By Richard Marshall.
The Walls of Berlin: Urban Surfaces, Art, Film, Stephen Barber, Solar Books 2011
Barber moves through the city with a visual system that bifurcates. He targets things that others don’t perceive. He targets things he himself doesn’t perceive. The book is both an uncanny blindsighting and mirroring effect. Berlin takes on a shape that fits his strange mind as a gigantic example of object affordance, the phenomenon whereby the grasped shape of the object activates automatic action schemata. An example of such a thing: a handle on a cup is designed to automatically activate a grasping hand action, which can be labeled ‘compulsive utilization behaviour’. A compulsive utilization behaviour caused by the city causes Barber to write.
The work of Bargh and colleagues provides evidence that actions such as these can be activated without prior thought. “They show that action schemata such as walking in the manner of an old man can be activated and executed by suitable conceptual priming,” writes the philosopher Peter Carruthers. Barber’s actions cause thoughts. The thoughts follow the writing.
How does Barber move? His writing gets implemented in immediate action or else is mentally rehearsed in images using his full repertoire. He imagines it all first. His writing is just what happens after the rehearsal. He is tuned in. He imagines the action, receiving these as emotional systems and motivation systems, pressing on him so his spirit lifts, his heart sinks and so on. He monitors these gestalt shifts. These are both affective and bodily. Inner speech follows accordingly, accessed as normal language in a normal way.
The rehearsal of action in this way is common to mammals. So the writing action schemata shares the same process as perceptual and image making processing. Barber’s book exposes the process. It is a sample of his motor schemata. It records a series of efference copies of commands that are being constantly back-projecting. These are relentlessly compared and adjusted as he proceeds. In this way creative combinations and transformations of unconscious images of familiar objects is possible. In this way what is being written, and what is to be written, is generated prior to thought and planning.
Because these prior representations are prior to conscious thought, they can be held and rehearsed and then, out of that, comes the conscious thought. The assembly of action-schemata are assembled and activated creatively before creative thought. In this way Barber’s book is a kind of jazz, an improvisation utilising an ancient part of the mental architecture of beasts, that allows him to capture the thought-independent representations of Berlin.
Carruthers has this theory of ‘action first’ explanation of creativity. ‘Thought first’ explanations are incapable of explaining this kind of performance. Barber’s writing is to be compared to Charlie Parker playing 400 notes a minute. It eludes ‘thought first’ action. It moves too mysteriously for thought. It requires an explanation that leaves the improviser shocked by his own actions. Barber is working like a moth detecting the ultrasound of a predatory bat. The moth utilises random flight mode to escape. Miller writes: “For this reason submarine commanders in the Second World War would throw dice to determine the elements of their zig-zag patrols, thereby making themselves unpredictable to the submarine-hunting vessels on the surface above.” This phenomenon is a constrained randomness. It is a survival strategy. Bird and whale song utilise the same constrained randomness. The randomness is likely to be utilising a very simple stochastic action schemata. If it isn’t very simple then moths must be much, much smarter than we thought.
The luminous strangeness of Barber’s Berlin is created out of this device. The book turns Berlin into a series of uncanny images. This supports the theory that Barber is using the ‘action first’ stochastic schemata. Creative thought can only be held in the working memory and can only be held imagistically according to Baddley and Hitch and Logie. The mental rehearsal of action is accessed directly in images and so by-pass prior thought completely. Berlin becomes exposed through constrained stochastic action-schemata activation by-passing pre-arranging thought in Barber’s mental architecture.
Barber’s Berlin is grasped as something intentional. According to Josh Knobe it’s likely that doing so means that it is being morally judged. So, ethically loaded, the city creeps up into your skin either condemned or innocent. This is writing that checks your vital signs. Some think that emotions cause moral feelings. And this uncanny Berlin elicits something akin to anger or something akin to sadness. The anger seems to pulse from the sense that someone ought to pay, that wrong was once done here and revenge is on your mind. The sadness seems to seep from the same sense that wrong was done here, that there ought to be some sort of restitution or reparation but that there won’t be, that there can’t be, that somehow we got onto the wrong road and that our sadness won’t end.
So there are two Barbers in uncanny Berlin. He steps out of Hanns Heinz Ewers‘ Der Student von Prag in the wrong city in the wrong time and meets himself coming the other way from his ‘vanishing map’. One self is full of silent wrath and the other full of mourning. As I read the book, I wondered which Barber was writing. Or, given that he was using the ancient device of the moth, perhaps there was a numb Barber, or one whose emotions were not yet formed. Perhaps the point of reading was to realise the emotional point and name it.
Staring in the mirror in his shabby European hotel, all that stares back is the ‘Sandman’. Nicholas Royle is below in the lobby making maniacal notes whilst Neil Gaiman is hunched silently in a corner, scratching his quill against dry parchment. Royle scribbles on a ripped out piece of notepaper: “What Sandman shows, above all perhaps, is that the uncanny is a reading-effect. It is not simply in the Hoffman text, as a theme… that can be noted and analysed accordingly. The uncanny is a ghostly feeling that arises… , and experience that comes… , as an effect of reading. The uncanny figures as the very impossibility of a so-called thematic reading.”
Freud contrasts the uncanny in literature with the uncanny in real life. He writes, “The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merit in truth a separate discussion. Above all, it is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life.” Freud’s treatment of the uncanny was too early to include his theory of the death drive, but Royle thinks it is lurking there nevertheless, like a gigantic dark fetus. “The death drive has to do with the figure of woman… and the uncanny commingling of silence, woman and the desirableness of death is quite explicit in the 1913 essay [‘The Theme Of The Three Caskets’], even if it falls silent in ‘The Uncanny’ and ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle.'”
Barber’s uncanny city is soaked in ghosts, dead souls, a palpable, materialistic light pearl of ambiguity, where walls, even in daylight, are like thick forests full of the swarming fancies of a warped historic brain. Barber’s city is manifest strangeness. The doppelgänger author is neither himself nor the other one, or at least, not all the time. The 1930’s drape the whole murk and tenacious dark. David Lynch was writing about his latter masterpiece Inland Empire but thinking about the mysterious Barber in Berlin when writing: “The quality reminds me of the films of the 1930s. In the early days, the emulsion wasn’t so good, so there was less information on the screen. The Sony PD result is a bit like that; it’s nowhere near high-def. And sometimes, in a frame, if there’s some question about what you’re seeing, or some dark corner, the mind can go dreaming. If everything is crystal clear in that frame, that’s what it is – that’s all it is.” Barber is dreaming the dark fantasies and wishes of the city where world histories “… past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of a wish that runs through…” He confronts the trauma and shock of a spectral century, the last, where the savage names at the hub of civilisation are but whispers haunting the Glienicke Bridge, the forest cemetery, the Skladanowsky Bioskop projecto, the Pankow railway’s station turntable and railway shed. If it all seems dark, it’s because the emulsion wasn’t so good back then….
In a destroyed video, a grainy monochrome shot of Jean-Michel Rabaté is standing in Karl Marx Forum plaza, discussing the avant-garde’s relationship to jouissance theory: “Benjamin is indispensible for Theory precisely because his central obsession was to define modernity (a modernity that is not without its shadowy double of nostalgia) without having to believe in the myth of progress as Adorno did in the name of Marxism…” The voice fades and becomes a palpable shadow in between light and dark. The film shudders and ends. Sexy revolutionary women in lipstick drink in a sloe bar. South American gangsters buy gold. At the end of the tram ride it’s the end of the GDR and East Berlin burns up. Piel Jutzi. Berlin-Alexanderplatz. The painting: ‘Rainbows over the Marx-Engels-Platz’ and the imminent annulling in mind are caught in frieze frames…
The 365m high Television Tower is described in method actor prose, “… a great exposed nail between BA and KMF.” The other Barber is marching his tongue in metaphors he takes from Cronenberg: “… one screen will not do they must virally proliferate….”, “3 transmission of memory”, etc., etc.
These Barbers ignore the young, young woman in a skirt and blouse. They listen to the walls for aural signs of the 1954 violent riots. All this is done to remind us that this is a real city, and the uncanny is real life. Stephen Barber’s historic Berlin is the Berlin of uncanny Nationalism. We want to reread it all to discover whether he is angry or sad.
He writes of forty walls in Berlin like he’s praying for its soul. There is a sense that the number forty has religious significance. The Flood lasted for forty days and nights. Moses was on the mountain with God for forty days twice. The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness. Jesus fasted forty days, also in the wilderness. Jesus was seen on earth forty days after his crucifixion. These Biblical presences respect the holy grammar of Barber’s ghost text.
Berlin is Barber’s metaphorical site of uncanny nationalism. Uncanny nationalism “requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones … It follows that a territorial political unit can only become ethnically homogenous … if it either kills, or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals.” This is Ernest Gellner’s functional explanation of the ethnic cleansing that unhinged twentieth century politics and drove its wars.
Gellner, writing of the Jews, identifies the generalisable crisis for those caught in the pincers of its logic: “…the romantic reaction placed the Jews in a dilemma….They were largely deprived of the illusion of a possible return to the roots, an illusion indulged by their gentile neighbours with enthusiasm and conviction. Though shalt not covet they neighbour’s Gemeinschaft! But, of course, one does. So what’s to be done? The options which were logically open were either to infiltrate the Other’s Gemeinschaft, or to create a new one of one’s own, whether or not there had been any peasants available for the past two millennia, who could define its folk culture.” The new idiom rinsed away ‘folk culture’ and created a universal army of anonymous, retrainable and interchangeable clerks.
John Hall quotes a “crunched private” note by Gellner lamenting the risen uncanny nationalism in which, thereafter, “there will always be a false note, which ever you do, ashamed of being ashamed, etc. ad infinitum, no equilibrium possible here; where would authenticity lie? Mate in three whatever you do. Sense of play-acting, whatever one does. Impotence, ignorance, chaos, unreality.” Kafka, Musil and Broch are the great literary explorers of this. Barber’s Berlin shimmers in the grey light of weird Hitler/Stalin statues. And so we ask again, is he angry or sad as he walks through forty Berlin walls like a Max Schreck Nosferatu?
Agnes Callard contrasts sadness with anger. Anger is the emotion we feel when we think some part of the world is awry. The awryness is the gap between how the world is and how we think it should be. It is reasonable to be angry when the judgment of the awryness is true, is justified and the significance of the gap feeds into the proportionate anger felt. The bigger the gap, the bigger the anger. Anger is rational if these three conditions are met.
Agnes Callard disagrees when people argue that addressing the awryness can eliminate the anger. If you think that recompense or making the world no longer awry in the salient respect leads to the anger going away, then you will believe that people who ‘nurse their wrath to keep it warm’ are being irrational. But Callard argues that people who remain angry are not irrational if they have a reason for being angry and the reason remains. And she thinks that the reasons that made you angry in the first place don’t go away. Therefore anger is eternal.
Homer‘s Iliad is about this. Achilles sulks in his tent enraged by the sleight of Agamemnon. Achilles refuses to let go of his anger. The reason for his anger is Agamemnon pointing out that the world of immutable honour codes is in fact not real. Honour in the real world is merely the result of capricious acts. This provokes in Achilles the sense of the world being suddenly and irrevocably awry. The reason for his anger is independent of his caring about those reasons. His sense of honour, embedded in a world whose meaningfulness is entwined in that code, has been taken away by Agamemnon.
The emotion he feels, the enormous rage that sees him refuse to leave his tent and fight – fighting being an action that for Achilles only makes sense in the lost world of honour – is reasonable. The reason lies outside what Achilles subjectively feels. Even if he mysteriously stopped caring about honour, only the fact of his anger would end in such circumstances. The reason for the anger would remain. Hence anger is eternal. What would the reason for eternal anger be? The reason is justice. The injustice that causes the anger remains forever, even if compensation and rectification removes its emotion.
Sadness is different. Callard argues that sadness is not eternal. The issue of sadness is raised when we consider the deep question, ‘should we cry over spilled milk?’ Callard argues that we should, but only until the mess is cleaned up. The world can be changed so that the reason for the sadness has gone. But what of a sadness that is caused by something that can’t be recompensed? Callard thinks that there’s always something that can be done. Even if not directly connected to the original milk being spilled we can make the sadness go away by doing something else.
This is the difference between anger and sadness. When reasonably angry the reason for the anger cannot be removed. So even if we do something to stop Achilles caring about his honour, the reason for his anger remains. If we are sad, the emotion is about the caring. When we no longer care, there is no cause for sadness. Finding my lost cat removes my sadness: apologising for the sleight you visited on me does nothing to remove the reason for my anger. The sleight is never erased, because it happened. Even an unending sadness is not eternal. I may be sad up to and including my death because I never stop caring. The sadness of unrequited or lost love can take this form, where to keep caring means paying the price of remaining sad unto death. Callard writes about this:
“The rectifiability of sadness is, I contend, the source of its peculiar poignancy: sadness, any sadness, would vanish without a trace if things from now on started to be just a bit different from how it looks like they will be. The sadness-ending road is a perfectly possible and coherent way the world could be – it just so happens that the sad man thinks, looking down it, that that isn’t the way he’s heading. Sadness glimpses the promised land; it feels happiness slipping through its fingers. The fact that sadness is endable doesn’t mean it comes to an end: some sadnesses are very long-lasting, and we carry them with us till the end of our lives. But even that sadness which lasts the length of a life is not eternal: even un-ended sadnessess were endable.”
So reading Barber we are exposed, via the backwards and forwards rehearsals of the action schemata that occur prior to thinking, to an intentional object, that of Berlin, and we oscillate between a sadness that might not end but yet is not eternal and a rage whose subjective fact might end yet is eternal. We read the book as we might stare at a series of implacable images in a film. The images are the uncanny catastrophe of Berlin. ‘Catastrophe’ here is ‘the turning point’. We wonder what to make of Berlin after its catastrophe. Does Berlin survive Berlin?
In his book Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear writes about behaving bravely in the face of devastation of ones own culture and identity. After such a collapse, Lear broods on the comment by a survivor of the Crow people, Plenty Coups, who said that, after the buffalo went, ‘nothing happened.’ It is as if the eradication of the meaningful world by the white man removed the possibility of intentionality. Intentionality can be understood as a space of reasons that renders meaningful all thought and action in the world. Plenty Coups no longer lives in a world that makes sense.
At nine, in the 1850s, he had a dream that the elders interpreted as being a sign that they would lose their traditional culture. Sure enough, they lost their rituals, symbols and meanings when the white men invaded. That’s when the buffalo went away. They lost the surrounding context that made sense of everything they did and thought. We recall Gellner’s ‘crunched note': “There will always be a false note, which ever you do, ashamed of being ashamed, etc. ad infinitum, no equilibrium possible here; where would authenticity lie? Mate in three whatever you do. Sense of play-acting, whatever one does. Impotence, ignorance, chaos, unreality,”Lear writes of Plenty Coups cleaving to his meanings. He interprets this as an act of brave resistance. Plenty Coups faced the world where nothing could happen after the buffalo had gone in order to remain undefeated. Plenty Coups died in the 1930s. His spirit lies inside the films of uncanny Berlin that Barber séances.
How should you face this collapse, this stripping away of the integral environment and cultural context out of which meaningful life is possible? Ethical life for Aristotle was about living to face the future and he thought that your early life trained you to face these possibilities well. But if all the possibilities of the future have been destroyed then this Aristotelian training is useless. Childhood and education can only betray you.
Aristotelian agency can be contrasted with a Nietzschean account. Nietzsche is unimpressed by accounts that assert that agency can be shaped by childhood training and education. Nietzsche insists that agency is predetermined by biology and its environment, in a way that renders training and education largely irrelevant. Over the long haul of life, you will live a life predetermined by whatever character type you happen to be. You are a trap of your type.
But on Lear’s account, this would render Plenty Coups’ action an inevitable consequence of his character type. Being predetermined, he deserves no credit. Nietzsche would agree that most of us are subject to delusions about the extent of our freedom to choose to act. But Nietzsche may also have recognised that Plenty Coups was one of the extraordinary genius’s that he sought to protect from the baleful herd ethical systems that seek to universalise a love of peace, happiness and the slave mentality of an ascetic planet. Plenty Coups’ hard, unhappy project of living on in a world without meaning can be understood by Nietzsche as heroic.
The Crow faced genocide without a fight. The Sioux, under Sitting Bull, went down fighting in blood drenched carnage. So heroic narratives of resistance can diverge. Decisions to continue without fighting face the threat of being labeled acts of collaboration. Such decisions carry with them dangerous connotations of treachery, betrayal and cowardice.
The deep threat is that in certain new contexts what you were, your very identity, is rendered ridiculous. So when Plenty Coups has his dream that tells him that everything is going to be stripped away, he faces a choice. He can fight and die as the Sioux fought. Or he can become ridiculous. He decides to live his life in this pointless future. The vulnerability of human conceptions of the good and fulfilled life is recognised in this choice he makes.
Contemporary Texan borderland poet Gloria Anzaldua writes about a new consciousness she labeles ‘mestiza.’ Out of the particular frenzied annihilations of mono-cultural identies she writes of the development of a new kind of consciousness: “The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned.” Leah Dilworth reflects that there is a latent tendency to resist this new consciousness from vested interests. This is a fact.
But there are deeper sources of resistance. To make the decision to adopt mestizan consciousness can, just like the Crow decision not to fight, seem like collaboration. When a dispute is still in the balance, calling it a day can seem like betrayal. For some, multicultural pluralism is sinister because it links up with a collaborationist reflex. In the face of this suspicion, the new consciousness calls for a deep kind of bravery. It requires that you keep breathing even if you’re not certain whether the air is not poisoned, even if you’re certain that it is. Like an astronaut on a new planet, does she dare take off her helmet and test the new, alien atmosphere? Thick cultures make this metaphor pressing. Plenty Coups’ comment that after the buffalo went nothing happened is recognition of the price you pay when you gamble for these stakes. For a Nietzschean, to live on is an act of courage that recognises the tragedy of such a heroic life.
Some say our modern culture is not so thickly hewn. Identities are atomised, modular, and meanings are not so interconnected. Modernity prefers homogeneity. A mass population of clerks with a few outliers is thought the ideal. This is consistent with the view of modernity that Nietzsche held and critisised. Nietzsche feared the loss of the genius outliers in this ‘herd’ setting. Marx saw unjustifiable inequalities in the class stratification of populations that were, after all, made up out of the same basic, homogeneous features.
Ernest Gellner writes movingly about the movement from traditional heterogeneous culture to modern homogeneous cultures. His intellectual autobiography can be read in terms of the loss of his own Czech folk culture to the momentous shifts of the twentieth century. It is sobering to consider the upheavals that created the modern sensibility Gellner describes, involving ethnic cleansing and the placing of ‘culture’ into parenthesis, so that having a traditional identity is disadvantageous. This is the crux of Gellner’s disagreement with Wittgensteinians who argue that the thickly entwined cultures of communities such as the Crow’s were ultimate. His point was that the conditions of modernity require the destruction of the very things that defined the ‘thickness’ of these cultures.
The modern idiom excludes overlapping ethnic, religious, linguistic, political and cultural distinctions and the great wars of the last century were about eradicating these messy overlaps. The horrors of ethic cleansing are horrors of this process. That the homogeneity inscribed by each nationalism is arbitrary makes the horror seem more extreme and poignant. That Serbo-Croat was invented as a literary high culture language in the nineteenth century is a sharp reminder of the lunatic pornography of modern history. Barber writes out this appalling history. He converts Berlin into an uncanny sign of this perverse history. It is written through the ancient stochastic action-first schemata that rehearses, again and again, the flickering images of its catastrophe.
Barber writes out of a strong and mysterious connection maintained between waking images and those that haunt us in our dreams and more especially during those morbid oppressions of nightmare. His poetry compels the reader to feeling dread not fear. Fear motivates us to act. If frightened we are compelled to find a way of dispelling the fear. Fear gives us a reason for action. But dread is closed to any such reasoning. Dread swallows us into an unending, unchanging moment where horror is both expressed and recognised but disconnected from any programme for action. Dread transfixes us in an awful moment of recognition. In dread, all we do is acknowledge. It is a different universe from that of action. Barber writes to the clarity of the perfectly dreadful image.
Berlin is his monument to the trauma of modernity. It is the physical instantiation of dread. Barber’s looming consciousness walks through the solid flesh of the city. It is a minded pervasiveness that generalises into an inchoate, monstrous familiarity that leaves us shuddering with an unnamed, unnameable dread. Our deepest century, our deepest time, the twentieth century, our birth time, is here piercing Barber’s strange, hallucinatory prose as he wanders, like a ghost, through a cosmopolitanism that is the root of intolerable evil.
‘The walls of Berlin’, being walls, might be thought of as being solid objects. But Barber wonders about the very possibility of solid objects in this book. The vanity of solidity perishes as an illusion. But he drills further past the initial identification of the illusion. What is Berlin that its illusion isn’t?
He turns and twists but has us in a trap. William James wrote: “Although we cannot help believing that our thoughts do mean realities and are true or false of them, we cannot for the life of us ascertain how they can mean them. If thought be one thing and reality another, by what pincers, from out of all the realities, does the thought pick out the special one it intends to know? And if the thought knows the reality falsely, the difficulty of answering the question becomes indeed extreme.” James was facing the challenge of his contemporary Josiah Royce who, contemplating the Kantian skepticism about having grounds even for skepticism itself, asked how we would escape from the limits of our own thought? Royce concluded that we couldn’t. He argued that we were condemned to Idealism, the idea that all we can ever know is to the limit of our own thinking. Reality beyond our minds is out of reach.
Is Barber’s Berlin a reproach to idealism? The brute materiality, the gap between what it was thought to be and what is here, suggests that there is more to the place than was ever in any Horatio’s head. Like Hamlet, Barber may be writing ‘this was sometimes a paradox but now time gives it proof’, adding sub voce, ‘albeit from a strange angle’, like Emily Dickinson‘s shimmering exhortation to ‘tell the truth but tell it slant.’
Alternatively, perhaps Barber’s is best understood as just a project out of the uncanny. Freud takes the German word unheimlich and points out that unheimlich “… is obviously the opposite of Heimlich … meaning ‘familiar’, ‘native’, ‘belonging to home’, and [so] we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” But this is to get the whole situation exactly wrong. “[T]he uncanny… is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us…” he writes. When what has long been known to us is annihilated, then we remain perhaps in the emotion of an extreme trauma that shapes everything. In Berlin Barber is home. It is exceedingly strange. It is a place of dread. Barber extends the metaphor to generalise out to each one of us. This dread is all our dreads.
When the environment that sustains meanings is trashed then there’s the threat that everything will be nonsense. But the truculence of this thought, that leans towards endorsing a kind of effing the ineffable, isn’t the point. Barber is not enchanting us with nonsense, but reminding us of what we used to think we grasped. Reading Berlin’s walls as he does, he takes us to where our dreams and illusions of knowing were. He asks us to wonder at the fact that once we fancied we knew such things. It is a process made familiar to us in the works of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.
Kierkegaard asks us to consider the meaning of the crucifix in Christianity in order that we might understand the paradoxical truths of religious revelation. Once recognising the depth of the paradox, we are left amazed at our own bathos that assumed we could ever grasp such truths. The philosopher James Conant makes the same claim for Wittgenstein in his Tractatus. He writes: ” … we are drawn into an illusion of occupying a perspective from which we imagine we are able to grasp such an extraordinary truth; we imagine we are able to grasp what certain forms of nonsense are trying to say. From this perspective, we imagine we contemplate the limits of reason, as well as the possibility of our being able to transgress them.”
This then is part of the answer of those who want to resist the Idealism of the obscure American philosopher Royce I mentioned above in relation to William James. We are prone to illusions. Fix up. Not by trying to get past them, but by accepting we’re systematically making mistakes. As Kierkegaard has it, we’re creatures with “the enduring capacity of a misunderstanding to assimilate even the most strenuous effort at explanation and still remain the same misunderstanding.” So what Barber is about is to deceive us into the truth. Wittgenstein put it like this: “I ought to be no more than a mirror in which my reader can see his own thinking with all its deformities so that, helped in this way, he can put it right.”
But putting it right doesn’t mean in any obvious remedial sense. Kierkegaard is not arguing that knowing that the mystery of the crucifix is too deep a paradox for us to understand is to solve the paradox. Rather, it is bringing us back into a relation with the world that at the very most is capable of wondering at its mysteriousness. It is an attitude that contrasts with any sense that there is anything that can be done or known or asserted. Is this the futilitarianism of collaboration?
No, this is the tragic bravery that chooses to live in a world where nothing happens after the buffalos have gone. Barber’s whole oeuvre is about setting out before us a dream world, akin to that dreamed by the nine year old crow Indian Plenty Coups. Each of his books lay out before us the dream world that creates the world awry.
What there is and what there ought to be, or what we’d want there to be, is rent apart in each traumatising history he tells. The ethereal, luminous quality is associated with the light projected onto a screen, a “torn ochre celluloid casing” that exposes the awryness that is the history, materiality and luminous embodiment of a world rinsed away by the twin necessary demons of ethnic cleansing, Hitler and Stalin. Of course Barber knows only too well that the names of such twins extend to the dak crack of doom, on the one hand, and the lightness of forgetfulness, on the other.
Barber pitches the world ‘awry’ into his own mix, acknowledging the broken surfaces that he moves over, and the gap out of which the dread seeps. “At some point in the terminal decades of the GDR, the original and indestructible stone cladding which formed the predominant surface of the Karl-Marx-Allee had been mysteriously replaced here by a celluloid casing, as though intended as a screen for outdoor film projections, in which the film’s own celluloid had unaccountably been confounded with the surface on which it was to be projected, resulting in an ultimately awry, film-inflected urban surface. That celluloid casing, as though protesting its mishap, had then warped, split apart, and peeled, entire chunks vanishing into the street below. In some sections, where the celluloid had gone, the concrete layers and rusted metal wall-brackets below could be seen, though the concrete had grown as friably eroded as the surface of a Kiefer painting, and the wall-brackets had themselves warped like the original celluloid, expelling their nails, as though jostling for position and visibility in the city, projecting themselves outwards, even if it meant tearing themselves away from the building’s surface.”
In this typical passage Barber compresses the looming historical uncanny into a pact with the birth of cinema. The Skladanowsky brothers showed the first public performance of moving images in Berlin and this is a historical moment that Barber returns to continually throughout, as if the meaning of this event is elusive, caught up in the terminus movement of history Hitler and Stalin instantiate. We thought we knew all this. These are familiar freakshow denizens. But Barber’s séance refutes our bluff confidence.
Barber’s attention is never just the aesthetic attitude. The reference to Anselm Kiefer in the quoted passage is no unearned reference. Kiefer is another soul resisting the terminus of life ‘after the buffalo have gone.’ The territory of German history is of course never just German. Nor is the work of Kiefer, or of Barber, ever just a matter of finding out which propositions they are discovering to endorse. There is a sense of both these artists being in a distant realm well away from that kind of discussion. They are not teaching new truths. Rather, they are moving in a realm where we all have the same opinions. But these are not necessarily known. They are not even necessarily knowable.
Kierkegaard writes: “An illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed. If it an illusion … one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion.” In this passage he is taken to be contrasting an illusion with a false belief. Barber is not confronting false beliefs but rather laying out a city of dreaming, an illusion, a series of dreams, a bunch of old films, and doing so in order that we may confront our own confusions. The contrast is between confronting and disputing our illusions.
In this respect, the confrontation that Barber requires of us is that of the religious sensibility. The loading is that of the language and grammar of Lessing and Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard. It is a Kantian skepticism, to adopt a phrase used by James Conant, where we are thrown back to confront the very grounds of any belief at all. This accounts for the associative, amoeboid texture of surrealist, Freudian dream that is the pervasive quality of this work. The text presents a simulacrum of the city as William Fleiss might have done, presenting “the material present in the form of memory-traces being subjected from time to time by a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances – to a re-transcription.”
In so doing Barber is being threaded through a Kierkegaardian sensibility towards surreal and avant-garde reawakenings. In so doing we return to the question: is Barber angry or sad when confronting the walls of Berlin? Sadness may be a kind of sentimentality. Michael Bracewell argues that sentimentality offers “the possibility of reclaiming our deeper subjectivity.” From this perspective the sadness of Barber is capable of unveiling the illusions at the heart of our selves, including presumably our illusions about ensnaring history. Walter Benjamin makes a suggestion that links Barber’s approach to that of Renaissance melancholia, as when Max Pensky comments that in Benjamin sadness works like “a gateway emotion, melancholy mournfulness signals the passage of the contemplative mind to its transcendent home. Rather than dissipating with this spiritual ascent, sadness is intensified, urging the mind on to ever-higher levels of contemplation, a progressive deepening of speculation.”
Bracewell’s underrated masterpiece Perfect Tense, Greuze’s painting A Girl With A Dead Canary and David Lynch’s ‘affected knowledge’ of the sad, whereby he presents close-ups of crying people’s faces, as when Rita and Betty weep as Rebekah Del Rio with painted tears on her face seems to sing in the Silencio nightclub scene of Mullholland Drive, these all point to the fact that at the moment when everything is lost in the air we are still capable of being affected. A kind of feminine jouissance is suggested in saying that in The Walls of Berlin Barber is sad.
But I think the traumas of The Walls Of Berlin are eternal. They are the rational grounds for the images, the commentaries, the journeys that Barber undertakes again and again. In each outing he demands that we unmask the reasons below the skin. He wants to show that the mutually implicated meanings of his subject matter, be they the pornographic histories of far Eastern atrocities or the somber beauty of this traumatised cityscape. A key film is Wim Wender‘s Wings of Desire and whilst reading this it was as if the angel Bruno Ganz played was writing for the human he becomes. The monstrous illusions of belief, knowledge and revelation that as a human might be temptations are being ridiculed. How? By denying that one can avail oneself of religious categories, and a religious sensibility, just by using the words, as if the words, and the thoughts, could carry their meanings regardless of the world.
This is to directly return to Plenty Coups and his world after the buffalos have left. In such a word everything, even the deepest core of self-identity, are stripped of meaningfulness. And the idea of history as giving one a sense of meaningfulness, that too is stripped away. As Plenty Coups says, after the buffalos have gone, nothing happens. The trauma of Berlin, written out in its walls, resonates with the equivalent kind of time. This Berlin time is the time of the awryness of the world, the tick-tock gap between what ought to be and what is. The reason for the awryness is the same awryness that, for example, is currently being felt by the new homeless in Athens.
Emmanouela Seiadaki reports movingly of the traumatising of the Greeks in the wake of the plutocratic crisis where she says, “the new Greek homeless class members have laptops and iPhones, remnants of their ‘old’ lives. “They come to us in suits with their laptops in hand. These citizens a couple of months ago had ordinary lives. They had a job, a home and car,” says Nikitas Kanakis, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Athens. Counselors from the Department of Homeless Services describe a similar situation. “We even have homeless from suburbs like Kifisia and Voula! They come here with their laptops and expensive smart phones they once used for their work, shocked and depressed”.”
It is that registered shock and depression and the arbitrary and unjust reason for such events that we can read back and forth in Barber’s work. Seiadaki notes that it is injustice that feeds the despair: “With an over bloated, corrupted, and ridiculously slow government administration, tax evaders have little to fear. In fact, tax evaders are probably the only Greek cast that doesn’t fear becoming homeless. They can still be seen throughout Athens in their Porsche Cayennes, at their favorite ‘bouzoukia’ and designer clothes shops as if nothing has changed. It is this injustice that incites the people of Greece to anger, and crushes the usually-cheery Christmas atmosphere in Athens at this time of year.”
The justice that simmers in Barber’s book is not the justice of rational independence understood through a modest set of rules, as proposed by liberal philosophers with a communitarian bent such as John Rawls. Nor is it caught in the communicative textures suggested by Sandel or Habermas where constraints for justice are found in our dwelling in communities of conversation.
Many of us live lives of quiet desperation. We don’t enter the conversations about justice. We withdraw even when we are not formally excluded. The depths of the issues of human existence are not easily found. Stanley Cavell removes justice from the domain of the conversation as such, and replaces it as an Emersonian presentation, a performance, seeking to gesture at what justice might be.
But for the person for whom there can be no more conversations, and where such Emersonian dramas assume and require a common world for interpretation that is just not available to everyone, then justice is just the awareness of the awryness. And the awareness takes the form of reasonable anger. The vastness of the gap, between what the world should be and what it is, determines the reasonable proportionate vastness of such rage.
This takes us back to the notion of eternal anger. Berlin may be being rebuilt but nevertheless the original violations remain. These are the still existing reasons for anger, the very same reasons from which the anger originated. The awryness of the world, understood in this book through The Walls of Berlin, speak as reasons for eternal anger. So in this sense Barber is angry when confronting the walls of Berlin. Although it can seem like melancholia, the strange ecstasy of his writing is more the vast unquenchable rage of Achilles hunkering down in his tent. Achilles is an elevated man, of course, related to the Gods. He is later Plenty Coups the Crow warrior who notes that after the buffalo have gone ‘nothing happens.’ Salvador Dali wrote of a delirium whereby the carcass of a mighty bull would be lifted at great speed to the mountains of Montserrat so that the eagles would eat it. The bull would be lifted “by means of an autogyro, an eminently mystical instrument and one that draws its power from itself.”
Barber has written a text that is like Dali’s mystical autogyro. It will elevate the absurd meaningfulness in a pseudo-liturgical way to render a devastating spectacle. The anger of Barber is justified by the apparitions and ghosts he lays out in the book. The book reads like a documentary of an absent film. The voice seizes and renders a preoccupation with displacement, disappearance and destructiveness. The tangible body of the city, the ‘walls of Berlin’ themselves, are impelled towards the lost meanings that his disembodied voice confronts from the vantage of a new century. His materials all seem slowed down, the equivalent of a grey Richter painting’s ghostly focusing, as if somewhere within the gliding voice is the extent of their calamity.
The religious seriousness of this devastating, wrenching work is that of Kierkegaard’s facing the awryness of the world. The prose is as ever the edgeless murmuring of baleful wrath. Scene by scene, the absences of justice become vaster. The writing revokes the conclusions of all its readers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 5th, 2012.