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Ulrich Gutmair

Good Texts, Bad Texts

What are good texts? And what are the bad texts that always remind us of the absence of good ones? My proposition in this short essay is that bad texts today disqualify themselves either through unrestrained subjectivism or a stereotyped jargon suggesting a strong theory. The first say a lot about their authors’ self-marketing strategies but little about the subject matter; the latter replace arguments with indexes to debates led differently at other times and places. It is therefore true, firstly, that texts saying “I” but not much more are not good texts, and secondly, that texts which only give the impression of thought and reflection are not good texts either. But what, then, are good texts? Their internal economy must be coherent, they must impart as much as possible with the least possible means. Further precepts are clarity and preciseness, plausibility and stringent argumentation. Good texts are by definition well-written texts, which by no means implies that well-written texts must be good ones. Style, elegance and precision do not necessarily coincide with the formulation of thoughts. Moreover, good texts reveal the author’s passions. One notices that they result from an urgency. In the kinds of bad texts briefly outlined above, neither is the case: The unrestrained subjective texts that are produced en masse, by default with a small picture of the author, for art sections, weekend issues and supplements — the pages in newspapers and magazines dedicated to “Life” — and have already infected the writing of reviews, usually convey nothing of such passions. They are much too ironically distanced to themselves to do so. The number of truths about the author conveyed in a text mostly stands in inverse proportion to the number of times the word “I” occurs. But also the jargon cascades of contemporary project literature loudly trumpeting “Theory!” know no urgency. Often they do not even satisfy their own theoretical demands, which is more serious. By project literature I mean the type of texts that have become widespread in publications on state-funded event series, in art catalogues, in statements of curators and occasionally in art magazines such as Texte zur Kunst. The density of jargon and hyper-complex multi-clause sentences in this kind of literature has a deterring effect even on the benevolent reader. In what follows, only the “I”-texts will be discussed, because the authors of project literature put one in a bad mood often enough anyhow. Yet it is not their fault that — as German philologists, cultural theorists or curators situated in the world of excellence initiatives and under the regime of bachelor studies — they are in constant competition for third-party projects, funding or shares in the art market. This forces them to suddenly have to speak as experts on the climate crisis, on sustainability or intercultural exchange. They are both victims and actors of a process in which art and culture are misused as discourse agencies for issues that are actually political. Nowadays, only the naming or “thematizing” of pressing social issues seem to ensure organizers of conferences and event series and exhibition curators sufficient funding and attention. To say “I” does not infringe on the precept of good readability and plausibility. However, it does become a problem when this “I” already describes the entire space outlined by the text. “I”-texts are the other side of celebrity culture because they don’t really impart anything about a social outside or an inside. Their reified “I” is, analogous to the celebrity surface, a one-dimensional construction lacking contradictions and affects that wants to know nothing about the conditions under which it is expressed. That is also the reason why Rainald Goetz’s “Klage” [Lament] functioned so wonderfully. This blog on the web pages of the German Vanity Fair appears as a version of the common “I”-text with all its horrors and embarrassing moments, but it also permanently analyses it. “Klage” is a higher, secondary form of gossip, naming the “I” of other authors and celebrities, while not refraining from critical self-questioning. It is a text on the internal and external conditions of producing texts. Goetz constructs the society he seeks to grasp in analogy to the field tilled by newspapers in the “Society” columns. At the same time, Goetz observes how other observers of this society operate by describing them. Goetz formulates his own ethics of a good text which manifests itself in the imperative of empathy: “Each observation that does not make the effort to leave its distanced position to what is observed so as to gain an understanding of the observed vis-à-vis from within in intuitively active processes of comprehension is a mean thing, asocial, a forbidden stupidity limiting the understanding of the world.” For precisely this reason, “I”-texts rarely succeed in arousing the interest of their readers; they refer only to themselves recursively. But how has this mass establishment of “I”-monads in the media come about? The fact that the mass media deal with celebrities and that the authors, by writing about them, also write about themselves, has economic reasons as well. The total circulation of German newspapers is on a constant decline, while the number of unemployed journalists is rising. The Internet is most likely responsible not only for the dwindling of readers but also for the drop in advertisements. In a text that recently appeared in the weekly Zeit, Götz Hamann contradicts the rash argument that the triumphant success of the Internet is the sole reason for all problems in publishing. He views the expectation of excessive returns as well as strategic mistakes as factors that are far more decisive. While even in booming branches such as the steel industry, returns are clearly below ten percentage points, they reach more than twenty-five at German publishing houses. But if the revenue drops, among other things, due to the Internet, to which parts of the advertising market and the readers have migrated, then the publishers — as the development of the past fifteen years has shown — usually take measures that are detrimental to the working conditions. Jobs are cut, existing wage agreements are undermined through outsourcing. This strategy of cuts results in constantly reduced fees for freelance authors and the remaining editors having to take on more and more organizational tasks, for example. It was probably not by chance that the trail of success of the decaying forms of so-called pop journalism occurred at the same time in which this development gained speed. What its precursors had in mind by taking on a subjective point of view was, among other things, to undermine the old borders between high culture and subculture. Preference was given to experiences of everyday life rather than to canonized knowledge. In the best case the issue was to combine theoretical interests with the precise view, equally empathetic and critical, of pop-cultural phenomena. What has remained of this is no more than a misunderstanding, namely, the described reversion to the confined space of the formal “I”. This can be grasped as a strategy of creatively dealing with a lack of resources: When there is no time left for research and reflection, the writing editor and the precarized “free”-lancer must fall back on their own experiences. But what is the target group? A look at German daily newspapers and magazines reveals that it is a readership insinuated to have regressive tendencies. Superlatives are used, aiming at infantile desire and its fantasies of omnipotence. The product sold here is called being up front, playing along, being an elite in the field of consumption and the knowledge associated with it. That, too, is an original element of pop journalism, yet one which has lost all critical impulses and now merely consists in gestures of distinction. The product at issue here, then, is what is often described as the “neo-bourgeois mentality”. “Bourgeois mentality” stands for the participation in knowledge and consumption, “neo” for the claim described above that this participation is not only bourgeois, i. e. showing conservative tendencies, but in its affirmation of what exists allegedly possesses an avant-garde, bohemian character. Rainald Goetz writes that something like that is not possible at all: “Any idea that does not break when encountering the social sphere, allowing it to be confused, destroyed or authenticated, doesn’t exist.” Perhaps it is due to its broken grammar that this statement sounds so true. It is the faulty structure of the sentence that bears witness to precisely this destruction.