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OPEN REPLY Re: open letter regarding the planned discussion panel on “The New Avant Garde” (Zurich, Switzerland)

March 7, 2017

Bern, 26 February 2017

Dear open letter authors,

I was astonished to read your letter of 24 February 2017, particularly since it was preceded neither by dialogue nor any other form of exchange between us. In it, you take issue not only with the panel discussion on the “The New Avant Garde” which we plan to hold at the Theater Gessnerallee in Zurich, but also with me personally. That is why I would like respond personally. In your letter, you go so far as to accuse me of paying “homage to the opponent ”, because, during a debate, I asked the AfD’s Marc Jongen whether the new nationalists and right-wing conservatives “didn’t see liberalism in the same way the wolf in the Grimm’s fairy tale saw the chalk [i.e. as a means of making themselves more acceptable]?”

I am one of the most determined critics of Marc Jongen, as my numerous articles clearly demonstrate (see list below). My work as an art scholar, journalist, critic and musician is opposed to every form of ideology, self righteousness, blinkered thinking, discrimination and violence, be it from the right or the left, from the (supposedly) conservative or the (supposedly) progressive end of the political spectrum.

Unlike many of my fellow critics, however, I am convinced that the debate with parties such as the AfD must be conducted in public and face-to-face. What progress would we achieve if we took the view that that we can only lose in public debate with the AfD and that they can only win? Do we really believe that our arguments are that weak? I am convinced that the opposite is true. The fact that Germany’s media originally refused to take the AfD on directly did not make them disappear. Instead, it strengthened the party and enabled them to propagate the comfortable myth that they are the victims.

Taking their cue from its most vociferous and radical politicians, the AfD’s critics portray it as a closed, monolithic, populist political block. An alternative approach would be to attempt to identify the differing points of view which exist within the party. Then, by demonstrating how these diverging positions cannot be reconciled, it might be possible to weaken and split the AfD. The question is not whether the AfD should be opposed, but rather how it should be done.

Opinions on my attitude and approach may differ. There can however be no disagreement that distortion and defamation have no place in civilised debate. Yet it is to precisely those methods that you resort in your open letter. You abbreviate statements, tear them from their original context and reproduce them incorrectly.  You suppress countless criticisms I have made in my dialogue with Jongen, while at the same time selecting a few ambivalent points which you then present in a manner which gives them the appearance of acts of fraternisation. These are strategies with which I am only too familiar from my disputes with right-wing populists. How ironic it is, not to say tragic, that their “opponents” are now using these same techniques.

Referring to the debate between Jongen and myself published in the Schweizer Monat in 2016, you insinuate that both I and the AfD member – contrary to what you say in your letter, Jongen is not an “AfD politician”, at least not yet, because he holds no political office – share the same views on “gender mainstreaming”. What I in fact explicitly wrote in the dialogue was this: “When it comes to genuinely liberal causes such as “marriage for all”, it soon becomes apparent how liberal right-wing conservatives really are. Their liberalism may extend to economic policy, but it does not reach as far as social policy. That is why a little more California would be welcome!” As is well known, California permits same-sex marriage.

I do however have to say that I find the term “gender mainstreaming” problematical per se. In a progressive context, the term “mainstream” has negative connotations, and for good reason. It also provides a golden opportunity for reactionary points of view to appropriate avant garde and subculture credentials for their invective. That is why I believe unambiguous terms such as “emancipation”, “equal rights” or “equality” are better suited to the progressive cause.

You go on to say that I have a “distaste for political correctness”, whereas I explicitly referred to “exaggerated political correctness” in what I wrote. Here again, I identify with the objectives on which the term is based – tolerance, respect and openness. However I regard the expression itself as unusable, as indeed do many on the left. It is above all the exaggerated use of the term which prevents differentiated debate. That and the fact that it is used far too often by all sides as a means of ending any debate at all.

I also write that although I would gladly lend my support to the criticism of repressive tolerance, I cannot do so. Why? Because while the idea originates from Marcuse in another context, it has now been appropriated by the reactionary side of the debate. You, on the other hand, tear my statement from its context and distort the meaning of my words by quoting only part of the sentence. My actual criticism was that “any resentment, no matter how crude or reactionary, of such criticism [of political correctness and repressive tolerance] is always glossed over.”

Last but not least you refer to overlaps in the criticism of the status quo between left and right, conservatives and progressives. Yet nobody can seriously dispute that such overlaps do indeed exist – see Sahra Wagenknecht and the refugee policy, see the willingness of extremists on both left and right to resort to violence, see the gratitude with which neoliberalism has espoused post-structuralist ideas, see Stephen Bannon’s references to Lenin or the parallels between Mao and Trump so brilliantly illustrated by Geremie R. Barmé, to name but a few examples. Anyone who chooses to ignore all that has condemned themselves to a dangerous form of modern gnosis.

This is not the place to consider the multiple meanings of the term avant garde. That would only open up an academic debate. However, your letter contains one statement on this issue which I find more than questionable – and that is your view that the common denominator linking the major avant garde movements and concepts of the early 20th century – which include such heterogeneous movements as dadaism, expressionism, suprematism and futurism – was “a communist utopia”. The unfortunate fact is that nobody has a monopoly on the avant garde.

Your open letter clearly illustrates how opponents in a struggle assimilate each other’s attributes. Rather than considering my arguments carefully, you disparage me and my efforts to resist the rising power of authoritarian and reactionary forces. Those efforts always go hand in hand with public confrontation, self criticism and the, admittedly painful, search for the reasons why progressive (left-wing) forces are being weakened and weaken themselves.

With greetings,

Jörg Scheller

List of links to articles containing references to the AfD:

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