DEAD ENDS: A NECROTELEOLOGY IN NO ACTS by ryan ruby
In “Walter Benjamin Comes to Halberstadt,” one of the stories about opera collected in Temple of the Scapegoat: Opera Stories, Alexander Kluge imagines a conversation between his father and Walter Benjamin in the pissoir of a Halberstadt pub in December 1931. The two very different men—one is a “small-town conservative doctor,” the other a Marxist Jewish intellectual from Berlin—have just come from the local opera house, where they were watching a performance of Madame Butterfly, which tells the story of a doomed romance between a Japanese girl and an American naval officer, set in turn-of-the-century Nagasaki. Benjamin expresses disappointment with Puccini’s dramaturgy, which he finds illogical. “Since when are lovers logical?” the doctor asks the philosopher. “They aren’t,” Benjamin is forced to admit. “But a musical drama could be: rather than love, it offers information.”
Allow me, then, to offer some information: Kluge, Alexander born 14 February 1932, in Halberstadt, Germany brother of actress Alexandra Kluge doctoral student of Theodor W. Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, and assistant to Fritz Lang; as filmmaker, signatory of the 1962 Manifesto that launched the New German Cinema, a group that included Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Margarethe von Trotta, among others recipient of 8 awards from the Venice film festival, including a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement producer of the Development Company for Television Programs (dctp), a public access venue for independent and avant-garde documentaries; author of more than twenty books, over a dozen of which have been translated into English, including two works of Frankfurt School-style critical theory written in collaboration with Oskar Negt and several unclassifiable collections that are uniformly subtitled “stories” but would be better described as a heterogeneous intercutting of real and imagined interviews, film treatments, media criticism, fables, topical commentaries, historical anecdotes, autobiographical anecdotes, fictional anecdotes, and anecdotes whose factuality or fictionality is difficult to distinguish on such subjects as the devil, the cinema, the air raids on Halberstadt (like Madame Butterfly’s Nagasaki, “a secondary target” destroyed by American flying fortresses in April 1945), the day Hitler shot himself, the month of December, the concept of the political, and, most recently, opera or, as “literary montage,” Benjamin’s term for the method of his uncompleted masterpiece, The Arcades Project, the manuscript of which would not be found in the briefcase Benjamin was carrying with him in September 1940 when, having been turned back at the Spanish border during an attempt to flee occupied France, he committed suicide, but many years later, long after he had been acknowledged as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, a story that would be turned into an opera by Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough or, as Containerschiffe, container ships, as Kluge himself calls them, or so I’m told by the author Isabel Cole, a part of the platoon (which includes the poet Donna Stonecipher and Martin Chalmers) responsible for translating Temple of the Scapegoat or, as I prefer to think of them, as individual chapters in a larger project whose genre is the Information Epic, wherein the “stories” are not so much told, as curated from an uncountably large stock of pre-existing syntactical (not to mention alphabetic) combinations, providing a singular, but not unique cross-section of the stated theme, whose totality exists beyond the reach of human (but not artificial) intelligence, for which Kluge has received praise from the likes of W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag and nearly every prize Germany awards to its writers, and of which the “present” (it will no longer be so when you read it) collection of sentences is nothing more than a recirculation, in micro-miniature, of a recirculation, in miniature, of information.
All this can be said with certainty. What exactly Kluge’s father and Walter Benjamin might have been thinking as they zipped up, fastened their belts, and washed their hands, however, will never be more than unfalsifiable speculation (since Kluge does not specify and, anyway, the meeting never actually took place). Kluge’s father may have been thinking about his relationship with his wife, whom he was soon to divorce, or he may have been thinking of someone else, or nothing at all. Whereas Benjamin, I believe, would have been thinking about his relationship with Bertolt Brecht, whose musical dramas were the subject of an article (“What is Epic Theater?”) he had written earlier that year.
It can also be said that Kluge was one of the co-sponsors of Benjamin und Brecht. Denken in Extremen, an exhibition currently on view at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. In the room dedicated to artistic representations inspired by their work, opposite a hanging screen showing Kluge’s film News From Ideological Antiquity, a nine-hour meditation on Eisenstein’s screenplay for Marx’s Capital, and a mechanical reproduction of Paul Klee’s drawing “Angelus Novus,” made famous as an allegory of progress in the closing passage of Benjamin’s final essay “On the Concept of History,” is an installation called “Bertolt Brecht vs. Walter Benjamin 2017.” The installation features SquareOff, an automated chessboard created by InfiVention, a Kickstarter-funded, Mumbai-based tech start up, and programmed for the exhibit by the London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Based on a photo of Brecht and Benjamin playing chess in Brecht’s Svendborg, Denmark garden taken during the early years of years of their exile, the automated chessboard, according to the artists’ statement, “can predict the precise sequence of moves…up until the moment the photograph was taken.” Controlled, one assumes, by magnets beneath the surface of the board, the pieces appear to move by themselves. The machine is then programmed to play simulations of all the possible ways the game might have continued, one of which, inevitably, will have been the game actually played by Brecht (White) and Benjamin (Black). The artists call this “predicting the past” by means of algorithm. For whatever reason, Broomberg and Chanarin do not make the obvious connection between their installation and the passage with which the “Concept of History” essay opens. There, Benjamin compares historical materialism—Marx’s theory, outlined in Capital, that history can be described as the teleological ascent of economic modes of production from primitive accumulation through feudalism and capitalism to socialism and full communism—to the “Mechanical Turk,” an eighteenth-century automaton. Dressed in Turkish costume, smoking a water pipe, the puppet’s skill at chess astounded European intellectuals and heads of state until it was revealed that, hidden inside the box at which it sat, was a hunchbacked dwarf who happened to be a grand master, operating the machine. Like the Turk, Benjamin writes, historical materialism will always “win,” so long as no one looks to into the box where the puppet’s strings are being pulled by the “small and ugly” figure Benjamin labels “theology.” In “Bertolt Brecht vs. Walter Benjamin 2017,” the hunchbacked dwarf has been replaced by artificial intelligence. Theology has been replaced by a combinatorial algorithm. As for the Mechanical Turk and its opponents: their positions have been taken by spectators at a museum of ideological antiquity who watch a game that never ends because the mode of production, whose name has not changed since Brecht and Benjamin’s day, has ensured that players are no longer necessary.
A similar principle is at work in Xaver Holzmann’s “Imaginary Opera Guide,” which is imaginary, but not in the sense that Holzmann takes it to be in his interview with a journalist from the Berlin bureau of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Based on the some 80,000 operas that already exist, Holtzmann has written an algorithm that will generate 700 new operas on themes that have not yet been explored, including 87 on the “police chief” theme inaugurated by Verdi in Tosca, and many others, one presumes, with happy endings. According to Holzmann, the identification of opera with tragedy has lead to a “speculative bubble” in which librettists have tried to “outdo each other with ghastlier and ghastlier endings.” This, he believes, is the primary reason that opera has lost so much of its popularity. But just as a chess match generated by algorithm is not one that has been played, an opera generated by algorithm is not one that has been imagined. In what sense, then, is Holzmann’s “Imaginary Opera Guide” truly imaginary? In the sense that neither he nor it actually exist, but are both fictions curated by Kluge. That Holzmann’s imaginary algorithm generates operas with happy endings is telling. Because of the law of large numbers, it is necessarily the case that certain operas generated by algorithm would be indistinguishable by certain operas imagined by people, but an opera with a happy ending, just like an opera without a plot, is something that could only be generated by a machine. For Western opera, at least, requires an opera house, which in turn presumes a sedentary population, organized into urban space. According to the (real) French philosopher René Girard, the function of opera is to be a Temple of the Scapegoat, represented in most operas by the violent death of the soprano in the final act, in an age when religion no longer holds sedentary societies together and human sacrifice is no longer the means by which the permanent threat of civil war is kept at bay. As late as the twentieth century, “the public” acknowledged this function, which is reflected in the “temple-like” architecture of most opera houses, and their position on the “central squares its of cities, splendid as parliaments, on an equal footing with the stock exchange or the law courts.” If opera has lost its popularity in the twenty-first century, as Holtzmann rightly observes, it is not because opera has become stuck “in the labyrinth of tragic repetition,” but because it no longer fulfills the function Girard identified. And if that is the case, it is because, like so much else in contemporary art and new media, people are succumbing to the temptation to produce by algorithms that transmit “information,” what ought to be produced by imaginations that transmit “love.”
ryan ruby is the author of The Zero and the One: A Novel. you can see more of his work at ryanruby.info. he lives in berlin.