Spring 2016 Colloquium Series: No Future? The Anti-Teleological Experimentation of the Prenzlauer Berg Poets

April 29, 2016

Anna Horakova

Anna Horakova

In her IGCS colloquium presentation “No Future? The Anti-Teleological Experimentation of the Prenzlauer Berg Poets,” Anna Horakova (Cornell University) discussed how the collective of writers and artists situated in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg during the GDR’s last decade played with multimedial manipulation of found poetic language in order to wrest the notion of hope away from official party politics and reclaim it for the GDR’s cultural underground.

Against the commonly employed three-generational model that has tended to view the Prenzlauer Berg poets as apolitical dropouts, Horakova argued that the collective continued the work of Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller and thus formulated a critique of the GDR’s official politics and culture from within socialism. Horakova’s paper focused specifically on the artists’ critique of official teleology, that is, the party’s stipulation that literature and art ought to portray social progress and advances in production as the GDR’s necessary temporal trajectory. Engaging with visual poetry by Prenzlauer Berg writers, Horakova suggested a line of continuation with the GDR’s earlier avant-garde dramatists Brecht and Müller and their respective critiques of teleology and a “superficial optimism” that nonetheless viewed the GDR as “pregnant with future” (Brecht), albeit a future that still needed to be won through political and aesthetic struggle.

Horakova delineated the development of Brecht’s aesthetics from his pro-avant-garde counter position to Lukács in the 1930s German Expressionism Debates, to epic theater, up to Brecht’s creation of new theatrical forms for a nascent socialist society. Analyzing Brecht’s adaptation of Erwin Strittmatter’s 1951 “agrodrama” Katzgraben, Horakova showed how Brecht’s critical appropriation of the Volksstück genre focused on future challenges rather than achieved victories, yet nonetheless tends to substitute the radical open-endedness of Brecht’s earlier plays with more predetermined outcomes. By contrast, Horakova read Müller’s 1963 play Der Bau—polysemically evoking Franz Kafka’s eponymous story, the recently constructed Berlin Wall, and the construction site as metaphor for socialism—as a more critical work: While the play affirms a communist future, the worker endlessly building, demolishing, and rebuilding the same structure on stage make palpable that such a future is unpredictable and perhaps unachievable with the GDR’s existing means.

Against the backdrop of Brecht’s and Müller’s works, Horakova then examined the visual poetry of two Prenzlauer Berg artists on temporality and production as examples in a final chapter of the East German avant-garde. Burkhard Wunder’s Entwerter-Oder (1986), a work of reprinting, repetition, and thus creative re-appropriation of an artwork from the GDR’s first Aufbau period, was interpreted by Horakova as mourning the promised future that never arrived, also exposing wounds inflicted in the process. Horakova interpreted Bert Papenfuß-Gorek’s poem Schriftbuch as linguistic transubstantiation that breaks open official language of progress, de-instrumentalizing and reconfiguring it in the process. Horakova concluded that the Prenzlauer Berg avant-garde was deeply rooted within the GDR and that their artistic experimentation, while critiquing official teleology, left open the possibility of a different, communist utopia. (Jette Gindner)