Pynchonesque

I need to begin this post by thanking Julika Griem for inviting me on what I hope was only a first visit to Frankfurt’s Goethe Universität; it was a privilege to be able to speak there, and I hope to be able to return very soon.

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted, only half-jokingly:

The two buildings that make up the IG Farben Haus are just magnificent, masterpieces of 1920s German architecture — a slight whiff of fascism in their monumentalist aesthetic, yes, but nonetheless spectacular.

And that these buildings are occupied not by the engineering faculty, or by the law school, but by the humanities, is pretty remarkable.

I couldn’t have realized, however, that my little Gravity’s Rainbow joke was going to have what might be considered some Unforeseen Consequences. I got about ten minutes or so into my talk, when the enormous speakers mounted on the wall behind me erupted in a torrent of German-accented English. Something about thanking the speaker, and taking some time now for discussion.

For an instant I thought I was being cut off, but why, and by whom? It turns out, however, that there was another talk going on in the building, in a large lecture hall on the ground floor. A talk by an economist, apparently, being given to a bunch of business people. And while the speaker’s microphone was properly wired, the mobile mic being used to amplify audience questions was piping those questions not only into the lecture hall but into a number of other rooms as well.

Needless to say, my talk ground to a halt. My mortified hosts ran downstairs to get the economists to straighten out their little broadcast problem, but they’d locked the doors, so no one could get into the room. And after some banging, the sponsors of the talk said that they couldn’t understand why there would be a problem, as they’d brought in their own equipment.

After a question, the broadcast would fall silent, and I’d try to start the talk back up, only to be drowned out by another amplified question a few minutes later. The good news is that the Q&A downstairs didn’t last very long; after about 20 minutes, I was able to resume my talk without further interruption.

But there’s something deeply allegorical in all of this: questions about negative interest rates and the problems raised by taking on debt insistently interrupting a talk about new models of open online authorship and its relationship to the gift economy; business people infiltrating university spaces, and then locking the doors behind them; economists bringing their own presumably better equipment into humanities territory, and then refusing to believe that it could possibly be malfunctioning, drowning out every other conversation.

But then I’d hate to read too much into it.

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