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.
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.