Ute Holl

Dream, Clouds, Off, Exile

Veröffentlicht am 22.04.2017

In 1844, in the Rue Vanneau no. 22 in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, a journal was founded of which only a single edition was published, a double edition nonetheless, of 237 pages: the Franco-German Yearbooks, edited by Arnold Ruge and Karl Marx. It includes the letter from Marx to Ruge with the famous formulation: “It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality.”1 What is this dream? What kind of dream? What consciousness? What possession? And how should people intervene in a world that appropriates their own consciousness?

On September 24, 1918 Arnold Schoenberg began to keep a “War-Clouds Diary.”2 At a moment of indeterminate danger, of an irritation suspending all known parameters of knowledge, he begins to observe, to draw, and to record whatever he can discern in the sky. In the “War-Clouds Diary” he seeks words, images, metaphors for the looming catastrophe that will later be named and numbered as the First World War. Schoenberg developed the form on the way into exile.

In 2014 Jean-Marie Straub put together the film Kommunisten as a counterpoint of sequences from older films he had shot together with Danièle Huillet. The film is the “discovery of the communist sensibility,” says Straub, and later in the same discussion, “an investigation of the communist soul.” Love stories, relationships were also influenced by communism, “this thing people are still waiting for.”3 What kind of thing? And what waiting? What is this unclear object of knowledge that keeps open the historical process against the obvious inhumanity of capitalism, according to Straub’s diagnosis?

In 1843 Marx went into exile in Paris. From Kreuznach he wrote to Ruge about the yearbook project: “Our enterprise may or may not come about, but in any event I shall be in Paris by the end of the month as the very air here turns one into a serf and I can see no opening for free activity in Germany.”4 In France, however, there was “press freedom,”5 the precondition for any emancipation. The Franco-German Yearbooks, in which Heinrich Heine also has a poem, are concerned with the general situation of people in Europe, with industrialization, rural exodus, a proletariat unwilling to educate or liberate itself, with injustice and justice, and what criticism might be or could achieve. Marx deals with both emancipation and the “Jewish question.”6

In the light of the impoverishment of people in the cities a new economic system could be described that had made a “fully formed system of permitted deception, a complete science of gain,” out of “simple unscientific haggling,”7 as Friedrich Engels then in Manchester put it. Competing national economies, in his analysis, hide the fact that in the dialectic of labor and capital wages don’t appraise the labor and utility value within what is due, and that the general principle of competition is invoked instead. So people oppress one another and workers fight one another and especially the destitute migrant lumpen proletariat. For the moment what is spectral is shunted into the slums. Engels mocks: “…it will be greatly advantageous to make poverty into a crime and the poorhouses into penitentiaries, as has already occurred in England through the new ‘liberal’ poor law.”8 Engels, like all critics, thinks of labor as “voluntary human activity,”9 which also establishes the principle of competition between workers and machines through mechanical automation, such as the “self-acting mules” in the mills: “We have seen that in the end everything comes down to competition as long as private property exists. It is the main category of the economist, his favorite daughter, whom he continually cuddles and caresses—and mark well the Medusa-like visage that will emerge.”10 But the author has “neither the inclination nor the time”11 to describe the theory of machinery in the yearbooks, and we must imagine Engels as a happy person among English Medusas and specters.

Other authors—no women among them—report from Switzerland, Austria, Holland, France, Germany. Writers were most persecuted in Prussia, which had no freedom of the press, as in the case of the doctor Johann Jacoby, who was charged with “brazen, disrespectful criticism, derision of the laws of the land, and the arousal of displeasure.”12 The yearbooks attempt to place brazenness and derision first and foremost on the level of the concept, of human relationships, and history: “If I abnegate the German circumstances of 1843, I barely stand in the year of 1789, according to the French calendar, and still less in the focus of the present.”13 But where does the idea of an already present dream of something come from? What is meant by consciousness?

150 fifty years after Karl Marx, and on the basis of structural analysis, German media science declares consciousness to be “only the imaginary interior view of media standards.”14 What we think and imagine is formed by the dominant procedures of data processing, of which we notice nothing. Because they run in the background. Because the implicit remains unnoticed like the absence of someone unknown. Because there are gadgets that produce clear correlations between points in the real—random matter—and the virtual, we think we already know how reality emerges. This fine delusion is brought about by the imaginary itself. Not the world. It is form that becomes aware “of itself,” not people. How people imagine and think is organized by mechanical data-processing operations, which run constitutively unnoticed and undermine perception so that “something” can be imagined or come into consciousness. What is dream, what is trance, what is delusion or disillusionment in this game?

The fact that media operate beyond conscious perception has been diagnosed by Friedrich Kittler as “Dracula’s bequest.” Something vampire-like, to which we are lovingly acquiescent, dominates the operations of a central complex to which—narcissistically as self or, more insanely, as subject—we are subservient to the gadgets. And is there a subaltern narrative? Yes indeed: reflexive stories in which even the word “we” is imagined. They don’t tell of individuals but of loops: at best blood circulation, today usually integrated circuits. Critical thought can only come from the blind spot of the media condition of thinking, to which it is also subject. Circuit, feedback, short circuit, blackout. What are you waiting for?

In his economic and philosophical manuscripts, written between April and August 1844 at the time of the yearbooks project, Marx once again pulls the dialectical logic of production relationships onto the side of human beings and their sensory perception: “The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes.” Enthusiastically he lapses into the consummate present, although the transcendence of private property has not yet been achieved: “The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a human object—an object emanating from man for man.”15 Marx sees everything from the point of view of the emancipated human being, who, however, doesn’t actually exist. The Marxist dream of a thing is a cut into the endless loop of human thinking and perception. Cut, shot, and fishhook. Marx himself, hunter, fisherman, critical thinker, and writer of great love stories, was able at the time to unleash the senses, having just married in Kreuznach after a seven-year engagement, before going on to exile in Paris: Jenny von Westphalen; Jenny, who had the same name as the first automatic spinning machine, the Spinning Jenny, who turned Marx’s head and made him look at the thing from a long way off. Marx doesn’t have to merely dream of girls and machines, like Bram Stoker’s heroes.

Jean-Marie Straub answers with unusual patience his interviewers’ question as to whether communism was among other things a question of belief: “The protagonist from the first sequence, from Operai, contadini, speaks of this. He says that he is changing and takes pleasure in the potatoes growing. That’s also communism. Although you don’t have to be a communist to be moved by a growing plant—but perhaps you do.” What kind of communist do we have to become in order to be moved by plants when Bayer has bought Monsanto? But just then? Just as much as we are moved by Leroy Sané, who was sold by Leverkusen to Schalke, and then where? to Manchester, City, not United, from where Engels wrote to us: “What a wretched half measure it is to attack the small monopolies and retain the basic one.”16 Communism will be, wrote Roque Dalton, an aspirin as large as the sun. Communism will be when we understand something of love, says Straub: “This protagonist from Operai, contadini also says: ‘The thing between her and me began to grow, to grow, to grow.’ What you call ‘communism’ also applies to love relationships.” The astounded interviewers ask: “You think that communism influences how we love?” and Straub says, about Kommunisten: “But of course, that’s the film. If I hadn’t believed in it, it would have no substance. This feeling is concentrated in my films. It includes Corneille and the idea that there is no love without respect. It’s politically different with him, but it’s the same idea. The film consists in musical and conceptual variations on the dream of being a communist.”17

Love in the 19th century follows the logic of automatable bodies that parasitize and participate and ally with one another against the spirit with all the tricks of involuntary reactions. Only the Viennese bourgeoisie allowed itself to declare this madness as unconsciousness, which as we know we can’t help. So the bequest of Count Dracula is the spirit of the nineteenth century disturbed, controlled, and colonized by the laws of new electronic machines, laws whose effects unfold beneath human perception. Cinema or radio transmit their messages through mechanisms that implicitly have to evade perception if communication is to take place. Which brings us back to communism. In order to see cinematic movement, the individual frame mustn’t be perceived; in order to hear the news on the radio, electromagnetic waves are ignored, and yet we’re listening to the radio and watching films. The dream of the thing is already there. The masses are sitting ready to receive. The dream of a thing is cinema. Pasolini knew this. But the dream ends here: no human eye could adopt the operations of a computer. Whose orders do we subjects follow here? Dracula’s.

When Marx was writing, industrialization was still a cumbersome thing of iron and steel, mechanics and power. The phonograph and chronophotography were invented during his lifetime, but they didn’t yet exist during the Paris time of the manuscript. However, a socialist, philosopher, and editor of two journals, the typesetter Pierre Leroux, is supposed to have invented a typewriter that enabled anyone to set and print his own writings. The manuscripts don’t mention the blind spot of freedom. Marx takes hold of concepts. But the consciousness of the world that needs to be acquired is for him, too, one of procedure and not of transcendence. The senses as theorists “relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vice versa.”18 The human being is once again brought into play in order to take up the impossible position beyond all human conditions. The blind spot of the imagination and thinking, Dracula’s flight path, is targeted by the dynamic of dialectics.

On September 24, 1914 Arnold Schoenberg began a “War-Clouds Diary.” With differently colored crayons he sketched and noted the signs and symptoms of the sky above Berlin and of his own perception. Cloud formations, cloud images would allow conclusions to be drawn about military operations and positions of the front. Observations of meteorological “tensions” are matched with tensions on the ground. The dairy is interested in correspondences whose qualities remain speculative. It is recorded in the style of a semi-scientific, semi-artistic journal. The world is the laboratory, and Schoenberg’s senses are the gage of the powers at work within it. Schoenberg opens the account with a short foreword. He hopes that others will participate in the research so that “more accurate reports are available, since so far a number of war events could be premonitioned by the ‘mood’ of the sky.”19

On the diary’s first day Schoenberg notes: “about 10:45 a.m.: icy cold mood, like in the circus before a very daring stunt: silence, tension, no wind; impression of the sky is at first predominantly clear, pure; only later I observe a slowly expanding cloud streak. Total impression: a daring operation which began under auspicious circumstances.” In 1914 Arnold Schoenberg was still hoping for a swift victory of the Central Powers, but the journal metaphorically discloses the shaky ground on which he was standing. Not only he. The metaphor of the circus artiste, in the dome, about to jump, expresses the constellation. He knows he’s not alone in this. “Many people, like myself today, will have tried to interpret the events of war by the sky, since finally the belief in higher powers and also in Gods has returned.”20

In attempting to systematically apprehend the missing system of knowledge through cloud formations, Schoenberg follows a tradition of journal writers who also sought to determine the precarious relationship between signs and things, world and environment, atmospheric tensions, and social conditions through the vague object of the cloud: Albrecht Dürer, who struggled with the depiction of clouds, which have no place in the perspective world of costruzione legittima, in his woodcuts The Apocalypse of Saint John (1498), reconstructing the trance-like states of the apostle; Galileo Galilei, who involuntarily became a cloud diarist in the Sidereus Nuncius, because clouds obscured his view of the object of his investigations, stars, in whose mechanical movements lay a new cosmic logic; Goethe, who kept cloud journals in the terminology of Luke Howard’s classifications in the preparation of his meteorological writings, transitions to the nineteenth-century science of distribution and thermodynamics, and links them to aesthetic and poetological questions, metamorphosis, and morphology. Francis Ford Coppola will have Count Dracula appear on screen not only as a media specter but above all as a cloud phenomenon. In the early 1940s Maurice Merleau-Ponty described forms of phenomenological perception in terms of cloud movements: “Sometimes I see the steeple motionless against the sky with clouds floating above it, and sometimes the clouds appear still and the steeple falls through space.” Only for phenomenologists is the cloud as stable and durable as any other object: “The looked-at object in which I anchor myself will always seem fixed, and I cannot take this meaning away from it except by looking elsewhere.”21 Around the same time Heidegger spoke in Freiburg of the typewriter as a “signless cloud” that unnoticeably veiled the basis of knowledge. Who wants to know what? The world has long had the nightmare of the media war, which it needs to adopt as a war of the unnoticed.

In his film Kommunisten, Straub concentrates on a procedure that also counters the presence of language in his other films: the off. There are no establishing shots with Straub/Huillet, and no shot/countershot: “Des champs-contre-champ, il n’y en a jamais chez nous”—we don’t do shot/counter–shot. Everyone takes his own responsibility for the off he imagines, or for the hors-champ as “the entirety of elements (characters, scenery, etc.) that aren’t included in the shot but despite this belong to it for the viewer through some kind of imaginary medium” (“l’ensemble des éléments (personnages, décor, etc.) qui, n’étant pas inclus dans le champ, lui sont néanmoins rattachés imaginairement, pour le spectateur, par un moyen quelconque”).22 In Kommunisten the off marks the filmmakers’ view of the people.  

In the films of Straub/Huillet meanings aren’t determined by characters or action but by cinematic procedures. In the case of Moses und Aron, for example, Straub contends in an interview with the Cahiers du cinéma that the lacking emancipated people isn’t represented by actors, the chorus, or parts of it, but by a camera movement, by the pan, the panoramique, which refers to forces and tensions between positions. Straub/Huillet never developed characters, but rather established figures as the effects of texts, class relationships, economic procedures, or even of buildings, as in Machorka Muff. But these effects don’t automatically occur as feelings; they are developed instead from the position of a third party, who is confronted with the forces and tensions. The off, in Moses und Aron, positions the viewers in a place from which an answer is required. The off is a thing of perception and responsibility. In the off lies the rushing that has to be heard as the burning bush. The off is at once aesthetic and ethical. Straub and Huillet fled from Paris in 1958 in order to avoid Straub’s call-up to the military and service in the Algerian war. They lived in Germany and Italy, in Rome, Trastevere, where Pasolini adopted “il sogno di una cosa” in a novel.

In 1844, when the Franco-German Yearbooks were founded and appeared only once, there were approximately 40,000 German exiles living among the 1.5 million Parisians, often “in the poorest conditions.”23 They wore the beards of the radicals and wielded a sharp pen, as did Heinrich Heine in his description of the “French circumstances” of 1831/32: cold scorn for everything, for the French deference to authority and the egalitarian regime of cholera. In his text on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx declares criticism to be a weapon that should be aimed at its object as at an enemy, who is not to be refuted but annihilated.24 He doesn’t aim the weapon at the French, patriots of freedom, but against the lacking people: “[T]hese petrified conditions must be made to dance by having their own tune sung to them!’ Not ‘asked’ to dance, writes Marx, ‘made’ to dance. Poor Jenny. But Marx, too, knows what Dracula as Lord of the Mirrors had already attempted: ‘The people must be put in terror of themselves in order to give them courage. In this way a pressing need of the German nation will be fulfilled.’25 Unconsciously or what? The technical media conceal their violence on surfaces that reflect back what you would like: an ideal self that others fall for. The symbolic world is a machine world: Jenny. And even the loveliest Mac is a bastard of the weapons industry, which is currently parasitizing the development of the games industry.26 What to do? How to think? What consciousness? Marx is a taker-up: ‘Clearly the weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons.’ We aren’t in the focus of the present. Everything we know, we know via media, damned loose connections. With the Macintosh we participate in the wars for resources while we type love poems on it. Not even theorists can describe the blind spot from which consciousness of one’s own thinking would have its thing. Dream, cloud, off. La terra vista della luna, or from exile. ‘Theory is capable of gripping the masses when it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root.’27 The root of the dream, the hub of the thing. Oh man, ad hominem.

In the year of the establishment of the yearbooks, 1844, new fortifications were built around Paris, 39 km long, the largest in the world with 94 bastions and 15 forts, in order to protect the nineteenth-century capital. From whom? From what? What folk, which people? Since then the wall-building hasn’t ceased.

Communism is a risk, says Jean-Marie Straub, a “thing people are still waiting for. And if it isn’t achieved, it’ll be the end of us.” And in answer to the question of what gives him the strength to go on living and continue to make films: “People on the street who I see from the window or who I meet…a cloud passing by…time passing, the changing light…the waning and waxing moon…”28

September 16, 2016, (full moon)


1 Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843; Karl Marx, “Letters from the Franco-German Yearbooks,” in Early Writings (1975), translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregory Benton, London 1992, pp. 206–209: 209. | 2 Arnold Schoenberg, “War-Clouds Diary 1914,” edited, commented, and translated into English by Paul A. Pisk, in Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, vol. IX, no. 1, June 1986, pp. 53–77. | 3 Jean-Marie Straub interviewed on Kommunisten by Serge Kaganski and Jean-Marc Lalanne, in Les Inrockuptibles, March 11, 2015, here translated from the rendering by Stefan Rippliner in New Filmkritik, (accessed September 14, 2016). | 4 Marx to Ruge, in “Letters from the Franco-German Yearbooks,” p. 206. | 5 Translated from Arnold Ruge, “Plan der Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbücher” [Plan of the Franco-German Yearbooks], in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, edited by Arnold Ruge and Karl Marx, 1st and 2nd delivery 1844, reprint by Verlag Philipp Reclam Junior, Leipzig 1981, pp. 83–96: 91. | 6 Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Early Writings, pp. 210–241. | 7 Translated from Friedrich Engels, “Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie” [Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy], in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, pp. 166–195: 166. | 8 Ibid., p. 188. | 9  Ibid., p. 181. | 10  Ibid., p. 181. | 11 Ibid., p. 195. | 12  Translated from the “Urteil des Oberappellationssenats, mitgeteilt von Dr. Johann Jacoby” [Judgment of the Court of Appeal, Disclosed by Dr. Johann Jacoby], in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, pp. 124–133: 133. | 13 Ibid., p. 151f. | 14 Translated from Friedrich Kittler, “Die Welt des Symbolischen—eine Welt der Maschine,” in Friedrich Kittler, Draculas Vermächtnis. Technische Schriften, Leipzig 1993, pp. 58–80: 61. | 15 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, translated and edited by Martin Milligan, Mineola 2007, pp. 99–115: 107. | 16  Translated from Engels, “Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie,” p. 183. | 17  Kaganski/Lalanne, Interview with Jean-Marie Straub. | 18  Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 107. | 19  Schoenberg, “War-Clouds Diary,” p. 61. | 20  Ibid. | 21   Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Film and the New Psychology,” in Sense and Non-Sense, translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, Evanston 1964, pp. 48–59: 52. | 22  Jacques Aumont, Alain Bergala, Michel Marie, MarcVernet, Esthétique du film, Paris 1983, p. 157. | 23  Translated from Joachim Höppner, “Einleitung” [Introduction], in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, p. 6. | 24 Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1843–4),” in Early Writings, pp. 243–258: 246. | 25 Ibid., p. 247. | 26 See Ute Holl, Emanuel Welinder, “Fernsehen: Blinde Befehle,” in Michael Hagner, Inge Hinterwaldner, Vera Wolff (eds.), Einwegbilder, Munich 2016. | 27  Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” p. 251. | 28  Kaganski/Lalanne, Interview with Jean-Marie Straub.

  • Kommunismus
  • Karl Marx
  • Film
  • Exil
  • Monotheismus

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Ute Holl

Ute Holl

ist Professorin für Medienwissenschaft an der Universität Basel. Zu ihren Forschungsschwerpunkten gehören Medienästhetik und Wahrnehmungstheorien, mediale Anthropologie und experimentelles Kino, sowie Kinosound und Elektroakustik. Sie ist Autorin mehrerer Bücher.

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