Indefatigable Polyphony, or Alexander Kluge’s Narration in Complete Thoughts

by guest contributor William Stewart

Consider the oeuvre of the German filmmaker, writer, theorist, and general aesthete Alexander Kluge (b. 1932), and the word indefatigable springs to mind. The scale of Kluge’s work—thematics as much as sheer expanse and literal length, that of his individual efforts and that of the oeuvre as a whole—appears matched only by how quickly he produces it. Perhaps for this reason he explained to American author Ben Lerner that he normally sleeps ten to twelve hours a night. “Is that true?” Lerner shot back incredulously. “Yes,” answered Kluge, “I’m a specialist.”

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Ben Lerner, Devin Fore, and Alexander Kluge (© author)

Such was the exchange typical of Alexander Kluge’s recent two-day residency at Princeton University: at once playful, absurd, and personal, yet nonetheless deeply honest, deceptively insightful, and surreptitiously poetic. Coinciding with this visit, Princeton’s Department of German—the home of the Alexander Kluge Research Collection and, along with Cornell University and the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, one of three repositories of Kluge’s archive—hosted an event on the theme of ‘Narration,’ a concept that the gathering’s lectures, readings, conversations, films, and performances probed and stretched. The format was as practiced (including academic talks) as it was spontaneous: Kluge often veered from script, reverting to German and demanding that whoever happened to be sitting nearest to him serve as interpreter. Kluge himself worked, so to speak, as much as he was worked on. In a style reminiscent of the audial dialectics of the simultaneous translation found in programming produced by Kluge’s German television channel, dtcp, Princeton’s event engaged in a literal polyglossia, where diversity of both speakers and format served to create a veritable thematic polyphony.

Klugian narration is heterotopic. He transmits on multiple channels simultaneously: personal anecdote, theory, story, allusion, axiom, commentary. Yet despite its volatility, Kluge synthesizes this ensemble with astounding dexterity and forcefulness in the mind of the audience. The granularity of Kluge’s material suggests a swarm of disjunctive monads. Individual moments—clips from his films, passages from his theoretical work, the short prose of his fiction, or quotations from his lectures—capture fragmented arguments and apparently unrelated transitions. Only with distance, with separation does this logic of sampling reveal the greater beauty of its vision. Kluge narrates, as it were, not in complete sentences but in complete thoughts.

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Devin Fore and Alexander Kluge (© author)

An exercise in this narration in complete thoughts, the October event opened with a conversation between Kluge and Devin Fore, editor of the English translation of Geschichte und Eigensinn (History and Obstinacy, Zone, 2014). Kluge and sociologist Oscar Negt, both former students of Theodor Adorno and peers of Jürgen Habermas, originally composed this theoretical text collaboratively in 1981. Fore posed questions about the book’s difficult form, suggesting that its penchant for extreme detail created conditions for a “non-productivity” and a resistance to being taught. Kluge responded that the book had no interest in any kind of abstract theory; Negt, in fact, had insisted that the book involve no metaphors. “A concept without experience,” Kluge noted to Fore, “is void. An experience without concept is blind.” For Kluge, this “challenge of concepts” has to do with content’s being so “heavy”—schwer, lästig—a point whose metaphorical validity matches the literal weight of the thousand-plus-page Geschichte und Eigensinn. Kluge then sprung deftly to an ambivalent critique of the “grandchildren of the flower children in Silicon Valley,” parsing their perceived desire for total digitalization, that is, the desire to think the world solely in algorithms, as a kind of modern-day Dornrösschen. If Silicon Valley can be understood in the terms of Sleeping Beauty, then its algorithms are the spells that enchant the castle (or attempt to). Content may be thus relieved of its weight, but perhaps it is just this weight, qua spatial specificity and material constraint, that, when considered in Marxist terms of labor capital, previously allowed workers to “brake,” to perform their own kind of obstinacy against the forces of history. The algorithmically enchanted castle of Kluge’s Dornrösschen may fantasize and even promise a total dissolution of labor’s material specificity, but this comes at the cost of the laborer’s material specificity, as well.

In many ways a demonstration par excellence of the thematic expansiveness of Geschichte und Eigensinn, a program of “narration” concluded Thursday evening. Kluge’s curated event, with participation by Mike Jennings and musical accompaniment by Jamie Rankin, combined prose readings, film clips, poetry recitation, and live piano recital. Filmic ruminations on the material history of the Bataclan building in Paris were accented, for instance, by Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’; Kluge emphasized Mayrhofer’s verse—“Die Erde ist gewaltig schön / Doch sicher ist sie nicht”—as a prism through which to consider the Verschränkung (interlacing) that occurs between, one, the orientalism of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, Ba-ta-clan, which inspired the theatre building’s architecture and, two, the horrifically violent events of November 13, 2015. Indeed, this Verschränkung remained a topic of interest throughout the narration, and Kluge went to great lengths to distinguish it from any notion of causality. The evening fixed on the ways turmoil links historical moments large and small, and the legibility that this Verschränkung provokes. For Kluge, history operates not like a river, but like a glacier, as Lutz Koepnick explained in his lecture on “Kluge’s Moments of Calm.” The move of history for Kluge is thus an erasing one, eroding as it roves, and yet nevertheless leaving behind clear, interpretable stratification. As Koepnick’s analogy suggests, whatever calm exists in Klugian narrative cannot be separated from the turmoil that defines modernity.

The polyphonic quality of Kluge’s own narrative style endowed the conference with space for less orthodox encounters, the highlight of which was Friday’s conversation and collaborative reading between Kluge and Ben Lerner, American author of 10:04 and recent MacArthur Fellow. Kluge and Lerner presented poetry that they had composed in response to each other’s texts, a form that resonated with Kluge because, as he phrased it, one cannot help but write always to the side of what one sees. Kluge’s attraction to Lerner arose from the latter’s collection The Lichtenburg Figures, but Lerner’s later remark on Kluge’s defining stylistics provides perhaps a more telling affinity: Kluge’s work, in Lerner’s eyes, employs a clinical or scientific and therefore cold gaze, and yet simultaneously maintains the wildest of metaphysical possibilities. In fact, this obstinacy of the metaphysical or fantastic against the clinical had been considered earlier in the day during a lecture by Richard Langston, the lead translator of Geschichte und Eigensinn. For Langston, who examined the thematic pertinence of the recent collaborations between Kluge and the German visual artist Anselm Kiefer, Kluge’s work always contains at its core a “protest of feelings,” a kind of innate human criticality that endows scientific subject matter with an “alchemical” aesthetics and renders the subjective legible within the perceived natural world.

This subjectively sourced power is a clear motif of Kluge’s, evidenced by the title of his 1983 film Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Feelings). Philipp Ekardt highlighted scenes from the film to demonstrate the degree to which emotions and feelings are the target of an ongoing investigation in Kluge’s oeuvre. Within Kluge’s narratives, he argued, individual feelings aggregate to produce historically driving forces, a process through which the subject is transformed from analyst to agent. Kluge presents such powerful protest of feelings as a necessary response given the complicated role of hope and the utopic in his critical thought: unlike his predecessors Walter Benjamin, whose utopic visions were rooted in the past, or Theodor Adorno, for whom hope arrived from the future, Kluge relies on the counterfactual as a mode in which to access and practice potential futures, an observation that Leslie Adelson presented in her lecture “Making Time with Alexander Kluge in ‘Saturday in Utopia’.” Feelings of dissatisfaction with and criticality toward the present situation act as a powerful engine for Kluge’s narration, in which it is the future, not the past, that is rewritten as utopian reality.

Kluge concluded the event with a concrete consideration of this counterfactual future through a lecture and a film screening, which posed questions of political ethics and responsibility to the public sphere. Against the ever-increasing isolation allowed by what Kluge termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and the rise of an Internet of Things; against the growing tendency for the “public realm” to become more and more mediated through the non-materiality of interfaces, algorithms, and a globalized, automatized world; the subject must more and more stake the validity of her experience as a moment of possible public interchange. This requires what Kluge called a “counter public sphere,” one that can be narrated only by poetry, can think in both singularity and probabilities, and is capable of dealing in both algorithms and anti-algorithms—a new polyphony for the modern day.

There is a certain violent relationality in Kluge’s ideas, one inherent already to the late-capitalist objects of his critical scrutiny, but also in the way his notions connect to each other. His thinking moves quickly, shifting abruptly and never pausing to second-guess a remark. As a form of critique, such a breakneck mode of narration can be perilous, and it is certainly not without its pitfalls. But as Kluge himself quipped on the precariousness of his thinking: whoever skates on thin ice will not fall through as long as he skates as fast as he can. Perhaps. What cannot be denied is Kluge’s unique gift for associative faculties, for collage and assemblage, for articulating valences that might otherwise be missed as conceptually absurd, ideologically contradictory, or temporally incongruous.

And indeed, attending “A Narration” often left one with a strange inability for temporal judgment: it was difficult to say whether Kluge’s material felt so passé as to be dated or so thoroughly resistant to the vogue as to, in fact, be avant-garde. Likely, the better answer is neither. Klugian narration enacts a sort of Auszeit, a state exterior to categories of normal time, be that in its form—the easy Verschränkung of styles, sources, and chronologies—or in its aim—the kind of contra-factual futurity observed by Adelson. In a previous conversation with Kluge, Joseph Vogl has described the revolutionary as one able to “dissolve and stitch together different times,” one who “assembles history,” “a vessel for temporal states.” As Princeton’s event demonstrated over and over, Klugian narration exemplifies this move of dissolving and stitching together again. His work is nothing if not an assembly, an assembling, an assemblage of history, and, as a narrator, he is nothing if not an indefatigable vessel for temporal states.

William Stewart is a PhD student in Princeton’s Department of German, which he joined after working for a number of years in the studio of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. He is interested by the ways in which cultural-historical moments appear reflected in works of visual art, film, and literature, especially in the years following 1968.

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