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Terror(ism) and Aesthetics (2015)

Clouds: On a Possible Relation of Terror and Terrorism to Aesthetics



It seems clear that the topic of our conference, although framed extremely broadly in the call for papers, is informed, and probably haunted, by a single series of images, which begins with a plane silhouetted against a blue sky disappearing into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, and which ends… well I’m not quite sure where it ends — or even if it has really ended. Perhaps its end was really a beginning. In any case, the sequence reaches a certain culmination with the collapse of the towers into clouds of dust and rubble? Who, especially today, can avoid those images, which are broadcast incessantly on TV, ostensibly to commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001? What could be more vivid than these spectacular images of death and destruction? But what could be more obscure?

In what follows I am going to present some thoughts related to those images, and some others, which seem to me to bear on our topic. I wish these thoughts could be presented in a more systematic fashion, that they could be more densely structured, more comprehensive and cohesive in character, that they could come together to form a tightly knit and cogent argument. But I fear that I won’t be able to pull this off and I beg your indulgence at the outset for their incomplete, fragmentary and exploratory nature. Perhaps some of that can be compensated for in the discussion afterwards.


When we speak of images — “we” here being both academics and also non-academics — we generally expect a certain transparency. Images are expected to show things, reveal, be windows onto the world, in one form or another. This they surely are and do, but their transparency can serve to conceal as much as to disclose. And this is particularly so when we have to do with memory-images: and indeed, are not all images memory-images? If so, a notion elaborated by Freud can put us on the track of the complexities such images can entail. I am thinking of those memories he called “screen memories.” In German his term was slightly different: Deckerinnerungen, literally: memories that “cover” or “cover up.” Such memories need not be based on perceptions; they need not be images in the strict senses. But they often are. Freud developed this notion based on the recurrence of certain very vivid memory-images in the course of analysis: images however which served more to conceal — to cover up — than to reveal. In so doing they met the demands of repression, while at the same time concealing the gaps that would make such repression manifest. The English translation of Deckerinnerung as “screen memory” is felicitous, insofar as it suggests that double function of the image as “screen”: first, to provide a support for representations and projections, and second, to screen out other images and elements, which could disrupt the unity of self-consciousness and therefore fall prey to repression.

I want to suggest that the questions of terror and terrorism are linked to the series of images etched in all of our memories, of the two planes striking the World Trade Center, setting it on fire and ultimately causing the towers to implode into a cloud of dust. I also want to argue that in the process this sequence of images has functioned as a collective — indeed globally collective — screen memory, whose major function has been and continues to be to “focus” our attention on individual acts and actors while screening out other considerations, and not just other images, but also other thoughts that might have — indeed should have — been aroused and explored in relation to this occurrence. This type of screening has been particularly effective within the United States, where it enjoys the full support and collaboration of the mainstream media, particularly televisual: other media, for instance in Europe and Asia, have been far more critical, situating the images of 9-11 in a much larger context. But to the extent that the images of 9-11 have been exploited to justify a largely military response: the “war against terror” being only the most conspicuous aspect of this response — what I would call the “aestheticization of the image” via the media (adapting a notion of Benjamin’s to which I will return later on) has been and continues to be a decisive factor.

When I speak of an “aestheticization of the image in the media” I need to add an important caveat. The word “aesthetics” like most other words, and especially terms that have a long and significant history, is over-determined and ambiguous. It has sometimes signified the very opposite of what I, taking my cue from Benjamin (but also from Paul de Man and Heidegger), will criticize it for meaning — a meaning associated with the notions of “form” and “work.” I feel justified however in using it in this way because of the powerful tradition that has gathered around this use and which has ramifications in areas far removed from its immediate application, i.e. to art and beauty. Through this term I want to suggest that a certain very powerful tradition of “aesthetics” has facilitated and even promoted the utilization of images as screen memories, in the Freudian sense. This tradition tends to screen out the screen-function and to valorize the image as a more or less neutral, more or less truthful window on the world.[1] It was this particular aesthetic tradition that Walter Benjamin had in mind when, in his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” he sought to develop an alternative to the “aestheticization of politics” that he attributed to Fascism. I will return to that later on in this talk.


But first, in order to understand how a certain tradition of aesthetics could contribute to what has been called a “culture of fear” that goes hand in hand with a politics that determines “terror” and “terrorism” to be its primary enemies, it will be helpful to introduce a second Freudian concept, related to the first, even if Freud to my knowledge never linked the two or discussed their relationship. This concept has been largely overlooked in theoretical discussions, perhaps because, unlike “screen memory,” it makes use of an utterly banal and non-technical word that has nothing specifically psychoanalytic about it and that perhaps was therefore too familiar to catch anyone’s imagination. In contrast to “screen memory,” which Freud discovers and discusses very early on in his career, starting with an article written in 1899, the second concept is one he comes to late in life, discussing it at length only in his 1925 book, Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiety. I am referring to the notion of isolation, which Freud introduced in that book in the context of his discussion of “defense mechanisms” developed by the Ego, in particular in obsessional neurosis. In contrast to repression, which excludes representations from consciousness by replacing them with other representations (or symptoms), isolation does not exclude the representation itself from consciousness — and hence from memory — but rather eliminates all connections that could allow it to exercise its disruptive power. This is how Freud describes the process:

When something unpleasant has happened to the subject or when he himself has done something that has significance for his neurosis, he interpolates an interval during which nothing further must happen — during which he must perceive nothing and do nothing. […] The experience is not forgotten, but, instead, it is deprived of its affect, and its associative connections are suppressed or interrupted so that it remains as though isolated.[2]

Two points deserve special emphasis here. First, that what is “deprived” by isolation — “its associative connections” — Freud relates to “affect”: “The experience is not forgotten but instead is deprived of its affect…” Isolation, which relates to “experiences,” above all does what repression cannot do according to Freud: it displaces “affects.” (You may remember that Freud is insistent on the fact that repression relates only to representations, not to affects, which he says, cannot be experienced unconsciously, and hence cannot be repressed.[3])

But if Freud uses the word “experiences” here to designate the object of “isolation,” it is because here again he wishes to distinguish it from repression, which relates only to “representa­tions”: isolation, as we have seen, also relates to “affects” but as a result, it involves the body. As Freud puts it, “it takes place in the motor sphere.” Which is to say, the “interpolation” of an “interval during which nothing further must happen,” which thus constitutes isolation, must be understood not just as a mental event, but as a “motoric” one: “The effect of this isolation is the same as the effect of repression with amnesia,” Freud notes, but with a supplement:

It is at the same time given motor reinforcement for magical purposes. The elements that held apart in this way are precisely those that belong together associatively. The motor isolation is meant to ensure an interruption of the connection in thought. [Inhibitions, 47]

What Freud is describing then is situated at the cusp between mental and physical, or rather, breaks down the clear-cut distinction between them. Nowhere is this clearer than the verb he uses to describe the actual operation of isolating: things “that belong together associatively” are “held apart” (auseinandergehalten) “magically” by the isolating interpolation. Why “magic”? In order to designate precisely that the process being described, although not consciously or deliberately willed, nevertheless involves an intentional act, and this in a double sense. First, in order for something to be interrupted, as with isolation, its movement must be directional and at some level recognized as such. Isolation operates by “intentionally” — although not (self)consciously — interrupting the no less intentional, goal-directed, purposive movement of mind and body. It does this by inserting — Freud’s German term is Einschub: Literally, “shoving in” something into the trajectory of the movement of the drive. However, since its primary function is to interrupt and to suspend, the “insert” can be empty of content: it can consist in a blank space, for instance. It must simply arrest the forward thrust of the drive, nothing more but also nothing less.

Nevertheless, in order for the isolating intervention to be effective, it must have a certain duration or durability. The interruption must therefore consist in a holding action. Freud designates this more particularly as a “holding apart” — auseinanderhalten. To hold things apart, however, one must first take hold of hem — i.e. make some sort of initial contact. This however creates a new problem. For according to Freud, isolation is motivated by “one of the oldest and most fundamental commands of obsessional neurosis, the taboo on touching.” Freud goes on to explain just why this taboo is so powerful:

If we ask ourselves why the avoidance of touching, contact or contagion should play such a large part in this neurosis and should become the subject-matter of complicated systems, the answer is that touching and physical contact are the immediate aim of the aggressive as well as the loving object-cathexes. Eros desires contact because it strives to make the I — [my translation for what is usually rendered in English as “Ego”] — […] to make the I and the loved object one. But destructiveness, too, which (before the invention of long-range weapons) could only take effect at close quarters, must presuppose physical contact, a coming to grips [Handanlegen: more literally, ‘laying hand on, handling’ — S.W.]. […] But isolating is removing the possibility of contact; it is a method of withdrawing a thing from being touched in any way. [Inhibitions, 48-49]

Freud does not say explicitly just why or how the conflictual mix of erotic desire and aggressivity involved in “touching” should give rise to “isolating,” but his reference to the “I” — the Ego — suggests a response. The main task of the I is to organize and if possible harmonize the contradictory tendencies of the psyche, which according to Freud’s so-called “second (psychic) topology” are located in the It (=”Id”) and the Superego and the I. To the I falls the task of bringing the largely divergent strivings of It and Superego into some sort of unified, well-defined and stable structure. “Touching” however embodies the impossibility of this task. It epitomizes what Freud elsewhere calls “ambivalence”: the simultaneous presence of urges that oppose or conflict with each other: the erotic drive for unification with the object (or other) and the aggressive drive to it. One way the I tries to deal with these conflicts is precisely by excluding touching through isolating the antagonistic drives. If these drives can be separated, “isolated,” they will not conflict with each other and disturb the integrative function of the I. In a certain sense — this will be important to us later on — isolation of the object, say of an image or series of images, is desirable to the I because it reinforces the unity and stability of the I qua “individual” — literally, qua a being that is in essence in-divisible.

Where touching takes place, by contrast, the limits of such indivisibility are compromised by contact, if not by conflict. Isolation thus attempts to institute and perpetuate a situation in which touching — i.e. contact and conflict — has become impossible.

But if the only way the I can accomplish this task is by “holding apart” what otherwise “belongs together,” it has a serious problem. For “holding” — and a fortiori “holding apart” — still entails contact, touching — i.e. coming together. It is only by coming together that one can hold apart. But holding-apart is not simply touching: it is a touching in order to lay hold, to control, to fix in place.

But the problem faced by the I here is even more complicated. If it must touch the drives, desires, experiences, and representations in order to hold them apart, it must to a certain degree also be touched by them. Touching is never simply active and transitive — it is also simultaneously and inevitably passive. In touching the other one is inevitably touched by that other. Touching (as Derrida, Nancy and doubtless others have remarked), is therefore necessarily ambivalent with respect to the established opposition and polarity of subject and object, self and other, active and passive.

How the I then deals with these ambivalences becomes clearer when Freud relates it to an act that is not only part of the pathology of obsessional neurosis, but indeed is a major factor in the constitution of so-called normal, rational thought and behavior:

The normal phenomenon of concentration provides a pretext for this kind of neurotic procedure: what seems to us important in the way of an impression or a piece of work must not be interfered with by the simultaneous claims of any other mental processes or activities. But even a normal person uses concentration to keep away not only what is irrelevant or unimportant, but above all, what is unsuitable because it is contradictory. He is most disturbed by those elements which once belonged together but which have been torn apart in the course of his process of development — as for instance, […] the ambivalence of his father-complex in his relation to God […] Thus, in the normal course of things, the I has a great deal of isolating work to do in its function of directing the current of thought. [Inhibitions, 47-48]

Insofar as one very important function of the I consists in “directing the current of thought,” it must first locate a goal in a stable, self-enclosed place toward which that “current” can then be channeled. The process of determining such a goal — “concentrat­ing” — entails for Freud not just the positive activity of locating a place or an object but simultaneously of stabilizing that place. Concentration thus touches its object, but since this object is situated initially in a conflictual force-field of desires or drives, it can only keep it in place and retain its hold over it by separating it from the hetero­geneous ramifications that in part constitute it and determine it.

Concentration thus touches doubly, it requires two hands, as it were, if it is to “hold apart” — which also means, “keep apart” what originally belonged together and what presumably left to its own devices would stay together, albeit in conflict with one another.

But concentration is mostly a cognitive activity: one concentrates on something in order to observe it better and ultimately to know it. Insofar as the process of concentration is understood as a cognitive process, it is experienced as “mental” rather than as physical, involving the body. If concentration “touches” its object, this is generally understood to be merely a metaphorical way of describing its relation to an object that transcends the bodily limitations of spatial-temporal situatedness. For concentration seeks to focus on the object itself, independently of its variations in space and time.

As you’ve just heard (read), in English — but also in other languages — an often used synonym for “concentration” is “focusing.” To “focus” on an object tends to construe this aspect of concentration by referring to visual perception. Such a reference however is plausible only insofar as it is informed by an experience of visuality that is, culturally and historically constituted and therefore relative, not universal. However, this experience tends to regard itself precisely as universal and objective, and this for in part internal reasons. For it consists in equating one particular mode of seeing with visuality itself. This particular mode consists in the interpretation of perception as essentially a mode of recognizing objects construed as being self-contained and meaningful. This object-oriented conception of visual perception divides the field of vision into “figure” and “ground,” without questioning just how such a “field” is delimited in the first place. In other words, the framing of the field of vision is taken for granted, for given, so that vision itself can be construed in terms of differentiating between figure and ground.

In French, this opposition is known as that between forme and fond. I mention this in order to introduce two of the words — and concepts — that bear on our topic in this conference, namely the notion of “form” and “figure.” These two concepts may not cover the entire realm of “aesthetics,” but they certainly inform the interpretation that has related it to art and beauty in the Western tradition. A form, as Kant writes in his Critique of the Power to Judge, where the concept plays a decisive role although one that is never really elaborated — (a form) is constituted through the unifying synthesis of a manifold in its singularity, i.e. without recourse to a general concept that, qua general, would be external to the aesthetic experience insofar as for Kant at least this cannot be separated from a singular encounter and representation.[4] Although through his insistence on its singularity, Kant’s interpretation of the aesthetic is distinguished from his illustrious predecessors, such as Baumgarten and Winckelmann, he retains the notion of form and tries to reconcile it precisely with the singularity of “aesthetic judgment.” One of the concrete points of divergence that separates Kant from his predecessors has to do with the significance of the human body as the site of the ideal of beauty. Whereas Winckelmann insists on the aesthetic qualities of the human body as an object of representation, especially in Greek sculpture, Kant rejects this aesthetic privilege of the human body precisely because it would impose an objective “ideal of beauty” on what should remain a singular and subjective experience. This is also the reason why Kant also subordinated “artistic” to “natural beauty”: not because he prefers landscapes to people, but because he wants to safeguard the singularity of the aesthetic encounter from being contaminated by any sort of conceptual generality. And this would be the case inevitably in the encounter with artistic beauty, since the latter would always be understood as the realization of a prior intention that itself would be of a general or generalizable character.

Without being able to discuss this question in further detail here, suffice it to say that in Kant the notion of “form” tends to unravel in the face of his insistence on the singularity of the aesthetic encounter — and that for this reason Kant can be seen as inaugurating a distinctively modern tradition of aesthetics, which while seeking to perpetuate its more classical claims to unification and harmonization, opens aesthetics to conflict and struggle. Benjamin, Heidegger and Derrida, are just some of the more influential modern thinkers who have read Kant against the grain of his own intention, perhaps, as a thinker of unresolved conflicts and problems rather than of unshakable foundations.

The pre- and post-Kantian identification of the human body as the epitome both of the aesthetic object, and of bodies per se[5] has a long history, which I cannot begin to unfold here in any detail. It has to be mentioned, however, since it remains, I want to argue, the implicit precondition of much of what is called “terror” today. Suffice it to say that much of its emotional force is grounded in a tradition informed by Christian theology, for which the human form is the site both of the most extreme suffering and violence, and yet because of this, also of the possibility of resurrection. Deriving both from the Biblical account of human beings being created in the image of their Creator, and from the Christian account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Son of God, the human body has emerged as the site of suffering and of salvation, often reconciled through the notion of martyrdom.[6]

What I want to suggest is that although this salvational potential is associated particularly with the human body, the latter accordingly provides the basis upon which all other bodies are construed. In other words, a theological model informs an aesthetic paradigm that in turn serves as a criterion for how reality is or should be understood. Put simply, and surely too simply: if the universe is conceived of as the creation of a self-identical and exclusive Deity, then all aspects of that universe are meaningful and valuable insofar as they reflect the process of their origin. Aesthetic objects are thus understood as products of “creation,” a word often used in a secular context, but which retains the theological structure from which it derives. Creatures derive their life from their Creator. Art objects derive their value from their artistic creator. Objects in general according to this paradigm have being insofar as that being is the product of an originating intention.

This is the attitude that informs Christian fundamentalist views of the universe as the product of “intelligent design,” rather than of the aleatory process of evolution. The fact that contemporary science increasingly emphasizes the aleatory, not just in evolutionary theory but in Quantum Mechanics, for instance, far from eliminating theological and teleological conceptions of reality, can, as we see, actually provoke and promote them as a reaction to a world-view that provides little consolation or solace for everyday anxieties and suffering.

The ostensibly secular aesthetic notions of form and figure are traditionally associated with this teleological view of the world, even where they seek, as in Kant, to take their distances from it. Kant’s famous formula for the aesthetic judgment of the beautiful, as “purposiveness without purpose,” reflects this link even while subjectivizing it.

Why however should notions of “intelligent design” — and more generally the belief in some sort of transcendent intention pervading the world — help to assuage such anxieties and concern and thereby continue to impose themselves — at least in the United States — in the face of the near universal opposition of the scientific and intellectual establishment? Perhaps because the very notion of “intention” and of “design” implies the ability to overcome the uncertainties that spatial-temporal experience inevitably entail for living beings, and in the contemporary world, increasingly for the majority of them (as the socio-economic conditions of life become increasingly uncertain, especially in the so-called “developed” nations). The realization of a plan or project implied in the notions of intention or design can be seen as embodying the power to overcome such anxieties and concerns, especially wherever traditional modes of survival through work seem increasingly uncertain. The tension in cultures that are informed by the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” on the one hand, and the reality of ever more precarious conditions under which life must be lived, produces an increased desire for systems of belief that seem to guarantee what society no longer does.

An aesthetics of form and figure: an aesthetics of representation — here the connection with our topic will hopefully begin to emerge — can and does respond to this desire, especially when that aesthetics serves as a model according to which reality is construed and conceived. What Carl Schmitt back in the 1920s (in his short book, Roman Catholicism and Political Form) called the “principle of representation,” in which he located the distinctive political significance and power of the Catholic Church, dominates the televisual media today, in the United States but also in many other parts of the world. This principle of representation Schmitt saw epitomized in the Crucifixion, in which the mortal human body is promised a resurrection through suffering, provides a view of the world in which “terror” and “terrorism” can appear as necessary passages to salvation. This is not to say that such an effect is the only one that such sacrificial representation can produce, but only that a long tradition seeks to demonstrate the connection between death as punishment and salvation through sacrifice.

It is through a certain form of “representation” — through representation as the formation of form and at the same time as its transcendence — that such a salvational process can be embodied, as it were, in a world in which finitude is considered to be a punishment for sin. Representation thus re-presents what is not directly accessible: it makes the invisible visible, the unimaginable vivid. I should add that for Schmitt the principle of representation in this sense is not primarily aesthetic, but legal: it is not aesthetic form but legal formalism that anticipates the passage — or rather, the leap — from the finite to the infinite, from the mortal to the immortal. But his argument can also be applied to the use of aesthetic forms and figures, especially where they are not intended to portray beauty as such, but reality. If one follows the previous argument that it is the sacralized individual human body that informs the conception of reality as such, then the use of images can be no less potent than legal formalism in providing a belief-system that claims to link the finite to the infinite. Schmitt’s emphasis on legal formalism over aesthetic form in outlining his “principle of representation” surely has to do with the spiritualizing abstraction of such form, by contrast with the corporeal nature of the aesthetic. But precisely because of its intimate relation to bodily individuation, images can figure and have figured the reassuring promise of sacrificial self-redemption.

To be sure, such figuration will always retain an element of ambiguity and uncertainty, given that its claim to transcendence is necessarily tied to the representation of immanence. And it is here, perhaps, that the function of the cloud enters the picture — or rather, of clouds. For there is almost always more than one. Or rather, the unity of the cloud is never stable or assured. Which is part of what allows it to seem to bridge the gap between the world of finite space and time — world of the figure — and the beyond. This is also why clouds often seem to conceal something like a secret, and even a certain violence, that can both terrify and also console. In the time remaining, I want to look at two very different and yet not unrelated instances of clouds, in which a certain aestheticism converges with terror and terrorism, albeit in very different ways and at very different historical moments.



The first instance is to be found in a film dating from 1934. I am speaking of the opening scene of Leni Riefenstahl’s film, “Triumph of the Will,” which “documents” the Nazi Party Rally of that year held in Nuremberg. Here, then, without any further ado, is the opening scene of that film:


Triumph of the Will, TitlesTriumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935, dir. Leni Riefenstahl), Titles and Scene I: 0:00-4:46 (


Riefenstahl’s film, together with Olympiade, made two years later at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, are almost universally characterized and classified as “propaganda” films. Riefenstahl herself rejected this characterization, pointing out that in her films there is no “voice off” telling viewers what they should think or how to respond. There were simply the images and the sounds of what was being filmed, accompanied by a musical score. Now it is true that the musical accompaniment contributes powerfully to producing an ambiance, which in turn profoundly influences — and indeed often dictates — the way the images are understood by the spectator. The influence of such musical accompaniment is all the more effective for passing under the radar of our conscious control: we are generally far less aware of the music than we would be of a spoken discourse. All of this is very much at work in Riefenstahl’s film, and especially in its opening sequence. Nevertheless it remains accurate that the only voices heard in the film are those of the participants: the speeches of Hitler, Hess and the other Nazi officials, carefully edited. This means that if there is a propagandistic element to the films, it has to consist the images and sounds of the film, rather than in an invisible and transcendent voice telling viewers what those images and sounds really mean.

There is however a partial exception to this rule and it comes at the outset, in the “credits” that as it were introduce and frame the film. This English term, “credits,” hardly does justice to what in German is called the Vorspann and what in French is known as the générique. The latter is the term I prefer, because despite its utilitarian function — that of listing the people — the “gens” — involved in the production of the film, the word also suggests that what comes before the film “proper” in a certain sense generates the film, by framing the context in which it is intended to be seen.

Although the générique does not involve a voice, it still makes explicit use of writing and inscriptions — indeed of typography — in order to set the scene. The film begins, significantly, not with an image but with the negation of image and of visibility: with a black screen, which can also be interpreted as representing night or darkness. Throughout the film the play of light and dark, the emergence of the one out of the other and its passage into the other, will turn out to be one of its most salient hallmarks. But the dark, black screen does not last long: it functions as a contrast and transition to what is to come. After a second or two, the darkness slowly lightens allowing a figure to gradually emerge: that of an eagle sculpted in stone, perched on something that at first is not recognizable but that in the seconds that follow is silhouetted against a background consisting of bright clouds moving quickly across the sky. These clouds thus do not obscure sight but rather provide a bright background that sets off the massive figures of the eagle perched on a wreath, which in turn encloses the Nazi symbol par excellence: the swastika.

Already in these initial seconds the viewer is confronted with a set of contrasts that will pervade the film as a whole: between dark and light, stasis and motion, the visible and the invisible. Of these contrasts it is the one between stasis and motion that is perhaps the most significant, for it is presupposed by all the others. The Rally that Riefenstahl is filming is one not just of a political party, but of one that refers to itself as a “movement” (Bewegung). Riefenstahl, who asserted that she had introduced the traveling shot to documentary film, was in any event fully aware of the importance of movement, and of the fact that such movement had to include that of the camera — and of the spectator. Her films were designed to “move” their viewers, and to do this they both depicted certain kinds of movement from a perspective that itself was highly mobile.[7]

This relation between movement and stasis, between change and duration, also pervades the film, both in what it shows, the way the camera itself moves, and in the speeches of the participants. But all of this movement is framed at the outset by the manner in which the “credits” — the générique — evolves.

This introductory framing consists then of three sections, lasting about 30 seconds each and separated by fade-outs. The first we have just described: It proceeds from dark screen to progressively illuminated Eagle-perched on a Wreath framing the Swastika, and then finally descending to the Title, “Triumph of the Will.” The inscriptions are all carved out of stone on set on to a wall, made up of large square blocks. The inscriptions are in semi-Gothic letters, the materiality of which is emphasized by shadows they cast on the wall that is their support. The notion of a 1000-year Reich, although nowhere mentioned explicitly, is thus suggested by the massive stone lettering.

In fact there are two kinds of fading in this first section: the fading of one image into the next, establishing a continuous transition. And the fading into a black screen, that separates the sections from each other. This fading to black can be interpreted as the interpolation of the interval required to separate individual elements from one another. The images are of course related, and therefore not isolated. But the fading gives each segment a relative independence. Each image, inscribed in stone letters, is intended to withstand the test of time. These images, beginning with those of the inscriptions, are designed to last.

This temporal dimension then emerges clearly in the second and third sections of this introductory sequence, both of which unfold a certain history. First that of the film itself. The ”document” has been called into being “at the behest of the Führer” (im Auftrag des Führers), which gives it a special privilege and proximity with respect to what is being filmed. But the next screen announces that the film itself has been “shaped” by Leni Riefenstahl. The English subtitle uses the more familiar word, “created.” But the German is more precise and more limited: “Gestaltet von Leni Riefenstahl.” The word, Gestalt, is significant: it does not imply a creatio ex nihilo, but rather a shaping that gives form and figure to material that already exists.

Much has been written about the notion of Gestalt, especially in the wake of Heidegger, who sees in the term the essential aesthetic element contributing to the metaphysical forgetting of the ontological difference between being and beings.[8] For Heidegger, the word suggests something that is constituted independently of time and history and that can determine the course of both. A similar claim is inscribed in the stone-like lettering of these “credits,” which seek thereby to accredit the idea of a title and a name that will be impervious to temporal change by contributing to the course of history.

The four screens that constitute this third and final section of the introduction deploy the historical sequence in which the film and the events its documents situates itself. This is done through a series of dates, beginning with “September 5th 1934,” the first day of the Party Congress. Heidegger assimilates the notion of Gestalt to a metaphysical tradition that construes being above all in terms of the third person singular present indicative, reducing its resources to simple self-presence of the “is.” Riefenstahl’s dating confirms that reduction by situating the moment in which the Party Congress begins, with respect to its historical antecedents. The first of these dates the present moment as coming “20 years after the Outbreak of the World War;” the second located the Rally “16 years after The Start of German Suffering” (i.e. the Treaty of Versailles). And finally, as though to indicate the acceleration of historical time, the years change to months: “19 months After The Beginning of the German Rebirth” (marked by a shift in the musical accompaniment to a Wagnerian swelling brass fanfare) — i.e. 19 months after the naming of Hitler as Chancellor on Jan. 30th, 1933 another arrival is about to be shown, that of Hitler arriving by plane in Nuremberg.

Before we proceed to that sequence, however, it should be noted that the tripartite division of the historical process leading up to the 1934 Party Congress can be usefully compared to that of the Christian salvational narrative (Heilsgeschichte). If the latter consists of first the Creation, then the Fall, and finally redemption, 20th century German history as announced in this film traces a similar pattern, with several illuminating changes: in place of the Creation of the World, there is the World at War; in place of the Fall, there is Defeat (and Suffering); and finally, in place of resurrection through Christ’s sacrifice, there is Rebirth through the coming to power of the Führer and his Party.

What the film however will share with the Christian salvational narrative is the idea of a fall leading to redemption and rebirth, and also the focus on an individual messianic figure as primary agent of the salvational process. The place however of the Christian emphasis on charity is now taken by the unabashed commitment to and exaltation of struggle and power. Hence, the importance of militarization. To triumph, the Nazi Will requires nothing more nor less than the militarization of the masses, and this, as we shall see, involves forging them into a uniform-uniformed block — into a massive Gestalt. This is already implicit in the style of inscription already discussed: it consists, in the literal sense of the German word, in Blockschrift, a writing composed of stone blocks. “Written in stone” is a German expression that designates something held to be immutable. That is precisely what is at stake here: Christian salvation becomes political and national immutability. This does not exclude change, to be sure, but it absorbs and instrumentalizes it.

There is a second point however in which the historical narrative suggested here at the outset differs from its Christian origins. The salvation to come will not take place essentially in heaven but rather right here on earth.

And it will take place here and now, on a particular day, which marks the fourth and last date in the sequence and also the transition from the credits to the film proper: September 5th, 1934, the day that the film itself begins, and the day, we read — the last such inscription — on which “Adolph Hitler flew/once again to/Nuremberg/to Muster the Faithful” (um Heerschau abzuhalten/über seine Getreuen). The German, difficult to translate in its nuances — (“to hold a military display” is hardly adequate) — brings together the Christian ideal of the faithful — literally “his faithful” — seine Getreuen — with the political notion of “mustering” — again, literally, “reviewing, inspecting the troops” (Heer-schau).

For all of its momentous presence, Hitler’s voyage to Nuremberg is explicitly designated in the preceding inscription as a “return” (flog […] wiederum nach Nürnberg) and this return is highly over-determined. Most immediately it recalls that this is the second time that Hitler and Riefenstahl have gone to a Party Congress in Nuremberg. One year before, Leni Riefenstahl had already filmed the 1933 Party Congress there, which was released under the title, “Triumph of Faith” (Triumph des Glaubens). For this second time, however, “Faith” has been replaced by the “Will” and this in a very particular sense. For only two months before, the most faithful and oldest part of the Nazi Party, which had served as its armed wing throughout its struggle for power, the SA, had been decapitated in what came to be known as “The Night of the Long Knives,” but what the Nazis themselves referred to as the “Röhm Putsch.” Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, represented the radical, socialist wing of the National Socialist party, and for him the seizing of State Power was only a means to the institution of wide-ranging anti-Capitalist socialist reforms. In short, for Röhm the national socialist revolution had only begun, whereas for Hitler, it was imperative to normalize the Party so that it could consolidate its power with the help of the Reichswehr and the barons of German industry and finance. In 1934, therefore, The Triumph of the Will also meant the triumph of the SS over the SA, of Himmler over Röhm. Given the historic role played by Röhm’s SA in the rise to power of the Nazi Party, the question of who the true “faithful” were — the Getreuen — had to be very much on everyone’s mind.

The “return” of the Führer to Nuremberg then is also the moment where he will “muster his troops,” hold that “Heerschau” to make sure that he still commands the loyalty of the 4,000,000 members of the SA, whose leadership he had eliminated barely two months before. And the moment of “rebirth,” can also be understood to mark the elimination of the radical, proletarian, social-revolutionary wing of the Nazi party, which now faced the task of consolidating its power with the help of German industry and its military establishment.

To be sure, watching the movie today, none of this “background” is immediately visible in the images and sounds filmed by Riefenstahl, although many allusions to these events are made in the speeches of Hitler and the Party Functionaries. But shadows and clouds through which Hitler will fly in arriving at Nuremberg also suggest the dangers he has recently sought to overcome. None of this is explicit, but in the initial context in which the movie was made, they provided the background against which the images were to be seen and heard.

And this is also why the clouds that first surround the plane in flight, and into which it then descends, losing sight of both the sky and the earth below, are finally traversed and allow the rooftops of the city below to come into view. The plane is both a product of technology and an instrument of power, and this perhaps is why Riefenstahl includes the plane in the images and sounds. The film and the vision it presents is made possible, politically as well as technically, only by the power of this relatively new means of transportation, which is part of the same technical development as is the film camera itself. Technology records and transmits, and in so doing can be seen as transcendence brought down to earth. And this is also why Riefenstahl will proudly claim to have introduced the “traveling” shot into documentary film: it is not enough to film movement or to film moving pictures: the camera itself must move (although in a very different way from Vertov’s “Man with the Camera”).

After panning across the clouds, plane and camera descend slowly into them, briefly losing view of the sky before suddenly showing the roofs of Nuremberg emerging below. The clouds have provided a reassuring, protective cover for the descent from the sky to earth. Towers appear, of the Cathedral, and then of the Castle, emblems of Church and State and contrasting with the darker, modern, inchoate forms of the airplane fuselage we have just peered through and at. As the plane descends ever lower and the details of the rooftops emerge more clearly, the anodyne musical accompaniment, dominated by strings, is suddenly replaced by brass-woodwinds playing the music of the Horst-Wessel-Song, anthem of the Nazi Party. The song was named after a member of the SA who composed it and who subsequently was killed in street battles with the Communist Red Front. As the music of this song is heard, the scene shifts from houses to blocks of people marching in the streets, an image that echoes the first lines of the song: “With Flags on high, and ranks in tight formation, SA is on the march, with brave determined steps.”

It is the formation of these ranks, “tightly closed” as the German words literally say (“die Reihen fest geschlossen”), that epitomize one aspect of the images seen in this film and which is also be remembered as a hallmark of depictions of fascism. What I would like to point out, however, in the context of our conference, is that there is a connection between the fascist and Nazi emphasis on unity, uniformity and homogeneity, and what Kant once defined “the formal element” in an aesthetic judgment, which he noted consists in the “unification of a manifold (or multiplicity),”[9] the massed blocks of marchers, whether civilian or in military, create the uniformity that is already, I want to argue, implicit in the traditional aesthetic concepts of form and figure (Gestalt).

Taken literally, the Gestalt is that which is set-in-place (gestellt). To set something in place requires first of all a movement of “setting” and a stable place in which that setting can come to rest. To the extent to which that which is thereby set-in-place is considered to be constituted independently of the process of setting in general, it can become a model or paradigm for a notion of self-identity that can apply to subjects as well as to objects, to collectives as well as to individuals. In this case, the process of Gestaltung, which is the German equivalent of artistic “creation,” is indeed the heir to the theological connotations of the English word. The artist, and a fortiori his or her art-work, are both considered to be what they are above and beyond their spatial-temporal manifestation, which is in turn regarded as a function of the preexisting essence of the artist. One forgets or overlooks the dynamic process of being set-in-place, or the extent to which that multiplicity is then fixed into a uniform unity and takes on the appearance of being self-contained.

It is this complicity, and its promotion through traditional aesthetics, that Walter Benjamin had in mind when, at the end of his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,” he associated the “aestheticization of politics” with fascism. What he meant by that often quoted phrase, however, emerges more clearly when it is related to another passage, one which introduces the final section of his essay, but which has not received the attention it deserves. Benjamin’s phrase, one could say, has served as a “screen memory” to block out the context from which it draws it significance. Here is the passage I am referring to:

The increasing proletarianization of people today and the increasing formation of masses are two sides of one and the same occurrence. Fascism seeks to organize the newly developed proletarian masses without touching the property relations they seek to do away with. It sees its salvation in allowing the masses to express themselves, but not to have what is rightfully theirs. The masses have a right to change property-relations; fascism seeks to grant them self-expression by conserving those relations. Consequently fascism leads to the aestheticizing of political life. […] All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point: war.[10] [My emphasis — S.W.]

Although Benjamin nowhere in this essay mentions the films of Leni Riefenstahl — he refers instead to the Wochenschau, the weekly filmed news — much of what he describes throughout his text and in particular here, is epitomized by her films, and nowhere more than in “Triumph of the Will.” Benjamin, author of a seminal text entitled “Capitalism as Religion,” here links Fascism with the religious promise of “salvation.” Fascism finds salvation in granting the masses self-expression but only insofar as it is linked to the “conservation” of existing property-relations. This in turn entails what could be called — Benjamin does not — the hypostasis of identity-structures: people are what they are by birth, by nature, by race, and they should be permitted to express themselves, but not change themselves. In a footnote to this passage Benjamin cites the enormous influence of the weekly filmed news in providing such self-expression, above all through images of masses, in political and sporting events, monster rallies etc. Such hypostasis of existing self-identity — which means always the self-conscious of such identity — is closely related to the process of isolation as described by Freud, and its privileged medium is that of screen memories, but also of what I would call aesthetic Gestalt — insofar as such forms and figures are presented as essentially self-identical and immediately intelligible: literally meaning-ful, “full of meaning.” To look at them is to understand what they mean: there is no need to look elsewhere, to think of their relations to what does not immediately appear.

One particularly significant form of this Gestalt, involving the self-expression of the masses, are precisely the blocks of marchers as seen from above, from what Benjamin in the same note calls the “bird’s perspective” (Vogelperspektive). The pure immanence and self-identity of this mass — which makes it an ideal figuration of the kind of identity required by bourgeois and capitalist property-relations under fascism: namely an identity that is above all homogeneous (i.e. that owes nothing to anything foreign or alien to its immediate history) — (this) is figured by and in the closed, compact formations of faceless and yet highly mobile marchers.[11] The mass is moving with direction and purpose: it has a goal (which is also why it needs and depends on a Leader). And its compactness suggests that it will be impervious to any outside influence.[12] In this sense, the “expression” that Benjamin associates both with Fascism and with Capitalism presupposes some similar sort of immanent identity that preexists contact with the outside world, and can therefore be literally ex-pressed, but not constituted by its relation to others.

In the footnote to this passage already mentioned, Benjamin provides a valuable hint concerning another aspect of the expressivity that he attributes to fascism and in particular to its use of images and film: “In the great parades, the monstrous meetings, in mass events of sports or in war, which today are all performed to be recorded by the camera, the mass looks itself in the face [sieht die Masse sich selbst ins Gesicht]” (ibid.). In view of the rest of this scene, in which Hitler descends from the plane to the jubilation of the massed bystanders, the question of the “face” as the object of “self-expression” can be described more precisely. For there are two kinds of faces: the jubilant, ecstatic but still multiple faces of those gathered to welcome Hitler, with the fascist-salute, and the face of the Führer: calm, almost shy, as he descends from the plane, overwhelmed by the welcome he receives. In the automobile that takes him from the airport into town, there are repeated shots from a camera in back of Hitler, where one sees not his face but the back of his head, with hand raised again in the characteristic salute.

The clouds have long since dispersed, to make way for this procession — but what seems crucial here and relevant to Benjamin’s notion of “expression,” is the interaction of the mass of spectators with their Leader, whose face and figure sum up the kind of expression that is granted the masses in order to perpetuate existing property relations. Those relations require a notion of the subject as capable of owning property, which means ultimately capable of staying the same over time, in control of oneself and thereby capable of existing as a distinct owner of what is proper: properties in the dual sense of the word, involving the lawful possession of things and objects, as well as the possession of one’s own faculties and actions. The tightly knit ranks of spectators, and the erect figure of their one and only Leader, can claim to resolve the question of multiplicity and unity, transience and duration. As Rudolf Hess will put it in one of his speeches during the Congress: “Adolf Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.”

But then, why should “war” be the beginning and end of the fascist aestheticization of politics, and of violence? Chapter 7 of Riefenstahl’s film gives us at least a partial answer:


Triumph of the Will, Section 10Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935, dir. Leni Riefenstahl), Section 10: 1:01:00-1:03:28 (

The clip recalls the beginning of the film: first, a black screen, soon followed by the Eagle perched on the Swastika, which then fades into the long, central alley through which from on high, at a great distance, the three tiny figures of Hitler, Himmler (SS) and Viktor Lutze (SA) who, with their backs to the camera, and flanked on both sides by rows and rows of SA and SS troops, 120,000 in all, advance toward an uncertain goal, that in the next shot will be revealed as a burning flame honoring German soldiers killed in the World War (I). As the most direct confrontation of the political rally with death, this is the most solemn moment of the four days, leading up to speeches by Hitler and Lutze in which the elimination of Röhm will be justified and the SA as organization exonerated of Röhm’s guilt.

What is expressed on this occasion is nothing less than the will to Triumph not only over the enemy — in this case, the Röhm leadership of the SA — but over death itself. By killing Röhm and his comrades, the German rebirth is to be assured. Killing, and the military (in the form of the SS and Reichswehr), will be the path to eternal life, to the 1000-year Reich.

The commemoration of fallen comrades thus goes hand in hand with a celebration of death that, as the result of killing, becomes an intentional act — one that can be deliberately inflicted and by implication, deliberately overcome (if not avoided).

War, as organized collective and purposive killing, makes death into what it has been considered to be ever since the book of Genesis, but also since the death of Christ: namely the result of human action, whether as punishment for transgression, or for betrayal. By acting in a manner that seems to make death into a product of human action, politics in general, and fascist politics explicitly, seeks to make good on the Pauline promise, quoted by Hobbes in his “Leviathan,” that “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead” (I. Cor. 15:21).

To be sure, for Paul that resurrection had first to be the work of a very particular “man,” namely he who also the Son of God, and this is precisely the difference that separates Christianity from Fascism. For the latter, it is the semi-divine Führer or Duce, who must assure the overcoming of death, through the problematic but essential equation of people with messianic Leader. The Leader — Führer or Duce — is an individual, whose individuality both sets him apart from — isolates — and at the same time makes him the expression of a collective that is construed as a homogeneous “individual”: members of the same race, the same culture, the same nation. This collective is modeled on the individual in the literal sense of being thought of as homogeneous and indivisible. The individual can thus hope to live on in the collective, which in the case of Nazism understands itself as the bodily, fleshly continuation of its individual members, through the continuity of blood. But this in turn requires the collective — the race, people and nation — to close ranks in a “dense and closed” fashion — to quote the Horst Wessel Song — in order to exclude all pollution and contamination from external and alien sources. This is the biopolitical version of the nation modeled after the unshakeable, invulnerable individual. And this individual is manifested, as an object of faith and belief, in the figure of the Führer: in the Führer as Gestalt and in the Gestalt as Führer.

The ideal of an indivisible, invulnerable and ultimately immortal collective — symbolized in the stone Eagle, but more generally also through the figure of the fasces or that of the swastika (modification of the Cross: in German “Hackenkreuz”: hooked cross) — can only exercise political appeal to the extent that it can claim to control anxiety and give it direction. The figure functions in this film often as a Markstein, a stone marker directing the gaze and allowing it finally to set itself in place, to rest. To focus. The great obstacle to such focusing is, of course, death. The flame, framed and controlled by stone and by stone-like troops, is one way of focusing on death, which then becomes a transition to eternal life. This absorption of death into life, as a moment of transition, continues a motif as old in Western culture as the Bible, and particularly important in the Christian salvational narrative. But the absorption of death into life also implies a transcending of finitude, which in certain political and historical contexts can converge with the rejection of heterogeneity. It is only when the origin is thus purified and made self-identical that the end that awaits all living beings qua singular beings can be represented not as an interruption but as fulfillment. Only then can death lose its sting.

An essential component of this project is, I have argued, the representation of death as the result of human action, as the result of intention. It is this that makes war a privileged medium of politics, through which the political collective finds self-expression. War legitimates killing and in so doing makes death into a sacrificial moment of rebirth. But it is above all the death of the other that is here intended. Carl Schmitt’s theory of the Friend-Enemy Grouping as the origin of the Political demonstrates its Christian origins. Except that it is never humanity as a whole that is saved, but only a particular people, nation or race — a Self opposed to other selves — and this means opposed to other peoples, nations as well as individuals.

But these others are nowhere to be seen in this film: they are screened out, to begin with, by the clouds into and through which the plane descends on its way to its destination. Like the clouds in the opening scene, framed in the window of the plane. The clouds themselves, into which the plane disappears, if only to exit on the other side, emblematize the transitions from one shot to the next, through fading and overlaps. Such frequent fade-outs and fade-ins establish the cinematic sequence with an underlying continuity of movement. This does not exclude the sharp cut, the fade to black, which emphasizes contrast and discontinuity, but this in turn only highlights the continuity of the progression overall.

It is this continuity, which includes and absorbs the radical breaks that mark the “German rebirth,” links the “aestheticism” of Riefenstahl’s film, to the violence of Nazi politics. It is a violence that the Nazi leaders assume and even flaunt, but in order to assert the perennial character of the new order they are in the process of imposing. The sinuous rhythms of Riefenstahl’s “travelling” shots constitute the cinematic correlative of the immortality implied in the idea of a 1000-year Reich. The aim of conquering new Lebensraum by military force is the spatial condition of the promised extension of Lebenszeit. The clouds through which the plane descends to earth are the movable Gestalt that mark the trajectory of this promise — a theological promise brought down to earth.



Let me now finally return, by way of historical contrast, to the images mentioned at the outset, which involve a very different set of clouds. Due to the massive media coverage that commemorated — often at the expense of serious analysis — the attacks of September 11th, 2001, I can assume that the general image of those clouds are sufficiently present to everyone and that it is therefore not necessary to project them yet another time here. Instead I want to show you those clouds of smoke coming from the burning towers from a less familiar vantage point. The photograph was taken by Thomas Hoepker, “a senior figure in the renowned Magnum photographers’ cooperative.” Hoepker “chose not to publish it in 2001” and also excluded “it from a book of Magnum pictures”[13] taken with that day. Once you have seen it you will immediate understand why:


Weber image 1 Hoepker

Photograph taken on September 11, 2001, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, by Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)


It is clear that at the time, without explanation and discussion, this image was its way even more shocking than those of the destruction itself and its after-effects. Without getting into that discussion, which is well documented on the internet (see below), the photo, however one interprets or judges it, tells us something about the relation of aestheticism, terror and terrorism that even and perhaps especially today remains relevant and pertinent. As I have emphasized, an image is generally considered to be “aesthetic,” at least in the traditional sense of that term, insofar as it is well formed, “gestaltet,” self-contained and meaningful. This in turn implies that it can and perhaps should be viewed at a certain distance, which is required if it is to be apprehended as a unified whole. The position of the beholder, viewer or spectator, is thereby defined as a protected position: it is stable and self-contained. This is why even most videos and images of catastrophes, broadcast daily and nightly on the TV news and in newspapers, can be consumed with the morning breakfast or after dinner in the evening. As long, that is, as the destruction or maiming of the individual human (or animal) body is not shown in too great detail. The clouds of smoke rising above burning buildings and people must be kept at a distance, and if possible given distinct shape as a Gestalt. They can thus be taken in, apprehended, as parts of a whole that in turn is assumed to be transparently intelligible, immediately understandable — in the sense that it poses no further questions, requires no inquiry beyond the frame of what is shown. The integrity and meaningfulness of the whole is guaranteed by the voice-off of the reporter, or by the captions of the newspaper picture. They tell readers and viewers what to think of what they see, and at the same time to consider what they think to be the direct and exclusive property of the image. The destruction of objects and persons is thus made consumable, because meaningful. Death and destruction affects others from whom one is safely separated and protected. One can get up and walk away from the aesthetic image, which is isolated: this is its most traditional quality and it is what makes it both eminently suitable to serve as a screen memory or to be forgotten and replaced by the next isolated image or set of images.

About the people in the picture’s foreground, NY Times columnist Frank Rich wrote: “The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.”[14] Whether this statement accurately describes the people “in” the photo or not, it no doubt is accurate concerning the impression that photo transmits. This is one of detached and indeed carefree observers, relaxing in the sun as far in the distance black clouds of smoke rise into the sky. The photo, like all photos, is what the German calls a “Momentaufnahme,” or the French, an “instantané,” a moment or instant isolated from everything happening before, after and outside of its frame. Frank Rich made a mistake in referring to “the young people in the photograph,” since this could easily be taken to apply to the young people themselves, rather than to the figures in the photograph. Understood as a statement about the photograph, however, rather than about persons existing independently of it, the statement strikes at precisely what made the attacks of September 11th so traumatic for United States Americans. For this was the first time, at least since the Civil War, that a massive attack had been carried out on American soil, and the first time in even longer that such an attack had originated outside the United States. What was, and in a certain sense still is, characteristically American is the belief in the safety that distance can procure coupled with a belief in the moral superiority of the nation that is so “protected.” It was — and in a sense still is — the belief in the efficacy of isolation.

The response to these attacks — wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and “Terrorism” — was of course anything but “isolationist.” But the justification of this response was and still is based on the belief that the real enemy can be isolated, named, depicted, located and destroyed, mainly by military means. The frightful discovery by Americans that they were not or no longer safe at home produced an anxiety that was swiftly channeled by being given an identifiable, perceptible object: a Gestalt, and “911” as it came to be called became the sign that corresponded to that Gestalt: both a call for help and a name for the act itself.

What makes the photo so powerful — and so shocking — I believe is the nonchalance, the carefree and relaxed attitude it seems to depict, at the very moment when the grounds that previously supported that attitude are literally being consumed in the background.

The background however is no longer isolated from the foreground. It is this that is ultimately terrifying, and that the construction of a War Against Terror seeks to channel outward, directing it against foreigners, from whom one can therefore hope to distance oneself, and through isolation, ultimately identify and destroy. It is interesting to note, however, that the word “terror” in English still describes first and foremost an emotional response to an uncontrollable danger, an extreme state of anxiety. The declaration of a “War Against Terror” attempts to distract and to distance this feeling by identifying it with “Terrorists” and “Terrorism,” understood as external figures and movements that can ultimately be eliminated.

But the clouds of rubble released by the collapse of the Twin Towers tell a different story. Here then my last photo, taken from a video that I’m sure you have all seen many times.[15] These clouds that strangely resemble the clouds through which the plane flies in “Triumph of the Will,” are however no longer the passage to the mobilized Gestalt that characterized the Nazi rally and politics; they mark what only came a decade later to Nazi Germany, the pulverization of the Gestalt and with it, of the Civilization based on its maintenance through terror.


Weber image 2 cloud of debris

Photograph taken on September 11, 2001, at the corner of Beekman Street and Park Row, Manhattan, New York City, by Amy Sancetta (Associated Press)


The clouds of rubble that rush toward the spectators and cameras and finally engulf them could have been understood as a sign to rethink the policies and strategies of identification through isolation that produced those clouds in the first place. Instead, as we have had occasion to see in the commemoration of this event in the past weeks, the demand for consolation and safety remains uppermost, preventing any serious critical questioning of the relationships that the politics of isolation and identification continue to systematically exclude. Including, for instance, a reflection on the possible relation of “9/11” to that other September 11th, this time in 1973, when the democratically elected government of Chile was overthrown by an American-instigated coup d’état; or a reflection on the possible relation of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Financial and Military symbols of United States global power, to the position taken by successive US governments on the Palestine-Israel conflict. Or countless other events.

When Nobel Prize Winning economist and NY Times contributor, Paul Krugman, dared to publish a blog entitled “Years of Shame,” in which he argued that the memory of September 11th, 2001, had been “irrevocably poisoned” in being made into a justification for the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, he provoked a huge backlash. One of the more civil replies, by Michael Mets countered: “I feel no shame about my personal recollections and commemorations of 9/11 […] I remain grateful for the words of comfort that President George W. Bush and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani provided the nation in the aftermath.”[16]

In the utter disorientation that followed the clouds that swallowed up all figures and forms, covering them with a white covering of dust as they slowly receded, the need for “words of comfort” could be understood. But that this need has persisted and has tended to disqualify all critique of the militarized response that followed as disloyal to the memory of the US and allied soldiers who were killed and maimed, physically and psychologically — and hence as essentially traitorous: this strikes me as not so very different from the passage through the clouds above Nuremberg in 1934, revealing the compact Gestalt of the militarized masses on the march.

The movement of mobilization may well comfort and console, but it requires the concomitant mobilization of terror in order, in the phrase that sums up the spirit of the age — in order to continue “moving forward.”

But this march forward is not just followed by the clouds it seeks, with limited success, to mobilize. It is inevitably overtaken by them. And when those clouds finally come down to earth, no war can escape them.


Paris, September 15, 2011



  • “A Furor Over Paul Krugman’s 9/11 Blog Post.” The New York Times, 12 September 2011.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Kommentar von Detlev Schöttker. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “The Unconscious.” In Gesammelte Werke, Vol. X. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1963.
  • ———. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. New York and London: Norton, 1977.
  • Heidegger, Martin. “Überwindung der Metaphysik.” In Vorträge und Aufsätze, Vol. I. Pfüllingen: Neske, 1954.
  • Hoepker, Thomas. “I Took That 9/11 Photo.” Slate, 14 September 2006.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der Urteilskraft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.
  • Rich, Frank. „Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?” The New York Times, 10 September 2006.
  • Riefenstahl, Leni. Memoiren 1902-1945. Frankfurt am Main and Berlin: Ullstein, 1990.



[1] I note in passing that there is a bitter irony in the fact that this phrase was also the name of the restaurant on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center offered its patrons a panoramic view of the world below — and this is perhaps also what, in view of its link to global finance capital, made it an outstanding target for those who were to destroy it.

[2] Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (New York and London: Norton, 1977), 47.

[3] See Sigmund Freud, “The Unconscious,” in Gesammelte Werke, Vol. X. (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1963), 273.

[4] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of the Power to Judge, §15: “Das Formale in der Vorstellung eines Dinges, d.i. die Zusammenstimmung des Mannigfaltigen zu Einem (unbestimmt was es sein solle)…” (Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974], 144).

[5] When one encounters the notion of “embodiment” today, it almost always takes for granted that the body that em-bodies (incarnates) is a human body, and this suggests that the tradition of a certain theological (Christian) humanism continues to exercise its influence in the midst of thinkers who consider themselves resolutely secular.

[6] The fact that martyrdom has in recent years become a powerful force in Islamist-Jihadist struggles suggests that the conception that links martyrdom to the resurrection of the body is by no means limited to Christianity.

[7] Leni Riefenstahl, Memoiren 1902-1945 (Frankfurt am Main and Berlin: Ullstein, 1990), 224.

[8] In a series of notes written between 1936 and 1946, and then published under the title, “Overcoming Metaphysics,” Heidegger makes the connection between the metaphysical forgetting of ontological difference and a certain (Christian) humanism: “So comes to dominance the only decisive question: what form or figure [Gestalt] is proper to man. Here ‘Gestalt’ is construed in an indeterminate [but] metaphysical, i.e. Platonic, manner, namely as that which is and which determines all tradition and development, while itself remaining independent of it.” (Martin Heidegger, “Überwindung der Metaphysik,” Vorträge und Aufsätze, Vol. I. (Pfüllingen: Neske, 1954), 79.)

[9] See note 4 above. To be sure, Kant refuses to allow the “One” or unity of the aesthetic judgment to be determined by any sort of generalizable concept. It must remain singular, and therefore in his eyes subjective. It is this insistence on the irreducibility of the singular that the fascist emphasis on unification cannot accept. But it is also this insistence on the singular encounter that much modern “aesthetics” cannot accept either, since it problematizes the claim to universality that is inseparable from the modern notion of “art.” It should be noted that what is characteristic of Riefenstahl’s images and “shots” is the way they seek to maximize the variety of aspects of individuals and groups, which make up the militarized mass, in order to avoid that the latter appear as totally mechanical.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Kommentar von Detlev Schöttker (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 47-48.

[11] This can be contrasted, for instance, with the essentially individualistic-agonistic mass of runners gathered to compete in organized marathons — figures more appropriate to contemporary neo-liberal capitalist society.

[12] Another interesting contrast, both aesthetically and politically, to this moving mass can be found in the 1932 film, Kühle Wampe, by Bertolt Brecht and Slatan Dudow, which depicts groups of workers on their way to a sport festival, but without the militarized mobilization characteristic of the Nazi Rallies and highlighted in Riefenstahl’s “documentary.” The musical score by Hans Eisler could hardly be further removed from the pseudo-Wagnerian score of “Triumph of the Will.” Needless to add, the musical style of the latter is far closer to popular tastes today than is that of Eisler.

[13] In an article in Slate, Hoepker explained why he chose not to publish the photo. Cf. Thomas Hoepker, “I Took That 9/11 Photo,” Slate, 14 September 2006,

[14] Frank Rich, „Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?,” The New York Times, 10 September 2006,

[15] [The picture is, in fact, part of a photo series. — Editor’s note.]

[16] “A Furor Over Paul Krugman’s 9/11 Blog Post,” The New York Times, 12 September 2011,