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Alexander Kluge / Joseph Vogl
Purposeful Digressions

Conversations that cross-fertilise ideas are rare; just as rare as extremely intelligent people. So it’s a stroke of luck when both rarities come together and we’re able to follow the speakers as they ideate, as this new collection of dialogues by Alexander Kluge and Joseph Vogl demonstrates.

By Holger Moos

Kluge / Vogl: Senkblei der Geschichten © Diaphanes Alexander Kluge and Joseph Vogl call their book of dialogues Senkblei der Geschichten (Plumb-bob of Histories). And the pair sound out very many depths and shoals in the sea of human knowledge and ignorance. They never recite conclusive and exclusionary opinions. Readers can observe them both thinking freely and making associations. In the discussions, Kluge acts as questioner as well as the generator of keywords and stimuli.
For instance, in the course of a conversation about the struggle between man and nature based on Captain Ahab’s battle with the white whale in Moby Dick, we are taken on a wild ride through thoughts and ideas until we reach “causal gaps,” events that cannot be causally inferred, and the “principle of insufficient reason”. “Nature’s paw” also strikes from time to time, be it real in the form of a tsunami or in human imagination. In the end Kluge and Vogl take us to film monsters like King Kong and Godzilla. 


Since Vogl addresses capitalist modernity a great deal, for example in his The Specter of Capital (2010) and Der Souveränitätseffekt (2015), the discussions are often about capitalism as a system that increasingly grapples with the “risk of insufficient funds”. It is a risk that regularly leads to financial and/or housing crises, in which it is sooner or later discovered that loans consisting of mere “air” are being traded. This demonstrates that money is “purely spiritual”. Understood in this way, capital is “a peculiar reservoir of hope,” a promise of endless growth with eternal and compound interest.
The immanent “volatility of modern money” is particularly evident during crises. Ultimately, money transactions are only the “floating of debts, circulation of promises to pay.” Next time we hear of the lack of alternatives for our circumstances, we should recollect the following statement by Vogl: “Capital is merely a compulsion to proliferate, which modern societies impose on themselves.” 


In a conversation about “ghosts in machines” the two show that there is always a remnant of human labour even in the most modern machines. They also note that machines are neither consumers nor taxpayers. Kluge points out that people were never just workers and work was never just a commodity: “’All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ says Marx.” And there is always a lot involved in “delivering work performance, for example families who beget the workforce in the first place and raise children. The workforce has always been surrounded by a cocoon of unpaid work.”
Vogl puts forward three hypotheses on unconditional basic income. It may create the minimum level of unemployment that every capitalist society needs. But it may also be a human experiment to test “whether people really are lazy, lethargic, selfish and do nothing when they are being fed”. Alternatively, unconditional basic income may be needed to stabilise a digitised and automated capitalist system so it has the consumers it requires. According to this understanding, every new machine is “not just a technical, but also a human experiment”.


They also discuss the possibility of saving humankind from humankind through robotics; through automatic processes in which humans (fortunately) can no longer intervene. This occurred, for example, during the attack on the Berlin Christmas market in 2016 when the driver was ultimately stopped by the lorry’s automatic braking system.
The reader cannot and need not follow all of Kluge and Vogl’s “purposeful digressions”, but they are instructive and consoling. You can hope that at least some of their acumen stays with you and makes you immune to dumbing down. The conversations also exude a sense of mildness and serenity. This is very beneficial in view of our human and media-driven tendency towards all manner of agitation and our desire for opinion leadership.

Logo Rosinenpicker © Goethe-Institut / Illustration: Tobias Schrank Alexander Kluge/Joseph Vogl: Senkblei der Geschichten. Gespräche
Zürich: Diaphanes, 2020. 208 S.
ISBN: 978-3-0358-0347-1Text