Cryptonomies of the left German history and the "undead" body

9 December 2013

Rupert Goldsworthy
November 2013

Why do images of the dead 1970s West German Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists continue to circulate so long after the group disbanded? One reason for their ghostly presence is the increased importance of information as power supply. New systems of communication refigure our preconceptions of history and of the world around us. An increased blurring has occurred between real life, and life passed, fictionalized worlds of the cinematic eye, the lens of television and computer screens. Signs in these contexts such as those relating to the RAF, can continue to exist, but, in a more fractal space-time continuum.

Both Jacques Derrida and comp lit writer Charity Scribner discuss the role of Leftist signs after the toppling of Soviet Communism, and ways that these signs seem to exist as signifiers oddly evacuated of meaning. A particular theme running through Derridas Specters of Marx (1994) is the importance of these evacuated signs in re-imagining the culture.

The continued fascination with dead 1970s Leftist terrorists can be related to a manifestation of electrical life in the era of film, television and the Internet. Many of the people we know and refer to every day are no longer living. Icons such as Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, or Princess Diana are repeatedly dug up for use as tabloid signifiers in newspapers or projected onto screens for decades and decades after death.

Twenty years from now, at least half the on-screen entities that a child growing up in the West will be familiar with will never really have lived (such as Mickey Mouse or a Tamagotchi) or they will no longer be living (revivified rock stars and celebrities). These on-screen manifestations exist as the electrical specters of our era.

What totemic role might historical figures like Che or RAF leader Ulrike Meinhof play in this game? Discourse around dead Leftist icons continues to manifest that figures presence long after their death. This kind of second life (and the often unresolved history to which it alludes) drifts through cultural flow, often being invoked as an elemental figure in the reconceptualization of past events, necrophiliacly unearthed, re- used, reimagined and sold.

Perhaps this is the gathering that Derrida saw in Specters of Marx when he spoke of a population of ghosts with or without a leader.

Addressing the phenomenon of Terror-kultur

As illustrated by recent uses of Ches image or of logo RAF, the informational overload of today has accelerated the takeover of the very DNA of many key signifiers associated with 1960s and 1970s Leftist propaganda, a process that both erases and re-imagines this signs association.

It is relevant in a discussion of the exhuming of imagery of dead terrorist bodies to note since World War Two the imagistic power of the historic dead.

Susan Sontag stated that the Holocaust has become the global masternarrative of human suffering for our era, around which all other dead historic bodies are relativized. She writes that:

At the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After thirty years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, concerned photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.

Sontag claims that Holocaust imagery has become normalized due to the nature of its framing and in the extents of its viewing. Friedlander has discussed the extent of Holocaust studies. Overfamiliarity with a subject can breed contempt and contributes to its trivialization and sense of arting.

High visibility of images of dead RAF members across public settings (in magazines, books, cinema, the Web, or on museum walls) has similarly reduced their historical resonance and ability to shock.

Talking about dead German bodies, it is relevant to consider the Austrian tradition of a schaulustig (voyeurist) fascination with the viewing of the inanimate human body, both alive and as a corpse. Such obsessions are witnessed in the nineteenth-century popularity of stories about the schöne Leiche (the beautiful female corpse), such as the Viennese Volksmund tradition. These narratives also have a distinct necrophiliac aspect. This pattern in recent German history has received public legitimation through the monolithing of the Holocaust, but it has a longer history. This is a tradition that not many other Western cultures share.

This edgy enjoyment in objectifying the body of the projected Other is exemplified by the Volkerschauen, the anthropological project in pre-World War One German zoos where live African natives were displayed in cages alongside zoo animals, as bodies without agency.

A recent trace of this unusual German fascination with the inanimate foreign body is exemplified by the macabre Frankenstinian Körperwelten (Body Worlds) exhibitions, which featured the nude, dissected, resin-impregnated (plastinated) cadavers of undocumented Chinese workers posed in playful postures.6 The show being the creation of East German-born scientist Dr. Günter von Hagens, who after first exhibiting the cadavers within a German museum setting, has built Körperwelten into a hugely successful touring franchise worldwide.

Examples throughout German history suggest that their cultural traditions show undisguised and unsettling fascinations with the reanimating of the captured foreign corpse, and its display.

Controversies around the denial of the burial of RAF leaders Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe in Stuttgart in 1977, or of the return and interment of the body of exiled movie star Marlene Dietrich to Berlin in 1992 (still perceived by some Germans as a national traitor) further illustrate these unusual German relationships with the corpse of the Other.

Such a bizarre cultural context may explain a lively ongoing public interest in historic and unresolvable subjects such as the RAF dead. This subject intersects with larger narratives in German history.

These patterns occur in both Fascist and Communist narratives. Examples include the Homo Sacer (as Italian theorist Giorgio Agamden has discussed, the stateless citizens body in ancient Rome), fascinations with photographs of disgraced dead Fascist leaders such as Goering or Mussolini, or the displaying of mounds of concentration camp victims. This projective fascination with the foreign corpse seems to suggest a deeper dis-ease. The corpse of the Other is eroticized, eulogized (in denial?), in an ameliorative, perhaps exorcist gesture.

Historically, awkward relationships with the dead body (politic) are not only found in Germanys fascist past, but are also mirrored in the history of the Left. Within this Myth of the Left, the public enshrining of Lenins embalmed body, and likewise, the displaying of Maos cadaver to the masses in Beijing suggest a similar cryogenic, cryptonomic trace in Communist Culture. The recent disinterment of Ches body in Bolivia and its triumphant return to Cuba suggests that to the Left, the revolutionary can never be allowed to die.

Returning to Derrida on the Gespenst (ghosting) following the fall of the Soviet bloc, in Specters of Marx his concept of the New International suggests allowing the ghost of historical memory to mutate and interrupt our thinking rather than repress it. Derrida argues that if a discourse is prematurely or unjustifiably erased, it will come back in an undead state to haunt the culture until closure is achieved. Derrida quotes the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto: Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa, das Gespenst des Kommunismus. Derrida relates this to Shakespeare and the ghost of Hamlets father. He uses the ghostliness of Marxs conception of Communism to point the way that a ghost can appear to live on after its reported death, and that any attempt to hunt it down is fruitless. He writes of the desire to magically chase away a specter, exorcise the possible return of a power held to be baleful in itself and whose demonic threat continues to haunt the century. Since such a conjecture today insists, in such a deafening consensus that what is, it says, indeed dead, remain dead indeed arouses a suspicion. It awakens us where it would like to put us to sleep.

Derrida points out that this ghost cannot simply be located and eradicated, its spectrality making it something that cannot so easily be erased. Again, quoting the opening of the Communist Manifesto: All the powers of Old Europe have joined (verbündet) into a holy hunt (zu einer heiligem Hetzjagd) against this specter (gegen dies Gespenst), Derrida cautions Vigilance, therefore: the cadaver is perhaps not as dead, as simply dead as the conjuration tries to delude us into believing. The one who has disappeared appears still to be there and his apparition is not nothing. It does not do nothing. The undead is compelled to return what has not been resolved.

In Derridas framing, even discourse can embody an undead. He writes that as in the work of mourning, after a trauma, the conjuration has to make sure the dead will not come back. To achieve this, one needs to listen to and engage with the messages the ghost has returned to impart in order to finally reach closure on an unresolved history. He suggests a strategy of hospitality, of welcoming ghosts to haunt our ideologies and enable us to continue to learn how to live.

The eternal return of the RAF subject to the post-Cold War era can be seen as illustrating the pattern that Derrida detects. Unresolved threads of recent German history need to continually re-surface in the culture in an awkward quest for release.