Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 9, February 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steve Choe

 

The Film Theory to Come:

On Wurzer's _Filmisches Denken_

 

 

Wilhelm S. Wurzer

_Filmisches Denken: Zwischen Heidegger und Adorno_

Translated by Erik Michael Vogt

Vienna: Turia and Kant, 2000

ISBN 3-85132-233-9

200 pp.

 

Wilhelm Wurzer's _Filmisches Denken: Zwischen Heidegger und Adorno_ turns out to be a translation of his 1990 book, _Filming and Judgment: Between Heidegger and Adorno_. [1] An inscription on the cover, 'Aus dem Amerikanischen von Erik Michael Vogt', makes it conspicuously clear that the present text is derived from an American original. In the translator's preface Vogt tells us that Wurzer's book has been informed mainly by the tradition of continental philosophy, a tradition that has ostensibly extended its European 'origins' to a constellation of diverse philosophical modes, languages, and approaches, thus encompassing and necessitating diverse translations (11). [2] But while these exchanges between North American and European thought make such a translation of an American text by a German-trained philosopher welcome and appropriate, the present text remains frustratingly esoteric in its style. A slight title change, from 'Filming and Judgment' to 'Filmic Thinking', and the translation itself turn out to be the only alterations made to the text, with no additional comments made by the author to German readers. As such, to this reader some of Wurzer's best thoughts often get muddled in the poetic murkiness of the writing style.

 

The book is divided into three parts, titled 'Imaginal Delimitations', 'Aesthetic Ruptures in Judgment'), and 'A Post-Aesthetic of Filming', each of which contain three chapters, concluding finally with what Wurzer calls an 'exergue'. The first part begins by critiquing the principle of ground ('der Satz vom Grund') and its perennial correlation with reason through readings of early Nietzsche. Particularly in _The Birth of Tragedy_, it is the Apollonian impulse toward individuation that 'betokens the event of reason's fall from the proprietary essence of ground to the aesthetic abyss of imagination' (12/41). This abyss of the imagination Wurzer identifies and affirms as the renewed ground for aesthetic judgment in the postmodern context, which he calls 'filming' (filmen). Filming, as a mode of judgment, is initially made possible through the fundamentally groundless ontology of the image, an image that moves along the surface of signification without giving in to a form of nihilism secretly linked to an already reified metaphysics. The ramifications of this radical mode should be compared (but not equated, as Wurzer himself makes clear) with those more familiar critiques of representation, the subject, and language that are often launched by (post)structuralist theory. However his readings of these theorists, and the philosophers they were informed by and critiqued, tend to be more historically nuanced, though they are invoked solely to illustrate his concept of filming. In his account of Foucault's reading of Velasquez's _Las Meninas_, Wurzer writes that:

 

'While there is no representation *of* ground, there is a sense in which one can say that representation *is* ground, so, that in turn, an apparent impossibility of representing the 'act' of representation opens up modes of representation free from the intentionality which, according to Foucault, characterizes the classical mode of thought.' (42-43/79)

 

_Las Meninas_ is figured as a kind of turning point between the classical and the modern, and it is this *Kehre*(this 'turning') that most consistently concerns Wurzer. Throughout this first section he reads certain key philosophers (notably Nietzsche, Kant, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault) in order to identify moments where the principle of ground is most radically dismantled, and where aesthetic judgment finds new groundlessness in the hope for the aesthetic and the faculty of imagination. However, for Wurzer these thinkers eventually come up short in fully exploring this potential, for in each of their later writings he sees how the radical possibility of filming is precluded in its collusion with an ontology of presence. Thus while _The Birth of Tragedy_ and _Thus Spoke Zarathustra_ remain crucial for him, the _On the Geneology of Morals_ already 'fails to think without a nostalgia for ground' (15/45). This nostalgia, for Wurzer, is consolidated in Nietzsche's later theory of the 'Will to Power'.

 

For similar reasons, in the second part of _Filmisches Denken_ he becomes interested in Adorno's _Aesthetic Theory_: 'As it unfolds a critique of pure *mimesis* without taking the absurd step of signing off from *mimesis* altogether, Adorno's text reveals the inevitable link between modernity and postmodernism.' (48/87) Taking this text as the *Kehre* from modernism to postmodernism (while retaining some vestiges of the fundamental mimetic faculty of art), Wurzer is particularly attracted to Adorno's 'second reflection' which lets aesthetic reflection be, instead of folding it back into the dialectical tyranny of the concept. This second reflection recognizes 'that artworks are already reflections of world prior to philosophical reflection' (50/90). Furthermore, because works of art implicitly exceed philosophical conceptualization, and always already escape reification, they also exceed the principle of capitalist exchange (i.e. the museum and the logic of the market) through their second reflection:

 

'Adorno realizes that the power of art is the power of society imaged in the very overturning of appearance, and that in the realm of artistic beauty society belongs to the 'free play' of this radical overturning. This aesthetic breaking out of appearance, called 'apparition,' dispels the principle of exchange so substantive for a theory and practice of Marxism.' (63/106)

 

This is of course not to abandon the exchange principle altogether. Instead Wurzer affirms the aesthetic potential that inevitably remains after the 'first' reflection on capital, that potential that resists the concretized logic of the commodity fetish. To explicate this experience more fully, he finds recourse in the _Critique of Judgment_, focusing in particular on where Kant recognizes judgment's turn from dialectical reason to the free play of the faculties in the imagination. Imagination remains the component in the appreciation of beauty that cannot be folded back into the binary of phenomenon-noumenon, essence and appearance. The subjective claim to beauty, disinterested, having a purpose, and necessary, connects the work of art to the universal by serving, according to Wurzer, 'as 'primal image' of imagination' (73/119). In effect Wurzer's filmic judgment, overlapping with what Adorno calls 'second reflection', requests of the viewer or listener to allow the imagination its free play in the continuous movement of judging. Grounded in groundlessness, he requests that this 'filmic thinking' on the work of art allow it to perform its work, and allow its being to become.

 

Part three further explicates filming's relationship to capital, ultimately naming it the new ground for filming's groundlessness. One of the more interesting challenges in this very short section (spanning about 30 pages) is the attitude of *Gelassenheit* ('letting go', but Wurzer also translates it as 'com-posure') which he imputes to capital. Rather than simply opposing capital and art, as many high modernists have been wont to do, he argues it is capital itself that dissolves the binarized verticality of mimesis, and promises the coming of a radically new structure of 'imaginal' representation. Emerging from the ruins of a prior metaphysics, filming, by letting capital be, inaugurates a new temporality in the free play of the imagination by holding out for the apparitional shining of art.

 

'While announcing imagination-in-transition, a thinking disinclined to make univocal judgments, *Gelassenheit* takes a different turn than that of critique. Its filmic vigilance heightens and intensifies the 'free play' of judgment, releasing capital from a teleological alliance of dialectics and subversion. The beautiful-in-nature serves to guide imagination through the filmic apparition of images without confining imagination to the narrow spacings of the principle of sufficient reason. One might say that the beautiful-in-nature emerges as a promise without finality, com-posure's 'own' promise of reason.' (86-87/135)

 

Filming holds out for the possibility of the event of representation, of the image yet to come. But this is only possible after fully renouncing the concretized ideal of freedom that vulgar Marxists have perennially promised. The promise of a social freedom that exists outside the sphere of the socio-economic, associated most closely with the modernist agenda, must be renounced and tempered by the postmodern critique. The former however contains its own nihilistic pitfalls coupled closely with the end of metaphysics. Wurzer negotiates both tendencies by re-appropriating Heidegger's mood of *Gelassenheit*, and subsequently rereading capital.

 

'While marking a new economy of imagination (*Einbildungskraft*), filming unbinds the metaphysical power of judgment (*Ur-teil*) from a photological identity of a primordial *before* (*Ur*) and a dispersive *after* (*Teil*), so as to be able to discern the post-aesthetic paradox of capital. It follows that filming does not presume to be *Ueberwindung* ('overcoming') but *Verwindung* ('coming to terms') with *prima philosophia*, a fading and falling from the principle of western consciousness, *das Sein*.' (104/157-8)

 

Wurzer's parse on the word 'Ur-teil' should be dually noted. Judgment serves as the practice of filming *par excellence*, disengaging from everyday metaphysics of the image to set out on an aesthetic 'wandering'. Subsequently filming does not purport to offer radical alternatives to hegemonic epistemologies of vision, nor does it totally reject the strategies of subversion so familiar to us already. Rather, Wurzer offers up filming as a mode of thinking-being that comes to terms with the essence of this dialectic, revealing within our contemporary moment the necessity of these two poles and the freedom that can be realized in the free play between them.

 

But for all this theoretical talk about 'filming' there quickly arises the confusion between this mode of thinking and the actuality of films themselves -- that is, cinema. He makes it clear throughout _Filmisches Denken_ that filming is not in any way directly related to celluloid film: 'It is not about films' (xiii/21); 'Filming, in our strategic naming, does not primarily belong to the technico-functional structures of cinematography, nor to the more conspicuous ontic practices of producing, acting, editing, and directing' (26/59). Wurzer later explains that the cinema serves as a kind of springboard for filming, in that the latter exceeds the material constraints of the former, paving the way for a novel mode of *thinking* about images. It in fact recedes from such binaries as illusion vs truth, or essence vs appearance, which have structured our everyday modes of image viewing. Instead of coming to rest on the belief in the finality of signification, filming seems content 'to wander freely from *Kehre* in the filmic scene of apparition' (117/174).

 

That said, there is a sense of intense relief at arriving at the analyses of Fassbinder, Herzog, and Hitchcock in the exergue. Finally, a discussion of some films! But if one were expecting filmic analyses, such as those dealing with camera movement, lighting, time, or framing, issues familiar to the student of film studies, these expectations prove to be quickly extinguished. In this last part Wurzer simply proceeds to repeat the claims and style of the philosophical discussion in the first three parts, while utilizing the films to merely illustrate those claims. And unfortunately very little analysis of film or cinematic technique is provided. Any references made to the films themselves are limited to narrative or thematic interpretation. Characters are quoted such that their words serve to embellish Wurzer's theoretical argument. Furthermore, in this exergue he categorizes some films as 'good objects' (Fassbinder's _Despair_, Herzog's _The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser_, and Hitchcock's _Vertigo_), and one film as a 'bad object' (Riefenstahl's infamous _Triumph of the Will_), categories that remain consistent with established scholarship that has grown around them. While Wurzer wants to argue for a novel way of thinking about images, the texts he chooses and the way he discusses them settle almost too comfortably into the received literature.

 

As can be gleaned from this review so far, the filmic analyses in the last section proved to be the most disappointing part of _Filmisches Denken_. Reflecting further, the shortcomings of this section allow one to shed some light on other problems with the text as a whole. There are three main criticisms. First off, the style and language at times become simply too abstruse. Wurzer takes himself quite seriously throughout, and even during his flights of poetic fancy he remains unsmiling. At times it unfortunately becomes difficult to discern the argument behind the poetic murkiness of his philosophical prose. While he may be offering illuminating new ideas and interpretations of classical philosophical texts or films in these moments, some readers may find themselves in the dark. This was particularly the case with many passages in chapter 8, called 'Surflectants -- Strife of Filmic Surfaces'. [3] Second, the sheer number of philosophers and philosophical works Wurzer takes on in _Filmisches Denken_ immediately raises red flags. Kant, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, Nietzsche, Marx, Foucault, not to mention Adorno and Heidegger -- an impressive range of thinkers, but does he do all of them justice in this slim volume? And relatedly, does the gap that Wurzer creates 'between Adorno and Heidegger' really exist, or is it possible that the thoughts of these two writers overlap somehow? Indeed, Wurzer does not set out to compare and contrast philosophical systems, nor does he attempt to provide any sort of intellectual history in this book. But considering the implicit complexity of the writings of all these philosophers, Wurzer's treatment of such important concepts as Heidegger's *Kehre*, his attitude of *Gelassenheit*, Derrida's 'ecriture', or Adorno's 'negative dialectic', might seem slapdash and lacking in rigor. For the moment we can only guess that he assumes his reader is familiar with all these philosophical styles and languages, making recapitulation unnecessary. In any case, such a high level of discourse rules out many readers who do not have the appropriate background, and perhaps others who simply do not have the patience to decipher Wurzer's dense prose. The third criticism has to do with the ostensible 'liminal' status of filming itself. He states that, 'the 'alterity' within filming, evokes 'aspects of otherness' beyond otherness' (116/173). Indeed, one of the most salient aspects of filming, according to Wurzer, is that it has 'no place of repose', and that it ultimately 'enables judgment to wander freely from _Kehre_ in the filmic scene of apparition' (117/174). The question then emerges: What prevents filming from rigidifying into its own conceptual ossification? While it purports to be a category perennially in-between, as it were, what prevents filming from eventually settling into its own metaphysics of presence? In contrast to Derrida's writing, which 're-marks' the movement of the dialectic implicit in its critical practice and thus does not really move away from an 'originary system of relations' (100/153), filming dissolves the principle of ground and with it the necessity for critique. But filming, it could be argued, seems also to operate within a system of relations, not necessarily of signs, but of philosophers. For Wurzer makes it clear that filming is made possible as a mode 'zwischen Heidegger und Adorno', and is therefore developed in relation to his readings of many philosophical writings.

 

Vogt should be commended for interpreting and translating such a difficult text. The style of the American original seems even more challenging somehow, and his diction seems to capture the main thrust of Wurzer's argument. All this considered, however difficult Wurzer's formulations may be, in English or in the German translation, this reviewer should underscore the ultimate importance of projects such as these. Many of these chapters come from lectures given in the mid to late 80s, at precisely the moment when the dominance of psychoanalytic and semiotic discourses in the scholarly study of cinema was beginning to be questioned. Perhaps some were starting to realize that such discourses secretly shared the same metaphysical roots with the hegemony they were vehemently criticizing. Wurzer's thoughts seem to have negotiated a kind of 'middle way' in the midst of these debates, holding out for the hope of the aesthetic experience in art while postmodernist, poststructuralist theories seemed to exhaust its possibilities. He helps us to realize that the aesthetic experience requires not only the work of art, which ought to be beautiful, but also an ethical viewer open to the possibility of that experience. Many of the most advanced theories within the field of film studies began to foreclose this possibility. This is why, in the wake of such possibilities, a new translation of this text, first published 14 years ago, does not come as a surprise. The issues dealt with in _Filmisches Denken_ ultimately transcend the binarized positions -- hegemony vs counter-hegemony, reality vs illusion, commerce vs art -- that have previously structured so many theoretical debates within the field. There is a way then to help explain its difficulty. Like filming's promise of the artwork-to-come, it could perhaps be said that Wurzer's book arrives in a similar manner. In the wake of all the 'battles to the death' staged by many of the theoretical and aesthetic debates within our field, _Filmisches Denken_ is one text that holds out for the promise of an adequate discourse (or judgment) about cinema *to come*.

 

University of California, Berkeley, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Wilhelm S. Wurzer, _Filming and Judgment: Between Heidegger and Adorno_ (New Jersey, Humanities International Press, 1990).

 

2. Other than this reference, all quotations in this text are from the original 1990 book, followed by the respective page reference from the 2000 German version.

 

3. This term, 'surflectants', seems not a little arbitrary. It is a conglomeration of the words, 'sur[face] [re]flect[ive] a[ge]nts' (92/142), and which he spends the whole chapter explicating -- a bit unsuccessfully, one must admit.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Steve Choe, 'The Film Theory to Come: On Wurzer's _Filmisches Denken_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 9, February 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n9choe>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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