Visible Evidence 2021

The Production of Common Life: Rethinking Televisual Economies

Cassandra Xin Guan
Nora M. Alter
Gertrud Koch
Respondent: Richard E. Langston
Wed, Dec 15
90 Min
Mousonturm (Theatre)
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Trotsky on Television: "Vodka, Church, Cinema" (1923)

In 2019, Leon Trotsky appeared on Netflix as a character in a miniseries made by Russia’s Channel One. With its gratuitous spectacles of sex and violence, the show has been roundly condemned by television critics as “terrible history.” In this paper, I show that the real Trotsky was not indifferent to the allure of the televisual. His 1923 essay “Vodka, Church, Cinema” envisioned a form of mass communication that would penetrate into people’s homes in the fashion of the Russian icon that hangs on their walls. Re-reading Trotsky as a “premature” theorist of television, I contextualize his surreal proposal to replace both vodka and the Eastern Orthodox Church with universal access to cinema in terms of the perceived need to launch a dynamic cycle of expanded social reproduction.

My arguments have two parts: first, I draw on the theoretical debate about “primitive socialist accumulation” that took place at this time to elucidate the program of social administration and libidinal management envisioned by Trotsky in his writings on culture; second, I analyze the ways in which cinema, conceived as a televisual medium, brought the real and the libidinal economy into relation with one another, offering a new perspective on subsequent aesthetics of Soviet montage. In films such as One Sixth of the World (1926), The General Line (1929), and Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbass (1930), cinema as a televisual medium becomes a scaler of the two economies, tethering individuals to the imagined community of nation in the interest of industrial policy.

Cassandra Xin Guan

Cassandra Xin Guan is a Dean’s Faculty Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Program of Science, Technology, and Society at Brown University. Her current research examines how biological plasticity became an object of scientific knowledge, aesthetic experience, and political intervention in the work of animation. Guan is co-editor, with Adam O’Brien, of the 2020 Screen dossier, Natural Aesthetics, and the author of an article in the winter 2021 issue of October, titled Critique of Flowers: The Exigency of Life in the Era of Its Technical Reproducibility.

Thinking Through Television: Harun Farocki’s Tele-Critiques

In the early 1970s, filmmaker Harun Farocki moved into the world of television receiving regular commissions and programming opportunities. He learned a new skill set and became an expert in the then relatively new public medium. Paradoxically, though television was decried as a commercial mass medium, it afforded possibilities for funding and support for independent filmmakers. For Farocki the steady stream of work for WDR provided him with the opportunity to learn and develop televisual production skills as well as experiment and push the boundaries of what could be shown on a medium that many viewed as the antithesis of cinema.

Beginning in 1973, in a series of written essays and two 48 minute broadcasts: The Trouble with Images and The Struggle with Images, Farocki systematically critiqued and offered alternatives to the democratic medium. In particular, he honed in on the burgeoning genre of non-fiction television programs that proximate documentaries. Farocki argued that these programs were created on a topic based on a foregone conclusion. The exercise therefore is an affirmative one. A preexistent thesis was illustrated by images and sounds selected from a vast televisual databank and archive. The challenge for Farocki was how to produce a counter broadcast and employ television as a self-reflexive medium for critique and analysis; how to lodge or embed a form of institutional critique from within. My paper examines Farocki’s two broadcasts in conjunction with his written essays as they produce a new type of critique of the public mass medium.

Nora M. Alter

Nora M. Alter is a Professor of Film and Media Arts and the author of Vietnam Protest Theatre: The Television War on Stage (1996), Projecting History: Non-Fiction German Film (2002), Chris Marker (2006), The Essay Film After Fact and Fiction (2018), co-editor with L. Koepnick of Sound Matters: Essays on the Acoustics of Modern German Culture (2004), and co-editor with T. Corrigan, Essays on the Essay Film (2017). She is completing a new book on Harun Farocki.

Adorno uses the term propaganda in the Culture Industry chapter of The Dialectic of Enlightenment with a double meaning: in the sense of “political influence” as well as “commercial advertisement.” The embeddedness of time regimes, content, and phantasmagorias in those instrumental representations allow fiction and reality to commingle in specific ways. In both types of practices propaganda refers to the capitalist regimentation of time, specifically the division of life into working hours and free disposable time, and the generalized processes of commodification. I will analyze the interrelation between the two meanings of “propaganda” in various contemporary television programs, such as the HBO series Mad Men and the Netflix original drama The Crown, as well as reality TV-formats. Propaganda tries to get a grip on the subject.

Mad Men and The Crown are both based on the idea of an implosion or merger of the self in the TV persona. “Becoming image” is part of becoming a firm: in Mad Men, this is literally a publicity agency, while in The Crown, the British royals subordinate their personalities to that of “the firm,” a public-private concern that traffic in staged images. My paper will explore the destruction of the subject in these new Bildungsroman through the Sartrean conception of self-deception as “mauvaise foi” and finally consider what will come to replace the subject.

Gertrud Koch

Gertrud Koch is Professor Emerita for Cinema Studies at the Freie Universität, Berlin, where she was also the director of the research center “Aesthetic Experience Under the Banner of the Dissolution of Artistic Limits” from 2006-2014. Koch has held numerous appointments as senior research fellow and visiting professor at Brown University, NYU, Columbia University, UC Berkeley, Tel Aviv University, Getty Research Center in Los Angeles, et al. She has written books on Herbert Marcuse and Siegfried Kracauer, on aesthetics, perception and film theory, and on women’s cinema and the representation of Jewish history. Koch is co-editor and advisory board member for several magazines, including Babylon, Frauen und Film, October, Constellations and Philosophy & Social Criticism. Her recent books include Breaking Out, Breaking Bad, Breaking Even (Dipahanes 2017); Die Wiederkehr der Illusion: Film und die Künste (der Gegenwart, Berlin 2016); Zwischen Raubtier und Chamäleon (Texte zu Film, Medien, 2016).

Respondent: Richard E. Langston

Richard E. Langston is Professor of German Literature in the Department of Germanic & Slavic Languages and Literatures and Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses primarily on twentieth- and twenty-first century literature and its relationship to visual culture and philosophy. He has published widely on German-language prose, poetry, avant-garde and experimental cinema, as well as the visual arts. While much of Langston’s recent scholarship has focused primarily on the work of author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge and social philosopher Oskar Negt, he has recently started a new project about money, value and knowledge in modern and contemporary German literature. In 2011-2012 Langston was a fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and from 2014-2018 he was appointed the Zachary Smith Distinguished Term Chair in Teaching and Research.