Corporate Rokoko
and the End of the Civic Project
- The making of the public sphere and political clubs. -





A conversation between Professor Jürgen Fohrmann ,
Dr Erhard Schüttpelz and Stephan Dillemuth

PART 2___________________________

Cultural bourgeoisie. Political concepts, cultural traditions.

D: But ultimately, something like a German nation-state did evolve, and there is of course great joy in view of the new and common identity. The bourgeoisie begins to literally cite its new cultural legitimacy and dramatize it in an inordinate way.

F: The precondition for this was that the club as club became central for social life. Because there were no longer any real issues that the club was concerned with, one just checked the calendar to see what could be celebrated and simply celebrated as an end in itself. One adjusted to a structure of cozy social gathering and focussed on the celebrating as something deemed specifically German.

S: But I also see this problem in the second half of the 20th century. There is already much too much stemming from the tradition of modernity that can be celebrated. All the arts sections of newspapers and magazines after 1945 basically consist of this, and it is incredibly paralyzing when it all has to do with occasions for celebrating.

F: What is interesting in the second half of the 19th century is that there could have been a strong counter-movement initiated by the workers’ education clubs. But with their aim of leading workers to education these clubs were essentially imitational, as education was already predetermined as a civic project.

D: So instead of attempting to develop an independent concept of education, they adhered to the ideal of civic education. But the revolutionary efforts at the beginning of the 19th century led to the creation of a number of instruments on a political level for directly improving one’s own situation, such as social structures, trade unions, defensive alliances and so forth.

F: Sure, and this is coupled with the party movement which effectively established itself during the German Empire. What is interesting is that trade-union and class-struggle aims usually have no concept of culture.

There seems to be some sort of divide. On the one hand we have a rather traditional concept of culture, and on the other a political concept intent on advancing things. But is it a good political concept if it doesn’t integrate a cultural concept? There are of course a few well-known exceptions: Brecht [29] , Tretjakov [30] and others endeavored to perform ‘operative art’ tied into a revolutionary practice.

S: This is a consistent German problem because there is a cultural concept stemming from the right opposed to the allegedly cultureless left. As Rembert [31] poignantly puts it: ‘What the rightists do they call ‘culture’, what the leftists do they call ‘politics’’. Especially the political right and the cultural left.

D: But it’s a similar situation in other capitalistic countries.

F: Since the middle of the 19th century, one can observe very nicely how culture is defined as and claimed to be a German characteristic. This so-called ‘German movement’, which was nothing more than a cultural assertion, described German culture as a culture of inwardness which created the German essence, as it were, as opposed to the empty, superficial culture of the rest of Western Europe, France and England. This can already be dated back before 1900, to Dilthey’s [32] inaugural lecture in Basle, in 1867, in which he outlined the difference between the emptiness of European enlightenment as opposed to the inward path of the Germans.

S: Basically, the century-old anti-feudal cue, the court as something artificial, the hideous intrigues etc., is now taken up again and sold as an anti-Western affront.

F: I would also view it this way. The Germans called it ‘Sprache des Herzens’ [33] . But now the language of the heart has turned into education. And therefore, it is stated, our education must be defended against the barbarism of empty enlightenment coming from foreign countries. That is the main impetus of the culturally-conservative rightwing which at the same time represents politics, this is quite evident.

D: In other countries the left also had difficulties translating pragmatic, political struggles into cultural ones, didn’t it?

Differentiation / De-differentiation.

S: All political movements, and especially leftist revolutionary movements, try to attract followers with the program of de-differentiation. Therefore, the differentiation that culture, art, literature etc., wants to achieve for itself is not taken seriously. This was a big problem with Brecht, for example: trying to find a differentiated aesthetic position for himself while simultaneously incorporating elements of de-differentiation in a programmatic manner. This is an interesting contradiction in his work, but still a fundamental problem with which leftist movements, as far as they organize themselves in parties and the like, have never come to terms with.

At the same time, one could also say that rightist movements were never able to cope with modern art. Those positions can only be integrated afterwards. Beuys [34] , for example, can now be lionized by the FAZ [35] , and what is celebrated can then easily be integrated – of course not during the course of the artist’s lifetime. It’s not as if they had finally discovered the magic word enabling them to deal with real art.

F: No, the rightist concept of culture counts on de-differentiation as well...

S: ...and on mortification, everything has to actually be dead first.

F: That’s quite clear, while a non-rightist, leftist concept of culture in a strict sense counts on differentiation, if I may put it like that. There are only very few attempts that again operate with a different concept of a public. Negt and Kluge [36] come to mind, for example. They are the only ones that quite intelligently tried to combine a political concept with a cultural one.

D: Is it, then, about artistic sophistication with an integrated propaganda apparatus? About research and public relations?

F: The rightist concept of culture takes the easy way, because it is clear from the very start that hierarchies also remain existent in the cultural sphere. That’s why it’s more important to lionize an author than saying something interesting about him.

Aesthetic theory and self-description.

D: One can draw clear parallels between the cultural bourgeoisie during the ‘Gründerzeit’ [37] and the culturalization occurring today. In both cases the aim is to perform massive restoration work on the national structure using the old stones from the cultural construction kit. Now, too, national culture is to provide the fundaments for German priority and legitimacy in a European house.

However, the artists of the decadence at the end of the 19th century observed the symptoms of their ailing, their nervousness; they described these symptoms and translated them into works of art. At the end of the 1990s, we may well be equally nervous, overtaxed and decadent, but constrained like under a thickly-woven blanket of repression and unconsciousness. As artists and intellectuals, we rotate in the clockwork of the POP and entertainment machines and point our blunt fingers of critique at a stereotype enemy as someone vis-à-vis, instead of including ourselves in an analysis of the conditions and recognizing the stuffiness as a symptom.

F: Nevertheless, the situation in the 19th century must clearly be differentiated from what we experience today in regard to a renaissance of meaningfulness.

On the one hand, that period was very much interested in aesthetic refinement which in term pushes art theory ahead. But where in certain forms of the history of ideas art theory was not pushed ahead, e.g. in the George circle [38] , one can clearly observe situations that are similar to today – those of the new rightist notion of meaningfulness and importance.

The articles of these people merely consist in saying: ‘There is a meaningful object. I know which object is meaningful. I can write about that object because I myself am meaningful and important. And only the reader who can appreciate this is also meaningful and important.’ That’s all these articles have to say! To this end, an enemy is constructed, and the enemy is of course garbage, trash, things that don’t belong there. They operate with this simple opposition, and I view the George circle in a similar way.

Others such as Hofmannsthal [39] , who can’t be positioned in this fashion, at least tried to retain a sensitivity for aesthetic productivity and didn’t let things drift off into a lamenting, weepy tone which one finds in certain variants in Thomas Mann [40] . This lamenting is back again today in statements like ‘Western civilization is endangered’, ‘We must preserve values’ etc. I find this unbearable and genuinely right-wing.

It is certainly the advantage of the Fin-de-Siècle movement that it was interested in aesthetic theory. The people who take up this tone today, however, are not really interested in aesthetic theory but in reiterating a certain rhetoric of meaningfulness, they are pure epigones.

S: I’d like to once more return to the question of hysteria and the nerves. The breaking apart of Victorian society with its rigid moral code is first perceived only in a pathological way. This is also where psychoanalysis derives its keywords of hysteria, nervousness etc. from. These are basically all pseudonyms for certain social developments that have already taken place. Totally new spaces were created where people could act themselves: Bohemia, Schwabing [41] and so forth. At the turn of the century, a behavioral pattern was normal that  no longer fitted into Victorian society and which only possible later gained acceptance, in the 1920s. At the turn of the century, all this is dealt with in terms of pathology. But this should not be taken too seriously. It was observed from the viewpoint of a moral code that was no longer valid.

F: Within the culture of the ‘Gründerzeit’ there were simply no forms of self-observation, whereas afterwards you could have taken out a licence on them.

D: In the phase of restoration from the 1970’s until today I do not see this self-observation either. Some texts do take pleasure in showing a certain amount of self-reflection, but that is actually more a cliché of contextualization and thus remains rhetorical. At the present time, I know of no attempt to position oneself critically.

F: That’s a strange thing I don’t understand either.

D: One the one hand, the conservative culture-machine shovels meanings from one pile to the next – on the other hand, the left only sees its enemy over there. Nothing but smugness and complacency on the right and on the left. And now I can quickly add: ‘...and also a part of me...’, but that again remains mere coquette rhetoric as long as including oneself does not become an aspect of one’s work.

S: These are exactly the discourses and genres of self-observation and self-critique in the 1960’s and 70’s that could not be maintained and further developed today, not even within the context of a certain renaissance of the 1960’s and 70’s. At the time, this was a huge project which made the concern so dynamic and simultaneously so difficult. There are no parallels to this today. What we have are art magazines publishing an entire issue on the topic of sponsoring, and not a single word is lost on their own dependency on sponsors. Today, we are faced with a discourse understanding itself as leftist, a discourse which is not intent on analyzing its own conditions of production – and this particularly includes the power one possesses: everything revolving around the question of why texts should be written in a certain style and in no other; which jokes are still allowed and which ones are not, and so forth – all the hierarchies involved in the production of opinions and circumstances. Around 1970, there were hundreds of people who wanted to analyze exactly these conditions in their own groups and within themselves, and record what happens in the process by shooting films etc. When a group organizes itself today, you can bet your last bottom dollar that this is precisely what they do not want to analyze – they’re keen on analyzing other groups. Okay, there are exceptions.

F: Why couldn’t this type of political culture be prolonged? All this took place really not too long ago.

The lack of self-analysis is the reason why there is no public that criticizes all the junk we have to watch and read everyday. No criticism of this culture of bashing, this desire to win on a very primal level: I will finish you off and have fun doing it.

Laughing at the victims is no longer penalized – it is, moreover, rehearsed as a political gesture. And there’s no counter-politics saying: ‘What you are doing here is the shittiest thing one can do.’

                PART 3 >

> [29] Berthold Brecht, 1898-1956, ranks as one of the greatest 20th century lyric poets. Versatile in style and temper, his vast output bears the stamp of his own humanity and political commitment. The specific ‘point of view’ permeating his work as a whole is no less idealistic than the classical brand of idealism. In objecting to the classical concept of ‘Das Ewig Menschliche’ he wanted to demonstrate that change was both necessary and possible.

> [30] Sergej Michailowitsch Tretjakov , 1892-1939, Russian writer, member of the group ‘Lef’ representing Ego-Futurism and later ‘Novyj Lef’ which went for abolition of traditional artistic writing and for ‘faction’ literature which aimed towards changing society.

> [31] Rembert Hüser, born in 1961, academic German writer. After early works in the style of capitalist realism and polemical reviews and experiments, he developed a highly metaphorical style which plays with contradictions and lots of quotations and seems to lead to lampoon or humorous bewilderment. Serving champagne to his real friends and real pain to his sham friends or unsuspecting enemies, he used to quote Brecht: ‘Our defeat explains nothing’. Present whereabouts unknown, suspected to live in Schalke.

> [32] Wilhelm Dilthey, 1833-1911, philosopher whose main interests were historical and literary.

> [33] ‘ Language of the heart’

> [34] Joseph Beuys, 1921-1984, draftsman and object artist, studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts (1947-51), where he later became a teacher. In 1962, he made his first public appearance with happenings. In his life and work he attempts to unite nature and spirit and to include a mythical, archetypal thinking and magic-religious associations aimed against deterministic rationalism. Beuys’ attempt to translate artistic creativity into all fields of life led to diverse political actions like the foundation of an office for direct democracy and a free university for creativity and interdisciplinary research.

> [35] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (until 2018, Germany’s conservative state organ)

> [36] Alexander Kluge, his films were in part harshly criticized for being ‘puzzle cinema’ and ‘enlightenment work for the enlightened who want to be entertained in their special way’. His commitment to the art of film was, however, publicly acclaimed. With the foundation of the production company DCTP (Development Company for Television Programs) Kluge’s culture TV occupied all conceivable niches and thus displaced smaller initiatives. However, for those attempts on the side of private television stations to restrict the rights of the independent ‘window programs’ Kluge was viewed as ‘ratings killer’ and ‘electronic highwayman’.
Together with the sociologist Oskar Negt, Kluge wrote about ‚Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung’ (‚Public Sphere and Experience’) (1973), ‘Geschichte und Eigensinn’ (‘History and Obstinacy’) (1981) and ‘Maßverhältnisse des Politischen’ (1992). Here, the highly acclaimed writing team raised the question of what is political about political action in 15 variations.
Even before the poststructuralists and feminists, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge began the critique of Habermas by articulating the notion of an oppositional public sphere, specifically that of the proletariat. What is important about their argument, is that Negt and Kluge shifted the terrain of the notion of the public sphere from an historico-transcendental idealization of the Enlightenment to a plurality and heterotopia of discourses. This crucial change in the notion of the public sphere assumes its full significance when it is seen in relation to liberal democracy. The great ideological fiction of liberalism is to reduce the public sphere to existing democratic institutions. Habermas' critique of liberalism counterposes a radical alternative to it but one that still universalizes and monopolizes the political. Negt and Kluge, in contrast, decentralize and multiply the public sphere, opening a path of critique and possibly a new politics.

> [37] Gründerzeit, (‘period of promoterism’): The years after 1870, in which, partly as a result of industrial development and partly through the considerable sums obtained as reparations from the French, numbers of companies were floated in Germany, many of which failed, inflicting widespread and severe financial losses.

> [38] Stephan George and his followers, see footnote 14

> [39] Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 1874-1929, was brought up in Vienna in well-to-do circumstances. His early work is characterized by luxuriant aestheticism and fin-de-siècle melancholy. His narrative work reflects what he variously expressed as a ‘Sprachkrise’, ‘Lebenskrise’, and ‘seelische Krise’ (crisis of language, life and soul), but he also explored a new path, expressing subconscious motivation in disciplined verse.

> [40] Thomas Mann, 1875-1955, possessed immense creative and intellectual power and a faculty for assimilating knowledge and injecting life into it. His vision, especially after 1918, embraced the temper and the problems of Europe of his day. His style is internationally mannered, yet lucid, and as an analyst he shows penetrating acuteness.

> [41] Bohemian part of Munich, around the 1900s home of experimental lifestyle for all kinds of artists and intellectuals from all over the world.

                PART 3 >