:: Article

Projections on a Wall: A Hauntology

By Frank Garrett.

Projections on a Wall 1

Despite developing mostly with the railways and industrialisation of the late nineteenth century, a deep historical consciousness marks the surface of Berlin. While it is true that no city is a tabula rasa, Berlin’s relationship to its past—and not necessarily that past itself—defines the German capital as much as previous epochs define more ancient cities. Berlin does not have the history of Rome or of Paris, but for much of the twentieth century Berlin was the axis mundi. If Paris, according to Walter Benjamin, was the capital of the nineteenth century, then it isn’t unreasonable to assert that Berlin was the capital of the twentieth.

History erupts in sometimes disturbing ways in the palimpsest that is present-day Berlin. You can’t just focus on one time period when you visit the city. Today’s Berlin opens up within a hall of mirrors that reflects and refracts all those other Berlins. To speak about the Berlin of the past 26 years requires the vocabulary of the Cold War. You find that this discourse still operates within the semiotics of the murderous Third Reich, utilising the grammar of the First World War as inflected in the vernacular of Expressionism. Prussian imperialism provides the city’s basic syntax. One nonetheless must be fluent in history, then, before attempting to read Berlin.

My first impression of Berlin was a blank map. Of course, I knew enough of its twentieth-century history to have an idea of where I was headed when, in early 1996, I bought a one-way ticket on the night train from Warsaw. I had been living in Poland. The evening before I was to leave, my Polish friends wanted to help familiarise me with the city for my arrival in the morning, so they dug out a map of Berlin they had used for school trips years before. But there was something strange about this map; I prided myself on my knowledge of history as well as on my ability to decode maps, but I barely recognised any of the landmarks. It took several minutes before we even realised the problem: it was a map of East Berlin. In the space where my area of expertise lay was a white blank.

According to this map, the world dropped off into oblivion at the Brandenburg Gate. It was as if Hegel had been correct when he claimed that history would end with Napoleon, who triumphantly had marched through the Gate after defeating the Prussian forces. There was no pesky Tempelhof Airport to remind anyone of the failed effort to blockade the western sectors of the city. Despite the attempt to render history illegible, one could still read its traces. Nothing could have better oriented me for my experience of Berlin.


Projections on a Wall 2

There has never been a Berlin Wall. Instead, what we call the Berlin Wall was really a series of walls.

The Berlin Wall consisted mainly of two walls: an inner wall facing East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic, and an outer wall facing the enclosed sectors of West Berlin. At times, the wall was an actual wall of a building, as on Bernauer Strasse. At other times, the threat was so great (either of Western fascist aggression, if you accept the GDR’s propaganda, or of escape by Easterners, if you accept the historical reality) that the Berlin Wall was actually three walls deep, as at the nearby Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. As you walk up the steps from the train platform out onto the street, you find three separate memorial markers attesting to the walls that once stood there.

The Berlin Wall, then, was always plural. These walls from the past become all the more complicated and even more multiplied once we begin to memorialise and commemorate them. Perhaps the pronouncement by East German leader Walter Ulbricht in the middle of June 1961—just two months before Operation Rose, otherwise known as Barbed-Wire Sunday—should have been read more like those from the Delphic Oracle. Ulbricht insisted, “No one intends to build a wall.” That was because one wall would have never been enough.


The German language has two words for history: Historie and Geschichte. Historie is the chronological unfolding of events. It’s the sense of history we mean when we say that the Berlin Wall fell November 9, 1989.

In scraps and fragments from the ancient world, philosopher Heraclitus questioned the ways in which one thing could serve two contradictory purposes. He wrote about the archer who pushes the bow away while pulling back on its string. Only in such dynamic tension, it seems, is life possible.

The doors at the Bornholmer Strasse S-Bahn station serve as both entrances as well as exits. During the years of the Berlin Wall, this station served as a border, a gateway. Shortly after the announcement that the GDR would be relaxing exit requirements for its citizens travelling west, East Berliners began to gather here and at the other checkpoints across the city. Within two hours, the crowd on the bridge in front of the station would grow to 500. And then to 1000.

Merely as a pressure-valve release, the guards began to let the people pass, though at first only after stamping their passports “no right of return”. What the guards didn’t realise is that the East wouldn’t really exist anymore after this night. Return would indeed be impossible.

It was this crossing over what was, for years prior, an uncrossable bridge that opened the possibility for a bridge to again be a bridge, for a closed exit to serve also and again as an open entrance.


Projections on a Wall 3

Geschichte, on the other hand, is the sense of history we mean when we say that history changed twenty-six years ago. It’s more than an event; it’s a fundamental shift in how we understand the world. Geschichte is the aftermath of Historie; it is the history after history.

The notion that there is a history after history seems to be particularly evident in Berlin. If we reduce what remains of the Wall to a historical event called “the Cold War,” then even after such an event, a type of history still marches on. The world is still available for development and construction, as evidenced by the plentiful cranes marking the skyline of the city. The past twenty-six years have seen several attempts to suture the divided city together, yet you can still catch glimpses of the scar that remains. The cranes are its ever-present stitches.


Projections on a Wall 4

In the summer of 1989 Francis Fukuyama asked if we had reached the end of history. He argued that the West had won an unquestionable victory of economic and political liberalism, declaring, “In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history.”

Every institution in Germany, it seems, not only has a team of professional historians on staff to reach a consensus on events and artefacts but also a PR firm to disseminate that official view to the world. Nowhere else has history been so completely professionalised and turned into a science. If history has indeed ended, then Germany is well positioned to safeguard and preserve the story history nevertheless continues to tell.

There is a rusted metal wall erected on Bernauer Strasse with the following etched on its surface: In memory of the division of the city from August 13, 1961 until November 9, 1989, and to commemorate the victims of communist tyranny. This metal wall is one of the many official memorial walls erected to memorialise a part of the Wall that was dismantled in the celebratory days of 1989. The redundancy of this statement is precisely the point. Instead of the Wall itself, which carries its own semiotic baggage through the years, we have a new wall to remind us of the old Wall that came down.


Projections on a Wall 5

The Berlin Wall does not exist.

As part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, there is a section of the Wall that receives wreathes from political dignitaries on anniversaries and special occasions. But looking at it today, you’ll notice something strange: it’s a section of the outer wall. Its shape is immediately readable and recognisably iconic. But it’s been scrubbed clean of all graffiti. It’s as blank and incomplete as that map of East Berlin almost twenty years ago.

Here we have an example of the capitalist, consumerist tendency to sanitise that serves as the perfect complement to the communist impetus to censor and deny. To serve as the official space for memorialisation, in order to be photogenic and meaningful in its official historical role, the surface has to be purged of all traces of its history. In other words, it cannot look the way it actually did during the Cold War so that it can be the official site of memory of the Cold War. Official memory — a fickle thing.


Projections on a Wall 6

Despite the layers of graffiti on sections of the Wall preserved at the East Side Gallery, this too is not historically authentic. Conceived as a work of art (hence the term gallery) in 1990, the Wall is used as a canvas upon which officially licensed artists can create their often whimsical and ironic portraits of history. As with other museums, the works are periodically cleaned, repaired, and restored. Unofficially, it’s where tourists feel free to scrawl their own messages amid the masterpieces.

When I visited in 1996 I thought this was part of the real Berlin Wall and not a manufactured experience already commoditised and made available to tourists. In the future, I imagine that whatever is on these concrete canvases will be just as real as the Berlin Wall itself. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge inauthenticity. The art world, after all, requires artifice. Even the caves of Lascaux have been painstakingly recreated in artificial caves so as to better preserve the walls upon which European art presumably began.


Projections on a Wall 6

In his book Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida coined the term hauntology, a portmanteau that combines haunt with the suffix –ology, resulting in the near homonym with ontology, the study of what is. Hauntology refers to the ways that something absent can also be present. Derrida was specifically writing about the ideals of communism—economic justice, equality—that continue to live on after the fall of communism.

The mezzanine level of the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station hosts a display of the Cold War. This station was one of the so-called ghost stations of East Berlin, through which West Berliners could travel as long as their train didn’t stop. Passengers could see GDR guards on the platform, but otherwise they perhaps might get a little more shut-eye on their morning commute under East Berlin. The font on the signs lets you know that something strange took place here. The anachronistic Gothic writing on the wall attests to a time when time stood still as long as one remained in motion.


Projections on a Wall 7

Gegenwart means both present (as in the present tense) and presence (as in the opposite of absence). Literally it means wait-against. In Berlin, history is ever present in both senses. It takes up space, and it has presence still today.

There is a view one can have on Bernauer Strasse of the space between what’s left of the inner and outer walls. This space continues to be preserved, allowing the eyes to gaze across the colourless distance that once did not—and still does not—admit entrance to the body. Visitors can peer though a slit of the inner wall across a parcel of the unoccupied—and unoccupiable—death strip toward the outer wall. This strip of land has been walled in yet again in order to preserve it as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial. The lower concrete walls are original, whatever that term may mean in this context. The taller metal wall is meant to preserve the territory between the two original walls.

If you squint through the slit in the inner wall, the back of the outer wall (what we in the West typically regard as the Berlin Wall) is rendered distorted and unreadable. It is almost as if this artefact, this architectural structure, which history otherwise imbues with too much meaning, loses its ability to signify anything at all. From this extreme perspective one can get a sense of distance, not as a physical or even historical manifestation, but rather distance as ideology. The unfathomable and unbridgeable nature of space as something politicised and made useless.

The new metal wall attempts to recreate a section of land that can never be occupied. Even tourists who are granted a view deemed historically impossible are forbidden from standing in or walking across this section of land. Instead, they must stand—and wait—against a part of the Wall in order to peer across the deserted wasteland that served as the only real barrier between East and West.

This view would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. No East Berliner would have been allowed so close to the inner wall. By playing with this impossibility, this unthinkability, we begin to question the proper use of history. Should I now even be allowed to see what even the residents of Berlin then were denied? Can seeing this view properly serve as a commemoration of how the government of the GDR prevented such seeing? And more importantly: what relationship holds the visible and the memorable together?


Projections on a Wall 8

In The Disappearance of the Outside Andrei Codrescu writes about the complex relationship between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Even though a wall ran around West Berlin, people wanted to escape into it. But in the East, escape from consumerism was still possible. The danger was in merely replacing the Berlin Wall with the Berlin mall.

There is a section of the Berlin Wall in Berlin, but it is no different from various other sections of the Wall found in any number of other cities. That is, there are sections of the Berlin Wall throughout the world: New York, Madrid, Riga, Cape Town, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Las Vegas. But even in Berlin, where there is still certainly plenty of Wall to spare, there is a section of the Wall in a part of town removed from where the Wall actually ran. It adorns a new business park on the Spree River.


Projections on a Wall 9

Some walls never come down.

Two days after Barbed-Wire Sunday, East German soldier Conrad Schumann jumped over the wire he had been guarding and escaped into West Berlin. After the Wall fell, and after he lost all hope of reconciliation with the family and friends he had left behind, he committed suicide.

Schumann’s death can provide us with an opportunity to question what it means to be a hero, to examine the burden of being an icon. While we in the West celebrated his bravery, those in the East vilified his cowardice. It’s as if there were two versions of Schumann – each one alive on a different side, each differently orientated to the Wall. Villain or hero? How an individual is categorised is oftentimes a matter of geography.


Walls are only the illusion of walls.

What do the great walled cities of the past have to teach us today? What is the one thing that all walls, whether China’s Great Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the border fence between the US and Mexico, or the West Bank barrier built by Israel, tell us?

The truth about walls is that they never prevent movement. They merely redirect the flow of that movement. Instead of through, we find over, under, and around. If walls reveal anything about their nature, it’s that they never fulfil their purpose. Humans just aren’t so easily foiled.

The necessary failure of walls lets us in on one of the dirty little secrets of politics. Either the politicians who order their construction lack a basic understanding of history, or those politicians know that a wall is already merely a symbol upon which the people project their simplistic hopes of escaping their fears.

This shows walls not as architecture but as archetype, as pure symbol whose significance derives from our basest fears and not from any structural function. In this situation, we find the truly dangerous human — the one who refuses the symbolic content of the wall and sees it instead as a mute and simply material construct that can be destroyed by chipping away at it piece by piece.

Andrei Codrescu’s The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape (New York: Addison-Wesley 1990).
Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, (New York: Routledge 2006).
Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” in The National Interest (summer 1989).
Martin Jander’s The Berlin Wall (Berlin: Stadtwandel Verlag 2011).
Charles H. Kahn’s The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary (New York: Cambridge 2001).
Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961—9 November 1989 (London: Bloomsbury 2009).
Various pamphlets and online material published by the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), the East Side Gallery, and the Topography of Terror.
I participated in two walking tours of Berlin: the Red Berlin Tour (by Sandeman’s New Berlin) and Walking the Invisible Border (by Slow Travel Berlin).
Thanks to Paul Scraton for good conversations about our mutual interests in the invisible.


Frank Garrett

Frank Garrett (@limmoraliste) is an independent philosopher, writer, and translator. In August 3:AM Magazine published his piece, ‘Augury of Ashes‘. Forthcoming work includes a translation of Robert Rient’s “No Blood” (Bahamut) and an essay entitled “The Passion of Passivity: Blanchot, Bartleby, and the Ethics of Writing” (Black Sun Lit). Currently he is translating Wojciech Tochman’s Don’t Burn Stairs and Rient’s Witness. He blogs at My Crash Course and lives in Dallas.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 29th, 2015.