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When Will We Leave the 20th Century?


When Will We Leave the 20th Century? An Interview with Kafka’s Ape.

Written into life by Franz Kafka, nowadays the legendary primate has had enough with impersonating humans. Oscar Mole caught up with the hairy recluse.

OM: So what about that famous report you gave to an Academy? Captured on the Gold Coast and imprisoned in a cage, you had been taken to Europe where your only route of escape was to become a walking, talking, spitting, hard-drinking member of the human race.

APE: Recall that when my report was given in 1917, the first world war was raging. Millions of human beings had been coerced into an orgy of killing and proving Homo sapiens to be vastly superior to gorillas and chimps when it comes to mass murder. Even then I felt ambivalent about becoming human.

At the time, I had no other way out, yet I had to come up with one, because I could not go on living without it. That was the point of the report. I was worried that the Academy would not fully understand what I meant by a ‘way out’. I used the phrase in its most ordinary and fullest sense. I deliberately did not say freedom. As I said in the report: ‘freedom is something that men all too often dupe themselves with’.

What I had discovered was that my jailors needed to see me as non-human in order to justify locking me up. They had to believe I was inferior, so my way out was to become their equal. I mimicked my guards, studied their mannerisms and behaviour. How could they keep something locked up that looked and acted just like they did?

I mastered their language. After I was out I was able to move between different roles I encountered in human society with ease. I knew I could go anywhere, do anything, just by impersonating the right person. Even the Academy wanted to let me in.

OM: So what has this to do with finding a way out of the 20th Century?

APE: There was a moment of awakening that came a little later in 1923. I was in Berlin when the German government created a new currency, replacing the old reichsmark with the new rentenmark. This was their solution to the problem of a massively spiralling inflation. The new rentenmark was declared to be backed by a mortgage on all the land and assets of the Reich.

Let me quote John Galbraith, an economist, who saw right through what had happened: ‘This idea had its ancestry in the assignats; it was, however, appreciably more fraudulent. In France in 1789, there was extant, visible land freshly taken from the church for which currency could be exchanged; any German seeking to exercise rights of foreclosure on German property with his rentenmarks would have been thought mentally unstable’.

In other words, what the German government did was to manufacture an illusion. Even more stunning than turning water into wine, something (a new currency) was produced out of nothing (a fraudulent mortgage): true magic realism.

I realised there was something else I needed to find a way out from. After 1923 I saw how capitalism functions like magic: it requires our constant suspension of disbelief. What we have to be made to believe in is our debt to capitalism and that only capitalism can get what we need by the aid of it.

So what would happen if we stopped believing in this debt? Who would want to work any more? What unites all capitalist political parties is their commitment to work as one of the basic units of social organisation (the other unit, of course, is the family).

There is a delusion at the heart of capitalism, a kind of deeply formed personality disorder that goes far deeper than any Marxist conception of contradiction. It is a fiction, for example, a hallucination in fact, to think that monetary debt is actually ever supposed to be paid back: no, capitalism wants to keep us in its debt.

OM: Sounds just like the old Marxist tale of false consciousness.

APE: No, it’s about how the unconscious is produced. Consider the peculiar loop of time we now constantly experience. For example, there is a direct relationship between the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and the flood of cheap heroin into American and European cities over recent years. This also happened back in the early 1980s. Then the availability of cheap heroin on the streets came from a drug trade created by the CIA in Afghanistan (information on this is easy to find). At these moments capitalism has two aims. On the one hand, it needs to keep the flow of capital going during an economic decline. There are powerful financial interests behind all this: geopolitical and military control over drug routes is as important as oil pipelines. On the other hand, the drugs need to find a market and injecting cheap heroin into cities where recent social uprisings have taken place also serves to pacify a potentially troublesome populace.

OM: If I understand you correctly you are suggesting that we are in a reverse (culturally, socially, politically), going back to the late 70s/early 80s?

APE: We never actually left those times. The twenty first century is a fabrication; capitalism is in a never-ending loop. Much of contemporary life is still caught in those same mechanics of social and political control put into operation back in the late 70s and early 80s.

If there was a watershed for contemporary capitalism it was 1975. Fortunately, this also presented a second way out of the twentieth century.By 1975 the new conditions made possible by the removal of the gold standard were giving rise to the forms of capitalism we now live under. Currencies were to be valued only in relation to each other, and this unmooring from any external point of reference was what was needed in order to create new financial markets in which money could be made out of money in ways that had never been imagined before. Like modern art, money was supposed to be abstract. Of course, this was another delusion.

These developments were to be coupled with concerted attacks on labour movements. If we now take the US economy as a benchmark, up to 1975 wages nearly always accounted for more than 50% of the nation’s gross domestic product. Today wages have fallen to a record low, now at 43.5%. The post-second world war prosperity was an anomaly, a period of high economic growth and a labour movement able to insist that profits were distributed more equally than today. After 1975, we have faced higher levels of inequality and far lower levels of social mobility. Moreover, capitalism nowadays is able to spread wealth down to a managerial class in a way that 19th century capitalism could never do, helping to maintain its grip. Society is more divided: those with secure incomes on one side and on the other, zero-hours contracts and a population barely scratching a living.

But 1975 also saw the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, which brought with it an experience of loss and stagnation, in US and European culture and beyond. Losing a war like that could never bring closure. We are still living in this stasis, and this is integral to the loop of capitalist time. There is no way to tell a story of progress; in fact, all capitalist linear narratives were destroyed on May 1st 1975. Belief in beginnings, middles and ends has gone; no universal motivation can be used to explain and justify human action; and any conception of a transcendent perspective on proceedings has been suspended, forever. Instead, we are endlessly in the middle of things, uncertain as to what happens or why. This world is irrational.

If for some this was a threat (or a reason for cynicism) I could see that we had in fact gained. In 1975 the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari published their short book about my creator, Franz Kafka. In this work they showed that in Kafka’s writing we are confronted with two oscillating states of desire, one always hiding beneath the other. Deleuze and Guattari conceive desire as a process or procedure, that is, as a constructivism. Desire is a process of construction, and not the desire of or for something, and what gets constructed can always have an alternating function: diabolical on the one hand, revolutionary on the other.

But it’s not simply the case of being on the side of revolution: revolutions all too often become oppressive. The political conception that Deleuze and Guattari formed via Kafka is an undertaking expressed through the formula they derived from my own report: ‘head over heels and away’. It is a political conception that affirms the experimental.

This is what Deleuze and Guattari discover in Kafka’s animal becomings. These becomings are not allegorical (a Kafka politics, they claimed, is neither imaginary nor symbolic), what matters is a movement, the crossing of a threshold in order to reach a plateau of intensity, an experimentation taking place in which prior forms are undone, ‘a capturing, a possession, a surplus-value, but never a reproduction or an imitation’.

This is the tactic Kafka devised to resist the oppressive powers that were knocking at his door, American technocracy, Russian bureaucracy and the machinery of Fascism. An experiment requires no blueprint, no pre-fabricated agenda for where it is headed, only to move out ‘head over heels and away’. This component of experimentation on the everyday and on what is at hand is also, therefore, an exploration that understands itself ‘in the movement of learning and not in the result of knowledge’ as Deleuze and Guattari put it. Both the individual and the social are never determined. Nothing is impossible, because possibility always endures as the on-going outcome of experimentation.

So in 1975 I had found another way out.

OM: You also stopped trying to be human at this time. Did you revert back to ape-hood?

APE: No, that was impossible, since I had acquired human language. The problem of being human was only solved by becoming an APE — Auto-Poetic Experimentation.

OM: Auto-poetic?

APE: Auto-poetic as in ‘autopoiesis’ (from Greek auto meaning ‘self’, and poiesis meaning ‘creation’). That is, a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. The term was coined in 1972 by the Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela to define the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells.

Capitalism is a fundamentally allopoetic system. Thus the myth of the free market: capitalism in fact requires continual external control and interference, as recent events showed with the state stepping in to provide extra financial resources for banks.

ON: You discovered a third way out?

APE: In the late 1980s and into the 1990s an unprecedented cultural development took place, and this was to reveal a third way out of the twentieth century. In part, these developments were made possible by technological changes, the availability of electronic and digital technologies, especially for the production of music. A DIY ethos took hold that linked back to 1975 and the early stirrings of punk.

Creativity could be understood as a collective pool of power that anyone could plug into. Under such conditions, intensive communities of expression spring up. Such communities have their political immediacy: the negation of a dominant cultural paradigm, and that does not necessarily lead to a predictable result: sterility or recuperation.

The negative can form a part within a wider problematic field. The negative cannot be reduced to a determinate functionality. The negative in this way works as part of a specific arrangement, whether artistic, philosophical, scientific or combinations thereof. Within such arrangements the negative operates as an indeterminate outside, expressed through all the possible uses of the prefix non: non-sense, non-place, non-identity.

OM: But this is the twenty-first century, right?

APE: Each of these exits out of the twentieth century was glimpsed at a particular moment in that long century’s story. But I am only a literary creation. Maybe, as I wrote in my report to an Academy almost a century ago, we need to ‘disappear in the undergrowth’ and at the same time appear to be a fully functioning member of society, imitating that functionality with irony and absurdity.

Now I would only observe that it is culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.

OM: Anything else you want to add?

APE: What we have to do is find even more ways out of the twentieth century — if we are ever going to construct truly twenty-first century ways of life. Now, is it time for tea?


(Illustration by Tóng Zhi)

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