feature | Andrew McCann

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008


Andrew McCann looks at the literary afterlife of the Red Army Faction

In February 2002, five months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York’s Museum of Modern Art put on a huge Gerhard Richter retrospective that included a sequence of fifteen canvases entitled, collectively, October 18, 1977. The date recalls, in funereal fashion, the night on which the Red Army Faction’s so-called ‘hard core’ – Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe – committed suicide in Stuttgart’s Stammheim prison. A fourth member, Irmgard Möller, survived with serious self-inflicted wounds. A year earlier, in May 1976, the group’s most public figure, Ulrike Meinhof, had been found dead in her cell.

All of the canvases in Richter’s sombre, monochromatic cycle are based on photographic images, and all derive directly from either a public or an official record. The odd one out is a deliberately softened portrait of Ulrike Meinhof, entitled Jugendbildnis – ‘youth portrait’. In the context of the sequence as a whole, which evokes, among other things, photographs of Meinhof’s and Baader’s corpses that were reprinted in Stern, Gudrun Ensslin hanging from the bars of her cell, and finally a crowded public funeral, Jugendbildnis embodies an abrupt change of register. It replaces the Meinhof of television interviews, wanted posters and tabloid vilification with something confrontingly intimate. As Kai-Uwe Hemken suggests, it also refuses, or at least questions, instrumental images of terrorism by summoning a sympathetic biographical element that extends beyond the mass media mythology of the Baader-Meinhof group.1

The image’s appearance in New York, in the midst of a society mourning its dead, panicking about anthrax-laced mail and mobilising for a protracted ‘war on terror’ that would culminate in the invasion of Iraq, indicates the ease with which the radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s could morph into cultural capital apparently uninfected by the toxic historical sediment contained within it. At a moment that was about to see the dramatic vitiation of civil liberties and due process in a wide range of Western countries, a certain kind of terrorist hagiography (however ironic) could also be accommodated, if not neutralised, within a consecrated, commercially buoyant art form.

Richter’s sequence was finished in the late 1980s, and sold to MoMA in 1995. At that point, it might have seemed as if the moment of its relevance had passed. Today, the sequence is merely the most prominent manifestation of a recent artistic infatuation with the political subcultures that developed in the wake of 1968. In Germany, the contemporary fascination with the Red Army Faction has led to a flood of films, artworks and biographies. In an Anglophone context, the same trend is evident in relation to the American urban guerrilla group, the Weather Underground. And, of course, the academy is never far behind the market: academic work on these subcultures and their ambivalent afterlife also seems to be burgeoning.

The timing is hardly coincidental. With the West paralysed by a fear of terrorism that is also driving its military adventurism, the spectres of the 1960s and 1970s appear as uncanny projections of political disquiet that doesn’t quite know how to articulate itself. Hence the utterly confused and extremely variable forms of affect that attach to these images of left-wing militancy: from the ambivalently celebratory, James Dean-like portrait of Andreas Baader in Christopher Roth’s 2001 film Baader, to the often shamed, somewhat abject responses of academics eager to rethink their youthful identifications in the wake of more recent events. At both poles, the earlier radical subcultures appear as avatars of defeat and error. In them, we see the disaster of an ideology that didn’t have the rigour or the patience or the tactical know-how to actualise itself, and became irrationally violent as a result. As Emily Apter puts it, ‘a revolutionary stance of ethical militance’ was thus ‘compromised by the impetus towards militarisation’.2

And yet, the current infatuation with the period is not short on sympathy. Images of defeat and error are often also images of considerable pathos, as Richter’s sequence demonstrates.

I want to touch on two texts that exemplify this ambivalence, and perhaps allow us to map the strange, spectral politics of affect attached to such material. The first is a novel: Hari Kunzru’s 2007 My Revolutions. The second is the first English-language translation of Ulrike Meinhof’s journalism, published by Seven Stories Press in 2008. Both are telling examples of a sort of ghost seeing that is today indicative of the way in which left-wing militancy circulates and, quite possibly, accommodates its bewilderment in the face of neoliberal ideology.

My Revolutions is quite literally about ghost seeing. Mike Frame is about to turn fifty, amidst a surfeit of middle-class, middle-age unreality that feels to him like living out the clichés of a television soap opera. The unwanted appearance of an acquaintance from his distant past threatens to expose his involvement in a radical terrorist cell. In a panic he flees to France in search of an ex-comrade and ex-lover who is supposed to be dead (blown up in a hostage drama played out at the German embassy in Copenhagen years earlier), but whom Mike believes he may have glimpsed during a recent vacation. Mike’s first-person voice recounts his complex back-story of political radicalism, violence and lost identity.

The novel operates across this split frame. Anchoring Mike’s sense of the past and of the future is the figure of Anna Addison, apparently dead, but possibly living incognito in the town of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Garrigue (the name itself implies the aura of hagiography that goes with the territory). Anna’s story is a pastiche of any number of terrorist biographies. Though the setting is, for the most part, Britain, virtually every detail echoes the RAF. The embassy drama itself is clearly based on an RAF occupation of the German embassy in Stockholm, which ended in disaster. The tabloid images of Anna’s body that Mike recalls – ‘disgusting prurient photos of her corpse’3 – recall the photographs on which Richter’s paintings were based. The ‘salacious nudes’ (267) that circulate after her death evoke Gudrun Ensslin (who famously acted in a soft-core porn film). And her death drive – ‘death had always been on her horizon’ (22) – points to one of the most prominent pop-psychology explanations of how the whole milieu went wrong.

As Mike recalls his involvement in political activism, his voice replays a delirious enthusiasm for theory, politics and sex that effectively mimes the discourses of the period (manifestos, communiqués, underground newspapers, shards of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse). He also dramatises the shift from activism to terrorism in a way that is constantly haunted by the spectre of a death drive apparently common to both. For example:

Like many of us, they were sliding towards the view that the building blocks of the oppression we felt, the molecules that made up the vast body of the capitalist state, were psychological ones. A revolutionary transformation of society would require a transformation of social life, a transmutation of ourselves. Everything about my own family confirmed this. If I was to be free, I had to be free of them. But I also had to recognise that they were prisoners too. It wouldn’t be enough to kill Daddy and marry Mummy. We had to kill the engine that generated all the daddies and mummies, throw a clog into the big machine. (108)

The assault on the institutions of capitalist society is also, of course, an equally lethal assault on the structures of the self that underwrite it:

The individual was a politically suspect category; privacy was just another name for isolation; the atomised worker was subject to feelings of depression and alienation that could only be cured by participation in an authentically communal experience … It was as if she [Anna] had no inner life at all. (107)

In these passages and many others like them we encounter the ambivalence with which the intellectual underpinnings of the period’s radicalism are now treated. Kunzru’s prose brushes up against, even assimilates, the language of militant critical theory, only to push it across a threshold, at which point it becomes oppressive and authoritarian. In fact, both of the passages just quoted hold out the possibility of unironic identification, at least for a moment, only to retract it with the certainty that theory equals death, either in the form of terror or self-annihilation. And yet, by the time Mike encounters his nemesis Miles (the unwanted presence from the past who sparks his panic with the threat of exposure), this renunciation of the militancy of theory has itself been ironised in Miles’ palpably laughable claim – laughable for us as readers – that history has ended.

‘You’ve been able to lead a dull life,’ Miles tells Mike, ‘because there’s no real conflict any more. In a couple of years it’ll be a new millennium and, with luck, nothing will bloody happen anywhere, nothing at all. That’s what a good society looks like.’ (259)

Even before we reach this moment, we don’t need much insight to see how the language of theory evoked during the course of the novel is surreptitiously directed at the relationship between consumerism and militarism that is at the heart of current forms of neo-imperial violence. And this is where the novel gets confusing. Radicalism ends in either death or abjection, while neo-imperialism keeps the body count rolling. Clearly Kunzru’s resurrection of the ghosts of the 1968 generation is also motivated by the current political climate. We are supposed to draw the line from Vietnam to Iraq, My Lai to Haditha.

What the novel might have to do with that climate, however, is by no means clear. My Revolutions offers the ghost of an alternative, yet an alternative that can’t be embraced in the flesh, except as a morbid textual/sexual fantasy, or a horror story.

In a way, the contemporary circulation of Meinhof’s journalism does something very similar. These columns, published in konkret between 1960 and 1969 when Meinhof was one of the most publicly visible figures of the German New Left, are really not dissimilar to the sort of concept-driven yet popularly accessible critique that one might find in a Left-oriented magazine like Overland. For the most part, their very specific references to the political culture of West Germany at the height of the Cold War makes them feel quite dated. Yet they do enable us to read the increasingly uncompromising theoretical trajectory that would lead Meinhof to reject journalism, the public sphere and legal forms of political protest. Because they seem to map out the path from theory to praxis (this is the erroneous cliché that often underwrites terrorist biography), these columns also give her story a certain sort of representativeness that enables her biography to constitute a generational narrative with which many in the student movement might have been able to identify.

The frustration Meinhof expresses in her konkret columns is often in a vein very similar to the mode of social critique practiced by the Frankfurt School. Her critique of consumer-capitalism broadly echoes Marcuse’s stress on the administered production of false and wasteful needs in passive populations, while her attacks on nuclear rearmament in Europe and on the American war in Vietnam are also attacks on the politically apathetic nature of populations comfortably insulated from the catastrophic consequences of their own complicity. What emerges here, as in Marcuse, is an attempt to defamiliarise the realities of globalisation by presenting the West with disturbing accounts of its irrationality unleashed on the people of the developing world. Commenting on police responses to student protests, for example, Meinhof writes: ‘It is thus not a criminal act to drop napalm on women, children, and old people; protesting against this act is a crime. It is not a criminal act to destroy the harvests necessary for the lives and the survival of millions; protesting this is a crime.’4

The columns see the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of the press and the discourse of civil liberty as ruses designed to produce a passive, administered population: ‘The demand for equal rights no longer puts into question the social conditions of inequality that exist between people. On the contrary, it merely wants inequality to be applied systematically.’ (191) Every local crime conceals a bigger, more systematic one. Every appearance of freedom – the freedom of celebrity columnists like Meinhof herself, for instance – conceals a deeper complicity with the logic of consumer-capitalism. Hence the moment that all of this leads to, glimpsed in an article covering Baader and Ensslin’s convictions for arson in 1968: ‘The progressive aspects of setting fire to a department store do not lie in the destruction of goods, but in the criminal act, in breaking the law.’ (246)

In May 1970 Meinhof crossed the line that her own writing had drawn: she was central to the conspiracy that freed Baader from prison, and then went underground to became the RAF’s public voice. By 1972 she was in prison and standing trial for subsequent murders. Her letters from this time show that she saw her incarceration as a realisation of her ‘Auschwitz fantasies’. (77)

Four years later she was dead.

The material that frames the columns in the Seven Stories edition includes a long introduction by the academic Karin Bauer, a preface by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elfriede Jelinek (whose 2006 play Ulrike Maria Stuart explores the myth and afterlife of Meinhof and the radicalism associated with her), and a conclusion by Meinhof’s daughter, Bettina Röhl, critical of her mother’s iconic status. Röhl describes Meinhof as a communist, supported by the East German government, who ‘lost complete touch with reality’.

What Kunzru’s novel achieves through narrative and the dynamics of character development is here achieved through an editorial apparatus: as interesting as Meinhof’s journalism might appear, the basic formula – theory equals terror and death, militancy equals militarisation – is still clear. There is no doubt that Meinhof lost touch with reality, as her daughter claims. The critique of the so-called ‘urban guerrilla’ was well established in the 1970s by a long list of Left-oriented public intellectuals, including Jürgen Habermas, Oskar Negt, Jean Améry and Peter Brückner. More recently, Klaus Theweleit has brilliantly dissected the political vapidness and delusional underpinnings of what he tellingly calls an ‘abstract radicalism’.5 These theorists point out, in a range of ways, that the narrative trope of a passage from theory to praxis, embodied in the stories of Ulrike Meinhof and her fictional double Anna Addison, in fact represents a profound disruption of that relationship, one that enabled praxis to constitute itself with no sense of political or historical context. As Améry put it in regard to German militants inspired by Latin American guerrilla groups, no-one needs a sociologist or a political scientist to recognise that Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo aren’t Paris and Frankfurt.6

The observation clearly applies to contemporary versions of the terror-plot as well. And yet the kind of narrative frame implied by the Seven Stories edition, and embodied in Kunzru’s fictionalisation of radical history, keeps appearing as a powerful indication of a sort of despairing relationship to the political that seems to offer no middle road between out-and-out violence (which can be countenanced only in the counterfactual space of the aesthetic, in Mike’s terrified memory of his own complicity with terrorism, for instance) and impotence (Mike’s cowed embrace of an ironised end of history). Both of the texts I’ve discussed here are recognisably left-wing in their orientation, and yet both are about the impossibility of the political and theoretical culture they draw upon. It is tempting to dwell on the melancholic, spectral aspect to all of this. ‘Left-wing melancholy’, to misappropriate a term of Walter Benjamin’s, perhaps offers this fascinated contemplation of history’s wreckage as expressive of a relationship to the political that is also largely alienated from any tangible or plausible realm of consciousness raising and mobilisation.7 Hence the ghosts of the late 1960s and early 1970s seem to keep returning as avatars of a politics that is dead and buried, but that has still never quite been given up, or put to rest.

In the meantime, those aspects of the period that might offer more instructive, and decidedly less spectacular, ways of figuring the relationship between theory and praxis – in forms of intellectual or aesthetic radicalism that were scrupulously non-violent – seem to lack the kind of commercial appeal that might set their ghosts walking again. A very particular filtering of the past has seemed to ensure that those aspects of Left history that remain most visible, at least in the West, are those that offer no palpable conceptual or organisational value. What remain are cautionary tales urging a sort of quietism, or forms of nostalgia that indicate the culture industry’s effortless re-absorption of dissidence.

In his insightful review of Kunzru’s novel, Anthony Macris writes that ‘in recent times, the norms of the market have become internalised as the core values of our Western societies. From such a perspective it’s easy to dismiss the antics of the loony Left as, at best, pie-in-the-sky idealism or at worst destructive narcissistic posturing.’ He goes on to add that My Revolutions is more complex: ‘Kunzru isn’t so reductive. The uncomfortable feeling lingers that, despite his characters’ deluded beliefs and the long-term ineffectuality of their methods, the problem remains of how to build a fairer society, one that is not so harshly divided between the haves and the have-nots.’8 I agree with him on both points, but I also think the way in which market forces impinge upon both art and history is a bit more cunning than he indicates. Even the most commercialised cultural forms can’t do without the aura, however degraded, of an aesthetic intensity disparaged by their instrumental underpinnings. In the same way, there is no reason to think that commodity-capitalism need renounce the trace of a militancy that is critical of it. As long as that trace is strung out between outlaw fantasies and death cults, its ineffectiveness seems as assured as its melancholic pleasure.

1 Kai-Uwe Hemken, Gerhard Richter: 18. Oktober 1977, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1998, pp. 77-80.
2 Emily Apter, ‘Weaponized Thought: Ethical Militance and the Group-Subject’, Grey Room, no. 14, 2004, p. 8.
3 Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2007, p. 22. Hereafter cited in text.
4 Karin Bauer (ed.), Everybody Talks About the Weather … We Don’t: The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2008, pp. 230-1. Hereafter cited in text.
5 See Klaus Theweleit, ‘Bemerkungen zum RAF-Gespenst: Abstrakter Radikalismus und Kunst’, in Ghosts: Drei leicht inkorrekte Vorträge, Stroemfeld Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1998, pp. 17-99.
6 Jean Améry, Aufsätze zur Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Werke Band 7, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart, 2005, p. 478.
7 This point owes something to Wolf Lepenies who discusses melancholia as a historical reaction to political marginalisation, social impotence, ennui and boredom. See Melancholy and Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992. For Benjamin’s use of the term, see his ‘Left-Wing Melancholy,’ in Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (eds.) The Weimar Republic Reader, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994, pp. 304-6.
8 Anthony Macris, Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 7-9 September 2007, p. 32.

Andrew McCann is an Australian writer currently teaching in the US.
© Andrew McCann
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp. 34-38

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