Here Be Monsters: A Report from Berlin
Grasping the possible means finding within the tangle of the present the thread that will allow us to unravel the knots. If you do not grasp that thread, then the knots will tighten, and sooner or later they will strangle you.
— Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, “After the European Union”
I’m writing from the Emergency Clinic at Berlin’s Vivantes Klinikum am Urban on the banks of the Landwehrkanal. It’s approaching midnight and the waiting room is packed. An old man in the corner mutters that he’s been waiting for six hours. Next to him, a heavily pregnant woman sits crumpled over a magazine. A boy at the coffee dispenser is shaking so hard he can’t fit his euro into the coin-slot. Above the vending machine, a flat-screen television flashes footage of today’s attack in Stockholm, children gasping for air in Syria, the American president appealing to “all civilized nations” to support last night’s military air strike. On the adjacent wall, a sign in Turkish, German, and English reads:
We would like to ask for your understanding. We know that you are waiting here concerned … Depending on the symptoms, examinations may have varying lengths. Special diagnostics are time consuming. The volume of patients is particularly high. Thank you for your understanding.
Watching Donald Trump speak on screen, I think of the recent tendency to diagnose him: he’s paranoid and delusional; he’s a compulsive liar; he exhibits all the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as laid out in the DSM-5. What such accounts neglect to address, however, is that Donald Trump is himself a symptom.
Symptom: from the Greek for “accident, misfortune, that which befalls” / from “I befall” / from “together, with” and “I fall”. In the field of medicine, a symptom indicates the presence of an illness, disease, or disorder. In psychoanalysis, it is the manifestation of a latent crisis or conflict. The symptom gives an otherwise hidden disturbance shape, makes it perceptible and material by translating it into a sign. As a signifier, it points beyond itself, to the present (dysfunction), the past (trauma), and the future (the realm of possible action, depending, in part, on treatment). It thus has close ties to language and may itself even be structured like one. It speaks. And in doing so, it conveys valuable information. However garbled and nonsensical these messages may initially appear to be, they tell us something about a state of emergency.
“The great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”1
Waiting-times at Urgent Care stations in Berlin are 8 to 10 hours on average these days, a nurse tells me. Of course it depends on the triage: a level of urgency has to be assessed, based on the severity of your morbid symptoms. What’s your trauma score? Does the injury you are experiencing require immediate critical attention, or is it safe to keep waiting? Is the pain increasing, does it hurt here, here, here, here? There is some uncomfortable poking and prodding involved in this process, some temperature-taking and urine-sampling.
Etymologically speaking, a monster is not so very different from a symptom. Monstrum: omen, portent, sign. Monere: to warn, advise, teach. Perhaps monsters like Trump, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Hofer, and Wilders really do have a thing or two to teach us about the etiology of an illness; its history and roots. And perhaps, at its core, the illness leads back to the insufficiencies, internal contradictions, exclusions, and delusions of something as uninterrogated and blindly accepted as the nation-state system.
It’s true that the fantasy of the sovereign nation-state has monopolized the political imaginary of the recent past, dominating the twentieth century and rippling into ours. But the prognosis for its future doesn’t look so great: we see signs of its erosion and failure everywhere. Some even say that it died long ago, at the hands of financial markets, globalization, migration, and technology. This implies, of course, that we might look to zombie narratives for a better understanding of what we’re up against in this moment: ideas that don’t realize they’re dead, but are propelled to keep going, keep feeding, at any cost.
It’s useful, however, to remind ourselves that political systems are built things, like Frankensteins, and as such they can be tinkered with. The nation-state is strikingly young: a modern invention contrived during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (the same year Rosa Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the Landwehrcanal, not far from this hospital). Like many early modernist creations, it presents itself as an ancient, primordial truth, the one and authentic only. This artificial aura is part of what makes it so potent, mobilizing the deep emotions and attachments that give rise to nationalism. Arriving at the precise moment when meaning, continuity, and security slip away in the modern era, nation-hood steps in to fill these gaps, to stuff the wounds with a seemingly timeless fiction.
Something about the story we’ve swallowed is making us ill. But maybe these monsters can help suggest a treatment plan. Do they guide us towards over-the-counter painkillers, gentle reform, short-term CBT, and bedrest; or does their behavior suggest a need for more invasive procedures? In other words: do we focus on alleviating the symptoms, or use this emergency to dig deep and wipe out the disease? Often such questions open onto more questions, more diagnostic tests, and we seem doomed to a long, excruciating interregnum. But the slips and glitches, the grotesque symptoms of a system-failure, reveal a tactic. If certain narratives, fictions, and non-facts are shaping the impoverished political imaginary of the present, an appropriate response is to battle this fiction with fiction. To re-describe, reinvent, overwrite. This starts with disentangling ourselves from exhausted storylines (the language of walls, borders, papers: fantasies of permanence, containment, and self-sufficiency) to free up space for new growth, new stories, and new models. After all, “communities,” as Benedict Anderson writes, “are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”2
Images courtesy of Yelp.
- Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks (1930). A version of Gramsci’s popular quote recently framed a three-day conference at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, part of its “100 Years of Now” programming. “Now Is the Time of Monsters: What Comes After Nations?” was curated by Rana Dasgupta, Nanna Heidenreich, and Katrin Klingan and featured a wide array of interdisciplinary thinkers from around the globe. Audio recordings of the event’s lectures can be found here: https://voicerepublic.com/users/hkw-berlin ↩
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: A Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983). ↩