Disappointing Thinking (excerpt #6 No. 19)

During my stay in the USA, I was reminded again and again of the US-American pop and rock culture, which for many decades was not really recognized in Europe due to the un­speak­able contrast between E- and U- music (i.e. serious and light music) – and perhaps is not even fully recognized today.

It is therefore revealing that Tony Judt, the British historian who died a few years ago and spent the last years of his life in New York, in his book „The Chalet of Memories“, when asked what he considers to be the three best things about America, answers without hes­ita­tion: „Thomas Jefferson, Chuck Berry and the New York Review of Books „.

In the following, he has a number of remarkable things to say about his choice of the New York Review of Books – which should be of interest to academics, of which he himself was one. But what I find much more exciting is his reference to Chuck Berry and his laconic com­men­tary on this choice: „Chuck Berry does not need to be justified.“

Really? Some Americans would perhaps rather call Elvis Presley or Hank Williams, the „first rock star the world has ever seen“ (Hank Shizzoe), perhaps Ray Charles, Jimi Hen­drix or – „we are all immigrants“ – John Lennon; think of the memorial in Central Park. But historically, Chuck Berry is probably the better choice; for he is the older of the two (he was born in 1926), and perhaps the more influential in terms of time.

For example, Nik Cohn, in his famous 1969 book „Awop­Bopa­Loo­Bop­Alop­Bam­Boom“, puts him at the top of his pantheon, al­thoughone might expect something else given the title of the book, named after the scat intro to Little Richard’s song ‚Tutti Frutti‘: „Chuck Berry“, Cohn writes, „may have been the best of all rockers and is my absolute favorite.“

What would a German intellectual answer to the question that was asked of Tony Judt in relation to Germany? I do not know. The clarity with which Tony Judt calls Thomas Jeff­er­son and Chuck Berry in the same breath cannot stand in a European context, at least not in a country of old Europe like Germany.

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Disappointing Thinking (excerpt #5 No. 16)

The scyscrapers of the US cities, especially of New York City, are monumental humanistic symbols: monuments of the humane. For this very reason, the reconstruction of the World Trade Center can also be understood as humane defiance. What the attack on the Center was intended to force down („man down“), in the literal sense of the word, was homo erec­tus, regardless of what motivated the assassins in concrete terms or what their intentions were.

Whether they did it because they wanted to hit the American way of life, because they wan­ted to set an example against American imperialism or against the globalizing ca­pi­ta­lism. Or whether they wanted to punish the entire Western civilization as such, people of other faiths and unbelievers. … In fact, they stood up against humanity, even against their own humanity, which they, as believers, could only show contempt for by catapulting them­sel­ves, as they believed – and in this they were not even wrong – directly into heaven. Not in­to a divine heaven, however, but into an empty heaven („empty sky“).

Not only that in the towers into which they maneuvered the airplanes people lived and worked – the bombs were directed against these living and working people in the first place –, the scyscrapers themselves, together with their functionality, represent works of art glorifying mankind – but for the assassins glorifying only one particular, the „Western“ man. And as such, when I walked the streets of New York in July 2012, even more so on Independence Day, fascinated by them, they reminded me of the anthropomorphic forms of the American minimalists of the 1960s: the works of Tony Smith, Robert Morris, Joel Shapiro, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Sol le Witt, and others. Or perhaps you can see it the other way round (e.g. on the third floor of the MoMA): these works refer you – in or out of the museum – to the architectural forms of the city.

Just as in Picasso’s sculptures a bicycle handlebar can become a metaphor for goat horns or, if you look at it the other way around, the goat horns open up the rubbish of civilization for you, so in the objects of the Minimalists the forms become metaphors of urban ar­chi­tec­ture or, if you look at it the other way around, these works of art only become accessible to you when you look at the American cities. It is, in fact, the gigantic, maximalist scenery drawn by scyscrapers that condenses in them in a minimalist manner.

Strictly speaking, therefore, it was not the museum artists who elevated the cubic form to the status of a new principle – now in sculptural, not painterly space –, it was the ar­chi­tects of the scyscrapers. Of these, the „boxes“ of Robert Morris, the „specific, three-di­men­sio­nal objects“ of Donald Judd, or the „frameless and pedestal-less sculptures“ of Richard Serra with their abstraction and functionalist reduction on the one and their mechanized and industrialized production on the other hand, sometimes represented a strong, some­times only weak, distorted image, for example in the beam-like sculptures of Joel Shapiro.

When the well-known art critic Michael Fried raised the accusation of the theatricality against the Minimalists in his much-noticed essay „Art and Objecthood“ in the middle/end of the 1960s , this weakness may have been obvious to him – he called it the negation of art – even though the concrete reference itself probably escaped his attention. What he saw was a radical denial of meaning, a self-referential, tautological presence of things that he could have seen even if he had looked more attentively at the Manhattan sky – or from the sky down into the ravines of rectangular streets.

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Disappointing Thinking (excerpt #4 No. 11)

What do we know about the end of history? – The debate about the thesis of the Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève about the so-called posthistoire reached the Ger­man-speaking world in the mid-1970s, around the same time as the punk movement was shouting out its No Future. Looking back on these and other coincidences, it seems that the „posthistoire“ of the punk movement is more clearly visible to the next generation than to those who took part in these events or who were their direct witnesses. Depending on age and origin, however, this historical distancing becomes increasingly difficult in the last decades.

There had already been intense discussions in the sit-ins and teach-ins, love-ins and be-ins of the student movement in the 1960s about whether the technological utopia of an unstoppable progress of mankind as a whole might not be a fundamental error. One re­ferred in particular to Marx’s utopia of a transition from an empire of necessity to the empire of freedom, which was founded in this progress and was thus necessary.

Herbert Marcuse, perhaps one of the most distinguished theoreticians of the student movement, had raised some weighty objections to such ideas, which gained influence in the eco-movement in the 1980s – one might think of Herbert Gruhl, for example, but also of Rudolf Bahro. In Marcuse’s 1967 text „The End of Utopia“, which is still worth reading today, he argues that one could speak of an end of utopia, but not of an end of historical progress, an end of history, as he expressly said. According to Marcuse, in the sense, in which a project of social transformation contradicts real natural laws, it is an utopian one, let it lead to the end of history or even out of history. But inasmuch as the material and intellectual forces for social transformation are already technically available here and now, and although their rational use is still prevented by the existing organization of productive forces, the end of utopia is a reasonable idea.

Ten years later, when the whole world was talking about the post-structuralists of France, and Alexandre Kojève in particular, the meaning of these sentences had already turned into their complete opposite. The end of utopia, that now meant the „failure of the New Left“, was the title of a lecture Marcuse gave in 1975. The meaning of the speech about the end of history was precisely to admit to this failure and to renounce further political claims beyond a capitalistically organized and thus, by the way, also deformed democracy. According to Kojève in the new edition of his texts, cleverly launched by Suhrkamp (a German publishing house) in 1975, in leaden times, history comes to a standstill „at the mo­ment when the difference, the contrast between master and servant ceases, at the mo­ment when the master ceases to be master because there is no longer a servant, and the servant ceases to be servant because there is no master (without, incidentally, becoming master again because there is no longer a servant)“.

The servants, according to the Marxist reading, were the proletarians, the masters were the capitalists. But the proletarians had secretly „said goodbye“, as André Gorz aptly cha­rac­te­rized it; and the capitalists were therefore no longer recognizable as such. The basic and superstructure prophets had lost their respective „historical subject“, they had lost their „subject-object“, as Lukács said.

One could have left it at that and progressed to a „critique of economic reason“, as André Gorz had actually presented it at the end of the 1980s. But history needs its winners, and it needs its losers. That is why the beneficiaries of this new paradigm – the revolutionaries, now in the civil service, who wanted to abolish the very state they were now working for – preferred to savour their victory and shake up anyone who still dared to dream: The ex­pe­rienced powerlessness, they argued according to Hannah Arendt’s 1970 essay ‚Power and Violence‘ , leads either to the creation of a new institutional power base or to naked vi­o­lence. History was stripped of its air as it marched through the institutions, and it was bea­ten to death in the terror of the RAF.

Was there any need for Kojève to refer to the „American way of life“ as „the typical way of life of the post-historical period“? Was there any need to point out „that from a certain point of view the United States has already reached the final stage of Marxist ‚com­mu­nism‘, since practically all members of a ‚classless society‘ can already acquire what they like there without having to work more than they want to“?

As the offsprings of the revolution, it seems, we are all short-sighted. So we put on glasses in order to see more clearly – but end up in the Kleist dilemma of realizing: Which glasses are the right ones? Because we don’t know, there is no end to the stories about the end of history. This too is a realization that has been dawning on us since the 1970s.

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Disappointing Thinking (excerpt #3 No. 10)

On an advertising postcard for a book by Frank Berzbach: Enduring creativity. Psy­cho­lo­gy for Designers, which is currently on display in Berlin restaurants along with many other postcards, I read in light blue writing on a dark blue background: „Do I have to do again today what I want to do?“Stunned by such a twisted rhetoric, at least from a phi­lo­so­phy-of-freedom perspective, I take the card and decide to write a few words about it soon, if it should come up.

What kind of fascination goes out from such a rhetoric Do I have to do again today what I want to do? or must be assumed to print it specifically on a postcard? At first it makes no sense to me at all to have the feeling of having to do something I want to do. With the post­card in my hand, I say to myself: „If I want to do something, I’ll do it, if there’s nothing to stop me doing it. And if I don’t want to do it, then I won’t do it, and yet I only have the fee­ling of having to do it when I’m forced to do it.“

The more often I silently recite these sentences in different variations, the more it dawns on me where the question Do I have to do again today what I want to do? gets its re­mark­able fascination from. It gets it from of its obvious reversal: Do I want to do again today what I have to do? For this necessary transformation of unfreedom into freedom – with a few exceptions, which we then, fortunately, have sovereignly at our disposal – is the fate of us all. Since unfreedom is the foundation of my freedom, I am forced again and again to transfer what I don’t want to do into something I want to do.

So, I’m forced to want it, I have to want it even though I don’t want it. Only then does the first sentence make sense. Because if what I want to do today is ultimately what I do not want to do, then – and only then – I have to do what I want to do today. And that, precisely that, is what we then call autonomy. This is how the – I suspect: autonomous – author of this sentence, Frank Berzbach expressed a deep philosophical truth, probably without knowing it: Because unfreedom is the foundation of our freedom, I must first want to do what I do not want to do.


So I am forced again and again to transfer what I do not want to do into something I want to do. But not always. Because every now and then I take the liberty – obstinately, re­sist­ant – not to transfer what I do not want to do into something I want to do, but to ac­knowl­edge it as what it is: what I do not want to do. „This here, this being here, I do not want that!“ „But“, says the other side, „why not? What do you want instead?“ And then I ex­plain, because I do not yet know what I want instead, but already know what I do not want instead, this very thing.

Precisely this very thing – I did not choose it, neither this: what I am against, nor that: my being against it, nor this unequal race between hare and hedgehog, whose inequality con­sists in the fact that what I do not want is always already there, always already here – and not away from here („Ick bün all hier!“, „Ick bün all hier!“). And that is why I ask this ex­is­ten­tially difficult question here once again, the question of freedom: If I take the liberty of not wanting to do what I do not want to do, in other words, if I am against what I do not want to do, have I already done what I want to do?

And I answer: „No, on the contrary.“ I was – and still I am through this no, on the contrary – bound to that which I do not want to do; I am „arrested“ to it, to this there, to this here. In order to be against it, in order to be able to think against it, I must take it up in my thin­king and writing, pick it up there and negate it in so many turns that I can no longer think its being out of its negations, out of its non-being. And yet, it is there, it is here. It is always there and always here. It disappoints me wherever I walk or stand.

So should I give up, put an end to all disappointment? But how could I break the top of this ongoing thinking process? How can I stop thinking seriously from one day to the next? Not to think about it, to think something over / to think it(’s) „over“, to think it out / to think it(’s) „out“. The only way to interrupt the inwardly circling thinking – „I can’t see my stream. “ – is to place another thinking, that of another, at its side. The final dis­ap­point­ment for a thinker should come from those who can recognize his „stream“: the readers.

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Disappointing Thinking (excerpt #2 No. 5)

Is philosophy, as it was once understood: as a search for a meaning immanent to human life, but also transcending it, as a question of the meaning of being and time, but also of a meaning beyond of being and time, – is such a philosophy not at an end? Hasn’t phi­lo­so­phy become a special science in which these topics and questions are hardly ever or at best only marginally dealt with?

The analysis so far has shown: philosophy, philosophical thought is a disappointing task, and this at all levels of its activity, historically and systematically, institutionally and trans-institutionally: historically because of its disintegration into individual disciplines and its subsequent constitution as a scientific philosophy; systematically because of the in­suf­fi­ci­ent answers it has to offer in view of the persistence of metaphysical needs: the trans­cen­den­tal, the analytical and the hermeneutical „answer“. It was, in retrospect, an error to assume that these answers could be a final, stable basis for further philosophical thinking, teaching and research, freed from internal self-criticism and self-doubt. On the contrary. The disappointments of philosophy were only further advanced by these answers.

This in turn has both institutional and non-institutional consequences. For the time being, institutional as well as trans-institutional philosophy cannot get over the „historical a pri­o­ri“ of a scientifically regulated language, a tradition defined by the history of reception and a categorically limited way of thinking. This a priori functions like a bundle of the so-called paradigms described by Thomas Kuhn: Without reference to them, philosophizing is no longer possible today. But the institutional form of philosophical thought, which sees itself as a scientific philosophy, is more concerned with this than its emphatic, trans-in­sti­tu­ti­o­nal form. For, since it does not understand itself as science, it is bound to such pa­ra­digms only negatively, not positively. It works itself off against them, while the scientific philosopher builds on them.

Philosophy, it seems, is therefore at the end, but not yet at a final one. It is at a turning point. For there are, in order to change from the apersonal form of articulation, which is widespread in the sciences, to the personal form of speech, there are still one or two topics that I would like to address, or one or two questions that I would like to ask – for example in connection with a biographical memory:


In the middle of the 80s I drove from Berlin to Freiburg/Br. for a few weeks and visited my old fellow students P. and E.. A few years earlier I had moved from Freiburg/Br. to Berlin, because I believed that I would be able to realize my – at the beginning surely overly idea­­li­stic – idea of what philosophy could be better in Berlin. Soon after my arrival there, I had started to work in a playful way with language and to experiment with texts. The first drafts of the ZeitSchrift für TopoLogie und StrömungsKunde, edited by Robert Krokowski and myself, were available, and P. and E. approached me about them:

„Isn’t it a little playful what you and Robert are doing? Concrete poetry or conceptual po­et­ry or something?“ I thought it would be good to go a little further and explain: „I once read Wittgenstein, I think he wrote: „The limits of my language are the limits of my world.“ So if I, as a philosopher, want to expand the boundaries of my world, perhaps even those of the world at all, then I must expand language or do language work, or not?“

And because I knew that P. valued Ingeborg Bachmann above all else – E. began to take an interest in Derrida at the time – I added: „Doesn’t it say somewhere in Bachmann: „No new world without a new language“? Doesn’t Bachmann too – at least that’s how I understand her dissertation on Heidegger and her interest in Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle – think that in order to be able to live new forms of life, we need a new language? And isn’t philosophy, even in this existential and explicitly literary sense, language work?“

P. was annoyed: „This is pure idealism. The sentence does not, as it were, normatively call for work on language to change the world, but only points out, purely descriptively, that there is a constitutive, not just a contingent relationship between the world and language. It is a reciprocal relationship, not a one-sided one. Incidentally, what Bachmann is for­mu­la­ting here is an aesthetic program that can certainly also apply to hermetic texts such as those by Celan, Kafka or Beckett. But as far as I understand it – and I know very little about it – you want to pursue philosophy, not poetry. Don‘t you?“


My old friends from Freiburg times were right. I had – negatively – succumbed to an error and had – positively – given myself over to the illusion that I could change the world with a little language work. Like Hegel, whom I admired, I had perhaps even become an in­corri­gible idealist: „The theoretical work, I convince myself more and more every day“, Hegel wrote in 1808 in a letter to Niethammer, „achieves more in the world than the practical work; once the realm of ideas has been revolutionized, reality cannot endure“, as if Feu­er­bach, Marx & Co. did‘nt ever exist – nor the Critical Theory, which P., E. and I had studied in depth a few years earlier in the form of the Dialectics of Enlightenment.

So without much thought – Julia Kristeva’s La révolution du langage poétique was the in­spi­ra­tion for me – I had been involved in a rebellious project that was, indeed, not a re­bel­lious one, or vice versa in a revisionist project that I considered rebellious. But it was pre­cise­ly in this reversal that the whole problem of the so-called linguistic turn lay for me at the time: was it a rebellious or a revisionist turn? So was I or was I not involved in a re­bel­lious project? Depending on how the turn was understood, I was an idealist / criticist or a realist / dogmatist.

Above all, however, I had made a mistake which I made again and again and about which I could gain sufficient certainty only in recent years. Condition and reason were to be dis­tin­guished: The condition sine qua non is not yet a sufficient reason. „A new world isn‘t pos­si­ble without a new language“ does not mean: „A new world is only possible through a new language“; for that would blur the difference between condition and reason. But that is pre­cise­ly the reason why my friends in Freiburg apparently insisted that Bachmann’s sen­tence was not a normative but a descriptive sentence.

But even if one could not understand it as a one-sided, normative sentence, what did it mean? If, for example, one assumed that it meant a reciprocal relationship, that language and the world were mutually dependent on each other, was it not indifferent where one be­gan one’s work: whether one did language work, for example as a philosopher, writer or scholar, or whether one sought to change the world directly, for example as a natural sci­en­tist, technician or engineer, in a very concrete, material way, reshaping the face of the world? And doesn’t the pluralism of postmodernism arise precisely from this fundamental insight: that the binarism of culture and nature, thinking and being, difference and identity etc. does not imply any value judgements, that the areas are in-different (in the sense of: equally valid)?

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Disappointing Thinking (excerpt # 1 No. 1)

The following text is an English excerpt from my book „Versions of Thinking – Version I: Disappointing Thinking“, which will soon be published in German. Other excerpts will follow.

Disappointment, resistance, hope – these three terms denote centers of thought of a philosophical book project called „Versions of Thinking“, of which the first volume is entitled „Version I: Disappointing Thinking“. Each of the three volumes will primarily, explicitly or implicitly, refer to one of these three concepts or will move within one of these three centres of thought: the first volume in that of disappointment, the second in that of resistance, the third in that of hope.

The reference to each of these concepts will be primary, not exclusive, because in none of them is it possible to think of one concept without the other: On the one side of thinking – I will call it the passive one (it is the subject of the first volume) – how would dis­ap­point­ments be conceivable without resistance and hope? And on the other side – I will call it the active one (it is the subject of the second volume) – how would resistance be conceivable without disappointment and hope?

Does not every disappointment lead to a resistance that corresponds to the truth of the hope that underlies it? And is not for this reason also every resistance unthinkable without a hope that drives it, but also disappoints it? Disappointment, resistance and hope form a circle which, starting from disappointment, leads via resistance to hope (d–r–h), but also vice versa, starting from hope, via disappointment to resistance (h–d–r).

Thus, on the one hand, the active side of thinking, the circle between resistance and dis­ap­point­ment closes: all resistance that is – philosophically – nourished by hope is based on a moment of disappointment (d–r–h). And on the other, the passive side of thinking, the cir­cle between disappointment and hope closes: All disappointments are preceded – phi­lo­so­phi­cally – by a hope that leads to resistance (h–d–r).

In each of the three terms, therefore, the other two are „reflected“ – to use an optical me­ta­phor popular with philosophers. Each „reflects“ the other, is a „reflex“ of the other. They form a unity, a dialectical unity: If disappointment is the thesis, then hope, the synthesis, is already anticipated in it in an abstract way. But hope can only be fulfilled by the an­ti­the­sis to disappointment, in which, as a mediation of the two, resistance exists.

Or is not rather, conversely, hope the thesis, disappointment the antithesis, and resistance the synthesis of both? Can resistance be the end? This raises the question: What is re­sist­ance, if it is the end, supposed to achieve? Can we be satisfied with hope or even with re­sist­ance as a synthesis? What are resistance and hope for? The first volume of my book-project, which is primarily devoted to disappointment, cannot give an answer to this ques­tion. Only one thing can be said at this point:

Disappointment, resistance and hope are understood here as philosophical versions of thought which – and this is meant quite critically – remain or „get stuck“ in the realm of theory. But every resistance and all hope must in the end lead to an action that – in reality – changes that against which resistance is directed. This is no longer a matter for phi­lo­so­phy, cannot be a matter for theory alone. It is a matter of action, which means always also a matter of practice.


Disappointment, resistance and hope are thus conceptualized as versions of thought, or more precisely: as turns of thought (cf. lat. vertere = revolve, turn, return). This can be un­der­stood once, in the ordinary, unproblematic sense of „turn“, as types or forms of think­ing. Thinking is then merely the generic term under which the three forms of think­ing fall: disappointing, resistant and hopeful thinking.

But the word „turn“ can also be understood literally, so that every turn of thinking, let it be disappointing, resistant or hopeful, is a reversal, a turning around of the respective think­ing. Disappointment, for example, is turning away from the hope, the „deception“ that sup­ports it and from the passivating realities that force it to turn around.

The reversal of disappointment is thus, analytically seen, composed of two partial move­ments, of a negative and a positive movement: The negative movement is the movement of turning away from the hoped-for or expected reality, which in disappointment turns out to be an illusion (disappointment is dis-appointment, i.e. disillusion). And the positive move­ment is the movement of turning towards the reality which does not correspond to the hoped-for or expected one, in other words: which contradicts it.

In a similar way, as a form of thinking, the reversal of resistance can be understood. It con­sists in turning against the reality towards which disappointment turns, i.e. in the name of the expected reality from which disappointment turns away. In this respect, there is a reversal of movement itself between disappointment and resistance, which means, both are opposite forms of reversal:

Resistant thinking turns away from the reality of disappointment, i. e. from a dis­ap­poin­ting reality. Negatively it rejects it and positively turns to a new reality that may not yet be thematic in re­sistance itself. It takes up the experience of disappointment: what was ori­gi­nally positive is now negative and, for sake of a position not yet realized, positions itself as a negation of the negative. What is positive in disappointment is therefore negative in re­sist­ance and vice versa.

But then, how is hope to be understood? If it is, as I have asserted, the synthesis of dis­ap­point­ment and resistance, it can also be understood as a reversal of movement, but, unlike disappointment and resistance, as a „synthesized“ or a „doubled“ one: it first absorbs the experience of disappointment in so far as, like every disappointment, it turns to the ne­ga­tive of all there is, but second only in order to search in it for traces of the new.

But in this it is resistant. For, since what is is not yet what should be, and what should be is not yet what is, she cannot be content with the search for traces of the new, with such a search alone. She cannot rely on finding approaches to a new, utopian world in the real world; it must also design it. Hope is therefore more than the sum of activity (resistance) and passivity (disappointment): it is creativity.

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Announcement of a three-volume book project

In the coming and following month I will present here on this blog some excerpts from my upcoming book.

The book will be published in German in April / May 2020 and is part of a three-part book pro­ject called „Versions of Thinking“. In this project I am talking about versions of think­ing in the sense of different kinds of thinking and then in the sense of turns of (one’s own) thin­king. The first volume of the book project revolves around the topic of dis­ap­point­ment („Disappointing Thinking“), the two subsequent volumes will be devoted to the topics of resistance („Resistant Thinking“) and hope („Utopian Thinking“).

In the first volume, I will be presenting the dis­ap­point­ments of thinking in thinking itself, e.g. as dis­ap­point­ment that there is nothing given: lost friends, past times or missed op­por­tu­ni­ties; that there is no meaning in history, but that the end of history does not find an end either; that the last word in thinking has not the thinking itself, but the being, not the culture, but nature, not the duration, but the passing, not the living world, but the world of things, not life, but death.

In contrast to what is usual in academic philosophy, I am not interested in a meta-analysis of disappointing thinking, but in practical forms of such thinking itself, in different types of texts and styles of language, which often take sur­pri­sing turns. There are personal bio­gra­phi­cal sketches next to cultural-theoretical re­flec­ti­ons, the report of a journey next to existential-philosophical considerations, aphorisms next to essayistic attempts and literary drafts next to dialectical analyses.

So I link different levels of disappointment, such as the everyday psychological, the cog­ni­tive, the existential and the metaphysical, to form a network of references, the centre of which my fundamental thesis is: Philosophers who do not also speak of them­selves are not. The multilingualism of our dis­ap­point­ments reflects the multilingualism of our life.

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Transcendence. History. Humanity. Remarks on Detlef Günther’s artistic work (part 3)

Philosophical reflections

“Heaven is here / Beyond the idea / To be forever lost / Beside the true behest / Of Earth” (Roy Harper)

III.1. A halo looking for its saint

How free is man really? And how far-reaching, historically speaking, is the pathos with which the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola celebrates freedom in his (never held) Oratio de hominis dignitate from 1486? It seems that in his exhibition Human Image. Loving the Alien, Detlef Günther spans the arc from this oratorio to the highly topical trans-, meta- or posthumanist pamphlets of a Nick Bostrom or Stefan Lorenz Sorgner: excerpts from Renaissance paintings – sometimes with, sometimes without a halo – stand in this exhibition next to images of cybernetically, nano- or mor­pho­tech­ni­cally altered human bodies, limbs and heads.

In fact, theoreticians such as Bostrom or Sorgner like to cite freedom – which they pre­cau­tio­nari­ly classify as negative freedom – in their defense of the transhumanist, but D. G.’s collages seem more to place the question (What are the systematic connections here?), than trying to provide answers. For ironically, the representatives of transhumanism, who all see themselves as naturalists, refer exclusively to practices of physical: phar­ma­co­lo­gi­cal, morphological, genetic etc. enhancement, whereas the „perfection of man“, which Re­naissance philosophers such as Leonardo Bruni, Marsilio Ficino or Pico della Mirandola believed in, was more spiritual and ethical.

In any case, there can be no doubt about how the choice that God, according to Pico della Mirandola’s oration, presented to mankind (“You can degenerate down to the animal, or you can be reborn by your own will upwards into the divine”) would have been decided by the Renaissance philosophers. And another thing should not remain unmentioned here: The freedom of which Pico della Mirandola speaks in his text is a freedom given by God, i.e. it has not been won freely by man. Instead, it is a freedom whose foundation – here one could speak of an implement – is the lack of freedom: “We are,” says Pico, “born under the condition that we are to be what we want to be.”

So there is a kind of compulsion to freedom („man is“, as Sartre says, „condemned to be free“), a compulsion that the transhumanist can think but not deduce. For how could freedom be a freedom given by nature and explained by natural laws? From a scientific point of view, freedom would rather be a miracle, an illusion, it should not even exist, since it fundamentally contradicts the idea of a continuous determinacy of nature. The pathos of freedom, which occasionally arises in transhumanism, is therefore systematically rather questionable and historically unbelievable.


So is the idea of freedom necessarily bound to that of faith? And if so, how? In Detlef Günther’s works, which have been related to his Sen-Giotto project since 2007 – I will refer primarily to former exhibits (pic.7) – the problem is not solved. But in the sense of con­cep­tu­al art the fundamental questions are once again raised: From Giotto’s famous frescoes from the Capella Scrovegni in Padua, Italy, the artist eliminates all realistic pictorial ele­ments (persons, buildings, landscapes, even the sky is removed) and retains only the halos floating above the heads of the depicted persons, in their precise spatial configuration.

Picture 7: Saint Joachim’s Halos

So it seems that, in reversal of the usual historical perspective along the common thesis of secularization, the aureoles have lost their angels and saints, and even their human holders. The manifold references to angels and saints and saints and humans remain, whereby this is shown by the trick of retaining their spatial assignments. But there is nothing or no one left to take over or be exposed to these spatial assignments. The glow of the divine is misleading, precisely from the moment when the relationship between the sacred and the human is interrupted.

What remains is the idea of transcendence, an idea in which – in a world increasingly aban­do­ned by God – freedom and faith are linked. In the negative theology of Nicolaus Cusanus, which is so important for the beginnings of the Renaissance, this idea is ar­ti­cu­la­ted for the first time in its main features: If, because we cannot know anything positive about God, we also cannot know whether he exists or does not exist (the basic idea of the so called docta ignorantia), it is always a question of faith to assume that he exists or does not exist. In this way, even the atheist is still a believer, and therefore, whatever we may think about the “final things,” and perhaps even about penultimate things, we cannot not believe.

Nicolaus Cusanus

But then there still remains a possibility, a last possibility to make use of our freedom: by no longer having any opinion about the fi­nal and penultimate things, by abandoning the history in which such opinions were the focus of thousands of years of thought, i. e. by abandoning the history of mankind. In the post-, trans- or me­ta­hu­ma­nism of the present, this negative possibility has be­come a re­a­li­ty: If we cannot know something, then, it is assumed, we can only remain silent – our discourse is forever in the circle of im­ma­nen­ce. It is a closed, self-contained discourse, and that alone seems to be the solution … It is a discourse without trans­cen­dence that – pa­ra­do­xi­cally – affirms a certain physical self-transcendence of man.

III.2. The necessity of history. The indeterminacy of the human condition

But freedom and faith are not absolute; they are not realized in a vacuum, but always only in a historical context that is itself constituted by freedom and faith. Detlef Günther re­views this history in many of his exhibitions – this is the idea of his concept. Again and again he returns to the Renaissance, as in Dignity of Man (2006/2010), in Human Image (2017) or most recently in The Mirandola Series (2019; pic.8). It’s the model that serves for him as a point of departure, i.e. with which he relativizes his own artistic freedom. This freedom is not only negative freedom, not only that of an „anything goes“. It stands in the historical context of mediation. If it’s a wanted context, it’s positive freedom, if not, it’s negative freedom.

Picture 8: The Mirandola Series


Freedom and lack of freedom, faith and lack of belief, transcendence and immanence col­lide in this context. But this is precisely the initial historical experience of the Renaissance, which we can and indeed must call upon, since we share its historical a priori: By claiming to imitate the past („the ancients“, „antiquity“, „Rome“, etc.), Renaissance artists, ar­chi­tects, philosophers, and writers experienced the imponderables of imitation: „An in­ter­lo­cu­tor in Castiglione’s Hofmann explained: If we imitate the ancients, we are in fact already different from them, since the ancients imitated no one else.“ (Peter Burke)

The imitation of originals is therefore always original. But for this very reason it is also im­pos­si­ble. The Renaissance artists, architects, philosophers, and writers did not initially see the distance between past and present, which is completely natural for us today, as we are through and through historical subjects. Everywhere they saw, as Foucault has shown, si­mi­la­ri­ties across historical but also systematic distances. But when they were confronted with them – they went to Rome, practiced textual criticism – they realized that for a ple­tho­ra of forms there were no antique models at all, they saw the abyss that separated them from their models. The material they found, as it were, repelled their projections – back onto themselves.

Erich Fromm

Only this movement of projection and rejection – which is re­con­struc­ted and anticipated in the work of Detlef Günther by virtue of his engagement with the Renaissance – can thus be regarded as a model for the idea of a coming human being, a being that has its birth, its determination, already behind it, but its trans­cen­dence, its indeterminacy, still before it: Transnaissance – as a new form of the Renaissance in the sense of a renaissance of hu­ma­nism: „Without wanting to prophesy anything,“ wrote Erich Fromm in 1961, „I believe that to­day, for modern man and for man on this earth in general, there is essentially only the al­ter­na­tive between barbarism and a new renaissance of humanism.“


Is it possible to paint a portrait of man? Not a portrait of just a human being, but of the human being itself? It seems that in his series of works Grund. Transnaissance no. 2 (2016), Detlef Günther in fact made a daring attempt to do so. In Dignity of Man (2006 /2010), with explicit reference to Pico della Mirandola’s speech on the dignity of man, he had only formulated the program for such an attempt, a program that he was to take up again ten years later with Transnaissance no.1 (2015): If an image of man is supposed to be possible – and for an artist this must literally be an image of the human being itself – then it can only be an indeterminate image.

In his work of the same title, Indeterminate Image (pic.9), this assertion was first il­lus­tra­ted with reference to the dynamic understanding of man in the Renaissance. The work depicts an image of this indeterminate image: Above an excerpt from Mirandola’s speech, enlarged to form a poster almost four meters wide and one meter high, are photographic images of two heads of mannequins whose faces are obscured by black bars – comparable to a digital or genetic identity code. To the right of these images, in an intense blue, is the inscription ‚Indeterminate Image‘, with the word ‚Indeterminate‘ highlighted by the shard of a broken mirror as if by an exclamation mark.

Picture 9: Indeterminate Image

In the works of the series Grund. Transnaissance no. 2, the indeterminacy of man himself, and not only that of his image, becomes the image – it is depicted in the image as in­de­ter­mi­na­cy, as a black background. It’s as if the black of the digital, genetic identity code has become universalized. But appearances can be deceiving, as they are here: The ten pictures seem monochrome black at first glance, but they are not. That’s because each of them has a different structure that makes them unique. Through a gestural application in several, sometimes clearly visible layers, as well as through blurring, the black can appear lighter or darker depending on the incidence of light and the perspective of the viewer: the color shimmers back and forth between black and blue-green (pic.10).

Picture 10: Grund. Transnaissance No.9

This not only shows a progress in the history of Detlef Günther’s work: The blue lettering – the philosophical slogan – dissolves in the picture, is shifted into the invisible, and pre­ci­se­ly through this process is made “visible”. The series of works also represents an ad­vance­ment in the conceptualization of indeterminacy. This is not pure indeterminacy: that of an arbitrary, negative freedom without transcendence and history. It is instead an in­de­ter­mi­na­cy – and thus unimaginability – that cannot be anticipated or relativized by any ge­ne­ra­li­ty, neither by society nor community. It comes into play in the transition from the general to the singular, from the common to the individual, from language to speech, from po­ten­ti­a­li­ty to actuality: that of the human individual, the last instance of humanity.


Infos from the artist himself: https://www.detlefguenther.de/

Infos from Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detlef_Günther_(Künstler)

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Transcendence. History. Humanity. Remarks on Detlef Günther’s artistic work (part 2)


“And if everyone opened their heart they‘d see / That every human is holy to someone.” (G. Nash & J. Pevar)

II. Human Image. Loving the Alien

On March 25, 2017, I attended the vernissage of Detlef Günther’s exhibition Hu­man Image. Loving the Alien in the gallery ‚Andreas Reinsch Project‘ at Oranien­platz in Berlin-Kreuzberg (pic.6). This exhibition was, as the title indicated and the pic­tures represented it, something like a preliminary conclusion. All the motifs that cha­racterize Günther’s con­cep­tual approach were gathered here on large-format silk­screen prints (often 100 cm x 70 cm, occasionally also 220 cm x 180 cm): of the human face and body, their technological measurement and im­provement, their embedding in a secular but also sacred context, and their histo­rical dimension with a view to both the ideal of humanity of the Renaissance and to transhumanism.

Picture 6: Exhibition: Human Image

Surrounded by people standing beneath pic­tures of people who here, without thinking about it, gave themselves a a certain image of the human being, I asked myself what type of human image showed up in this “doubling” – what type of phenomenon was emerging here? Per­haps that people look at hu­man images and thereby start talking, without a doubt about themselves, about people. And with this reflexive, distance-producing question, I felt like an alien myself for a few hours, for it made me a marginal third person: the observer of viewers of images of people.

What I saw were, indeed, images of human beings: two-sided, strangely antiqua­ted, and pe­culiarly distorted images coming from a distant past – the Renais­sance – and shifted into a near future of the transhuman, of a history that is the history of our freedom. “Nei­ther as a celestial nor an earthly being have I created you,” says God to his creation in Pi­co‘s De hominis dignitate of 1486. “And neither mortal nor immortal have I made you, so that you, like a shaper and sculptor of your own, can form yourself at your own will and out of your own power into the form you prefer.” (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola)

Pico della Mirandola

In this reading, which D.G. has expressly offered to the recipients of his art since his extensive works overview Heaven Opens (Tübingen 2009), and which he also reaffirmed in a short address this evening, the aureole, which occupies a central place in many of his works and which also here literally makes its mark on each of the silkscreens exhibited, is the emblem of a question: the question of freedom and the liveliness of the individual that goes with it. The work of man, which has been on its way since the Renaissance, is a work of individual and social live­li­ness. And as this is man’s own work of art, he is the shaper and sculptor of himself at his own will and by his own power.


At the opening of his exhibition, Detlef Günther also made explicit reference to the cha­me­le­on metaphor which Pico della Mirandola used to support his claim in his oration that man was a fundamentally free creature. At the same time, however, the artist also referred – even through the subtitle of his exhibition: Loving the Alien – to the entertainer, pop and rock singer David Bowie, who was given the nickname „Chameleon of Pop“ by the music press due to his great versatility. This coincidence in the use of a not particularly unusual metaphor seems to be no coincidence. For it is associated with an ambivalence that is quite familiar to the collective unconscious:

On the one hand, the chameleon‘s ability to adapt its colour to its respective natural en­vi­ron­ment testifies to a high degree of flexibility and changeability. In this respect, one can assume that an artist such as David Bowie, unlike the literal chameleon, always initiated his own processes of change deliberately. But on the other hand, such transformations are always also reactions to previous changes in the contextual conditions of a subject. In other words, these processes of change are largely forced by these contextual conditions. For if they were not, the metaphor would be useless.

David Bowie (Cover-Art of „Tonight“)

What at first sight seems to be of little importance here: the ambivalence or even, as one might assume, the mistake in the use of the chameleon metaphor, actually illustrates the central problem in modern era’s understanding of freedom: While this understanding was still permeated and supported by the con­sci­ous­ness of man’s resemblance with God in Pico’s time, today we must reintegrate what we mean by freedom into the context of nature. And so the question arises – difficult to answer under post-, trans- and metahumanistic conditions –, whether freedom in this re-integration must not be relativized.

In this respect, complete freedom will be defined differently today than it was during the Re­nais­sance or at the beginning of the modern era. It can no longer be absolute, un­con­di­tio­nal, but only relative, conditional freedom, that is, freedom that respects the limits of humanity: that of its own finiteness and that of natural resources. In other words, to be „absolutely“, „unconditionally“ free would mean, apparently paradoxically, to refrain from actions that are possible, to counter the positivist ability with a negativist will: „to leave possibilities unused out of freedom, instead of rushing towards foreign stars under insane compulsion“ (Th. W. Adrono, Minima Moralia).

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Transcendence. History. Humanity. Remarks on Detlef Günther’s artistic work (part 1)

Conceptual Art

“Wandering and wandering / What place to rest the search? / The mighty arms of Atlas / Hold the heavens from the earth.” (J. P. Page & R. A. Plant)

I.1. Multilingualism and its development

Detlef Günther is an artist who makes use of a multitude of media codes and is able to express himself in them: in paintings and drawings, collages, objects and installations, photographs, video works and multimedia environments. If one wanted to summarize this multilingualism of his work, this heteroglossie (to put it in terms of a con­cept coined by Bachtin) in one term or under one title, one would have to call it conceptual.

Conceptual not primarily in the sense of conceptual art that first designs the concept in the form of a plan, which can then be produced by other people in a so-called post-studio pro­duction (Günther‘s approach to an installation entitled Sen Giotto ­ The Manifestation of Volumes might possibly be understood in this way; pic.1), but rather in the sense of a con­ceptual under­standing of his own art activities and art works.

Picture 1: Sen Giotto – The Manifestation of Volumes

On the one hand, everything revolves around the concept of humanity and the (implicit) question as to whether it is possible to portray the human being itself, rather than just individual people. Günther pursues this question by dedicating himself to the historical reappropriation of certain pictorial elements and themes of the Renaissance, e. g. the hu­man face in the “Faces of the Renaissance”, or the halos resp. aureoles in Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel of Padua (pic.2) According to the artist, the aureole is “a trembling of what has come to its com­pletion“, as a “supplement that adds to perfection.” (Giorgio Agamben)

Picture 2: Arena Chapel of Padus

To whose perfection? To that of man, or more pre­cisely: to his absolute, unlimited freedom, as the Re­naissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola im­pres­sive­ly conjured up in his speech De Hominis Dig­ni­ta­te / On the Dignity of Man. And that is why the artist’s work is always concerned with the con­cept of freedom, and here with the question of how far this freedom extends at all, how perfect, how absolute it is: whether it extends beyond the con­cept of hu­ma­ni­ty, as it is the case with the current phenomena of so-called „trans-, meta- or post­hu­ma­nism“, or whe­ther it suspends this concept, makes it cease to exist, because it is always bound to certain notions or ima­ges of humanity.


The development of the conceptual heteroglossie in Detlef Günther’s work over the years can be briefy characterized as follows: Initially, at the end of the 1980s, the artist devoted himself to the unstable relationship between human figure and space. Then, in the early 1990s – for example in the project Gelb 92 – he dealt with the manifold patterns of seeing. Here, the openly visible, the obvious in its combination of form and color, was at the fore­front of his artistic interest: how is one and the same form or figure, one and the same co­lor perceived in different spatial, temporal, material, and situational contexts?

At the end of the 1990s, in the Twosuns project, Günther developed new forms of in­ter­ac­tion, especially with digital media. In the course of an accelerating electronic development there was an increased confrontation with the innovative modes of production offered as a result as well as their effects on perception. With his last works since 2006 (Dignity of Man and Sen Giotto, but also in his purely painterly works Trans­naissance no. 1 and Grund ­ Transnaissance no. 2), the artist finally faced the question of – or the challenge of – the invisible in art, once again with reference to classical production methods.

Ideally speaking, this development was and is about balancing two different boundaries: the boundary between the analog and the digital on the one hand, and between the visible and the invisible on the other. Both boundaries are es­sentially the same in essence – less in terms of art theory than in art practice: While the invisible – thought, vision, or in­tu­i­tion – can be understood as the pro­duction principle of the visible (it is the invisible that is made visible), the digital code can be understood as an invisible production principle of the analog (it is the digital code that gives the analog its analogicity).

The formula that can be easily found for this double context of refe­rences is the phe­no­me­no­lo­gi­cal formula of the (invisible) reason and the (visible) figure – which in turn vaguely reminds us of the Platonic idea of the difference between idea and appearance: reason and figure are separated from each other and at the same time connected with each other, but in a way that occasionally makes the reason appear as an abyss and the figure appear as so deprived that there can no longer be any talk of an appearance itself of the idea or an ap­pear­ance of the idea itself (think of Gün­ther‘s oil paintings from the Twosuns cycle, but also the mysteriousness of the aureoles that have been robbed of their holy figures in his Sen Giotto project).

I.2. Space of the image and time of the concept

For clarification, we would first like to draw attention to the artist’s pain­terly works, in par­ti­cu­lar to the series Grund. Transnaissance No. 2 (pic.3). The pic­tures in this series are monochrome, but not monoform black. In this respect, they belong together, they are one, but each of them is one, an individual figure – in­dividual and figurative by virtue of a blue that communicates with the black of their background in different ways, literally sharing it with the black. In this respect, the pictures have a correspondent relationship with one an­other; they are variants of each other. However, with one exception: that of the last picture (pic.4), which has a special status because it is the only image that is not monochrome throughout, and it also has its own title.

Picture 3: Grund. Transnaissance No.2

This title is The Power to Believe and it is reminiscent of a CD or song title by King Crim­son which says: “She carries me through days of apathy / She washes over me / She saved my life in a manner of speaking / When she gave me back the power to believe”. One gets the impression of a certain ambivalence here: On the one hand, the text association ap­pears to be coherent, for it is not a question of just some type of power but instead of the human power of faith, that which distinguishes man as a human being. But on the other hand, the association is also incorrect or incoherent because the song title appears only as a possible and by no means necessary exemplification of what is depicted in the picture.

Picture 4: The Power to Believe

What does the picture depict? Instead of being monochrome black throughout, the pic­ture, unlike all other pictures in the series, has a small rectangular colour field at its center. Its blue, which is sometimes more intense, sometimes less intense depending on the in­ci­dence of light and the viewer’s perspective, blurs with the surrounding black ground and seems to have difficulty standing out from it. It’s as if the blue tones of the other pictures had been concentrated in the last picture, or as if the dark blue of the last picture had merged with the black of the other pictures.

A closer look reveals that the painting has a peculiar facture: The artist has painted several layers of paint on top of each another; it has a haptic that rejects any illusionism. These layers mark, almost invisibly, two window-like frames, so that the blue in the center of the picture exerts a specific effect on the viewer. It is as if it were attracting the viewer or, con­versely, coming towards him; as if it were alive inside, were an autonomous power – pre­cisely the power to believe described in the title: perhaps an idea, or an ideal awaiting its own creation.


In Detlef Günther‘s painterly works, as demonstrated by the series of works just discussed, less and less or nothing is depicted. The visible appears out of the invisible as a blue fi­gu­ra­tive from a black abyss, from which it flashes up but is nevertheless not really able to detach itself. It is not possible to tell a story or explain some type of phenomenon here. These pictures have deta­ched themselves from the supremacy of the world of things, li­be­ra­ted themsel­ves from themselves. They have become meta-pictures in that they spe­ci­fi­cally address the history of the possibility of the appearance of the idea – of man, his faith, and his freedom.

Space and time, image and concept, the visible and the invisible come together here – in space, in the image, in the visible. It’s as if the artist wanted to draw attention to a move­ment, but at the same time undo it – a movement he once described in a conversation as follows: “There is something that can be referred to as a cult of inwardness, which I think is something different from the narcissism that everyone likes to talk about today: The in­terior, in the compulsion to achieve self-realization, in the dictatorship of the ex­ter­na­li­za­tion of individuality as singularity, is transferred into the exterior; time plunges into space.”

Time plunges into space. This means that we don’t just go out through the door – we do this every day: We are constantly expressing ourselves and so coming outside of ourselves. Rather, the issue here is that it seems as if this were the only way to get inside, the only way we to get to the interior of our­selves – in through the out door. The reappropriation of history, our history, in­dividual history, but also universal history, seems to be interrupted, because history – that is the truth of post-history – is made again and again, without any pause for breath. Man always encounters his own effects; wherever he goes, he is already there. There is nothing else anymore.

Or is there? It is as if the halo or, as Giorgio Agamben might put it, the aureole in Detlef Günther‘s work once again raises this question again, the question regarding “ the other.” Because it has lost the holy figure who had worn it, the aureole seems to have lost its place among men, withdrawn itself into a distance from which it can no longer be retrieved, can no longer appear, or appear only in such a way that it acquires a completely new function in the visible – as a pure con­stellation in space (pic.5), as a pure context of reference that refers to nothing more than (in the metapicture): transcendence.

Picture 5: Sen Giotto (Halo without Man)


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