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(excerpt from Twin Figure of Mimesis)
All is rhythm; the entire destiny of man is one celestial rhythm, just as the work of art is a unique rhythm.
The first image we see: flames behind the door of an iron cast stove. Then someone opens the door and throws water on the fire; the camera zooms out as the owner of the worn down countryside tavern announces that he is closing. Another day is over; the rhythm of time—light and darkness, ebb and flow, difference by repetition—the presence of one day fading into absence to allow for a new day to appear.
The half sleeping regulars, ten middle aged men—even more shabby than the tavern, if that is possible—reluctantly try to wake up enough to go home and sleep; the effort causes one of them to fall off his chair. As he adjusts to this new horizontal position at the floor, holding his hat to keep it from falling off, a moustached man enters the centre of the image and says: “Valuska. Come on. Show us.” With the efficiency specific to daily routines, the men clear the tables and produce an open space, lit up by a single naked light bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling, and then gather around the walls of the tavern.
Valuska, unmistakably younger and more sober than the other customers, takes the portly man and brings him onto the square of the empty floor. He puts him under the naked lightbulb and says “You are the Sun.” and then continues “The Sun does not move. This is what it does,” whereupon he asks the swaying man to raise his hands and softly wiggle his fingers to simulate the sun’s pulsating rays of light and heat.
After this he collects one more of the customers and informs him that he now will be the Earth, and then instructs the Earth to circle around both the Sun and its own axes—which proves to be slightly difficult task, given the man’s level of inebriation, but with some concentration he manage to perform an elliptic movement around the Sun. Valuska continues: “Step with me into the boundlessness where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reigns. Imagine that in this infinite silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness. Here we only experience general motion. The brilliant Sun always sheds its heat and light on the side of the Earth turned towards it. And we stand here in its brilliance.”
A new man is brought into the choreography of heavenly bodies: “This is the Moon. The Moon revolves around the Earth.” Together, the long haired Moon, the swaying Earth, and the portly sun with its wiggling fingers engage in a dance, turning around the room and each other; a bumpy minuet, demanding all their intoxicated concentration. Suddenly, Valuska stops them and says: “What is happening?” The autodidact choreographer of galactic rhythm and motion bends down the moon, and then ever so slowly erects him again until he almost blocks the passage between the wiggling sun-fingers and the Earth. “We suddenly see that the disc of the moon makes an indentation on the sun’s flaming sphere, and this indentation, this dark shadow, grows bigger… and bigger. And as it covers more and more, slowly, only a narrow crescent of the sun remains. And at the next moment… say that it’s around one in the afternoon, a most dramatic turn of events occurs.”
Valuska grabs the sun by the neck and gently pushes his head down towards the floor until his face no longer can be seen. Then, a close up of the face of the narrator “At that moment… the air suddenly turns cold. Can you feel it? The sky darkens, and then goes all dark. The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in fright. And in this incomprehensible dusk even the birds are confused and go to roost. And then… complete silence. Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open under us? We don’t know? We don’t know, for a total eclipse has come upon us.”
As a simple piano phrase is repeated over and over, the camera zooms out on the stillness of the room, maybe 30 seconds where nothing is happening except for the men listening to the silence. “But… no need to fear, it’s not over. For across the sun’s glowing sphere, the moon slowly swims away.”
The portly man stands up and resumes his wiggling finger-rays “The sun once again bursts forth and to the Earth slowly there comes light again, and warmth again floods the Earth.”
For a couple of minutes all the regulars join in a dance, maybe not euphoric but at least with a certain dignified serenity—“Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness.” And then the owner of the tavern, indifferent to the thematic magnitude of the situation, establishes that it is all over, and throws them out in the night. Exiting the door, Valuska stops for a second and says “But, Mr. Hagelmayer, it’s still not over.”
The opening scene of Werckmeister Harmoniesi (2001) by Béla Tarr, in a couple of naive brushstrokes in black & white, captures a number of key aspects of the relation between aesthetics, appearance and the possibility of an event. Here, the opening for something previously not present to appear, the condition allowing for something absent to come into existence, is produced not through the re-presentation of a new perspective or subjectivity, but rather by a temporary disruption in the production of appearances—it is the event of a temporary absence. In the context of our present sociopolitical condition, defined and controlled by an economy of appearances, this suggests a very precise and useful aesthetic strategy.
This take on speculating on possible futures does not present any utopia, it does not “make visible” this or that condition, identity or subjectivity. It doesn’t (re-)present an image of anything “new,” or a critique of something existing. On the contrary, the moment of solar eclipse breaks the continuous stream of appearances; linear time itself is interrupted; it is a disruption of the idea of history as continuous progress towards an inevitable future. For a brief moment everything stops—we don’t know what the next minute will bring, whether we are on the threshold of the apocalypse or of paradise, if the sun will come back or if it is gone forever—no pre-figurations apply and the future lies completely open.
Some years ago I was working with the project Neither You Nor Me, a production that I developed and performed together with the actor Anders Mossling and that included some sequences from the translation of Antigone made by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin in 1804. My interest in Hölderlin at that point was focused on his idea of translation as a process of transforming the familiar into the unknown—the translational space as interface, neither you nor me, a space of exchange making possible a de-stabilization of the self. There was this notion that kept coming back as I was researching for the project: the caesura, the space of suspended time, the momentary disruption of progress in rhythm and dramaturgy.
At that time I never quite understood the concept; I was fascinated and intrigued by the figure of thought, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, or say what it would mean in the context of concrete practice. So I did what we usually do when faced with things we don’t understand: after struggling with it for some time I simply chose to forget about it. But somehow the caesura stayed with me in latency, like a sleeper cell. It was underground, waiting for the right moment to be activated.
Looking at it from my current perspective, I think what confused me was that I tried to imagine the possible manifestation of the caesura as concept, when the point is precisely the opposite—it is a momentary lack of manifest images or appearances. The caesura thus becomes the space that appears in the temporary disruption of appearances; not the image of something, but the open ended potentiality of the presence of an absence.
The way I think of it, the caesura can be described as the moment of frozen time in the standstill of a turning; the temporary lack of momentum, the suspension of gravity before the object thrown up in the air gets pulled back to the ground. In the essay The Caesura and the Speculative, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe gives an intriguing definition of the connection between the caesura and the possibility of passage: “the caesura is, on each occasion, the empty moment—the absence of ‘moment’—of Tiresias’s intervention: that is to say, of the intrusion of the prophetic world.”
This gap in time and rhythm is not to be understood in terms of the interruption as event. On the contrary, unlike the revolutionary context of an event—the break of the existing on behalf of this or that new subjectivity, agency or order—the caesura constitutes the possible escape-route from the dialectical idea of interruption as opposition to some-thing; it is a liberation from the double-bind that ties the act of opposition to the paradigm of the agency it opposes. This suspended space-time is not a dialectical break between the past and the future; it abandons the figures of “difference” and “the new,” it is an aesthetic strategy to avoid getting (re-)appropriated by “the constraints of opposition in general.” Rather, the caesura suggests the possibility of aesthetics as open ended transcendence, the rhythmic disruption of progress opening for a passage as such; not the revolutionary passage in the name of a prefigured agency, but an interface enabling a contingent relation between the perspectives of here and not here, now and not now, us and not us, no longer and not yet; between the human and non-human horizon.
Or, to borrow the words of Jacques Derrida: “It marks the withdrawal of the divine and the turning back of man toward the earth … Gap or hiatus: the open mouth. To give and receive. The caesura sometimes takes your breath away. When luck is with it, it is to let you speak.”
Translated into aesthetic terms, I find that this gets close to the intriguing and enigmatic quality of Valuska’s galactic choreography in Werckmeister Harmonies. What it captures is the invisible; the possible opening to an absence, out of sensory reach for an aesthetic regime ruled by the present (the paradox behind the tragic failure of Konstantin trying to address the future with his play within the play in Chechov’s The Seagull).
The caesura—the brief standstill when the gods withdraw and humans return to the earth—could be understand as the moment of the sublime, or the experience of the invisible; the appearance of, or opening to, what is absent in the presence.
The way I see it, this can only come about as a transcendence in relation to “what ever.” As soon as I connect it to a passage in the name of a specific subjectivity or agency, it will be re-appropriated and inscribed into the present paradigm of what already exists. It is from the perspective of this intersection of aesthetics and politics where the symbolic order of the present guards the gate between what is and what is not, and regulates what can “appear,” i.e. come into being, that the caesura gains its full potential.
The long-term sustainability of any society or community is dependent on its ability to reflect on the relation between that what is and what is not, on its collective strategies for imagining and negotiating with its inherent abjects, i.e. with subjectivities only possible as absence. In today’s economy of accelerated exhibition—where the constant stream of appearances and displayed imagery of subjectivity, differences and multitudes is what drives an apparatus operating in the paradigm of an instrumentalised desire for “the new;” where time is understood as continuous and linear progress, inevitably inscribing and projecting all our fantasies and dreams into the immanence of a prefigured future—we begin to experience the full meaning of Guy Debord’s central notion “What appears is good, what is good appears.”vi In its simplicity, this wormhole logic of the self-representational spectacle constitutes the contemporary paradigm of the present re-presenting itself as presence.
Whatever can be rendered appearance is part of what is present, of what “exists,” and this self generating repression of the presence over the absence is pushing all positions of abjectsvii even further into invisibility. In this context, aesthetic strategies to address the invisible, i.e. tools and means to create collective imageries of what can only appear as absence, become a central challenge.
In this context, I also would like to mention Joan Jonas’ film Songdelay from 1973 (16 mm film, B&W, 18:35 min). It is one of my favourites. The basic concept is as simple as it is complex: a number of playful games and tasks, performed by a group of artists and friends and shot on a deserted piece of urban land in New York. As in many of Jonas’s performances, the viewpoint is remote from the action, the distance producing a delay in relation to both the auditory and visual events. The piece plays with a series of aesthetic ingredients that have an effect akin to that of the scene in Werckmeister Harmonies; contingent similarities between basic figures and shapes, lines and circles, simultaneously producing and resisting each other; the repetition of semblances and differences causing a sensation similar to the feeling of deja vu; short flashes of resemblance or recognition, like a sudden passage or opening to something normally hidden or invisible; extremely specific, but too short and too elusive to be comprehended or inscribed in the structure of a symbolic system, and thus evading the re-territorializing appropriation of subjugation.
One odd component in the collection of performative games sticks out a bit from the rest. Climbing on distant hills of dirt and gravel in the urban landscape, a woman plays with the reflection of the sun in a mirror. In short moments the rays of the sun catch the lens (and my eyes) through the mirror, causing the image to explode in an overexposure of white light. It is blindness through (too much) vision, a clash of the visible and invisible producing a brief instant where they no longer are each others opposites but open up a passage through each other.
This, I think, is how aesthetic transcendence can be a reality; not as a representational signification, but as a concrete, open ended passage as such. For me, this somehow connects to the following lines by Walter Benjamin:The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again… Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably… To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.
(Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History)