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Telescopes for our Senses

The Interstellar Imagination of Alexander Kluge

In his Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant said two things fill the mind with awe: “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” This image, bridging the vast gap between our inner lives and outer space, is vital for Alexander Kluge, too. We need to develop “the appropriate telescopes (or microscopes) for our senses,” says the legendary filmmaker and philosopher. We must, he thinks, find radical ways of perceiving social reality to tell ourselves new stories about it. A core of revolutionary utopianism burns hot and bright in Kluge’s work, an interstellar imagination most obvious in his concept of “constellatory montage.”

As practiced by Kluge’s influences, the pioneering Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov and the legendary French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, montage is about producing discontinuous image sequences. These directors reject the way the cinematic apparatus — cameras, screens, organizational decisions behind the camera — not only reflect industrial society, but reproduce the way it shapes our perception of the world. They encourage the viewer to take a critical stance towards the images they see on screen instead.

For Kluge, however, montage is not just about placing disjunctive breaks between different images. It is, rather, about how viewers make associations between images for themselves, an activity with profound consequences for how we experience social reality. Constellatory montage achieves this by juxtaposing the cinematic present — the “now” of the film — and various moments in the past. Kluge’s constellatory montages offer not only this contrast, however; they offer multiple ways to combine and recombine our experience of images.

Kluge encourages us to approach reality with a new kind of attentiveness. This allows us to challenge what he calls the “social horizon of experience.” This is the way reality appears to us in advanced consumer society. We can challenge it by reflecting on all the possibilities images contain. Thinking in a so-called “realistic” way, under current social conditions, just means keeping things the way they are now. This prevents us from using our subjective experiences to make new connections and distinctions. No other future is even imaginable. Kluge’s montages, by contrast, open us up to social transformation by creating “subjective realities.” His work forces us to decide for ourselves what is possible and what kind of reality we want to live in.

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Kluge’s interstellar thinking is not without precedents. The modern age is, indeed, defined by what Agnes Heller calls “cosmic contingency.” God is dead and human beings have to make meaningful choices for themselves. This story begins with Kant’s paradigm shift in philosophy, his “Copernican revolution.” The thinking subject, for Kant, is not just a passive receiver of sense impressions, but makes a contribution to their own knowledge of the world. Just over a century later, Freud aimed Kant’s Copernican turn inward, towards the psyche. Freud compared psychoanalysis to Copernican astronomy and its ancestor, the star-gazing of Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy. Psychoanalysis, Freud thought, represents a blow to human narcissism. As he wrote in his “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis”, it shows us that the psyche, like the earth, is “not the center of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness.”

In the space age, Hannah Arendt worried about the “fateful repudiation of [the] earth” represented by the launch of the first artificial earth-satellite, Sputnik 1 (1957). Some critics said this event signified humanity’s release from our “imprisonment” on this planet. Jean-François Lyotard, meanwhile, explains that he is only following Galileo, Darwin, and Freud when he foresees an end of history in which humanity prepares for the death of the sun by “ meticulously preparing spaceships for the exodus [from Earth].”

In his book Parallel Worlds, theoretical physicist Michiu Kaku says that the early 21st century is the dawn of a “third great revolution” in cosmology, after the invention of the telescope in the 1600s and the expansion of telescopic discoveries in the 1900s. Space travel used to be something only experienced by trained astronauts. The promise of private space travel, he thinks, will change that, separating us into those who have the means to look at the earth from an outside point and those for whom this is only something to be imagined. This is why Alexander Kluge’s interstellar imagination is so important for us.

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Since the 1960s, Kluge has directed at least 16 feature-length films. Although his first, Yesterday’s Girl (1966), won eight prizes at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, over time Kluge’s radical approach proved too much for most festival juries. He was never able to repeat this success. Kluge is, after all, concerned with how commercial cinema stops the spectator from using their own imaginative faculties, leading to what he has called the “mass mobilization of passivity.” His theoretical writings, for which he is much better known among English-speakers, including Public Sphere and Experience and History and Obstinacy (both co-authored with Oskar Negt), are just as challenging.

Kluge’s legacy as a filmmaker has, however, recently been ensured by Edition Filmmuseum, a joint project between film archives and cultural institutions. They have issued a 15-disc DVD box set (2009) containing every one of his films, selected television works, and bonus material from 1960-2008. Complementing the growing interest in Kluge’s work is cultural historian Philipp Ekardt’s Toward Fewer Images, the first monograph about Kluge, and “Pluriverse” (2018), the first museum exhibition of his work which took place at both Museum Folkswang, in Essen, Germany, and Belvedere 21 Museum of Contemporary Art in Vienna, Austria.

In an interview with celebrated Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Olbrist, Kluge explains that the title of this exhibition, in particular the prefix “pluri-”, is deceptive. And this because it refers to a single core. Kluge says there are, in fact, many different antagonistic universes, each with their own potential to contradict the others. While Kluge’s concept of montage is certainly original, it thus related to not only Eisenstein, Vertov, and Godard, but has cosmic continuities with the “constellatory” thought of Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno.

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“Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars,” wrote Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. “This means they are neither their concepts nor their laws.” This difficult idea combines the philosophies of Plato and Kant.

Plato made a distinction between appearances and transcendent Ideas. Ideas like Truth, Justice, and the Good, are perfected appearances. The philosopher can think of appearances as embryos of Ideas. They do this by abstracting from particular true, just, or good things to think about what Truth, Justice, and Goodness are in themselves. Kant made a similar distinction between “phenomena” and “noumena.” The essence of reality, for Kant, could be discerned behind the phenomenal world of appearances in a noumenal realm of “things-in-themselves” isolated from the human mind.

Benjamin re-arranges Plato and Kant’s ordering of reality by distinguishing between three related levels of reality: “phenomena”, “concepts”, and “ideas.” Phenomena are empirical things we can sense. Concepts are instruments for analyzing our knowledge of phenomena. Ideas are systems of relations between concepts but have no content of their own. The task of the philosopher, for Benjamin, is to trace “constellations” between ideas. The philosopher thus finds hidden arrangements between ideas without neglecting the distinctiveness of the phenomena and concepts that make them up. Ideas disappear in concepts, but this allows particular empirical things to re-emerge and become the idea through their arrangement.

Kluge follows Benjamin in finding the substance of ideas in the smallest, most transitory things; in the forgotten things glowing from some dark, unremembered corner of the world: archival film footage, illustrations from fairy tales and children’s books, paintings, drawings, and stories.

Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed (1968) offers one example. This film tells the story of Leni Peickert (Hannelore Hoger), a trapeze artist’s daughter, who wants to reinvent the very form of the circus to express revolutionary ideas. Leni’s venture fails when she realizes her ideas are not realistic as she faces new difficulties: compromise with collaborators, the demands of capitalism, communicating her ideas to an audience, and the theory/practice relation.

At one point in the fragmentary narrative, Kluge makes a direct reference to montage. Leni attends a screening of Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), a celebratory dramatization of the October Revolution. The viewer sees Leni, alone in a dark cinema. We see a quick succession of shots juxtaposing Leni’s attentive face with that of a soldier as he takes aim and fires a gun. This sequence of two intercut static images is typical Eisenstein, for whom the shot is the basic unit of filmmaking; for Kluge, however, it is the moment of negativity produced by interruption. The idea of negativity is familiar from another of Kluge’s influences, Theodor W. Adorno.

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno takes the concept of constellations from Benjamin but makes the idea his own with a different definition of a “concept.” A constellation, for Adorno, “illuminates the specific side of the object, the side which to a classifying procedure is either a matter of indifference or a burden.” Adorno, ultimately, has a problem with the “classifying procedure” he sees in Kant’s philosophy.

Knowledge, for Kant, involves a relation between empirical “intuitions” and rational “concepts”. Knowledge is when the mind fixes an intuition beneath a concept. Adorno argues that this kind of classificatory thinking does not tell us what something is, only what category it comes under. That is, classificatory thinking only tells us what type of object something is. Adorno thinks this has the opposite effect than was intended. Classificatory thinking only tells us what things are not because it disregards the individuality of the thing being conceptualized.

Adorno’s “constellatory” thinking allows him two make two moves at once. He denies that concepts should only be tools for such classificatory thinking, but he does not think that we should not conceptualize things at all. Following Benjamin, Adorno says constellations represent relations between concepts. For Adorno, however, the aim is to rescue the true individuality of the things being conceptualized. He thinks individuality has been “excised” in classificatory thinking which, in fact, mis­classifies the very things it tries to classify.

Adorno’s strategy is to juxtapose clusters of related words or meanings that characterize the object of thought without claiming that concepts are identical to them. Kluge’s constellatory montages take this even further. He wants the spectator to take a more active role during film screenings, activating their own ability to make connections between disparate images. The most characteristic element of Kluge’s work is his use of text, suggesting that making connections between images is ultimately a reading skill.

In Kluge’s films, silent film-style intertitles, with text written in peculiar, often brightly colored typefaces with an ars povera feel, give the words new energies and points of emphasis. Readers can, equally, always tell Kluge’s direct contributions to his books with Negt because the text is written in bold, achieving the same effect as the intertitles. One typical passage of Public Sphere and Experience reads:

…public-sphere activity, ideology production, and the “management” of everyday life — the latter, in particular, in the form of pluralistically balanced leisure and consciousness programs—appropriate as raw material human beings’ desire for a meaningful life, as well as parts of their consciousness, in order to erect an industrialized façade of programming and legitimation. Genuine experience is torn in two parts that are, in class terms, opposed to one another.

Kluge’s aim is to create invisible epiphanies between words or pictures on one side, and viewers or readers on another. We then decide – or even make up – the relations between the images for ourselves. Though the parts (images, sentences, words) and wholes (films and texts) reflect or antagonize each other, Kluge does not work mechanically. He does not want to pre-determine their relationship, making them for us in advance like a product on the supermarket shelf. Rather, the looser the logical connection between two successive images, the more space there is for us to imagine their link. We thus become an active part of the making and meaning of the film. The relations then leave unpredictable remainders, simmering with prospects.

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For Kluge, creating constellations is a way of dealing with the structure of reality itself — moving bodies in space — which cannot be dealt with in a linear way. “There are suns, moons, planets,” Kluge explains in an interview with Ben Lerner. “There are also dust particles, tiny particles that orbit around the sun for centuries according to physical laws. And there’s no hinge, no screw that connects them. Invisible connections.”

We must, for Kluge, act now on the past’s unrealized possibilities, all while staying open to the future. The most important thing for Kluge is that we come away from his films filled with the hope for radical social change, despite the many catastrophes we see around us every day. The very least we can do is recall the sufferings of the past, showing ourselves where we went wrong, answering for our own actions, fully engaging our senses and feelings. By placing the imagination and feelings at the center of his thought, Kluge orients us upwards towards the stars without wanting to abandon human lives and problems.

During the “Pluriverse” press conference in Vienna, I asked Kluge if there is still a role for utopian thinking in art, politics, and theory. He paused. Though I asked the question in English, he responded for fifteen minutes in delicately flowing German, covering Goethe, concrete constructions on the American highway system, how to resist the forced industrialization of time; and opera. “Utopia is becoming better and better the more we wait for it,” he said. Kluge thinks that a better future is still possible. Our task is to seize the possibility of that possibility from where we now stand.

Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and educator based in Vienna, Austria. He writes an art column for The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and has taught at Heythrop College (University of London) and The University of Roehampton, London. He is a contributing editor for Public Seminar.

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