A cut into the void

Root Event

5. Werkleitz Biennale 2002 Zugewinngemeinschaft
A cut into the void

Erich Honecker and Angela Davis together? In one photo? As participants at the same event? Who would get upset about that nowadays? At the time, the people who, despite all their differences, believed in a common fight against world capitalism also thought it normal for the state and party leader of a socialist Eastern bloc country and a radical US-American civil rights campaigner, feminist and Black Panther activist, to have a common political aim: world revolution! But, who today still believes in world revolution?

And why should the other side, which never believed in such a thing anyway, worry about the strange liaison between Honecker and Davis? Wasn’t it just visible proof that every leftist idea, every act of leftist rebellion, and even every attempt to call the capitalist system into question, has to end in a type of totalitarianism? Honecker stands for a repressive, anti-democratic regime and its extensive human rights violations, for the Berlin Wall, for restricting and suppressing freedom of opinion, action and all other liberties. For today’s hegemonic, liberal-democratic attitude, is his name anything more than a synonym for communist totalitarianism and its crimes, for all those gulags and “killing fields,” for Stalin and Pol Pot, for the black book of communism, which in the final analysis, is no different from that of fascism and Nazism?

Today, anyone who still sees Angela Davis and Erich Honecker’s appearance together as a problem obviously does not believe the rhetoric of liberal democracy, and is not prepared simply to accept the absolute dominance of global capitalism as an incontrovertible fact. The portrait of Davis and Honecker causes a sense of unease in those who believe in the possibility for an alternative, better world. They are the people who are trying today, in the words of Walter Benjamin, to reclaim tradition from conformism and to fan the spark of hope in the past. But how can this occur when this damned photo, potentially compromises every collective action undertaken against global capitalism, every anti-capitalistic concept of solidarity, and even every leftist criticism of the prevailing situation?

Once upon a time there was a happy family

When pictures reflect an unpleasant past people usually do what they often do with pictures from a failed marriage: they take a pair of scissors and simply cut the former partner out. By doing so, they hope to salvage something of their past happiness for the future, to wipe away memories of their own illusions and wrong decisions, and, last but not least, to symbolically punish the evil partner. Not so much to hurt him/her, but to reassure themselves that s/he was to blame for the whole disaster.

But how does this process function in our example, a photo album from the life of an internationalist family that then seemed so happy? We are speaking here of the pictures taken at the X. World Festival of Youth and Students in 1973 in East Berlin, where among other things, the joint appearance of Angela Davis and Erich Honecker was documented in the photo mentioned above, a photo that has such an disturbing effect on many of us today.

Of course, it is not Honecker as a person that one attempts to cut out of the picture, but what he embodies – his totalitarian state, or those scenes that in some way recall its uniformity and bureaucratic discipline, its ideological rituals and fossilized hierarchy. To this end, the strictly choreographed mass acrobatics in public squares, the recorded meetings, the unbearably boring formal public speeches– in short, the whole official side of the event – are quickly discarded. What then remains of the World Festival of Youth should show the pure core of internationalism in all its spontaneity, freed from any state patronage and ideological manipulation: an informal meeting of young people from different countries, their genuine, hippie-like gathering – and Angela Davis.

In contrast to Honecker, the senile apparatchik-inchief, Angela Davis exudes a number of other values even today: beautiful and young, black, trendy, and simultaneously class-conscious, race-conscious, minority-conscious and gender-conscious – and convincingly internationalist to boot. For today’s post-communist world, she undoubtedly embodies the revolt against capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy in a much more attractive form than Honecker, overthrown by his own people, does. Moreover, she not only counterbalances his cut-out figure, but also represents a form of continuity: she seems to promise a future that was buried with Honecker. It is as if, even today she can raise the hope that the emancipative essence of the communist idea could still be salvaged. In fact, this hope urgently demands a retroactive separation between Davis and Honecker, and cuts the old internationalism out of the happy family photo. While motivation for this operation is clear, its ideological character and its political logic in the present historical context still need clarification.


What does it mean to pit the margins against the centre, and therefore make something that had been officially excluded the focus of the entire event? First of all, it means questioning the prevailing hierarchy: to elevate to the top that which was at the bottom, and to cast down that which was at the top or, as in our case, to cut it out of the portrait. Many believe that this symbolic inversion of centre and periphery, of high and low, itself has an emancipative effect. To sum up the meaning of this inversion in a single picture, we can make an analogy to Bakhtin’s Carnival.

In Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous study of Rabelais, he remarkably describes the phenomenon of Carnival as standing in stark contrast to an official celebration. Carnival celebrates a liberation from the established order and its dogmatic truths. It denotes a temporary abolition of hierarchies, privileges, norms and prohibitions. For Bakhtin, Carnival on the one hand, represents the populist, utopian vision of a world seen from below, while on the other, it formulates – precisely through the inversion of hierarchy I have mentioned – a critique of a particular society’s balance of power, its high culture, and its discriminatory practices. It is the world of the liberated and the liberating crossing of fixed boundaries – the space in which a socially accepted transgression can occur.

Following Western reception of Bakhtin’s Rabelais study in the sixties, Carnival entered literary and cultural criticism as a model, an ideal, and an analytical category. There have, however, occasionally been critical objections to the overestimation of its political importance. All too often, people forget that Carnival is a sanctioned rebellion” in every regard; that it operates as a temporary break the hegemony of the ruling authority, a sort of blow-off valve for accumulated social dissatisfaction. And more importantly, it should by no means be confused with a revolutionary action.

However, as is obvious in Bakhtin’s work, in its original form and ideological and political motivation, it represents a cryptic, anti-Stalinist allegory. The celebration of the physical and the erotic, an incentive for liberation and transgression, the relativization and mockery of authority – everything that Bakhtin regarded as extremely positive in his concept of Carnival was also understood as an open challenge to Stalinist authoritarianism. Therefore, the allegory of Carnival offers a comprehensive and effective critique of Stalinist ideology and its political practices. What s more, it opens up a much broader internationalist horizon for anti-Stalinist criticism; namely, a direct link to leftist anti-authoritarianism in the West, both in its theoretical and its practical articulation. We are, of course, talking about the socio-cultural critical inheritance of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which, in its analysis of the capitalist form of rule, began examining the sycho-social structures of authority as early as 1936. Here, one needs only to think of the famous studies of authority and family, or of the book The Authoritarian Personality, published in America.

The student revolts of the sixties addressed the problem of authority from the practical, political point of view. Anti-authoritarianism in its various forms also became a theme for the so-called “new” social movements that entered the Western European political scene at the same time, and had a strong, lasting influence on it. “Question Authority!” was one of the most-used slogans of the American counter-culture in the seventies.

The anti-authoritarian cut

In the concept of Carnival, anti-capitalist criticism thus already seemed to have found a category whose emancipative meaning was recognized beyond the borders of the two blocs. It was as if, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, people were concerned with one and the same thing – fighting authority in all its forms. The same is valid for the critical operation we carry out here with regard to the X. World Festival of Youth and Students. Cutting out its official side, as embodied in the figure of Erich Honecker, must be read as an anti-authoritarian cut. The attempt to cut Honecker out of the picture in order reclaim the emancipative potential of the communist (and generally anti-capitalist) movements from present-day conformism and save it for political posterity – is represented in the concept of Carnival.

This anti-authoritarian cut into the group portrait of the X. World Festival reveals the international mega-Carnival in its purest form: a global festival for the people – a free, informal “open-air amusement” that, in our optimistic interpretation, parodies and caricatures the totalitarian background of the official festival and thus degrades the prescribed rituals of the official authority. Bakhtin summed up the meaning of Carnival with the concept of “grotesque realism,” praising its process-oriented, hybrid, mobile nature, its transgression, obscenity, its exaggerations and inversions, its predilection for difference, for diversity, etc. In the grotesque revelry of Carnival, Bakhtin exclusively saw a positive power.

Alas, today we do not see anything associated with Carnival that calls to mind any sort of conscious political articulation, and still even less any “quasi-revolutionary state of emergency.” The idea that the X. World Festival of Youth and Students, “carnivalized” and challenged the authority of the real-socialist state, evokes something completely different – a fantasy, dear to today’s liberal mainstream, of a transnational cultural space (the “third space”), in which a hybridization of cultural identities and the so-called “processes of cultural translation and negotiation” could take place; the fantasy of a space of division and cultural crossover, a space of a new transnational culture that, as Homi Bhabha stresses, is not based on the exoticism of multiculturalism, but on the inscription and articulation of hybridity in culture.

The internationalism called forth by this liberal-democratic fantasy is not political, but cultural. It is not concerned with the economic and political contradictions of present-day globalization, but instead with cultural translation and negotiation processes, which cross over and merge. It does not target the subjects of a radical political and social change, but the heroes of a new, internationalist, hybrid world literature. It does not express the political awareness of the damned of this world, but the ideology of a global cultural and intellectual elite. And its anti-authoritarianism has long since lost its bite.

From the culture of order to the order of culture

The rebellious figures from the period of the student revolts are today an integrated component to the existing capitalist system. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank used the example of the advertising and fashion industry to demonstrate how the anti-authoritarian hype of the sixties, with all its demands for authenticity, individuality, difference and rebellion, was transformed into the hegemonic mainstream of the nineties. Now, the old world of Fordian mass production, together with its political counterpart, the national welfare state, has also entered the phase of inexorable decline. So-called “flexibility” – and not authority! – primarily determines present-day capitalist production. Its authentic form of organization was founded in the magical concept of the “network.” The pressure brought to bear by the authoritarian hierarchy, typical of the Fordian company, has considerably diminished. These days, the call is for spontaneous one-to-one communication between members of a network. This has become an important factor in production. Motivation is no longer stimulated by an external, repressive form of discipline. On the contrary, it seems to arise on its own as an internalized cry for creative self-fulfillment in every new work project. Employees today are no longer chained to their workplaces; they are sent home or simply made mobile, sometimes by using the newest telecommunications technology. Work has to be fun and have a liberating effect; it is best sold and bought as “leisure.” It is as if the whole sphere of production had become a sort of ultra-productive Carnival.

This late capitalist, Carnivalesque world of flexible accumulation is also matched by the dominant current paradigm for subjectivity: the hybrid, transnational, transcultural, transsexual, transgressive – or, as Žižek appropriately describes it – the multiplied perverse, post-modern subject without any fixed paternal authority, who jumps back and forth between different self-images and continually reinvents his/herself. This subject’s anti-authoritarianism has long been part of the problem, not of the solution. For example, it plays an important ideological role in the - neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state and the latter’s so-called burdensome, bureaucratic, alienating, unprofitable and economically wasteful structures. The fact that the hard-won social achievements of the labour movement are being destroyed in the process does not worry the new capitalist class. Anyway, the old forms of class struggle, with its centrally-organized parties and unions run on an authoritarian basis, have no place in the brave new world of liberal-democratically sanctioned subversion.

The anti-authoritarian cut into the past obviously does not succeed in reclaiming the emancipative tradition from conformism, nor does it fan the spark of hope in the past. It becomes itself an act of conformism that extinguishes the last smoldering embers of the revolutionary tradition. Antiauthoritarianism has become the hegemonic practice of its former enemy. In this concrete case, the anti-authoritarian cut thus poses a difficult decision: either Angela Davis with Honecker as a sequence of joint failure, as a nice, non-conformist, rebellious prospect on the way toward the old revolutionary internationalism dead-end – or Angela Davis without Honecker, as the princess of a quasi-subversive global Carnival. It’s not just the fact that this would do her an injustice. The rebirth of international political solidarity from the spirit of celebratory populism is also condemned to failure.

The will of the left wing has become helplessly nostalgic. But nostalgia, which only takes its bearings from the rear-view mirror, will never become a critique of the existing situation, but only the resentment of the vanquished, a resentment that only confirms their helplessness in the face of the existing situation.

And anyway – where is the authoritarian order still to be found, the order that oppresses us and hinders our emancipation, an order against which we can rebel? Is it in our collapsing nations and hybridized cultural identities? Or in our nationstates deprived of power on a global political level? There is no way leading back to a vision of a world of nations liberated both within and from one another that democratically join together in a global order. And for this reason, there is also no longer any internationalism in whose name the old cultural order could be freshly subverted.

Instead, it would be more sensible to attack the new cultural order, because in a world of social, political and economic disorder, it is culture that has today become the only concept of order.

Boris Buden (Vienna), a publicist and author, is editor of the political journal “Arkzin” (Zagreb), and works for the cultural magazine “springerIn” (Vienna).