Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Critical Reading of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog

I had brought up the possibility of putting up this essay a couple weeks ago. I needed to edit the material on Derrida that I inexplicably had decided to include in the original draft, and even with these improvements, I'm not totally happy with my use of those terms. At the same time, the concept of the 'trace' is crucial to mark the totalitarianism of the Nazi project as a fantasy, even within the brutal violence and domination of the camp. The argument is in response to the arguments developed by Agamben, particularly around the notion of 'naked life', despite the fact his name is never mentioned. I hope the argument works.

      For those who have not seen or heard of the film, Renais' Night and Fog is the first documentary made about the Nazi Holocaust, drawing from the limited documentary material produced about the camps. It's a powerful indictment of the death camps, contributing to the critique of instrumental reason contained in the arguments of Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault, Arendt, and others. If you haven't seen this documentary, you should.

      The title of the film, Night and Fog, draws its name from the Nacht und Nebel act, which organized the systematic deportations of the regime under the cover of night and fog. This in turn drew its name from a moment from die Niederlungslied, “Nacht und Nebel, Niemands gleich.”. The invocation of this moment, a moment defined by romantic enchantment, is precisely within the bureaucratic and regimented authoritarian state, precisely the space that Weber and others associate with disenchantment. And one can read half the film within that light, dealing with the production of the assembly line of death, an extraordinarily brutal instrumentalization of reason. At the same time, there is an element of the film that cannot be fully captured in those terms, the attempt to deal with the experience of the camp on the part of the inmates. This takes the form of a spectral trace, a haunting and deformation of the first section I am interested in developing, but a trace that cannot be separated from, nor fully understood without the first. I will begin by exploring what I mean by this relation. Then I will explore the film as first critique of instrumental reason and then as this trace.

     To understand this relationship, I would like to use a concept developed by post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty tries to develop a concept of an outside to capital that no longer operates on the logic of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ capital that would operate within a historicist teleology. Instead, it proposes an alternative formulation of the outside of capital. I will begin by bringing the concept in, and then proceed to translate and transform in within the context of the camp.

     This ‘outside’ I think of, following Derrida, as something attached to the category “capital” itself, something that straddles a border zone of temporality, that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being even as it violates the code, something we are able to see only because we can think/theorize capital, but that also reminds us that other temporalities, other forms of worlding, coexist and are possible. In this sense, subaltern histories do not refer to a resistance prior and exterior to the narrative space created by capital; they cannot be defined without reference to the category “capital.”[1]

      Let me begin by discussing the pitfalls of this approach. The primary one is the ease that this narrative can be brought back into an all too easy heroic socialism, a narrative that would replace the abject yet resistant industrial work with the inmate of the camp. It’s a narrative that is in many ways comfortable to me. The second danger is in losing the specificity of the moment, in translating the camps into either a metaphor or an example of the perfidious nature of capital. Both cover up the nature of the event in the logic of larger narratives, which while necessary to understand it also don’t adequately engage it.

      But this is not what I want to get out of the concept. Instead I want to bring out a concept of relationality that is at the center of the film’s narrative structure. This is the intertwining of a narrative of the construction of the camp, with its logic, its plans, its temporality with the experiential element of the camp from the prospective of the inmates. The latter cannot be understood without the former. Its creation is built on all the concepts that Horkheimer and Adorno reference when they discuss “the leveling domination of abstraction… and of industry.”[2] The two are both, of course referring to the concept of equality developed through the dispossession of the labor of all but her or his capacity to labor. This logic is of course not inherently exterminationist, but its instrumentalist logic opens up this potential.

      It is when we bring in the experience of the inmates that the use of the concept becomes clearer. These experiences are clearly both defined by the space and time of the camp, and cannot be conceptualized out of that time, but neither can it entirely be defined by that logic. It is this element that I think can be linked to the concept that Chakrabarty calls the ‘outside.’ This ‘outside’, which can be best described as a trace, doesn’t ever fully express itself as another temporality or another worlding, but it hints at it in its own deformities and the impact it has on the former logic. This will be further developed after we analyze the first part of the logic.

      The first quality that should be noted in this first logic is banality. This can be found in the opening sequence of the film, which opens with the image of the countryside outside of one of the camps. One is shown an empty countryside, primarily bereft of trees, roads, etc. The narrative emphasizes this quality as well, emphasizing the ability of the camp to exist in the ordinary world of the most banal countryside, of commerce, of travel etc. These shots are returned to repeatedly in the film, emphasizing the ordinariness of the buildings used in the camp. The film moves from these shots to equally banal shots drawn from various propaganda films and stills, the most notable of those being Riefenstahl’s film, Triumph of the Will.

      The film's exploration of the construction of the camp is in fact defined by this sort of medium. This goes beyond the initial usage of the Riefenstahl film, to photos and footage of the camps themselves, no doubt created for purposes that radically opposed to the film. The tactics that are used to engage with this material can be defined within these early shots. The Riefenstahl footage is condensed into shots of troops marching in order, with a few moments of the crowd. These shots are placed in the context that they are in order to create a mechanical sense of order, and the effect of the adoring crowd that is so important to the logic of the Riefenstahl film has been reduced if not completely removed. Stills of the planning and construction of the camps, along with stills of the empty camps follow this. These are placed in a mechanical narrative arc.

     There is an effective counterpoint created through the use of both dialogue and music. This has a strong connection to Brecht’s theory of the theater, and particularly its theory of distanciation. The composer Eisler was a collaborator with Brecht, and a good deal of the music in the film is taken from music previously composed for a Brecht play about the war. This element of distanciation can be seen primarily in the moments of the logic of the camp from the perspective of its creators. The images of Riefenstahl provide a good example of this. Against the mechanical images presented to us, we are offered a counterpoint in the form of a particularly prickly and atonal countermelody. This usage goes against their original presentation, which is without soundtrack. The music undermines the heroic nationalist narrative of Riefenstahl’s film, and creates a sense of continuity with the images of the film with the construction of the camp.

     The text is also extremely significant in disrupting the images presented. The images of the Riefenstahl film are tied to a terse set of statements emphasizing the social conformity without the baroque rhetoric of the film. This essentially reduces the films to its instrumentality, without the rhetorical power behind it. This logic is best captured by a moment in Dialectic of Enlightenment in its theorization of domination. “But then the whole as whole, the manifestation of its immanent reason, necessarily leads to the execution of the particular.”[3] The film reduces the romantic appeal to unity into these crude terms, presenting its logic without appeal.

      As the shots move from the Riefenstahl footage to the images of construction, the logic returns to the banal. The construction of the camps is narrated in the following manner. “A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or a hotel is built, with businessmen’s estimates, competitive bids and no doubt a bribe or two.”[4] The camp is constructed within the cynical logic of exchange. The Nazi dictatorship may operate as a state of exception, but it operates through a broad structure of everyday life. The film returns to this theme repeatedly. Through its visuals and text, it emphasizes that the buildings appear normal to the eye, even available for snapshots of tourists. This semblance goes to the logic of the camp as well. The film’s narrative points out after deconstructing each of its elements. “Thus the SS managed to build the semblance of a real city, with its hospital, red light district, residential district, and yes, even a prison.”[5] This semblance is both a sort of mask to cover up the reality as well as the crucial element that allows for that operation to work.

      The logic of the factory can be already found in the initial shots by Riefenstahl and the statement, “The machine begins.”[6] The film returns to the theme of profiteering several times within the narrative. It can be found in the discussion of medical testing with its emphasis on the use of patients for testing deadly substances, where patients are literally bought for such purposes. Daily life in not only punctuated by the absurd face of the sovereign, but by labor in the factory as well. This element of profiteering explodes as the camps explode. By 1945, “factories have camps of their own, off limits to the SS. Steyer, Krupp, Heinckel, I.G. Farben, Siemens, Hermann Goering recruit their labor here. The Nazis may win the war. These new towns are part of the economy.”[7]

      This emphasis on production can be read in the cynical use of the camp for a cheap labor force as discussed above, but it also operates with the body of the inmates themselves. The logic can be summarized by the moment of Himmler’s visit to the camp in 1942, “We must destroy, but productively.”[8] This logic is linked to the image of the blueprint of the crematorium. From the crematorium, the body is itself broken up into product. The film emphasizes that ‘everything was saved.’[9] It then moves to a series of images, from glasses and boxes, to fabric and paper that is produced from the hair and skin of the victims. The bones and bodies are made into fertilizer and soap respectively.

       But this mode of thought can already be found in the modernism of the inter-war period. We can find the threat of mass death in the works of Bloch, Benjamin and many others. This too can be said about the images of mechanization that can be seen in films such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great Symphony amongst others. Perhaps the most literal comparison can be found in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, where the lead character has a hallucination of workers walking into a daemonic semblance of a factory, acting as a willing sacrifice for its logic. Horkheimer and Adorno discuss the logic in German modernism, “The individual who is thoroughly weary must use his weariness as energy for his surrender to the collective power which wears him out.”[10] The literature of the time, too, is constantly aware of this trope, as we can see in Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnung des Malte Laurids Brigge.

      Dieses ausgezeichnete Hotel is sehr alt, schon zu Konig Chlodwigs Zeiten starb man darin in einigen Bett. Jetzt wird in 559 Betten gestorben. Naturlich fabrikmassig. Bei so enormer Produktion is der einzelne Tod nicht so gut ausgefuhrt, aber darauf kommt es auch nicht an. Die Masse macht es.[11]

      We can see several of the elements discussed above contained in this brief paragraph. There is already the notion of death entering the realm of mass production. This fantasy continues throughout the narrative including the fear of the hospital, etc. The primary fear can be reduced to the idea of suffering a banal death or a non-authentic death. We can find the theme of both the banality of death through mass production, and the logic of a factory of death. It is notable that the narrator identifies this as something that naturally falls to the lot of the poor. But the film cannot be reduced to this, however significant it is. Between the cracks of the logic of the machine, there is something else, something that can be called experiential, not the experience of the architects or the enforcers of the machine, but that of the inmates themselves.

      The theme of impossibility of communicating or even witnessing the experience of the Camps is consistent theme in both the writings of survivors and outsiders. We can see this in the work of Primo Levi, in his final book, The Drowned and the Saved. “We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have remained mute, but they are the “Muslims,” the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance.”[12] The understanding produced through the survivor is only partial, provincial. The one ‘whose deposition would have a general significance” is absent.

      But what to make of this impossibility, this is not the impossibility of the obscure God of negative theology, an obscure deity that is totally outside of the human. Instead, this element acts as a sort of trace that runs through the narrative of the film, an absence that nonetheless has an impact on the entirety of the structure. We’ll look at the way this trace operates within the logic of the film, but first, we’ll try to define the concept as Jacques Derrida develops it. Derrida begins to develop this concept in Of Grammatology, and expands on it in his essay, “Freud and the Scene of Writing.”

      Derrida develops this idea of the trace through a reading of Freud’s understanding of the psychic apparatus, from the unfinished text of the Project to the “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad.” Through this, Derrida works out Freud’s production of an unconscious through a conceptualization of repression. Freud’s conception of repression is not a negative one, instead it repetitive and unproductive working through of an experience that will not be recognized by the preconscious. There is no originary moment in this system, just the reworking of a material put under erasure. Its operation continually shapes the subject’s consciousness, while simultaneously acting as the thing that the subject cannot consciously recognize. The trace can only be understood within this logic. Derrida draws on Freud’s metaphor of the Mystic Pad, a child’s toy which allows for the recording of language, and it’s erasure by the lifting of a protective cover sheet. He insists on reading the psychic process through the double maneuver of inscription on the pad, and it’s erasure through lifting the protective cover. He notes, “Traces thus produce the space of their inscription only by acceding to the period of their erasure. From the beginning, in the “present” of their first impression, they are constituted by the double force of repetition and erasure, legibility and illegibility.”[13] The process of writing is simultaneously marked by this process of erasure, of repression, or perhaps more bluntly, it becomes constitutive necessity.

      Derrida emphasizes that this structure isn’t ‘error’ or ‘pathology’ but constitutive of a particular European project, tied indirectly to the imperialist legacy of that project. As Gayatri Spivak points out in the introduction of Of Grammatology, psychoanalysis recognizes the structure of experience, as not a presence within structures of language, but as a trace, which is placed under erasure at is inscription into either the psychical apparatus or writing. As she states, “The structure of the sign is determined by the trace or track of that other which is forever absent. This other is of course never to be found in its full being.”[14] This allows us to understand what Dipesh Chakrabarty is trying to get at in his idea of the outside. To put it in marxist terms, this experience fills in the place of use value, that which allows for value to be produced, but which never is fully encompassed into the idea of value. It can also be linked into the erased dialectic of domination and resistance that mark the imperialist project that placed the Europe at the center of the modern world system. The history of the proletariat, the colonized constitutes this discontinuous trace haunting the European symbolic, continually revealing the mystification of the universalistic nature of that project even as that project places the trace under erasure.

      This concept allows us to understand the continual introduction of the experience of the inmates through their negation on the part of the film. The text returns to this theme repeatedly, “What hope do we really have of capturing this reality?” “Useless to describe what went on in these cells.”[15] These statements index a set of experiences, but it accomplishes this by positing an inability of expression, rather than the presence of this expression. But it is the image of gas chambers that makes this most literal. The camera pans across its ceiling. It is rough and indented, with portions of the material (dry wall? Concrete?) hanging from it. The caption orients the meaning of the scene. “The only sign-but you must know- are the fingernail scrapings on the ceiling. Even the concrete was scratched up.”[16] The meaning of the markings is not evident on its own; instead it needs to be inscribed into language to give it meaning. The narrative must point to these ambiguous signs. It must interpret.

      This attempt at creating a trace is not only contained in the experience of death, but in the day to day life of the camp. The contrast is created between the banal logic of the guards and the everyday life of the inmate through the space of the latrine. The film pans across a seemingly endless row of open latrines. There is no sense of privacy here, and the narrative reminds us that to enter this space at night means to risk one’s life. But this space of abjection defined both by the continual voiding of bowels and by the risk of death both by the revelation of symptoms and by Kapo, is also the space of an alternative social. It becomes a space of conspiracy, both political and personal, gossip, violence, etc. It is also marked by the production of a market, the illicit exchange of goods. The film emphasizes that, “a society gradually takes form, sculpted by terror and fear, but less deranged that that of the SS and its slogans.”[17]

      This film is from the present of the film, and the shot emphasizes its emptiness. The camera pans along latrines, empty beds, and even the tracks leading up to the camps. These scenes are haunted by a constant reference to something that is missing; the trace of an entire constellation of experiences that is both repressed and produced by the logic of the camp. This space is not defined by a positive term such as redemption, but rather by the term resilience. The film defines this by the continual furtive production of the night. Images of the products of this labor are connected with the following text. “They make spoons, puppets to be hidden away, monsters, boxes. They manage to write, make notes. They keep their minds sharp, their hopes alive. They turn their thoughts to God. They even organize politically.”[18] This narrative is only representable through the objects left behind, but it points to an entire structure of labor and society that cannot be entirely placed under the sign of the logic of the camp.

      It might be said that the film falters here to a degree. The community described here still has traces of a positive redemption. There are references to both friendship and the formation of organizations to fight the criminal element within the camps. The emphasis that Levi puts on the ambiguity created by the camp can act as a supplement. Levi describes an interesting incident of the operations of the resistance in the camp. A relatively benign Kapo was replaced by an extremely brutal one. When Levi inquired about how to deal with him, an acquaintance involved in the internal resistance merely remarked that he would be gone within a week. Levi later found out that the resistance had the ability to switch the registration numbers of those who were to be gassed. [19] In order to understand this, we should return to the earlier quotation of Chakrabarty’s. He theorizes an outside to the logic of capital that “straddles a border zone of temporality that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being even as it violates the code, something we are able to see only because we can think/theorize capital.” The narrative of Levi’s can be understood in this light. The structure of this resistance operates entirely within the logic of the camp and its instrumentalization of death even while it violates the code within that logic that forbids structures of self-organization.

       There is something far to schematic in this presentation of the film. It is missing a simultaneity that marks its structure. But I wanted to bring out something that I felt that I left out of my initial presentation of the film that is the psychic economy and the logic of the trace that operates throughout the film. This can only be understood through the critical understanding of the monstrous instrumentality of the camp. In this sense, it follows through in the same vein as the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, Arendt and others. But this additional element troubles the narratives that these thinkers give about the totalitarian state. This spectral trace indicates that this instrumental logic in never in fact total, that there is always a possibility of multiplicity even if that exists only in negative form. This constitutes a specter haunting Europe, an overdetermining element of its psychic economy.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 95.
[2] Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), 15.
[3] Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), 22
[4] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[5] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Dialogue Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid., 152-153.
[11] Rainer Rilke, Die Aufzeichnung des Malte Laurids Brigge (Leibzig: Insel-Verlag, 1920), 8.
[12] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 83-84
[13] Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing”, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 226.
[14] Gayatri Spivak, “Translator’s Preface,” in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), xvii.
[15] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Dialogue Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[16] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Dialogue Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[17] ibid.
[18] ibid.
[19] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 73-74.

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