International Conference on and with Alexander Kluge, October 11-13, 2018

Sat, 10/13/2018

Untimely Interventions: Alexander Kluge and the German Media Landscape

October 11, 2018

On Thursday, October 11th 2018, Michael Jennings, Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages and Professor of German at Princeton University, delivered the keynote lecture for the conference Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice, organized by Leslie A. Adelson, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of German Studies at Cornell University. The talk, Untimely Interventions: Alexander Kluge and the German Media Landscape, made public for the first time some of the fruits of Jennings’s ongoing research into Kluge’s life and artistic career for his forthcoming critical biography of the artist. Jennings discussed two segments of Kluge’s career— the early 1960s, around the formulation of the Oberhausen Manifesto and the emergence of New German Cinema, in which Kluge was an instrumental figure, and the late 1980s, around the formation of Kluge’s DCTP, an outstanding channel for cultural programming in West German private television— in order to show how Kluge’s contribution to the German visual arts of the last fifty years lies not just in breaking now aesthetic ground, but also in staging key interventions in West German cultural politics. For Jennings, an under-appreciated facet of Kluge’s work has been his ability to pivot, and thus facilitate collaboration, between artists and institutions in ways that ensure space for critique and oppositional culture within the German media landscape. The keynote in this way set a context and a tone for subsequent conference presentations to address and probe further. (Juan-Jacques Aupiais)

Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice
Minute Films

October 11, 2018

On October 11, 2018, speakers and audience members at the Alexander Kluge conference took to the cinema to see several of Kluge’s experimental "minute films,” which featured a special prefatory dedication by the artist to Ithaca–a fitting gesture for Kluge, who, while unable to attend the conference, still found a powerful way of asserting his presence. In their opening remarks, Cornell Professors Leslie Adelson (Department of German Studies) and Sabine Haenni (Department of Performing and Media Arts) explained how the composite film works in triads that can be formally broken down into these three parts: minute operas, which often rewrite operatic stories from the classical tradition; minute films inspired by Carl von Clausewitz’s writings on warfare; and films about reading, writing, education, and the troubled legacy of the Enlightenment. Adelson went on to identify a central question that the film introduces, namely, what does it mean to make a political film today? In his introductory remarks, which helped situate the evening’s film program in relation to the history of cinema, Professor Erik Born (Cornell, German Studies) reminded the audience that Kluge’s minute films are not meant to be prescriptive but rather evocative, dispensing with the need for narration in favor of improbable presentations that arouse curiosity, surprise, and wonder. In Kluge’s words, “the Minute film plays in the mind of the spectator, rather than onscreen.”

After its dedication to Ithaca, the film segued into a humorous, yet deeply unsettling juxtaposition of President Trump arriving in Saudi Arabia with a wind-up circus of animals clattering and bouncing in the foreground. This at once distracted from but also mimicked the orchestrated scenes of handshakes between the Saudi and American heads of state. After a medley of evocative scenes, including  a representation of the battle of Borodino seen from a literal bird’s eye view, an extended montage of 9/11 as depicted in Captain America comic books, and excerpts from a Puritan opera, the film ended with a humorous sketch featuring comedian Helge Schneider, who played the role of a “Leseratte” (a book-hungry rat) that claimed never to watch TV, preferring instead to read anything that contains letters, from instruction manuals to newspaper advertisements to literature in any language. (Mark Mandych) 

Kluge and Clausewitz: Chance & Imagination in the Real World

October 12, 2018

Kicking off the second day of the conference Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice, the morning of Friday October 12th featured a live skype session with Kluge himself as well as two presentations treating the theme of war in Kluge’s work.

At the frontline was Professor Alan Beyerchen (Ohio State University), expert on nineteenth-century German military history and culture. In his talk entitled Kluge and Clausewitz: Chance & Imagination in the Real World, Beyerchen discussed why Kluge might harbor a special fascination—as many of his interviews, films, and writings attest—for Clausewitz’s theory of war when Clausewitz “said nothing about war at sea, did not experience the industrial revolution, and could hardly have addressed war in the era of cyberspace.” Despite these shortcomings, Beyerchen argued, Clausewitz does a certain work for Kluge: “the writings of Clausewitz form points of departure for discussion and contemplation of the vagaries of war and the shape-shifting nature of what we call reality.” Kluge’s writing benefits from and responds to the particular conception of realism which Clausewitz developed: the representation of war, at the very least of which an aesthetic realism is at stake, must face up against the violent Realpolitik in which, as Clausewitz phrased it, “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” Indeed, through the key term of realism it becomes apparent that the project of a writer like Kluge, who searches for a set of aesthetic forms and representational strategies in which to adequately and meaningfully narrate war, but most importantly for Kluge, also to prevent it, is in essence a permutation of Clausewitz’s military-theoretical project. For the latter, realism makes the promise of a systematic, structured picture of war as a process that can be understood and narrated without recourse to mythology and mysticism, though it does involve chance. Through this facet of rationality—for sure not an anti-humanist rationality—Clausewitz’s notion of war aspires, like Kluge’s literary writing, to address “with exactitude” a common and shared basis for social experience and survival.

Responding to Beyerchen, Professor Max Pensky (Binghamton University) pointed to the “productive ambiguity” of Beyerchen’s genealogy of realism, stressing the innovative albeit difficult move of tying the realism of international relations and political science to literary realism, in particular because the former seems in most accounts to have been a ploy of desubjectivization and value-neutrality in its discipline. In developing an account of Clausewitz’s military theory, in which realism possesses a rationality and systematicity but also aspects of “friction” and human “contingency,” Beyerchen not only prepares the most plausible version of Clausewitz’s thought for appropriation by Kluge’s literary program, but also enriches the picture of Clausewitz in political science today, Pensky contended.

After this first panel, the tone shifted somewhat as Alexander Kluge skyped in (from a booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair!) to discuss the “Music of History and the Voice of Things” with  musician and composer Professor Kevin Ernste (Music, Cornell University). Following the recent publication of Kluge’s Temple of the Scapegoat: Opera Stories by New Directions— stories in turn inspired by Kluge’s “Minute Opera” short films— this segment of the conference sought to investigate the status of sound, music, and musical narration within Kluge’s oeuvre. Kluge and Ernste’s conversation spanned several subjects and took on a workshop quality as samples of Ernste’s original compositions and performances as well as Kluge’s Minute Operas were compared and discussed in relation to musical history, personal experience, politics, and the literary tradition. In this context, Kluge elaborated upon his personal relationship to opera and argued for the continued importance of this narrative and musical medium in today’s digitized culture and overcrowded media landscape. For Kluge, film must harness musical narrative and seek a “productive collision” with it, because this is the way to most deeply imbue filmic narrative with emotion: music is for Kluge the deepest form of emotion. Kluge and Ernste concluded their talk by discussing plans for future collaboration on a composition, possibly an avant-garde musical composition of Ernste’s design in dialogue with Kluge’s “opera stories.”

The last event of the morning returned to the topic of war and literature when Professor Ross Etherton (Wooster College) spoke on “Interrupting the War Machine” in Kluge’s work, focusing on Kluge’s first book, Schlachtbeschreibung. Etherton traced the function and narrative status of the metaphor of the machine in Kluge’s account of the Battle of Stalingrad, examining the ways in which the figure both applies in certain ways to the hierarchical social apparatus of an army, yet also falls far short of capturing the chaos, irrationality, and violence of that apparatus. In this way Etherton too invoked the Clausewitzian dichotomy foregrounded by Pensky: war is both a rational and systematic operation of Realpolitik and a phenomenon with real human costs and human unpredictability. Etherton argued that this dichotomy manifests in both the form and content of the work, contending that “this understanding of the war machine as being comprised of interruptive and friction-causing individuals accounts for [Schlachtbeschreibung’s] prizing of the individual and of the speculative moment,” while also explaining “several of Kluge’s strategies of interruption” in the multi-medial and multi-formal composition of Schlachtbeschreibung. The war machine thus becomes visible and representable in this text precisely because it breaks down. The aesthetic agenda Etherton described, however, also issues into social critique, responding to a crisis at once technological and cultural that has been unfolding since the industrialization of the nineteenth century.

In responding to Etherton, Professor Suman Seth (Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University) addressed what he held to be the central question in this talk, namely, “what is a machine that was never a machine.” Seth fleshed out the historical and rhetorical context in which Kluge’s Stalingrad text sees the metaphor of the machine break down, which is in Seth’s eyes occasioned by decisive paradigm shifts in military technology that occur across the span of Schlachtbeschreibung. Between 1832 (publication of Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege), 1942 (the Battle of Stalingrad) and 1964 (when the first edition of Schlachtbeschreibung was published), war and our experience of it had to grapple with the emergence not just of mechanized weaponry on the industrial scale, but also of the nuclear age. Looking at discussions of military technology since the Cold War, Seth focused on one particular figure of technological imagination which made an appearance shortly after the reality of the nuclear age began: a figure existing at a different confluence of human and (war) machine, the cyborg. Drawing on contemporaneous evidence from popular media and later science fiction, Seth showed that “by 1964, Kluge had the potential to no longer imagine machines and humans as that distinct,” given the role in military technology that the cyborg had been playing since the mid-century. As Seth suggested, rather than seeing the interruptions of the war machine caused by its human elements as a moment of hope, one may also find in these interruptions a reflection of the pernicious future lying ahead of the Battle of Stalingrad, a future in which man and machine are systematically and pervasively integrated into a perpetual military motion machine. In that constellation, quoting Clausewitz’s pre-industrial musings on war may appear nostalgic. “One might then read Schlachtbeschreibung,” provoked Seth in his conclusion, “as a cyborg novel.”

The conference had to move to lunch in order to digest that proposal. (Juan-Jacques Aupiais)

Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice

Friday Afternoon Sessions (Oct. 12, 2018)

Alexander Kluge, “‘Theory like swimming in the storm,’”
with Richard Langston, Ben Lerner, and Leslie Adelson

The Friday afternoon sessions began with a scheduled conversation between Alexander Kluge (via remote technology from Frankfurt, where his new co-authored book, The Snows of Venice, was being presented), Professor Richard Langston (University of North Carolina), and Professor Leslie Adelson (Cornell). This conversation additionally included impromptu exchange with Ben Lerner, the American literary author and MacArthur Fellow with whom Kluge collaborated to write The Snows of Venice, and whose poetry provides Kluge’s chosen title for this session. The Snows of Venice, which Leipzig’s Spector Books has also published in German, recounts the history of cooperation between Kluge and Lerner and their remarkable working relationship. The four interlocutors read excerpts from the new book, including the session’s title piece, “Theory like swimming in a storm.” Kluge found the session’s polyphonic readings especially significant and insisted on several of them himself. He also offered remarks on the screening of his minute-films, which had been shown the evening before at Cornell Cinema’s Willard Straight Theatre, and parts of which had been composed specifically for the conference, thus contributing to the uncommon, trans-medial thrust of the conference. Both the readings and the screenings of Kluge’s and Lerner’s work were met with probing questions from Adelson and Langston. In his lively and engaged responses, Kluge emphasized the importance of the works’ intrinsically polyphonic quality, noting that “the skin and the heart, the head and the feet already comprise four voices within a single person.” (Daniel Binswanger Friedman)

Hans Jürgen Scheuer, Tricksterprosa: Alexander Kluges apokryphes Erzählen       

In his paper, “Tricksterprosa: Alexander Kluges apokryphes Erzählen,” Professor Hans Jürgen Scheuer (Humboldt University) brought his expertise in medieval studies to bear on what he described as a new subject for him, namely, the work of Alexander Kluge. Taking his cue from medieval apocryphal writings by Cäsarius von Heisterbach, and even locating rare but telling references by Kluge to this medieval figure, Scheuer considered the implications of a comment Josef Vogl made on Kluge’s “aesthetics of the gap,” in which Vogl associates the figure of the gap with apocrypha. The aesthetics of the gap, an eminent topic in Kluge research, concerns ways in which Kluge’s works are able to activate what is not present, or what is left open, to productive artistic effect. Scheuer’s discussion juxtaposed apocryphal to canonical writings in order to highlight a generative overabundance of narrative material in Kluge’s work, which often assumes fragmented and non-canonical forms, thus recalling a montage aesthetic. Scheuer noted that, whereas the canon is exclusive, bounded, and selectively ordered, medieval apocrypha form a textual body that is open-ended and will necessarily include ever more fragments. Kluge’s writing is thus abundant in a literal structural sense, apocryphal in its unconventional mixing of fact and fiction and productively overabundant in narrative form.

Dorothea Walzer, Marx as a Model and Question: Alexander Kluge’s Critical Inquiries     

Dorothea Walzer (German Literature, Bochum University) presented “Marx as a Model and a Question: Alexander Kluge’s Critical Inquiries,” in which Walzer analyzed several key roles that questions play in Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike, Kluge’s film project featuring eight hours of commentary on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Walzer emphasized Kluge’s fascination with ways in which Marx himself repeatedly raises questions that point back to and revisit his Kapital. In his film work and in his collaborations with Marxist sociologist Oskar Negt, Kluge’s interpretation of Marx thus stresses the importance of Marx for answering questions in ways that are not always already prefigured by the questions themselves. In his response Paul Fleming (Director of the Soceity for the Humanities and Professor of German Studies, Cornell University) stressed the surprisingly ambivalent relationship between question and critique posited by Kluge’s engagement with Marx as illuminated by Walzer. (Nicholas Zyzda)

Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice
Literary Reading by Ben Lerner

Friday evening, October 12, 2018

On Friday, October 12, 2018, the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner gave a literary reading, consisting of one excerpt from his latest novel 10:04 and multiple selections from the recently published collaborative book by Kluge and Lerner, The Snows of Venice: The Lerner-Kluge-Container (Spector Books, 2018). In veritable Klugean fashion, the collaboration began a few years ago after Lerner (an avid admirer of Kluge's film and literary work) checked his spam folder for a lost administrative email and happened upon an email from Kluge that had been sent much earlier. Kluge had gotten hold of a German edition of Lerner's first book of poems, The Lichtenberg Figures, and was immediately compelled to write an entire set of short prose pieces in “response” to Lerner’s poems – short prose pieces that were sent in appreciation but only belatedly received. This set of odd occurrences led to a multi-year international collaboration, the physical manifestation of which Lerner read selections from on Friday evening. I [DBF] experienced a certain Klugean effect when I was drawn into the reading myself, which underscored not only a dialogue but also a trialogue between the texts, their (present and absent) authors, and audience members.

Lerner’s polyphonic reading performance gave way to a fascinating discussion that ranged from detailed questions about Kluge’s and Lerner’s collaborative process, to Lerner's views on the relationship between his work and society, the environment and fiction, as well as the role of fiction in late capitalism, and finally to the recent discovery that Paul Klee's famous Angelus Novus painting is mounted on a gilded portrait of Martin Luther. Near the end of the evening reading, snow became a central topic of discussion, which surprisingly linked up with art historian John Ruskin's work on Venetian architecture titled The Stones of Venice. Lerner's comments made clear that the sonic, poetic and historical potentials opened up through linguistic and semantic slippage between 'snows' and 'stones' nodded to much of what was at stake too in his unique collaboration with Kluge. (Daniel Binswanger Friedman)

Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The third and final day of the conference devoted to Alexander Kluge began with a compelling talk by Erik Porath (Philosopher, Media Theorist, and Independent Artist, Berlin) entitled: “Alexander Kluge: Text & Bild—eine unendliche Beziehung.” Porath explored complex relationships in Kluge's oeuvre between image and text by focusing on how these two modes of representation challenge and put productive pressure on one another in Kluge and Negt's 1981 Geschichte und Eigensinn, and by illuminating key connections between Kluge’s creative work on this relationship and Freud’s approach to imagination (rather than fantasy) as an emphatically productive social process. A term of central importance throughout Kluge's work, “Zusammenhang” figured throughout, as it points to ways in which text and image as modes of representation can engage with one another. Porath also raised more theoretical questions concerning possible connections between “First and Second Nature” of human beings and between concepts and labor and society more generally.

The following talk by Professor Sabine Haenni (Performing and Media Arts, Cornell) was titled “Time Lapse: Preliminary Notes on Alexander Kluge & City Symphonies, and shifted the focus to some of Kluge's lesser known inter-medial filmic and televisual pieces. Specifically, Haenni explored one of Kluge's early “documentaries” of Chicago and Detroit, which confronted the cities as foundational sites of the development of “techno” as a social and artistic phenomenon. Through the conceptual framework of “the city symphony,” in reference but also contrast to some examples from early twentieth-century film history, Haenni additionally analyzed Kluge’s particular aesthetic of “centrifugality” in his creative work on Chicago and Detroit as he engages the evolving problematics of urban dynamism and the city as an enabler of modernity.

Juan-Jacques Aupiais (Doctoral Student in German Studies, Cornell) concluded the morning session with his talk entitled: “Alexander Kluge’s Parallel Globalizations: Other Places, Other Lives, Writing Otherwise.” Aupiais began with Kluge's provocative notion that the ice age represents the first instance of human globalization. Through close, critical readings paired with theoretical reflections, Aupiais strove to re-conceptualize current debates concerning globalization, especially in its complex cultural dimensions as indexed by literature and the visual arts. Drawing on Klugean concepts of imagination, narrative space, and parallel worlds, Aupiais then analyzed Kluge's 2017 collaborative book with artist Georg Baselitz, “Weltverändernder Zorn.” This brought the discussion back full circle to questions of connectivity between image and text. Kluge and Baselitz, Aupiais pointed out, engage with the biography and self-portraits of the Japanese painter Hokusai in order to open up new ways of thinking through globalization from non-Eurocentric perspectives in the public, social and literary sphere.  (Daniel Binswanger Friedman)

Alexander Kluge: New Perspectives on Creative Arts and Critical Practice

October 13, 2018 (afternoon sessions)

On Saturday, October 13th, Tara Hottman (University of California, Berkeley), Ulrike Vedder (Humboldt University of Berlin) and Alexis Radisoglou (University of Oxford) spoke on Kluge’s aesthetics and transmedial processes for their respective presentations, which were followed by a roundtable discussion with Susan Buck-Morss (Cornell/CUNY Graduate Center), Richard Langston (University of North Carolina), and Leslie Adelson (Cornell).

Tara Hottman analyzed Kluge’s museum installations, focusing on the remediation of his televisual work in the context of art exhibitions, which according to Hottman re-write Kluge’s previous work through a new set of trans- and multi-medial objects. Hottman argued that these exhibitions “recontextualize” Kluge’s previous televisual works. She focused especially on Kluge’s Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike: Marx, Eisenstein – Das Kapital, which was presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Hottman argued further that this and other transmedial exhibitions become for Kluge an opportunity for intensified cooperation and also place the work of an ‘author’ in a social context in order to shine light on the multiple individuals involved, who otherwise typically remain hidden behind televised forms of montage, existing only at the margins of an installation.

Ulrike Vedder reconstructed Alexander Kluge’s “museum constellations” by developing several theses on processes of “musealization,” which for Kluge are centered on practices of “Vergegenwärtigung.” Kluge’s intensified interest in museum exhibitions is in many ways counterintuitive, according to Vedder, inasmuch as his museum work pursues a form of museum-critique, one that unfolds in an interplay between museum and cinema. As Vedder contended, the latter is the true “place” of Kluge’s intervention, which becomes even more apparent when one frames Kluge’s work in a genealogy of movies that thematize the destruction of museums.

In the final formal presentation of this international conference devoted to “new perspectives on creative arts and critical practice” in and with Alexander Kluge, Alexis Radisoglou defined Kluge’s aesthetics as an “(Anti-)Realism for the Anthropocene.” Radisoglou supported his claim by reflecting on the political ecology of Kluge’s use of the media sphere, which questions the “planetary turn” celebrated by others and explores the conceptual challenges of “thinking beyond the one, and on multiple scales of the one.” This transition from the globe to the planet in Kluge’s particular sense offers a new perspective that is at once ex-centric and anti-hegemonic. According to Radisoglou, the short narrative forms that make up many of Kluge’s works lend themselves well to opposing a totalizing expansion of the globe. Indeed they perform the opposite, anti-realistic move, which is “a compression of space” in miniatures of the planetary. (Mariaenrica Giannuzzi)

Alexander Kluge via Skype presentation