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7 September 2022

Writing in the age of Big Data

Alexander Kluge’s information epic and how the time for learning is running out.

By Ryan Ruby

Unlike most modern European languages, English designates book-length works of prose fiction with the term “novel”. Imported sometime in the mid-16th century from Italy – where novella had been coined to describe the short stories collected in Boccaccio’s Decameron 200 years before – and extended to its more or less current sense in the 17th century, the word retains a semantic filiation to that other child of the age of print, the newspaper, and thus to the concepts of information and modernity itself. Until the Austenite revolution of 1811 the novel often cloaked itself in the trappings of genres later classified as non-fiction – histories, biographies, travelogues, letters – in addition to descriptors derived from oral tradition like stories, tales and chronicles. Thereafter, newspapers provided it with an essential platform, where serialised fictional narrative existed on a continuum with scenes, sketches, feuilleton pieces and other genres of reportage. It is clear that one of the tangential pleasures of reading fiction during the golden age of the novel was akin to consuming “news”, whether it was about country life, factory conditions, adventures on the high seas, or scandalous crimes.

Over the course of the 20th century radio, film, television and digital media eroded print’s controlling stake in information transfer. Already in 1946 Gertrude Stein was complaining that “everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense”. The damage the deluge of information has done to common sense has probably been fatal, but that is another matter: its effect on the novel has not been salutary either. From the standpoint of information, fiction is always surplus; at a time when billions of humans – and now AI – are generating more linguistic information every minute than can possibly be consumed, it is surplus in extremis. What is the value of the fictional contract – wherein the reader treats the events described as if they were real – in a literary field hemmed in on all sides by rival media and glutted with professional and amateur texts that do not require a suspension of disbelief? The rise of prestige genre fiction – particularly science fiction – and the rise of autofiction could each be considered attempts at answering this question: the former eschews l’éffet du réal altogether, while the latter, which is arguably nothing more than a name for the novel in its terminal stage of decadence, bites the bullet and makes its central theme the tension between fact and fiction.

A third answer emerges in the work of the German writer, director, TV producer and public intellectual Alexander Kluge. Now 90, Kluge was born in Halberstadt, the Carolingian town in the Harz that was levelled by Allied bombers during the last month of the Second World War. The son of an obstetrician father, Kluge left Halberstadt, then part of the Bezirk Magdeburg in the German Democratic Republic, to live with his mother in West Berlin. He went on to study law and received his doctorate from the University of Frankfurt, where he met Theodor Adorno and became, for a time, the legal counsel of the Institute for Social Research. Through Adorno, Kluge got a job working as an assistant to Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis and M, and embarked on a prolific career as a filmmaker. Though less well known to international audiences than Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders, he was also a signatory of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto that launched the New German Cinema movement. He has directed or co-directed dozens of short films, feature-length films, and documentaries, among them Yesterday Girl, which starred his sister Alexandra and won the Silver Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, and the Golden Lion-winning Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed, and an eight-hour documentary about Eisenstein’s attempt to adapt Marx’s Capital, Notes from Ideological Antiquity. He is the founder and prime mover behind the production company dctp (Development Company for Television Programmes), which shows his own experimental documentaries, his freewheeling interviews with intellectual, political and even historical notables (played by actors), as well as other independent programming, mostly late at night.

This would be career enough for a lifetime, but Kluge’s primary legacy is literary. “Even though I have made films and TV programmes,” he has said, “I remain first and foremost a writer of books.” Alongside the three works of Frankfurt School-style social theory he has co-authored with the philosopher Oskar Negt, and his two-volume magnum opus Chronik der Gefühle, whose 2,000-plus pages are still awaiting translation into English, Kluge is the creator of one of the more idiosyncratic oeuvres in contemporary writing, for which he has won every major literary prize awarded in Germany.

[See also: Eric Ravilious’s visions of war and peace in England]

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One way of describing it would be as his publishers do: as collections of stories. Another way would be as more than 30 chapters of a single, ever-evolving epic of information. Each chapter – to give only a sampling of those books that have been translated – functions as a kind of personal cross-section of a particular topic, whether it is a date (30 April 1945), a month (December), an art form (Cinema Stories), an emotion (World-Changing Rage), a war (Air Raid), a country (Russia Container), or a theme such as politics (Drilling Through Hard Boards), jurisprudence (Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word is a Traitor) or, somewhat vaguely, “connections” (Kong’s Finest Hour). These chapters are further divided into titled sections and subsections, the latter of which are typically prose passages of no more than a page or two in length. More heterogeneous than the word “stories” implies, the subsections are comprised of anecdotes, vignettes, reports, descriptions, lists, interview-like bits of unattributed dialogue, or diary entries boxed off from the rest of the text with a thin black line. While most of them are written in the third person, some are narrated in the first person by fictional characters, historical personages or Kluge himself. Interspersed between them are slogans and quotations in different font sizes and a wealth of visual media, including photographs; reproductions of paintings, drawings and posters; various kinds of maps; film and television stills; and, now that the technology has become available, QR codes. The organising principle is literary montage – and in terms of both form and content, the line separating Kluge’s work for the page from his work for the screen has been porous. The most obvious precedents are the Konvoluts of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and the plays of Brecht and Heiner Müller, all three of whom are recurring characters in his books.

It is tempting for Anglophone readers to think of Kluge’s information epic as a species of that creative non-fiction genre that is sometimes classified as unclassifiable, experimental or hybrid, but Kluge does not do so. In Russia Container, first published in German in 2020 and now available in English translation by Alexander Booth, he writes: “As to the question of why I don’t write novels, I reply: what I write are novels. Novels are, in principle, collections. Classical novels belong to a layer of the public realm, which turns them into ‘material’ for the present.” He may have used the word Roman in German, but this sense of what a novel is goes back to Boccaccio and to the origins of the form. Recall that the unity of the stories in the Decameron is essentially spatial: the villa outside Florence where ten young aristocrats go to flee the Black Death and where, over the course of a ten-day period, each tells one story per day on a pre-selected theme. The narrator functions as a fly on the wall who records and transmits their 100 tales to the reader.

A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), oil on canvas, 1916. Photo by Alamy

Something similar could be said for the unity of the stories (subsections) in Kluge’s collections (chapters). Referring to the “materials” out of which his books are composed, he says that they are “not material in the sense of a thing; rather, some stubborn kind of substance. It speaks to me. It speaks in me.” The substance is information and the physical person of Kluge is the villa where it is received, culled, curated, organised and transmitted. Because the relationship between any one person’s knowledge and this “substance” is necessarily partial, Kluge’s selections of material to narrate constitute the primary aesthetic choices he makes. The resulting books bear the unique impress of the site through which information has passed through, with all of its biological, biographical, linguistic and historical particularities. (After recording a dream in Russia Container he comments: “The dream had nothing to do with Russia, but rather with me. So, the truth is that I am writing only about myself in this container. And it would be arrogant of a single author to try and write about a great country, whether their own or foreign, and offer more than a limited point of view.”) If literary montage suggests an analogy between the writer and the film editor who makes a film by cutting and suturing discrete segments of stock, Kluge also compares his process to that of a construction worker on a building site, rearranging existing material into new forms. In either case, despite the inflated rhetoric surrounding literary creativity, Kluge’s so-called “analytical method” is not at bottom different from that of any “classical” novelist, past or present. What Kluge does that other novelists do not is lay bare the device.

Into his Russia Container Kluge has packed such sundry material as a discussion of the views of the imperialist geographer Halford Mackinder, the story of Kafka’s planned “newspaper novel” about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, the peregrinations of the US secretary of state James Baker throughout the former Soviet Union, Laika’s and other animals’ travels in space, a brief history of the Russian State Circus, a retelling of Mussorgsky’s opera about the self-immolation of the Old Believers, the geology of Lake Baikal and Siberia, the morphology of the Kets language, the poetry of Khlebnikov, an account of Hitler’s sleeping habits, a report from a Kursk submarine disaster whistleblower, a description of a nuclear launch sequence, the eccentric theories of the theologian-electrician Pavel Florensky, the invention of montage, his late sister’s affinities for Russia, his childhood collection of Soviet stamps and much else besides.

[See also: From the NS archive: What is a prime minister?]

Kluge would probably endorse the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s view that “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. But, at some point, a book concludes. The world does not; information encompasses and overflows every possible container. Kluge quotes Andrei Bitov, an Orthodox monk who lives in a monastery at the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose lifework is to argue in favour of “time compression”, the view that the definition of a century as 100 years should be replaced with qualitative centuries of variable length, according to the “differential structure” that inheres in events of particular magnitude. According to Bitov’s logic, the years since Russia Container was published in German might be said to constitute a “century unto themselves”. The day after the final proofs of the English translation were sent to the publisher in February of this year, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, cities have been destroyed, millions have been made refugees, and there have been massive disruptions to the world’s food and energy supplies, the global economy and the geopolitical order as it has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In May Kluge was among the 28 public intellectuals and artists who signed an open letter to Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, criticising him for supplying Ukraine with arms and warning that this reversal of longstanding German policy increased the risk of conflict with a nuclear power. For this stance – not necessarily right, but far from outlandish – he was harshly criticised in the German press and online. This perhaps prompted him to add a preface to the English-language edition, “a reading-aid, so to speak, for precipitating events”, which addresses, in diary form, the Russian invasion, “the elephant” that the world added post hoc into “the room” of Russia Container.

The emotional landscape of the book is dotted with melancholy: from the indifference his millennial children demonstrate to his interest in the utopian ambitions of the Soviet Union, to the missed opportunities of perestroika, to a 2019 telephone conversation he has with a “depressed” Jürgen Habermas, to his characterisation of the 21st century as a “disruptive wasteland”, which now includes the reappearance of a revanchist Russia and the renewed spectre of nuclear Armageddon. This is perhaps only to be expected from an author, who, approaching his tenth decade, compares present reality with his former hopes for it, and is forced to conclude that his motto is the one Socrates gave at his trial: “I know that I know nothing.” “This is the first step we all must take,” he adds, “in order to learn something.”

For Kluge the time for learning is running out; all that will soon be left of him are the material traces of his encounters with information, which will “remain”, like Keats’s Grecian Urn, “in the midst of other woe” than his own. If there is a model of hope in the chapters of Kluge’s information epic, it is perhaps to be found in the history of the novel itself, an objective correlative for survival. “What fascinates” Kluge about novels is “that one continues to write them”, despite repeated declarations of the form’s demise in the face of adverse social, economic and political conditions, including a media landscape that seems to have made them redundant and superfluous. “Their potential is greater than their aura,” Kluge writes, in a moment of optimism, of some of the novelists he admires, and whose work has inspired his own. “Having become collections, they demand continuation.” Kluge’s own collections ask nothing less from a younger generation of writers, all natives of the information flows with which his work so fruitfully contends, who would do well to pick up some of the techniques he has pioneered, modify them according to circumstance and need, extend them as far into the future as is left to us, and then, if we are still here, pass them on.

[See also: Blue Labour: A rallying cry for a return to inclusive politics]

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