However, what would this mean for democracy, human rights, individualism, secularism, nation and state? Is this what you mean when you speak of the crisis of the idea of the state, of a new way of thinking, other words, other philosophies and a freedom that does not come from the arbitrariness of a nation or from ‘German’ being randomly attributed to one who is born as a German and ‘Syrian’ to one born as a Syrian? That suffering, to some extent, must be accepted by birth and that freedom applies only to those who are free to claim it?

Yet atoms, particles that are separated, correspond, react to each other even when they are thousands of kilometres apart, as proved by the tests conducted by the physicists from Delft. Yet what does this mean for the way we think? What you said was right – money flows freely, people falter at borders. This is an untenable situation, a personal and moral insult representative of all of humanity. For a long, long time, columnists and other professional know- -alls have been saying that everything is linked to everything in a globalised world. But this reasoning was shaped purely by an economic perspective and it reduced everything to economics. It simply blanked out what it would mean if people were also to move as freely as capital. Money was released, and that had consequences. Now it is being followed by people. This has consequences too. In a certain way, both stand naked today, drastic in their existential rigour: the market and the human being.

For the people who are coming, are reduced. They are no more than what they are. They have nothing more than what they have and if even their dignity were to be taken from them, they would be left with nothing more than a plastic bag with which they have been on the move for months. They are naked existence, devoid of all civilisation. And civilisation responds by pretending they don’t exist. Some at least, and I fear there could be more. This is the daily shock of the images, the daily pain when looking at them. The people in long lines, wandering through no-man’s land, sometimes Slovenia, sometimes Croatia, sometimes Austria, the rain, the mud, the green of the landscape cruel, almost cynical, immobile, eternal, while the human being, the people, the families move on, vulnerable and in vain yet defiant, uncertain of what lies ahead, certain only of the fact that what they have left behind was what they found frightening, painful and threatening. 

A trek of nomads in a world that left the nomadic way behind thousands of years ago. At least that is what is said. But perhaps it is different. And what you say is correct: the human being is old, something stirs in him, he sets forth, again and again, an old story currently being repeated. Time is there throughout, the entire history of mankind, in these pictures, breaking through the surface of the present that wanted to forget – and forgot ­– the multi-layered anthropology. Something is forcing its way through, and we are afraid. They walk and walk and walk, and it seems this is the way people originally were, walking, and yet to see it like this is surprisingly new and unexpected. 

We must allow this shock to enter our language and thought. Only then can we perhaps understand what we are seeing, what is happening. Yet Europe is resisting the shock, in word and thought. We see destinies being transformed into policies, suffering into rules, need into measures. It is a sad, tragic spectacle, oppressive like Greek tragedy. 

The six-year-old boy sleeping on the pavement, he is this boy and he is all boys, he has just arrived and he was always here. His mother, tired, his father, can he protect him? They are all parents, always have been, and are still pushing a rickety baby stroller through the dirt, right here, in the centre of Berlin, where we see scenes familiar only in Hollywood’s dark films, the end of civilisation as a fable, best enjoyed with plenty of popcorn.

Man is afraid of nothing as much as he is afraid of himself. Who is this musafir you talk about? A refugee, a wanderer, a traveller, a guest? Why is he travelling? What drives him? These are old, fascinating questions. The newspapers that write against the refugees no longer speak of ‘refugees’ but of ‘migrants’. This makes the masses controllable, bureaucratically manageable. They have started questioning basic human rights. They say this cannot continue, yet have no ready answer other than fences where people will die, and camps in which people will wait, wait, wait until they wait no more and run away. 

I don’t know if this, what we are witnessing, is a ‘Völkerwanderung’ or rather a concrete reaction to concrete circumstances that have come about in the last 10 to 15 years, because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, of the failure of the West, of the iron hand of rulers in the Middle East, of poverty and injustice, of a war in Syria that was ignored, refugees who should stay where they are, that was the plan, the mistake, the moral betrayal. The countries there have already collapsed, the state here, in Germany, is also under threat, or so they say. I don’t believe it. It seems to be some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, almost like conjuring up a state of emergency, that’s how extreme vocabulary is here now. They are talking yet again of Weimar, because here Weimar is the great shock of the past century. Those are the images they can recall. But the new events escape them. As does humanitarianism. 

Yet there is so much that could be done now, that one could learn, there is so much that gives us courage. This is an old country in an old continent. It could open up, could re-invent itself. What does it mean for thought and thus also for politics if there is a shift in the world view? When things, people, separated by thousands of kilometres start to move? Does something like the discovery of a multiple truth, as shown by quantum mechanics, also have consequences for a different code of ethics? Many worlds exist only if observed by us. That is the shock that is starting to make itself felt, that is what explains the hatred and the aggression that are coming to the fore once again.

That’s the situation. And winter has yet to come. 

All the best,

Aman Sethi

Dear Georg
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. These are all very important questions you raise; before I get to them let me share with you a story of musafir who travelled from Somaliland to Germany. It is a complicated story with many twists, but here I reproduce just a small section.
Let’s call him Abdul.
I met Abdul in 2012 at Berbera, a port along the Horn of Africa that also serves as Somaliland’s sole international airport. I was on assignment for my newspaper.
Abdul, who was working with a friend of mine in Hargeisa, picked me up at the airport. We got talking, and to my surprise, he spoke fluent Hindi.
Abdul also spoke fluent English, and German, and Arabic, and Telegu and Dutch and a smattering of Amharic. He had lived in Hargeisa, Mogadishu, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Addis Ababa, Tripoli, Basel and three different German towns.
He began wandering when he forged a Indian visa in the 1990s and made his way to the South Indian city of Hyderabad, where he worked as an enforcer in a local gang. After five years, he got bored of his life of crime and returned to Somaliland.
“But in a few months, I got bored of home and decided to go to Ethiopia,” he said, as we drove along the long straight highway that connects Berbera to Hargeisa.
He spent a few months in Ethiopia and then caught a bus from Bahir Dar to Khartoum, Sudan. From Sudan he made his way to Tripoli, and from Tripoli he crossed by boat into Italy where he said he was fleeing Somalia’s endless civil war and applied for refugee status.
His papers were processed and he was sent to Basel, Switzerland, where he was assigned refugee housing, given some financial assistance, but was not allowed to work.
“But what is the point of coming to Europe if you can’t work?” he said, “and so I started working illegally in an Indian restaurant. The owner really liked me because I could speak Hindi to all the Indian tourists who came to the restaurant, and of course because my salary was low.
“I would befriend the Indian tourists and offer to show them around the city. At the time many of the Indian tourists couldn’t speak good English – only Hindi – so they were very happy to find a Hindi speaking guide.”
Eventually the Swiss authorities found out that he had been working in violation of his refugee status and so Abdul decided to escape to Germany.
“Everyday I went to the Swiss-German border and I observed. The border police, they checked everyone and ask for papers – every car, every truck, every man, woman, child. They check everyone, except sportspeople.
“They don’t check the people who are on cycles, who wear cycling clothes, and a small bag on their back in which you can put maybe three pens. Every weekend, these people come cycling from Germany, they cycle all day in Switzerland and they go back in the evening.”
So Abdul buys a cycling costume in bright colors. He has no money to buy a bicycle so he buys a screwdriver. At night, he slips the shaft of the screwdriver through the shank of a bicycle-lock and steals the bike.
The next morning, he waits on the Swiss side of the border for the German cyclists and joins them soon after they cross the border.
Pedal, pedal, pedal pedal, along Basel’s picturesque streets; pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, into the beautiful Swiss countryside.  By afternoon, the cyclists loop back, the border looms, the policeman waves them through without checking for papers, and Abdul is in Germany.
In Germany he walks into restaurant, orders a beer and sips his beer till closing time when the owner asks him to leave.
“I tell the owner, I don’t know anyone here, I don’t have a place to stay. Will you help me? God will help you.”
Ok, says the German, you can stay here for just one night, and locks him into the restaurant.
“I don’t sleep. I clean everything: the windows, the floor. I cleaned all, I cleaned well, I wash, I dry. I clean the glasses, I clean everything.”
In the morning, the owner can’t believe his eyes.
“You are a worker,” the German says, “You stay with me from today and I will pay you money.”
Abdul stayed on in the restaurant, he married a German citizen, he had a son; he had marital problems, a divorce, and about five years after he left Tripoli, he came back to Somaliland.
“Why did you come back?” I asked
“It is a very complicated story, I had problems with everyone – my wife, Europe, the police, everything.”
A few months later, I was speaking with my friend from Hargeisa, Abdul’s boss, on the phone.
“How is Abdul?” I asked
“Abdul – the man who lived in India, and Germany and Sudan, and everywhere.”
“I don’t know. He is crazy. One day we had an argument and he left the job and vanished from Hargeisa. No one knows where he is.”
My reason for sharing this story is that I feel that the current writing about humanity’s march across Europe has produced the refugee as an abstract figure. In your email you write,
“The people who are coming, are reduced. They are no more than what they are. They have nothing more than what they have and if even their dignity were to be taken from them, they would be left with nothing more than a plastic bag with which they have been on the move for months. They are naked existence, devoid of all civilisation. And civilisation responds by pretending they don’t exist.”
How have you produced this figure of the refugee? What do you mean when you say they are “naked existence, devoid of civilisation”? Is civilisation a gift of the nation state, that you lose the moment you leave your home?
And who, or what, is this “civilisation” that “responds by pretending they [the refugees] don’t exist”?
Is Abdul – the musafir from Somalia – a naked existence devoid of civilisation?
No, he is an intelligent, ambitious, thinking agent of free will who sees an international border as a puzzle to be decoded.
European governments are eager to produce the figure of the helpless and desperate refugee because it suits them. If you are helpless, desperate and fleeing a civil war then you must be grateful for everything that Europe gives you – you must be grateful for a winter-proof tent in a large field with three meals a day.
This is the narrative produced by Power across the world; don’t fall for this trap.
In India, it is used by successive governments to justify the acquisition of community lands and the displacement of millions of people in the name of progress and development. It is a simple strategy in which a way of life is first stripped off all meaning, joy and value in public discourse. Then the intervention of the state is projected as an act of “humanitarian rescue”, a collective civic sacrifice at great cost to the taxpayer.
This “sacrifice” then justifies everything that follows. Luckily, very few people in India actually expect the state to rescue them from its own depredations.
At this point Europe’s governments are still pretending that they can actually control the march of the musafirs; that they can “solve” this “problem”. But there is no solution to the march of history – we can only live through it and hope to alter its course.
You ask: “Here we have the question of whether time that runs backward processes all that went before. The modern in reverse – the results, forms and triumphs of the modern age change back into what was there before. However, what would this mean for democracy, human rights, individualism, secularism, nation and state?”
I feel we need to stop thinking like the state – these are state-driven categories. They put the state at the centre of the conversation and we are reduced to making appeals to our local representatives.
America’s upcoming election is a fascinating example of how even the language used in electoral processes is completely exhausted and devoid of meaning.
If you haven’t watched the debates, I urge you to do so – these debates offer us a surreal and hopeful moment to think harder, think better, think sharper.
To conclude this email, let me leave you with another image: don’t think of the musafir as a naked existence plodding through a cynical landscape under police escort – this is a figure that doesn’t challenge your view of the world; this figure only produces pity and hopes for rescue.
Instead, imagine a young, muscular Somali man kitted out in sleek lycra and spandex, speeding across the Swiss German border on a stolen 7-speed bicycle.
He doesn’t need Chancellor Merkel to find a place for him in Germany – he has found it himself. Now how are we going to respond to, think through, and celebrate, his actions, choices, and life?


Georg Diez

Dear Aman,

I visited Lageso again today. That’s what they call the official post in Berlin where refugees have to register. Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales [Office for Health and Social Affairs Berlin], abbreviated as Lageso.

Like Pegida. Or Hogesa. It’s been an autumn of abbreviations with six letters. Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident. That’s what one is called. And Hooligans Against Salafists.

These are the scary six-letter-groups that have changed Germany. Especially Pegida, who march through Dresden every Monday and are getting more and more radical. They carry signs that say “traitor” on them and have a gallows with them that they hold ready for Angela Merkel.

And yesterday I happened to read two columns that spoke of a “putsch” against Merkel. This is the mood in Germany at the moment. Just as The Economist is calling Merkel a model European, which isn’t true either, CDU politicians and political journalists in Berlin with bite reflexes are working to push Merkel out of office. 

But what for? And why?

Back to Lageso. I was there for the first time in the end of summer. The people there were quiet, they were tired, they had made it. They were in Germany. There were about 400 people, I’d say, that were waiting to get a number, with which they’d continue to wait to get an appointment to make an application, which they then had to wait again to have processed.

That was strange to begin with. Even in Berlin, where a lot of stuff doesn’t work, an airport for instance, that’s supposed to cost 5.4 billion euros instead of 1.1 billion and may never be finished.

Is this Germany, some of them asked, the country where everything works and is on time according to cliché?

Is this Germany, many asked, when they saw the images of Lageso a few weeks after I was there, in late-September, early-October?

They were images of dismay, images of desperation, images of distress. “This is worse than in Turkey, worse than in Hungary,” said a Syrian refugee. “If I had the money, I’d go back.”

I was there one morning to behold the scene. Five thirty. Darkness. The shaded forms can be seen from a distance. They’re standing on the street, ten, 20, 200, more. Men on one side, women, children and families on the other.

The door opens at six. The people make a dash for it to secure the best place, they want these numbers, they need these numbers, it’s all about numbers. As if in the 21st century they couldn’t regulate everything online that isn’t working here. Every morning the same scenes, ambulances driving off with the injured of the mad scramble.

Maybe it’s not supposed to work. There are stories of corruption in Lageso, there are stories of violence against refugees by security guards, there was a boy, Mohamed, who got lost in the chaos and was only found weeks later, abused and murdered.

“We will manage,” that’s what Angela Merkel said. The help and the openness of a large share of the population reflect this.

“We won’t manage,” that’s the mood that they spin, the media, the politicians. Images like the ones from Lageso are useful for demonstrating that it isn’t working.

The chaos is produced synthetically, so it often seems, so some say. The chaos shows we won’t manage.

And that was the point at which I had to cringe for a second when I read your mail. I thought, yes, you’re right, yes, that’s the view that I wanted to present, forms without dignity, without civilization. That’s the image that should be generated, because it can be manipulated to dehumanize the refugees, to reduce them, make them into an abstract quantity, into a number.

I wanted to present this mechanism to you. And I realized all of the sudden, that this sight, this point of view, this thinking has made a greater impression on me than I thought.

You talk about the state, the nation, the framework that the Europeans gave to politics – and you talk about it critically.
You say that it’s old thinking, that it’s dangerous thinking. And you’re right.

“What the Left has missed, is the utopia of internationalism,” my friend Nils recently said at lunch. If you believe in the nation as a solution for anything, then you’ve already lost.

But why did it sound for you like that’s what I wanted to suggest? Or did I even say it that clearly?

Alternatively: The state, the way it currently exists, may actually function better than the supranational constructions, the EU for instance, which degrades into egoisms.

Aman, how do you see an ideal order? What do you see for the future? What can Europe learn, from India, from other parts of the world?

What Europe is going through right now is a renationalization not only of thought, but also in politics. Egoism. Pop-psychological conjecture. Old role plays.

It is horrible. It’s as if you were to break through the base and realize that there’s no net, nothing to stop you and hold you up.
Is the continent breaking up again right now in front of our eyes? Sometimes it seems like it. The dramatic part of this is almost less, as you rightly say, that it’s breaking up, which is dramatic enough – the really dramatic part is that there’s a thought vacuum, a perplexity in policy, which you observed from a distance very well and precisely and better than I did.

In a certain sense you caught me. You noticed something in me that I don’t want to see. I consider myself to be outside of a world of thought that only talks about “self-defence” and “invasion” and “measures.” They just decided that Syrian refugees will only receive a provisional admittance and that there families in Syria won’t be able to join them here, where they would be protected.

They should remain amidst war, in distress and in misery. How can a country overcome this moral blemish? This kind of decision?
But am I myself so far removed from this policy? In your words a self-evident utopia appears, one that I’m missing. With the relentless news reports here it’s hardly possible, it seems sometimes, to lift your head up and regard the situation clearly and to see yourself in this scenario, one character among others.

You spoke of Abdul, who is a mentch, as my friend Igor would say, Yiddish for a person of integrity; he is a musafir, that’s what you call him, and it’s good that you told me about him, because of course there’s dignity in him, there is beauty and there is liberty in him.

But we want to see the people that are coming as weak. We want to see them as a mass. We also arguably want to see them as degraded, to whom we can give back some dignity out of our good graces.

We, we, we.

Who is this we?

It’s an awful train of thought you’re referring to. It’s an extremely Western, European, German view. It’s the egoism of colonists. It’s the white man’s burden, again and again.

Abdul, the mystery, the man that crossed the German-Swiss border in bright cycling gear, who was happy here and then again not, because happiness is an attribute not a condition. This Abdul that disappeared again, who knows where to – this Abdul is existence in the emphatic sense.

Not in this pitifully threatened, threatening tone, which is used when talking about the mass of refugees, as beings who remain in the minority in their passiveness.

A person is most dangerous, so it seems, and also most normal in what he or she does. Free and self-determined.
This person is the threat. For any order.

Thank you for showing me that again with Abdul’s story.

It was very quiet again today in Legaso by the way. I’m going to try and find out why it was like that today and what changed. And I’ll report back to you.

Sincerely yours, as always,



Aman Sethi

Dear Georg,
It seems Europe has changed since we last corresponded: Paris is stricken, Brussels is in lockdown and if early intelligence is to be believed, at least one of the attackers in the Paris attacks this November was traveling on a forged Syrian passport and breached Europe’s borders, to use a Maoist phrase, like a fish amidst a sea of migrants. 
Islamic State’s use of a forged Syrian passport appears to be strategic – to make it easy for their agent to slip through borders, while simultaneously preying on European fears about Syrian immigrants. In sections of the public imagination, the figure of the migrant/musafir transforms once more: from one who flees terror into one who perpetrates terror. Some in Europe were waiting for this moment – Poland has already announced its intention to seal its borders.
France, the country that gave us the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the rights of man and citizens (which didn’t apply in the colonies), is in a state of emergency where many of these rights stand suspended, and the question of citizenship is open to question. Earlier this year, French courts ruled it lawful to rescind the citizenship of dual-passport holders convicted of terrorism, effectively creating two classes of citizen. This interpretation of the French civil code was applied to man originally from Morocco, a former colony.
The journey of the musafir has suddenly become still harder. Does this mean, as some have suggested, that the terrorists are ‘winning’? I don’t think so, but let us set that imprecise question aside for the moment, and turn to your vivid account of your visit to the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or Lageso – it offers us some ideas to think with.
It is fascinating that the Office for Health and Social Affairs is responsible for the registration of refugees. 
It reminds me of Panopticism, the third chapter of Discipline and Punish, where Foucault describes how transformation of Power’s dreams can be read in the difference in its response to leprosy – which gave rise to rituals of exclusion – and the plague – which gave to disciplinary projects.
Those afflicted by leprosy are excluded from society; those with the plague are registered, numbered, quarantined to their quarters and continuously monitored by authority. 
In this new form of power, which relentlessly partitions and subdivides itself down to the level of the individual, Focault writes, “The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized.”
But what he writes next is even more insightful and beautiful, “Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.”
So it is very important to document this process, as you have in your letter. The immigrant – a person who appears and disappears, lives and dies in disorder – is always a troublesome subject for a nation, because she destablisizes the category of the “citizen”. 
Thank you for sharing this, and I look forward to more news and details of your visits to Legeso.
You ask, “Aman, how do you see an ideal order? What do you see for the future? What can Europe learn, from India, from other parts of the world?”
These are interesting and difficult questions. 
Let’s start with the last one: what can Europe learn from India and the rest of the world? 
I’m not sure if this particular email is the right place to delve into this in great detail, but in 1947 approximately 14 million people were displaced when the Indian sub-continent was divided into India and Pakistan. 
There were riots, massacres, transit camps and incidents of compassion on both sides of the new border. My grandparents were part of this mass migration – they came from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and settled in New Delhi. In time, in their new surroundings, the shock and horror of the partition lessened and presumably gave way to more banal and ordinary skirmishes, arguments and ultimately some sort of truce. 
The memory of partition and the existence of Pakistan continue to inform a significant part of public discourse in India. Of late, supporters of our current government have taken to telling their critics to “go to Pakistan” if they express dissatisfaction with the policies and (in)actions of the ruling party.
This insult is often hurled by Hindus, who came from present day Pakistan, at Muslims who actually chose to remain in present day India. It is an interesting dynamic where those who chose to move challenge the patriotism of those who chose to stay: revealing the fragility of terms like “culture”, “migrant”, “original inhabitants” – terms that are used with great frequency, but with little sense of history, in current discourse.
My brief description of the Partition is a gross simplification of a long and messy process; but I think the broad lesson is that the current situation in Europe is far from insurmountable.
You ask – is the nation state breaking up? I don’t think the administrative frameworks of state-form are in too much danger, but I think the “nation-state” as a lens for understanding the world, movement of capital, interests of “people”, the deployment of labour, the assessment of fair wages etc, is becoming less and less useful. 
Populations appear less interested in the nationality question, as is evident from the millions of people from the developing world trying their best to acquire a new passport. Rather than view the march of the musafir as the emigration of Syrians/ Iraqis/ Libyans/ Gambians/ Somalis to Germany/France/Austria/ Greece; let us view this as the march of labour to the citadel of capital in an effort to secure a new deal. 
What if we consider this current process as a logical extension of the “Occupy” movements that we have witnessed across the world post “Occupy Wall Street”.
If the world is a single, increasingly integrated, economic unit (as we are often told it is), and every person is evaluated on her economic worth as a potential worker in this economy (as is usually the case) – then perhaps this summer was an instance of a global workers revolt, involving workers from Africa and the Middle East.
Adopting such a worldview may result in more useful solutions; particularly since the rest of the world is already viewing the migration along these terms.
Here’s an excerpt from a news report from the recently concluded emergency meeting on migration between the EU and African leaders at Malta.
“African leaders such as Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou say that $2 billion — which comes in addition to more than $20 billion that the EU and its members already contribute to Africa — is not enough. There should be less aid and more investment, they say, and multinationals should pay their taxes. The African Union estimates that the continent loses $50 billion annually through tax fraud and illicit practices by such companies.
“If we could combat tax evasion, that would stop us calling for aid,” Sall [Prime Minister of Senegal] said. “Terrorism is an issue, wherever war is waged people flee — where there’s less development people flee towards development.”
“We have to look at migration serenely, take the drama out of it,” he added.
Of course the pronouncement of African leaders reflect their own domestic compulsions – it is easier to explain out-migration from your country (say Senegal) if you can blame it elsewhere (say Europe) – but the suggestion to look at migration “serenely” suggests a realistic assessment of the limits of governance and coercion.
I’ll end here with some questions of my own. I am interested in knowing more about West Germany’s “guest worker programme” that saw millions of Turkish citizens come to work in German factories in the post-war boom. Looking back, how did this program play out, and is there any way in which the experiences of the 1960s may inform our thinking of the present?
As always, I look forward to your reply

Georg Diez

Dear Aman,
I was in Paris for the second time. I was there after the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and saw people standing together, night after night at the Place de la République, because they were shocked, angry and sad – and thereby forgetting that they were only one portion of the city. The other portion of the city wasn’t at the Place de la République; they were outside, on the other side of the city walls, which have taken on the form of a highway today, but are similarly as insurmountable as they were in the Middle Ages. They were in the banlieues and they weren’t invited to the celebration of self-assurance. And some of them were openly celebrating the dead cartoonists and the dead Jews.
The mood was different ten months later. There were more deaths, but in a certain sense, it was the group of people who had lit candles at the statue of Marianne in January, who had become the target this time around. It was their friends or they themselves who sat in Petit Cambodge or in Belle Équipe, a few meters away from the Place de la République; it was their friends or they themselves who danced in the Bataclan. And, since it’s easier to mourn others than it is to mourn yourself, they were more quiet, more baffled, less angry and less solidary. They really were hurt, because they could feel in their gut where terror comes from: from their country, from their society, bypassing the war in Syria and fueled by the Islamists’ murderous mania. Nevertheless, they were kids that were born here.
I think it’s important to understand that. Because an attempt was immediately made of course to make that connection, between the terror and the refugees. That is cynical and wrong, and Mao has nothing to do with it. The people coming to Europe happen to be fleeing exactly the kind of people who killed in Paris. If there are a few terrorists among the hundreds of thousands of people coming, then that’s both statistically a strong probability and is absolutely a problem in terms of its implications for security; however, it’s not a problem that can be fixed by putting a fence up right in front of the refugees’ faces and thereby punishing the masses for something they’ve already been the victims of. 
I think Slavoj Zizek said it quite clearly:  “The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be the refugees themselves, and the true winner, behind the platitudes in the style of je suis Paris, will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not just to engage in shows of anti-terrorist solidarity but to insist on the simple cui bono question.” He also wrote that the terrorists are “the Islamo-Fascist counterpart of the European immigration racists.”
And so both things actually do correlate – the terror and the refugees –, but not as plainly as a faked Syrian passport would suggest. Both fundamentalism and racism are extreme answers to a reality that is perceived to be increasingly complex. What gets lost here are the reasons for social tensions, economic inequality and tendencies towards societal breakup. I don’t mean that in a sweeping and overarching way. And a lot of the things that both fundamentalists and racists attack are things that I love and are important to me: freedom, individualism, hedonism. But there are also forces in the essence of capitalism that reveal themselves in this reciprocal violence. And Zizek also points this out: “We can’t address the EU refugee crisis without confronting global capitalism,” he writes.
What does this have to do with Lageso, with the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales [Office of Health and Social Affairs Berlin]? You were right to point out the strange circumstance, in which a agency for public health is responsible for the question of refugees. And this is perhaps where the problem begins. Your association with Foucault was also very right. Because evidently what’s happening here, day for day in fact, is one thing: Discipline and Punishment. A veritable biopolitical regime reveals itself here; Giorgio Agamben would be appalled at how validated he has been now. The state manifests itself here in its contemporary biformity: as the administrator of conditions it created itself without laying blame – each individual is just an official in the machine; and as the dysfunctional extension of a system, which isn’t prepared for the almost metaphysical shift that awaits Europe. 
Metaphysical? Maybe you’re right, I’m probably exaggerating. But that’s the mood at the moment – the insecurity, a bewilderment, that’s created with a specific goal in mind and is being exploited. The events aren’t metaphysical, they just appear to be so in the eyes of Europeans, which have adjusted to a few calm centuries. What’s happening right now between North Africa, the Middle East and Europe is rather routine in many parts of the world. And that’s exactly why what  you can observe in Lageso, night after night, is so severe and alarming. The image of Europe is being deliberately destroyed here; the image, that Europe had of itself, as a continent of civilization or at least of civilizedness. Now you’ll say, Yes but at whose cost? Who were the victims of colonialism that were necessary for this civilizedness? Or you’ll say, There’s another whiny self-deprecating European, who enjoys nothing more than self-hatred.
I don’t know. All I know is that Lageso has made it into the New York Times by now, that there are online petitions and segments in the national news, that leading politicians are going there and writing open letters, that Berlin’s governing coalition could break up over it – and that none of that matters to me. Because it’s already taking too long. And because I’ve seen it for weeks and months, and couldn’t change anything. I wrote about it in my column and many people who agree with me read it. The others wrote vitriolic comments. I was there again after writing you; it was during the day and it seemed more calm and organized than it did during my first visits. But nothing had changed, as we now know. There was still the same chaos and the same arbitrariness. They were playing with people there.
And yes, it makes me angry. It may well be that Berlin’s government will fall in the end because of what it tolerated or created in Lageso, this intentional and inhumane mess in which children are lost and peoples’ hope, the most precious thing they still have, is destroyed. It’s the moment that will inform their image of Germany; and if they don’t arrive here, then they will withdraw back into themselves, and that in turn means that there will be parallel societies. But here it is the German state creating this situation of ostracization. Some lawyers in Berlin are filing charges against the senator of social affairs, and they are right in doing so. The pressure must grow. But it’s both sad and sobering that this situation had been tolerated for so long already.
The Front National just won in France’s regional elections. Donald Trump just uttered a few exceptionally dumb sentences: No Muslims should be allowed to enter the US. He’s a clown; but he’s a clown that wants to be president. And with each of his utterances of hogwash that get applauded, the measure of rationality slides a bit further to the right. And when somebody makes the suggestion of maybe only registering all Muslims, as Trump himself said a few days ago, then they even seem rational in comparison to the insanity of latter statements. It’s a sick cycle that can be observed here, a study of communicative dysfunctionality. Jürgen Habermas, the great theorist of communicative democracy, always started from the premise that participating parties are rational. But what happens when they simply denounce reason? How does legitimacy through communication work then?
These are the questions I’m concerned with right now. I’ll tell you about the history of gastarbeiter [guest laborers] in this country next time. With pleasure. And again about Lageso. Because everything is connected to everything else.
Sincerely yours, as always,



Aman Sethi

Dear Georg
Time has quickened its flow along the course of this conversation. The horror of the Paris attack is yet to recede, a fresh round of attacks is underway in Jakarta, and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Earlier this week it was Istanbul.
I also read of the attacks on young women in Cologne over the New Year, the inevitable blowback, and Charlie Hebdo’s controversial illustration suggesting Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned en route to Europe, would have grown up to become a sexual molester.
The cartoon has drawn the usual reactions from the usual suspects, but it does signal a macabre closed loop of events that you refer to in your mail: the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, the violence in Cologne, and then a Charlie Hebdo cartoon to round things off. As you conclude in your mail – everything is connected to everything else.
Thank you for the reference to Zizek’s piece – I had missed in when it came out; and on reading it now – I was struck by an interesting passage towards the end:
“When I was recently answering questions from the readers of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest daily, about the refugee crisis, the question that attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, but with a rightist-populist twist: When Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands into Germany, which was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly point out the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate radical opening of the borders: Are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals suspension of—in effect imposing a gigantic change in a country’s status quo without democratic consultation of its population?”
Zizek responds, suggesting that Merkel was correct in not seeking popular consultation. He writes:
“Emancipatory politics should not be bound a priori by formal-democratic procedures of legitimization. No, people quite often do NOT know what they want, or do not want what they know, or they simply want the wrong thing. There is no simple shortcut here.”
I was interested in your perspective on this issue. What do you think about this limited section I have excerpted above?
I agree that popular consultation or a referendum would have made it politically impossible to accept refugees – but I instinctively disagree with his tired formulation that “the people” don’t know what they want, and so we need a principled vanguard to lead the way.
In many democracies, significant and irreversible decisions are occasionally solved by referendum; but it is interesting that nation states almost never call for a referendum before going to war – an epic and irreversible decision if there ever was one.
So I suppose the question is: Will the arrival of 4 million refugees to a continent of 750 million result in what you call a “metaphysical shift” in Europe – the sort of thing that should require politicians to go back to the people for their views?
Am I – by virtue of being far away – underestimating the long-term impact of Europe’s crisis ? As the optimistic resident of crowded chaotic city – 24 million and counting – I am inclined to think that we are simply in the initial “shock and awe” stage of this process, which will eventually culminate in some form of compact of coexistence between those already in Germany and the new arrivals.
I am in the midst of reading a fascinating new book – Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India – written by Bhrigupati Singh, an anthropologist at Brown University.
In his book, Bhrigu offers up the idea of “Agonistic Intimacy” – from the Greek “Agon” or “contest” – to try to understand how “potentially hostile neighbouring groups” might come together to forge a vibrant, yet contested peace by somehow including each other in their respective moral and spiritual worlds.
Living together in “agonistic intimacy” involves both conflict and co-habitation, and this subtle balance – Bhrigu reveals – has formed the basis of many human societies across time and space.
To extend this argument to the current predicament in Germany: it is possible that Syrian musafirs may not “integrate” immediately and seamlessly; but more likely the communities shall probably forge unexpected and possibly fragile bonds over a long period. Some bonds shall be largely symbolic, influential and fickle – one generation down the line, the child of a Syrian refugee might score a vital goal for the German national team or miss a vital penalty (I suppose here I am thinking of Mesut Ozil). Other bonds shall be less visible but enduring and intimate – like Syrian born workers in factories, Syrian-born nurses and doctors in hospitals. There will also be demagogues – of the likes of Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Nick Griffin, to contest and hinder this process at each step.
But is it impossible to believe that, given 20 years, these enduring bonds, prejudices, and encounters, shall converge into a mélange of myth, narrative, and ritual to consecrate the arrival of the musafir and the “recultivation” – to borrow another of Bhrigu’s phrases – of idea of the German identity and people?
The problem with Habermas’s “public sphere” – as you point out – is that he assumed that everyone will not just be rational, but will also publicly perform their rationality for all to see. This is demonstrably not the case.
A lot of politics, and most of life, is thankfully lived out of this public sphere. We are gradually realizing this in India where every week, a high-ranking government official or minister, says something implausible, violent or outright bigoted, with complete awareness that the national media shall amplify his (its usually always men) statements.
I agree that words have consequences, particularly when uttered by seemingly powerful people, but society has a fluid resilience – it coheres even as it transforms. It is this paradoxical resilience that keeps me hopeful.
Yours ever

Georg Diez

Dear Aman,
This may sound a bit emotional, but I’m happy you exist. I am anyways, but especially am right now. When I write to you, it’s like I can beam myself out of all the insanity that I’m surrounded by on a daily basis. And I, like so many others, am suffering from it. People are talking about emigrating. For some people it’s just party talk. Others mean it seriously.
On the other hand, this letter beams me back into the middle of everything that’s happened in the weeks since I last wrote you. Is it still the same country? I don’t recognize the politics; I don’t recognize my colleagues. I can’t remember  ignorance, meanness and resentment ever being bound together into such a hysteric, roaring bundle as quickly as they were after January 1st, 2016.
At the same time, I always have the feeling that I have to tell you something: Aman, be patient with me, I’m a European. We enslaved the world, but those were either my ancestors or, to a much larger extent, the British, the Spanish and the French. And we Europeans of today, we Easyjet-setters, are a strangely spoiled brood — we only know the stories of war and a life of affluence.
And a certain inexperience of the world is indeed actually one of the reasons for the excitement, for the political smear campaign, for the anti-constitutional suggestions, for the sheer opportunism that many are escaping into as if a new regime is already visible on the horizon and it’s about to be payday. Another reason may just be racism.
Refugees and “people with immigrant backgrounds” are no longer allowed to enter public swimming pools?! Refugees have to forfeit a significant portion of their money?! Mali is a safe third world country? Refugees have to wear a red armband, otherwise they won’t receive any money? The fact is, the people talking about the compulsion to integrate are the ones doing everything to make this integration difficult — mistrust, measures saying families cannot follow, and then lamenting that only “young men traveling alone” are coming to Germany. 
It really is insane. 2015 was stressful. 2016 is insane. And the panic is growing, especially among the so-called people’s parties. The radical right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) party could supposedly receive 10 percent of the vote nationally. There are elections in March in some German states. And since one of the promises of salvation of the old Federal Republic of Germany was a stabil ‘party landscape,’ as the saying goes – Landschaft (landscape) is a very German word – that’s why this shift, which is a pretty unsettling shift among the old constellations, is almost a cultural breach for many.
They seem to really fear the pitchforks that an AfD spokeswoman wants to drive them out of office with. She recently said so at a demonstration. Political violence is suddenly on the table. On the other hand, there were 1,000 attacks on refugees or refugee shelters or generally-speaking anti-immigrant attacks last year. And this should be classified as terrorism, if you wouldn’t just rather – as many still would – talk about the “concerned citizens,” whose concerns need to be “taken seriously.”
This is the climate post-Cologne. Hardly anybody is talking anymore about the reasons people leave their homes and become refugees. The vast majority will only discuss the need to close borders, right now, unconditionally. They don’t talk about how to do that. They don’t talk about whether refugees, who still want to come, should be shot. They don’t talk about how Europe wouldn’t exist anymore, because Europe, this Europe, the one that wanted to put war in its past, is based on the free flow of people and dissolution of borders.
That seems to be all the same to you. You would rather talk about the return of the nation state, because you see what happened in Cologne as a failure of government. But a lot of people are quite gladly discussing the state now, which on the one hand is typical for this country, a country that has sought its fortune or better said misfortune in submission to authority; and on the other hand it’s cynical, because this call for the state, a strong state, often comes from those that wanted nothing, more each and every neoliberal day, than to get rid of the state wholesale.
But how does one come up with the idea of the nation state being a solution for an  epochal phenomenon, like global migration? It’s obvious that they want to export weapons but that they don’t want to import the people that are fleeing the wars being wages with these weapons. But that won’t succeed. Because then they’d have to sacrifice everything that makes Europe what it is, at least constitutionally: freedom, equality, fraternity. And yes, you probably see things differently, they way my friend, Pankaj Mishra, does. In his book, From the Ruins of Empire, he analyses the West’s lies and crimes during the colonial period, drawing a connection between the democratic aspirations of countries like Iran, Turkey and China and interventions by the West. His conclusion is that Europe created an unjust world, which is now fleeing back to the origin of this evil by a devious refugee route.
So what, to put it differently, is a century? What is a century and a half? Circles eventually close but that’s not how people are thinking in these über-hectic times, and this is unique heckling. And the worst people are the ones that want nothing more than to drive Angela Merkel out, the crowds on the streets carrying gallows and signs that say “traitor” on them. But there are also the professors in the more reactionary sections of the daily papers, who say the same thing differently: Merkel betrayed “us” because her basic task is to prevent “harm to the German people.”
This is the sentiment behind what you quoted from the Zizek text. It’s one of the must unpleasant thought patterns, because it really is so reactionary, that’s currently making the rounds: Accordingly, egoism is the essential nationalistic kit, ethics are just for the good days, responsibility is for dreamers and humanitarianism is accordingly an episode in the European monotony. They’re riding with their backs to the sun. They’re reversing the course of history — this is their hope. However this plan won’t work, because in doing so, they’re taking away the breathing room. This is the danger. They detach Europe from the rest of the world. By trying to protect Europe with walls, with border fences, with boats in the Mediterranean and with arrangements with dictators like Recep Erdogan, they’re actually destroying it themselves.
Because the 21st century is the century of diversity. The culture warriors here don’t want to accept that. They rather spread the image of a murderous Islam, which automatically turns men into rapists. They rather fuel prejudice and hate, producing contempt for the democratic system. They’re acting like liberals, feminists and progressives, of all people, are to be blamed for what happened in Cologne. They’re truly ignorant. And sometimes I really can’t believe my eyes when I read some of the things they’re writing. And sometimes I have to question everything I thought about certain people.
Or about people in general. And this, to say something positive, has something thoroughly good to it. It’s a real reality check. And this is what you’re talking about. It’s what’s happening in the world. It’s the “agonistic intimacy,” which is what so many countries and cultures are made of. And yet, Europe has a strange phantasm, that of national homogeneity, something that’s hard to comprehend on a continent that’s been plowed through over and over by mass migrations. But maybe that’s exactly the fear that resurfaces in moments like these.
A historian just compared the current situation to the fall of Rome. Comparisons are dumb for the most part. This one was too. If the Romans had voted on it, would it have changed anything? If they had debated it? In the current situation, and this is what your question is getting at, it would certainly be difficult to hold a referendum for one thing. And I also don’t think that’s necessary. The essence of representative systems is what the people express by voting. I’m not an absolute advocate of this system. But it has its advantages. It currently guarantees a modicum of stability. Does Angela Merkel need to communicate differently, speak differently? Could she? Yes, with certainty. Parliament is the place for such a debate and it’s symptomatic and incorrect that this place is no longer being used.
The problem with the entire discussion is that it’s being held in such a defensive and fearful manner. But a few days ago, I saw how Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, casually and self-evidently explained why he took Syrian refugees into his country and why diversity is the future. And in Europe? There are politicians, from Poland in this case, that are seriously saying that vegetarians and bicyclists can not be allowed to be in power.
Aman, beam me up. Sometimes I really don’t know what I’ve lost on this continent.
All best,

Aman Sethi

Dear Georg,

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.

Georg Diez

Dear Aman,
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,

Aman Sethi

Dear Georg,
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.
Yrs ever

Georg Diez

Dear Aman,
how does one, how can one even talk about the refugees? About fleeing? About that which drives people? About that, which people bring with them? About that, which makes them who they are?
Very early on in our correspondence, you mentioned that the image shouldn’t be one of misery and distress, of dependance and fear, because this image then feeds into the fears of all the people whose resentment is big, grey and violent. However, also, and primarily because this image also degrades the refugee, the traveler, the wanderer. It disenfranchises him, this time symbolically, because it turns him into an object, a political object, an object of pity, an object to help or hate. Because it doesn’t make him into the person that he is, Musafir, free, even if he’s being persecuted.
I still think that’s the best lesson I’ve learned in the last few months. It’s the attempt to really see the other as a person with possibilities to act, because these possibilities to act are what make him into a free person. If you take this freedom away from him, visually, textually or rhetorically, then you’re taking away what drives him, what makes him who he is. How hard it is for so many to be able to see past this initial image of misery and distress. How easy it is to hold on to this image, because it easily draws a line between them and us, even those of us who want to help.
I was sitting a few days ago with some photographers at a podium discussion, talking to them about their images. “Fleeing in Images” was what the event was called. One of the photographers, Kai Löffelbein, was in Lesbos in the summer of 2015, taking dramatically-lit pictures in black and white. A rubber dinghy in front of the cliffs. A father carrying his daughter on his shoulders. Life vests. Young men shaving. A crowd standing in front of a ferry. Those were pictures were defined by an awareness, as the photographer said himself, that something historic was happening here. The photographer mentioned, that he decided on his own to go to Lesbos. The pathos it seemed, was also a kind of protection against letting what he saw slip away from him.
It wasn’t a mistaken or disruptive pathos, it was just an aesthetic form for his own disturbed state, I think. He showed strength in the people who were fleeing, I thought. And the photographer said it himself, how he didn’t photograph some things, how he turned his camera away, because he didn’t want to put the peoples’ suffering on display. However, when confronted with the view that that would never understand what these people had felt, seen, experienced, he reacted in a different way than another member of the panel did. Her images were analytic, bureaucratic, almost criminological. She took pictures of files, of rows of shelves. She was interested in the apparatus of fleeing, the mechanics of registration and intake, the way that functions in Germany. This photographer, Sibylle Fendt, is taking the opposite standpoint in a sense. She was contrasting the drama of fleeing with the non-drama of the administration.  She explicitly didn’t depict people.
What really touched me in such a strange way about both of their pictures, was – aside from the human force and conceptual clarity – the insight as to how historic this situation a year ago would become in the present. These were photos that were taken from a different awareness than that of political deal-making, surrounding quotas and the absurd deal with Turkey. They were photos that opened everyone’s eyes to what was going on very far from here, and yet so close. They were photos that weren’t commissioned, that, in the best way, didn’t aim to do anything besides depicting what happened with the aesthetic, intellectual and ultimately moral resources at the photographers’ disposal.
What does that mean though, when the present becomes historic in itself? At least in the eyes of people in countries that are sealing themselves off more and more? The time we live in is so short and terse; it’s getting tight, especially for those who are squeezing in. Because time isn’t out there for everyone, it isn’t the same for everyone. Many live longer because they can; many don’t live longer because they can’t. There’s a fundamental disparity that’s shaking the world, not only economically, but also ontologically. What many people in Germany and other Western countries don’t understand, is what people like Bernie Sanders, like the Pope (omg, I’m quoting the Pope!), say: When one person suffers, all people suffer.
The legitimization for this order, which many call democracy, fractures and crumbles when the victims, which are necessary to protect this order, keep increasing. Justice cannot exist unscathed. Human rights can only be thought of as universally possible or they can’t be thought of at all. But what’s happening right now is a departure from universality. Relativism is dominating, from the right. The frailty is on the side of the left. A vacuum is created between them, which could be the present. But, as I said, the present itself has become historic, it seems like a bad footnote to the post-modern. Did all of this really happen? Is it really all happening?
I’m going to try to read some Arthur Koestler in the upcoming weeks, because he was someone who always lived against the lies. I’ll read Achille Mbembe’s new book about the politics of enmity. I’ll soon watch the film that Marcel Mettelsiefen made about a family from Aleppo and their escape. I will accompany you, I hope, in Lesbos, to the place where the present day meets itself. Strangely, I want some proof. For what, I don’t exactly know.
We will find out. As always, Aman, my warmest regards,

What Happened?

+Georg Diez+Alexine Sammut
27 min

September 26, 1980 – in Munich a bomb deposited in a trashcan at the entrance to the Oktoberfest kills 13 people and injures 219, many of whom lose limbs in the explosion. The bomb detonates at 10:20 p.m., just as thousands of visitors are crowding toward the exit. It is beyond dispute that Gundolf Köhler, a university student from the Swabian town of Donaueschingen, made the bomb, took it to Munich and deposited it at the scene of the crime. He is killed, because the bomb goes off too soon.

But even 30 years later his motives will remain unclear. Was he a crazy perpetrator who was acting alone, or did an extremist right-wing group stage a terrorist attack against Germany just nine days before parliamentary elections? The student had ties to Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, a neo-Nazi organization banned on January 30, 1980. Köhler had taken part in their exercises. Is it really a coincidence that Frank Lauterjung is at the scene of the crime? The key witness to the attack is also a right-wing extremist and he might have been also an informant for Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. Lauterjung survives the explosion, even though only a few meters away, because he has a “bad feeling” and throws himself to the ground before the bomb detonates. Investigators questioned Lauterjung at least five times. He will die of heart failure in 1982, when only 38. Lauterjung tells investigators that he noticed Köhler in a loud discussion with two men in green parkas near the site of the crime, about 30 minutes before the explosion. The two men were not among the victims. What the investigators overlook is that Lauterjung is an avowed right-wing extremist. Previously unknown letters, discovered as part of a deceased person’s estate, will reveal that in the mid-1960s Lauterjung was in the Bund Heimattreuer Jugend (BHJ), where he served as ‘deputy national leader’ and ‘regional commander.’ Members write ‘Heil Dir!’ as reference to the ‘Heil Hitler.’ A BHJ leader suspected that Lauterjung had infiltrated the organization, and that he was possibly working for Germany’s intelligence. He would sometimes “disappear for four weeks at a time, as if he had been wiped off the face of the earth.”

Shortly after he was kicked out of the BHJ, Lauterjung joined the Socialist German Student Union (SDS). Was he following Köhler? Lauterjung claims that, as a gay man, he was looking for sex at a public toilet at the entrance to the Oktoberfest. Lauterjung also says that he believed Köhler was doing the same thing. According to Lauterjung, Köhler was carrying a heavy, cylindrical object in a white plastic bag and a small suitcase. The suitcase disappears without a trace, even though other witnesses say that they have seen it immediately after the bombing. A female passerby says, two young men were standing next to Köhler’s body, shouting: “I didn’t want it! It’s not my fault! Just kill me!” Another woman says that she saw a car with five passengers near the entrance to the Oktoberfest a week ago, just after it was opened. There was a large object wrapped in black material on the back seat. The woman even remembered the license plate: VS-DD 500, a Ford owned by Köhler’s father.


Not even a trace of the detonating device is found among the pieces at the site. The investigators assume that a faulty fuse had caused the early detonation.

In a 1984 novel, Wehrsportgruppe founder Karl-Heinz Hoffmann will write that the Oktoberfest bomb was detonated by remote control. Are the backers even from Italy? A few weeks before the Oktoberfest bombing, right-wing extremists killed 85 people in Bologna train station. Munich papers receive calls claiming responsibility from “right-wingers in Bologna.”

Georg Diez

So this is the setting. The Oktoberfest at night, the exit with the arching sign overhead, a mass of people. The question is: What to do with it, artistically, politically, intellectually. The politicians decided very quickly what to do: They buried the case. They suggested leftist terrorists behind the plot for a short while and then, as right-wing connections became more evident, they shut the case claiming that it was the lone Köhler who commited this atrocity. It would have been too much to bear to have a right-wing conspiracy, escpecially in Bavaria, where things are always better than in the rest of the republic. But the fact remains, the dead remain, they even, as dead often do, resurface. There are new investigations into this crime, there is evidence of a cover-up, there are piles of testimonials that have never been read, there are, and this is what stayed with me most, 47 cigarettes that were found in the car of Köhler, from six different brands, with and without filters. It seems not very likely that Köhler smoked them all himself, six different brands, with and without filters. It points to the fact that he might very likely not have acted alone. And today it would be easy to look for DNA on the cigarettes that would help identify anybody in the car with Köhler. 47 cigarettes. What to do with them? Artistically, it might be a good idea to smoke them with the audience at Lothringerstraße 13, the art space where we are invited to to a presentation on the subject on October 6. Politically or at least police-wise, the answer was: Destroy them. They had been stored to a while together with other evidence, among other things a hand that had been torn off at the blast and was never claimed by any victim and could also not be identified to any victim. All was discarded a few years back. So no evidence in this direction. But like with all catastrophes, the imagination is larger than any evidence. The interesting thing is: I am not sure how present the Attentat is still in Munich memory, in the memory of the place, in the body of the city so to speak.
Christopher and I did this research concerning the years 1980 and 1981 as important years of a shift overlooked by most historians, tendencies that were still in the stage of latency or out in the open but overlooked: end of Communism, end of Capitalism, haha, well, sort of, more like the beginning of radical Capitalism, the rise of radical Islam. And there were other, smaller stories. Like Bologna, where everybody thought the bomb had been planted by left-wing terrorists and where the police and the politicians acted accordingly. A lie maybe more than a truth generates something that in turn becomes undeniably a fact, a truth so to speak. The assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II was such a case where the myth of him being saved by the virgin Mary became so strong that it made him change his policy towards the Soviet Union. Christopher and I restaged and reenacted this event many times, in Zurich, Hamburg, New Delhi among other places. It was always something not quite cathartic, something fun and relieving and at the same time a bit humbling, serious. Like world history turned into a birthday party for an eight-year-old. This is what we want to do with the Oktoberfest Attentat. Sometimes there seems to be an act of exorcism in our work. Not in this case though. It is more about waking up the ghosts.

Georg Diez

On the one hand, the events of September 1980 are well documented. There was a TV feature just yesterday, it was thorough and critical and asked the right questions. What can art do in this context? What is the story we want to tell? What are the connections we want to make? There is, of course, the very nature of fact, the documentation via photos, via witnesses which might or might not generate a true feeling or an insight into what has happened. Was this what the TV feature did? There is the little horror of authenticity that Franz Josef Strauß always elicits. There is the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann. But is there also a different truth? What can we do about this event? One thing I asked myself is: Should we build this modell of the site, of the event? Should we blow it up? And: What does reenactment mean in this context? We did the Pope assassination attempt, this was quite different. What happens if we reenact this event where so many people died? Or does it fit even more into the violent story of these years, the very essence maybe of these years, where assassinations all over the world shocked and up-rooted whole societies, maybe most of all in San Salvador with the bloody civil-war. But also Bologna etc. What is the context of what we see in Munich? Is it only the FJS nostalgia? We will cater to that, we will have the fine silk scarf that Florian Böhm printed. It shows Strauß hunting in Pakistan. What is the connection here? The problem with news is that they show you what you see. They don*t show you what you do not see. This might seem obvious, but it is in fact a ver profound problem with tremendous political consequences. News should be about showing you the things you do not see. This again is a simple technical problem: You cannot see what you cannot see. So how will we resolve this problem? Is it even a problem?

Alexine Sammut

My first thoughts on bombs and bombers as ‘loners’ go straight to Karin Grech. She died when a letter was delivered by a fingerless carpenter to her doorstep some days after boxing day in ’77.

Why? I don’t know. How relevant this is to this conversation? I also don’t know. But it makes me question the relevence or contribution a reenactment of the oktoberfest attentat could have. I ask simply what? why? and how?

We start with a model of the situation. What is it made of? What does it say? Will the meaning change with scale? Generally speaking, it is easy to fetishize a situation when it is represented in a tiny scale, (think dolls houses and train sets?). It is also however, hard to fall in love with such a bloody event. What do we do with the 47 cigarettes? Do we shed light on other details linked to the scene but conveniently forgotten?

Working with models is usually simple and straightforward if you know your tools, your material, your glue. Here the game changes. The whole point should be the change. From the whole to the fragmented parts – parts which represent an exploded place/victims/story/past… What do we represent? How specific will it be? Maybe it is enough to start, explode, record and repeat. Maybe it’s good enough. For now…

Here, in Venice there is no sign of the oktoberfest attentat in 1980 events that shaped architectural discourse. How strange. Maybe it was outnumbered by the Bologna blast. Maybe because simply 85 is bigger than 13. Maybe size does matter in the end.

radical pedagogies by beatriz colomina (venice biennale ’14)

Georg Diez

That is an excellent point. Why is Bologna such a memorable event, a strong mark in the history of post-war Italy and a turning point in the political self-understanding of the country – and the Oktoberfestattentat is something like folkloristic, something weird and Bavarian, no context, no narrative that puts the event into a perspective. It was quickly diminished in size and relevance. How could this happen? Everything was there to produce a scandal of sorts. Pictures, dead, a more than popular site. It was a bit like tearing out the heart of Munich. But things were settled fast. This was a political decision by the Strauß government. But why did it work? How did the early-eighties iconographic memory work or not work? As Alexine says, maybe size does matter, for a model, for the dead. 85 versus 13. 85 versus 13. 85 versus 13. Or is there just no narrative for right-wing terror? Just like there is no narrative for right-wing thinking. This is, by the way, what made the other deadly series of right-wing murders possible, the terror trio of the NSU. You need a story to find what you are looking for. This is a paradox. This is politics. How could it happen?

Georg Diez

So after Alexine and I have met, the following suggestion/thought – there is a common link in a lot of narratives about bombs and assassinations, the “loner”. We seem to want this narrative, we seem to need it. It makes more sense that somebody might kill alone, it is more comforting. There is, of course, a motive for that; and in the case of the Oktoberfestattentat, it totally worked. The event is more or less erased from memory. 13 deaths. It could have been a major crisis. But nothing. First they blame it on the Left, like the Italians did it in Bologna. Then they blame it on a “verwirrter junger Mann”, a sort of delusional young man, the eternal outsider. This drains all the politics out of these actions. This leaves us with carnage. So best fast forget it, fast forward. Bologna is still remembered. Munich is not. Alexine remembers the assassination of Karin Grech. What is the size of memory? What is the shape of death? How can we even grasp what has happened? What is the color of catastrophe? So maybe we do it like this: Three stories in one room, Karin Grech, Gundolf Köhler, Gladio and its role in the Bologna blast. Three languages. Three sites of death. The years 1980 and 1981 were bloody years. There were a lot of dead, a lot of people shot, Reagan, Lennon, there were demonstrators shot in the streets of San Salvador. What do you do with these images, with these stories? How can you access them, store them? We reenacted some of these in yoga positions for the opera we did in Munich. This time we try something else. How can we change the size and shape of memory?

Alexine Sammut

We spoke about walking around/inside the stories. We discussed presence and again scale. We agreed, size matters but is somehow relative. It depends on memory, on understanding, so also on language, politics and translation. So maybe size is personal and the stories’ presence should reflect that and possibly play with it too, mix things up. Logically 85 > 13 > 1 but maybe 1 > 85 < 13.

Phrases could (literally) outline each story, that would outline a memory hence an event. Our lines will be like traces(of each story) in memory, somewhat vague but still very present. We outline this void.

Almost similar to how a chalk outline (temporarily) marks evidence at a crime scene to preserve evidence. Surely ‘happier’ outlines exist. Like Keith Haring’s murals of technicolor, traces of forever dancing silhouettes.

tuttomondon; keith haring 1989 mural in Pisa

We spoke about forgotten details, again the cigarettes, the fingers (or lack of), those triggers …surely there are more.

We could walk around/inside it. We could listen to the story in a language we might not comprehend but simultaneously read about it in BIG BOLD PRINT or in tiny tiny type somewhere else. We connect the shape with the sound and we mix things up but we remember. Also, what do we take away? What does this leave us with? Possibly new traces?

Still, what is the colour? What is outside? What draws the line? Is there a pattern?

This is how it could start. This is how it could be.

Georg Diez

I think we should overload with images. Make a wall like the walls in Homeland or The Wire. Pin images together as if we look for traces. But these images are all screwed up. They might make sense, but in a different way. Like the blog that Christopher did totally makes sense in a different Godardian way. Take a look: There is such a nice element of the unknown in all of this which. We could recreate this misunderstanding.

Jean Baudrillard:
a) In this system, death itself shines by virtue of its absence. (The Bologna train station, the Oktoberfest in Munich: the dead are annulled by indifference, that is where terrorism is the involuntary accomplice of the whole system, not politically, but in the accelerated form of indifference that it contributes to imposing.) Death no longer has a stage, neither phantasmatic nor political, on which to represent itself, to play itself out, either a ceremonial or a violent one. And this is the victory of the other nihilism, of the other terrorism, that of the system.
There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality — no more stage either of mental or political solidarity: what do Chile, Biafra, the boat people, Bologna, or Poland matter? All of that comes to be annihilated on the television screen. We are in the era of events without consequences (and of theories without consequences).
On Nihilism, 1980


Jean-Louis Bruguière:
80*81: You also found a connection to the attack in 1980, on the Oktoberfest in Munich?
Jean-Louis Bruguière: We were sure that the terrorists of the Rue des Rosiers had contacts with the extreme right and the Nazi groups. The DGSE, the Diréction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, the French external intelligence agency, passed me the information that two of the attackers had striking similarity to two German neo-Nazis, Walter Kexel and Odfried Hepp. Hepp was trained by Fatah in a camp in Lebanon, from June 1980 until July 1981. Their antisemitism and antizionism went well with the Palestinian movement. He called himself ‘Youssouf’ and tried to set up a PLO cell in Frankfurt. He is a strong suspect for the bombing in Munich that killed 13 people.

Jean-Louis Bruguière was the most important “juge d‘instruction”, as these clandestine researchers are called in France. He became a judge in 1973. He was dealing with local criminal affairs in Normandy. He moved to Paris in 1976, still in charge of small affairs. He transferred to organized crime in 1978 and in 1981 his career exploded. In 1986 he formed an anti-terrorism division in Paris. A year later his apartment was targeted in a grenade attack; Bruguière continued his fight. In 1994, he captured Carlos the Jackal, one of world’s most wanted terrorists. Possibly his biggest case was that of UTA Flight 772 which was sabotaged over the Sahara Desert in 1989 with the loss of 170 lives. Bruguière had six Libyans prosecuted in Paris and convicted in absentia. In 2004, at the height of his career, Bruguière was appointed vice-president of the Paris Court of Serious Claims. He was responsible for the indictment of Rwandan president Paul Kagame for the assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994. In 2007, Bruguière left his civil function as a magistrate and became a candidate for Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP conservative party. He was defeated by his Socialist competitor.

I like the drawings on the floor.
More than a model-model. I think we should create a situation. Columns of wisdom/whispering could work.
Answers more than questions. The answers though don’t have to be true.

What do we repeat today?
Is it the NSU? Many same coordinates (involvement of services/ non-interest of police) suicides and deaths of important witnesses.

As Don DeLillo pointed out in MAO II and what the German Baader Meinhoff Group did so well is producing images. Images of destruction in the news which recall atrocities (like those in Vietnam) but re-enacted in front of our own door.

These were not the images right wing groups would want to create. Anyway the right wing affiliations of the Oktoberfest offender(s) suggests that the attack was carried out within the scope of the ‘strategy of tension’ (in which terrorist attacks by far-right militant organizations were staged by internal state operatives to convince the populace to accept more authoritarian exercises of government power.

Blame the left.

Such strategies have been identified with the top secret NATO stay-behind operation Gladio. Bologna train station a few weeks before the Munich bombing. Right-wing extremists killing 85 people. Munich papers receive calls claiming responsibility from ‘right wingers in Bologna.’ Tobias von Heymann found reports in the archives of East German intelligence, STASI, which make a connection between Gladio, NATO Stay Behind agents, and the Oktoberfest bombing.

Why does nobody talk about Gladio’ involvment now?

The new witness talked about men following her in cars.

The Oktoberfest in Munich is a hedonist and decadent beer festival just to get drunk, to get laid, to party in traditional costumes. All these foreigners having so much fun. Imagine the loser Köhler going around and hating all this. Like an Islamist.

Besides the analyses going on about ISIS that they only recruit Losers I think there is also this romantic idea of being a terrorist, give meaning to your life, fighting for the right thing. But as Zizek pointed out ISIS only fight their own temptation. What did/do the right wingers fight? For the Vaterland, against Communism, the Left. Or their temptations.

The Bologna Massacre
In Bologna, a terrorist attack at the central train station kills 85 and wounds 200. The event will become known as the Bologna Massacre. At 10:25 AM, with the train station filled with tourists, a time bomb— constructed from TNT, T4 and compound B—detonates in a suitcase placed inside a waiting room. The explosion destroys most of the main building and reaches the Ancona–Chiasso train waiting on the first platform. The roof of the waiting room collapses onto the passengers, increasing the total number of casualties. The city is unprepared for such a catastrophe. Ambulances are overwhelmed by the number of victims, and buses and taxis are enlisted to transport the injured to hospitals.
Blame for the attacks is placed on the neo-fascist terrorist organization Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari. General Pietro Musumeci, second in command of the military intelligence agency SISMI and—as will be revealed in 1981—a member of the P2 Masonic lodge, will forge evidence in order to charge two leaders of Terza Posizione in exile with the crime. The exiles accuse Musumeci of trying to divert attention from Propaganda Due and Licio Gelli, head of P2. In 1988, four neo-fascists will receive life terms: Valerio Fioravanti, his wife Francesca Mambro, Massimiliano Fachini, and Sergio Picciafuoco. Leader of P2, Licio Gelli, Francesco Pazienza, Pietro Musumeci, and Giuseppe Belmonte, receive sentences for slandering the investigation.
In 1990, an appeals court cancels the convictions of the four neo-fascists, as well as those of Gelli and Pazienza. A retrial is held in 1995 and the Corte di Cassazione issues the final sentence, upholding the life sentences for the neo-fascists and members of the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, and convicting Gelli, Pazienza, and the SISMI officers of investigation diversion. In 2004, Luigi Ciavardini, who was 17 years old at the time, receives a 30–year prison sentence for his role in the attack and the subsequent assassination of Judge Mario Amato in June 1980. In 2006, the lawyer of Argentine AAA (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) member Rodolfo Almirón declares that it is ‘probable that Almirón participated—along with Stefano Delle Chiaie and Augusto Cauchi—in the 1980 bombing in Bologna’s train station.’ However, the Argentine Supreme Court refuses, in 1998, to extradite Cauchi to Italy. In 2008, former Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga alleges that PLO-affiliated terrorists from George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were responsible for the bombing. PFLP denies responsibility.
In view of the SISMI and P2 involvement, as well as the right wing affiliations of the offenders, it is believed that the attack was carried out within the scope of the ‘strategy of tension’ in which terrorist attacks by far-right militant organizations were staged by internal state operatives to convince the populace to accept more authoritarian exercises of government power.
Such strategies have been identified with the top secret NATO stay-behind operation Gladio.
In Italy, the August 2, will be designated as a memorial day for all terrorist massacres. The station will be reconstructed, but the flooring and a deep crack in the main wall will remain untouched. Moreover, the station clock will be forever stopped at 10:25, the exact time of the explosion.

Another Right Wing Bombing
April 30, 1981, the Riocentro bombing ends up killing sergeant Pereira do Rosário and hurting captain Machado both from Brazil’s armed forces’ intelligence unit. The bomb went off early in the parking of the Riocentro convention center. It was destined to go off with other bombs during a concert with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil when 20,000 people celebrated May Day. The incident, never fully investigated, occurred at a turning point in Brazil, after the huge metal workers’ strikes at the end of the 1970s, (later-president) Lula founding the PT and soon after going to prison. During General-President Figueiredo’s (‘the last dictator’) mandate, from 1979 to 1985, Brazil goes into a deep recession and he will be remembered as the worst leader the country ever had. Leaving power he says: “I want people to forget me.”

I tried to buy a hand (blutige Hand) today. At Maskworld. All sold out because of Halloween.

Return of History was brilliant.“
(with Francis Fukuyama)

Alexine Sammut

Malta. It’s 12:00, December 28 1977. Karen aged 15 and her little brother are home alone. A letter is delivered to their doorstep (we later find out he was a fingerless carpenter?). The small parcel was delivered whilst doctors in Malta were on strike (they had issues with the Labour Government at the time). The girl opens the parcel thinking it must be a Christmas gift. It works. The letter bomb explodes. She dies. At her funeral they say that this was “the first terrorist act in the country”.

Another letter bomb is delivered to Dr Chetcuti Caruana on the same day at the same time. He gets suspicious and asks his family to leave the house. He is right but the bomb is faulty. It doesn’t work. He lives. Later people blame him for Karen’s death.

Both bombs were semtex bombs that were activated as the lid is removed. Semtex is a plastic explosive, said to be used by IRA  at the time.

The case remains unsolved. The suspects are a small number of Maltese doctors who reside in England and had close ties to the Nationalist party at the time and were closely connected to IRA who were mainly influenced by left-wing thinkers.

Some wonder if it is really sheer coincidence that this happened while the conservative Nationalist party where in opposition and stopped when they got into government in 1987 (some say they openly admired fascist Mussolini’s Italy pre and post WWII).


In 1977, Chetcuti Caruana was a passionate spokesman in Malta Labour Party. He was then investigated in one of the most mysterious tragedies to have taken place in Malta – the killing of Karin Grech. 

He was working at St Luke’s Hospital with Karin’s father Edwin Grech. Both were responsible for recruiting doctors during the doctors’ general strike. There were six doctors at the time. Karin’s father a gynecologist, had been working abroad but was asked to return to work in Malta. Dr Paul had close ties with Dom Mintoff (il-Perit, meaning the architect). He was the leader of the Labour Party at the time. Later Dr. Grech had been told not to return to Malta because they had no use for him here. Threats followed; don’t forget you have children.

11:45am December 28, 1977. It was a sunny day. The parcel had a palm print on it, the same palm print found on Karen Grech’s letter. Whoever was carrying it must have held on to it very tightly for fear the lid would come off. (Semtex bombs are commonly made to go off as soon as the lid is lifted.) Scotland Yard and the Italian Guardie came to investigate further. It turns out that the terminals were rusty preventing contact with the plastic and the bomb from setting off.

Dr Paul somehow realized it was a bomb. His family thought he was crazy, especially his father, who knew he had a fetish for secret service and military paraphernalia. He says he is not surprised for being one of the prime suspects. He was receiving anonymous phone calls just three days prior to the bombing attempt. Once, his wife answered one of these calls and heard requiem chants in the background. She pleaded her husband to quit Parliament.

During Karen’s funeral, the Archbishop broke into tears. This was the first terrorist act to have taken place in Malta. After Karin’s autopsy report, Pearl Grech (Karen’s mum) was visiting doctors’ wives, shaking the report in her hand, asking them if they had done this to her. Some said to ask ‘the mad man from Mosta Dr Cetchuti Caruana…..his bomb did not explode!’ Cetchuti Caruana was in deep distress. He cried. He was being questioned on how and were he sticks stamps to envelopes. It turns out that the address on Karen’s parcel was incorrect and the stamp was on the left hand side of the letter.

In 1991 he asked Nationalist Prime Minister if he had framed him back then. In 1995 Scotland Yard detectives said that this was clearly a political crime and those involved were leading politicians. He believes these bombs were a threat to Mintoff. His radical social reforms and his stand on Malta’s neutrality landed the government in hot waters at the time. Maltese doctors residing in London had close ties to IRA and were also suspected but never proven guilty. Forensic experts in 2011 revealed that after 34 years the investigators are still seeking fingerprints and other clues from 119 suspects. The plot is said to have hatched in the offices of the Medical Students Association where a telephone directory, envelopes and typewrites were all used there. A well known criminal with experience in explosives was commissioned to prepare these bombs, naturally at a price and perhaps blackmail as well. A very good carpenter – referred to in a Scotland Yard report, was engaged to prepare the small wooden  container with two narrow compartments in it, which held the battery and explosive. The same person also used to allow the medical students and the other people to enter the legal office. Another person carried and posted the parcel bombs, one in Sliema and the other in Mosta. This person is likely to have been the same carpenter. He must have had several missing fingers, an occupational hazard commonly found amongst carpenters. It’s probably why palm prints where more evident then finger prints on the envelopes.

The case remains unsolved. The trauma remains.

Alexine Sammut

Georg Diez

Left terror creates images and right terror destroys images. This is certainly true for the Oktoberfestattentat and the NSU. But does this also work the other way around: Terror that creates images is left terror and terror that destroys images is right terror? Where does that leave 9/11 or the Oklahoma bombing? At least it explains – beyond the mean-spirited stupidity and the political cunning – what Franz Josef Strauß meant when he said, about the Oktoberfestattentat, that right terrorist “don’t do” that kind of thing. He believed that an image had been created. He was wrong. And helped bury everything that had to do with it, images, narratives, effectively deleting the memory od the event from German memory. With the consequence that right terror was “inexistant” when the NSU started killing. Which was one reason – apart from mean-spirited rassism and police cunning – that the investigation focused on inner Turkish feuds and drug crimes and not anti-foreigner excess.

Über Bayern

Raphael Honigstein+Christopher Keil
9 min
Raphael Honigstein

Christopher, how do you see this Bayern team one month into the new season? I have rarely been less sure about their prospects, I have to confess. Not necessarily in the sense that they will be bad – they can’t be, not with that squad – but in terms of just how good they actually are or could be in a few months time. What do you think?

Christopher Keil

Raphael, first of all, welcome to this exploring journey alongside the Bayern Munich team. I expect this season 14/15 to become the most important in the club’s recent history. Two reasons: The biggest factor for the team’s international rise since 2010 with appearances in three out of four Champions League Finals, winning in 2013, winning the Club Teams World Champions and the European Supercup, has gone – the legendary and uncomparable successful Uli Hoeneß has left Bayern, unfortunately because of some tax-trouble. Secondly: Pep Guardiola, in consequence of this, has taken control over the sportive branding of the Bayern Munich style of football, it seems. But what is his approach after a nearly satisfying first year, winning both national titles with Bayern, the Championship and the Cup?
Hoeneß always follows the idea of collecting the best German players and – ever since 2008 – enhance them with outstanding internationals like Luca Toni, Ribéry, Robben, Thiago, now Lewandowsky. Simple idea, hard to implement. The massive influence of Bayern Munich players during the World Cup that ended with an epic victory over Argentine in the final, proved Hoeneß right.
Pep Guardiola again has his very specific view on football. He reflects on the perfect length of the grass on the pitch, the beauty of the game, and he demands a pushy offensive, ball-possessing, best vertical, preferably one-two-touch football-concept. His philosophy, his taste for a three-defender-chain, a many-legged midfield without a true striker, is favored as the cherry on the cake of modern concept-football. Perfect for Barca. But perfect for Bayern, who broke the Barca-Code in their Champions League Campaign 2013? Thus far the Guardiola-Bayern have neglected the importance of Plan B: a more defense basic order, when needed. Real Madrid took advantage of that problem when it beats Bayern in both of the Champions League Semi-finals last season. I believe, if Guardiola won’t adjust to the unique qualities the Bayern Squad has always shown in controlling a match based on defensive order and resistance, he will not be as successful as he could be.
What confused me after the season’s start three weeks ago with a fishy draw at Champions League participant Schalke is the transfer-politics of late August. Guardiola tried to convince his loyal leader for many Barca years, Xavi, to follow him to Munich. Xavi rejected Guardiola’s plea, as he doesn’t ever want to fight against Barca. So, next step for Guardiola and the Bayern management was to sign Xabi Alonso. Xavi and Alonso played successfully together, as very diffferent, complementary players. What does this tell us about the strategic direction of the “new” Bayern Munich team? Alonso stands for more defensive controll in a traditional way. At the same time Guardiola is further experimenting with a three-defender-line, although he obviously is lacking the players for this experiment, first of all Martínez, and he, so far, isn’t counting on Badstuber, who can give structure to the game’s layout.
Still, there is plenty of injured worldclass missing such as Martínez, Thiago, Schweinsteiger. Still there is worldclass that has to be kissed alive such as Götze. Already I can say, that Dante is facing his last season with Bayern, as Benatia has not been bought for 30 Million Euros as an additional force. I believe, that Lahm is better the best rightback in football’s presence than a Guardiola-solider in the rear midfield, responsible for the buildup. There is worldclass all around, but I can’t see it clearly now. I wouldn’t even care about many spanish players and coaches, Spanish fitness-supervisers and personal advisers that Guardiola needs to know in his back. I care about, if any of those, who are in charge instead of Hoeneß, either Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Karl Hopfner (new President und Chairman of the Board) or Pep Guardiola, if these people will go as one: with the same future-agenda of what Bayern Munich should stand for – as a Club, as a team, as a system. Rummenigge is on the decisive middle-position in this triangle of power. If he serves the balls well, Bayern Munich will create something!

Raphael Honigstein

You touch on many interesting points – and I’m not sure I have many satisfactory answers. But here’s how I see it from this side of the channel. I agree with you that 2014/15 is shaping up to be very important season. But then again, what season hasn’t been truly important, in one way or the other, in recent history? 2007 marked the beginning of big names at Bayern (Toni, Ribéry), then there was Jürgen Klinsmann, then van Gaal, Heynckes… and now: Pep 2.0. The unresolved issues surrounding the club’s leadership aside, there’s essentially one over-riding question: Will Bayern win the Champions League? I think that’s the only trophy that really matters. Guardiola had a shot at it last season and missed badly. This will be his second attempt. There’ll be a third one – either way – but I don’t believe he’ll stick around beyond 2016. That basically amounts to a two-year window of opportunity, for this team, and this coach. Bayern will remain competitive beyond his stay but it’ll be a different side, with the likes of Schweinsteiger, Robben, Ribéry and maybe Lahm, too, losing ground to different, younger players. Guardiola can either win the Champions League – or fail. And if he fails again, it’s a matter of how he fails. The Real Madrid tie plunged the club into a short but sharp crisis of confidence. Guardiola felt misunderstood. Some of that carried over in the summer, I think, when he was offered Sami Khedira by the board after losing one of his favourite players in Toni Kroos but by and large, things are pretty calm now. It will stay like that, until crunch time comes in early spring. As far as the Spanish transfers are concerned, I don’t see them as part of a wider strategy. Guardiola felt that there would be a problem in midfield, for at least the first half of the season, and Xabi Alonso presented an obvious solution. He’s there to do a job, in the absence of others. It’s stop-gap signing. And a very, very good one, at that.

Christopher Keil

Ich müsste eigentlich loben. Acht Spieltage sind vorüber, ein Viertel der Saison immerhin. Die Bayern haben sich an der Tabellenspitze eingerichtet. Dortmund, der große Konkurrent, ist bereits tief gefallen, 13 Punkte entfernt – beinahe auf einem Abstiegsplatz. Und doch stimmt irgendetwas nicht. Mit den Bayern. Es ist wie in so einem Film über Kunstdiebstahl. Man geht ins Museum, alles ist scheinbar perfekt, aber irgendetwas stimmt nicht. Man weiß es nicht sofort, aber so ein Gefühl begleitet einen. In guten Filmen ist der Twist am Ende grandios. Irgendein Gemälde war eine Fälschung. Aber was ist die Fälschung gerade beim FC Bayern? Alles scheint so gut zu sein, vielleicht zu gut?
Möglicherweise. Denn weder hat das Offensivspiel eine Zuspitzung wie in der Triple-Saison 2013, als Jupp Heynckes die zwei besten und versiertesten Außenverteidiger der Welt mit den zwei dynamischsten und trickreichsten Außenstürmern der Welt kombinierte. Noch erreicht die Defensive jene Undurchdringlichkeit, die immer schon das Alpha eines Titels war. Und was das Mittelfeld betrifft, das im postmodernen Systemfußball zum Hochaltar der Taktiker wurde, so darf doch niemand glauben, dass in Xabi Alonso und Philipp Lahm die Macht gefunden wurde, die Real, Barca, Chelsea oder Paris aufhält in der K.O.-Runde der Champions League.
Was also will Pep Guradiola? Will er das, was alle sagen? Vier Systeme in 90 Minuten spielen lassen? Jeder Spieler muss jede Position verstehen, einnehmen können, beherrschen? Philipp Lahm hat er nun in die offensive Flanke gestellt, rechtsseitig. Da würde er ja, um beim Beispiel Chelsea zu bleiben, im Dreieck John Terry, Ces Fabregas und Cesar Azpilicueta tätig werden müssen. Wie soll Dante den Belgier Eden Hazard aufhalten, wenn Dante kaum einen Sprint gegen Stürmer aus der Bundesliga gewinnt? Unter Heynckes stand der FC Bayern tiefer, Dante musste nicht so weit sprinten und wurde von Martinez und Schweinsteiger beschützt.
Damals, vor 16 Monaten, galt der Heynckes-Fußball als vollendete Schönspielerei – klar, strukturiert, kraftvoll, filigran, cool, effektiv. Was ist Guardiola-Fußball? Die Zauberflöte? Was wäre Guardiola-Fußball eigentlich ohne die Grundlagenarbeit von Louis van Gaal? Denn eins fällt auf: Wenn es eng wird für die Bayern, macht die individuelle Qualität der einzelnen Spieler den Unterschied aus, und noch immer stehen sechs, sieben auf dem Feld, die in Wembley Champions-League Champions wurden.
Und was will einem eigentlich der Transfer des spanischen U-21-Nationalspielers Bernat sagen? So einen Spieler hat der FC Bayern schon einmal verpflichtet, 2009. Sein Name: Danijel Pranjic. Man könnte meinen, Bernat sei für Guardiola das, was für van Gaal Pranjic war. Am Ende ist van Gaal daran gescheitert, nicht an Pranjic persönlich, der ein mittelmäßiger Spieler war und blieb. Van Gaal, der so viel erfand, etwa den linken Außenverteidiger Alaba oder den Stürmer Müller, er scheiterte an seiner Selbstsucht. Wider besseren Wissens sollte Pranjic quasi Alonso sein. Das war er nicht. Und was ist dann Bernat?
Man weiß es nicht. Man weiß, dass Bayern München nach acht Bundesligaspieltagen weit vor allen anderen liegt, noch kein Spiel verloren hat, auch nicht in der Champions League, auch nicht im DFB-Pokal. Man weiß, dass Philipp Lahm erstmals in seiner Karriere zwei Tore in einem Bundesligaspiel erzielt hat, gegen Werder Bremen, ein Team, das keine Zweikämpfe gewann und keinen einzigen Torschuss in 90 Minuten zustande brachte. Und man weiß, das Guardiola ein allseits bewunderter Schöpfer taktischer Züge ist. Ach, Bayern ist so gut, man scheitert mit Kritik. Doch irgendetwas, irgendetwas stimmt nicht.

On Love

Georg Diez+Jagoda Marinic
46 min
Georg Diez

Love is such a bourgeois subject. Is it even real? We talked – briefly, on Twitter, tentatively, but with a strange confidence – about two kinds of love, the lover*s love and the other love, a son, a father, a painting maybe even. But, very simply put: If love were real, why is it so hard to find, to see, to communicate, to hold on to? Is love ever more than just a trick of the self to believe there is some sweeter form of reality?

Jagoda Marinic

So this is asking me to be the Advocate of Love…. The only bourgeois thing about Love is to believe that Love is bourgeois, just construction, invisible, wish. Sitting by the ocean I see Love in little gestures, gazes, in the tense bodies of fathers watching their kids playing and fighting with the vastness of mediterranean elements – though most of the beaches neatly tailored for tourists… I see Love mostly where it isn’t cause you see longing eating up the unloved bodies and eyes…

Georg Diez

This is the interesting thing about Love, as you say, because like a lot of ideologies and religions it produces the suffering it pretends to do away with. Without Love there would not be lovesickness. Without Love there would be not unfulfilled longing. There might be more action without love and less fear. Less doubt. Less self-hatred. It reminds me of christianity creating the sins it pretends to forgive.

Jagoda Marinic

I’m a writer and though I don’t have to tell a story every time I write I love to tell one every now and then. There is a sense of coherence a story gives us, call it comfort from all those unfnished threads in our lives. Love can set characters in motion and thus creates action. I believe it does the same to our lives. It makes us move, boast, pretend, yearn, laugh, fear and cry.  It makes us want to come closer. Or away from it. Sure, what you say is right: there would be no lovesickness, no unfulfilled longing. There would be no fear of loss and no fear of pain, no fear of dependence and no fear of being humiliated by the ones we love. No fear of abandonment and one-way-love. And yet, to deconstruct Love in a way you would deconstruct Christianity feels utterly wrong. Yes. We do have an academic-intellectual narrative about the ways we invented Love, above all Romantic Love. The One you might compare to Christianity, today’s neurosis, played out best as a marketing instrument for whatsoever, particularly our lives. But only because there is a nausea in certain manifestations of Love doesnt’t mean that Love in itself is. I know this sounds like Old Communists’ Rhetorics, claiming just cause Russia failed doesn’t mean Communism failed. But to rid us of Love is to rid us of our most human aspect: our vulnerability towards others, most of all the ones we love. Would this leave more space for action? Maybe. But I am not sure at all whether I would want to live in a world inhabited by human beings acting free from Love. Fear can make us better. And what if we are not yet at a level where we live Real Love. What if we lived out Bad Love most of our days…

Georg Diez

There is love, of course. People passing each other on the street with the sudden insight that life could be so much different if this moment did not pass. People sitting across a table not saying a word but knowing why they are there. People drifting apart and meeting again because without the other there is no room small enough not to feel empty. People fighting for nothing or just to make up for it. People making love. People sitting on a couch and reading and hearing the other breath and after a while one of them will move and the other will look up and not say a word and not smile and not move just because there is not need for that. Of course, there is all of this and much more. But there is also Love, the system, the pattern, the ideology that rules people*s lives and ruins people*s because they feel they do not live up to what is expected from them. It is like a writer forcing a narrative on something which cannot be bound by a narrative. I agree that this narrative might be necessary to get out of bed in the morning. Still, it helps to be suspicious of the motives behind it. Just as it helps to question the narrative necessity in novels, by the way.

Jagoda Marinic

“Pero el amor, esa palabra“ (Rayuela, by Julio Cortazar, born on August 26th, 1914)
When I think of Love, I could think of a very other Love than the one you just pictured. Images-of Love-Industry: Making Love. Sitting at a Table in agreed silence. People in heavy arguments. „They don´t live up to what is expected from them?“ What exactly do you mean? The images on love we create or the expectations the ones we love impose on us?
What about the invisible aspects of Love, encounters that pull us into somebody´s path of life and reflects his in ours? The kind of Love that turns somebody formally nobody into a reference on who you really are… There is a scene in Max Frisch´s „Stiller“ where a female character says something like: „I don´t want to be a woman for you. I want to be your woman. Like your father is not a father.“ How do we become that crucial to each other? How often does it happen? And what is it that happens between A and B so that they feel or long to feel that connected? That doomed to each other that they share aspects of life that are rarely pictured in the Love-Image-Industry? Don’t you think that feeling of Love ruining something is a feeling of people who don´t have that kind of connection? Of people who actually think of happiness when they think of Love rather than connection?
When the two of us started our conversation on Twitter what pulled me in was this difference in viewpoint. We tweeted a few little lines about Zadie Smith´s essay on the loss of her father. I saw a life-rooting Love reflected in that essay. After reading it I was left with the Impression that her father must have contributed in inexplicable ways to place her here on earth. They seemed to have had this connection; whereas you saw a lack of space for another Love in her immense attachment. I hope I got it right. Your position made me wonder. It was so completely new, not to say alien to me. It´s not that I haven´t heard of psychoanalysis, but I have only ever thought it not felt it as a concept of my life. It had simply never seemed plausible to me: only because one branch of our selves is rooted in one person why should it disturb another branch, the ones for lovers, kids, whatever… It´s like forcing a tree to root like a broomstick.
And now to your lesson on the narrative -I appreciate, by the way;) But because I have written a novel without writing a story, kind of an anti-novel, I have come to the conclusion that the non-story-telling will always be measured by the story-telling – not only by readers. Also by creators. Even the latter will feel the joy of disturbing an order. It is very tough to come to a point where you feel you are simply creating a new order – but even then critical and uncritical reception places you aside from the regular and thus again into order…. Even if you tell a contemplative story, tell them a story, Paul Auster once resumed the secret to his success in an arte interview. When you leave the story out, completely out, there will be only few people left who stick to it. Very few. For most of us thoughts and feelings in writing have to be contained to be bearable. I´m afraid it is the same with Life. It has to be contained in Love. And certainly the other way round. When I speak of Love I don’t like to mess it with addiction. I sometimes don´t even mess it with making Love. I simply mean the way certain people intertwine with who we are. Like Julio Cortazar – who this week would have turned 100 – wrote in Rayuela (the holy book of the non-narrative) about the way Maga questioned everything his protagonist thought about Life. Cortazar destroyed the narrative. But he placed Longing for Love and Reflections on Love and Life there. And thus created a thread, a timeline on Love and Life, Art and Philosophy… Feels like we are entering difficult ground…

Georg Diez

I remember well the things Zadie Smith said about her father, her loss, her longing, her life without him, I remembered it all as I sat with my daughter in the movie theater watching “Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart”, a sad and smart French animation movie about a boy who was born with a heart of ice. He is saved by the midwife who implants a cuckoo clock where his heart used to be. He has to be careful for the rest of his life she time and time again implores him, he has to avoid all excitement because his cuckoo heart would not support it. But most of all, she says, he has to be careful not to fall in love. By now the midwife has taken the place of the mother who has left the son in her care, she is a good mother to him, watchful and supportive and not egoistical in her love for him – but is she really? Because after all, what is the message: Don’t stray to far, don’t have fun, don’t let anybody take my place. This is the life she sees for him in all her love. Maybe she herself does not even realize it how large her control is over his heart – he realizes it quickly when he meets this lovely short-sighted girl singing on the town-square. He is destined to love her even if it might destroy him. It turns out also to kill his mother who cannot support him leaving. The movie is beautiful in its soft Tim Burton gothic style, there are songs and music, and at some point my daughter snuggled up to me. It was sweet, and in some way we sat there as lovers, because this is what we have learned a movie theater is, right, a dark place for people with physical intentions. It was a weird mix of emotions, I felt strong and protrective. But then again, you never know how the other feels, really, do you?

Jagoda Marinic

Yes, we never know what the other one truly feels, which makes me want to talk about rejection, but yet there’s another question I’d like you to answer first: What – to you – makes us lovers? You sat there as lovers, you wrote… There was only one time I remember to have been in a cinema with a young girl, not my daughter, and yet that day had something to do with Love. It was back in the late nineties. I had come to spend my vacation in Split, Croatia, my first longer stay after the war. Our family apartment was rented by two student girls, siblings – chatty, noisy, enchanting young ladies… I had to stay with them and had a gigglish time. Until one day their little sister came to visit. She was almost ten years younger then my two summer room-mates, the same beautiful features but darker hair and temperament. Unlike her sisters, she didn’t like to giggle around and though the youngest of the three she felt the oldest to me. One night the two of us went to the movies. “Titanic”, the kind of Industry Love you would certainly consider responsible for disasters in certain people’s lives… We didn’t sit there as lovers, but like big sister and small sister with two unreasonably happy sisters in between that we were not missing at all at that particular movie night… We left the cinema after the titanic had sunk, walked to the oceanside, the old city’s riviera; those big white ships were still entering and leaving the harbor… I noticed she wasn’t watching them but looking at the island she comes from: “Do you think it’s possible to love somebody you actually never really talked to”, she said. I didn’t know. But I knew she needed an answer that wouldn’t disturb her belief in something she obviously needed to believe in. “Yes, sure”, I said – in a way I even convinced myself. She came up with a story about an old widower who she had been visiting for years, cleaning his house, helping him out with cooking, sitting next to him… This year her family refused to let her. Obviously, in the eyes of some people in charge, this year she had turned into a girl and an old man’s company seemed inappropriate. She herself didn’t know yet. “Could it be that you love someone“, she asked, “just because you love to go there and clean his house.” Yes, I said, and she talked all the way home… When we got back to the apartment she turned into the silent deep girl-kid she had been the days before. Her questioning, while staring at the island, had made me write a story on what I thought was her kind of love – years later. A decade later, she was a young woman, we met again. We did our smalltalk and then, when I felt it was time, I dared to ask whether she remembers we went to the movies when she was a girl… “Sure”, she said… “And do you remember you told me that story about this old man you went to visit and…” She looked at me as if she had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with it… Where does our memory place love?

Georg Diez

Which would mean that “lover” is an abstract term that can be applied to very different circumstances. It would cover the intimate moment in the cinema with the daughter and the glimpse of a woman passing you on the street, the movement of a body, a strain of hair, cheekbones, it can be the wife or the husband in a sexual way that goes beyond the routine of marriage, it can be the exception of the rule or just the foolish notion that you can break free from the limitations of time and life, for this one moment, for this one night, it can be a story you like to believe in or a cat or even a tree. There is a liberating aspect to this interpretation of the word “lover”. It ignores any preconditions of what may or may not be appropriate, it ignores the limitations of love which is defined by sex and opens it up to this at the same time. It all comes down to one word, a contradiction, I would still claim, because really it is more a wish than a real possibility: intimacy. There is always a boundary that seperates you from one another. Love might in the end always be self-love, which might not even be a problem. Everything else might be a delusion. You get something from loving but not really what you expect or want. You get something from being loved but not necessarily what you are looking for. In a way “lover” could thus be an ideal state of mind. It is more about the idea of love and less about its physical manifestation. It is about a sensual connection to the world, about listening and looking. To be a lover means to be in the world.

Jagoda Marinic

What an ending. It made me smile. And shortly after I thought: Is our conversation now heading towards universal, romantic Love for the world? Phew. We are neither often lovers nor often in this world nowadays, I´m afraid. We are always here and somewhere else at the same time. Our current habits of digital communication and thus a whole communication industry only show that human beings almost cannot bear to be at one place at a time anymore, with one person at a time, experiencing only one moment or event at a time. We are not being sold contracts for phones anymore, we are being sold pseudo-sensual “connections“ to the ones we care about, to events we love – because we are in the world when we love things? Thumb-up-Love called „Likes” on Facebook? To be a lover in such an abstract sense, as beautiful as it sounds at first, bears the danger to turn us all into 24-hours-enthusiasts – though enthusiast I actually often love. And yet I wonder: Are we really capable of being lovers in your definition, meaning  Lover = To be in the World? Why are we so easily leaving the world we are in, as if we had nothing valuable to lose? And now I am returning to your first rather love-deconstructing thoughts. Back to that love-projecting activities people call love, the kind of love that you talked about when we started. Those people that on the surface seem to be unhappy due to love. Or are they unhappy due to a lack of self? This absence of the Self can so easily and effortlessly be changed the moment one falls in love. Falling in love to many means projecting completion into someone else. It was like that from our very first myths and explanations we told each other about love: This half that we are missing. It was always a pitiful narrative: I am missing my half and the other one is missing his half. Two sad halves are wandering round that flat planet called earth. All of this never contained the thoughts: I wonder if the other half is unhappy without me. The perspective was always that two individuals cut in half worried about their unhappiness. As if we are always concerned about ourselves and our completion when we think about Love: Me and my need to become what I was meant to be. Me and my need to feel what I desire to feel. To become what I want to be. Then we meet someone who provides us with enough distance so we can project all this longing onto him/her. We grow into that relationship, into that imagined completion, we grow into who we think we can become. And as soon as we are there, another longing pops up, another desire of what we want to be drives us. We do not grow complete through love, we grow incomplete in another way. I think Love has always been – and nowaday even more so – a vehicle of personal growth to many. A vehicle for the ideology of personal growth. That person is not who I thought he/she would be. Which means: She doesn´t make me feel the way I wanted to feel. And then? Is that question the beginning of real love or the unmasking of unreal love/self-search? The abstract term „lover“, as you defined it, loses its universality the moment it refers to a specific „lover“. It focuses, narrows down. And even if it doesn´t, what happens to us if we really feel completed next to someone? Is that the moment we start being possessive? Fearful? Creatures afraid of loss and abandonment? What if I simply don´t want to lose is that sense of Self I acquired through the Other? Possession? Can we talk about love without talking possession – in a double sense? Ownership and the mental state? Do we really want to posses the other or rather what we think we can be in relation to that other?

Georg Diez

Is it really such a difference, love in the times of Twitter and Tindr and the old-fashioned love of a wife sitting in a hut in Russia waiting for news from the Gulag, a young man idling on a bench in Venice waiting for the letter she has sent him, a girl missing the boy who was sent off to boarding school, two lovers torn apart by two continents, a husband longing for this girl, a wife thinking of another man – does it really change the substance of the eternal conceit that love is, namely that to feel something is better than to feel nothing? This is what it means to be in the world, internet or pre-internet. It is about the consciousness of being here and there, not physically, but in your mind, some would say in your heart. It is a proof of things that are otherwise very difficult to take for granted. The sun will rise, the sun will set. The rain will fall, the rain will stop. There will be another day or there might not be one more. Age is a sequence of days, weeks, months and years, and to give a life a meaning there has to be a story with a few characters and a plot. Otherwise all is empty. All is wrong. All is lost. So the other as the missing half? Maybe the other as the missing world. As this universal hole that is at the heart of things. If love brings no relief, it is not our fault. If love goes wrong, it is not our fault. If love is an illusion, make a pop song out of it. Love is not the thing that saves you. Love is not the thing that kills you. Love is beautiful, don*t get me wrong. Love is necessary, just for all of these reasons. Love is a test of time. Love is the dream that we want others to dream. Love is, after all, about oneself. And it cannot be any other way. We don*t even know what that means in the light of the doubts that have been cast on the very notion of the self in the last 200 years. Stil, it is love that moves us, that creates something that is absurd in the face of everything that is around is, a moment maybe of truth, an intimacy that really has been gone, from the beginning, in a way the story of Adam and Eve is cute in that sense. But this is what children would tell each other, the story with the apple. There can be no God which is a force of love. Not even another human really can be this source of love. Mind you, again, this is not bad news. It it just a glimpse of the strange and beautiful ways of this grim universe. This is what love is.

Jagoda Marinic

This is what love is. I guess I don´t know how you know so much about it so clearly. 1984. Foreigner releases a song called “I wanna know what love is”. I am age 7 then. By the time I am a teenager I have listened to this song as often as a zillion others. How the hell do we come to know what love is? And that fucked-up-following-line just made me wonder even more: I want you to show me. Where does the other one know it from? You and I, we write on Love here, you and I and a lot of others talk about love, we make decisions on Love and yet I wonder if we all really know what it is. To some it is longing, isn´t it?
I once met a young actress, boy did I love that girl. How do I know? Is it because the memories are so alive, because I was all the way present in her presence? She was young, could be anything between 17 and 21, she was free and wild and asexual in a gorgeous way. She had cut her hair short and bleached it platin blonde. The one night we were almost drunk we took pictures of us with our cameras, selfies with digital cameras, me, that brunette-twenty-something next to that coming-to-life-big-eyed-blonde-shorthaired girl… when we looked at our pictures we knew: She was Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol – with a slavic accent – is what we called her when she felt most ridiculous since then. We saw and we knew. Have I ever really seen love? She has maybe given me some of the most vital hours since my childhood, she was all so curious about life, she needed life to act, she didn´t think of acting as acting, she thought of acting as re-living experiences and thus she needed them. All of them. And then, one night, she came up with that one thing she was missing in her life: She didn’t know what love is. How can you act when you don’t´know what love is, she asked? All those female character are about love… I was amazed at how clearly she knew what she had not felt… I was sure she would know it one day, because the clarity of what wasn´t there felt like a space for what was to come…. And then again: What happens to those who don´t believe in it, don´t ask, don´t know about it… Do you have to believe in it to experience it? This is what love is, you wrote. And I got all lost. I need more doubt in all this.

Georg Diez

Love is the benefit of doubt. Love is the absence in the present. Love is but a song we sing to ourselves, and be it this strange tune from the eighties by the band aptly called Foreigner – some might say that this was a major aesthetic accident of pre-late modern times, but you know that. You say that this is more humble, to accomodate the doubt in the concept of love? But this is not what this song is about. It is about convincing a girl to go to bed with him. It is a tactical question, the doubt this song employs is superficial in the sense that it could be addressed to more or less any girl or boy for that matter. Which is not a bad thing. It is, to the contrary, a very common feature of what love can be. A pastime. A game. A carnival. A Reigen, as Schnitzler called it, in a time which was much less romantic about what love is. Why is that? Freud told us that love has to be treated with a lot of suspicion. Who is it that loves? Who is it that he or she thinks they love? Why do they think they love? What is the story they want themselves or the other to believe? Is this the doubt you see in love today? Or is this doubt gone, replaced by a narcissism that wants love, claims love, as if there was a right to love and be loved. There is a greed in this, a sense of entitlement. The story of life is incomplete without love.
The story you tell, on the other hand, totally makes sense. But it is not a story about love in the sense that most people would use that word. In this we agree. It is a story about being awake, about being in the world, about feeling alive, about having dreams and blond hair, about the strange beauty that is youth, about age which teaches you to love as compared to youth which tells you to live. Then again, of course this was love, especially in the more or less innocent way it happened, even though I am not sure that the innocence is in your narrative or in my mind – which is a typical way in which love and the things associated with love happen – or if there is a tone in the story that makes me doubt the innocence of it all. And what would be innocence after all. You would agree that love is a dangerous force, not only for oneself who can be led to despair, false hopes, a life of misery and longing, always the wrong person, always the wrong dream – but also dangerous in the sense that it can unleash brutal forces of revenge, of deceit, of pure want. How did this story end? What did become of the girl? What did become of you?
This love you talk about, it has a very broad meaning, and this I like. I think we use words to try to even access some of the things that puzzle and surround us, these words in turn take on a meaning that we cannot very much change after a while. They take on a reality which might be different from what they were meant to mean. The stories that love writes are stories that might be different if a different word would be used. The lifes that people live might be different if they would realize what they mean when they say love. It is not only a substitute for many other words, which means that you become lazy after a while and don*t think about these other words, about these other aspects of living with a person, of longing for a person – it also means that something is being hidden behind this word. There is a reality to be discovered. Which in turn and again: is the world.

Jagoda Marinic

I have never felt safe on any ground. Not on band names. Not on the eighties. Not on Games. „Love is the absence in the present”, let me take this line of yours as the starting point of inquiry, the underlying question towards whose answer I´m heading to. Do questions love answers – or the other way round?
I loved to watch Schnitzler´s Reigen on stage. But it scared every cell inside of me to be part of that play off stage. Maybe ´cause I saw Reigen when I was in my early twenties and in a way it retold the story that women would turn tender after having sex whereas men would turn cold. I saw the play only a few days after a guy I was almost impressed by had let me know: Women have sex for relationships and men have relationships for sex. How the hell did all these men from Schnitzler to Freud to that guy so precisely know what women wanted sex for and how they would feel afterwards? I really, in those times, couldn´t understand what kept the two sexes so interested in each other, and if it worked out: what was the missing link, that glue that tacked two independent circles to an eight of eternity. Judging by Reigen and Schnitzler and so many others, that one moment of closeness we long for can´t but destroy anything between us because in the end it is all about the power play of „ getting someone“. And behind so many stories representing that power play there was always that one cliché being reproduced: a man trying to get sex and a woman trying to get love. Not to speak of the repetitive motif of the exploitative nature of older men in their lust for inexperienced young women/girls, this little young nothings as an instrument of masculine aging self-love. I live(d) in a little town. Imagine Schnitzlers Reigen there. Is this all there is about the sexes that we pass each other on from one to another – not much of an attractive idea, particularly in a little place, to be honest. What about exclusiveness? Or is the dream of exclusiveness already a self-deceit in utter need of therapy? It would scare the shit out of me to sit on Freud´s couch. Not that I mind inquisition and deep talk. But much of what I have read about him and from him has to be treated with a lot of suspicion. In the ways it is so absolute. So intrusive. So Original Sin and thus religious in its claim for the darkest corners of our Selves. I prefer to be misled by Love than by a bad Freudian therapist. Or Freud himself. Love has to be questioned, you wrote. But so has lust. In the way we live it it might be as invented as love. We are maybe directed into lust in the same way we are directed into a certain image of what love is nowadays. You say the song by Foreigner could be addressed to any kind of girl or boy or… Reigen… you make it sound easy and like a reminiscent of a time where hormones were not so heavily loaded with romanticism and concepts of love as they are today – whereas i think the play was written in that way because it was a way to release the lust from the normative load that was then the hormone´s daily christian and societal rule. Sure there must have been a secret night-life, but: I believe we are nowadays physically and emotionally more able to express love and lust „freely“. We are on so many levels invited to live our sexuality/ies in a daily routine just like eating Corn Flakes in the morning or jogging along a river. Simply add the ingredient sex to your daily routine if you like or seem to need it. Today´s times make sure you know where you can get it – and I don´t mean for money, i rather mean sexploitation of your own sexlife. Whereas sex could have been a refuge it has turned into a hunter itself since it supposedly doesn´t have to have to do with love.
The other day some news ticked into my account: Young people these days don´t seem to know when a relationship starts. Now that everything is just an expression of oneself, from a kiss to a night to whatever – people don´t need to clear up what this means any longer. Is this still the Reigen? Is that still a dance, a song? Or is it mechanical love? Mechanical lust? Is anyone listening? You don´t dare to ask a machine how it feels, do you? Narcissim hasnt´t replaced anything but taken the role of a shield against that vulnerability that competitiveness and replaceability cause. Where is the difference between lust and love? Why do we often speak of love when we speak of contexts you pay for physical activities? Why do some in turn speak of duties when they speak of the same activities in marital contexts? This whole love-lust-life-marriage-whorehouse-thing seems to be upside down. We are afraid we are not gonna find love in marriages, or lust in marriages, we believe you can´t have it all and yet architect our lives exactly around that have-it-all-theory as if that knowledge wasn´t around.
I do agree that love is a dangerous force. Self-destructive in times. It can unleash all sorts of feelings, pure want being the one among them I consider the least harmful. I don´t know about innocence, Georg. I think innocence is that in a person that does not know what an experience will cause inside her. Or around her. That inside us that doesn´t even know there is a possible experience. I don´t know about the innocence of the scene I told you about. We stood in front of each other in awe. Admiration. Wonder. Experience – and hence a threat to innocence – begins when you reach out. Desire is the beginning of the loss of innocence because you sense or know that there is an experience to be made. The two of us knew no desire, we just wanted to be where we are. Maybe a kind of love the gods would have shattered in a Greek Comedy for the Human´s Happiness was unbearable to our Divinities. The complexity of that encounter was limited, that is why it was innocent – and joyful. Complexity raises tension and thoughts and thus reduces that childlike joy we feel about each other. The girl became an actress. The last time she wrote to me she was in Germany, precisely in Berlin, because she had fallen in love with a German. I don´t know what became of her. I don´t even know what became of me – in terms of love. There was always this question of safety when I felt love could be around. It was not the Reigen that made me catch glimpses of Love. Not that wanting to know what love is, as Foreigner put it, but knowing. Calm. I remember watching „The Making of Imagine“. There was this scene in which Yoko Ono and John Lennon talked about Love. And this sentence: So, what is love then? I really think that love is something to do with relaxation, you know? When you’re guarded with somebody, you know, then you’re not relaxed. And when you’re guarded with somebody, you can’t love that person, you know? Love is when you understand it so well that you relax for it, you know. And we have that kind of relaxation between us, a lot.
–Yoko Ono Lennon
I know that people hated her for that. I know that I had little to say about that since I have always rather been the Annie-Hall-kind-of-girl-with-more-of-a-J-Lo-Shape-and-dresses. I never knew much about relaxation. Maybe, just like Lennon´s fans, I was afraid it would kill creativity. But maybe this is why I often wonder if this is exactly what love is about.

Georg Diez

Love as memory, maybe this is what I mean, maybe this is what you mean. This is, at least as I read it, how you employ love in your novel “Restaurant Dalmatia”. The past is the past, but what we take from it or what takes us back or what helps us bridge this gap is the idea of a story that connects us with others. Is this then exile? Is this being lost? Or being found? We tell ourselves stories in order to survive, this is what Joan Didion said. There is nothing wrong with love being such a story. This does not mean that love is exactly that story. The power of storytelling is essentially that it creates a reality by describing it. Or by describing another reality that is not even similiar to the one it creates. This poetic leap is what love makes possible. Creating is an act of loving, of sharing, of giving something to the world. Does it have to do with John Lennon and Joko Ono? I would think not. I remember a book that I did or did not read a while ago, it was called “From Shame to Sin” and describes how in late antiquity the early Christians used morality to create around the dangerous force of sex something that was inflated with morality. Guilt arose and with it order. And suppression. And anger. And loneliness. This does not mean that a different society would have less suffering. It only means that this society has the suffering it signed up for, a long time ago. It is the very foundation, the agreement that holds us together. It is not even bourgeois. This is a conceit of the present to think that everything has to do with something that happened in the last 200 years. The book by Kyle Harper was exciting exactly for that reason: There was a moment of creation or destruction, there was a decision made that had consequences. Everything could be different. Again, not to say without suffering, longing, fear, loneliness. Happiness, fulfillment, everything that love can bring, the sparkle in the everyday, a look, a gaze, warmth, belonging, all these things that are so hard to hold on to and so easy to destroy and so valuable. They are still the feelings that love is made off. But in a different setting they might play out differently. It would be worth a try at least.

Jagoda Marinic

Love as loss, because the way children love seems to be the truest love I have seen. Since this will inevitably be lost all I can do is to try to re-create this once I outgrow childhood. Maybe that is how I use Love and Memory in my novel. Re-creating a world where love made everything around us loveable just the way it is because it was distinctively ours (I remember how I once I went for a walk and passed by a really obese and rather unattractive father – he had his kid jump up and down on him, laughing at him, then kissing him, caressing him – loving him and no other father). We don´t chose as long as we are kids, somehow we just love the world surrounding us no matter how dysfunctional it seems from outside…  In my novel I use memory as the sculptor of that loss, giving shape to that hole, that we were born to love and that we later leave behind….  That abandoned hole works like a prism for our lives, every experience is reflected through it… Later in life we chose deliberately, we create consciously, though we like to use the rethorics of „You don´t chose who you love“ many of us do chose (same class, same education, same age – or at least something that favours our image of who we want to be as an adult)…. Are we to blame us therefore? Chosing – the freedom of choice – is part of our dignity as human beings, and yet it is almost humiliating to see how what we chose often seems designed by a certain zeitgeist (which is in an almost satirical way displayed when we are travelling today´s megacities and observering the same sort of coffee-nerds popping up all over the world, they even pick a similar interior design for their coffeshops). We tell ourselves all kinds of stories, all kinds of stories are being told and we believe them – but our belief gives us no hint about the truth contained in these stories… Joan Didion tried to tell herself the story of her beloved coming back even after he died… We can believe all kinds of stories which is what makes life so difficult; now that there seem to be more options for who we are (and love) available, it seems even more difficult to truly be (and love)…
Last week I strolled through Vienna, and after two days I felt part of a world that didn´t exist anymore (like in Woody Allen´s movie where he meets up with Hemingway, Fitzgerald etc in Paris), I sort of met up with Thomas Bernhard, Gustav Klimt and Mahler, Alma Mahler-Werfel, boy, have they all loved and unloved… What stories they told, and people told about them, museums and history books telling their lives and stories… (Here again: This obsessive remembering seems like some kind of love…) Interestingly, Freud, whose house I visited, the man who tried to heal neurosis by finding a coherent story for the often displaced experience that caused it, had a sort of very stable life, an oldfashioned marriage, six kids! (Though he said marriage is not the best place to live out sexuality…) In this psychoanalytical phantasizing about who we are, the cathartic experience through storytelling is considered the truth about us and our life… It seems a very interesting approach: The the fiction about who we were should provide us with information about who we are… It actually doesn´t seem to matter if the fiction is true or if it just fits into the shattered hole. (Or is healing only taking place when we find the story exactly fitting into that fraction?) The times I live in has found and lost itself in this thinking… Everybody seems to need a professional sounding board to know who he is by the very constructed narrative of who we supposedly were. How does that affect who we are and what we are? And who we love? Why was psychoanalysis so much about the past? Maybe because the intensity of our loving as children is so immense that it almost feels like in the first years of our lives rails are being laid in the lovelandscapes of our lives… And later on, all our loving is like a journey on the railways, on these paths. It´s a hell of work to create others, some encounters carry that magical gift to in iteself be able to create others…. More often adult love remains overshadowed… Like the writer Nicole Krauss once said she had always been observing her life, it was only when she gave birth to her first child, she said, that she found back to being in a moment instead of observing it (which also means that the love towards that kid´s father was not able to create that inside her)… There is a chance that parental and childhood love is the only kind of love that silences the observer inside us… Unmittelbarkeit. Maybe physical love is, too.
That book you read, the story it tells: I find these kind of narratives games of thought that I find hard believe… There is in such a plausible manner so much construction, narration, storytelling, which is fine but it´s a man´s game to own the world that in itself does not provide this kind of sedation… Life is disruptive, incoherent. Love is, since it is life. I get a little anxious when logical storytelling starts claiming real explanations about what the world is or – even worse – was like …  As long as we treat that kind of knowledge as stories in order to survive what we don´t understand, tools to master experiences, I am interested – but as academic and plausible as it seems, it is in its own way fictional… I don´t believe that we created this kind of suffering by setting up morals to our sexual desires (why was there a need to do so in the first place)… I believe that fight between desire and destruction is much older than our morals…
The „story about lost love“ to a certain extent replace that „lost love“. That is maybe why we so love therapy nowadays: it allows us to come back and back to our childhood, pretending it is only in order to become better adults… Which we in the end might well become… Memory here works as a way to keep love alive and wipe out the experience of time passing. And at the same time, by creating a coherent story, makes past out of a memory that was incoherently present inside us….
I was rarely in love while in love. I was ecstatic when people were able to move me, it rather felt like what Poe (?)  called an overalterness of senses. I fell in love – afterwards. When I felt what it was like not to be around a certain person. Not to be the person I was around that person. As selfish as it may sound, I didn´t only miss the beloved, I just as much missed the person the beloved would let me be… The adult creation of love happens in the longing, in the remembering, in the re-creation of the moments you fell in love with by placing them into the narrative of your life. The child´s creation of love happens in the arriving, being. Can you own a story by telling it? Do we really own our lives, and our psyches, do we heal them by creating coherent stories of what we think what once happened? And when we tell other people´s stories better then they could, who then owns these stories? Ownership, not in the sense of owning the story of a person but a memory of that person. Expressing love by showing that their personality was the texture of the stories you tell… The ones I love(d). I think of them. I (re)create them while I think of them. I love them this way. It might sound like a lot. But maybe, at the same time, it shows that it is not. That they are not. My phantasy needs to add to them, my love for them will only be complete if I try to express it. Will reality ever be enough?
That´s how I employed „love“ and „memory“ in my novel. My Love for people who never told their stories somehow asked of me to claim the right to remember their stories… Is that love or abuse of it? Love is also despair, cause you long to be understood. And sometimes you even dare to expect to maintain that feeling of being understood. Though tides and inreliablities are part of life and every human being. How can we be one person, when we are hardly ever the same. How can we love one person when she/he is hardly ever the same. And  if she/he ist he same, it might just as well kill someting vital inside us and them. When life (and who we are) changes in an instant, as Joan Didion put it in her Year of Magical Thinking – then how can we really love?

Georg Diez

The sun is shining. It seems to be spring at last. Even though there is still this notion of coldness, of the air struggling to rid itself of winter. This used to happen much faster when I was in Munich. Warmth pervading everything. There was a certain speed in things. Here in Berlin it is much more static, the weather, the rest. People are more at odds with the world. Less cheerful. How is that in Heidelberg? I guess even more gentle, inviting.
Does that have anything to do with love? I don’t mean to stray from the topic, but maybe I am. I don’t mean to say that love is all around us as in a bad pop song, if there is such a thing as a bad pop song, because, after all, isn’t that a contradiction in terms, bad and pop, it is of no importance what kind of quality jugdement can be applied. What I am saying is: I like the idea of a love that moves like a stray cat, touching this and touching that, leaning against the foot of chair, jawning, scratching, jumping on a table, a bit dirty, a bit strange, very independent, this is all we can do, watch it move, watch it exist, watch it vanish.
What is left is the memory of what we saw. What we can do is recreate that memory. But this is something that happens in the present. Memory is of the present. Love is of the present. Even if this love is long gone. Even if it is locked in some wardrobe covered with stickers of soccer players or horses or pop stars. This love that is lost is never lost, because you have to think about it to realize that you lost it, and once you think about it, really, it is there, as pain maybe, but it is there, it is real. There is no fault in having loved. There is only a fault in forgetting.
Which brings me to another point: If love is real, the love we talk about – what then about the other love that is out there, the love as suspicion, the love as conspiracy, the love that is seen as the ideology of a system want to govern and program you. Love, as we have not talked about it, as a political tool, and you do not have to believe in it for it to work, to exist, to have conseqences. This is the case with many things. If someone sees love as the tool of a bourgeois plot to suppress individual freedom this in itself implies a politcal reaction which follows from there. Also, from quite another perspective, is love a term that is even applicable in societies that for example strive for a radical form of Islam? Is love, as they say, in this case a revolutionary form that is a danger for a fundamentalist regime?
I guess that the secret of love is that it is more of a word that takes the place for the lack of better words to reach some sort of secret that is at the heart of every society: Individuals struggling with a way to make sense of who they are and a state that is trying to create some sort of coherence, of cohesion really among its people because this is why is exists, and if that does not work out, there is not reason why it should continue to exist. Love, in this sense, would be much more than just a shirt you try on for yourself to see if it fits, it would be a key for which you invent a lock, every time you talk about love it is the attempt to talk about something unspeakable, about a dark or light mistery. This makes the word so beautiful, so free, so dangerous too. Not only in an individual sense, but in a much larger political context.
Love is not the reason. Love is not the answer. Love is something that happens or something that does not happen, love is real and artificial, it is narcisistic and beautiful, it is most of all an attempt to at least try to advance towards the riddle that, yes, is existence.

Groin Gazing

Didi Cheeka+Sarah Diehl
49 min
Didi Cheeka

The common presumption in society and the media is that erotic response to visual stimuli is not characteristic of female sexuality. For instance, pornographic magazines and videos directed at men are a multibillion dollar industry while similar products directed towards women are difficult to find. I’m looking at Claire Milbrath’s photo series of phalluses cloaked in khaki and denim, entitled “Groin Gazing,” and how it speaks to female desire. I wonder about the female response to Milbrath’s images.

Sarah Diehl

Me and my boyfriend have a morning ritual, when we are in different places: he switches on skype when he goes under the shower, so I can watch him.
I love to see his naked body splashed with water. It’s also a beautiful moment of intimacy in our daily life, that we share. It was new to him, but he learned to really enjoy it, also it changed his self-perception as a desired man. Do heterosexual men enjoy being looked at and desired by women?
Did they learn to enjoy it? Or is it forbidden, ‘cos we falsely connect it to passivity which is not acceptable for our perception of masculinity. I guess the magic trick is to disconnect desire with passivity and objectification and connect it to mutual appreciation. For me it was always very natural to resist seeing myself as a bait for men, as it is suggested by that presumption you mention. And I do believe that female and male sexuality are more complex than that, but also not very different from each other.
It actually never occurred to me that it’s more normal that men look at me than I look at them with desire. So, for me, Milbrath’s images just mirror a very relaxed normality in the relation I have to my enjoyment of the beauty of men, which I miss in a way in everyday life, ‘cos the images in our culture go only one way: men look at women, ‘cos gazing is connected to power, a power of judging, that men don’t want to give up. Men give women value, so women need the evaluation of men to feel good about themselves.
It’s simply a tool of patriarchy to keep women’s self-esteem dependent on men’s judgment. That is the ugly part of it, which we need to break through and turn into something beautiful and powerful for everyone. We have to distinguish objectification from enjoyment based on equality. When I see a table dance-bar, I feel excluded, ‘cos I know there are just women with certain beauty standards on stage and all sorts of men watching. I find that very limiting.
I would like to enjoy that too, I would like to see men up there, as well as people of all shapes and colours. I would like to enjoy their enjoyment of their pure physicality, dis-connected from money and oppression. This enjoyment is indeed very sexy to me, especially when its free of these standard ideas of beauty, dictated by an industry which only tries to make us feel ugly, so we buy their products and which feels indeed very dead and restricted for me. There is a performer called Diane Torr, who sometimes dresses up as an elderly man while doing a pole-dance. It’s not satire, it’s not a joke, she indeed shows how sexy and transgressive, freeing that can be.
There is the term “sex-positive feminism“, which addresses the attempt to open up this enjoyment, but with regard to equality, and mutual respect, not with the purpose of objectification and submission as we see in male directed porn or commercials. Have you heard about that? When feminism started to address porn as a problem in the 60s it focused on the porn that existed, which was produced for men and didn’t take into account female desire or sexual practices that women enjoy.
Because of that criticism feminism got this bad reputation to be against lust and desire, while indeed it was only criticizing the limitations of sex portrait in the existing porn. From there women developed their own forms of sexual depictions which took into account the complex desire different people have and which women can enjoy as well. That is called sex-positive feminism.
I see Milbrath’s images in that context. I want to see all of us shaking booty, men, women, disabled, fat or skinny, black or white, not only women with certain measurements. Do you perceive the one way male gaze is a dead end in your personal and professional life (you can take “dead end“ literally and symbolically)?

Didi Cheeka

I had this girlfriend, our intimacy involves her watching me make love to myself. I had to learn this, get used to being (aroused from being) looked at this way. In a way, something about this transgresses the construction of masculinity.
(I will come back to this.) There is, to quote art critic John Berger, a “lived sexuality” in these looks – in the sense of, to go further with Berger, the state of being naked as opposed to being nude. In this regard, it’s instructive to note that Adam and Eve’s shame, after eating of the apple, was not from each other – they were not ashamed to look at each other, their shame was from a third party looking at them. When sharing a look with someone you’re intimate with, you’re naked, you’re yourself without disguise or artifice. There is, on the other hand, a cultural way of looking, viz., how men and women are culturally represented.
I will deal with this presently. To go back to the construction of masculinity: how do men encourage women to look, to desire them? How do women look at men – that is to say, who is the looking woman? Generally speaking, men do not encourage women to look at them, to desire them in ways that reimagines masculinity.
So, all too often, when a woman looks at a man, it is a man, a type of man, looking through her. This brings me back to Milbrath’s photos and the cultural representation of men and women. What you say about the male gaze’s relation to power, its need to dominate, to make women’s evaluation of self male-dependent is absolutely true.
It remains to state that too many women have internalized these power relations and evaluation of self. Milbrath’s photos testify to this: it reproduces masculinity as a phallic force. The photographed phalluses are in attack position, they are photographed in relation to what they can do, what they are about to do. When men, on the other hand photograph women, women are photographed in a submissive, expectant (in the sense of what can be done to them, what they expect to be done to them) position. These images of domination and submission find their sharpest expression in mainstream pornography. In agreeing with you on this, I align myself with Shere Hite.
I do think, however, one can offer a critic of male-oriented porn the same way one can criticize a female-oriented one: they both express the same thing – a running away from real sexuality into objectification and stereotypes. (I am, of course, opposed to right-wing moralists and anti-pornography feminists.) I agree with you on the need to de-objectify the look of desire.
If I say, in response to your question, that acceptance of the male gaze leads to a personal and professional dead-end, what I mean is the tendency of acceptance to stifle, to limit creativity, real sexual love, its tendency to lead to the physical and emotional impossibility of the satisfaction of real sexual desire.
This takes me back to Milbrath’s photos. It seems to me that in her more-or-less conscious attempt to look at men the same way men have always looked at women, she has produced images that testify to men’s sense of self: male notion of potency, in relation to women’s submission to this potency.

Sarah Diehl

I was similarly attracted and disappointed by Milbrath’s photos, because they didn’t widen the possibilities of the female gaze, like you describe so well.
Indeed by only focusing on erect penises, for some women, especially if they had experiences with sexual harassment or rape – which, let’s not forget that 1 in 4 women have – it is not just desiring but also observing something that could harass you. On the other hand men seem vulnerable and needy, when you focus on their penis, which can be attractive as well as appalling; again, when they force their neediness on you – all of this also depends on the relation you have to this specific man, you look at and it is not easy to generalize the capacity of that gaze. I also wonder if herein lies one reason why male penises are hardly shown in films and on photos: they cannot hold up to the idealized image we have in our minds.
Non-erect penises look weak and defenseless and are in opposition to the powerful ideal they should culturally represent in our patriarchal culture. There is this scene in the film Walk Hard, a kind of persiflage on Rock’n’Roll life, where male musicians are shown with groupies in a hotel room.
They prominently walk by the steady camera half naked with non-erect and therefore harmless and powerless looking penises again and again, in order to scrutinize and challenge the intense Sex Drugs Rock’n’Roll cliché. So I think the gaze on the sole penis or on the whole male body differs in meaning. I fully agree with you on the scope of limitations that the acceptance of the male gaze leads to a personal and professional dead-end. We have to learn new forms of depicting men as desired and give men a chance to explore that, without being scorned.
The positive side of the desiring gaze is that being exposed to someone you trust can be very nice, comforting and giving. And men should be able to enjoy that like you and my boyfriend did. But I feel we are still far from that: One signifier of that is when men are staged in positions normally taken by women in commercials, they at times look ridiculed in an objectified way.
There was a Photographer who staged men in the exact same position like women are shown in American Apparel ads. These pictures make very clear how limited our viewing habits are: (besides that one should question the sexualized language of commercials altogether) they just don’t work, because we are not used to seeing men in these positions and most pictures made them look simply belittled – a belittled position we are used to seeing women in.
In that regard it would be interesting to discuss in detail how you think female-oriented porn also runs away from real sexuality into objectification and stereotypes. Which images or films do you have in mind? Another thing comes to my mind here, which is also an interesting topic in a discussion between a German women and a Nigerian man. Women looking at African men at the Völkerschauen, which took place until the 1940s in Berlin were criticized and ridiculed by the German press. These women were depicted as weird horny old maidens misguided by an exotic desire.
I find it remarkable that it was one of the first times when women looking at men was made an issue in modern times. Maybe it reflected the intimidation Germans felt towards African masculinity, so the desire towards them had to be belittled in public altogether.
One more question, what do you mean by “who is the looking woman”? You mean in our culture we have to create her subjectivity, for it is still unknown?

Didi Cheeka

How do our preconceptions shape the images we respond to, and the way we frame these images? We can frame images to challenge or reinforce prevailing perceptions of reality. The function of ideology is to legitimize a way of seeing – I will come back to this in connection with the Völkerschauen. Mainstream media present a subliminal text: female sexuality as passive, submissive; male sexuality as predatory – with the whole attention focused on erection and ejaculation.
I think this goes to the heart of what you say about a non-erect penis – it arises from a way of seeing male sexuality. Concerning your comments on Walk Hard and the lie it gives to rock ‘n’ roll’s sexed up image, I recall Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful’s comments that further gave the lie to this image. Even though masculinity presents itself as a monolithic image, with men being pressured to perform, being pressured into the mindset that they must manufacture an erection every time, male sexuality also involves a sometimes absence of desire, an inability to manufacture a “hard-on.” (The manufacture of viagra further increases this pressure.) Fifty Shades of Grey testify to the tenacity with which even women cling to these very conceptions of their own, in relation to male sexuality.
Thus, when I say that femaleoriented porn is a running away from real sexuality, what I mean is that, like male-oriented porn, it’s a lie against itself – in the sense that they both lie about the nature of sexuality; in the sense, that pornography, both male and female-oriented, presents a distorted image of male and female sexuality. It becomes an ideological imposition on male and female sexual feelings, expression and behavior.
How true is the underlying message of female-oriented porn’s focus on romance and relationship: there are not women who actively seek one night stands, women with high partner turn-over? Is not the underlying theme a reconfirmation of a mindset: men’s nature to “thrust,” women, to “open up?” (You’ll have to help me here, as I’m more familiar with mainstream porn than – to my shame as a filmmaker/ critic – with female-oriented porn.) It is possible there is something to say for Milbrath’s photos? It is that it privileges the female look. In this sense: even in these so-called liberated days girls can still be labeled “promiscuous,” few women could openly look at a man sexually – the way the man could look at her, approach a man sexually the way a man can approach her.
It seems there’s, in all of us, a more or less conscious residue of moral condemnation of female sexuality. “Groin Gazing” offer women the thrill, even if vicarious, of gazing at male penises without embarrassment.
But, like you so astutely observe, this gaze is framed by the pervasiveness of sexualised violence (usually directed against women.) The thing, as regards male sexuality, is to go beyond this one-sided sexual frame, to question assumptions: is a non-erect penis not part of male eroticism? I find what you say about German women looking at African men at the Völkerschauen interesting.
On the one hand, you have the public display of colonized people in a performance of Otherness. On the other hand, this performance offered a female spectate a frame through which to gaze at male sexuality.
When the German woman, herself the object of German male gaze, gazed at the African men (from a culturally superior position), she, quite apart from the voyeurism, de-objectified herself by exercising over them the same power exercised over her in her own culture – a one-sided gaze.
Here, before her, was that which had been denied her in her own culture: a male body to gaze upon and openly desire, to fear and fantasize about. (In a way, I’m reminded of Lupita and Fassbender’s characters in 12 Years A Slave: he – a white plantation owner – loves and desires a female black slave.
Yet, to deal with this transgressive love, he’s compelled to whip her.) It was, thus, only through their encounter with a culturally different male that these German women were able to openly affirm their desire and assert themselves – with regard to German men – as a subject.
In this lie the opposition of the German male: the German women’s gaze (at displayed African men) provoked fear and fantasy and was, literally speaking, a blow below the belt. A symbolic castration was, thus, projected on black sexuality: savage, threatening, animal-like.
As an aside, is it accidental (correct me if I’m wrong) that Milbrath’s photo series does not feature a single black model? Bourgeois society, through its myths, has produced an image of male and female sexuality that deprives sexuality of its humanity and fetishizes it.
(Pornography constitutes the clearest expression of this fetishism – with sex as the fetish.) These myths determine people’s definitions of themselves and others, and mutilates the feelings, desires and relationship possible between them.
One can safely say, to borrow from Wilhelm Reich, that bourgeois society is ideologically producing men and women who are incapable of tenderness and real sexual love because it needs such people in order to perpetuate itself.
Men and women are encouraged to define themselves in a culturally created way which they believe is natural. I’m reminded of French photographer, Scarlett Coten’s photo-exploration into reimagining the image of the Arab man.
Coten’s work was a role reversal (trying to unveil men in regions where most of the time, the attempt is to unveil women), trying to look beyond the accepted stereotype, exposing a more diverse, and perhaps softer image of the Arab man especially in intimate situations they don’t get to be seen.
In a way, this is what I mean by “Who is the looking woman?” Is she a woman trying to re-affirm a theses, a mindset, or a woman trying to shake the framework of her conditioned perception, trying to reconstruct her subjectivity? Of the two, I prefer the latter.

Sarah Diehl

I like your first remark, it makes me think of how situations and subjects become invisible by our preconceptions. So, even though they exist in real life they are doomed not to matter. I have no doubt that women were always gazing and desiring men. They were just not encouraged to do so. The female gaze was made invisible and a deliberate blind spot of society, in order to uphold hierarchies about who was empowered to desire and herewith control the other sex. But the “blind spots” of my own gaze got awfully clear to me, once when I was traveling through Gambia. Gambia has a reputation now of European women seeking male prostitutes.
When I was there about ten years ago, I was approached by men in that way but I couldn’t see myself as a customer of people who prostitute themselves. I didn’t understand the signs. It took me a while before I actually got that they wanted me to be their “sugar mommy.”
It was all very confusing. To understand that these men could see me as a customer of their bodies, their sexuality and somehow also of their integrity, was very alien to me. Because I never learned in our culture that I could buy a man. It reminds me of an article I wrote years ago for a daily newspaper in Germany about my experience in a strip show by men for women.
The whole event didn’t work out for me, because I was turned off: I felt awkward due to how staged that seemed. It was so clearly trying to create a market niche where women cheer at men’s bodies. There was nothing liberating about it, quite the contrary: instead of trying something new, it just copied a vulgar Ibiza-style. I couldn’t enjoy it, because my enjoyment would clearly buy into an ugly consumerism.
On the other hand my mother told me that she attended a Chippendale show with some girlfriends. She comes from a generation where this gazing was not permitted and encouraged (even though, of course, it took place among her girlfriends. My mother actually told me that she enjoyed going out with her girl-gang checking out boys much more than actually having a boyfriend). So her experience had an air of liberation and equality, instead of oppression and corruption. I enjoyed listening to her experience.
But that is, of course, just one side of the story. I think you are right with your observations on the Völkerschau: I want to add that, as Joshua Kwesi Aikins emphasizes in his research, the Völkerschau stopped in the 1940s not because they were seen as inhuman, but because some participants undertook some actions which were just too subversive for the German audiences:
E.g. some Africans compared the “tribal” dances they had to perform to the “tribal” dances in Germany – the Schuhplattler, some wore suits instead of “traditional tribal costumes” (which were, as well as the dances, of course, totally made up from German exhibitors’ imagination) – and, here it comes, looked back at the German audience with a lorgnette, an instrument which symbolizes sophistication, civilization and the arts.
All this exposed the vulgar racism of the Völkerschauen which thus could not pretend to be the climax of civilization. Africans looking back with a lorgnette put themselves in a position of higher culture than the Whites who rather behaved like going to a fairground attraction.
That, by the way, is a story totally ignored by the German history canon, where Africans – if they are acknowledged as victims of oppression at all – are hardly represented with their agenda and subjectivity. That also played into my confusion about Gambian male sexworkers.
I remember one night where a man in Gambia offered me his service and when I friendly declined he said, we could also make love without the penis. I found that offer quite remarkable and was wondering if it was something he liked personally or if this offer was accustomed to European clients of his sexwork, who want to be assured that the offered service is directed – with a focus on the clitoris rather than her vagina – at her pleasure.
As an assurance not to be penetrated by a man who might turn out to be selfish. Of course, it could also mean he thought that Europeans were scared of STDs. But also in relation to colonialism, poverty and sexwork, I find it very powerful when you say, through its myths, an image of male and female sexuality was produced that deprives sexuality of its humanity, because you indicate how the way we learned to gaze defines also our action and relation to each other.
A classic cliche is that women tell men to switch out the light when they have sex. She is too ashamed to be all exposed for the man to see her flaws (thus she perceives herself that she has to be the perfect object of his desire) and see her excitement about him.
Because she looks needy and horny, she is afraid that her arousal looks ridiculous to him. The act that is supposed to be about total pleasure and melting into each other, lust and togetherness is forbidden, she is stuck in her own self-consciousness. So, watching my boyfriend under the shower is an attempt to connect to him, maybe as an attempt to create true intimacy, when we overcame his shame.
And here, as well as with my experience with the male sexworker, we also come back to your question “Is a non-erect penis not part of male eroticism?” A question I really liked very much. It is the eroticism of expectation, surprise, exposure, the absence of danger or force, as well as the intimate honesty and care of someone who cannot “perform”.
A non-erect penis is an offer of intimacy without the force of a man’s will, exploring each other’s body, without the need of penetration (and thus avoiding the possibility of the man to totally take over, which is by the way exactly the point of a particular debate about rape: a woman’s NO has to be respected at all points of an ongoing sexual encounter, even if she consented in the beginning, for the man might turn out during the play to be selfish or rude or violent).
A non-erect penis can be an offer for more time and space and sometimes depth in a sexual encounter for there is no need for a specific play and an orgasm. Also it is the aftermath, the cuddling and warmth after sex, when we lie in bed all wet and happy.
And that also is a quality feminist porn has in store. It is much more diverse, than just focusing on the male body for a female audience. It also includes a lot of signifiers for women to feel safe and not objectified, for example, they show the use of condoms and the play with the clitoris.
The models don’t have to represent unrealistic beauty standards, it’s not too clean and sterile, and often transcend strict gender signifiers, utilizing imagery we didn’t expect. It’s about having fun and not being objects. It gives space for non-standard sex. Often the actors are being interviewed so you learn about their perspectives, why they like what they do.
This enables a whole turnaround of the cage of the clear-cut images of women being “taken” by men. Like my friend Bini Adamczak came up with the term circumclusion instead of “being penetrated”. It emphasizes a perspective of activity and sovereignty by women. A women circumcludes a penis.

Didi Cheeka

It’s a way of seeing. I recall what you said about the American Apparel Ad, the staging of men in position usually occupied by women, its seeming unworkability – which arises from the strangeness of seeing men occupy a position that is not theirs, so to speak. This and in a way what you say of Gambia is a reason I detest a certain kind of “feminist,” whose notion of liberation means women positioning men in ways long occupied by women.
That is to say, the legitimization (by women) of women as bitches. In response to the deliberate invisibility of the female gaze, yes, I do think that male and female erotic responses to visual stimuli are culturally conditioned. What you say about your mother and her friends reminds me of a story my mother told me some time ago: The first time she set eyes on my father’s village champion wrestler. (My mother is from the coast, so the concept of half-naked men engaged in wrestling was alien to her.) She was twenty and newly-married. What a sight he cut: His loin-cloth barely covering his heavy buttocks, and the women of the village chanting praises a safe distance behind.
So, yes, I think Kinsey’s female non-erotic response to visual stimuli is not biological. I want to pursue Gambia a bit further. To challenge my preconception, if I accept prostitution as an act of violence a woman commits against herself for material gain, am I merely reconfirming a mindset? Do I see male prostitutes in this light? Is male prostitution also an irreparable damage, an irreversible destruction of a human body? Are male and female commercial sex the same thing? I think it’s safe to say that with both male and female prostitution, men and women are both mauled by the reduction of sexuality and sexual fulfillment to having as many orgasms as often as possible.
Part of the thrill of commercial sex, at least for men who use the services of female prostitutes, is the power play. Is there, I wonder, a transfer of power to these women who go to Gambia during the sexual encounter? This takes me back to Milbrath’s photos and how men and women are sexually positioned: Is it about what could be done to this male body, or what this body could do to them – for these pleasure-seeking European women? In what way does the fact that, historically, men have held a sexual dominance affect our perception of male prostitutes? Is not our general perception of men in society one of power, domination?
Do we ever look at these Gambian males as being exploited by the European women – because of their material circumstances – the same way we’d look if they were female? I find it really interesting, your experience in Gambia, your use of market terminology. In a market driven society, form is usually passed off as content. Since naked cash is the sole nexus between individuals, what common ground could exist between men and women except as buyers and sellers? Again, on the legitimization by women of themselves as bitches. Does the availability of commercial male bodies – in strip clubs and the Gambia – signify the arrival of equality, liberation?
I can understand why the male strip club did not work for you, the same way commercial male sex did not. Neither signified liberation, but rather a buying into ugly reality. They do not in any way challenge our reality. I do wonder, however, to reference the Völkerschauen, if a modified version of it is enacted on the beaches of Gambia and Mombassa. It seems to me, these sex tourists who come to the Gambia are more comfortable with black males they can lead around with an invisible leash and make to perform. (I find what you say about the Völkerschauen really interesting.) It is possible to agree with Freud – in reference to your comments about the cliche of the female need to shroud herself with darkness, her need to hide her desire – that every sexual act is “a process in which four persons are involved.”
One can extend this to also include the preconceptions about ourselves and each other both sexes bring to the act. The one responds to the other – during the act – not truthfully, but according to his/her own externally-imposed preconception. Identity is constructed from birth. It is safe to say that, distance tend to develop between women and their body. This distance is culturally constructed. In a way, I think this is expressed by the myth of Immaculate Conception: the construction of female sexuality in reproductive terms – to exclude the vagina and clitoris.
A woman, what is she? A womb, an ovary. As an aside, I’m thinking of Jamie McCartney’s The Great Wall of Vagina. To what extent does it speak to female shame to never go down there?
It is possible that to the traditionalist-minded, McCartney’s images (so unlike the astonishing leveling out of uniqueness in porn’s designer vaginas), from the most intimate world of women, which had always remained hidden from the eyes of women themselves is an excursion to the dark side of art. A person can either submit to this imposed identity, or seek to reconstruct herself on her own terms, to resist all attacks against her sense of self. (It must be said, however, that easy access to male flesh – on ‘female terms’ – and the staging of the male body does not in anyway constitute resistance to attacks against self.)
With Milbrath, there’s no attempt to go beyond the surface, to look beyond stereotype. There’s, in this gaze, no questioning. My reality of being male is not validated by mainstream imaginings of men. I’d managed to hang on to my own sense of self all through the crisis of adolescence and the pressures to conform. It is for this reason I make my male protagonists deliberately feminine. (The most powerful men are men who are not afraid to be feminine. Machismo is cover for insecurity.) I’d translated my discontent into new images with which I seek to undermine conventional perceptions of black male sexuality. For me, it’s not just the sex. I particularly like the shared silence, the talking, and the taking breaks, the nonsexual caresses.
I like that it is not just the sex. The commodification of love expresses itself in the fetishization of sex, that is, sex stripped of its human quality, stripped of tenderness. To accept this is to accommodate oneself to a life without beauty.

Sarah Diehl

The things you say resonate with the situation I am in right now. It makes me think about the unfortunate constellation of power, desire, harassment and resentment. I am sitting in a train and while I am writing this, a man stares at me. I don’t like the situation, because there is no way out for me. I don’t want to engage with him at all, don’t want any mutual communication to go on. But if I ignore him, he just feels free to continue to watch me and if look back at him, he might interpret that as if I am teasing or approving. So I feel trapped in his gaze.
In the discussions about rape or sexual harassment men often accuse women of using/abusing their power to tease men. But what this teasing means is defined by men and their desire. They get angry at their object of desire – the women, because they think she has power over them. But in reality they gave a woman the power she never asked for. Men resent women, because they feel exposed to their desire for her and the danger of being rejected. But the rejecting is a power the women never asked for to begin with. Still men accuse women for provoking desire in them, as if its the woman’s responsibility.
I feel that this is at the core of this wicked misinterpretation of who has power. The person who desires or the person who is desired. I was in situations where men became rude because they felt rejected by me, because they projected that I want them to desire me. But that was a “power” I never even wanted to have. On the same time, I realize again and again, most men are not capable to see themselves as a teasing object of desire for women, because they argue that this power relation only goes one way – women teasing men. They blame women to tease them and don’t acknowledge that men have the same enticing power for women as well. But women don’t rape (besides the few cases, statistically close to 0 in opposition to how often men rape). So apparently men feel more entitled not to limit their desire but see it as an invitation whenever they feel teased. Gender hierarchies become clear if we simply reverse gender positions: for instance I wonder if the female gaze could be seen as so dominant that men wouldn’t be allowed to go topless anymore, because it would be seen as a tease for women and therefore indecent. I always want to go topless in the summer. I would love to feel the warm air on my chest. But people might call the police, if I’d do so. Why? Because society sexualizes my breasts. Honestly I find that a scandal, that I have to cover my chest in hot weather because other people sexualize me. The male gaze defines what I can show and what not. Honestly I find that truly crazy, but it is perceived as totally normal. So, will we come to a point when men have to cover up because women sexualize them? I think if you turn around this perspective you truly understand how crooked and limiting our perception of normality is.
I agree with you that the most attractive men are the ones who are not afraid to lose their strength by not performing a strict and clear image of masculinity. Instead machos smell of a deep insecurity, which they try to cover up. But you can of course also look underneath the macho skin and find other things: As a girl, I liked to watch soccer with my father. I liked watching men being so emotional, sensitive and physical. Indeed I didn’t see soccer as a sphere where men are super masculine but a sphere where they show their beauty in their vulnerability.
But mostly, even if men are shown as sexy it still adheres to the typical gender stereotypes: Men are more and more sexualized like women e.g. in commercials, but still the difference is that sexualized women are portrayed as serving, passive, waiting to be taken, while sexualized men are portrayed as strong, demanding and ready to take possession. So just because we all undress for commercials doesn’t change what women and men perform in their presentation of femininity and masculinity. And that’s pretty boring.
Because the very sad thing is, that the dominant view on sex takes away our ability to explore, enjoy and define our sexuality on our own terms. In the end sex and desire should be about play and not about who wins.
In that regard I also have to respond to your view on prostitution: I actually think there is a possibility that prostitution can be a service to assist in a play, if we don’t find a partner or we have a certain wish about a sexual speciality. I would argue that pornography, sex work, desire or gazing is not a problem in itself. But it becomes a problem, because it is organized according to a sexist world. I also find the comparison of sexwork and being a wife or mistress valid. In a patriarchal and capitalist society women have to use their body and their sexuality as a source of income or social status (e.g. marriage) because that is the way men acknowledge the status of a woman. But is there a way to organize sexual services in an non-damaging way?
We consider penetration altogether as an act that makes women vulnerable or easy to degrade. And that’s a fucked-up notion to begin with, created by patriarchy and a culture which uses rape to discipline and scare women to feel vulnerable and powerless. And of course in the world we live in, men use paid sex to feel power over women, to get their superiority out of degrading her thru using her for sex. In that way it makes me just sick when I think about how popular it became as an image representing sexuality for a man to spread his cum all over a woman’s face. That this is portrayed as the absolute climax of male sexual pleasure. Well not for women…, but that unfortunately has an impact especially on young people’s expectation when this is presented as usual sexual behavior. So you are right, we teach women to feel alienated from their bodies and their pleasure, to be ashamed to explore what turns them on and tell their partners. We hardly see men in porn going down on women, especially not until she comes. Visuality and gender inequality strengthen each other in mainstream porn: men’s pleasure is the sole focus, confirmed in an always-visible ejaculation; this hyper visuality also denies women any orgasm, as there is no obvious visual sign to be used for it. Squirting – the female ejaculation could be one, but not all women do that every time they come. Instead we say that it is sooooooooo complicated for women to have orgasms, sooooooo complicated that you have an easy excuse if you don’t even try… and women feel ashamed to ask for it or to even explore which are the best ways for them to come and tell their partners, because it’s being presented as too much work. It’s all about women serving men and not at all about the different ways women and men can find pleasure. It makes me really really sad. In that way, prostitution in a sexist world approves that men have the right to fuck without caring about their “partners” pleasure. So in that regard we still have a long way to go.
But I do think in a non-sexist society, where sex is not a tool to degrade and control women, where our desire wouldn’t be so fueled with images of objectification, there would be a way that prostitution can be organized in a non-damaging way like any other service with workers rights, unions, health assistance, etc. and if they could organize it on their own terms, not dictated by a sexist culture, pimps and the police. Maybe it could be acknowledged as a healing power, but I know that is utopian right now.
So, regarding African male sexworkers, I do agree that European women find it probably easier to objectify a black man, then a white one, because in a racist culture they learned to take for granted they don’t have to consider African men as subjects with their own perspective and experience. They are easier preys, you can deal with them in a more irresponsible way and get away with it.
That makes me wonder: How do Nigerian women look at men? What does it mean culturally, when they direct their gaze at men. Does it signify an invitation, provocation, an aggression, a transgression? As a white female traveller, I was told Nigerian men would see it as an invitation when I directly look at them. But I wonder if that is one of the clichés which reinforce the cautionary tale, teaching women to be aware about dangerous black men and dismiss any communication from the start, to uphold a race division. I like to smile at passers-by, as an expression of friendliness (but also to be honest, as the performance of the leftwing, liberal white middle class women in a black environment, in a city which is pestered by class and race division), I hate the feeling I shouldn’t smile at male passers-by, to not “provoke” them. In Lagos I got involved in some nice and easy chats because of that, never harassment. I would like to know your thoughts about that.

Didi Cheeka

As an aside, I wonder how the silent ‘war’ with the gazer ended. I will come back to my deliberate use of the word war. The unfortunate constellation you talked about certainly involves power and harassment. A man who openly stares, whistles or calls out sexual innuendos at a woman is not realistically trying to seduce. He is simply trying to intimidate by openly proclaiming to her that she is a sex object, and at the same time affirm and thrill himself with his masculinity. It isn’t about desire per se. To further invoke Berger, it is correct to say this arises from how a man’s presence in the world is constructed – as a potent force, powerful and able to act; a woman’s presence, on the other hand, is always about itself, about what can or cannot be done to her, never by her. So, yes, harassment involves power. It’s about taking pleasure in feeling superior over another human being.
Note that I use the word construct with reference to masculinity and femininity. It’s why I hesitate to include resentment in our constellation. To begin with my use of the word war. My refusal of the term resentment is predicated on its implication of a war of the sexes. Who are these men who resent women for the reasons you outlined? Are men all the same then? In any case, what do men want from women? Just to be desired? It seem to me that implicit in what you wrote is that violence and aggression towards women is inherent to men, with rape being a weapon used by men to oppress women. Picture them: helpless prisoners of their testosterone – insatiable and sexually aggressive towards their object of desire. This outlook necessarily boil down to the notion that all men are bastards who benefit from women’s oppression. I’ve always opposed this biological determinism that presumed men aggressive and violent by nature, while women are naturally caring.
What you say about the possibility of overturning gender hierarchy, of men being at the receiving end of the [female] gaze, as tantalising as it may seem, overlooks the fact that objectification of women is (no longer directly) male-driven. This concept takes as its starting point the notion that the objectification of women necessarily benefits the majority of men – whose own lives are actually blighted by the distortions of male and female sexuality. Men and women are shaped by society, with gender roles implanted from a very early age. The thing is that men have the legitimacy of examining women – while women examine themselves being examined (for instance, you observing yourself being observed during the train ride and being trapped by the man’s gaze). But, it is correct to say that women has internalized the objectification of themselves and now do to themselves what men are usually accused of doing to women.
So, who has the power – the one who desires or the one being desired? The thing is to refuse the question. I am for non-belligerent relationship between the sexes. I do agree that women’s desire should exist on an equal basis with men’s without them being seen as “sluts.” The paradox is that the same world where women are seen as sexual objects still traps them in a denial of their own sexual needs. A question comes to mind. When you talk of wanting to go topless in summer and a man admires your breasts, has he objectified you? Where do we draw the line between a gaze that objectifies and a look that admires? In spite of the generalized randiness exhibited by a culture of fetishism of sexuality, there’s no escaping the feeling that underneath it all is a pervasive sexual dissatisfaction; there’s no escaping the strong feeling that there’s less of a real desire for sexual liberation, as of a need to destroy men by a provocative exhibitionism that further objectifies women. My fear is that to want to walk around topless may tend unconsciously towards this fetishism of sexuality – the legitimization, by women, of themselves as sex objects under the superficial guise of affirming female sexuality.
I recognize the necessity of creating a space in which women’s sexuality could be seriously discussed by both women and men, however, the trend is to present the human person not as a sexual being but as a commodity – the sexuality is stripped from its humanity and becomes a commodity. This is the fetishism of commodities about which Marx wrote. I’m reminded of a brief polemic with a Latina concerning Beyonce’s feminism as empowering and a triumph for female sexual liberation. The irony inherent in this noisy celebration is that rather than overcoming sexism, Beyonce actually surrenders to it. On the other hand, compare how shocking and provocative Jane Birkin was in the song Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus) where Birkin seem to be in the throes of orgasm. Whereas there’s real erotic power in Birkin, Beyonce comes across as sexism made sexy. In place of genuine eroticism you have packaged exhibitionism.
This surrender is all the more insidious because it feeds on women’s struggles for the right to assert their sexual needs and desires, to be more than mere objects for the enjoyment of others – and because it is sold as a liberated way for women to express their sexuality it perpetuates the very process of objectification it claims to negate. The mainstreaming of porn, viz., the rise of what Ariel Levy refers to as “Raunch Culture” – strip bars, pole/ lap-dancing and so on – all show the extent to which human sexuality has become fetishised. This is a most graphic expression of alienation and fetishism in decaying bourgeois society. Attention is drawn, not to the humanity but to the sexuality. And so, what we’ve ended up with is a dialectical paradox: this expression of sexuality that was supposed to reflect the final liberation of female sexuality, that was supposed to challenge objectification and the repression of women’s sexuality – this very expression of female sexuality ends up objectifying and commodifying women as mere sexual objects in more crude and vulgar ways. The attention is not in the person as a sexual being. Rather, the sexuality has become more important than the person. It is an expression, not of liberation, but of submission to a sexed-up stereotype.
We are also in agreement with some of what you say about sex-work – decriminalisation, unionisation etc. Just that, for me, prostitution is not a job like any other. The commodification and alienation of sexuality finds its sharpest expression in prostitution. A part of our humanity, our sexuality is dehumanized and transformed into something alien to us, to be bought and sold. How can genuine sexual needs be satisfied this way? You correctly pointed out that the condition under which this transaction takes place precludes an acknowledgment of the other as a person, an equal, someone who also has needs. Bourgeois society is incapable of offering satisfying (sexual) relationships. A society in which this most intimate relationship will not involve monetary transaction is one in which genuine sexual liberation, increased openness about sex and sexuality will exist. It will be one in which (even regulated) sex-work will not exist.
How do Nigerian women look at men? Among an emerging generation it is at once inviting, challenging, provocative, assessing, and it could be nothing – just holding a male look. It is mostly the second. I will tell you though that even among this layer, for all their brazenness, it is not uncommon to hear a woman say, “Before you brag about sleeping with a woman, make sure you satisfied her.” Thus, she still thinks of sex as something that’s done to her, not, to use your word, a play she actively participates in. Which brings me to the use of the term play. Why is sex not a comingling of passion, a shared intimacy? Why do you call it play?

Didi Cheeka

I asked about your use of the word play, because I was afraid you meant it in the sense of “Sex and the City”-feminism, in the sense of empowerment exhausting itself in serial anonymous sex, on how many orgasms a woman achieves. Now, I see what you mean. In Nigeria, for instance, there is a burgeoning feminism that intersects between “Sex and the City” and Raunch Culture. This feminism, for all its braggadocio, seems to consist chiefly in the idea that positioning oneself as a bitch is liberating. I use positioning in this sense: you never escape the feeling that it’s all a pose, a concession to fashion. You get the feeling that underneath this sexual pose is a pervasive sexual frustration and conservatism. I argue that this [sexual] ‘liberation’ is not liberating at all: it is simply an attempt at convincing oneself that one is empowered and using the corresponding pose to revenge oneself against men.  
To agree with your use of play by revisiting what has been said: Freud likened every sexual act as involving four persons, by which he also meant the fantasies each partner takes to bed. What is missing sorely in relationships is the thrill of discovery and astonishment, the thrill of being naked – that is of being open, without artifice or disguise and be seen this way, of being yourself – as against being nude, that is, not seen for who you are. Being naked involves what you said: the acceptance and exploration of each other without attempts to dominate or define. Being nude, on the other hand, involves belligerent tensions because you are on display, objectified. In this lies the contradiction. How do you achieve the former in a society where we are all buyers and sellers? How does love escape being a commodity, in the sense of the fetishism of sex (once it’s stripped, necessarily, of acceptance, exploration and equality)? In the film “Paris Is Burning”, a character, Venus Xtravaganza says: “But I feel like, if you’re married, a woman in the suburbs, a regular woman who is married to her husband, and she wants him to buy her a washer and dryer set, in other for him to buy that, I’m sure she’d have to go to bed with him anyway and give him  what he wants for her to get what she wants. So, in the long run, it all ends up the same way.” Under existing class relations, sexual relations tend to involve commodification, objectification and domination. I will come again to “Paris Is Burning”.
What you write about wanting to go topless and its attendant ‘danger’ of objectification is still somewhat problematic (at least, for me). To make a somewhat unrelated analogy: certain African writers, who decided, in response to what is usually referred to as cultural imperialism, to write in their own language. These writers, I insist, are trying to solve what is a political economic problem linguistically. It seems to me that this desire to want to go topless inputs the responsibility for staring sorely to male admirers. If, as you say, admiration could also be a form of objectification, would you accept that going topless could also be a form of exhibitionism? Are men, for fear of being labeled, to pretend that they don’t see you, that they don’t find your breasts sexually moving? And the women who also find you sexually attractive this way, would they also be objectifying you? I agree with you that it could be subversive. In this sense: society actually encourages women to show themselves, but you must wear your nudity like a designer dress. That is to say, your body must be sculpted to unreal standards (I prefer unreal to unnatural because there is nothing natural or unnatural about human sexuality or the human body).
Here, I’m reminded again of the conversation I had in a small unisex gathering about FEMEN. Whereas you can legitimately say that its activists encourage breasts that conform to certain specifications, it is also possible to question whether the opposition to FEMEN activists is also because, in a society where men has always been stripping women in films, fashion, photography, it is an affront to them for women to take off their clothes by themselves without the male factor which necessarily involves objectification. So, yes, in this light, to go topless with a female body that challenges prevailing specifications could be an act of subversion. Just that it comes with its own dangers. This danger, of course, does not involve, in any way whatsoever, blaming the woman or placing responsibility on her for men’s actions. No, not at all. I can’t resist saying this: since part of the photography of the construction of the savage involves nudity, do you think that wanting to go nude implies a return to the savage?
What you say about women needing to cover involving shame is valid. I’ve argued that this shame, which involves fear and denial of a woman’s sexuality, is why Virgin Mary had to be constructed without a vagina. As an aside, I wonder how you’d classify the woman who parted her legs to show her vulva in front of Gustav Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” in which the “origin” is actually not shown. Is this exhibitionism or subversion? And yes, what you say about showing breasts in their diversity easing self-hate in women reminds me of a personal experience. But, I wonder if women are also aware that men also have this with respect to their penis? Really, my thinking is that men are much more insecure about the size of their penis than women are of their breasts. Just that men have a better way of bonding with other men and coping with this. Thus, braggadocio becomes a pose, a longstanding one. I must also point out to you that breasts and vaginas were not things of shame, especially in the streams and villages of my childhood. Now, to a large extent due in part to Catholicism, the rise of political Pentecostalism, porn and raunch culture shame has been invented. You say it would be healthy for a society if we can hang out naked in the sun without it having to mean anything sexual. Yes, but only a healthy society can offer this. So, I’m inclined to agree when you wonder about another cultural setting in which shame would not come into play anymore, “probably a less violent culture,” you say.  
To round off our conversation you ask what I think I learnt and benefitted from feminism, how feminist perspectives supported and inspired me to free myself from the strains of masculinity. Since you mention Pasolini, I must tell you that I love Pasolini. Again, I reference “Paris Is Burning”. There’s a sense you can say identity is performance, that prevailing notions of femininity and masculinity are constructs arising from social codes which acceptance and performance has naturalized. I mention Paris here because its subject matter demonstrates that gender can be performed: it can be constructed and deconstructed. How did feminism facilitate my notion of masculinity, you ask? Because I was totally outside gay culture, ‘feminism’ made it possible for me to construct my identity deliberately feminine, in a way, deliberately homosexual – to shock and confront the aggressively male and macho pose of the black masculinity that I was never able to fit into. As a black male person, who’d been fascinated, by what it means to be a woman, the fact that I could put kohl on my eyes, a ring on my nose and ear, dress feminine and still come back home without blood on my body had been a source of power. Femininity in men (as opposed to effeminacy) I feel, is a source of power. It is why, to the extent it is possible for me to use this term, I’ve never ever felt attracted, in any way whatsoever, to men who fit the traditional notions of masculinity – understand that I don’t use labels like straight and queer. To really end with “Paris Is Burning”, one of the strongest sexual impulses I’ve ever felt was what I felt for Octavia Saint Laurent, a transgender female character in the movie – what I felt was quite irrespective of her birth gender, which  was quite meaningless to me. Perhaps, it is that I’d always been attracted to the masculine in women?…

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