Book Review: The Summer of Theory

Philipp Felsch, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 (Polity, 2022)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz (Sichuan University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

As George sang for John, … ‘all those years ago…’ the summer of love, in San Francisco 1967, and now the summer of theory, Berlin, from the seventies on. The dates, for Philipp Felsch, are 1960-1990. But this is not rock music, or maybe it is; Bowie, for example, makes a cameo appearance together with Foucault. Ah, Berlin! For theory became an art form, or at least an aesthetic experience. Celebrity got out of hand, where it has been ever since.

What is The Summer of Theory? This is an amazing book, well worth reading; and minus the heavy critical apparatus, it is not much bigger than the little books it writes about, at two hundred pages or so. Informative, incisive and funny, painstakingly researched, it treats Theory as history. It is also in result distressing, disconcerting, for it offers something of the Martian eye view of what in retrospect seem like absurd and absurdist times. How could radical subculture take itself so seriously, when the Revolution had been reduced to words, and practice to Theory?

Here there is both a big story and a little story. In the little story, the main actors are pirate publishers such as Heidi Paris and Peter Gente, and their project Merve Verlag – ‘the Reclam of postmodernism’, first of all then a publishing phenomenon, whose purpose was to subvert what George Steiner had called Suhrkamp culture, the serried and earnest ranks of the classics in uniform editions from Hegel to Habermas. This more general phenomenon indicated by the Merve imprint involves the often unauthorised publication of work into German in cheap disposable editions from Althusser to Lyotard and all that was to follow. Not everybody was blissed about this French invasion of Germany. Althusser, for example, was keen to protect his intellectual property rights, writing to Merve to protest. Yet he was, in a sense, also the cause of all of this. For this was the time of Theory, Theorie, which we read about in the Glossary to For Marx and then burned the midnight oil with for Reading Capital. The Germans, of course, were suckers for big books to begin with, and badly burned by the experience of real world politics across the twentieth century. Safer to curl up with Hegel or Heidegger. Even better, something New.

But in the beginning, or in that moment, the magical thinker was Adorno, who became something of a surprise guru for an audience whose needs took in advice on sex and identity. Adorno became the love drug for post Nazi German youth, as Felsch shows. Minima Moralia was the Sergeant Pepper of this moment, or its Revolver, if not its Paperback Writer. And like the Beatles, Adorno felt obliged to correspond with those who sought his advice. The punters would write him letters, urging his advice, and he would comply with these demands. Theory took over from philosophy or poetry.

But cheap paperbacks also represented a threat to German civilization, or what was left of it after 1945. For these paper missiles were also intended to be tools in the new struggle for Revolution.  Smash bourgeois copyright! if not the state. Thus Felsch: Merve had ‘a mission: to jump-start German Marxism out of its dogmatic standstill with boosts from Italy and France’ under the table, via the scene of the new space to be established as the proletarian public sphere. So Merve was, ironically, both fuelling Marxism and its antidote, as the burgeoning interest in the postmodern saw Baudrillard outsell all that had come before him. Marx was a dinosaur, if not a monster. Baudrillard became Theory’s Warhol. But then there was also Baader Meinhof, and the Red Brigades. Folks with guns, real missiles.

In the English language, the flow, or flux, was in the direction of Semiotext(e), founded by Sylvere Lotringer in 1974, where theory would indeed become art, Deleuze in pas de deux with John Cage. Theory disappeared into the galleries, then into bars and clubs. Berlin became famous for clubs, more than for manifestoes. Alcohol, and all the other stuff. The postmodern version of Auerbach’s Cellar.

Did the German Left then simply fall in love with Theory, across the period 1960-1990? An earlier Marxist critic of German ideology complained that here the revolution could only take place in the realm of ideas. Maybe this was too much of a cultural stereotype, notions of national culture, Germans in contrast to French, 1933 versus 1789, all this endlessly more complicated a hundred and forty years later by globalization and the Anglicization of critical theory via the universities. Theory could be a hobby, or a dress code, those little books the signs of radical distinction.

Perhaps it all ends in the absurd, or else in the ludic, in play, in the comedy of life. Felsch tells the hilarious tale of the German Situationists who plastered the University of Stuttgart with posters quoting from Dialectic of Enlightenment, concerning inter alia the claim that the culture industry had turned us all into blissed out zombies. Readers of the poster were requested to write to TW Adorno, Kettenhofweg 1123, 6 Frankfurt/Main (remember phone books?). Among those who wrote to Adorno were the authorities of the University of Stuttgart, enclosing an invoice for the cost of removing the posters from university property.

After Theory, we might then turn with Philipp Felsch to the archive. Some words, after all, may still make a difference. The sixties must have a better legacy than that. Let’s see what Philipp Felsch comes up with next, as Nietzsche comes in from the cold.

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