Geschichte des Zufalls no. 15

On 17 June 2012, I visited the Mauerpark flea market with friend and poet D— S—. The market was bursting at the seams with the detritus of pop culture; archives of tape and vinyl; retro furniture and avant-garde t-shirts; remnants of the former socialist state and occasional contraband from darker times; out-of-date art books and mass market magazines bleaching in the sun. A carnival of objects to anchor social ground within the shadow of the former Wall.

At the end of a long alley of stands, objects, and crowds—or at the end of a confusing story that was just about to arrive at its point—appeared a stall selling what look like small cardboard boxes, each with a stenciled number cut out on the top that let optical green paper show through, under the banner “Geschichten des Zufalls.” In the center of the table stood a gumball machine, containing wooden balls with the same optical green numbers. We were invited to purchase one of the boxes as a “chance object,” and to participate in a conceptual project in which we would inform the sellers/organizers of any coincidences that had occurred after its purchase. We could pay whatever price we felt appropriate for an opportunity to encounter chance in this way.

The “coincidence team” who had set up the stand was a group of students at the University of the Arts who had designed this exercise in ludic aesthetics as part of their coursework—results due at the end of the semester. After offering a lecture on the history of objective chance and André Breton’s encounters in flea markets (which they seemed not to know, though perhaps I spoke too rapidly in English), I accepted the offer to purchase a box. I turned the crank on the gumball machine, producing the number 15. Box 15 was given to me, in a handsome brown paper tote bag with their trademark optical green logo silk-screened on the side; I paid 10 Euros as an appropriate price. After asking if that was enough, I exchanged addresses with the students, photographed them and was photographed in turn, and continued on my flea market excursion (which was quite successful).

I told my new friends at the stall that I would open the box when I returned to Detroit. It was thus necessary to pack it carefully in its unopened state. Only later did I realize that something in the box might be a problem for customs or security; aren’t we always being asked if anyone has given something to us, whose contents we are not aware of? And that remained the case—I did not open the box, or even think of security injunctions, until I had passed customs in New York and flown on to Detroit. It was, in any case, relatively light, and I could not imagine anything negative or threatening contained within it. Only something mildly mysterious, whose mystery I would like to preserve for some amount of time, at least.

On returning to Detroit, I opened the box. It contained a single photographic print, scanned and reproduced above, and some instructions along with contact information. The instructions read (in German, and my translation):

Die Geschichten, die der Zufall schreibt, erzählen von Großem und Kleinem. Von großem Leid und kleinen Freuden. Sie lassen uns stauen und manchmal lassen sie uns auch verwirrt zurück. Eines jedenfalls haben sie alle gemeinsam: die Möglichkeit, auf sie zu reagieren.

Hier haben wir nun Ihren Zufall. In einer Kiste. Und nun? Nun ja, Sie können ihn ignorieren, im nächsten Müll entsorgen oder in nächste Woche hier für viel Geld weiterverkaufen. Was Sie aber auch tun können, ist auf diesen Zufall zu reagieren. Dan englische Wort für Zufall lautet “chance” und in diesem Kontext wollen wir Sie ermuntern, offen zu sein für diesen Zufall und die Geschichten, die er Ihnen vielliecht zu erzählen hat. Die großen und kleinen.

Erzählen Sie uns von Ihrem Zufall! Als Text, Zeichnung oder Fotografie. Auf Paper, über’s Internet oder auf die Mailbox.

[The histories written by chance tell of the Great and the Small. Of great sorrow and little joys. They accumulate with us and at times leave us confused. They have one thing, in any case, in common: the possibility of responding to them.

Here, then, is your chance event. In a box. And then? True, you can ignore it, throw it in the next trashbin or sell it back next week for a pile of money. Whatever you do, however, will be a response to the chance event. The English word for Zufall is given as “chance,” and in this sense we want to encourage you to be open to the chance event and the histories it has to tell you. The Great and the Small.

Tell us of your chance event! As text, drawing or photograph. On paper, over the internet or through the mail.]

My first response to my very own chance event (mein eigener Zufall) was to be a bit underwhelmed by its physical presentation. A single color print, possible a digital collage, with the words “Ab Mittwoch” (after Wednesday) followed by a partly obscured date, “07.03.2012[?]” (3 March 2012[?]). A look at a calendar confirmed that March 7 was a Wednesday this year. The torn scrap of paper or digital collage looks as if it had been tossed onto some kind of ground, identifiable by stone, herbiage, and tossed-out cigarette butt—likely in a city, possibly a park. I was being asked to make sense of this occurrence, as depicted (in the photo) and as experienced (the photo in the box, as the chance event). There is a slight dissociation already in my very own chance event. I begin to accumulate responses. They are:

1. As poet and critic of the avant-garde, I have long been concerned with the poetics of the “date.” First of all, my chance encounter is presented as a “date”—not an object, after Breton. I had just traveled from Erlangen, where I had given a lecture on the poetics of the “date,” part of an article published in Journal of Narrative Theory. This was more than a coincidence: I had been thinking critically of the “date” but was presented with one as an object (at a flea market, not the usual site where commodities are exchanged, a second-order market as it were). As a critic, I would know not to objectify a date—I would theorize it. The results are have been published:

[article on presentism and periodization here]

2. Some of my thinking on the poetics of the date occurred when traveling in Germany, in a manner that suggested a chance encounter. I narrated such an event in a blog post from 11 February 2006 on my website, and in turn used this event as the basis for interrogation of On Kawara’s well-known date paintings. The post on my encounter with On Kawara and the conceptual photographer Lucien Samaha can be found at:

[post on On Kawara and Lucien Samaha here]

3. Behind On Kawara’s conceptual and atemporal date lies a history of great sorrow, as my object’s note suggests: the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and On Kawara’s abandonment of figurative art, which he associated with the damage done to its victims. Purchasing my very own coincidence in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, on ground that was the site of destruction in World War II, can be no accident as well (the students could easily have chosen another flea market for their project, but this one is particularly marked by a divided or destroyed past). Just so, I have been concerned—in a lecture on a particular date, 8 May 1945—with the concept of Stunde Null (Zero Hour), the moment of destruction that “ended” the War and established the conditions for the rethinking of ethical obligation at the Nuremberg Trials.

[my lecture on Stunde Null was given at American University on 10 May 2012 but is not yet published]

4. Just so, I was obligated to refuse service in the American army at a later date—the date of my draft induction during the Vietnam War. It turned out I never faced that punctual date as my number came up low in the lottery—which was selected with a chance-generating operation much like the students’ gumball machine. My number in the draft lottery was high; I no longer recall it, but it could be easily located by correlating it with my birth date: October 3. My number in the student’s lottery, however, was quite low. There was something troubling in that low number.

5. I had recently traveled from California, where I visited a close family member in decline from a massive stroke; she died a few days after I returned to Detroit. Memento mori. On the day I visited the flea market, however, I was at the end of a happy and productive two weeks in Germany, visiting numerous art exhibitions as a creative and scholarly project. A chronology of my travels can be found on this site:

[link to chronology of travels in Germany here]

6. All of these concerns, however, had nothing to do with the specific date given in the photograph. I searched my emails for hints of what may have been begun and could be understood to follow from that date, as nothing seemed obvious. In my university account, there were a number of posts concerning faculty, students, and fellow writers—nothing like a punctual moment from which everything would descend. But on my gmail account, reserved for more meaningful communications, was a list of dissertation questions I forwarded to my student S— R—, who had defended her dissertation earlier that day. Was this the meaningful moment from which something might descend? Erlebnis trumped by Erfahrung, the quotidian by the enduring, perhaps. My questions were torturous constellations, as is my style. If she wanted her Ph.D., she would have to earn it—as she did. The date points me toward the completion of her project as a unique and valuable event.

7. I called my trip to Germany a research trip, but it was more than that. It is in the nature of the kind of discovery, through the chance encounter, the students offered that I sought. And accepted—I willing have taken on the task of accounting for everything this quotidian event might signify. Indeed, from the narrative above, there is not much “new” here—I had theorized the “date” before I encountered it as a chance event, making one wonder what kind of chance event it could really be. And I knew very well what histories of the Great and Small I was exploring in the Mauerpark flea market. The students’ project at the far end of the market—the details of its hailing, and their greeting, and our exchanging addresses—was in the nature of a beneficent confirmation. You have taken the right path, they seemed to say, in preparation for this event.

8. Two issues remain: the relation of the date to the box it was contained within, as if a kind of pseudo-commodity. That life should not be reduced to the commodity form is something with which everyone may agree. What to make of the several references to throwing this glimpse out in the trash? The word Müll evokes the small histories of urban ecology, but also the great horizon of destruction in the war—with its mountains of urban detritus heaped up as at the Teufelsberg. Earlier in my travels to Germany I had climbed to the top of that mountain of debris, on German Reunification Day (October 3) no less, and wrote:

[link to post on ascent of Teufelsberg here; scroll to end]

9. The small cardboard box might be a valuable event, not to be tossed in the trash. But I am still troubled by the low number I received. The true mystery of this encounter may be the number on the box itself, “15.”

Respectfully submitted to my friends in the Geschichten des Zufalls group, whose contact information and Facebook page may be found below:

29 June 2012, Detroit


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