Indeterminate! Communism, Goethe University of Frankfurt, 7–9 November 2003

The year 2003 has belonged to Adorno in Frankfurt. Across the city the Frankfurt sonʼs hundredth birthday was celebrated. Ten-foot-high bookshop displays pushed doorstop biographies, picture books and collations of ephemera revealing such littleknow details as Adornoʼs penchant for hippopotamus. Week after week the Literaturhaus hosted a series of salons where other Frankfurters shared their memories, read from Adorno, and delivered talks with cute titles such as ʻOh Itʼs Not That Bad: Adorno and Laughterʼ. There were conferences, including one major one, and an exhibition simply called ʻadornoʼ, where Carl Andre, Art & Language, Samuel Beckett, Martin Creed, Liam Gillick Gerhard Richter and twenty-five others exhibited ʻadornoesque worksʼ, amidst quotations plucked from Aesthetic Theory, neatly letrasetted to the wall. All this was supplemented with a bilingual two-volume catalogue and a programme of lectures, culminating in an evening of piano music. The ʻnegativityʼ exuding from such stumbling blocks as Gustav Metzgerʼs autodestructive monument, a matt black Ad Reinhardt canvas from 1955, or Maria Eichhornʼs six cases of mineral water stood as triumphant refutation of another match of aesthetics and politics in the Schirn Kunsthalle across the road: ʻDream Factory Communismʼ, with all the Socialist Realist Greats in life-size and twice as bright oil colour. ʻThe function of art in the totally functional world is functionlessness; it is pure superstition to believe that art could intervene directly or lead an interventionʼ, rebuked Adorno from the gallery walls. Adorno even found his way on to placards posted up near the university. These mimicked ʻwanted terroristsʼ posters, first prevalent in the RAF years of the 1970s, now back in vogue at airports


Advertising a series of political meetings and lectures by the Socialist Study Association, the banner ʻTerroristsʼ was replaced with ʻTheoristsʼ, beneath which were headshots of Marx, Luxemburg, Debord, Zetkin alongside Adorno and his nemesis Hans Jürgen Krahl. Adorno also haunted the conference at the Goethe University of Frankfurt on 7–9 November. The grammatically curious ʻIndeterminate! Communismʼ took place in what the organizers called the ʻlegendaryʼ lecture theatre VI, where Adorno was subjected to a flash of student breast and student critique in 1969 – the flyers shrieked ʻAdorno as Institution is deadʼ. And dead he was in Hörsaal VI, even for his progeny, in the shape of Axel Honneth, who conjured up less tricksy ghosts and more modest questions, such as the old fall-back of how to live a ʻgood lifeʼ, how to reanimate the tradition of social democracy and how to secure the minimum wage. The conference was a new encounter with left politics now communism is dead and something new refuses to be born, but many of the questions posed predated even Adornoʼs time on earth. Micha Brumlik boomed out six or so of them, not one of which could not have been heard at any point in the last century: Can a global system effectively supply all needs democratically, that is, without compulsion? Can socially necessary labour be redistributed by political means? Can the world market be a single political zone. And so on. Dismissing the bloody trail of Communism from Lenin to Pol Pot, all his answers led back to Eduard Bernstein.ʻIndeterminate! Communismʼ was brought into life by two groupings: ʻThe Union for the Encouragement of Democratic Politics and Cultureʼ (neatly acronymed to DemoPunK) and the Berlin anti-fascist activist group Kritik und Praxis. It netted a big supporter in the shape of Adornoʼs publishers Suhrkamp, but before it even happened it caused a scandal. The conference was denounced in the Frankfurt city chamber because public money had been awarded to what one councillor labelled a ʻhighly ideological gatheringʼ, co-organized by an anti-German, anti-constitutional group (Kritik und Praxis), bringing together the ʻleading brains of the extreme left sceneʼ. Mini-shockwaves troubled the highest echelons of the political world and, in a defensive move, Kritik und Praxis were demoted and distanced. Despite the whiff of Marxist chill in the conference title, the indeterminate part won out. A supplementary name signalled the withdrawal: the conference became a ʻcultural congressʼ. To talk of ʻleft-extremistsʼ was pushing it – Honneth, for one, confessed he had never thought about communism before. There was more ʻbio-politicsʼ than ʻclass struggleʼ, more reform than revolution, more ʻdemocracyʼ than ʻcommunismʼ. Groups from the anti-capitalist movement, such as ATTAC, no spoon and colectivo situaciones, were there, but no ʻorthodox Marxistsʼ from the Left parties were invited. Oliver Marchart coined a quotable slogan when he called for the ʻrifondazione of the democratic revolutionʼ, which seemed to encompass all possible positions and yet say nothing.

The actually rather moderate roster of stellar speakers included Chantal Mouffe on Laclau-and-Mouffism; Simon Critchley on ʻlocal actionʼ in a global setting; Jacques Rancière on the immateriality of contemporary production; and Isabelle Graw on alienation, art and Agamben; along with over sixty others in forums, panels and workshops. Badiou sent someone else to read his paper. Spivak cancelled at the last minute, denouncing the conference as dominated by white male hegemons. And there was, inevitably, the extremely energetic Žižek, who, we were told, has participated in over 550 international symposia in the last quarter-century. The born-again Leninist did his usual rap against minority rights and identity politics, because of their congruity to contemporary capitalism. He quipped about decaffeinated coffee, safe sex as non-sex, war without casualties. He made a plea to return to the central universalizable contradiction of class. He terrified the floor by evoking Sendero Luminosoʼs slogan of ʻHate your enemyʼ and commending the strategy of chopping off the immunized arms of children treated by the enemy in a humanitarian programme. The audience loved it, all 1,000+ of them, even if they hated it too.

Over the three days there were tussles here and there, as some voiced fears that the conference was promoting ʻan inoffensive communismʼ. Some speakers tried to resurrect Marxist terminology. But there was no escaping the fact that, in the main, communismʼs qualifier in ʻindeterminateʼ was there to negate it, while democracy appended by the term ʻradicalʼ was exculpated from any kind of examination of its connections to oppression and exploitation. It shone out as an untarnished ideal. The plenaries stretched late into the nights, and afterwards the entertainment included banner-making workshops, videos, exhibitions, German techno and cabaret, and the extracurricular hijinks of an onsite occupation against education cuts and student fees, which meant the university reeked of tear gas.

On the façade of the Literaturhaus, a short stroll from the university, a banner hung with an image of Adorno photographing himself in a mirror and a quotation from 1959ʼs ʻBibliographische Grillenʼ: ʻEvery book that is worth anything plays with its readerʼ. The essay moans about contemporary publishingʼs presentation of the book as commodityseduction, its glossy covers and its popularization counteracting its outmoded bookishness and ʻself-assertionʼ. In contrast, Adorno praises the beaten up books that accompanied a ʻdamaged lifeʼ into exile, and notes that worthwhile booksʼ coquetry with readers is apparent when they defend themselves against easy quoting and recall – his prime example is Marx. Adorno quotes pepper Frankfurtʼs business air in 2003, like cryptic fortune cookie-kitsch that somehow supports the rightness of what is. Suhrkamp are disciplining the sprawling ʻIndeterminate! Communismʼ conference into book form. Will it sit neatly on the bookshelf, subdued and quotable, or will some new-found insubordination break out?