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<nettime> Grass/Bourdieu: Speaking Up.
David Hudson on Fri, 25 Jan 2002 08:26:57 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Grass/Bourdieu: Speaking Up.

In the January 3, 2000, issue of The Nation, Daniel Singer wrote:

"As the events unfolded in Seattle, a small cultural Franco-German
television channel broadcast a recorded dialogue between two of Europe's
most famous protesters: Günter Grass, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize
for literature, and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who for years has used
his prestige to help the expression of dissent. They criticized the
extraordinary hold the ruling ideology now has, thanks to the media, on
people's minds. They condemned the submission or cowardice of their fellow
intellectuals. They deplored the fact that trade unionists cannot organize
across frontiers even within the European Union.


And yet the protesters in Seattle and beyond have revived the forgotten
belief that people can shape things through collective action. Despite the
odds, they have set the agenda for the coming millennium by reminding us
that there are many people on this planet ready to struggle from below
against their own governments and corporations and for a different
world--one in which human beings will no longer be merchandise."

Well. That was January 2000 and that was the context of the Grass/Bourdieu
conversation. Which also appeared in "Die Zeit," which is where I came
across it. At the time, I found the conversation interesting enough to
contact the German weekly and representatives for both Bourdieu and Grass
to secure permission to translate the German transcription into English for
an anthology. All agreed, with Bourdieu's rep saying he'd actually prefer
seeing the "Zeit" version appear over any other.

So I got to work and came up with a rough translation. And then it became
clear that the anthology would not be coming together and, as these things
go, never got around to polishing. So what follows is still rough, but
should be shared now nonetheless.


Grass/Bourdieu: Speaking Up.

Pierre Bourdieu: Mr. Grass, you said somewhere that there is a European or
German tradition which is also a good French tradition: speaking up. I'd
like to do that here with you.

Günther Grass: It's unusual in Germany for a sociologist and a writer to
sit down together. Here, the philosophers sit in one corner, the
sociologists in another, while the writers squabble in the back room. The
kind of communication we have here rarely takes place. When I think of your
book, _The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary
Societies_, or of my last book, _My Century_, I see that we do share one
thing in our work: we tell stories from the bottom up. We don't glaze over
society and don't speak from the position of the victor. Instead, within
our fields, we are notoriously on the side of the losers.

In _The Weight of the World_, you and your collaborators were able to focus
on the concept of understanding rather than on an air of superior
knowledge: a view of the social conditions in France which can certainly be
applied to those in other countries. As a writer, I'm tempted to use your
stories as raw material. For example, the description of the Narcissus Way
in which metal workers, who are often the third generation to go to the
factories, are now unemployed and all but shut out of society. Or the study
of the young woman who comes to Paris from the country and sorts letters on
the night shift. Social problems are made clear in the descriptions of the
workplace without their being shoved overtly to the foreground. I liked

I wish we had a book like this on social relationships in our country. The
only question that arose for me might be one related to the discipline of
sociology: humor doesn't appear in such books. The comedy of failure, which
plays such an important role in my stories, is missing; the absurdities
that arise in certain confrontations. Why is that?

Bourdieu: When you hear about such experiences directly from the people who
have lived them, the effect is pretty devastating, and it's almost
unthinkable to keep the necessary distance. In the end, we took out several
of the stories because they were too moving.

Grass: May I interrupt? By humor, I mean that tragedy and comedy aren't
mutually exclusive, that the lines between the two are blurred.

Bourdieu: What we wanted to do was to present the brutal absurdity to the
reader without any sort of special effects. When it comes to human dramas,
one is often tempted to write "beautifully". Instead, we tried to be as
merciless as possible in order to present the violent aspects of the
reality. For scientific but also literary reasons. We didn't want to become
"literary" in order to be literary in a different sort of way. Of course,
there were also political reasons. We felt that the violence currently
being practiced by neoliberal politics was so great that theoretical
analyses alone wouldn't do it justice. Critical thinking is not done on the
level of the effects produced by these policies.

Grass: I should elaborate a bit on my question. Both of us -- you as a
sociologist and me as a writer -- are children of the Enlightenment, a
tradition which today, at least in Germany and France, is being called into
question, as if the process of the European Enlightenment had failed. I
don't think so. I see the failed developments in the process of the
Enlightenment, for example, the reduction of reason to what is purely
technically feasible. Many aspects which existed in the beginning, and here
I'm thinking just of Montaigne, have been lost over the centuries. Among
them, humor. Voltaire's _Candide_ or Diderot's _Jacques le Fataliste_, for
example, are books in which the conditions of the age are also hideous, and
yet the human capability to also present a comic, and in this sense, a
victorious figure, even in pain and failure, perseveres.

Bourdieu: But this feeling that we are losing our grip on the tradition of
the Enlightenment is related to a reversal of the entire world view which
is enforced by the currently predominant neoliberal view of things. The
neoliberal revolution, and here in Germany, I can attempt such a
comparison, is actually a deeply conservative revolution -- in the sense
that one spoke of a conservative revolution in the 30s in Germany. Such a
revolution is an extremely rare event. It recasts the past in its own light
and at the same time presents itself as progressive so that those who fight
the return to the old ways are perceived themselves as yesterday's news.
Both of us are constantly facing this; we're always being treated as
eternally behind the times. In France, one is an "old iron".

Grass: Dinosaurs...

Bourdieu: Exactly. There it is, the great power of conservative
revolutions, "progressive" restorations. Even your argument could be laid
out that way. They say we have no sense of humor. But the times aren't
funny! There's nothing to laugh at.

Grass: I wasn't saying that we're living in hilarious times. Laughter in
the dark which can be released by literary means is also a protest against
the conditions. What's being sold these days as neoliberalism is a return
to the methods of the Manchester liberalism of the 19th century. Even in
the 70s, there was a relatively successful attempt throughout Europe to
civilize capitalism. If I assume that both socialism and capitalism are
ingenious wayward children of the Enlightenment, their relationship
nevertheless betrayed a certain function to control one another. Even
capitalism was expected to bear certain responsibilities. In Germany, we
called it the social market economy, and even in the conservative party,
there was an understanding that conditions such as those in the Weimar
Republic were never to be allowed to return. This consensus was broken down
in the 80s. Ever since the breakdown of the communist hierarchies,
capitalism has felt it could go wild, out of control. There is no opposite
force anymore. Today, even the few responsible capitalists are issuing
warnings because they see that their instruments are out of control, that
neoliberalism is repeating the mistakes of communism in that it is issuing
articles of faith that claim infallibility.

Bourdieu: But the power of neoliberalism is so overwhelming that it's being
implemented by people who call themselves socialists. Whether it's
Schröder, Blair or Jospin, these are people who practice neoliberal
politics in the name of socialism. That makes analyses and criticism
extraordinarily difficult because everything's so mixed up.

Grass: A capitulation to the economy.

Bourdieu: At the same time, it's extremely difficult to develop a critical
position to the left of these social democratic governments. In France,
there were the great strikes of 1995 which mobilized large numbers of
workers, employees and intellectuals. Then came the unemployment movement,
the great European march of the unemployed, the movement of immigrants who
had no rights to stay -- a sort of permanent agitation that swept the
social democrats to power where they at least acted as if they were
carrying on a socialist discourse. But on a practical level, this critical
movement is very weak, in large part because it remains captive within
national borders. An effective position left of the social democratic
governments must be made viable on an international level. That's why I ask
myself: What can we, the intellectuals, do for such a movement for a
"social Europe"? The power of those in control is not just an economic one,
but an intellectual, a spiritual one. That's why it's so important to
"speak up," to recreate a collective utopia: because among the capabilities
of neoliberal governments is the ability to kill utopias, to allow utopias
to appear passé.

Grass: The socialistic or social democratic parties have themselves in part
believed in the thesis that with the demise of communism, socialism has
disappeared from the world as well and have lost their faith in the workers
movement which has existed far longer than communism. If you part with your
own tradition, you give yourself up. In Germany, there were definitely
minor attempts at organizing the workers. For years, I've tried to tell the
unions: You can't just see to the workers as long as they're working; as
soon as they're shut out, they fall into the bottomless pit. You have to
found a pan-European union for the unemployed. We complain that the
unification of Europe is only transpiring on an economic level, but what's
missing are the attempts on the part of the unions to break out of the
national framework into a form of organization and action that transcends
the borders. We have to stand up to global neoliberalism. But in the
meantime, many intellectuals swallow everything down. And all you get from
swallowing is indigestion, nothing more. You have to speak out. That's why
I doubt that intellectuals alone can be counted on. While "the
intellectuals" are still constantly spoken of in France -- at least that's
the way it seems to me -- my German experience tells me that it's a
misunderstanding to believe that being an intellectual means being on the
left. The history of the 20th century, all the way to National Socialism,
proves just the opposite: a man like Goebbels was an intellectual. For me,
to be an intellectual is not a guarantee of quality. Your book, in fact,
_The Weight of the World_, shows that people who come from the world of
work who have organized themselves socially have far more experience in the
social area than intellectuals. Today, they're either unemployed or retired
and no one seems to need them anymore. Their strengths go completely

Bourdieu: _The Weight of the World_ is an attempt to carry over to
intellectuals a very modest yet at the same time very useful function. The
public writer, as I know them from the countries in northern Africa, is
someone who makes applies his writing abilities to the services of others
so that they can record the things they know about. Here, sociologists are
in a very particular position; they are people who can usually -- not
always -- listen, who can decipher what people tell them, translate it and
deliver it. That may be a little guild-like, but I think it's important
that intellectuals take part in this work.

Grass: At the same time, you would have to appeal to the intellectuals
given to neoliberalism. There are people among them who are beginning to
doubt whether the utterly unchecked circulation of money around the globe,
whether the mania that has broken out within capitalism ought to be
countered. For example, mergers without meaning or purpose resulting in
five or ten thousand people are put out of work. The maximizing of profits
alone is reflected in the stock exchanges.

Bourdieu: Unfortunately, it's not merely a matter of countering the
predominant mindset. In order to see any sort of success, one must
encourage critical discourse to make it public. Right now we're talking
with each other in order to try to break out of the small circle of
intellectuals. I'd like to break through the wall of silence a bit --
precisely because it's not merely a wall of money. There's a contradiction
in television: it's an instrument that allows us to speak here and at the
same time silences the likes of us. We're stormed and overpowered by the
predominant mindset, and we leave nothing behind. The great majority of
journalists are often unwitting accomplices to the predominant discourse,
the unanimity of which is almost impossible to break. It's very difficult
in France -- with the exception of a few well-respected personalities -- to
step out before the public. But unfortunately, many highly placed people
are going silent and there are only a few who put symbolic capital to use
to speak -- even to those who can't find the words themselves.

Grass: Television, like all grand institutions, of course, has come up with
its own superstitions: the ratings, whose dictates are honored. That's why
conversations like the one we're having now rarely appear in the major
programs, but rather, on Arte. I never take part in talk shows. I think the
form is hopeless because it doesn't communicate anything. In all this
blather, the one who comes out on top is the one who talks the longest or
most stridently ignores his conversation partner. Further, as a rule, very
little ever comes out of it because just when things might get interesting,
when things are coming to a head, the moderator breaks it off. Both of us
come from the tradition that reaches back to the Middle Ages, to the
dispute. Two people, two different opinions, two sets of experiences that
complement each other. Then, if we put some effort into it, something can
come of it. Perhaps that would be a recommendation to this Moloch
television, to reach back to the proven form of dialogue, focusing on a
theme, as in a dispute.

Bourdieu: Unfortunately, a certain set of circumstances would have to come
together in order for producers of the discourse, writers, artists,
researchers to be able to once again appropriate their means of production.
I'm very consciously putting the terms of the somewhat old-fashioned terms
of Marxism to use here. It's a paradox that people of the word have no
control of the means of production and distribution these days; they have
to pull back into niches, find alternative routes.

Grass: Just so we don't fall into the realm of complaint: we've always been
in the minority, and the amazing thing is that when you look at the process
of history, you can see just how much effect a minority can have. Of
course, tactics have to be developed in order to be heard. I see myself,
for example, as a citizen, forced to break a fundamental rule for a writer:
"Don't repeat yourself!" In politics, you have to repeat a proven thesis
almost like a parrot, which is exhausting because you're constantly hearing
the echo of your own voice. But this is evidently a part of it if you're
going to find any listeners at all such a loud world.

Bourdieu: What I admire about your work is your search for means of
expression that will allow a critical, subversive message to reach a large
audience. Nevertheless, I think that circumstances today are quite
different from those in the century of the Enlightenment. The Encyclopedia
was a weapon, a means of communication to be used against obscurantism. We
have to fight these days against completely new forms of obscurantism.

Grass: But still as a minority.

Bourdieu: Only the opposition back then was far weaker. Today, we're
dealing with powerful media-multis, and there is no safe island left. For
publishers, for example, publication is becoming more and more difficult
and critical books are more and more of a problem. And as important as I
may find my conversation with you, it's with the idea in mind of coming up
with a message and communicating it. Instead of being a tool of television,
we have to make television a tool of understanding in the service of that
which we want to say.

Grass: The playing room is limited. And there's something else I have to
wonder about myself: I never thought that the day would come when I would
have to demand more state. We always had way too much state in Germany,
particularly the state of order. But now we're heading off toward the other
extreme. Without aiming to have anything to do with ideology, neoliberalism
has taken on the wishes of anarchy to do away with the state, to shove it
off to the side. Get rid of it, we'll handle it. If a necessary reform
takes place at all these days, whether it be in Germany or in France,
nothing happens until industry, the economy approves. Anarchists could only
dream of such disempowerment of the state, and so, I find myself -- and you
probably do as well -- in the curious position of ensuring that the state
takes on its responsibilities again, regulates again.

Bourdieu: It's exactly this reversal of situations that I'm talking about.
But is it enough for us to demand "more" state? In order not to fall into
the trap of the conservative revolution, one has to think about inventing a
different sort of state.

Grass: Just so we don't misunderstand each other: neoliberalism naturally
only wants to do away with that interest it economically. The state will be
allowed to go on policing, representing the state of order. But if the
powers of order are taken away from the state, the powers that have to do
with the layers of society -- not just the social cases, children and old
people who have been shut out of work or are still in -- if an economy
spreads that shies away from every responsibility as it rushes toward some
sort of globalism, then society has to find a way to take care of them
above and beyond the state. Irresponsibility is the determining principle
of the neoliberal system.

Bourdieu: In _My Century_, you call up a series of events, for example, the
story of the small boy who is brought along to the talk by Liebknecht and
then pees on his father's neck. I don't know if this is a personal memory,
but regardless, it's a completely unique way of discovering socialism. Or
what you said about Jünger and Remarque: there are several things between
the lines about the role of intellectuals who make themselves accomplices
to tragic events. I also like what you had to say about Heidegger, about
whose rhetoric I wrote a very critical book.

Grass: That, for example, is something that amuses me: the fascination
expressed by French intellectuals for Jünger and Heidegger because all the
clichés Germany and France hold for one another are turned on their heads.
That all the smokiness which led to such terrible events in Germany is
admired in France is absurd.

Bourdieu: It was because I separated myself from the Heideggerian mysticism
and fought against it on the deepest level that I was pretty ostracized.
It's not too comfortable being a Frenchman formed by the Enlightenment in a
country that throws itself at the mercy of such obscurantism... A president
of the French Republic awarded Jünger a medal; that was a horrible event.

Grass: This story about Liebknecht. What was important to me was that, on
the one hand, Karl Liebknecht agitated the young -- a progressive movement
moves forward in the name of socialism -- and at the same time, the father,
in all his excitement, doesn't notice that the boy wants down from his
shoulders. When the son pees on him, the father beats him. This
authoritative behavior leads the son to volunteer when the First World War
breaks out, and so, ends up doing precisely what Liebknecht was warning
against. And concerning Jünger and Heidegger: it might be more useful for
French intellectuals to pay more attention to the Germans of the
Enlightenment. There was not only Diderot and Voltaire, but also Lessing;
there was Lichtenberg -- a very funny man of the Enlightenment, by the way,
whose statements would likely be more appreciated by the French than by

Bourdieu: Ernst Cassirer, as a great inheritor of the Enlightenment, was
only moderately successful, while his opponent, Heidegger, aroused
tremendous interest. One often has the terrible impression that, like some
fraud of history, the French take on the bad things from Germany, and vice
versa, the Germans from the French.

Grass: In _My Century_, I depict a professor who, during his Wednesday
seminar, thinks about what he would have done as a student in 1966/67/68.
Back then, he came out of the Heideggerian philosophy of the sublime, and
he ends up there again. In between, he's given to radical swerves and
becomes one of those people who publicly tear into Adorno. That's a very
typical biography for this period. I was right in the middle of the events
of the 60s. The student protests were necessary and had more effect than
the spokespeople of pseudo-revolution of the generation of 68 would liked
to have admitted. The revolution didn't happen -- there was no basis for it
-- but society changed. In _From the Diary of a Snail_, I describe how the
students yelled out when I said: Progress is a snail. Verbally, of course,
you can make the great leap -- they were of the Maoist school -- but the
original phase, namely, the society it's about, is not in a hurry. You
wonder when things snap back and you call it counter-revolution, all in the
full-blown vocabulary of a communism that even then was teetering. But
there was little understanding.

Bourdieu: I published a book in 1964, _The Inheritors_, in which I describe
the varying positions of students from petite bourgeois and those from
bourgeois backgrounds. Political radicalism was far more visible in those
students from bourgeois backgrounds, while students from petite bourgeois
or workers backgrounds were more conservative and given to reform.

Grass: Usually it was sons from good houses, as I called them somewhat
provocatively, who had never dared to carry out their conflicts with their
fathers out of fear that their money would be cut off that transferred the
conflict to society.

Bourdieu: In 1968 there was an ostentatious, above all, symbolic, artistic
revolution -- very radical if you were to go on appearances. On the other
hand, there were people who introduced measured proposals to change the
education system, the entrance requirements for the high schools. In those
days, they were held in contempt as reformists, and therefore, laughable by
the same people who are conservatives today.

Grass: In the 70s, in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, there arose a
consciousness of the idea that if the economy were allowed to go on
exploiting natural resources, the environment would be destroyed. The
ecological movement came about. But the socialist and social democratic
parties concentrated solely on the old social questions and shut out
ecology or viewed it as something oppositional, and this still goes on to a
certain degree. If we expect the neoliberal side to realize its
intellectual potential in order to come back to its senses, then the same
thing has to be said about the left side. It has to be recognized at last
that ecology cannot be separated from the theme of work. All decisions have
to pass the test: are they ecologically acceptable?

Bourdieu: All these pseudo-terms such as social liberalism, Blairism are
mystifications of the ruling power over the ruled. Europeans are
fundamentally ashamed of their civilization and don't dare to do anything
more. This is beginning quite obviously with the economy, but more and
more, it's reaching into cultural areas; they're ashamed of their cultural
tradition. In a way, the Europeans are living in a state of sin which is
being perceived and judged as a defense of backward traditions -- in the
fields of the cinema, in literature and so on.

Grass: In our country, those aligned with Schröder see themselves as
modernizers and the others are dismissed as traditionalists which is a
hilarious misnomer. The neoliberals snicker when social democrats and
socialists in Germany and in other countries are confined to such
meaningless definitions.

Bourdieu: To pick up on the problem of culture: I was truly glad to see
that you were awarded the Nobel Prize because it honors a magnificent
European writer who "speaks up" and defends a certain type of art that many
perceive as having had its day. The campaign against your novel _Ein weites
Feld_ was carried out under the pretense that it was literarily behind its
time. In the same way, the same twisted logic is currently being applied
more and more to the formalistic accomplishments of the avant garde in that
they are being cast as old-fashioned. In France, there is a full-blown
debate on contemporary art which is actually about the autonomy of art
versus the economy.

Grass: About the Nobel Prize: I could live quite well without it, and I
hope I'll be able to live well with it. Some said, "Finally!" or "Too
late!", but I'm glad to have received it in my advanced age, well beyond
70. When a young author receives the Nobel Prize, I can imagine that it's
quite a load to carry because the expectations are going to be so high.
Today, I can deal with it ironically and still be happy about it. But that
should be that as far as that theme goes.

I think we should be making offers which cannot be ignored. The large
television production companies are also at a loss in their misguided faith
in ratings. One has to help them out. The same goes for the relationship
between neighboring France and Germany who have fought each other to the
point of near extinction, whose wounds are still palpable and who are
making every rhetorical attempt at reconciliation. And suddenly, one
realizes: It's not just the language barrier; there are other dimensions in
between which are not being perceived. I referred to this earlier, that
we're not even able to recognize a shared history of European
Enlightenment. This was better in times when nation states weren't as
dominant. The French recognized what happened in Germany, and vice versa;
there was a correspondence between both groups which in those days fought
as minorities and managed to see through the process of the Enlightenment
despite censorship.

It's time to reestablish that relationship because we have nothing else in
hand besides the experiences of the process of European Enlightenment --
including the developments that failed. We are right to decry the dominance
neoliberalism has attained in the meantime and the areas it rules over
irresponsibly. But we should also consider: What did we get wrong in the
process of European Enlightenment? Somehow, capitalism and socialism, as
children of the Enlightenment, need to come together at a single table

Bourdieu: You may be a bit optimistic here. I think the economic and
political powers of neoliberalism weigh so heavily on Europe that the
accomplishments of the Enlightenment are truly in danger. The French
historian Daniel Roche is currently writing a book in which he shows that
the tradition of the Enlightenment in France and Germany had very different
meanings. What was meant by "Aufklärung" was quite different from what the
French meant by "lumiéres". These differences have to be overcome if one
wants to avoid the destruction of all that we associate with the
Enlightenment -- the progress of science, technology and the taming of this
progress. The invention of a new utopianism is needed, one that exercises
social powers. Because of the danger that this will be perceived as a
regression to old political thought, new social movements must be brought
to life. In their current form, the unions are no longer contemporary. They
have to change, redefine themselves, go international, rationalize; they
also have to challenge the social sciences to do well what they should.

Grass: That means a fundamental reform of the union movement, and we know
how difficult it is to get this apparatus moving.

Bourdieu: Yes, but we can certainly take on a role here. For example, the
social movement in the last few years has been far more successful than it
had been for years for historical reasons. The traditions of the French
workers movements were always very much of the roll-up-your-sleeves
tradition, often hostile to intellectuals, at least in part. Today, in
times of crisis, the workers movement is much more open and capable of
listening to our objections. The movement is more thoughtful and takes on
more and more new forms of criticism. These critical, reflexive social
movements are, in my opinion, the future.

Grass: I see that somewhat more skeptically. We're both at an age in which
we can be counted on to speak up as long as we remain healthy, but the time
frame is coming to an end. I don't know what it's like in France -- I
assume not much better -- but I see very little preparedness and very
little interest in the younger generation in the field of literature to
carry on this tradition, which is part of the Enlightenment, namely, to
speak up, to get involved. If nothing appears in this area and relieves us,
this part of a good European tradition will also be lost.

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