NOTES ON ALEXANDER KLUGE

In early october 2014, Alexander Kluge presented a series of films at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The programming culminated in a seven hour Sunday screening of News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital (2008, original version 570 min, German with English Subtitles).

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Alexander Kluge

In 1927, Eisenstein set out to film Karl Marx’ Das Kapital. The ambitious project was never completed. Alexander Kluge carefully examined Eisenstein’s notes and created his own free adaption. The result is an avant-garde essay film about ‘the present status of the political’ (as written in the handout). The lineage of authors would therefore be Marx/Eisenstein/Kluge. Kluge, in his extremely humble and gentle manner, said that he is a dwarf next to these giants, but that ‘dwarfs make good neighbours’.

Eisenstein was deeply impressed by how James Joyce managed to compress information and associative links into the one single day of Ulysses. Joyce and Eisenstein met 1929 in Paris, together with Simon Kuslansky, a russian immigrant who taught Joyce Russian. Eisenstein was a multilinguist, had a ‘babylonian’ interest in languages. More information and the interview with Oksana Bulgakowa on this Spanish language blog: http://pensarencine.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/noticias-de-la-antiguedad-ideologica-de.html

In the narrative structure of Ulysses, Eisenstein discovered a model for how to condense his countless ideas and notes into a coherent cinematic entity. He wanted to film Marx’ Kapital ‘as’ Ulysses. The resulting oeuvre would have been a total work of art of sorts, with insights into ‘menschliche Wesenskräfte’ (essential human powers).

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital 

How did Kluge structure his film? There are loose, chapter-like parts with interviews, investigations into historical episodes, contemporary theatre pieces, short, theatrical lectures of Marx texts. The non-linear and constellative-dramaturgical fragments are results of ‘a smashing of subject matter into little bits’ (Kluge) that each mirrors in turn aspects of the larger human psychonarrative. Kluge talked about an underlying presence, a gravitational force, that holds the different fragments together. ‘Gravity governs the subject indirectly, has a constant presence’ (Kluge). However strange and out of place certain interviews and fragments of the film first appear, they gradually reveal themselves. It is up to the viewer to semi-complete the giant jigsaw puzzle offered by Kluge’s fragments. ‘You need something heavy like gravity – like the sun that governs the planets’ (Kluge). Here, the sun is Marx’ Kapital, or the ideas behind Kapital, to which Kluge’s essay film maintains a deep-leveled, symbiotic relationship.

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital, the experimental font and English subtitles

Worth noting are the many German screen texts that appear in between interviews and fragments. A few words, written in evocative, quite adventurously designed fonts appear on screen, ready to be read and followed by the viewer (these text-on-screen reading sessions can last several minutes and might create some headache for non-German subtitle readers). These passages are often intermixed with images, thus creating a rich tapestry of information. Kluge found a way to introduce themes and thoughts by keeping the intimate experience of reading.

The film’s individual fragments raise far-reaching, philosophical questions. Kluge sees the film form and content as ‘an analysis in contradiction, a dialectical analysis’. He was influenced by Brecht’s strategies of breaking up the flow of more traditional, linear storytelling. Kluge’s interview partners are for the most part German philosophers (Sloterdijk), writers (Enzensberger) or economist-thinkers (Joseph Vogl), there is a Russian translator and a film historian (Oksana Bulgakowa). Despite the universality of address and topics, the German/Russian selection of interview partners gives the film a distinct intellectual tone. But this choice is not necessarily limiting, as one can easily imagine Kluge’s concept expanding to include more diverse interview partners.

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital, Oksana Bulgakowa

In his too brief Whitechapel Gallery introduction (one could listen to Kluge for hours), he explained that there are two economies, the economy of capital and what he called the ‘mighty, subjective side of economy’: the economy of labour. ‘No capital is able to produce human intimacy, only humans can create it. Capital is not really the most potent; it is labour’ (Kluge). For Kluge, there is an economy that produces commodities, and there is a ‘countereconomy, our life; the stock exchange hasn’t produced any children’. Also Kluge spoke of a ‘theology within products; an energy of our ancestors’. Evoking Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Kluge said that ‘people exchange commodities and a hundred years later they understand what has been exchanged. They learn to abstract. All commodities communicate among each other and the most beautiful commodity is CERN in Geneva, where a combination of cooperation and commodities take place’. With this somewhat cryptic CERN note, he left London for Germany.

Commodities and services that humans occupy themselves with are queer things. What do we know about labour and the attached sentiments and deeper structures? Marx was one of the first to investigate labour and the manifold notions attached to it.

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital 

Labour in all its variety is connected to deeper meanings humans look for in their lives. Labour is in constant flux, there existed a completely different labour landscape a hundred years ago, different possibilities, different products being produced, other services being offered. Marx’ writings, and Kluge’s film which both tackle the deeper strata of labour will still be relevant in distant years, despite labour’s constant changes. Marx and Kluge are time-travellers of sorts, they transcend fixed moments, because they cared about deeper structures, beyond appearance, beyond what labour looks like on the surface. They try to touch upon the very fabric of labour, that queer centre that always defies description. Kluge’s strategy is to circle such a centre, to approach it from embedded islands of theme constellations, themselves connected.

Thus Kluge’s approach is flexible, navigational in spirit. Kluge is a sophisticated shapeshifter who can adapt to interview partners and changes of direction of thoughts. He can shift towards counterpoints, alternative views, different strategies. He never forgets to consider the implications of the positions he is experimenting with. In News of the.. we are being immersed in associative fields, accompanied by a good dose of humour and sincere humility. Like space or time travellers, we sit in our seats, becoming deeply aware of the countless possibilities life offers and offered in past, to other people; we witness the strange twists human history took and continues to take.

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital 

Yes, Kluge is a historian of sorts, a wise one. After watching Kluge for hours, I would be ready to say that history, the sort of navigational, dialectal, time travelling science fiction engineer counter-perspective type of notion of history might be humanity’s best bet as a guiding principle for the future. In history we find humanity mirrored, there lies the absolute cosmic weirdness of human decision making. Like that episode in the first world war, brilliantly enacted by comedian Helge Schneider as a Sprengmeister (blaster master),  when German and French troupes, each tunnelling from one side into a hill, tried to tunnelbomb and bury alive the other party. Kluge asks the blaster master ‘what was the purpose of the action? To lay the groundwork for a future tourist site?’

In these moments, Kluge reveals himself as a master of the absurd, a finder of strange stories of the past, of past lives. With gentle knowledge and wisdom Kluge weaves these moments into a larger narrative of multilayered human trajectories. He does give to many clues on the choices he makes and most of the time the viewer is faced with an amusing elusiveness. Only later on, much after the screening, or in bed, already half dreaming, comes a wink, a revelation of sorts, eine Ahnung, was das Ganze bedeuten könnte (an intuition what all this could mean). Kluge’s tactic is one of an allmähliche Sinnentfaltung (gradual unfolding of meaning), his position is one of an almost omniscient, ever humble, amused and interested observer. Kluge is not a teacher type, there is no moral message to be taken. As mentioned before, I would say that the message is the consideration of a Gestalt of history itself, history seen as a vast assemblage of commodities, intentions, emotions, forces. Watching Kluge tells us how much we are products of history and, importantly, that we do not easily cease to be subjects of history.

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital 

There might lie a ‘Promethean’ tendency in Kluge’s approach. Kluge’s position as a humble and wise observer includes a self-awareness that listens to history’s offerings. The position is distant and mediated, informed and compassionate and might have a secret aspiration to meet itself outside of history. From such a place, it would, like a time traveller, dive in and out of history. It is this vectorial, navigational aspect of Kluge, and Marx for that matter, rather timeless, because they hold the option open, in their flexible structure of approach, to comment on any other episode of the past or future.

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Alexander Kluge, News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital 

Kluge mentioning CERN as ‘the most beautiful commodity’ is in itself beautiful and supports the Promethean side of his position. CERN is a combination of cooperation and commodities, of human spirit applied together to create a machine that looks for its origins. There is a beauty in this endeavour and the fact that Kluge sees CERN this way is fabulous. CERN, where billions of money went into the construction of a massive 27 kilometre particle collider 175 m (574 ft) underground can be described as absurd.

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CERN

Yet, maybe this 21st century should make it its task to rethink and redefine the shades of the absurd, especially in historical perspectives and contexts. Tunnelling yourself into a hill with the aim to outbomb your enemy with whom you worked together before the war is absurd to say the least. With Kluge’s CERN statement, we can freely dig into concrete absurdistan and find strange new worlds. In my view, large scale science projects such as CERN should become the norm in international cooperation. Why? Because it is beautiful in the most complex sense of the world, it’s beautiful to explore the real absurd ourselves, made of matter, on a matter globe in almost matter free space. Shades indeed.

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CERN

In a way, CERN is where Marx and News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital converge. CERN is the world’s largest particle physic laboratory and has 21 member states. Visiting scientists and engineers represent 608 universities and research facilities and 113 nationalities. (from CERN’s Annual Report https://cds.cern.ch/record/1710513?ln=en). And CERN is a time travelling endeavour, not only metaphorically, but practically, by recreating what the universe was made of billionth of a second after the big bang. Like Kluge, CERN touches on countless subjects that reach into mythology, theology, philosophy, physics of course… basically into almost anything really.

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Countries involved in CERN research

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CERN (Fragments coming together)

Kluge has a CERN-type vision of filmmaking. The weirdness of science, science’s absurd-3-D anatomy can be an ally to the above mentioned focus on history as a guiding principle. History and Science can be those factors that can lead a way to a future beyond silly religious, gender and other conflicts. If history and science become more axiomatic fields in a restructured world system, it may minimise and effectively counterbalance the current, wrong predominance of the political and the economical which is annihilating much creative, imaginative and alternative thinking. The current prominence of financial capitalism was engineered and implemented during the Reagan-Thatcher years. ‘Now’, just one moment in a timeline that offers countless different approaches to organise life, sometimes feels all too solid and unbelievably rigid, as if it has never been different. Kluge’s approach vaporizes this trapped feeling, and – again – it is his generous notion of history that confronts us with alternatives that open our minds again for different ways of world structering and making. When someone from the audience asked if he was a Marxist, Kluge’s answer was elegant and not without hesitations. His political stance is complex, because he does not give much credence to the current, or any predefined notion of the political. He knows that it would be sad to be trapped in Leftism just because you close re-read Marx. Kluge is interested in humans on and in bubbles, globes and spheres, their actions over long stretches of time. If he would make a judgment, he would not so much look at the individual’s political stance or decision making, but would consider the larger sociological and historical framework in which decisions were made.

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Simulated Large Hadron Collider CMS particle detector data depicting a Higgs boson produced by colliding protons decaying into hadron jets and electrons

Collision data were also anticipated to be produced at an unprecedented rate of tens of petabytes per year, to be analysed by a grid-based computer network infrastructure connecting 140 computing centers in 35 countries (by 2012 the LHC Computing Grid was the world’s largest computing grid, comprising over 170 computing facilities in a worldwide network across 36 countries). from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider 

 

Reading between the lines of News from the Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital, a worldview emerges that offers surprisingly fresh inputs into how to rethink world structuring and terrestrial priory setting. To bring it down to key points, Kluge’s fragmented, but nevertheless holistic approach to subject matter and reality stands for a renewed thinking about a common idea, and a notion for smart common action. The results will probably not come close to what Marx’s many readers and interpreters might have thought of as being ‘common action’. Kluge is a creative and inspiring Marx reader. Common action, in Kluge’s thinking, could mean action that thinks through levels of abstraction that lie behind commodities and services. In the end, labourers that spend their lives programming or executing orders are human beings that share common ground (gravity, for a start). Commodities have do with star making. What I read between the lines of Kluge’s film and his comments before and after the screening means a renewed interest in, and attention for, history. History with its absurd episodes, epic failures, nested fragmented narratives, tragicomic sparks. Beside history, a shift towards more power, more governing power to the natural, cognitive, speculative and critical sciences (including Arts of all shades), as only through the tight bottleneck of science and a real exploring of the cosmic absurd can positions outside of history be even considered.

The political and economical predominance, with its unsustainable and unequal makeup, simply does not deserve the position it currently holds. Kluge offers pathways out, humble as he is.

 

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