Mobile structures are ethical structures but do not permit laziness

First given as a talk in 2011.

Niemands Frau refers to Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, as Odysseus called himself ‘Niemand’ in order to escape the Cyclops Polyphemus. Köhler, born in 1959, started writing as part of the unofficial poetry scene in Prenzlauerberg in East Germany in the 1980s. Her first published collection of poetry is called Deutsches Roulette.

From early in her career Köhler has worked in collaboration with artists and writers to produce multi-authored works, for example there’s a special edition of Niemands Frau produced with Swiss artist Andrea Wolfensberger and she is currently writer in residence at Museum Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf. Translation has also been philosophical interest and practice for Köhler. Suhrkamp have published translations by Köhler of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, and a shorter, early version of Niemands Frau also was published as part of a volume on radical translation in 2000 which began by quoting translations of the Odyssey in German from different centuries, therefore situating Niemands Frau in a tradition of translation.

Key philosophical concerns for Köhler are the construction of the subject in time, space and grammar. Her work is strongly intertextual and refers frequently to classical literature, philosophy as well as more recently, technology and physics. In Niemands Frau there is a strong element of ideas from Quantum physics present in the text. What Quantum physics and ideas from computing and cloning offer in Köhler’s writing are different structures for figuring what she is trying to convey about reality.

I am going to talk a bit about Barbara Köhler’s textual practice and how she thinks about texts as navigated abstract spaces, which are constructed perfomatively by the movement of the reader through the text. I am also going to consider ways in which to visualize this using architecture, not as an exact match, but as a move towards thinking about what forms of textual ‘architecture’ are ethical, or not, what is a text attempting to produce through its relation to the reading subject.

Niemands Frau is very challenging to read. Both of my supervisors recently declared after reading it for the first time, that they didn’t understand a word of it. Köhler makes the reader work hard to find a way through her texts. Rules of capitalisation and grammar cannot be depended upon; the reader is not shepherded through the text, words can be nouns and verbs at the same time, and the run-on of words between lines can cause there to be at the same time, a statement and a denial of that statement – a line can say something and negate it, making it a paradoxical, oscillating between opposing statements, never allowing resolution.

Here is an example from Niemands Frau:

die liebe seele ein versprechen un

sterblich was das wort das fleisch

The coexistence of unsterblich (immortal) and sterblich (mortal) here brings out paradoxes in the practice of cloning that is a concern of the Niemands Frau, whereby, the reduction of life to a code – DNA in order to reproduce life brings about a non-vital reproduction, where the cloned body is a physical materialisation of a code and is an exact repetition. This remove what is live-ly about life, which is change, its non-replicability. Versprechen too, is both verb and noun (the ein that precedes versprechen also connects back to gab, to make eingeben) brings both the noun and verb of promise, and the verb to misspeak, which undermines the value of the meaning promise. The interplay between these words un/sterblich and versprechen brings about the co-existence of truth and untruth: there is the promise of life that is cloning, but at the same time the untruth of that, in the form of life that cloning produces – or as Köhler might frame it, due to her love of Quantum Physics, the maintenance of the wave function, in poetry. With words being concurrently verb and noun, the poetry becomes itself structurally mobile, oscillating between static object – noun – and immaterial, verb, between object and motion, moving and static, a hologrammatic effect.

The co-existence of words as both nouns and verbs means that the reader must choose when reading that the word will be in order to form an image of the text in their mind that is, – for it to have meaning at all. But what Köhler achieves in her poetry, is that the reader is made aware of the sacrifice of reality, of one half of the world that occurs through their choosing. It is the case that the reader chooses a path but is aware at the same time that there are other paths that they have not chosen. Their particular performative construction of the text is not permitted to be final, not even for them.

In an interview with Georgina Paul about her poetic project, in the 2000 special author volume of German Monitor, Entgegenkommen, Köhler depicts texts as structures that can be navigated in a multitude of possible paths: there is not one path, but many and is not for the author to dictate how they are chosen.

‘Jeder Text funktioniert eigentich so, wirklich als virtueller Raum durch den sich jede Leserin, jeder Leser einen Weg bahnen muß. Es gibt nicht den einen Weg mit dem man durchkommt, sonder es immer eine Vielzahl von Möglichkeiten’

She says here the readers must themselves pioneer a new route through the virtual space of the text. To visualise this, it might be helpful (or fun) to think about what kind of building Niemands Frau would be. What comes to mind for me is Lasdun’s National Theatre, or the interior of the BFI – where there is always more than one way of navigating the building, and though you must choose a path you are aware that it is not THE path, the authoritative path, or way of getting there. This idea came to me when I was feeling frustrated about having to decide where to go and realised that this sense of frustration came from having to actively choose how to get somewhere, rather than being processed by the building. I was unwilling to be a subject. Perhaps what Camilla’s text would be figured as is a corridor, or National Socialist architecture, which represses the possibility of constructing one’s own path, through the oppressive enormity of Speer’s neoclassicism. The will to laziness that I identified in myself at that moment, in the BFI, when I did not want to think about where to go, struck me as a dangerous impulse and a clue into why sometimes, people give up their will to navigate existence through their own choices, rather than being led along a set path.

Köhler’s texts are ethically architectured, and seek to maintain an active relation to the reading subject, whose active self-reflexive engagement is vital for the text to acquire shape and meaning, albeit ephemeral meaning. This construction makes it possible for the text to make its return again and again, differently. There is a quotation at the beginning of Niemands Frau ‘Die Beobachterin ist Teil des Systems’. The observer (female) is part of the system. This does not necessarily have a negative meaning, more it is an affirmation of the role of the reader as subject in constructing and sustaining a system of meaning – and thereby situates the power to change the ‘system’ within the observer/reader. This idea is taken from the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment, which is referred to throughout Niemands Frau where in which, it is only through the intervention of an observer that the plurality of reality is collapsed into one truth. This highlights the vital contingency of truth, and it’s persistent incompleteness, or uncertainty.

A few lines of Niemands Frau which express the mobility of Köhler’s vision:

Eine reise

und kein ende, ein anderes: eine reisende – oder

zwei, ein paar oder viele, reisende und im gespräch,

im gedicht, in bewegung, wo dinge, worte, orte ihre

bedeutung ändern, zwischen sprachen, von insel zu

insel übersetzende, reisende, die

The string of gerunds, denote the constant state of becoming that the text is in, it is a mobile text, that wants its reader to be an active subject, the relation between the text and reader is a subject-subject one, of mutual agency. The reader is not the object of the text, and nor is the text a finite object of the reader. The text, constantly in processual motion, produces a subject in processual motion. In the introduction to her doctoral text on Köhler’s text installations, Annette Metzger states that “Köhlers performative SprachRäume sind nicht imaginär, sie sind begehbar, angewiesen auf Durchquerung in Betrachtung und Lektüre. Sie fordern Dialoge mit den Lesenden explizit heraus.”

The relation of the subject in grammar, in a text-space is always related by Köhler back to its performative materialisation in the world in the essay TANGO. EIN DISTANZ published in the theoretical volume Wittgensteins Nichte that was written concurrently to Niemands Frau in 1999.

Im Sprachtraum treffen zwei Ichs aufeinander ( wer unten?

wer oben?) : er & sie

Er könnte jeder sein, jederMann; sie könnte jede sein oder

alle – Pronomina, grammatische Personen, die in der Syntax

Rollen spielen, als Subjekte, als Objekte, als Pendler zwi-

schen Agens & Patiens: sie sagt Ich, er sagt Ich, sie sagen Wir.

Im Sprachraum stehen sie als dritte Personen hinter der er-

sten, der zweiten Person.

Köhler goes on to relate this to the physical materialisation:


che als Raum, der andere/anderes bezieht, mehr als nur

ein Zeichen: Physis, Körper, der Sprache produziert, der sie

sich einverleibt sowie ihr eingeschrieben ist.

So when writing her Odyssey text, Köhler begins by deconstructing the notion of the hero subject in grammar, that would presides over a linear narrative, because that would, for her translate into a particularly rigid kind of subject in the material world, on a set path.

From the first lines of the cycle to the last, the pursuit of the subject in motion, motion away from the figure of a hero, is expressed in the use of pronouns and definite articles. The possibility of an un-reflexive, single ‘Ich’ Odysseus character is undermined in the first song with the opening three words the same as Johann Heinrich Voss’ 1781 German translation of the Odyssey ‘Sage mir muse’ but rather than continuing with ‘die Taten des vielgewanderten Mannes’, it continues with ‘wer Es ist was Er wer Homer & warum ist Es wichtig & Es zu wissen sag mir wer du bist was Ich ist’ (NF, 10). The momentum of the insistent questions in the first song functions differently to the first lines of Homer’s Odyssey, which introduces the reader/listener to the hero and his journey. In the first lines of Homer, Odysseus is the constant, while the location changes:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.

Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,

many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,

fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

Odysseus is a unified subject in Homer’s text, whereas Köhler begins by de-centering and deconstructing the ‘Er’ and ‘Ich’, that would be used to narrate the hero in the first song. This undermines the possibility from the start of even conceiving of a stable man who could so freely move through the world and remain a constant, a moving dot, between points on a map. As Köhler explains when discussing her poetic project during the writing of Niemands Frau in the interview with Paul ‘Es is nicht dieses: hier ist ein Punkt, ein Subjekt, ein Ich, ein Er, und das geht jetzt los und geht auf ein Ziel zu’. For the Odyssey to be a heroic epic, the reader/hearer must be able to think the heroic subject, for them then to move from place to place. Köhler refuses to constitute the thinkable hero in language in her poetry. Therefore the forms of movement that occur in Niemands Frau cannot be those of the Odyssey, because they rely on a corresponding subject to carry them out. The ‘redistribution’ of life from the sole subject to plural subjects means that by the last lines of the cycle, there is no longer even an ‘Er’ or ‘Es’ or an ‘Ich’, and the final word is ‘die’ (NF, 90) the definite article that can denote a feminine object and plural feminine or masculine, or a mixture of both, an ambiguous subject.

Like the National Theatre in London — a building which was designed to come to life through interaction with people, and its involvement in the human environment of the city, rather than as a monolithic structure that alienates its surroundings, Köhler’s text ONLY acquire its transitory meaning when being navigated by a striving, pioneering subject that themselves are encouraged to be in flux. Houston Steward Chamberlain, whose propagandistic writing was demonstrated by Camilla as shutting down the reader’s judgement and thought. Architecturally figured, Chamberlain’s text would perhaps look like a corridor – there is only one way through. Köhler’s method is an optimistic one: it has faith in the reader’s desire to actively construct the text, and themselves, Chamberlain’s is pessimistic, assuming that the reader, must be led along a path, with no freedom of choice. Textual architecture like the material architecture of buildings implies a politics, an ethical stance on the subject.


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