Co-founder of Merve Verlag PETER GENTE passed away on Saturday at home at the Royal Lanna Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Under the direction of Gente and his longtime partner, Heidi Paris (1950–2002), Merve published the most daring texts in philosophy, art, and music in the 1970s and 80s. The following interview with Gente was originally published in 032c #13, after he relocated to Thailand. Just before leaving Berlin, Gente looked back at a time when the choice was between the RAF and the Spontis, when “discourse” was a bad word, and when Blixa Bargeld went dancing at Dschungel. #protestagainstforgetting
MATHIAS BROECKERS: The first book by Peter Gente I got my hands on as a student, in 1973–74, was an anthology, published by Fischer and not by Merve.
PETER GENTE: Yes, that was Marxismus, Psychoanalyse, Sexpol, which appeared in 1970. The first volume contained mostly things by Wilhelm Reich, and the second volume was a collection of more recent texts by authors such as Peter Brückner or Herbert Marcuse.
It was also at that time that you founded the publishing collective and, as it were, made the expansion of classical Marxism your program.
We were an apartment collective in Berlin and our political orientation was defined mostly by May ’68 in Paris and the movement in France in general, which took a course slightly different from the one here. That is, it was less dogmatic and less focused on students. In France especially and also in Italy, the workers were much more involved. And that’s what we were looking toward; we were always about new forms of life and interaction. That’s also why we then abolished the division between manual and intellectual labor at the publishing house. Everyone had to learn how to print. Even my partner, Heidi Paris, had to learn printing after we had met in 1975.
Yes, that was dead and buried. We weren’t really into the terrorists. We were more sympathetic to the Spontis and to people like Fritz Teufel than to types like Horst Mahler.
During that time, you discovered theorists no one knew yet in Germany – Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari – theorists who operated with a language that at first baffled the reader completely. At least that was my experience.
We didn’t get it at first, either. After all, we’d learned something entirely different – Marxism, Critical Theory – and these authors, while in some way continuing that, also departed from it and instituted different frames of reference. They left Marx and Freud or the family behind, as Deleuze/Guattari did in the Anti-Oedipus, and we thought that was interesting.
Entirely new terminologies were developed. “Rhizome”, “wish-machine”—
And that monster, “deterritorialization.”
Oh, yes. I still remember the angry comments from my fellow editors at the paper whenever, in the early 80s, I published another pre-print from your stuff on the culture page of the taz.
That was many years before the big publishing houses and the culture sections discovered all these things. When an old friend of ours from Hamburg, Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, once ran into the editor in charge of the culture pages of the Frankfurter Rundschau, Wolfram Schütte, with Baudrillard’s Kool Killer under his arm, Schütte turned pale and angry: “You read this kind of stuff?” Five years later, the Rundschau took great pride when they could print something by Baudrillard or Virilio. But initially this was a “new irrationalism” to the classical left, and critics such as Lothar Baier and Manfred Frank reproached us for using terms such as “discourse”. Today, these terms are ubiquitous – even the CDU and Angela Merkel use them. I thought it was nice when Dietmar Dath wrote in his obituary for Heidi Paris in the FAZ that Merve had introduced this word and that we really should have the copyrights to it.
When the “International Marxist Discussion” became the “International Merve Discourse” – did you simply decide to take the risk of adopting this new thinking?
What was incomprehensible was what fascinated us in the beginning – and the madness Foucault and Deleuze/ Guattari described was in the air, reality wasn’t quite so clear anymore. That’s why we could work with these theories even when the collective slowly went down the drain and we were going crazy ourselves. Foucault and Deleuze were simply obvious choices and they got us moving, also because they were always in some way oriented toward action. “You don’t have to take theory back to Adam and Eve – get started, walk right into it, and the longer you engage something the better you’ll know your way around it,” Deleuze always said. So that’s what we tried to do.
And with great success, looking at the almost 300 volumes Merve has published. Yet you also always abided by another Deleuze slogan: the becoming-minor, a writing that digs its hole like a mouse. The intellectual capacity congregated at Merve outdoes almost any large publisher’s – yet you have stayed in the same factory loft for thirty years, simply continuing to make your little books.
We could only do all this because we were poor. When an author is a high-profile public figure, he has only two choices: he can either sell himself for as much as possible – or he gives his texts away for free. We got them for free, at least in the beginning – and even when everyone was running after Foucault and he sold 200,000 copies of his three-volume History of Sexuality in the U.S. alone.
Besides such theoretical texts, you produced many books about art and music, from Geniale Dilletanten and Die Tödliche Doris to Martin Kippenberger and Thomas Kapielski. How did this mixture come about?
When Heidi and I met, we went to Dschungel or Risiko almost every night – we knew these people from the music scene before they really made music. A full ten years later, we made a book with Blixa Bargeld and the Einstürzende Neubauten, for instance. We knew Kippenberger when no one knew him. So the books emerged from our personal circle of acquaintances. We worked all day on these exhausting theory books, and when we were completely exhausted at 11 p.m. and the work had definitely passed beyond our intellectual horizons, we went to Dschungel to come down again. We didn’t have any advisors who would have urged this or that title on us, we did our own thing and the books grew out of that. We collected stuff – interviews, newspaper clippings, just materials – and at some point they became a book.
Most copies of Merve volumes are today sold at museum stores and art bookshops. What was the best-selling volume in now 37 years of publishing history?
Deleuze/Guattari’s Rhizome is still the fastest seller. Until two years ago, it was our best-selling book ever, even though it appeared a full 25 years ago. And their Thousand Plateaus holds second place.
That was the Merve library’s first hardcover, in 1992, and a big risk.
Yes, but it went well, and is still going well. There was a postlude to it with Negri/Hardt’s Empire. Empire was praised left and right, but unfortunately there’s nothing in it. I say unfortunately because we were the first to publish Negri outside of Italy, 30 years ago.
You can see where it all leads. Everything here is boxed up. Your archive was bought by the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, at least securing your retirement.
But it wouldn’t be enough in Germany. That’s why I’m moving to Thailand in mid-February. After 50 years in Berlin and 37 years of publishing, I have enjoyed everything that’s going on here to the fullest – art, culture, music, the whole scene. What’s happening right now bores me a little. I’m very spoiled, especially after the singularly beautiful time with Heidi, an exhausting and difficult time, but one that led somewhere, to the books that were our life. When Heidi couldn’t cope with her schizophrenia anymore and took her own life, I couldn’t start all over again. I had to organize the succession. If the publishing house was to continue in existence, I needed to leave, find a way to get out. I found one and when I look at the three hundred books here, I’m satisfied. I think I did my thing.