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Boris Groys in conversation with Carl Hegemann: The shock of socialism is gone

Editorial note: Published in English for the first time, philosopher Boris Groys and dramaturge Carl Hegemann speak here about Frank Castorf, Volksbühne and the new offensive from the right. This interview will be published in a series of three entries and is translated from the original German by Janto Schwitters for e-flux.

Carl Hegemann: Let’s start at the beginning. I remember you appearing very early on, just after Castorf took over Volksbühne, on his radio show “Castorf, der Eisenhändler” [Castorf the ironmonger].

Boris Groys: Yes, that was pretty scary.

CH: What?

BG: Our drive into the studio complex. It was rather late already.

CH: Yes, Babelsberg Studio. Radio Fritz used to be there.

BG: Yes, exactly. We arrived in Babelsberg and there was nothing but “no entry” signs. It was unclear how you were supposed to go on from there at all. Coming from the East I suggested to just keep going and ignore the signs. We somehow managed to get there in the end.

CH: Was that the first time you met?

BG: I think so.

CH: When I was just beginning at Volksbühne in 1992, they were making a lot of film trailers as part of an image campaign. In one, you see Castorf lying on the couch in his director’s office with a picture of Stalin on the wall saying “Stalin is peace,” which is still there today. Your book “The Total Art of Stalin” is clearly visible.

BG: I know this book was read a lot back then. Heiner Müller liked it a lot in any case. Castorf and I got along really well.

CH: It actually used to be the case that Castorf provocatively toyed with Stalin. As can be seen in his latest production he still does today, but only in theater, as an artistic stance, not as a political one. I believe he was attempting to transform the “Gesamtkunstwerk” total art of Stalin into an aesthetic kingdom in accordance with Schiller. In this “joyous realm” of art, and only there, everything was and should be permitted. That’s why you could work for Castforf without fear of getting your head chopped off.

BG: The question of retribution actually never came up for me because I’ve never worked with or as a member of a collective. When you are a painter, or, like me, a writer, you are autonomous, because you can, so to speak, unconditionally assume your own full control over the medium and the material. It gets more complicated if you move further, for example to architecture, design, theater or film, because there collaboration occurs. There you have to ask yourself: What is my relation to others? Are they part of the material? And do I have an independent connection to this material, because these people are actually part of the artistic material I am forging? Then indeed I would be close to the “Gesamtkunstwerk.” Or rather, should my relation to others have some sort of democratic quality? That would more accurately reflect contemporary alternative ideas about post-totalitarian society. For artists, that is the question about the position of humankind. Do we belong to the medium or—shall I say—to the message?

CH: If I interpret humans as individual beings, you have to come to terms with….

BG: …then they are part of the message.

CH: Yes. And if I see people as part of the material from which I create my artwork, then they belong to the medium through which I articulate myself. This thought captures the whole structural problem of collective artistic work and the problem of individuality in the collective. Maybe at this point I can ask you the following: Back in 1992, before I started working at Volksbühne, I spent about three days and nights with Castorf talking and boozing. Eventually he said, I would be his Bucharin. To this day I don’t really understand what he was trying to say. Was I part of the medium or part of the message?

BG: Bucharin also didn’t know. That’s the problem, you don’t know. It is hard to say. You can, of course, do it like Brecht who tried sometimes, not always, to make the medium itself the message. The ambivalence of message and the medium creates internal tension, and I believe it is this tension Castorf was tracing in different historical circumstances. If you take religion, or better literature, for example the relation between a novel’s author and its protagonist, then the novel is something like—Bakhtin expressed this in different terms—a model of the totalitarian state. Because the behavior of the literary hero always is subordinated to the will of the author. The consideration now is whether you can try to challenge this relationship. I believe the question asking whether I am part of the medium or message is not only a formal literary one, but also a question of substance, which Castorf consistently considered. It is exactly from this question that he developed the core tension characterizing his productions.

CH: If you look at this aspect of tension between medium and message, everything began with ambivalence and contradiction. Among the Volksbühne staff you would encounter many dissidents who in the GDR had fought the “real existierenden Sozialismus“ [real socialism], as it used to be called then, and it was those who would retain their East German identity, as almost everything around them was becoming unreflectively westernized. The Volksbühne was one of the very few East German institutions maintaining historical awareness and dissidence after the reunification. Now, 25 years later, this is to be corrected by giving the theater a markedly western and explicitly non-dissident management. Conflict, aggression and unrest are to disappear and harmony and happiness are to prevail instead, more dancing than theatre and presumably breath-taking art installations, too. In 1992/93 there was a combative, aggressive spirit of renewal, and at the same time, all hope seemed lost. In early 1993 we dealt with “Totalitäre Strategien” [totalitarian strategies] in politics and art, under the ambivalent motto from a Laibach cover of a Queen song: ”Gebt mir ein Leitbild” [give me a role model]. That’s what Castorf was talking about when he was lying on that sofa holding your book in his hand. He said something like: “While Rosa Luxemburg was still able to name an alternative, socialism or barbarism, now there is only a tautological alternative: barbarism or barbarism.” Behind that is the fatal but unavoidable insight that prompted us to say that we could only properly do tragedies. But these tragedies were—for people from East Germany at any rate, but also for many from the West—connected to a great deal of paradoxical hope and joy. Because at least you could admit to the ambiguity. Roughly according to the motto: It is possible to have fun without deceiving yourself.

BG: Yes, because this had still been connected with a great cultural tradition. If barbarism was actually established, we wouldn’t have tragedies any more. Only those who don’t want to be barbarians anymore and keep posing the question of individual autonomy are able to do tragedies. The birth of tragedy in the Hellenistic sense happens in the moment I am positioning myself as a autonomous individual, as a subject of my own experiences. Only then am I confronted with fate, and then with the state, the masses, and then I am confronted with all of what I am not and what is preventing me from exercising this autonomy. And then I die, because individually I am powerless, but I will die in an impressive, formidable way—I will die gloriously. In today’s society you don’t anymore feel like beginning from an autonomous position, as in Greek tragedy, because from the start you think things like: oh, my issues could stem from a hormone deficiency or from not consuming the right food or drugs, or maybe there’s some kind of erotic distortion in my subconscious. There is nothing left of the autonomy that initiates tragedy, there are only minor ailments and dysfunctions. In the beginning of tragedy there is an autonomous individual. If this autonomous individual cannot establish itself, no tragedy takes place.

CH: We don’t have many options in our lives, but showing this lack on stage is an act of autonomy so pleasurable that we enjoy being alive.

BG: That is exactly the feeling—this confrontation with fate and the inevitable. This feeling of doom proves to you that you are actually an autonomous, individual being. And it is the same with the critique of socialism. Criticism of socialism actually affirms socialism, which means the critique saves what is criticized, by attributing merit to it, in fact, because I will only criticize that which seems valuable, worthy and fateful to me, as Nietzsche said.

CH: Which would then also be the so-called Antifa’s problem: Are they actually just valorizing fascism?

BG: They certainly overestimate fascism at times. But this question is also of interest because of the current return of fascism in Germany and all over Europe. That means early Antifa was a sectarian organization that survived for a long time without having real fascism as an opponent. Now real fascism is coming, however, which is why now is the time for real anti-fascism.

CH: Yes, now the situation is fundamentally different. Now we’re experiencing real, mass-scale struggles too, instead of marginal, mostly symbolic conflicts among few. I believe 23 years ago when we said there is only the tautological alternative between barbarism and barbarism left that there was a already sense of this.

Even then, Volksbühne didn’t participate in this hype after the reunification, when it was said the free market economy didn’t have enemies anymore and offered unlimited opportunities for all who were ready to take them on. Even when there were many in East Germany who, fixated on the D-Mark, immediately wanted to become capitalist 150 percent. This was especially the case in everyday life, which is something I hadn’t experienced before in West Germany. Suddenly, your behavior had to orient itself to the market economy. For example, for bands that performed at our venue, I wasn’t able to offer them payments according to quality, but according to market value. This was supposing they were happy to perform at Volksbühne at all, and I was supposed to have them play for free. When I said I would pay them anyway, because I like them, I was told I wasn’t able to think in a market-oriented way. I had never heard anything like that in West Germany.

BG: Yes, but now the situation has changed completely. I think we’re dealing with a new revolution, this time from the right. This revolution has been announcing itself for some time. When I was living in Germany in the early 90s, I already noticed many German intellectuals shifting to the right. They were saying that the Frankfurt school and all critical theory in general should be forgotten, that there should be no negative thinking, and that there should be a return to the theory of Carl Schmitt. It was a gigantic shift to the right. And this shift, which back then had occurred in the intelligentsia, has now captured the whole of society. It isn’t about the market economy anymore. The market economy means the same for the right wing and the political center. There is no questioning the market economy from the right. That is the difference between the left and right. The right does not challenge the market economy, their questions regard the range of participation in the market only. They ask who is participating in the market. The market economy is a zone, it is always territorially limited. Globalization doesn’t change this—quite the contrary. The market economy is not something equally open to everyone. The market economy takes place according to rules and these rules first and foremost regulate who has access under which conditions, and who does not. This is exactly the issue of access about which we are fighting now: who can participate, who can’t, who should be let in, who should stay out. I believe we’re experiencing, in the sense of these questions of access issues, a massive shift to the right in Europe and increasingly in the United states too.

CH: It reminds me of the speech Hitler gave to the Club of German Industry in 1932: “there is not enough for all,” which Heiner Müller cited in one of his last texts, written after the reunification.

BG: The end of socialism first of all led to a strengthening of the petty bourgeoisie—a strengthening of the center. These questions came from society’s mainstream. But the questions being posed now are coming from the right. And I find myself wondering: what is the reason for the strengthening of the right wing?

CH: In 1992 we saw the same thing as today: burning the housing for asylum seekers in Rostock and Hoyerswerda, the attack in Solingen—and here at the theater we still did upstanding Antifa work. It said “stop the pogroms” on every other page of the program. But then it vanished from awareness again and the idea emerged: Now we have freedom, we get to work according to our needs. Capitalism itself abolishes alienation, but we falter under freedom because we are incapable of making use of it. That was an extended intermediary stage in which the art world too received marketing strategies and management manuals that suggested cutting edge entrepreneurship and the innovative practice of the arts were somehow the same, and during which there was talk of making mistakes, of failure and follies, supported by arguments taken from market economy, too. “Crazy times need crazy companies” was one of these revolutionary slogans and something with which Christoph Schlingensief for example, could identify. For some time there was a certainly illusory feeling that the economy would learn from artists and the market could function as correction of exploitative, manipulative forms of authority. We dealt with this under the heading of capitalism and depression.

BG: Yes, but what we find today is a complete transformation of the economic sector towards the emergence of oligarchies and the disappearance of the middle class. It’s heading in an entirely different direction from the supposed awakening in the 90s. Foucault analyzed this back then: the problem of symbolic capital, or human capital (that, what has been given to me by nature) and the question to what extent I, as an independent participant of the market, am able to use it. This also was an issue neoliberalism dealt with in the 70s and 80s: The question to which extent our participation in capitalism is autonomous, precisely because we are endowed with original capital from nature.

CH: …because I have my talents, I can make the most of….

BG: I command language, I have certain capabilities, for example intelligence and so on, all these are abilities I possess, given to me by nature, not by society. And I can use them strategically, I can tactically work with them and this means: I have a certain autonomy in regard to symbolic capital. And this is where we find the problems you had been discussing at Volksbühne back then. Is this really the case? To what extent do I have control over my capabilities? Is it really my own capital or has it already been dispossessed?

I believe your main problem in that era was the question, “To what extent do I have control over my attitudes, my passions, my political stance?” But, it was also about my talents and abilities. When, after/following the capitalist logic of alienation, does this autonomy switch into fatality? And how, in the middle of this conflict between autonomy and fatality, do you arrange a tragedy worth being staged at Volksbühne, one that would provoke and divide an audience willing to pay for and watch it? What has changed fundamentally since then is that this symbolic capital has become a capital of identification. We have an increasingly impoverished middle class and we have an oligarchy. The right-wing stance consists of reframing my symbolic capital, through mutual ethnic, cultural and historic attributes, into a way to identify with a ruling oligarchy. That means, as a German, belonging to German culture, I get to participate symbolically in the German oligarchies success, even without participating financially. Even if I don’t get any money, I have symbolic capital, not only do I share a common currency with this oligarchy, but also a common symbolic currency. And when the oligarchy is successful in their own interest, I get something out of it too, symbolically I belong to the one percent. In fact don’t get any money, but through my symbolic capital I participate .

*The second section of this interview will be published next week, July 29th.


Editorial note: Published in English for the first time, philosopher Boris Groys and dramaturge Carl Hegemann speak here about Frank Castorf, Volksbühne and the new offensive from the right. This interview will be published in a series of three entries and is translated from the original German by Janto Schwitters for e-flux.

Carl Hegemann: 25 years later, with the big upcoming change here at Volksbühne, the “radical new beginning” as it’s called, there’s no direct sense that we’re turning to the right and toward symbolic “German” capital. From what you just said Berlin politics took notice since now the incoming Volksbühne leadership has a global and western mentality and will, first and foremost, get rid of all language barriers. Volksbühne will be primarily transformed into a dance theater so that it can work without language. Spoken theater will be internationally co-produced and thus lead a marginal existence in the shadows. An international selection of the most sought-after artists will be brought to Volksbühne. Further, Volksbühne’s locality to Germany doesn’t bear on its identity as a theater. Rather, artist collectives will be given the opportunity to produce—or rather to co-produce, for an international market under pristine financial conditions, rendering Volksbühne as a center for international dance, art and digital productions. This, or at least something along those lines, is what Chris Dercon [Volksbühne’s director from 2017/18–on] announced to the staff at a general assembly the day before yesterday. He already let it be known that he intended to connect Volksbühne with tourism and urban development.

BG: Such attempts to stabilize neoliberal capitalism just represent a transitional period that will last maybe a few years. After this period we will see huge demands to again remodel Volksbühne into an arena where the glorious history of German spirit is celebrated, not as a tragedy, but as a history of victory and triumph—and that will be the next avatar of Volksbühne. Neoliberal capitalism has already proven itself to be a transition point from the left to the right. Now it’s clear that neoliberal capitalism cannot be stabilized. The disintegration of the welfare state and communism doesn’t mean that capitalism is stabilizing. Liberal capitalism—and this has always been my conviction—is only a short transitional phase to a new “Volksgemeinschaft” or people’s community that’s not founded on the principles of the welfare state or socialism.

CH: A new “Volksgemeinschaft” under a fascist premise? Back then our concern was more the total dissolution of society, the rule of the markets and economical anarchy.

BG: I never believed in that. Capitalism’s main problem is that it can’t secure its social environment and the conditions under which it functions. Capitalism itself—that is the markets, the banks, the whole financial system—can only operate in a relatively stable environment. But the environment’s stability cannot be guaranteed by capitalism itself because capitalism is built on negation and is only capable of development through the negation of all established social conditions. If democracy is incapable of anything except assisting this negation through austerity measures and the dismantling of the welfare state, it’s no longer qualified to stabilize these conditions. Marx wrote that capitalism developed mainly because the large absolutist states of the late Middle Ages created a secure environment for capitalism. That means if you don’t shape the social, non-capitalist environment, then capitalism cannot survive. What is the normal historical process of humanity? What is the ordinary way to come into money in the first place? You can do that without a stable setting, too, you simply rob someone who has money and take it from them. It used to be like this in feudal society—it was decisive for Roman history and for the history of antiquity. Lending money to someone and then waiting until he returns it, including interest—this whole operation of believing in contracts, banking and so on—all of this can only exist when there are external powers, whether organized by a Christian authoritarian state or a constitutional democracy.

CH: Law and justice and the separation of powers.

BG: Under the conditions of modernity there are only two options: socialism or fascism. After all, there are no more social structures or models ensuring a certain safety and security for their environment.

CH: That’s interesting since usually we hear that socialism and fascism were tyrannies and the only principle creating the necessary circumstances for the development of capitalist structures is the separation of powers in constitutional democratic states, where you can rely on being able to appeal to independent authorities to enforce your rights, if necessary. How does this weakening of the model of the state under the rule of law come about now? And how could a fascist or an authoritarian Central Commitee-ruled socialist society create the right conditions for capitalism? By protecting the capitalists from the impoverished masses?

BG: Yes, society has to create conditions in which people without money don’t conceive the idea to take this money by violence. They stay poor, but they stay poor and happy, because they believe they are participating in progress that’s in a development for the better. If, for example, Donald Trump says “make America great again,” it means, “even when I’m poor and will not personally benefit from it, I participate symbolically in the long-term project of making America better.” And that’s how it is in fascism: if you are working for Germany, for the advancement and strengthening of the German nation, then you feel happy and symbolically rewarded even when you don’t materially benefit.

CH: For people who were raised like me this is a vision that, especially here in Germany, seems absurd.

BG: [Laughs] But it doesn’t seem absurd to the next generation!

CH: Well, I would have to think for a very long time to figure out how my happiness is related to my German identity—with maybe the exception of football. And in the next generation, too…

BG: But look, there are Americans and Muslims coming and they destroy all that is German about the German way of life—the familiar conditions. How can we bring children into a world where Muslims are openly raping women in the streets in broad daylight? And there is nothing to eat but hot dogs and hamburgers?

CH: So you would interpret the friendliness towards refugees, all these theaters now caring for refugees, turning the foyers into accommodations, as only an anachronistic transitional phenomenon?

BG: That’s actually an unanswered question. When you are dealing with social trends, first of all, the question arises: Who’s on the offense and who’s on the defense? For a long time socialism was on the offense, then capitalism was on the offense and socialism on the defense. Now we are talking of fascism—I am not sure if it really is fascism, let’s call it right-wing nationalism—that is now on the offense. The right wing marches on and everything else is on the defense. But this doesn’t mean the defensive side already has lost. The defensive attitude can win, too.

CH: You would leave that question open?

BG: I would leave it open. I get the sense we’ll now see a conflict in which it’s difficult to remain on the sidelines. I used to be opposed to taking sides or joining anything. I always thought an autonomous position is an independent position. But now we are at a stage in which the frontlines are more clearly taking form and where defensive positions can develop great power. It could happen, that this whole right-wing offensive fails due to passive resistance, not because of active resistance, but simply because of a lack of motivation. This is due to the fact that the dissatisfaction with the status quo, unlike in the 1930’s, is not felt by the majority of the population. Then the right-wing position will remain merely a faction of society, maybe 20%, and will be isolated. Though it could also happen, as it did in the Eastern European countries, that these forces, which initially only represented a faction of 20 percent, will nevertheless quickly become powerful and have their message supported by large swaths of society! I think this right wing revolution has started now, and it is impossible to say if this offense will be successful or not. But as of now all signs indicate that they will be successful.

CH: I remember how a few months ago you said your students in New York went to Wall Street with the Occupy movement to protest there. When you asked them what their demonstration supported, they answered that they had no objective because they didn’t believe they could affect change. They just wanted to express their grief about the disappearance of the middle class.

BG: Yes, but they initiated the whole Bernie Sanders movement—these huge protests with thousands of participants that you see more and more in America. These demonstrations by the left would not have been possible without that movement. The rhetoric, the whole structure and the patterns of argumentation originally stem from Occupy Wall Street. Now, there really are millions marching for Sanders-style socialism. We are dealing with a new development here. We don’t yet know how far this will go.

CH: Right, that’s different from before, when the direction things were heading was always apparent.

BG: Yes, now things are uncertain.

CH: But what about the disappearance of the middle class? Is that uncertain, too?

BG: No, that’s a fact.

CH: When for example Heinz Bude here in Germany says that the middle class in America is actually rapidly eroding, while in Germany a part of the middle class could very well be the beneficiaries of the precarity of the other part…

BG: No. That is utter nonsense. The tendency is the same in Germany. The question is actually: Will democratic goals be enforced through municipal political power and will there be an attempt to artificially revive the middle class by restoring something like a welfare state through a tax regime or other measures? This is what Bernie Sanders wants: that government regulatory action—against economic rationality—would artificially keep alive the middle class, which cannot economically prevail by its own force. I don’t believe this is possible.

CH: That way of thinking is not in line with the free market economy, but with socialism, right?

BG: That’s socialist thinking. But this does not mean that the free market economy has to vanish as in the communist state, it simply needs to be under the state’s watch. This way the state will become a machine for reproducing or creating a new middle class. In principle this is possible.

CH: Interesting to hear that from you, of all people.

BG: Alternatively, you can accept the natural direction in which history grows, meaning it tends toward the right. Then, the only thing left is symbolic identification with the “Volksgemeinschaft” on a cultural or spiritual level.

CH: That means this symbolic unity replaces the eroded welfare state and failing democracy. Or is there another option? That of marauding gangs, or the tribes that are forming, the secondary tribes?

BG: No, all those are too weak. That’s fantasy. It doesn’t work. The political apparatus is too strong. These apparatuses will either go the way of symbolic redistribution or real redistribution of capital. The right wing stands for redistribution of symbolic capital instead of redistribution of real capital.

CH: But would the “Volksgemeinschaft” resign itself to belonging to a sea of have-nots, just because they can show solidarity with the small, rich elite?

BG: Yes, this solidarity gives them security, stability and thereby creates the framework for the capitalist functionality.

CH: That’s achieved above all by external and internal bogeymen against which you have to close ranks.

BG: On the one hand it’s about social security, education and the health care system, as well as implementing the rule of law, and on the other hand about repulsing millions of hungry people who want to devour you. This promise of security is apparently inevitable.

CH: It’s about building a wall so the bad guys can’t come in. And it is about securing the bare minimum for survival. Isn’t that what both sides are concerned with, the right wing as well as Sanders?

BG: This is what Sanders is concerned with, too. Only he’s promising to rebuild the middle class for real. The basic difference is the question of education. Sanders is pledging to keep the educated middle class artificially alive, or to restore it, respectively, by having the state bear all expenses connected with education, social security and healthcare. Because the middle class is not able to reproduce itself, since its impoverished members cannot afford to send their children to schools and colleges.

CH: When privatized education cannot be privately afforded anymore it puts the final nail in the coffin for the middle class. Is that why Sanders wants a real redistribution through taxes enforced by the state?

BG: That is the crucial distinction from the right.

*Image of Carl Hegemann via Nordbayerischer Kurier

Editorial note: Published in English for the first time, philosopher Boris Groys and dramaturge Carl Hegemann speak here about Frank Castorf, Volksbühne and the new offensive from the right. Below is the third of three entries and is translated from the original German by Janto Schwitters for e-flux.

Carl Hegemann: But as I remember from reading Marx, productive work has always been what’s essential, the primacy of production. The commodities to be distributed and consumed have to be there in the first place. We have lost sight of this, now we only talk about change in form, circulation and communication. No more is it about the items that are mentally and materially produced with the aid of communication. We are losing sight of production, which takes place in low-wage countries now. Being a center of production will elevate them in the long run because through creating commodities it’s possible to develop class consciousness.

On that note, in 1969, when Jürgen Habermas published his theory of communication, we were just reading Marx’s introduction to Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, which is concerned with the distinction between production, circulation, distribution and exchange and implicitly with interaction and labor, too. There Marx explains unity and the difference between the various economical spheres and says: Production is the highest level, while circulation, distribution and exchange each are separate entities, they still are part of production from which they cannot be separated. Then immediately came criticism by Hans-Jürgen Krahl: Habermas wanted to disconnect this. He would establish communicative action as an independent sphere and sever it completely from its constituent relation to production, thus communication would lose its substance and establish an illusory world.

BG: Yes exactly, it was already neoliberal back then. These approaches to separate communication and interaction, even when they were positioning themselves on the left, were all neoliberal.

CH: Of course communication as a game functions without production too, but when it gets detached and positioned above production, it results in what we see now. The fetish of money and capital becomes an economic religion. There is a belief money was able to multiply and create wealth out of nothing. As a consequence, the real process of production appears like marginal appendages of the sphere of circulation.

BG: That’s exactly right, yes.

CH: With that said, let us once more come back to Volksbühne’s “radical new beginnings,” as planned in Berlin. If one is to believe the pronouncements from the Berlin senate and Dercon, the city of Berlin apparently wants to use the art being made at Volksbühne to stabilize the status quo, which is masking the democratic state’s deficits and, at least symbolically, cloaks politics’ structural inability to counteract the logic of capital. The present Volksbühne, which always used to focus on catalyzing conflicts, is unsuitable for this. Now apparently an aesthetic-harmonic sedation-program will replace the subversive and aggressive theater of disruption, one with dance and music and integrative programs, which covers up and aesthetically channels the historical antagonisms that are reappearing again after a long time.

BG: I don’t want to say anything about Dercon. Everything is obvious there. But I’d like to say a few words about Castorf. I think it was Sartre who said, “It is obvious why Flaubert turned out to be a bourgeois writer. It is less obvious however, why not every bourgeois turns into Flaubert.” That is the issue with Castorf, too. This is overlooked in the theoretical discourse of Marxism as well as in liberalism’s theoretical discourse and generally, for structural reasons, in all European discourses. But the ways individual people deal for themselves with what these discourses objectivize cannot be overlooked permanently. The question is how each individual mind, each individual person in the middle of all these great currents that deal with these great narratives, understands itself and becomes an author like Flaubert, or not. How do they feel amid these processes, what happens to their minds, which traumatic experiences do they make and how do they try to overcome those—successful or not. The issue is accordingly, how the individual gets caught up with these great social processes and how they try to keep their autonomy and cope with it. I see that at Volksbühne and see it in Bayreuth, in Castorf’s “Ring.” He is basically presenting this story of the Wagnerian dwarves, or Nibelungs, as a history of the communist movement, and in doing so, the position of the individual continually reappears. So I think that the subjectivity of self-positioning in the greater historical process is Castorf’s great theme. Dostoyevsky is a prime example, his theme is: How does one feel when involved in great social history–mentally, emotionally, what agonies and what pleasures do you experience? You could call this, as per Sartre, the subjective side of Marxism. And I think this is Castorf’s actual topic, the sphere in which his productions take place.

CH: And that’s an explicitly aesthetic sphere?

BG: That is self-evident from the outset, because you have to create something akin an autonomous space, in which these dramas of subjectivity can take place. It’s not aesthetical in the sense that you delight in it, it is artistic in the sense of creating a heterotopy, an aesthetic space, an aesthetic scenery, which abandons the usual course of things in order to show what happens behind the scenes.

CH: And this heterotopy will now be replaced by a sophisticated, ornamental and harmonizing concept. Theater isn’t anymore supposed to render our internal conflicts visible and to assert autonomy at least in the arts, but will play, at best, a helpful part in the improvement of living conditions amid urban development and tourism.

BG: That’s entertainment. I believe what’s very important for Castorf, on a formal level, but also content-wise, is the question: “What’s behind all this?” That is, what is behind specific behaviors? All his scenic dramaturgy is constructed in a way that refers to something that’s happening behind the wall. You get some impressions of what’s usually hidden. Castorf always attempts to show that there is something that’s not revealed at first glance, because our conventional perception, shaped by the social system, prevent seeing what’s behind the surface.

Castorf looks at life by itself, like a wall or a painting with something hidden behind it. Life firstly means, how we live in this painting in everyday life. It is a painting that explains something to us about our life, making it accessible, but at the same time hides something behind its back. That was my subject matter in “Unter Verdacht.” Everything I see has this double function. On the one hand it is showing me something, on the other it’s concealing something, that might be shown behind what’s shown. And that, I think, is exactly the point. And it is for Castorf, too.

CH: For instance when in “Götterdämmerung” Castorf didn’t show Brunhilde merely as a woman waiting for the apocalypse, but as an avant-gardist who wants to actively bring it about?

BG: Yes, for example. He brings out these mindsets, these internal conditions, that you don’t normally get to see.

CH: One more thing in this context: Castorf recently has been awarded the Großen Kunstpreis der Stadt Berlin, and on that occasion gave a kind, but also slightly mischievous speech. He compared himself to Schiller and to Richard Wagner. These are artists who, from the experience that society cannot be politically changed and that everything is blocked off, at least wanted to realize their alterity and alternatives in the field of art. While Bakunin kept building bombs his whole life, Wagner wrote music. And that is why, Castorf said, he wasn’t grateful for the Kunstpreis nor the subsidies, because this money served only to sedate us, so we would write poems or plays instead of building bombs—that was a whimsical threat towards the representatives of the state and at the same time a justification of subsidies for the arts.

BG: That’s exactly right, the urge for autonomy and for regaining autonomy is hard to subdue. Bakunin was a hero of autonomous thinking. He constantly moved between politics and art. These are two interconnected stages and indeed: If one stage doesn’t work, one moves to the other. That is obvious.

CH: Castorf self-critically added: Schiller did address his letters on aesthetic education to the ruling prince. So he would have probably been very careful about what to say to him, since he was dependent on him.

BG: Absolutely. But then the threat, the French Revolution, was still…

CH: …rather present, at least latently. But under this aspect wouldn’t Schiller’s aesthetic heterotopy of the art have had a very concrete function in suppression of radicalism and terrorism? Don’t we have to save aggressive art for art’s sake for that alone?

BG: Yes, but it’s going to be very difficult. I have a feeling, that the shock of socialism is gone. Volksbühne is closing because the shock is gone. The shock of socialism is gone. But now we’ll see new conflicts and new shocks.

CH: And this new Volksbühne can now proceed to dance and more distinguished entertainment?

BG: At exactly the wrong moment. Exactly when new energies arise and societal confrontations extremely intensify, there is an attempt to create something like a nostalgia for the 1990s…

CH: …and in turn to abolish political theater that without blinkers looks at what’s beyond the surface.

BG: Yes, it’s actually the energy of the ‘90s that’s over.

CH: And that is being sold here as a “radical new beginning.”

BG: Yes, but with quite some delay.

CH: But maybe there is more to it after all. When he gave a new interview with the luxury magazine “Madame,” Chris Dercon supposedly said the following, which apparently was very important to him: “If the rich and powerful consider their particular way of self-organization their right, as suggested by the Panama Papers, then refugees too have this right in their own way.” He could very well imagine in the long term to establish an international network for refugees. Are such ideas more fitting for the left or for the right, or do they even point to the attempt, in the light of new conditions and new conflicts, to keep the status quo a little longer through social and symbolical art events?

BG: Well fine, it’s fashionable to talk about the Panama Papers and it’s fashionable to talk about the refugees—and it sounds good to bring the two together. But we have not seen yet what Dercon is planning. Let’s wait and see.