LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Dispatches from Berlin: The Mechanical Nightingales or SuKuLTuR
If you are waiting for one of the elevated trains in Berlin, you ought to scout the vending
machines. Not because German potato chips are better than any others or because the Twix has an aftertaste of cinnamon in the Berlin air, but because displayed between the two snacks, you are liable to find a bright yellow pamphlet: food for thought during the time it takes to travel between most points A and B in this wide, flat city.
The first one I drew from the machine last summer for one Euro was by Marc Degens, and the title, along with the incongruousness of where I had come across it, was what whetted my appetite: “Die geraffte Wahrheit dieses Tags”, loosely: The Gathered Truth of this Day.
The German adjective ‘gerafft’ is playful and elusive: its meaning hovers between the gathering of ruffles in the seam of a dress, the quick sweep of an arm across a gambling table as it gathers the chips of a lucky win, and the echo of your own sigh when you get an answer right at school…but barely.
This didn’t sound like junk-food.
And it didn’t look like junk-food either, seemingly formatted as it was to resemble one of the most venerable paperback series of affordable classics in Germany, first published in 1828 for vending machines by the Reclam Publishing House.
During the Weimar period, 1918-33, Reclam sold millions of its booklets through automated dispensers, built and maintained by the publisher. The unusual distribution idea of the small, alternative publisher suKuLTuR, which puts out the pamphlet I bought – along with by now 77 other literary pamphlets in the series and a growing number of pamphlets in a joined, non-fiction series of short essays – certainly brings to mind the Weimar years of experiment, critique, and provocation when writers and artists of the Dada, Futurist, Expressionist, or New Sobriety movements were looking for and finding audiences through magazines, pamphlets, leaflets, journals, books, and performances; much of this in Berlin.
In the seconds it took for the pamphlet to drop into the bin below, my mind quickly edited SuKuLTuR into suBkultur. I stood there curious how I’d make sense of a piece of writing seemingly with high aesthetic standards, moreover laying claim to participating in something like a Berlin subculture or underground, but finding its way into an outlet serving the main-stream consumption habits of fast and insubstantial snacking. In the end, my hopes of having hit so easily on a truly radical literary experiment would overwhelm this bargain-price offering.
My reading of all the other pamphlets I bought between trains over the course of the following days would be similarly burdened by the phantom image of a cultural landscape in which artists and their critics are looking for a new take on their time, their place, and our way of being in the world, pushing ahead as an avant garde will do into something as yet unknown, though rarely innocent in moral terms, and likely set to fail.
And yet my intrigue kept getting fed by these texts, precisely because they forced me to ask the question whether something might fruitfully be said about the difference between an underground and an avant garde. So I kept going back for more.
The Gathered Truth of This Day – pamphlet #4 – is written by one of the founders of SuKuLTuR. This publishing house was created in 1992 as an outlet for poetry, stories, graphics, and comics coming primarily out of the Punk scene. By 1995, the literary magazine Der Sprung (The Leap, a name carrying its own echoes of avant-garde journals from the interwar period with similarly vocative names such as Die Aktion, Action, or Der Gegner, The Opponent) had become the focus of activity. It was, according to SuKuLTuR’s website, a forum for mostly young and non-conformist authors who made a point of not formulating a unified or unifiable program.
Both in The Leap and in the case of the series of yellow pamphlets, Nicer Reading, launched in 1996, the editorial vision remains devoted primarily to young authors as well as those experimenting at the periphery of the mainstream and is open to all literary forms.
The approach of SuKuLTuR is programmatically unprogramatic, comfortably postmodern in this way. There is a lot of material here to challenge stereotypes. But the sense of an urgent formulation of an overriding vision and shared aesthetic experiment representing and defining the spirit of an era – its Zeitgeist – which drove the many cultural movements and manifestos of the Weimar period, is absent.
Nevertheless, this project sees itself in the tradition of postwar nonconformist German-language writing that makes substantial demands on the reader such as that of Arno Schmidt, Peter Handke, or Thomas Bernhard. And in fact, a penchant for formal inventiveness seems to be a priority in the pamphlets I sampled – with ‘sampling’ itself, incidentally, being elevated to the status of a new form (Thomas Meinecke).
David Wagner’s pamphlet “Der Kunstschuetze galt als einer der wenigen Artisten” (The Sharpshooter Was Considered to Be One of the Few Artists) pulls what, in German, may be the best line among 23 pages of verse-riffs on daily, barely motivated acts of violence perpetrated in a petit bourgeois milieu into the title. A Kunstschuetze is a country-fair sharp-shooter who can unflinchingly take aim at his lovely assistant. But the word contains both Kunst: art and Schutz: protection.
“Artist” on the other hand in German is not an artist but rather a skilled circus performer. The two words hang on each end of the assessment that the man in question (who will not protect but decapitate his wife in the poem), was reputed to be a good shot. Clearly, these lines set a dramatic as well as a meta-narrative stage. However, Wagner’s pamphlet of verses is really a string of snap-shots that miss their own mark: slightly versified, extended newspaper headlines that read like the CNN ticker-tape of breaking news:
the corpse of the student
by the young man
into a mote of liquid manure
where children playing
found it months later.
These poems resemble something like draft material for a writer like Alexander Kluge, mining the violence of the everyday that in Kluge’s hands is given poetic condensation within the language of quasi reportage and is then woven into the thread of German history, unraveling and entangling itself with the small, quotidian tragedies of which we are all the authors or artisans.
What is, therefore, often not so clear in the pamphlets I read is the question ‘to what end this experimentation?’ What remains ambiguous is the fact that though ultimately more playful than provocative, these poems, short stories, miniature plays and essays are at the same time emphatically also not part of the muzak of the literary moment in Germany. Taken together, they open a window onto an alternative literary scene anchored in Berlin but reaching geographically into Austria, German-speaking Romania, and well beyond the main urban centers.
I’ll insist, however, on my misreading of SuKuLTuR (in its DaDA typography) as suBkultur not only because of the project’s Punk origins, but also because of the fact that moving at the margin of the establishment and making this margin more visible is very much part of its self-understanding. A contemporary difference between a conception of ‘subculture’ and any notion of an ‘avant-garde’ shows itself here. Where subcultures operate below, alongside, and as market niches increasingly in tandem with the status quo, historically avant-garde have attempted to disrupt that same status quo and inevitably have taken a confrontational stance vis a vis the reigning conventions, putting the prevailing culture on notice, on guard.
Not satisfied with supplementing the cultural, social, or political rule-book as contemporary subcultures appear to be, avant-gardes break the existing rules and propose new ones in their place. If subcultures today enlarge the space of culture by mining below its surface, avant-gardes always aim to draw an entirely new map and invent a new territory. At stake in the latter is a collectively new way of seeing, feeling, hearing, thinking – a new, more meaningful way of being.
Measured by these standards, the project of suKuLTuR in truth carries as little bite as the title of the fiction series itself: ‘Nicer Reading’ might as well be a regular feature on lounge chairs in a trendy interior design magazine. The question becomes: if the Western avant garde is a historical relic, how do we understand what SuKuLTuR hopes to do with its emphasis on marginal voices, on formal experimentation and innovation?
Marc Degens’s pamphlet #4 is an autobiographical account of a day spent getting up, sifting through manuscripts, getting on a train to see his grandmother and unburden her of her collection of loose change because he is broke, and writing – of course – pamphlet #4 in the series for which the narrative ‘I’ is looking through submissions.
“Generally,” writes this narrator, “many readers ask me why I so often rework many of my personal experiences, which are neither particularly relevant in contemporary historical terms nor probably more unusual or entertaining than the experiences of millions of others, into literature. The assumption that they might serve a representative function and that I might wish to describe my generation or post-unification German reality through them is wrong, since I believe in my individuality and originality…. In my fictional writing I can certainly write about myself, but in my autobiographical texts I am never the topic. In these, narration itself is foregrounded.” (12)
The self-reflexive and ironic moves in these sentences are clever ways of playing with and destabilizing meaning. Is the text or is it not autobiographical? Is individuality or the non-singularity of personal experience at issue? Does the parodic gesture undo the Generation X stance or does our seeing through the self-conscious disclaimer in fact emphasize that same posture?
The point seems to be to make literal meanings fall between the chairs of genre classifications and of contradictory truth claims. The author is amusing himself by pulling the seat out from under the reader as she triumphantly squeezes into the last available spot on the crowded tram and puzzles over the “Gathered Truth of the Day”. But ultimately no literary ploy or disclaimer should pre-empt that we take what we read as belonging to a specific moment in time and as also representing something other than itself. Whatever his wishes, Marc Degens will end up describing an aspect both of his generation and of post-unification German reality through his text. In this case, self-absorption in the name of aesthetic form amounts to something like the essence.
This brand of individualism linked to an ethos of originality prides itself on having no deep connection to its time–but that doesn’t make it untimely. The collective formation contemporary subcultures can yield is precisely, and only, a scene. A ‘scene’ as opposed to a ‘group’ in an avant garde sense is its timely collective form. Nadeshda Mandelstam describes in her memoirs what, by contrast, makes a ‘group’, in this case the avant garde Russian poets who called themselves the Acmeists:
“They were brought together not just by their attitude to poetry, but by a common philosophy of life in general (indeed, this may always be so with the formation of such groups). Perhaps, incidentally, philosophy is not a good word to use about poets; it is better to talk of their sense or understanding of life…. If there is no such [dominant] idea, one will have, at best, a clever craftsman, a mechanical nightingale.”
So what can be said of the project SuKuLTuR after a sampling of issues on display in the vending machines last July? That it is experimental, young, playful, maverick, uneven, formally ambitious, full of irony and parody, and given in several issues to an aesthetic that works through various idioms of violence. It is also self-absorbed, and located on the periphery of the mainstream.
SuKuLTuR is a phenomenon of the contemporary German subculture. And the fact that a project such as this – along with many, many others across the arts in Berlin now – can fertilize the general culture, working into it from below and in between the elements of a not yet all-encompassing corporate consumer culture is part of what makes this city such a great place to be. The rub is simply that this underground integrates seamlessly into the overall topography; the pamphlets are a perfect complement to the pretzels and candy with which they form a single merchandizing unit. Even where a great deal of creative energy is bundled on the margins of the mainstream into something like a subculture, this ‘outside’ poses little if any challenge to the dominant culture’s self-understanding. The alternative scene no longer offers much of an alternative.
But I did, after all, get the name wrong. And SuKuLTuR is also and more straight-forwardly just an independent publisher with an innovative marketing scheme that combines junk food vending machines, independent bookstores, and the internet in its distribution strategy. Its website integrates with satt.org: ‘satiated’, or maybe better ‘stuffed.org,’ a less established version of salon.com: a place for cultural commentary, reviews, and recommendations where Mark Degens is one of the editors.
What becomes apparent, then, is also what this project doesn’t aspire to be: hungry or radical. It turns out that the experiments of genuine rebel spirits won’t find their way into any vending machines. Those spirits will, perhaps, always be more difficult to track down. And if you do discover them and absorb their energy and meaning, you might, for a moment, discover your own hunger…though you are unlikely to come away satiated. Stuffing yourself is what potato chips are for.
Dorothea von Moltke is one of the owners of Labyrinth Books. She did her undergraduate work at Yale and then moved to Eastern Germany where she was Managing Director of the Round Table Against Xenophobia in Eastern Germany as well as editorial assistant to the literary monthly Constructiv and publishing intern at the Wagenbach Publishing House. She returned to the U.S. in 1992 to begin her graduate studies at Columbia (P.h.D., 2002). Together with her husband, she opened Labyrinth Books, a community and scholarly bookstore for engaged readers, first in NYC in 1997, then in New Haven in 2005, and finally in Princeton in 2007.
WEBSITE: Labyrinth Books