At the 2003 International Security Conference

The International Security Conference in Munich
The International Security Conference in Munich. Courtesy of

Alexander Kluge is best known outside of Germany as a filmmaker, but in his own country he is also a renowned author, the 2003 recipient of the Georg Büchner Prize. Trained as a lawyer, Kluge became acquainted with Theodor Adorno while working for the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, and the roots of his philosophical approach to writing can be found in the tradition of Critical Theory. Selections from his latest book, Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt, have been published in English by New Directions as The Devil’s Blind Spot.

Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt is a 900-page volume of stories, many of them grounded in historical fact, some pure fiction, and all but a few under five pages long. Kluge pieces together fragments of history and human experience, both real and imagined, to form a composite image out of what is seen and what is implied. Subjects range from witchcraft to warfare, Carthage to Chernobyl, Aristotle to astronomy, organized under chapter headings that pose questions such as “Can a body politic say I?” and “Is there a dividing line between eras?” The stories printed here appear in the chapter “What is power / Whom can we trust?”

Curiosity Is My Profession: A Scientific Manager1

In the rooms of the five-star hotel in Munich, where the conference halls are still adorned with the rounded arches and bulky curtains familiar from German films of the early ’60s, with Spanish trellises breaking up the view, a swell of voices reveals a wealth of languages and lively, acute intelligence at work. There is no mental labor in the absence of pressure. The pressure here comes from the fact that in just a few hours, the lobbyists will have to impart new ideas into the cooperative minds of the decision makers in attendance, new in view of the situation, the change in all matters of US strategy that has come about with President Bush’s new administration. This is the primary reason for the electrified buzz of conversation which fills the room all the way up to the chandeliers, fueled by coffee.

On the median strip in front of the hotel: a small group of freezing people. They hold signs protesting the National Missile Defense (NMD) project and cautioning against a new arms race. One of the activists, Berthold G., has managed to make his way into the hotel; he is dressed as a waiter, and blends in with the others who are serving small cups of coffee to the security-conference delegates. A triumph over the security forces. Exploiting the fact that the hotel is so large that individual employees do not necessarily know one another. Berthold G. could set out flyers or start a critical dialogue with someone. But with whom? Starting such a conversation would blow his cover. Who among the thinkers here would listen to him, the critical intellectual?

Time is valuable. A retired vice admiral of the German Federal Armed Forces—a defense company lobbyist, former chief planner, and well-known military author—had a bit of free time because he had gotten his most important conversations out of the way the previous evening. What could convince him to engage in a critical discussion? What does critique even mean to him, as someone who does not waste words or thoughts? It would be a critical act to tell a decision maker something that later failed to come true. Not only critical, but also malicious to say something false, and thus to destroy the assumption of reliability, of relationships founded on trust. Each bears the other’s burden, and so every step that strengthens relationships of mutual trust represents progress in this context.

What does Berthold G. understand of this economy of mental labor? Now, during a break in the proceedings, the Supreme Commander of the Macedonian army has taken up residence in one corner of the dining room, where he holds court. It is suspected that his adjutant, a woman, is also his lover. He wears the uniform of the Macedonian armed forces. His connections to NATO secure his position within his own country, something which the country’s internal political arrangements cannot guarantee. He commands a conventional army. This afternoon he will deliver a speech exactly fourteen minutes long, i.e., just as long as that of his counterpart, the Bulgarian Defense Minister. His primary concern is to avoid saying anything that might disturb any of those in attendance. To achieve this requires the employment of a high degree of intelligence, by Western standards.

I myself, who describe all of this, practice the trade, as I have said, of scientific management. My employer, an automotive company, has lent my services to the foundation that organized this conference. I find myself constitutionally incapable of slipping out of my role. My character, as unique as a fingerprint, compels me to act as a productivity expert.

If it weren’t for that, I would never have discovered that schemer, Berthold G. I merely asked three of the waiters circulating through the crowd with coffee whether they knew that young man, and I had found him. I questioned him. The young man was confused.

—Could I have another cup of coffee?
—You don’t belong here, do you? What are you doing here?
—Are you with the people outside? Are you a spy?
—What’s to spy on? Everyone knows what’s being discussed here.
—True, it’s in the papers.
—We have to have a chance to make our critique heard.
—Of what?
—Of the arms race in outer space. The spy satellites that are scheduled for launch in 2006 represent an even more dangerous provocation than the missile defense shield (NMD).
—And whom do you intend to tell?
—Critique can’t be told. It has to be performed.
—And on whom would you perform such a thing here? Do you want to alert the Chinese delegates?
—It has to be made public.
—Then I’d suggest that you go into the pressroom and tell the journalists, as an expert. But you’d have to be dressed like an expert, not like a waiter.
—How are experts dressed?
—There’s no specific costume. But I’d recommend a uniform, since you need some sort of disguise.
—And where would I get that?
—Your plan for disseminating information is too complicated. If you’d rented a uniform from a costume shop, then you’d have to figure out how to smuggle it in, the way you smuggled yourself in. And if you stood up there in front of the journalists in a uniform, they’d stop believing your costume the second you started speaking critically. They’d all take you for a fool.
—Well, what would you suggest?
—Write an article.
—That wouldn’t help anything.
—What you’re doing here won’t help anything either.
—But at least I’m doing something. It’s not useless to be here, just 50cm from all these decision makers. I’ve gotten as close as 20, or even 10cm away when the decision makers take sugar.
—So I’ve seen. Bravo! That’s quite an achievement.
—What more do you want? You have to start somewhere.
—I’m on your side.
—And what good does that do me?
—I’m a good observer.
—And what good is that?
—Maybe I’ll have a tip sometime.
—What do you do, anyway? You’re not one of the decision makers or lobbyists, are you?
—I’m a scientific manager.

The conversation could have gone on longer, because Becker found the young man remarkably unusual. But the coffee servers had disappeared into the kitchen. The dining/breakroom had emptied and was being aired out with fans. Becker had neglected his job as a researcher of mental labor, but his duties were too vague for this neglect to have any consequences. He moved on to the meeting room, where a calm conference atmosphere prevailed; the mono-tonous voice in the microphone drifted through the room. The speaker used up the time allotted to him, as had the speaker before him, a man of equal rank.

The twelve representatives of the People’s Republic of China sat glowering in their box seats. What could they say in response to the cavalier rhetoric of the American side? They couldn’t wave flags in protest here. There was nothing that even required thought, because all of the US’s ambitions were so manifestly directed against Chinese interests. They saw themselves, and their entire populous nation, as the chosen target of American arms planning. It required no great feat of intellect to understand that at the same time that George W. Bush was elected president, according to the documents available, a merger of Northrop Grumman Corp., L.A., and Litton Industries, Woodland Hills, CA, had taken place. Arms in outer space, and for the breakaway Republic of Taiwan. And so China had to play the enemy. The Chinese prepared to present the texts approved by their superiors when the time came, and to defend themselves against opposition or misunderstanding from the audience. They were concerned that tricks could be played on them in the translation process. They expected the conference organizers to sabotage their presentation. “27% of the assumptions made by our delegation,” the delegation leader explained to Becker later, “rest on errors, but how can we know in any concrete case which 27% it is?” On the whole, the majority of their mental labor was performed in advance of the conference, or would be performed afterward. But there is no greater cause for discomfort than a pause in the exercise of intelligence at a historically important moment. They remained uncomfortable. The behavior of the Chinese delegation, Becker observed, could hardly be described as “sitting.”

Ivanov, the Russian president’s security advisor, arrived from Moscow. Surrounded by escorts. His aide, positioned nearest to him, in accordance with standard procedures, was a stocky man with a broad brow and a shaven head, typical for Russian delegations today. Do the Soviet and Russian committees that recruit intelligent young people for top positions have a particular image in mind, certain indicators of potential intelligence?2 Ivanov himself looks like a Roman boy emperor. His face is perfectly suited for profile shots. He turns his head quickly in various directions, he cuts a lively figure. All the more oppressive for him to be forced to sit politely in the front row at the conference until the next morning, as one speaker after another reads texts that fly in the face of Russian interests. He must listen with a stony countenance (press photographers are fixated on his face), wasting all this precious time; an eloquent politician who could add his own two cents to every clause that crosses the speaker’s lips. But he has to keep silent.

Alois Becker surveys the rows of conference participants like an attentive forester surveying rows of trees. They are arranged in columns and rows between the aisles, all facing toward the speaker, like cadets lined up for a parade. It would not be false, Becker thinks, judging by the level of interest betrayed by the participants’ expressions (no one dares to sleep), to say that for 40 minutes they hardly manage to listen at all, waiting instead for the moment of lobbying, conversation, and interaction that will come afterward during the tea break, and then again at lunchtime (with separate rooms for dignitaries and common people). What goes on here is a concrete form of mental labor, one specializing in access, networking, and consensus, where the traditional process of critique (powers of discernment, self-certainty, control) does not play a role.

What, Becker asks, would Berthold G.’s small, freezing group have to do in order to exert some influence on this conference which, in the course of 24 hours, will chart a new course, even if no “decision” emerges? It must be considered, Becker admits, that these “friends of critique” are not interested in influence, but rather in the “creation of an intellectual space in which thought processes are lateralized (placed on equal footing) and thus brought into contact with the subjective input of concrete individuals, so that they interact with human experience.” Becker is familiar with problems like this from the development of highly specialized motors. But, Becker says, this sort of networking remains a utopian vision in a gathering of lobbyists and decision makers that lasts only one and a half days.

“When Push Comes to Shove, We Need the Impossible”

1. The Safest Place

Deep beneath the five-star hotel are cellars that survived the destruction of the building in the air raids of 1944 (they are used for storing margarine). Now covered by new cellars, these deep cellars would presumably be the safest place for guests to take refuge in case the building above were bombed. However, the escape routes that security personnel have planned for a terrorist attack do not lead into these depths. They lead outside. Outside can be dangerous, because at the moment of a catastrophe it may be inaccessible, or threatened by a second terrorist attack.

In this single secure location, in the historic depths, a few of the Bayerischer Hof hotel’s young cleaning ladies have set up a sort of provisional breakroom. Coffee and cake are served. In the company of a few gentlemen (also hotel employees). For twenty minutes they enjoy a feeling of absolute security against their supervisors.

2. External Security

If it is performed, it is art /
If not, it’s no art
—John Cage

An OUTER BARRICADE maintains a healthy distance between the conference site and the city. The INNER BARRICADE grants admittance only to those bearing identification cards recognized by electronic sensors. Three people are posted at this second security checkpoint: a police officer who gives signals with his baton; a policewoman who holds her machine pistol at chest height, ready to fire; and an older civil employee who checks ID cards. If an attacker were to run at these three with utter disregard for his own safety, they would easily be laid low.

However, several vehicles, their motors already running, are prepared to respond immediately to any such situation by blocking off access to the checkpoint. Groups of security personnel are posted at the entrances to the office buildings and the Bayerischer Hof to form instant human barricades. Hundreds of additional forces wait in the cellars inside the inner checkpoint, ready to act at any moment.

This response planning is based on experience and has been augmented in recent years, but some of its most basic elements date back to the Schwabing riots. For instance, two water cannons are positioned in the middle of the security zone, flanked by four more on either side. The force of the water would physically push back any intruders until support could arrive.

The next lines of defense in this plan are the checkpoint at the entrance to the hotel itself and the security forces stationed inside the conference rooms; the American guests have brought their own security personnel.

3. A Lucky Devil

Luck is on his side. As he leaves customs upon arriving from Rome, surrounded by his detail, he looks up toward the sky and his face breaks into a smile, just as the photographer from the International Herald Tribune snaps the shutter. The photographer chose this view from above, positioned in the rafters (first he had to convince the security personnel that he was not an attacker), because it seemed impossible to capture a well-composed, full-face shot of the US Secretary of Defense from floor level, surrounded by a crowd of bodyguards and other photographers. Shooting from above, there was a risk that the photo would show only thinning hair and encroaching baldness, and not the decision maker’s countenance. But as chance would have it, the lucky devil of a Secretary turned his face upwards, and the “encounter” was made. The photo went around the world.

4. Proper Distance

After his speech, US Secretary Rumsfeld took questions from the participants. For twenty minutes. In the closing minutes, the German Foreign Minister entered the gallery and stood behind the speaker he was to follow. When his turn came to speak, he sought to make a joint appearance with the US Secretary, indicating his desire through gestures, then by blocking the Secretary’s path and grabbing him by the arm. The US Secretary of Defense pulled resolutely away from this menace. He sat on a bench along the side near a group of German participants, scowling.

We scientific managers, said Becker, are interested in the interaction of bodies at political events. Proximity and distance, the failure to share space, these things tell us more than the words that are spoken, which have been ground down through weeks of preparation by the participants until they are as fine as grains of sand on the seashore. The failure of his plan to share the stage with his counterpart bothered the German Foreign Minister so severely that he was unable to control the register of his voice. The tone of his presentation ranged from “pleading” to “demanding” to “incredulous,” all of which, says the scientific manager, are well suited to confrontations in an intimate setting, but inappropriate when the counterpart remains impervious to such PERSONAL DEMONSTRATIONS. The US Secretary, seated on his bench to the side, betrayed no emotion. What the audience saw was this: an agitated, apparently powerless attacker, and an indifferent opponent who finds it unnecessary to even take note of the attack.

5. Revenge for 1956

If acute understanding could be detected, as enemy radar is detected and targeted with intelligent weapons, then Admiral Jacques L., long-time French Chief of Staff, would be just such a target. A narrow, older face. Thin hair, secured in place with water each morning; he could easily be underestimated, mistaken for a bureaucrat who grew up in office air. But anyone encountering him as an opponent would quickly recognize the error in that. He is content with the stance of his country’s political administration. He makes this clear in long, grammatically varied sentences. In 1956, he says, I was a young officer. “We had destroyed the Egyptian air force in a preventative strike, Port Said and the Suez were under our control. France and England were prepared to settle once and for all the many questions of the Near East that still plague us to this day. But we were robbed of that victory by the veto of that superpower, the USA. I will never forget that, nor do I wish to. Today we are showing that superpower what it means to say no to a preventative war.

“We do so as people of experience, who look back on a greater stretch of history than do the neophytes across the Atlantic. We learn from every mistake. West Pointers only have seven to learn from (if you count the founding mistakes), we have ninety-two. That is a superiority not of weapons, but of knowledge.”

6. Death Makes an Appearance

The man lay in a hall leading toward one of the hotel’s rear exits. He lay there like a beggar, his face pale. Two waiters and a security guard “concerned” themselves with him, i.e., they attempted to lay the man, who was having difficulty breathing, in a more comfortable position. He had come to this unfortunate place from a hall where a group of Eastern European participants had dined; now they had all disappeared to their rooms. A short time later, the site where this high-ranking man had collapsed was sealed off by assistants. Keep it moving, please! A hotel doctor arrived. It was difficult to get a city ambulance in through the police barricades. No provisions had been made for on-site treatment; nor were there plans for evacuating the injured in case of a catastrophe. A gap in the security planning? The police chief in charge of operations explained: In the case of an attack on the conference, or an accident, help is to be brought in from outside. We can’t have them standing by during the conference. Why not? asked one of the journalists crowded around him. Because it would make a bad impression to take conspicuous precautions against a catastrophe, when we don’t even know if one will occur.

The collapsed man, pale, no longer breathing. A stroke or a heart attack, no suggestion of foul play. The medics, when they finally arrived, attempted to revive him. After forty minutes, the rescue team had the impression that the cerebrum could not be preserved intact; but considering the patient’s high rank, they continued their resuscitation efforts.

One single death, unsettling for those who witnessed it. In the conference they spoke of 500,000 or 1.3 million dead, masses of refugees on the move. But this was all abstract, glossed over in speeches or in conversations the very tones of which precluded the possibility that such a thing could ever really occur.

7. Reality as a means of dominance/

Reality as a weapon or commodity

—9/11 represents a tear in the image of reality. Mankind is constantly laboring to create an image of reality. That is the cocoon in which it lives.
—No one can understand how the towers, rivers of iron and concrete, could collapse after about an hour?
—Yes, and the President flies to his bunkers in Nebraska.
—“The curtain in the temple is torn in two,” that is the only reaction to Christ’s death. A tear nonetheless.
—Every tear in the horizon of reality must be taken very seriously. Power is founded on the resource of reality. Only when I can guarantee reality am I able to rule.3
—What is the problem?
—The state must be able to restore reality at any moment. But how is that possible after an unreal event like the terrorist attack?
—Didn’t the US Administration do anything at all?
—They protected their own leaders. They kept watch on the roof of the White House in case of further attacks. They tended to the burning Pentagon. They called up the fleet that has been stationed at Pearl Harbor since 1941, brought it through the Panama Canal to the coast of New York. Two days later, aircraft carriers and battleships were lined up there. What is real about that?
—What are you suggesting?
—The US Administration has to find something, no matter the cost, a handle that gives it some hold on reality. They have to find an enemy to suit the weapons.
—So you think there was never a LOGIC OF WAR, but rather a LOGIC OF FINDING REALITY?
—Something like that.
—When there is no reality, we have to invent it?
—Otherwise we would be left exposed, so to speak.

Becker, the scientific manager, counted this dialogue as part of the 0.8 percent of the conference that could be described as CRITIQUE, as opposed to the 99.2 percent consisting of INTELLIGENCE USED IN THE PERFORMANCE OF ROUTINE DUTIES. However, he allowed a margin of error of 0.9 percent, because he included effort devoted to FORMALITIES under the heading of mental labor, although strictly speaking it represents a different kind of labor.

8. Prolegomena to the Necessity of the Impossible ((Title of the dissertation of Kurt Riezler, confidant and personal advisor to Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg from 1914 to 1917.))

In the administrations of Presidents Nixon and Reagan, but above all under the last four Democratic presidents of the US, Bismarck’s doctrine went unquestioned: POLITICS IS THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE.

But the roughly 7,000 neoconservatives who have migrated into the administration from think tanks see things differently.

—Are you a realist?
—Of course. Politics has to be based on real foundations.
—So you would restrict the political actions of the USA, including military activity, to the realm of the possible?
—Hold on a minute! We can’t allow ourselves to be locked in by what is real or possible.
—You see reality as a prison?
—For a superpower, it is dangerous to view the possible as an absolute value or limit. What if the real isn’t the real? What if the possible isn’t the possible?
—So in extreme circumstances you need the help of the impossible to realize the interests of your great land?
—When push comes to shove, we need the impossible.

Translated from the German by Kurt Beals

  1. I refer to myself using the old term “scientific manager.” In fact, economists today function primarily as consultants who analyze the overall productivity of companies, not, as before, the individual tasks. We play the role of economic detectives, so to speak.
    The classical field of scientific management (or ergometry) was focused on production: how much time and effort is expended in what process to create what product. So, for instance, at this conference I am interested in the following distinction: how much brainpower goes into carrying out routine duties and moderation (sales discussions, lobbying, greeting, maintaining hierarchical relationships), and how much consists of critique. My conclusion: 92% is used in routine duties and moderation! 

  2. Careers in Russian think tanks (unlike those in the USA) follow a particular pattern, according to conflict specialist Daniel S. Friedman. Russian economic planners clearly consider the nervousness that often accompanies intelligence to be a disadvantage. When searching for new blood, they favor large-boned figures, usually South Russians “with nerves of steel, solidly built decision makers.” But, Friedman argues, since potential intelligence among nonhysterical (and hence less nervous) people tends to fall closer to the statistical average (unless pain or unusual twists of fate tip the scales in favor of mental labor), these SOUGHT-AFTER BIG-BONED BLOCKHEADS never advance beyond subordinate positions. They project the image that the Russian leadership has of “intelligence rooted in nerves of steel, mental power in a sturdy housing,” but in practice they are “bureaucratic intelligence.” On this problem, see David F. Kropotkin in Abgründe der Intelligenzzüchtung. 

  3. It is in this spirit that the pharaohs built the pyramids to hold up the firmament. They guaranteed that the catastrophes of the past, when the heavens came crashing down, would not be repeated. 

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