From Scardanelli to Orfée

1. Heidegger explained that his 1942 lectures on Hölderlin’s The Ister were not an analysis or an explication of the poem, but a series of comments that surrounded it. The film called The Ister constructs its project in parallel with this model, as a montage of comments surrounding Heidegger’s lectures. Accordingly, this essay will also proceed as a series of comments or contexts that circulate around the film.

2. Ross and Barrison’s videofilm, The Ister, represents one of the possible futures of cinema, and by synechdoche, the proliferating possibilities of the medium. The DV frontier means that moving images are no longer the monopoly of corporate entertainment. Instead, the mass institutions of the culture industry are being succeeded after computerization and digital video by multiple practices initiated through specific discourses, in the same way that scribe literacy was succeeded after the printing press by universal literacy and decentralized practices of inscription. New possibilities for film now emerge through multiple contexts, of which “philosophy” is only one.

It is no accident that Ross and Barrison are two graduate students at the University of Melbourne, one with a dissertation on Heidegger and the other in political science, who combined their interests to make a film about the philosophy and politics of Heidegger. As a result, The Ister is no longer a film by media professionals “about” philosophy and politics, but a film that is constructed on philosophical and political principles to “do” philosophy.

Still from `The Ister`.The narratives that surround the production of the film help demonstrate what is at stake in this transformation. Since the filmmakers initiated their project in Australia, the only source of funding for film production was a government film office that required “Australian content.” Since their film sought to address issues outside a national framework, the amount of both “Australian content” and available funding was zero. The filmmakers began with an airplane ticket to Europe and a SONY TRV-900 DV camera, without a single pre-arranged interview. As it happened, they met Bernard Stiegler at his university, and he invited the filmmakers to his house for an interview on the day of his 42nd birthday, which then appears in the film. Stiegler’s spontaneous generosity opened the doors to interviews with Philippe Lacoue-Labarth and Jean-Luc Nancy, and Ross and Barrison began to feel that they might have a film.

Ironically, as independent filmmakers have long known, the lack of large scale funding makes such spontaneous and specific work possible. Institutional funding, whether public or private, necessarily involves preplanning and fixed commitments to guarantee a return on investment. Setting concrete ideas before the beginning of production reduces filmmaking to the illustration of pre-scripted and preconceived ideas, and unavoidably forecloses the spontaneous working through of unanticipated and dynamic possibilities. Ross and Barrison’s film only becomes possible without such constraints. Founded on uncertainty, the film’s very real risk of total failure is also what opens the possibility of a significant break with past practices.

Deleuze’s books on cinema propose that cinema and philosophy be considered next to each other, without assuming that one takes precedence. Cinema is neither a modern popular medium that makes past philosophy irrelevant, nor a debased and vulgar medium that can only symptomatically illustrate philosophical concerns. Instead, concepts can be generated in either visual or verbal domains, and the agency of concepts can be worked through across contexts. This does not mean that Ross and Barrison’s film is “successful,” however that value might be conceived, but rather that it sets its goals differently, and that this difference is its most significant contribution to filmmaking. Cinema here proposes concepts that intersect with the history of philosophy, and is part of a social process through which cinema and concepts are irretrievably bound up together. This has arguably been true since the beginning of cinema, but only recently has the principle begun to be recognized.

Given the film’s project of conceptual agency, Ross and Barrison notably take up some of themost difficult and conflicted issues imaginable. The Ister engages the relation of Heidegegr’s philosophy to Nazism, specifically by means of the lectures given in 1942. Far from proposing an idealist recuperation of Heidegger, as if his work could be imagined as transcending his political role, the film insists on 1942 as a position through which to think whatever significance Heidegger may have today.

3. The Ister proposes an advanced introduction to Heidegger in a 21st century context, and the film is organized around many of Heidegger’s key contributions and problems. Technics (techne), contextual enframing (Gestell), anti-foundationalism, Nazi complicity, and contingent being (Dasein) are some of its major concerns.

The film assumes a French reading of Heidegger: a poststructuralist context is implied by interviews with Bernard Stiegler, Philippe Lacoue-Labarth, and Jean-Luc Nancy. This approach tacitly acknowledges how Heidegger’s work was taken up after the war not in Germany but in France, outside the framework of toxic nationalism that had led to catastrophe. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism derived from Heidegger’s concepts of Existenz and being-in-the-world, or Dasein. Derrida’s practice of “deconstruction,” as initiated in 1966-67, translated and transformed Heidegger’s concepts of a philosophical Destruktion and of Abbau or unbuilding. In many respects, poststructuralism made it possible to reconsider Heidegger’s conflicted position in philosophy, by turning the Heidegerrean practice of deconstruction against Heidegger’s own work.

Still from `The Ister`.The film unavoidably opens onto a series of determining absences. Not only Sartre and Derrida, but many other philosophers inside and outside Germany are implied but missing. As Maureen Turim has observed, the complete omission of significant women is remarkable.(Maureen Turim introduced this observation while chairing the panel discussion of The Ister at the University of Florida, March 20, 20.) Hannah Arendt’s absence is particularly striking: her study with Heidegger, her personal involvement with him, her problematic role in his rehabilitation after the war, and her critique of totalitarianism are all crucial to any understanding of Heidegger today. Since no film can be expected to comprehensively include all relevent figures, and selectivity is necessary to give a film its character and edge, watching The Ister means being willing to grant this film its provisional and contingent specificity.

In contrast, the film introduces Bernard Stiegler to a wider audience, as a contemporary philosopher continuing the poststructuralist project who is not yet as well known as Lacoue-Labarth and Nancy.

Stiegler’s position in the film poses the problem of techne, or technics, through a discussion of his 1994 book, Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, which was translated into English in 1998. Stiegler’s institutional roles are consistent with his theoretical work: he has been a past director of INA (L’Institute National de l’Audiovisuel, the National Audiovisual Insitute) and of IRCAM (L’ Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, The Institute of Acoustic/Music Research and Coordination), and is currently Director of Cultural Development at the Centre Georges-Pompidou.

Still from `The Ister`.The Heidegerrean concept of techne (French), tekhne (Greek), or technics (English), is unfortunately translated as “technology” in the film’s English subtitles. Techne can in part be translated as technology, but the concept also includes technical knowledge and methods. Heidegger’s significance is in part due to his role as the first major modern philosopher to think the problem of techne, and any contemporary engagement with technology and its effects must trace the legacy of this thought, for better or worse, back to his work. In an information economy where the instrumentalization of knowledge has become an everyday environment, the challenges of Heidegger continue to haunt any possibility of a global society. Taking up these challenges is a major motivation behind this film’s project.

Stiegler is perhaps the most colorful of contemporary philosophers, because of both his engaging personality and his unusual career path. In an earlier period of his life, Stiegler was a serial bank robber and spent 1978-83 in prison for his crimes. Only in prison did he begin to study philosophy, and subsequently entered the academic world on his release. Stiegler’s combination of transgression and public life is reminiscent of Jean Genet or Malcolm X, and suggests the troubling proximity of violence and social transformation that is another of the film’s concerns. The prominent position of Stiegler in the film demonstrates the possibility and productive consequences of rehabilitation, and the festivities surrounding his birthday mark the film’s most optimistic moment, a commitment to life. The case of Heidegger, however, is not so simple.

4. Another of the film’s tacit contexts is what has come to be known as the “Heidegger affair” of 1987-88. The publication of Victor Farias’s book, Heidegger et le Nazisme, in 1987 (translated into English as Heidegger and Fascism in 1989) triggered sensationalized media coverage of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism. Farias argued that Heidegger was much more deeply involved than had previously been acknowledged, and other critics, like Jean-Pierre Faye, argued that the entire poststructuralist movement was thereby contaminated. Part of this debate was reductive and partisan, and sought to use the specter of Nazism to smear all subsequent thought that had reconsidered Heidegger after the postwar repudiation of Nazism. Many of the supposed revelations about Heidegger’s activities were well known, and had been recalled for polemical purposes.

Despite this, the debate had the ironic effect of reframing the difficult challenge that Heidegger’s thought poses. The position “against” Heidegger argued that Heidegger’s political role as a Nazi foreclosed any greatness of thought. The force of this argument is largely directed towards any philosophical discourse that assumes the greatness of his thought transcended the political circumstances in which he lived. However, both of these positions are untenable, and neither accurately represents the postwar project in France to reconsider Heidegger’s work.

The “Heidegger affair” coincided with the publication of a number of books that specifically engaged the conflicted condition of thinking through Heidegger’s ideas. Lacoue-Labarth’s La Fiction du Politique: Heidegger, L’Art et la Politique and Derrida’s De l’Esprit: Heidegger et la Question both appeared in 1987 (translated as Heidegger, Art and Politics: The Fiction of the Political in 1990 and as Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question in 1989), while Lyotard published Heidegger et “les Juifs” in 1988 (translated as Heidegger and “the Jews” in 1989). By including Lacoue-Labarth as one of the central figures interviewed in the film, The Ister identifies its stance that Heidegger cannot be reduced to simple categories of “for” or “against.”

Lyotard, in Heidegger and “the Jews,” poses the problem that Heidegger demands that we simultaneously consider two incommensurable propositions at once. The first is that the importance of his thought cannot be dismissed or trivialized, and the second is that his involvement with the Nazis cannot be overlooked or forgiven. Neither of these conditions can dominate or exclude the other, nor can we simply assume that his work was divided.

Lyotard agrees with Lacoue-Labarth’s assessment that Heidegger’s greatest failing was not his membership in the Nazi party and his denunciations of others, but his inexplicable postwar silence on the extermination camps. The unacceptability of his one statement on the subject becomes the topic of a major sequence in the film.

Lyotard’s book on Heidegger is perhaps the most intense demonstration of his project to mobilize psychoanalytic concepts in a social and political context. The problem is not only to unravel the flaw in Heidegger’s thought but to work through its traumatic implications and effects. Freud’s concept of Nachtraghlichkeit, deferred or retrospective meaning, becomes a way of suggesting how historical events can produce traumatic shocks that can only later enter into public discourse.(Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, 15.) The movement from historical trauma to institutional transformation necessarily implies a social process parallel to what Freud called Durcharbeitung, working through.

The Ister suggests that we are very far from working through the implications and consequences of Heidegger’s ideas. In order to refuse any idealized denial as an imaginary substitute for the work of memory and history, the film positions the Holocaust, or Shoah, as central to its project. An extended sequence surrounding the Mauthausen concentration camp insists on the extermination as undeniable, unsurpassable, and unrepresentable.

5. The Ister constructs the Danube as a river that flows both ways. In one sense, the film follows Hölderlin’s logic to pursue the source of the Danube from Germany to its origin in ancient Greece, as an essence and truth that guarantees modern German identity. In a contrary sense, the film begins at the mouth of the Danube with archeological ruins of Greek settlement, and proceeds upstream to its source in the Black Forest. The doubling of temporality is reversible: the origin of the German quest for a Greek origin is to be found not in Greece, but in Germany. This structuring device of the film is made explicit by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, when he comments that Hölderlin’s imaginary Greece would be out of place in Greece itself.

Some years after composing his poem Der Ister, named after the ancient Greek name for the Danube, Hölderlin became insane. He spent the last 36 years of his life, 1807-43, alone in a tower, where he would sign his last poems with imaginary names like “Scardanelli.” Personal psychology cannot be confused with the forces of history, but Hölderlin’s madness, like Nietzsche’s, is emblematic. Madness and civilization, as Foucault argued, are bound up together, and cannot be so easily untangled.

Hôlderlin was not alone in imagining a Greek origin for modern Germany. The film cites the Walhalla temple, built by King Ludwig of Bavaria as a replica of the Parthenon but with a Nordic name, as a parallel construction of the same metahistorical narrative. Part of the editing strategy of the film is to continually cut forwards and backwards across its temporal sequence, so that images sometimes appear long before their meaning is established through contextual development, and then reappear again long afterwards to recall previous contexts along the river. The Walhalla temple is one of the most prominent of these recurring images, and is identifiable as a displaced Parthenon long before its attribution to Ludwig.

By the time that the Nazis claimed a biologized idealist aesthetic, grounded in a myth of Greek origin and racial essence, to justify a transnational monopoly on power and extermination of difference, madness had become identified with this narrative. Did this madness overtake history at some point, or was it already implicit in Hölderlin’s and Ludwig’s narrative of Greek origin? In part, the film of The Ister includes sequences from Syberberg’s Hitler to ask such questions, and to acknowledge both that Syberberg has long addressed these concerns and that the questions are far from resolved.

At the same time, the film’s journey upriver becomes radically disjunctive, as different historical and geographical contexts intersect and proliferate on screen. The film proceeds through the archeological site of Histria, Novi Sad in Serbia, Vukovar in Croatia, the Mauthausen camp in Austria, and the Black Forest in Germany, each with their own specific histories. This episodic construction of the Danube is anti-idealist and without any possible origin, racial or otherwise. Instead, we see only an achronological linkage of multiple events in a series, as part of a postnational heterogeneity of societies.

The Danube acts as a river of time that flows in one direction towards an essentialist origin of the modern German nation, and in the other towards archeological strata along the banks of a postnational European Union. Thinking through the nationalist past is both a prerequisite and a resource for imagining a postnational future. The Ister embodies a struggle to imagine the possibility of the second from the ruins of the first.

6. Throughout the film of The Ister, animals appear prominently. Waterfowl populate the Danube, and a duck wanders along the bank of the river in a long take near the end of the film.

Still from `The Ister`.Stiegler cites animals as a way of explaining what he calls tertiary memory. Animals embody the genetic code as a kind of memory that continues across generations. Animals are also able to recall lived experiences, but this memory disappears with the death of the individual. Humans have a third kind of memory, through prosthetic traces of past knowledge that each person inherits as a condition of being human. Stiegler comments that humans give animals names that they cannot give themselves to make them part of the human world, such as his dog “Orfée.”

Deleuze and Guattari propose a strategy of “becoming animal” to mark the limits of a semiotic construction of the world. Lyotard uses the word “infans” to mark the position of being without “language,” and to suggest how the event always escapes and lies outside representation.

At one point, Stiegler gets up and moves off screen to look for his dog, Orfée. The filmmakers leave this shot in the edited sequence, so that the screen is emptied of its human subject just as representation is positioned as irretrievably contingent.

Related texts:

The Danube: Hölderlin, Heidegger, ‘the jews,’ and the Destiny of Europe by Dragan Kujundzic

The Nonbiodegradable by Dragan Kujundzic

Against the Stream: Remarks on the Film The Ister by Galili Shahar