The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, by Philipp Felsch

Peter Osborne is intrigued by an account of the political and philosophical ideas that shaped the West German left

November 25, 2021
Berlin wall
Source: Alamy

“The fate of theory” has been a stock-in-trade topic for anglophone intellectual journalists in the arts and humanities for more than three decades. The theory in question is generally French. It has usually travelled to the US in the mid-1960s, where it was hailed as a transformative force in pockets of leftist academia, revitalising disciplines in the humanities, before being exposed by level-headed scientists as a new form of sophistry and retreating in the face of empirical methods. Such at least is the standard narrative, at once expressing and assuaging a deep-seated cultural anxiety about ideas, which can be traced back through Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to David Hume, the philosophical fount of British conservatism.

Such French theory generally involved philosophical ideas straying beyond their disciplinary boundaries, both into other disciplines and beyond the academy into other cultural-political spheres. This happened first with structuralism – a theory of method rather than of any particular object – then with the literary and political Nietzscheanisms of Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Luce Irigaray and Gilles Deleuze (aka post-structuralism), which offered alternative theoretical perspectives to the Marxist scientism promoted by Louis Althusser. Psychoanalysis was also always in some way at stake.

The question of theory in Germany since the 1960s is in some respects an odd one. On the one hand, its domestic version (Frankfurt critical theory) remained steadfastly philosophical, if dialectically so. On the other hand, the reception of the French thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s into German university discourse was belated and weak, relative to the US and the UK, and complicated by the political uses of Nietzsche’s philosophy by fascists in Germany in the 1930s.

The Summer of Theory – translated from the 2015 German original, Der Lange Sommer der Theorie – is billed as “the story of how the Left fell in love with theory”, by which we must understand the West German left. So we might expect it to be an intellectual history of the left in West Germany. But it is both much less and a little bit more than that. It could be described as a journalistic cultural history of the alternative publishing house Merve Verlag, known for its translations into German of the writings of French thinkers (early on, often bootleg ones, undertaken without copyright permission). Or, to put it the other way around, The Summer of Theory is a history of the culture of the left in West Berlin from the standpoint of the group around Merve Verlag and its figurehead, Peter Gente.

The Summer of Theory evokes 1968 (“the summer of love”). Its cover shows students reading, sitting cross-legged on the grass (although since they’re from New York University, according to the picture credit, this somewhat tarnishes the authenticity of the focus on West Berlin). The desire for theory – and theory as a stimulus to desire – is a central part of Felsch’s story, as are the roles of Gente’s successive (sexual and professional) partners: Merve Lowien, after whom the publishing house was named, and Heidi Paris. Lowien’s “disillusioned” 1977 memoir, Female Productive Power, provides much of the material on the early collective years, though feminism itself receives scant political attention from Felsch.

The length of the summer is important, too. As its subtitle indicates, the book does not have the episodic duration of a summer fling: it extends deep into autumn – the dark autumn of Germany in Autumn (1978), the compilation film about the Baader-Meinhof deaths of 1977, and on across the extended political violence of the “Years of Lead” in Italy – and even into what Félix Guattari called the “winter years” of the 1980s. By the end, seasonal affective disorder (energy-sapping depression and moodiness), accompanied by heavy drinking, has well and truly set in. However, the story is terminated not by a turning away from theory – which had in any case by then returned to something closer to a traditional division of labour between literature and sociology – but by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the end of the “subsidized madhouse” of the enclave of West Berlin. If the 2000s saw the rise of Ostalgie (nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany), this book has a serious case of Westalgie, nostalgia for that bit of the West that the East alone made possible.

The difficulty inherent in the use of the term “theory” in the German context is apparent from the outset in the first of The Summer of Theory’s four main chronological sections: “1965: the hour of theory”. This refers not to the French variety with which the book is primarily concerned but to the writings of Theodor W. Adorno (the left is said to have been living in “the Federal Republic of Adorno”) and then the Theorie series, published by Suhrkamp, modelled on Althusser’s Théorie series for Éditions Maspero in Paris. Here, theory is not primarily an intellectual formation but a publishing genre, through which writings become “theory”. The idea of theory as a life-transforming mode of writing is redeemed by theory itself later in the book by the “cool decisionism” of the authors published by Merve in the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard in particular, in which Nietzsche’s will to power finds pop-cultural expression.

First, though, we have to traverse the “Endless discussions” of the political collectives of the early 1970s (section two), in which reading groups are a medium for political debates about modes of struggle and organisation. This is followed by the awkward conjunction of the serial importation by Merve of writings by Lyotard, Deleuze and Michel Foucault with the effect upon the West German left of the Red Army Faction (section three). “Intensities” are said to replace “arguments” (are these really alternatives?) at the very moment of the turn to political violence. However, Gente is seen to follow Foucault in rejecting such violence on historical grounds, for being directed towards an obsolete regime of power. Lyotard’s idea of a “patchwork of minorities” (Gente’s title for a collection of his essays) provides the new political model, but minorities soon come to be understood subculturally, as branded consumer markets, as theory moves into the art world and its readers become part of the club scene.

Felsch seems more comfortable here, at the end of the 1980s, the years of his own youth; although their romanticisation requires the backstory of “the theory-obsessed ’68 generation”, which he has disinterred. When everyone is getting drunk at discos at the end of the book and Foucault’s bumping into David Bowie at the Dschungel (The Jungle), it turns out that we’ve gone back to January 1978, although the chapter concludes the section headed “1984: the end of history”. This scrambling of time is perhaps the book’s inadvertent strength. Its formal structure imposes an often dubious chronological narrative, but it works best in the jump cuts between its sketches of situations. The political rebellion had burned out long before.

Peter Osborne is director of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University London. From 1983 to 2016, he was an editor of the journal Radical Philosophy.

The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990
By Philipp Felsch, translated by Tony Crawford
Polity Press, 280pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781509539857
Published 1 October 2021

The author

Philipp Felsch, professor of cultural history at Humboldt University of Berlin, was born in Cologne and grew up mainly in Göttingen. He studied in Freiburg, Cologne and Berlin, but it was a year in Bologna in the mid-1990s, he recalls, that “proved to be very formative”, because it was there that he “became acquainted with French theory…One of my professors had studied with Michel Foucault in Paris, in the early 1980s, and had not only adopted his line of thought, but also his way of lecturing – I double-checked on YouTube later…By going to Italy, I had the chance to actually meet ‘Foucault’ – 15 years after his death.”

Asked why he decided to home in on a single publishing house as a way of analysing much wider intellectual trends, Felsch says that Merve Verlag was in “every way paradigmatic for the culture of ‘theory’ that I describe in my book. Precisely because it was more a project than a company, more a subculture than a workplace, it offers a sharp insight into the obsession with theory characteristic for West German (and Western or, better, continental) intellectuals in the post-war period from the 1960s to the 1990s.”

As for the contemporary relevance of the story he tells in his book, Felsch notes that “by changing the landscape of the humanities, the self-fashioning of intellectual elites and even our understanding of politics, ‘theory’ informs our intellectual culture to this day. But its heyday seems to be over. Contemporary political movements – think of campus-style identity politics – refer to personal experience and scientific data but not to theory to underscore their claims.”

Today, Felsch continues, “Our imagination of the future is more dominated by the discourse of Silicon Valley than by narratives about the further development of our societies.” Yet he also wonders whether it is precisely this that has “left a vacuum that is – at least partly – filled with conspiracy theories”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Free thinking from the other side

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