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The Summer of Theory:
History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990

by Philipp Felsch
translated by Tony Crawford
Polity, 280 pages, $30

For many of today’s students, the ideas of Adorno, Foucault, Barthes, and the rest are practically indigestible; the long hours required to understand these thinkers are drudgery. But for a brief period in the twentieth century, the act of reading them was downright religious, the air in the seminar room electric, the stakes high. As Philipp Felsch writes in this mini-history of radical theory in Germany from the 1960s through the 1980s: “Now that the intellectual energies of ’68 have long since decayed to a feeble smouldering, it is hard to imagine the fascination of a genre that captivated generations of readers.”

Theory was no academic exercise, not for the ones most engaged. How they interpreted Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and what they did with it implicated everything in their lives. This was true in America, too. I came in at the end of it, an undergraduate in the 1980s whose adviser wrote the first book-length work of deconstructionist criticism in the United States, and I don’t regret that enthusiasm at all. Outsiders didn’t—couldn’t—get it, because for us theory was an experience, a condition. As Felsch says, “It was a claim of truth, an article of faith and a lifestyle accessory.” It had its own idioms and aesthetics, mores and behaviors, and those who practiced it, the masters and their disciples, felt that they were involved in a “revolutionary moment of that reading experience.” Theory was daring, risky, and rebellious, killing the old certainties about God and Man, meaning and knowledge, and putting in their place critique, interpretation, and politics.

In 1957, Peter Gente, a twenty-year-old law student in Germany, underwent a conversion. He overheard two fellows discussing someone named Adorno in impassioned tones, and he managed to find a copy of Minima Moralia. What followed, Felsch says, was a genuine “awakening.” Gente couldn’t understand much of the book, but he was haunted by its formulations: “The world is systematized horror”; “things history has condemned are dragged along dead, neutralized and impotent as ignominious ballast”; “reflections from damaged life.” Felsch describes the book as Gente’s “breviary”; he carried it everywhere. He switched from law to philosophy and sociology, found some fellow Adorno fans, and sought other Adorno volumes. There was a problem, though: Few volumes were available. To its admirers, ­Minima Moralia was a “Gospel,” but the network was small. Another major Adorno work (co-written with Max Horkheimer), Dialectic of Enlightenment, was “as yet largely unknown” well into the sixties.

In 1970, Gente and his “collective” (which included his wife) founded a publishing house, Merve, to remedy this shortage. Merve soon became a primary conduit of radical theory in the German-­speaking world. It was a fly-by-night operation, just a printing press in a vacant shop in West Berlin, but the output was impressive. The first volume was a translation of Louis Althusser’s study of Marx's Capital. Works by Walter ­Benjamin, Michel ­Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Hélène Cixous, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and many more followed. For two decades, “Merve was the German home of Postmodernism, and practically owned the copyright to the German word for ‘discourse’.”

It was much more than a business. As Gente and his colleagues (including Heidi Paris, who co-directed the press in the mid-­seventies—and replaced Gente’s wife at home) understood it, Merve was an essential component of the revolution. Gente and Paris didn’t join the Red Army Faction, though they knew its founders, but they provided some of the intellectual underpinnings for its nefarious work. (To their credit, the collective did come out against the terrorism of ­Baader-­Meinhof.)

The common premise of the “summer of ­theory” was that revolutionary action was impossible without a sufficient theoretical preparation, which required the dissemination of books. In 1965, Adorno inverted ­Marx's famous thesis on Feuerbach: “One reason why [the world] was not changed was probably the fact that it was not interpreted enough.” At a meeting of German student socialists in 1962, a leader had answered Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” with: “Work on ­theory.” As Felsch reports, ­Althusser, too, believed that “the real revolution takes place in the formation of theories.” ­Althusser’s student, the Maoist Jacques Rancière, declared, “­Without revolutionary ­theory there can be no revolutionary practice.” The collective’s motto: “We try to think through the work we do with our hands, and get our hands dirty with theory.”

I remember that heady atmosphere in the eighties, when an essay entitled “Against Theory” could become an exciting topic of debate and the phrase “The Triumph of Theory” would be the title of an MLA Presidential Address. Everything, it seemed, turned on ­theory, learned from the masters and traced back to their forebears (Marx, ­Nietzsche, Freud, ­Heidegger). We couldn’t believe anything else.

Felsch charts the genesis of this attitude in archival detail. Through the lives of Gente and Paris, he tells a brisk, entertaining tale that blends social and political history—factory strikes in Italy, the rise of the Greens in Germany, the changing art scenes in different cities, and various assassinations, kidnappings, and hijackings—with the story of the master theorists and their takes on events. He describes Baudrillard’s attack on the Greens, which alleged (in Felsch’s words) that “their crisis-alarmism does nothing to prevent the catastrophe [of mass pollution], but in fact spreads the screen of political control wider.” Felsch documents ­Foucault’s irresistible influence upon the circle. Heidi Paris ­rapturously reported, “Reading Foucault is a drug, a head rush. He writes like the devil.”

It’s a dense and informed tale recounted in marvelous detail. One paragraph on page 174 contains the names Ernst Junger, Carl Schmitt, Foucault, Paul Virilio, and four others whom I do not recognize, with each person specified further by oblique references, such as to Schmitt’s “Decisionism” and ­Junger’s taking refuge in the forests of Wilflingen. Felsch can tell us which books Paris gave to Gente, and when; which pubs and cafés the different camps ­frequented; why Althusser got angry with Merve, and what his letter charged; which reputations were up and which down as the years passed; the moment in January 1978 when Foucault met David Bowie, and on and on. He also inserts brief discussions of important publications, which, though narrowly focused in their political thrust, meet the cardinal intellectual duty in an age of theory: getting the ideas of the masters right.

I use the word archival, and not just as a metaphor. The backstory of this book began in 2008, when an editor of a scholarly journal asked Felsch to write an article about Merve. Felsch had grown up reading Merve volumes and agreed. It was then that he learned that Gente had turned over his papers to the Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe. There, Felsch found forty unopened boxes of correspondence, clippings, personal notes, budgets, dossiers, records, and more. “Only gradually did I realize that what I was looking at were not the typical assets of a liquidated business: it was the record of an epic adventure of reading.”

For humanists of my age, Felsch’s account of the summer of theory evokes nostalgia, notwithstanding the wicked politics and personalities of those days. Reading isn’t an adventure anymore; theory is over; the thrill is gone. The concepts with currency today—­intersectionality, structures of oppression, and other pseudo-­sociological formulations—look like sophomoric inventions when set alongside Baudrillard’s treatment of “the political ­economy of the sign.” As the old readings and the ­enthusiasms surrounding them fade and the present, intellectually bankrupt century proceeds, the Theory ­Decades appear ever more extraordinary. For a time, books were beloved guides and companions, the most recondite expressions could spellbind young minds, and philosophers could be poets and gurus. That movement and those years deserve just the kind of archival treatment we have here—not more interpretation, not more theory, and not criticism of ­theory’s many moral failings, but a recovery of the full experience of the people involved.

In 2002, Heidi Paris took her own life. In 2007, Peter Gente left Europe for good, moving to Thailand and dying there in early 2014.

Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.