Daniel Miller in conversation with Martin Zet

Daniel Miller: Martin, was it ever your plan to burn these books?


Martin Zet: It never was my plan. I must say I am fascinated by the imaginations of the people here. Everyone had this incredible fantasy – of 60,000 books in flames! It shows stranger and more interesting things than I expected...


You sent out a call to collect together these books, and it's generated dozens of articles and hundreds of reactions, even a public demonstration. There seems to be some kind of weird machine at work here...


You know, I basically love books. I write books, I make books, I collect books. I even have a license that officially enables me to publish books. But there is definitely an irrational, fetishistic moment connected to books, which I think is related to the role of the book in the past. When you had very limited numbers of handwritten manuscripts they were obviously untouchable and precious. But when you have editions of hundreds of thousands, and you have a worldwide information system that can be accessed from everywhere and stores everything for eternity, it is pure fetishism to be so concerned about their physical well-being.


The choice of the Sarrazin book is clearly relevant. I don't think that a call to collect, say, 60,000 copies of Oliver Kahn's autobiography would have produced the same effect...


No. Sarrazin’s book deeply touches topics of German society, and so by touching it, I entered this domain. And I think that in this kind of situation, the words or the ideas are not the most important thing; what's decisive are the things it represents among the people. The crucial question is: what is the desire of this book. What does it want to create? Does it just want to be sold? Or does it want to function somehow?


You read the book in Czech?


Yes, it was published in 2011 by a company called Academia in a series called 21. stoleti, which is kind of like a popular intellectual series about presenting important social and political positions. But things happened differently to how they happened in Germany. There was an interview with Mr. Sarrazin in the newspaper Lidové noviny which came out before the book was published, and a few reflections in the media which came afterwards, but there wasn't really a serious discussion. The book was presented as somehow already legitimized.


On January 21 there was a demonstration against you on Bebelplatz that was called in support of free speech. You can understand why, if you want to make provocative claims, it makes sense to publicly support free speech. But the truth is that this doctrine is a myth. There is no such thing as free speech, just like there is no such thing as a free markets. There are competitive markets, and there are competitive speech acts...


We were always dreaming about democracy in communist times. But, of course, good slogans can be made to serve strange purposes. The same democracy that means power in the hands of people also means power in the hands of the majority. It can easily happen that the power will get into the hands of the guy who knows how to manipulate public opinion. What he wants is maybe a disaster. But he is able to persuade the public to desire the disaster too...


Probably the most notorious statement associated with the book appeared in an interview that Sarrazin gave to Lettre International in 2009: "I do not have to acknowledge anyone who lives by welfare, denies the legitimacy of the very state that provides that welfare, refuses to care for the education of his children and constantly produces new little headscarf-girls. This holds true for 70 percent of the Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population in Berlin.'' It's an extremely strange statement, because it is really not clear how you quantify this kind of description...


People want to believe, and the best way is through numbers. Once you see numbers, it is already somehow objective...


And then the other side of the story is the very aggressive design of the books’s cover.


Yes... the black dissolves in red, and the white is shining, which creates the feeling of the Turkish flag. I ask myself if it was made this way intentionally. But of course, red, white and black are the most efficient colors in any propaganda, used in many different discourses and contexts whenever someone wants to be strict, simple and attractive.

Did you know that the Czech title of this book is Germany Commits Suicide?


It really doesn't seem to me that Germany is currently committing suicide. Quite the reverse. Economically and politically Germany at the moment is the strongest country in Europe. But I think there's something in the German soul is attracted to this kind of pathos...


You mean the romantic tradition? The suffering of Young Werther...?


Exactly. To the extent that I wonder if this book which appears at first glance to be a sociological book, is really something else, something more spiritual, employing the language and discourse of politics to express something deeper, namely, a yearning for annihilation.


You mean it is not really about waking people up to solve the problem, and more about somehow enjoying the suffering?


Yes, I think it's about enjoying the suffering...


But then... if you are right, why don't they celebrate me making the suffering even bigger?


I think that's what been happening.


Perhaps this is an issue related to the lack of rituals in this country. Do they have any functioning rituals in this country, besides football?


They watch Tatort every Sunday in communal public spaces. And there is a riot every year on May 1. But I think there is a major fear of rituals, anchored in the social consensus of post-war German society. There is a certain way ideas can be discussed, certain channels, forms and processes, and we have to stick to them, or something terrible might happen.


I understand. Proposing something with a certain ritualistic character could activate some dangerous powers...


Yes. But the massive success of this book suggests that they have already been activated. The book itself is somehow ritualistic...


I think that we are dealing with a form of magic...


Perhaps, thinking about the logo for the project, we could talk about the idea of recycling, and the question of what is being recycled. Plainly, this book contains a lot of surplus energy. Do you think it is possible to recycle this energy? To recycle this power, and use it to deepen and shift the discussion?


It was originally my dream that this could happen. But it seems to me that the wishes of the people are leading things in a different direction, away from the important questions, and towards generating this kind of self-approval for militant groups, which they can use to show the people that they fight the real evil, who is me, and they are good guys. But I shouldn't say this, because I should be optimistic.


I don't know. I somehow agree with Mao Zedong: it's good when the enemy attacks you, because then you know where you stand.


Well, I admit I am actually enjoying attack. I mean, there are some unpleasant aspects, like all of the nasty e-mails I am getting, telling me to go back to my country, Czech-Nazi swine, and so on, but in the end it's not so bad...


You put out a call to collect together these books, and Germany answered by sending you all of these messages. It seems to me that these messages are made from the same kind of inflammatory psychic material which composes and surrounds the book.


The problem is to understand how to responsibly treat this material. One idea was to find some kind of spell to neutralize the book and send it back, somehow drain away the magic power. And I thought in this moment, not about the ghosts of 1933, but the ghost of Wilhelm Reich, whose books were also burned, in 1956. I dreamed Reich came and whispered in my ear: ''Use the cloudbuster. You can use the cloudbuster to drain the sexual energy from the books!'' And then I think, the books, once they don't have this sexual energy anymore, they can again be in circulation on the shelves, but kind of neutral.


Perhaps the spell hasn't yet finished working?


We have perhaps three ways to face this. Either, we try to beat it with a stronger spell. Or we try and build immunization on the other side. Or we try to make the process faster. But here we face the problem of what the process really is. Maybe by accelerating it we'd produce something terrible.


Maybe we could try for a controlled explosion? Like a bomb disposal...


I think you somehow have this kind of magic sphere around the book, and that perhaps you could succeed, not by force, but by just... taking a little particle away, so that the power would drain out through this little hole... just leak away. If the time of the popularity of fractals wasn't over, then I would say something like, if you change the edge of the fractal, then it influences the whole structure.


It's an interesting problem. What is the edge of a book? It's somewhere between the book and the discourse about the book and the marketing of the book and the culture that the book enters...


I have been using the term resonance... the resonance of the book. I feel it like a sound, really... and the more copies there are, the stronger the sound. So what do I want to do with this sound? What could be done with it? Maybe it is just a tone, and if I succeed maybe some other tones are added, and it's getting richer, harmonic, or maybe disharmonic. I am not sure which would be better...


I am thinking of this song by Billy Joel: We didn't start the fire.


No... in a way I stepped into it. But here we are, from fire, though magic, then music, and now back to the fire department. I think I will need to talk to my psychoanalyst, who I don't have, and ask him whether all this hysteria about me making a fire is not really a wish for me to do so.


More Comments

Statement by Axel Wieder, Pro qm

The first time I heard about Martin Zet’s project was when a staff member... More >
Statement by Axel Wieder, Pro qm

Who abolishes it? – The freedom of thought?

On the debate around the campaign “Germany abolishes it“ by Martin Zet as part... More >
Who abolishes it? – The freedom of thought?

Flames in their Heads

by Igor Stokfiszewski More >
Flames in their Heads

Statement by Stéphane Bauer, Director, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien

Or why Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien will continue to be a collecting point for the campaign... More >
Statement by Stéphane Bauer, Director, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien

Statement by Artur Żmijewski

The campaign by Czech artist Martin Zet to collect as many copies of Thilo... More >
Statement by Artur Żmijewski

Comment by Chantal Mouffe

I think Martin Zet’s project is a legitimate initiative. He is curious to know... More >
Comment by Chantal Mouffe

“Deutschland schafft es ab” (Germany gets rid of it) – book collection campaign

The Czech artist Martin Zet calls to collect as many copies of the book... More >
“Deutschland schafft es ab” (Germany gets rid of it) – book collection campaign
10th Berlin Biennale