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09/02/2010

The attack of the 13th fairy

Freitag magazine talks to Alexander Kluge about the Internet, dragonfly intelligence and why he likes "gardener" as a job desciption

Freitag editors: Herr Kluge, this is our first ever skype interview.

Alexander Kluge: Mine too!

You sent a camera team round to our offices and you are also being filmed over there in Munich. What do you plan to do with the tapes?

Oh, let's see. We will put in on dctp.tv.

You are a collector.


Yes, we have to do things like the Brothers Grimm. They have my deepest admiration.

Talk to us about the future. "Tomorrow already exists in today, but it is disguised as something harmless", Robert Jungk said. Where does tomorrow exist in today and how harmless is it?


The future is there in the past and it's heading towards us. You have to ask whether we humans have survived because of something we have inherited that is cleverer than we are. This would mean that the future is the potential we carry inside us. We would have perished long ago without some kind of guardian angel. Not to put too fine a point on it, this means that there is no such thing as a future isolated from the subjunctive case, from wishes, from cause and effect, and there is no future that is not attached to the past.

Paul Klee's angel of history flies backwards into the future and gazes in horror at our present.

Yes but you can also interpret this in a positive way: it is not just an evil wind blowing us from the past into the future; it is also a wind which is blowing towards us from the future because it has already been in the past so long. Let me give you an example. There is one predator which is more predatory than the rest of us put together: the dragonfly. It vibrates over the pond, it has the ability tactually to gather data with such precision that we are still unable to replicate it even with the aid of a computer. And the brain of a dragonfly is smaller than a pinhead. This intelligence was created over 70 million years ago and MIT is using it to build machines today. They are building artificial intelligence robots with a head that continually reflects and hesitates. They are all built according to the model of the dragonfly: tactile, ever hungry, ever curious. This intelligence, which goes back 70 million years, might be similar to the intelligence in our skin in our intestinal villi, and indeed everywhere else except in our brains.

But not everyone is able to summon up this historical potential to the same extent. How can it be learned?

You don't learn it, you have it. Our genes are not our only inheritance, this is a misunderstanding. We also have also the inheritance of the unexpected. People in emergency situations probably have more of it. People in abject poverty, as Marx said, have bags of it. They know ways out. They have abilities which have little to do with what we call culture, but which could be studied by Levi Strauss, who died this year. He was wonderful at describing how we are unintentionally intelligent. Every one of us has this dowry and it is the only thing we have that could save us from collapsing under the innovations of the 21st century. We did not emerge victorious from our various revolutions - not in 1789, not in 1917. We have a string of defeats behind us. When Rosa Luxemburg puts her head out of line, she is murdered, just like Gracchus in Rome. Anyone who sticks their neck out to fight tyranny or for emancipation is risking their lives. That's one side of the story. In the meantime the world of things has triumphed. Like the weather, things circulate the world with all their chains of coincidence and probabilities in the form of pension funds, machinery and data. This is the second global weather. The second nature of global weather. This is superhuman. But to the dowry that I mentioned earlier I will add this warning: Don't let the power of others make to stupid and don't let your own powerlessness make you stupid. This is one of Adorno's guiding principles. You have to justify not being a pessimist. Frank Schirrmacher's "Payback" is a very pessimistic book. (more here at Edge.org) In his case I would be looking for ways out.

But the question is what is left of the future of mankind if we are able to calculate the future, if we are able to compress all imaginable variations of human existence into algorithms?

I do not believe that you can predict human behaviour or human conditions. Planned economies have never functioned. People will automatically embark on a path of resistance. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, a flood of information followed. It was possible to print anything and most of it was pamphlets: a call to civil war, a call to religious war, a call to intolerance. And people fought back by inventing criticism. Kant is also the answer to the superiority of the printed word. Dirk Baecker conducted research into this. And you can observe today that people who use the Internet are almost immune towards the glut of information, they read the first 40 words and ignore the remaining 1,8000. This reductionism has its good and bad sides. This kind of user is hardly going to sit down in the evening and read Anna Karenina. But he's also not going to drown in information. Man creates his own clarity.

But is this selection process really on a par with criticism?


This is not criticism in Kant's sense. But this form of self-defence is very efficient. I'm not saying whether it is good or bad. It is just the reaction which is already happening now and which will develop its own intelligence.

One reaction to the new media and the data mass is fragmentation: people can no longer concentrate, we are becoming ignorant. And we don't even notice it any more. Because the goalposts for recognition and experience have moved.

But if you have the chance to minimalise the data mass so that it fits in your head, then it works. You enter a garden, Freitag magazine, the Guardian or the information garden of dctp.tv and then you can retreat into yourself. What we need are walled-off spaces, where volumes of data are collected, sorted and reduced. Gardens, ports, vessels, whichever metaphor your prefer. Since the need for reduction is increasing, these gardens will be used. You just have to build them, these online gardens. But don't forget that behind the data are real-life conditions which are only named by the data and which are much more uncanny than the volume of data. The financial crisis showed us how a tsunami of speculation, irresponsible assumptions, mortgages can crash over us. This leads to a loss of trust. After the 1929 crisis, politics swung sharply to the right. The subjective reaction can be much more dangerous than anything any speculator could trigger.

When we talk about the future, we do so because we believe that the future is a sufficiently open space which we can shape at will. But if we see ourselves and our behaviour as programmes which just run once they have been started, then the idea of the future no longer makes sense. Just as it makes no sense with a programme. In the moment when you start it, you know what its future is, which makes it the present.

On the basis of everything that I know and what I can read about the past, a future will be replaced if it is obstructed. People simply refuse to accept it.

Replacing the future
can be very painful.

Absolutely. "In die Zukunft ziehen wir Mann für Mann" (we head for the future, man by man") is a Nazi song. It is a dangerous moment when people are seized by the desire to escape reality, it is a dangerous moment.

Only last year capitalism seemed to heading for collapse. Today it's as if nothing happened. Why did the breakout fail?

We are not just dealing with one capitalism here. As the saying goes: "Tut der Kapitalist, was er liebt, und nicht, was ihm nützt, wird er von dem, was ist, nicht unterstützt." (If the capitalist does what he loves, and not what he can capitalise on, he will not have the support of things as they are.) Capitalism is a machine and it was invented by man. Marx went to great efforts to describe how capitalism came into being. Theft and accumulation, yes, but also plenty of approval. When an idea seizes hold of the masses, it gains power. Capitalism demonstrated this.

No one I trust has been able to give me a prescription for how to create an other, non clan-controlled, non-violent order, which makes the people so fervent and gets the merchandise to Sinkiang. It is amazing what capitalism is capable of. But it comes in many forms. And where does it intersect with people? Capitalism perhaps believes that it can survive without people. But without people it will collapse because it needs a workforce. Then it falls behind, falls back. Then comes fascism, and then re-feudalisation – that's the terrible thing about capitalism, it has so many previous incarnations to fall back on. Max Horkheimer said that as long as you live, you have to think about finding an alternative. Throughout my life I have witnessed many moments of solidarity. Things people would never do for money. That is something that exists outside capitalism! Such things exist sporadically. But these observations tend not to come together in a global system that connects people. Solidarity has only minimal organisational capabilities. The ability to cooperate and the ability to create property – these do not overlap.

There are types of capitalism which complement the human character and others that do not. If you compare the lackeys of a speculative system with the type of businessman who threw himself under a train on 5 January 2009 because he could not forgive himself for the contracts he had signed – you see that these are completely different types of people. This is the type of person I trust. What we need is to re-think the idea of man as citizen.

People's good sides emerge in the moment of catastrophe. But how do we get there without the catastrophe?


I do not wish catastrophe on myself. But when it strikes, we have to study it scientifically. Man is capable of much more than capitalism allows him. But you have to recognise that capitalism can force connections into existence which people would never come up with by themselves. Three quarters of the Communist Manifesto is a hymn to capitalism, how it lead people out of the lethargic middle ages and created initiative. Much in the way that the Internet is mobilising a new public sphere.

Capitalism is only a form of exchange, but it is most effective when the aim is to connect as many people as possible over large distances. The production capitalism of the workers in quartier Saint Antoine in the revolutionary year of 1789 was about constructing something – but without exploiting the colonies like the British stock exchange did.

Let us return to the idea of breaking out of the system. This is a very interesting subject. There are lots of ways of breaking out. In 1968 it was drugs. Today, for lots of people, it is the Koran school. Who decides which breakouts are good and successful and which are bad?


It is not really possible to decide such a thing. Perhaps, as an observer, you can decide through analysis. But when you are involved, it is very difficult to distinguish between good and bad because there are no judges. It is not for us to judge others. And we don't really know what we are doing ourselves. In 1968 people wanted to break out of the status quo, make it dance. There is a beach beneath the pavement, people said. In 1914 the artists said: we need to bring things to a head! We will fight in the Great War. And the entire century went off the rails. And in 1917/18 people said: we have arrived in the new reality, now we either have to become Bolsheviks or Freikorps. We are making a new human being, we are making a armour-plated human being, we need a new kind of hardness. These were all ways of breaking out that need to be subjected to close scrutiny. They can last as long as the Thirty Years War – from 1914 to 1945 it was 31 years. We cannot differentiate between good and bad breakouts. Once the impulse is there, it is almost impossible to control. We have to try to dismantle these machines in time, if we can. But if we can't, we have to look into what means to contain these impulses, so that they remain on a human scale.

Under such conditions the successful breakout has to involve leaving the web, blocking the flow of information. We have to boycott data. Like the workers who threw their shoes into the works, we have to try to throw our shoes into the circuit. This can only happen by refusing to deliver new data. But this is a refusal of all forms of social activity.

That is the way of the Stoics. This was how the elite of the Roman empire were able to tolerate the desperate situation. Either suicide or this. Both engendered human dignity. And while they were doing this, religions were growing on a mass scale: the religion of the "invincible sun" or the religion of Christ, which were very similar at the outset. Great religious Romans seized power.  Abstinence is not a viable response to to real-life conditions. We are social creatures – far too talkative to withdraw from the world like monks.

But the monks communicated with God. It not longer so easy to compensate for retreating from society by embracing transcendence. The people who retreat today are the poorest of the poor.


The Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet withdrew from society during the French Revolution before he was forced to lie, and he eventually committed suicide to gain his freedom. But for me the individual is a palace with many rooms, and I can prepare one of these rooms so that I can retreat whenever I like. And at the same time I stay social, in society's chatroom. I am more than one person, I am many people. When data multiplies like this, we transform ourselves into polyphonic beings.

What are people doing today to break free?

At Princeton University, for example, there are countless cells where emancipatory thinking is taking place. One I know of consists of five researchers who are researching the Babylonian Talmud and the year 70 AD. I could listen to them talking like I listened to my grandfather's stories about sea snakes. And there are millions of such cells. Who knows what research is going on in China. We have to collect and build ourselves a hortus conclusus. But something is growing in this garden. And it is connected underground with all forms of life. Pablo Neruda said that you can mow down all the flowers but you cannot stop the spring.

There are two forms of breaking free: the way of the monk and the way of the warrior. One leads to contemplation. But the way of the warrior leads to the destructive collective. Ernst Jünger embodied both sides. Jünger rushed off his high school exams in 1914, withdrew for a short while and then headed off to war.

This is true. There is a wonderful song by Schubert which I adore. It is the song of the fish in water. The trout sing " Die Erde ist gewaltig schön, doch sicher ist sie nicht" (the earth is incredibly beautiful but it is not certain). The situation in the world today is enough to put the fear of God into anyone. And is anyone telling us that the world won't go off the rails at the end of the 21st century?  After 1989 I had the feeling that we were at the dawn of an Augustan age. I was full of hope. But the first ten years of our new century were even more uncanny than the years 1900-1910. All we need now is the sinking of the Titanic.

That was the collapse of the World Trade Center. That was the writing on the wall in the 21st century  The question is whether we can properly decipher what it says.


9/11, the financial crisis or Chernobyl, these are collapses which come about through a process of exclusion. The heads of the Soviet empire regarded themselves as masters of the proceedings until the mid-80s. But with this belief in control, in planned economy, they excluded something. And the excluded did then as the 13th fairy in Sleeping Beauty did, when she was not invited to the party: she came back and put the kingdom to sleep for a hundred years. That is one of the things we have learned.

Ernst Jünger united the monastic retreat with the warrior's breakout. This is what Islamism is doing today. But you have to arrive at the point that you make pseudo breakouts, which are not really breakouts at all. Baudelaire talked about "artificial exile".

This also fascinated Schiller. Play is serious, he said. I do not have to actually live everything I have in my heart! This is the stuff of theatre. There are multiple realities, parallel realities which can all be taken seriously.

You talked about the intelligence of the dragonfly. As I see it the web has something immediately intoxicating about it. When I'm chatting with people in the middle of the night, it is not unlike being on drugs.


But it is not as egocentric as the drug experience. You have to remember how Internet technology started out. Swiss quantum mechanics and Einstein physics came together at CERN to configure their questions – the world of quanta, the minutiae that reflect the vastness of the cosmos. The resulting exchange of information was so complex that they had to invent the Internet to cope with it all – initially as an intranet between physicists, which then took a detour to the Pentagon, and was eventually adopted by the whole of humanity! This is an incredible story! It stems from a tiny cell, from the curiosity about what connects the micro with the macro. It has given birth to a new public sphere.

When you see the earth from orbit, how it glows, it can be quite intoxicating to imagine the number of people down there who are making the effort to communicate with one another. When I think about that I can sleep like a king. In Paris, for example I sleep like a bear because I know that the others are working and living. It's the same in Berlin.

You once said that you are keeping television open for things that are important beyond television? Would you say the same of the Internet?


It is not necessary to the same degree. It happens almost of its own accord. Television is a highly reductive medium. The programme director is actively subtractive, he lives from his selected pickings. And television is a medium for the masses and as such, suffers from a severe inferiority complex. The web is completely different. It is full of confident people who think additively, multiplicatively, the thing is a full to bursting. But it is important to bring in the vessels which exist outside the web. Places where you can store things, where you can keep things separate. Ovid's "Metamorphoses" are also a web. My role model and the role model for dctp.tv is Arachne, the spider. She was a Byzantine cloth weaver who wove stories into her fabric. She wove the entire history of the world into her garments. She challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving competition and because Athena was not nearly as skilled at weaving images, the frustrated goddess turned Arachne into a spider. She is the guardian of the web. It is one of Ovid's most beautiful stories.

Is the web a positive extension of the civic public sphere?

It is a revolutionary extension. It is not only an implementation of the Brechtian or Enzensbergian radio theory (more here). Everyone here is a sender! It is a revolution. We cannot let it be taken away from us! It must stay open. Free access must remain. You should not complain that this will result in a  vast confusion. The ocean is also a vast confusion.

But you once wrote that in the oceans, the huge diversity of the species is under threat because the strongest are surviving at the cost of the weaker species. Whereas in the lakes, diversity flourishes: the lakes are islands for the fish, you wrote. You are a philanthropist and an optimist. The web can also result in a flattening, where the loudest, rather than the best, have control. And it can offer an illusion of freedom which does not guarantee this rule is kept in check.


I am no optimist. I just know lots of ways out. But I don't know any way that doesn't involve joining together against what we don't want. We at least have to make the effort to unite into a coalition.

The tower of Babel, that is a revolution, the great hierarchical layering from the bottom up. The fields are stacked on top of one another with the emperor and the pope on the top. A thousand years after the fall of this tower, a new tower emerged within the people, the homo novus of 1600, the Galileo, the Monteverdi, the new self-confident man who said: I will take responsibility for my accounts, for my business, this is my field in a metaphorical sense, I will consciously shape my life and my love. This was the beginning of the romantic novel. Relationships were not just rational but emotionally charged. This was the beginning of the garden! Man as citizen. He is active today in Silicon Valley, in the low-rise rather than the high-rise building. I have enormous respect for horticulture.

Agriculture was complemented by horticulture in Italy after the Middle Ages. Gardens were built with finesse, by craftsmen rather than farmers, that is progress.

But the real story of the tower of Babel is that mankind is still waiting for it to be built. That people started quarrelling during the building preparations and then decided to delay construction; but that one day it will happen. Salvation. We are still waiting.

Well high-rise building is not suitable for humans. We look for the size that fits our own. This is not high-rise. Henry IV, the "good king" of France, expanded the rooms in the Louvre to fit the proportions of a person from the South of France like himself: this is like Corbusier's human-scale, "Le Modulor".

I found it so terrible that they torn down the Palast der Republik. The steel that they used to build it was the pride of the GDR engineers. They were always being made to dilute their materials with mineral water but here they were given only the best. Now it has all been torn down and some of the steel was recycled and used in the highest tower in Dubai, right at the very top. Herculaneum was not only buried under lava. It was also hidden in the tallest tower in Dubai. Combing these two things however is not optimism. It is doing as the Brothers Grimm taught us: collecting things. We are collectors. The most civilised form of collection is to bring together co-operations – even unintentional ones. I'm absolutely crazy about this sort of thing.

Culture is a garden. That's where the word comes from.

There are trainers and there are gardeners. I would like to be able to say I was a gardener.

*

This interview was conducted by the Freitag editors Michael Angele, Ingo Arend, Jakob Augstein and Philip Grassmann and originally appeared in Freitag magazine on 24 December, 2009.

Alexander Kluge (German homepage), born on 14 February 1932 in Halberstadt, is one of Germany's most important film directors and writers and was one of the founders of New German Film. In 2003 Kluge was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize, in 2009 the Adorno Prize. (Longer profile in English here.)
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