Carl Schmitt’s Die Buribunken: A Troubling Critique of Informational Existence 100 years on

By Kieran Tranter and Edwin Bikundo

It is little known that among Carl Schmitt’s first publications was Die Buribunken published in the journal SUMMA in 1918. Even readers otherwise familiar with Schmitt’s later writings would be surprised. Die Buribunken can only be described as a piece of speculative fiction. In it a thirty year old Schmitt discusses the future emergence of a specific posthuman – ‘Die Buribunken’ – humans who have become integrated into a global system of continuous diary writing and dissemination as existence.

The Die Buribunken has until now only been a footnote in the work of Schmitt scholars. Mentioned only in passing it is usually seen as an early work peripheral to Schmitt’s later opus. Friedrich Kittler included a substantial extract of it in his fabulous Gramophone, Film, Typewriter[1] Kittler’s use of Die Buribunken is insightful. For Kittler Die Buribunken provocatively identifies the fundamental transformation from analogue existence to the informational age of the digital.[2] Recently Friedrich Balke has explored the text to show how Schmitt was painfully aware of the emerging conditions for modernity’s modalities of knowledge production.[3] Die Buribunken’s take on modernity and technology is an interesting prelude to Schmitt’s post Second World War Dialogues on Power and Space where he writes: ‘The Human – by nature a weak form of life – has raised itself above its environment with the help of technology. It has made itself into the Lord of Nature and of all earthly things of life’.[4]

Given the general lack of scholarly attention; little is known of Schmitt’s motivations. Schmitt biographer Reinhard Mehring suggests that ‘realm of Buribunkerism’ is an institution inspired by Schmitt’s wartime bureaucratic experience in the Army General Command in Munich.[5] Also its parody of an output and publicity obsessed academia could also suggest Schmitt’s struggle for a position within the German academy at the time.

One possible reason for the passing over of Die Buribunken is that there has not been a full English translation. A partial translation did appear in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter but the full text has not been available to English-speaking scholars. In recognition of the centenary of publication, Griffith Law School and the Law Futures Centre have commissioned the first full English translation of Die Buribunken. The translation by Laura Petersen (The University of Melbourne) and Dr Gert Reifarth (Scotch College Melbourne) reveals a cynical, ironic and highly suggestive celebratory/critique of informational existence.

The text itself is quite short – the translation runs to just under 10,000 words. The text should properly been seen as a science fiction par excellence – presenting the sort of ‘future history’ that Fredrick Jameson emphasises as the critical genius of the genre.[6] Written by an unnamed author, seemingly a century or two from 1918, the text proclaims the victory and everlasting sanctity of the Buribunk. Indeed, it possibly presents the end of history; the cybernetic telos for humans and their machinery for the creating and archiving of information, in a merged creature.

The text begins with the unnamed author celebrating the institutional totality and triumph of ‘Buribunkology as science.’ Reading like a webpage from a neoliberal-ised research centre, the author tells of the ‘400 000 buribunkological Dissertations … the weekly competitions of the International Buribunkological Institute for Ferker and Related Research (IBIFERR)’ and that the ‘Buribunk and Ferker Research Panel Commission (BAFREPAC) has a standard yearly budget of several billions.’ Money, the author reminds us, is the critical ingredient that transforms quantity into quality. Ultimately, there is the declaration that ‘buribunkology is more than theology, jurisprudence or philosophy, it is indeed more than a science, it is a fact’.

Having established the institutional factuality of Buribunkology, the author turns to the definition of the Buribunks and their ancestry. Foremost, although apparently they also have big mouths, the critical defining feature of a Buribunk is the compulsory and compulsive keeping of a diary. Having captured the essence of the Buribunken, the author moves to consider historical ancestors. To the author’s and reader’s surprise Don Juan is suggested. The irascible Don Juan with his toxic masculinity and objectification of women, is presented due to two features; first, ‘the diary-keeping Buribunk pounces on every second, as does Don Juan’; and, second, both keep a record of their life. However, these similarities are soon dismissed. Whereas a Buribunk cherishes the seconds of their life, so much so they record them consciously for posterity, Don Juan ‘drags it into the murky depths of brutal hedonism, devouring it like an animal satisfying its base instincts.’ And it was Don Juan’s manservant Leporello who actually kept count. In this Don Juan has features familiar with Buribunks but is not a true ancestor. Neither is Leporello, keeping tallies of his master’s conquests as he does. This is because – we are told – Leporello’s record is most unsatisfying from a buribunkological perspective. There is simply not the statistical detail, the reflection, comparison and analysis demanded of a truly buribunkological diary.

Schmitt’s narrator then considers the true ancestors of the Buribunk. First comes Ferker, ‘lecturer for Advertising and Arrivistics at the Business School in Alexandria’ who founded the maxim, ‘Be history yourself! Live so that every single one of your seconds can be recorded in your diary and fall into the hands of your biographer!’ and whose ashes were mixed with printer’s ink so he could be memorialised in the diaries of others.’ Second comes Schnekke who is ‘nothing more than a keeper of a diary, he lives for the diary, he lives in and through the diary – even though in the end, he keeps a diary about the fact that he has run out of ideas about what he could write in the diary.’ It was Schnekke, the author credits with establishing the institutional apparatus and form of the Buribunkdom. The discipline and detail of the scheme; and its allusion to searchable big data; merit being set out in full:

Every male and female Buribunk is obliged to keep a diary for every second of their existence. Copies of all diary entries are submitted daily and collated by local councils. Their simultaneous inspection results in indexation according to subject matter as well as authorship. Not only are the entries of an erotic, demonic, satirical, political and so on nature grouped together (under the strictest observation of the copyright law pertaining to each entry) but the authors are also catalogued according to their place of residence. Due to an ingenious scheme, later inspection through a card catalogue makes it possible straight away to determine every circumstance of interest pertaining to each person.

Having introduced the Marx and Lenin of Buribunkdom, its disciplinary expectations and data management protocols, the author turns to what can be seen as the Buribunk manifesto. It begins with a phrase that rings so very true to the intellectual prosumers of the neoliberal academy: ‘I think, therefore I am; I speak, therefore I am; I write, therefore I am; I publish, therefore I am.’ In this, the final section of the text, Schmitt’s author becomes euphoric. A Buribunk:

…writes, therefore I am; I am, therefore I write. What do I write? I write myself. Who writes me? I myself write myself. What is the content of my writing? I write that I write myself. What is the big motivator lifting me above this self-sufficient circle of I-ness? History! I am therefore a letter on the typewriter of history. I am a letter writing itself.

It is at this point that text becomes scarily familiar to the present experience of informational existence. The author tells that true living is only manifested in the process of recording, documenting; in transforming the effervescence of existence into permanent information: the ‘present is only the midwife who delivers the lively historical past from the dark body of the future.’ The flow of seconds of experiential time becomes analogised to rats, blinking out the ‘rat hole of the future’ and whereas for the ‘the mindless human being, millions and billions of rats stream into the immensity of the past without plan or aim and become lost there – the diary-keeping Buribunk is able to capture them one by one and let their clearly well-arranged army present the big parade of world history.’

In this ‘rodent-ified’ worldview the death of the individual is regarded as just another ‘rat second.’ What matters is not the death of the body but the ongoing living of the archive. Buribunk’s, we are told, achieve immortality, not in a future life in a better place, like the old Christians believed, but through their memorialisation. Indeed, to contribute to the archive is to be open to the ‘sunlight [that] exterminates the germs of the fear of death.’ And at this point the unnamed author finishes and the original text closes with the inscription ‘CS.’ –  an adopted authorial persona with same initials as Schmitt he was later to adopt in Dialogues on Power and Space.

One hundred years after Schmitt left his CS at the end of Die Buribunken what are we to make of it? The illusions to the anxieties and compulsions of informational existence in our private and professional lives seems prophetic. It is tempting to see in the mobile device fixation of the beings that where once human in West, the shadows of the Buribunk (even without the big mouths). It also tempting in the recent celebration of big data and algorithmic government to see the materialisation of the Buribunkdom in our own history. And the obsessive ordering of rat seconds suggests the apotheosis of neoliberal productivity.

Schmitt himself is not a reliable autobiographical narrator. He resisted disadvantageous readings of his work in the context of Nazi Germany by invoking, among others, irony:

The mind and intelligence put forward multiple forms of politeness, correctness, and irony, and ultimately their silence, against the clamor of public activity. A judgment regarding achievements in such a situation can thus not simply be passed from the outside. The person judging must remain aware of a few basic sociological truths, above all things regarding the eternal link between protection and obedience.[7]

Schmitt even compared himself to Benito Cereno (a captain of a slave ship in Herman Melville’s short stories captured by mutinous African slaves) in defending himself against the Allies for accusation of international crimes.[8] Scholars must therefore pay close attention to detail and resist the temptations that his work offers particularly in law and the humanities. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the period Schmitt wrote that:

In Germany, the mind has once again outmanouvered [überspielt] the Leviathan. I conclude from this that the humanities will outmaneuver the natural sciences and will force them to transform themselves into humanities[9]

Has the time come for legal scholars in the humanities to also give Carl Schmitt his due in the sense that we give the devil his due without overlooking this devilishness?

To this end we are organising an edited volume on the Die Buribunken and we encourage anybody intrigued, horrified or humoured to talk with us about contributing. Irony might be the only mode of resistance left – after-all a Buribunk is free to write in their diary how terribly pointless and meaningless writing in a diary is – so please write and publish with us, and please share this post and invitation with your digital networks. For through our ongoing contribution to the collective infosphere, the seconds of our little rat lives might live forever!


For more information on the Die Buribunken project click here: .
For expressions of interest please contact Kieran Tranter

[1] Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999).

[2] Ibid. p 231.

[3] Balke, Friedrich ‘Carl Schmitt and Modernity’ in The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt, Meierhenrich, Jens and Simons, Oliver, eds. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017).

[4] Schmitt, Carl. (2015). Dialogues on Power and Space. Malden, MA, Polity Press page 28.

[5] Mehring, Reinhard Carl Schmitt: A Biography (Cambridge, Polity Press,, 2014), p 82.

[6] Jameson, ‘Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?’, Science Fiction Studies 9 (1982), pp. 147-58.

[7] Carl Schmitt, Ex Captivitate Salus: Experiences, 1945-47 (Cambridge: Polity Press 2017), p. 21.

[8] Ibid., p. 17.

[9] Ibid., p. 21.