Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 Peter Berz, Volker Heise 1 Jan 1995


Klaus Theweleit, Buch der Könige II, Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, Frankfurt 1994

In 1988 Klaus Theweleit sent the first volume of his work Buch der Könige (Book of Kings), which up to now has been drawn up in four sequences, on its travels. The passengers were Gottfried Benn, Claudio Monteverdi, Knut Hamsun, Orpheus, Bert Brecht and other kings, of novel, opera, poetry, theatre.


8#2&3_Buch der könige -

Volume I, entitled Orpheus - 'and' crossed out - Eurydice, investigated the simple question: how does one become a king of art? The answer was straightforward and surprising: by means of murder and violence. Elias Canetti had provided the key to this. In Masse und Macht (Mass and Power) Canetti depicts the figure of the survivor'. He sees him as a sovereign whose power and aura come from the dead upon which he is standing. To one who leaves his enemies and/or comrades-in-arms behind as dead, by cunning and malice, strategy or luck, the position of ruler comes easily. A king's position which, after all, is also that of the historian noting down the history of the battles.

Theweleit transmitted the figure of the survivor into the sphere of art production and thereby passed from Canetti's theory of mass to the analysis of biographical microstructures. It was in the life histories of art kings and superstars that he also discovered corpses; above all, the bodies of women.

Whether the women of the kings of... died of hunger, perished as a result of melancholy or drove themselves/were driven to suicide, their deaths made men into producers of art. 'Hades-connections', as Theweleit calls it, dead women as medial bridges into the beyond. It is via these women that the greatest tragedies arise, the most heart-rending poems, the chants, which move the hardest heart to pity.

As proof Theweleit unravels a series of kings' biographies in criminological detail. Most of these biographies have little in common, are to be found in different times, in different societies and cultures, yet they are connected by a certain pattern: women's corpses on the one hand, great art on the other.

The criminologist's nose, repeatedly put to the test by Theweleit since Männerphantasien (Male Fantasies) - the book which made him into a king himself - is also a strategy in Buch der Könige II. He extends his king theory partly by using the same protagonists as in Volume I, from the king to the royal household, to art-states or states of art and their encounters with real powers. What is it that connects Benn with Hitler, Pound with Mussolini, and finally Elvis Presley with Richard Nixon? In answer to these questions, Theweleit's biographical tracking this time tinkers not merely with the life histories of European art production, but with the histories and historical myths of America, with media history and state theory.

In the Buch der Könige the history of the teenage revolution following the Second World War is contracted into the tragedy of the King of Rock'n'Roll, Elvis Presley. An entire culture follows Presley - from revolver to the 7" single to the supermarket and drugs - elements which produce Presley, which fall over one another in his biography and radiate from there. A multitude of cultural data and details cross through Elvis' life story and charge up his character until it begins to shine like a star and all scientific fuses blow.

The five chapters on Elvis Presley begin with an image: Elvis as gunman, legs apart, revolver drawn, eyes looking for trouble; Elvis, threefold copied one on top on the other, in silk-screen printing series à la Andy Warhol. 'Elvis, Andy' is the title of the introductory chapter, a parallel biography following this single image. Theweleit tracks down all conceivable and inconceivable connections, parallelisms, facts in this image. Warhol comes from Pittsburgh, a frontier city of industrial serial production. Warhol becomes king of serial art. Pittsburgh is the city from which Westinghouse builds up his electrical empire and where rca, one of America's first powerful recording companies, has its headquarters. Electricity and radio make Elvis a superstar, the star of the single. In Warhol's silkscreen print there is instead of the 45 single a Colt 45 revolver, produced in Hartford, Connecticut where the Underwood, the first serial-produced typewriter, comes from, and the first typewriting author, Mark Twain... And so a web is spun from biographical trails, medial and technical histories, politics, rock 'n' roll, literature - and the spiders in the web are Elvis/Andy.

At this point Theweleit's biographical process somersaults. Linear life histories mingle into the widely intertwined network of medial and cultural history. Everything is connected to everything else, the places (Hartford, Pittsburgh, Memphis) to the artists (Presley, Warhol, Twain) to the medial technologies (radio, 7" record, typewriter, silkscreen printing), which come from the same geographical places as the artists who come out of these techniques. Finally the network becomes the rhizome, that root which the French philosophers Deleuze/Guattari took in the Seventies as the model for their thinking and writing (and Theweleit was among the first German-speaking authors to work with Deleuze/Guattari's books): no strategic centre, no clear edge, only the names of kings sitting on the roots like precious blossoms.

Theweleit's royal rhizome is, however, not a root but a book, and is called such. It bears its biblical name Buch der Könige because, as an alphabetical phenomenon, it appears at the end of the Gutenberg galaxy in sought-after, permanent competition with other media such as film, comics, records - and imitates them: mixing from books, scratching from letters, cineastic deliria sailing on the iconic surf boards of gigantic photo archives. The books of kings take their message from media competition and media imitation, strictly according to McLuhan.

Just as sounds are remixed, Theweleit invents processes for mixing text on endless rolls, stuck together, cut (Buch der Könige I). and at the computer as well (Buch der Könige II). Trick one: abolishing inverted commas, that classical text operator for the production of science and commentary, as proof of quotation and authorship. Their place is taken up by three different typographies in which scientific and literary texts, royal decrees and catchy tunes, songs and facts are mixed together on one single dance floor of letters. The rhythm is set by Theweleit's favourite punctuation marks, the ellipses ... splitting ... connecting ... pushing ... pausing ... gap-filling ... joker-playing. Céline became famous for his ellipses. He called his writing ma petite musique.

Theweleit's music is great and it runs through his writing as sound. Five Elvis chapters pay heed to the constant humming of the pop mantra. 'Instant Karma' is sung, John Lennon flies in, the song comes to the surface of the letters, incantation, cheats its way between dashes and ellipses, spreads itself out, pushes forward text after text on instant karma, Nike-advertising or Warhol - to the point of delirium, up to the great Everything Goes: rhythm, karma, evergreens, lines of poetry turn up, things heard, read, just seen on television, scraps of songs, the shooting stars from the Great Ear, ending, greetings to Bix Beiderbecke, ending in a tutti of the most daring overlappings... then: the end. Enough of the delirium, star. The author drinks coffee, instant, and continues with his text networks at the level of hard facts, the short story of the gym shoe, the murder mystery of Evita Peron's corpse, Voltaire's fat niece. For Theweleit's intertwined books of kings consist of footnotes.

Three layers of this make text and play book. First, there is the main text from the various typographies; then footnotes below the text; and third, footnotes following the text, all written at different times, at different places - triple types, triple ellipses, triple notes of one book which no longer has an apparatus but which is an apparatus. Or: how great is the amount of 20th century knowledge which one can make explode into a royal apparatus? The book dramas of the baroque concluded with the interminable commentary of the writer in which he spread out his entire - at that time scholarly - knowledge of the epoch. But who has really ever read all the footnotes of the baroque? And which alpha-bête will ever develop the technique of integrating the data-scattering of Theweleit's books of kings into one set of reading matter? In a more radical manner than the umpteenth anthology at the Frankfurt book fair, Theweleit's books will have asked the question: is that which is writable also readable? Must that which is writable at the technical level of data processing be readable at all? Not for reason of hermeneutical aporia, not for reason of secret knowledge or immersion in the dust of the mundane, but simply, topically and dramatically: for reason of data volume, of systematically and stylistically operated data overloading.

Theweleit's preferred store for such amounts of cultural data is called 'myth': myths about kings, Sir Lancelot and King Arthur's round table, the return of Sir Lancelot as jfk, and mythical comic figures such as Captain Marvel, Elvis Presley as the lifelong transformation into King Marvel, fill up the book of kings, the return to the world of the Greek gods not excluded. As myth books, the books of kings follow a film technique, that of superimposition. Myth is layered upon myth, and at the end we see the outline of figures which can deprive the myth of its mystique just as well as they can produce endless new myths and texts of myths. If Foucault systematically cut down discourses with his process of the film cut (cuts between synchronic structures, formerly called epochs), Theweleit's process of superimposition systematically cultivates the increase of discourses. And that is the reason why his books are so thick.

Yet Theweleit does not write in mythical dependence. His superimpositions, manipulations of figures and images are continually being cut up, in chains of clues, in series and in a continual lining up of historical material. Splits/connections shoot up in serial-production from the confluences on triple-Elvis-hips ..., and where there are no Colts, there is a geographical location, a date, a letter combination from which traces and sequences of traces follow the next and the next-but-one point of planned overdetermination. Connect-I-cut: with this the books of kings leap through the histories of history and everything becomes present on the platform of the book, just as in Freud on the psychic platform.

Now and again the myths and series which Theweleit serially delivers stop at the hard rock of reality. Rock history, according to Theweleit, is also the history of revolution speeds - 75 / 45 / 33 rpm, i.e. revolutions or rounds per minute. And kings are anything but metaphorical products of art. The criminologist reveals them to be real kings and real powers. They have money, control markets and air fleets, they have courts peppered with schemers, mafiosi, colonels or managers; their subjects are called consumers or fans. In short: these kings preside over places where, in Theweleit's state theory, there are autonomous art or media states. However, a state theory beginning thus is not in the least concerned with `man' and human technologies. It goes straight to the stars, to the gods, the superstars and their mythical orbits.

The only problem is: how to return to history? Not at all, writes Theweleit. For myth and history simply fall together in medial realities in both a metaphysical and physical, temporal and spatial sense. That is the reason why in the Buch der Könige II, art producers communicate not only with an absent, dead third person. The sovereigns of art and media states get into direct contact with parallel national states or informer states. The collaboration of Gottfried Benn, Ezra Pound or Elvis Presley with Hitler, Mussolini, or Nixon is not explained as a slip, not because of psychic instability or historical misjudgement. Contact with informer-states is dictated by political circumstances in the respective art states. It is their foreign policy. Gottfried Benn does not want to be merely the prince of the poets; in 1933 he wanted to become a real king, i.e. the president of the Prussian academy of arts. Elvis lets Richard Nixon label him a drug cop - as he forges a pact against a power in his own court, his manager and chancellor Tom Parker (whose connections to the mafia are not unlikely). And on top of everything else, that label is a means of expelling drug-greedy English bands from the rock 'n roll throne. A foreign policy which, in the case of Elvis, is known to have remained a dream.

As a rule, then, collaboration ends in downfall for autonomous art states. Gottfried Benn does not become president but is forbidden to write and invents internal emigration. Elvis Presley does not handcuff a single dealer, certainly not the likes of John Lennon, and he dies young, his body soaked with Dilaudid. Media, writes Theweleit, are, at the moment they seize power, absolute sovereigns; they eat up the body whilst they are providing the orbit for the myth.

translation ann thursfield