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Harun Farocki and the Romantic Genesis of the Principle of Visual Critique


In June 2009, the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris exhibited two major contemporary artists: Harun Farocki and Rodney Graham.1 The visitor did not need to look at the labels to identify the author of the various works in the exhibition: if a work involved a dispositif of two or more images, it was certainly the result of the comparative visual argumentation that structures the investigations of Harun Farocki. Under the aegis of Jean-Luc Godard, to whom he dedicated a wonderful book of dialogues,2 Harun Farocki, in all his works, elaborates and un folds an intensive and meditated form of encounter that we have named “visual study”. What is visual study? It is a matter of a frontal encounter, a face-to-face encounter between an existing image and a figurative project dedicated to observing It – in other words, a study of the image by means of the image itself.

Let us note to begin with that – deliberately or not – visual study, by its enactments, challenges, even cancels the division of labour between art and criticism. The same enterprise of critical investigation is carried out between Farocki’s writings for the journal Filmkritik, the soundtracks for his films, his essayistic montages, and his installations in “soft montage” (comparativism through juxtaposition and putting into series, which transfer to space the temporal principle inherent to the intermittence of film frames in cinema). The vital question that each visual study renews can be summed up thus: “what is an image capable of?” Can an Image inform, explain, criticize, argue, demonstrate, conclude, and how? Is it enough, as Jean-Luc Godard claims, to place two images one after the other? Is comparison the be all and end all? And why isn’t one image enough; why can’t the second image be an absent image – why not one image less?

Harun Farocki – in this respect faithful to Marxist principles – takes advantage of them by cancelling the division between manual and intellectual labour: in Schnittstelle (Interface, 1995), the attentive observation of the gestures of the editor at the editing table – in a direct line, of course, with Guido Seeber and Dziga Vertov, but also the Marcel episode in Jean-Luc Godard’s 6x2 (1976) – allows us to sketch out the common and very concrete territory of speculative and manual movement, territory that the film Der Ausdruck der Hande (The Expression of Hands, 1997) will extend further.

Deep Play (Harun Farocki, 2007)

The Stakes of Farockian Visual Study: Cinema’s Auto-Critique

As a form in perpetual expansion since 1951, that is, since the great Lettrist initiatives in the field of cinema,3 currently the dominant practice on the cinematography of the avant-garde,4 visual study emerges with the cinema itself. One can trace the invention back to 1887, to Etienne-Jules Marey’s gesture of translating his own chronophotographs of the fight of a seagull into a three-dimensional sculpture, a work that also anticipates all of Futurism, kinetism and abstract art. Marey’s initiative resonates with the extremely rich formal use that Harun Farocki makes of the iconography of the extract, the schema, the quantified overview with which the control society abstracts our lives into an organized habitus. In this respect, and in contrast to the majority of artists operating in this field, the enterprise of Harun Farocki does not only study images – as recurrent (leaving a factory, the manufacture of bricks) or crucial (aerial photographs of extermination camps) as they are – but the cinema and the audiovisual itself grasped in their inaugural logic as instruments among others of the control society.

As has already been established and reflected upon by certain historians in the wake of the work of Michel Foucault, the cinematographic dispositif is not in fact simply the result of a logical technological development,5 but belongs fully to the history of the technologies of control. Emerging at the heart of a determined cultural shift between the Franco-Prussian War and a World War I that was prepared in all knowledge by the European powers, the cinema participates in concertizing the links between scientific research on motion, military industry and control of the body. “If we knew the conditions under which to obtain the maximum speed strength, or work that the living being can provide, it would put an end to many regrettable errors”, wrote Etienne-Jules Marey in 1873.6 The different techniques of revelation and visual decomposition of motion was meant to eliminate such errors; they would lead to cinematographic recording. As technological dispositif the cinema serves, first of all, the interests of state and army (the War Ministry financed Marey’s laboratory, his Station Physiologique. the cradle of the cinema), which maintained for themselves the privileges of a “financial feudalism”, according to an expression by Augustin Hamon, the future father-in-law of Jean Painleve.7 In the United States, the researches of Eadweard Muybridge are inscribed within the context of the Taylorisation of labour; in France, those of Etienne-Jules Marey, in the context of the “rationalization” of human and animal motion. In both cases, it is a matter of an enterprise of the seizing and making profitable of bodies, beginning with chronophotography, passing via cinema, and continuing up to the present in the form of the largest production of images that humanity has ever known through the proliferation of surveillance cameras.

The anthological installation Deep Play, conceived by Farocki in 2007 for documenta 12, a juxtaposition of 12 screens reproducing diverse information displays deployed during the France/Italy final of the 2006 World Cup in which the slightest movement on the football pitch and the surrounding area is surveyed, analyzed, quantified, and divided up, should be compared here with the exact inverse initiative on the part of another major activist documentary filmmaker, Lech Kowalski. On the same evening, Kowalski filmed, and had filmed in France and Italy, the faces of numerous spectators watching this same final on screens at their homes, in stadiums or cafes. Winners and Losers (2007) is entirely composed of these shots without any images of the match, and, like Deep Play, follows the game’s linear chronology. Hence, where Farocki grapples with the logic of control presiding at the very invention of cinema as machine of recording, Kowalski, for his part, plunges into the popular masses, a festive crowd caught up in a socially sanctioned, even prescribed, activity, high on institutional ecstasies. From these two works in shot-countershot – one objectivizing the work of the system of control, the other observing the real-time effects on its targets (the spectators in front of their screens) – a synthesis of an anthropological regime of the current state of administrated life emerges. However, between the Farockian machines of vision that reify us and the Kowalskian voluntary servitude that undermines us, is there still an interstice through which it is possible to breathe? At best, we fall into a dark fissure, a black zone like the interval between two frames, since, as Hegel points out, the analysis of representation involves “the tremendous power of the negative [...] in utter dismemberment”, and an engagement with analysis consists no more nor less than in “tarrying with the negative”.8 However, just as Georges Demeny, Marey’s assistant, took home the camera that he had prepared for the Station Physiologique and thereby invented fiction, all technology, all objects, all institutions, all logic can be reappropriated, subverted and turned against its own determinations. In response to the invention of cinema as instrument of domestication, there are a number of initiatives that wrest films from their conditions of possibility and reinscribe cinema within another vein of the history of ideas, one linked with a critical conception of the role of the artist (or of the “producer”, since, in its turn, the sullied vocabulary of metaphysics that reigns in the field of art will itself be subjected to a materialist critique). Analyzing the fourth sequence of Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964; Nana interrogated by the police), Harun Farocki points out the preoccupation of a filmmaker concerned with formally liberating his enterprise from its ideological determinations: “This scene also plays with the similarity between filmmaking and police work. The noise of the mechanical typewriter tells us that it is a difficult and never entirely appropriate job to document life, whether in a police station or on a film set.”9 Harun Farocki’s visual studies are inscribed in one of the most fertile, active, and reflected traditions of the history of critique that we shall trace through an elaboration of the notion of “immanent critique” at the turn of the 18th century by the German Romantics, beginning with Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis.

Übertragung [Transmission] (Harun Farocki, 2007)

The Theoretical Origins of Immanent Critique

“Immanent critique” consists first of all in honouring the significance of a work that is capable of “criticizing itself”, in the professional sense of the term. Friedrich Schlegel formulates the principle in relation to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister: “Luckily, it is one of those books that judge themselves, and so relieve the critic of all the trouble.”10 Goethe’s novel, published in 1795-96 and originally entitled Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Calling, organizes a kind of montage that alternates between chapters of (sentimental) action and chapters containing dialogues on art, its forms and functions. It offers, for example, the eminently modern scene in which Wilhelm discourses on the artistic virtuosity and the sound judgment of the poets while simultaneously burning, one by one, his own manuscripts – which might be seen as a source for the aesthetics of destruction. It contains, in a dispersed and obsessional way, an analysis of Hamlet and the dramatic works of Shakespeare, “the most extraordinary and most admirable of all writers”.11 To a certain extent, Wilhelm Meister can be read (among others things) as the mise-en-scène of aesthetic analysis, and it is not merely by chance that it acted as a source for Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). Goethe’s novel contains, makes explicit, discusses its own criteria of artistic validation: it feeds on the energy of the essay. Hence, it can be said that it continuously makes a theme of the principle of immanent critique. However, this principle cannot be reduced to forms – even expanded ones – of reflexivity. Novalis writes for example: “A review is the complement of the book. Many books need no review, only an announcement; they already contain their own reviews.”12 But under which aspects, by which means? One answer is that criticism as a literary genre finds itself superimposed over the Kantian concept of Kritik, which for that generation constituted the culmination of speculative activity. “Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected."13 If, in the case of Kant, Kritik is engendered, historically from philological criticism, which, for the Enlightenment, presided at the rational examination of religious texts, the concept brought with it a transcendental signification of the analysis of the means and limits of all knowledge, of the theory of the a priori conditions of all experience. Here we have the Kantian critique: “maxim of a universal mistrust of all synthetic propositions [of metaphysics], until a universal foundation of their possibility was perceived in the conditions of our power of knowing.”14 Hence, critical activity “consists in going to the sources of affirmations and objections, and the foundations on which they rest; a method that allows one to hope to achieve certainty”.15

Concerning the specific field of aesthetics, Kant therefore discerns two types of critique: on the one hand, empirical critique, which is content to reflect on particular cases and apply them to the rules of psychology (to relate them to the laws of sensation); on the other, transcendental critique, which is not based on works, but judgment itself, observing in this the functioning of the faculties. The first remains merely an art; the second rises to the status of science. “As art, criticism merely examines physiological (here psychological), and, consequently, empirical rules, according to which in fact taste proceeds (bypassing the question of their possibility) to the judgment of its objects and criticizes the productions of fine art; as science, it criticizes the faculty of judging them.”16

Übertragung [Transmission] (Harun Farocki, 2007)

The Three Romantic Operations

The members of the Athenaeum will, in their own way, reimport the Kantian concept into the aesthetic field. Under the influence of Fichte’s Doctrine de la Science, through a sort of enthusiastic submission to the perspectives traced by the re flection of Kant, they will carry out three operations. Firstly, relate, through a perfectly comprehensible theoretical shift, their own concept of criticism to the general concept of Kritik without dwelling on the concept of “transcendental critique” that Kant developed for the aesthetic domain. Secondly, make, through a major qualitative leap, the concept function in favour of the work itself and no longer the judgment made on it. Thirdly, superimpose, in an effect of synthetic superimposition that has proven decisive for our modernity, the theoretical concept of Kritik over the concrete activity of criticism as literary genre. While for Kant, aesthetic criticism consisted of examining the domain of sensible knowledge, in order to observe the relations between the understanding and the imagination, the Romantics transpose the Kantian rules to the register of the work itself and will find in this all the logics that Kant disengaged in relation to the activity of knowledge in general. From Kant to Schlegel, one passes, therefore, from a limited and subjective aesthetic, the sphere of the activity of taste (“the faculty of judging”), to an expanded and objective aesthetic, the domain of the work. To some extent, everything Kant elaborated in relation to the work of the faculties (the three Critiques) will find itself applied to the artwork. In this way, Kantian Kritik allows us to envisage how works work to implement their own certainty, their own necessity. Schlegel announces this enterprise thus: “The whole history of modern poetry is a running commentary on the following brief philosophical text: all art should become science, and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one”,17 (where every cinephile will recognize the mould in which Jean-Luc Godard cast a number of his precepts, to start with the fundamental: “cinema at the same time as the theory of cinema”). It was Schelling who would systematically develop the dialectic between art and philosophy, in order to conclude with the surpassing of philosophy by art. Indeed, the System of Transcendental Idealism ends with this proposition: “If aesthetic intuition is only intellectual intuition become objective, then it is evident that art is the sole true and eternal organon as well as document of philosophy, which constantly reveals what philosophy cannot represent outwardly, namely, the unconscious in action and production and its original identity with the conscious. For this very reason art occupies the highest place for the philosopher."18 The hypothesis could be made that, historically, one of the powerful tendencies of the history of aesthetic ideas since the 18th century will consist in an increasing use of the accomplishments of transcendental philosophy in the field of art. However, to stay at the origins, the transfer operation of the Kantian Kritik, and its superimposing over criticism as genre, constitute the two conditions of possibility that will liberate the assembled resources through the term immanent “critique”. The philosophical ground from which the immanent critique emerges is the transposition to the register of the artwork of that which Kant elaborated for the register of human reason: an absolute consciousness of oneself to attain the autonomy of the will, which the Romantics will translate into integral freedom in self-determination.

Erkennen und Verfolgen [AKA War at a Distance] (Harun Farocki, 2003)

The Five Dimensions of Immanent Analysis

Let us attempt to logically classify the elements put to work in the notion of “immanent critique”, which, in the case of the Romantics, was not the object of an exclusive categorical definition but was elaborated for the sake of a constellation of affirmations and propositions. We shall therefore try to understand its instrumental character, its field of operation, its strategic nature, and, hence, the way in which it continues to act and to exert its effects in the work of Harun Farocki. We shall distinguish five principal components.

1. The Aim of Criticism is to Relate the Singular Work to a Historical Whole of Art

Commenting on Lessing, Schlegel writes: “The distinction between the genres when it is accomplished in a fundamental way, leads sooner or later to a historical construction of the whole of art and poetry. However, this construction and knowledge of the whole has been set up by us as one of the fundamental and essential conditions of a criticism that would properly fulfil its high destination.”19 It is in this way that the notion is anchored in classical aesthetics, the aesthetics of systems (from Baumgarten to Kant, to use a traditional periodisation);20 and it is precisely what the specification and the putting to work of the principle of “immanent critique” will allow to surpass. By dint of cultivating the singularization of the work, its immanent powers, the model of the system will dissolve to make of each work a “whole” in itself that is capable of constructing its own legitimacy – not as a result of any predetermined ensemble, but by participating in the constitution of an ensemble as historical sum that criticism will have the means to organize. However, here, Schlegel, more precisely, constructs criticism as a synthetic activity, which allows him to attain “its high destination”: “One should think of criticism as a middle term between history and philosophy that binds both, in which both should be united into a new third term.”21 In this task, it is possible to make out the horizon of the Farockian enterprise: the elaboration of a critical field in the form of a visual toolkit that is at once capable of revealing the ideological traits at work in each historical phenomenon (a gesture, the expression of a face, the movement of a body in space ...) and to constitute a speculative ensemble that is not doctrinal but operational, autonomous, and which allows reflection to have a direct and concrete link with collective history.

2. Criticism is a Method and is Dedicated to Structure

If criticism can guarantee this synthesis between history and philosophy, this is not at all in the name of general and accommodating ideas. As Schlegel writes: “since Kant [...] it is in referring each particular aesthetic sentiment to the sentiment of the infinite or to the recollection [Erinnerung] of freedom that the dignity of poetry has at least been redeem ed,”22 but, as he writes, criticism has not benefited much from this. On the contrary, criticism gains its speculative legitimacy when it shows itself capable of grasping the structure of the work, “the finest property of its whole” according to his beautiful expression: “Nothing is more difficult than to be able to reconstruct, perceive, and characterize the thought of another in finest property of its whole. [...] One only understands a work, a spirit, when one can reconstruct its movement and structure. And this fundamental understanding that, if it were to be expressed in a particular word. I called “characterization,” is the true calling task and inner being of criticism.”23 In the case of Farocki, this work of “characterization” (structural elucidation) operates with the help of a montage that is increasingly simple and increasingly powerful. Conscious of the specificities of his medium, Harun Farocki no longer places the confrontation between small singular bodies and the great movement of collective history at the centre of his enterprise, but instead the confrontation between dominant representations and the critical analysis of images. Industrie und Fotografie (Industry and Photography, 1979), Etwas wird sichtbar (Before your Eyes Vietnam, 1982), Peter Lorre – Das doppelte Gesicht (The Double Face of Peter Lorre, 1984), Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1988), Stilleben (Still Life, 1997), Erkennen und Verfolgen (War at a Distance, 2003) ... In 16mm, then in video, the war of images conducted by Farocki participates in the development of a visual studies where the function of the word is not to subject the image to the logos, but to establish forms of association that lead from one image to another, to occasionally come back to a preceding one, enriched by the journey. Therefore, the surpassing of visual studies is found in the series of films that observe with vigilance, and preferably with no accompanying commentary, the way in which bodies are assaulted, trained, subdued, and worn down by the ensemble of technologies of control. The simple juxtaposition and serialization of the sequences will be enough to characterize the mutilation. Die Schulung (Indoctrination, 1987), a film of a seminar in which executives are taught practices of persuasion, the masterpiece Leben-BRD (How to Live in the FRG, 1990), on the forming of behaviour in different professions (police academy, midwife training school, insurance company), Der Auftritt (The Appearance, 1996), on the world of advertising and logos, Die Bewerbung (The Interview, 1997), Die Schapfer der Einkaufswelten (The Creators of Shopping Worlds, 2001) are ethnological films merited by the administrative and mutilated live of the Western world, whether capitalist or communist. In this respect, Transmission (2007, on the compassionate gestures of visitors confronted with contemporary memorials) or Zum Vergleich (In Comparison, 2009) reinvest the Farockian enterprise with traditional motifs of ethnological cinema, while no longer requiring archival images, even images from contemporary archives; with the same creative gesture, Harun Farocki is able to assume the production of the image and its own critical characterization, to achieve more complex and suspended significations.

Jean-Marie Straub und Daniéle Huillet bei der Arbeit an einem Film nach Franz Kafkas Romanfragment Amerika (Harun Farocki, 1983)

3. Criticism is a Text and Becomes a Work of Art

For the Romantics, to disengage the structure, to name the “characteristic” as reflective activity, becomes a work of art in itself. “A characteristic is a critical work of art, a visum repertum [discovered perspective] of chemical philosophy.”24 One of the principal claims of the Athenaeum will have been the fusion of poetic and exegetic activity. “Poetry can only be criticized through poetry. A judgment on art that is not itself a work of art. either in its substance, as the presentation of a necessary impression in the state of becoming, or through a beautiful form and liberal tone in the spirit of ancient Roman satire – has no civil rights in the realm of art.”25 Because it is addressed to the structure, because it works on its own forms of exposition, exegesis is therefore on equal terms with its object of investigation. Hence, both are works of art, both produce the work of art. both put art to work. Why? Because (a conception inherited from Kant), the work being a reflective activity of the faculties, criticism works to manifest this structuring activity and, as a result, sheds more light on its functioning. Therefore, to speak of “immanent critique” signifies precisely that the exegetical activity consists in uncovering, making explicit and unfolding the reflective and structural dimension through which the work is work. “Criticism of a work is [...] its reflection, which can only, as is self-evident, unfold the germ of the reflection that is immanent to the work.”26 It is here in particular that the work of Harun Farocki distances itself from the Derridean concept of “deconstruction”, with which it maintains numerous connections but to which it should not be reduced, as well as the symptomatic analysis of Althusser to which it appears historically as the visual equivalent. In its very diversity, the visual critique practiced by Harun Farocki does not consist principally in demonstrating but in unfolding images onto themselves, even if this only involves placing them side by side. In this respect, it does not merely deconstruct the image; it makes it germinate (to adopt the botanical vocabulary of the Romantics). It therefore engenders creative forms, revealing itself as the heir to the poets of the Athenaeum, a heritage that is of course hybridized by the reflection of Marx (which is drawn in part from the same sources). In this fascinating lineage, which leads from Schlegel to Farocki via Marx and Godard (and which of course it is necessary to extend and clarify), a crucial moment is found in constructivism and more particularly in the 1924 manifesto of the Projectionist Group, First Discussional Exhibition of Associations of Active Revolutionary Art. “The artist is not the producer of consumer objects (cupboard, picture), but (of projections) of the method of organizing materials.”27 The visual critique practiced by Harun Farocki has something of the invention of a kaleidoscope that can be used to elucidate rather than hypnotize: starting with the image itself, he deduces the filmic configurations that will allow the manifestation of political and historical functions. These configurations determine the forms of visual studies.

4. Criticism Liberates the Concept of Art

Walter Benjamin summarizes this logical movement thus: “In this procedure, the critique is not meant to do anything other than discover the secret tendencies of the work itself, fulfil its hidden intentions. It belongs to the meaning of the work itself – that is, in its reflection that the criticism should go beyond the work and make it absolute. This much is clear: for the Romantics, criticism is far less the judgement of a work than the method of its consummation.”28 Having grasped the structure of the work, reflecting its own place in the dynamic of art, criticism becomes, as it were, an extension of the work, and, enveloping it in its energy as in a garment woven from historical knowledge, relates both to the general becoming of art, no longer as a fixed ensemble of canons and rules, but as a product resulting from the juxtaposition of singular works. A fragment by August Schlegel Illustrates this reversal between the work (legitimate and legislating) and the bad jurisdiction of art (reduced to a rule): “People criticize Goethe’s poems for being metrically careless. But are the laws of the German hexameter really supposed to be as consistent and universally valid as the character of Goethe’s poetry?”29 One sees that this decisive operation (art as result of works and no longer as canonical doctrine) rests on the technical primacy of analysis that Benjamin describes in these terms: “not only did Schlegel’s concept of criticism achieve freedom from heteronomous aesthetic doctrines [relating art to something other than itself], but it made this freedom possible in the first place by setting up for artworks a criterion other than the rule – namely, the criterion of an immanent structure specific to the work itself.”30 In other words, conceptual freedom is gained by means of the analysis of the singular immanent structure of singular works. Once again, the historical example is Wilhelm Meister studied by Schlegel, “the absolutely new book and the only one that can be understood on its own terms.” Novalis generalizes the case and provides the very formula of immanent critique: “To find formulae for individual works – formulae through which they can be understood in the most authentic sense – is the business of an artistic critic, whose labours prepare the way for the history of art."31

The work not only constructs its own concept of art, its own aesthetic horizon, but also its own context. It is the Romantic metamorphosis of the concept of art into a dynamic idea of art that Schlegel formulates thus: “An idea cannot be grasped in a proposition. An idea is an infinite series of propositions, an irrational magnitude incapable of being posited, incommensurable [...]. Yet the law of its progression can be laid down.”32 Such propositions constitute the possibility of the dialectic that will occupy the artists of the 20th century, that is, to assure the surpassing of art, to leave the symbolic to rejoin the field of action and in doing so to revive de facto the seminal reflection of Friedrich Schiller: “to dedicate oneself to the most perfect of all artworks, to the construction of a genuine political freedom.”33 Harun Farocki’s work can be seen as a great speculative journey on the path of transforming criticism into visual activism: immediate visual critique with Nicht loschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire, 1969), which transforms a conference into a performance, an intellectual demonstration into a concrete gesture; visual critique in the form of a documented investigation of the audio visual industry (Single. Eine Schallplatte wird produziert [Single. A Record is Being Produced], 1979; Ein Bild [An Image], 1983 ... up to War at a Distance and Deep Play); criticism in the form of visual studies of images and representations fueled by logical conclusions (The Double Face of Peter Lorre, Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Aufschub [Respite]. 2007), or, with a minimalist concern typical of Farocki’s style, by confrontation (Still Life), by serialization (Arbeiter verlassen die Fabric [Workers Leaving the Factory], 1995), by simple reproduction (the group of films on the training of employees and, more generally, citizens of which How to Live in the FRG doubtless constitutes the filmic monument and Deep Play the formal culmination).

In this respect, Harun Farocki’s work, like that of Guy Debord and Jean-Luc Godard, confirms Pierre Restany’s affirmation: “One of the characteristics of the 20th century avant-garde is this: the self-criticism of the visual fact through its unavoidable chain reactions has been a determining factor in all other areas of creation. The specialists of visual language have a fundamental responsibility: they condition more or less directly the evolution, and renew it with the entire structure of contemporary language.”34

5. Criticism Liberates Forms

Immanent critique therefore liberates, simultaneously, both artistic and exegetic forms, this distinction no longer being anything other than a distinction of genre, not of status. Attached to structural singularity, criticism, according to a logical tendency, privileges singular structures. The classical models of totality and totalization dissolve; faced with the potentialities of structural invention, each part is invited to discuss its belonging to the whole. Schleiermacher uses this superb political metaphor: “poetry is a republican speech: a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote.”35 The poetic is defined thus: no longer as something that obeys the rules of organization and therefore a conventional distinction between prose and poetry (in the limited sense), but as something that develops its own particular modes of organization. Each moment of the novel – the field of investigation privileged by the Romantics for this reason – is capable of developing its own legitimacy. “The style of the novel must not be a continuum; it must be a structure articulated in each and every period. Each small piece must be something cut off, delimited, a whole on its own.”36 Hence, at the opposite pole of the great systems of classical aesthetics, the Romantic perspective is one of formal diversity, a variety without end, without totalization and without finitude. Such is the vision of the last fragment of the Athenaeum: “Universality is the successive satiety of all forms and substances. Universality can attain harmony only through the conjunction of poetry and philosophy (that is to say, through criticism); and even the greatest, most universal works of isolated poetry and philosophy seem to lack this final synthesis. They come to a stop, still imperfect but close to the goal of harmony. The life of the universal spirit is an unbroken chain of inner revolutions.”37 The sole possible synthesis can only operate from the outside, by finding an external boundary to this infinite diversity. Schlegel calls this outer limit, sublimely: “the feeling for chaos”. “Versatility consists not just in a comprehensive system but also in a feeling for chaos outside that system.”38 Symmetrically, exegesis goes in search of its own forms. One knows that, for the members of the Athenaeum, the supreme manifestation will be the Witz, the sudden insight. However, the Witz, if it is best manifested in the brief form of the aphorism, even in extreme fragmentation, can make its ironic energy radiate everywhere. (Schlegel, in the Ideas, writes “iridesce.”)

First of all, in silence: this is the refusal of exegesis, radical critique, since it suggests that in the object there is not the least germ to unfold. Afterwards, in all possible literary forms: epistle, dialogue, dissertation, poem, novel, sketch, essay, forms instituted or invented for the occasion. This, of course, recalls the work of Harun Farocki, which operates according to similar principles, not only in the diversity of his visual studies, but also in the free circulation between articles, diagrammatic images inside the films, the return of films in the form of books ... The same observation applies to the manner in which the films are circulated: sometimes projected, sometimes installed, sometimes juxtaposed in space, sometimes compared in the course of a film programme. Thus in March 2006, given carte blanche at the Film Museum in Vienna, Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann placed Farocki’s films in the context of certain classics of what we would call “films about filmmaking”, the film on the manufacture of images and stories: Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) Bellissima (Luchino Visconti, 1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1962), La ricotta (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962), Le mépris (Jean-Luc Godard 1963,), Otto e mezzo (Federico Fellini, 1963), The Stunt Woman (Ann Hui, 1966), Everything for Sale (Andrej Wajda, 1968), Beware o f a Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971), Passion (Jean Luc Godard, 1982), Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994), Sauvage innocence (Philippe Garrel, 2001). They titled the series: Wie in einem Spiegel [As in a Mirror].39 In choosing this particular body of films, from amongst the multitude of films on the making of films – one would have expected Farocki and Ehmann to select Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le gai savoir (1968), Al Razutis’ Visual Essays (1973-82) or Kirk Tougas’ The Politics of Perception (1973), not to mention Hellmuth Costard’s Der kleine Godard (1978) – one grasps the effect not of the mirror but of a feedback produced by the confrontation: on the one hand, the novelistic and more or less autobiographical tradition of the film of grand fiction on the cinema; on the other, the analytical, documented, serial and universalist work of Harun Farocki. The two sides of a mirror that, like certain video installations, at the obverse and reverse of the infra-thin screen diffuse a different image, without it being possible to discern the electronic layer from which they radiate. Not only is the cinema not a mirror of the world, which we knew already, but above all, the mirror, as it is re-elaborated in the series programmed by Farocki and Ehmann, is revealed, not as a simple reflecting surface, but as a lens cut for a giant telescope.

From the preceding initiatives, it follows that exegesis, no longer being dedicated to the secondary and the consecutive, but still participating in poetics – in the case of the German Romantics reinvents its place and its connections with the work.

Its place: traditionally, exegesis comes after the work, assuring it a future; but it is also co-present, simultaneous to the work as simple unfolding of immanence: and it can also anticipate the work, constituting its origin and past. The characters in Schlegel’s Dialogue on Poetry bring their discussion to a close with this proposition: “Ludovico: do you by chance consider it impossible to create future poems a priori? Antonio: Give me ideas for poems, and I dare give you this power.”40 Thus, exegesis can be, at different times or simultaneously, the past, present and future of the work.

Its relation to the object: confronted with a major work, exegesis works fervently to disengage the structure, and it is not enough to know the whole of history and the whole of philosophy to “characterize” the force of a genuinely new work, since it will be the object of a pure initiative. On the other hand, faced with a mediocre work, the immanent toolkit becomes immediate: the title, the preface, the first page, is sufficient to characterize the work. Hence, one imagines a readymade criticism that would be content to mention the title of what it reviews, and everything would be said. In his Dialogues, Novalis sketches the principle: “Often the title is, in physiognomic terms, quite legible. The preface is also a subtle paper knife. [...] The preface is both the root and square of the book, to which I would add that it is simultaneously nothing other than its authentic review.”41 It is exactly this principle that presides in the case of Harun Farocki, in the series of films based on sequences showing scenes of training: less post-Situationist détournement than “theoretical readymades” in which the placing of the sequences creates a theory (in three senses of the term: a setting out, an elucidation; and a verdict) of socialization in an authoritarian regime. The gesture of sampling can possess more heuristic power than a detailed commentary, and pure immanent criticism, in this particular case, equals a radical self-criticism.

The way in which exegesis conveys its object, occasionally merging with it entirely, or, conversely, reducing it, marginalizing it, even pushing it to outside the realms of analysis, represents a field of infinite methodological possibilities. The work of Harun Farocki, in this respect, offers a reservoir of points of departure and inexhaustible propositions. We shall mention only one drawn from the text “What an Editing Room Is” (1980): “the editing room is an office for film; in other words, nothing could be so critical of television’s conceptual and practical work than showing unedited images all day long.”42 Let us note that Philippe Grandrieux put the idea into practice at the end of the same decade, since in 1987, in opposition to all the established codes for televisual information, he initiated The world is everything that is the case, an experiment on a local television channel that invented a new pathway through the series Brut, broadcast on Arte in 1996. It was a matter of broadcasting blocks of reality, of newly filmed footage and sequences taken from image banks of Brut material, without commentary, without a priori hierarchization, without user’s instructions. The task was to transmit, not, as is usual in the televisual regime, a discourse illustrated by images reduced to the state of a visual signal, but a complexity, a block in a raw state, an occurrence of life taken as it is. This document, which is as minimal as it is powerful, fully rethinks our cultural transformation with regard to the commonplace, the event, appearance and, finally, the real – which Harun Farocki was already aware of.

The heuristic radically of the members of the Athenaeum proves unsurpassable, since, in their case, language itself is already poetry, poésie premiere, “elementary poetry” according to August Schlegel’s term, which therefore already contains the dynamic of immanent critique, that is, the explicit manifestation of speculative structures. In his Lectures on Art and Literature, August Schlegel describes it thus: “Language is not a product of Nature, but bears the impress of the human spirit, which commits to it the origin of its concepts and their affinities, with all the machinery of its operations. [...] Yes, one can say without exaggeration that, strictly speaking, all poetry is poetry of poetry; for it already presupposes language, whose invention pertains to poetic activity, and which is itself a poem of humankind, a poem in perpetual becoming, in perpetual metamorphosis, never achieved.”43 Based on such a conception, the choice and combination of each word can become a theoretical gesture in as much as it reveals its consciousness of itself, which determines the predilection of the Romantics for the linguistic games and the way in which language is going to play with and disorganize appearances: Witz, fantasy, the strange, disorder, and of course the constant work of irony. “Irony is the clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos.”44

In cinema, one of the most traditional forms of visual exegesis proves to be the making-of film, the documentation of a film’s production, short audiovisual accompaniments which made possible certain brilliant initiatives,45 one of whose highlights include Jean-Marie Straub und Daniele Huillet bei der Arbeit an einem Film nach Franz Kafkas Romanfragment Amerika (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet at work on a film based on Franz Kafka’s America, 1983). Harun Farocki documents two days of rehearsal (1st and 3rd March) and a day of shooting (23rd August) only in sequence shots, an essay that invents cinematic forms of empathy, of pure visual Witz: this is, first of all, a smile, in the form of a cut to Daniele Huillet: the first day, Jean-Marie, who is out of shot, calls action; Daniele claps, so Harun cuts his film – formal sylleptic gag, since it is as if Daniele’s hands were scissors on Harun’s film stock, but, at the same time, Harun stopped filming her to give Jean-Marie’s mise-en-scene its full range. The second day, Daniele gets ready to clap, but Jean-Marie anticipates her out of shot; Daniele smiles at Harun’s camera and the gesture of joined hands is transformed into a profane prayer. The third day, the whole team works on a scene in which the dialogue unfolds thus: “I can’t find the photograph/What photograph?/The photograph of my parents/We haven’t seen a photograph, if you didn’t play with the suitcase ...”

The precision of the Straubs’ mise-en-scene and Harun’s montage metamorphoses the visual reportage into an in-depth investigation of the time needed to correctly pronounce the word “photography” in the sentence “I can’t find the photograph”, which returns like a litany on the soundtrack. So when, at the end, everyone is satisfied, and when Harun ends his film by reproducing, in white on black, the sentence “I can’t find the photograph”, the exercise of mise-en-scene is rightly honoured – a simple sentence becomes a masterpiece of diction and a plenitude of signification – and the document is transformed into a formalist study on the absence of ail photography at the very heart of cinema’s images. Harun Farocki’s sequence shots and fades to black produce the same effect of integral constructivism as Ken Jacobs’ montage in Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969-71), which manages to show how the frames of the film being studied (the eponymous film by Billy Bitzer, 1905) were driven, not only by a simple Maltese Cross, an exterior mechanical dispositif, as we humbly imagine it, but also by their motifs, from the very interior of the images. Wonderful kinetic Witz. From silence as act to language as first poetry, from the fade to the diction of an actor, one sees that for the Romantics and their heirs, everything has the capacity to arouse this “vertiginous theoretical deepening”46 with which Maurice Blanchot in turn “characterized” German Romanticism: the capability to address all phenomena and each of their possible relations. Thanks to the members of the Athenaeum and to their distant grandchildren, one could say, everything begins to think, everything thinks, to begin with, that which is missing. Defining the ultimate Witz, the “architectonic Witz”, Schlegel indeed advocates: “with all its completeness, something should still seem to be missing, as if torn away.”47 Like Jean-Luc Godard, Harun Farocki never ceases to base his investigation on images, starting with those that are missing, whether these were never made or covered by others, falsified.


What is the most activist, the most subversive film in the history of cinema? To this question that the author of these lines posed in Cahiers du Cinema to diverse filmmakers and historians, the young Argentinean filmmaker Mauro Andrizzi, director of the exemplary Iraqi Short Films (2008), replied: Videograms of a Revolution by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica (1992). To justify his choice, he drafted the following argument, which should please the author of the most radical activist forms of visual critique in cinema and in video:48 “How to make a revolution with television. Good example of possible uses of the web. Best moment in the film: Ceaușescu’s face captured by the official TV station, when people storm Bucharest’s Central Committee. No countershot of the crowd, just his frozen face, staring nowhere. Then, the camera points to the sky, and there’s only sky and shouts. Pure Cinema. The revolution, live.”

Videogramme einer Revolution (Harun Farocki, 1992)

  • 1HF/RG. Harun Farocki/Rodney Graham, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, 7 April – 7 June 2009, curated by Chantal pontbriand.
  • 2Katja Silverman, Harun Farocki, Speaking About Godard (New York: 1999).
  • 3Isodore isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951). Maurice Lemaître’s Le film a déjà commencé ? (1951), Gil J. Wolman’s L’anti-concept (1952).
  • 4From Raphael Montañez Ortiz to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, from Ken Jacobs to Johan Grimonprez, from Brice Deilsperger to Jean-Gabriel Périot.
  • 5See the works of Paul Virilio, Laurent Mannoni, Christian Pociello, Matha Braun or Gérard Leblanc.
  • 6Étienne-Jules Marey, La machine animale. Locomotion terrestre et aérienne (Paris: 1873), introduction p. VIII., quoted by Christian Pociello, La science en mouvements. Étienne Marey et Georges Demeny (Paris: 1999), 60. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 7See Augustin Hamon, Les maîtres de la France. La féodalité financière dans les transports, ports, docks et colonies (Paris: 1938).
  • 8Friedrich Hegel, Phénoménologie de l’esprit (Paris: 1977), 29. [Phenemenology of Spirit (Oxford: 1977), 19.]
  • 9Silverman, Farocki (1998), 13.
  • 10Friedrich Schlegel, Sur le Meister de goethe [1798] (Paris: 1999), 46. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 11Goethe, Les années d’apprentissage de Wilhelm Meister [1795] (Paris: 1949), 149. [Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (New York: 1917).]
  • 12Quoted by Walter Benjamin, Le concept de critique esthétique dans le Romantisme allemand [1919] (Paris: 1986), 108. [“The Concept of Criticism”, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913-1926 (Camebridge: 1996), 152.]
  • 13Immanuel Knt, Critique de la raison pure, preface of the first edition (1781), 6. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 14Immanuel Kant, Sur une découverte, quoted by Rudolf Eisier, Kant lexicon (Paris: 1994), 217. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 15Immanuel kant, Logique [1880], Introduction, IV, in Eisier (1994), 217. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 16Immanuel Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger [1790] (Paris: 1979), 121. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 17Friedrich Schlegel, “Critical Fragment no. 115” [1798], in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, L’absolu littéraire. Théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand (Paris: 1978), 95. [Friedrich Schlegel, Lucinde and the Fragments (Minnesota: 1971), 115.]
  • 18F.W.J. Scheiling, Le système de l’idéalisme transcendantal [1800] (Louvain: 1978), 259. [“System of Transcendental Idealism”, in The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680-1860: A Critical History with Documents (Indiana: 2000), 321.]
  • 19Friedrich Schlegel, “L’essence de la critique” [1804], in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 413. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 20See Armand Nivelle, Les théories esthétiques en Allemagne de Baumgarten à Kant (Paris: 1955).
  • 21Schlegel [1804], 415. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 22Ibidem, 412 [111].
  • 23Ibidem, 416. [Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 105.]
  • 24Friedrich Schlegel, “Critical Fragment no. 439”, in Lacoue-Labarthe (Nancy: 1978), 175.
  • 25Ibidem.
  • 26Benjamin [1919](1986), 124 [Benjamin (1996), 159.]
  • 27John E. Bowlt (ed.), Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902-1934 (New York: 1976), 240.
  • 28Benjamin [1919](1986), 111 [153].
  • 29August schlegel, “Critical Fragment no. 6”, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1078), 81.
  • 30Benjamin [1919](1986), 115 [155].
  • 31Novalis quoted by Benjamin, ibidem, 115 [155].
  • 32Quoted by Benjamin, ibidem, 139-140 [168].
  • 33Friedrich Schiller, Lettres sur l’éducation esthétique de l’homme (Paris: 1943), 87. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 34Pierre Cabane and Pierre Restany, L’avant-garde au XXeme siècle (Paris: 1969), 10. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 35Friedrich Scheiermarcher, “Critical Fragment no. 65”, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 88.
  • 36Quoted by Benjamin [1919](1986), 148 [172].
  • 37Friedrich Schlegeln “Critical Fragment no. 451”, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 177.
  • 38Friedrich Schlegel, “Ideas” [1800] no. 55 in, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 212.
  • 39The title of this film programme was chosen by Alexander Horvath, director of the Film Museum Austria. [Editor’s note]
  • 40Friedrich Schlegel, Entretien sur la poésie [1800], in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 339. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 41Novalis, Dialogue I, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 430. [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 42Harun Farocki, “Qu’est-ce qu’une salle de montage” [1980], in Reconnaître & poursuivre, texts selected by Christa Blümlinger (Paris: 2002), 32-33. [“What an Editing Room is”, in Nachdruck/Imprint: Texte/Writings ed. By Susanne Gaensheimer and Nicolaus Schafhausen (New York: 2001), 82.]
  • 43August Schlegel, Leçons sur l’art et la littérature [1801-1802], in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 349.
  • 44Friedrich Schlegel, “Ideas” no. 69, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 213.
  • 45Blaise Cendrars’ Autour de la Roue (1921), Eugene Deslaw’s Autour de la fin du monde (1931), Pedro Costa’s Oû gît votre sourrire enfoui (2001).
  • 46Maurice Blanchot, “L’Athenaeum,” in L’entretien infini (Paris: 1969), 518. [The Infinite Conversation (Minneapolis: 1992).] [Translated by Benjamin Carter]
  • 47Friedrich Schlegel, “Critical Fragment” no. 383, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy (1978), 161.
  • 48“Images activists”, in Cahiers du Cinéma 647 (2009), 62.

Originally published as ‘Harun Farocki and the Romantic Genesis of the Principle of Visual Critique’, translated by Benjamin Carter, in Harun Farocki Against What? Against Whom?, edited by Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (Koenig Books/Raven Row: London, 2009).

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.