The Wall as Medium

Image, medium, ideology in Marcus Kaiser’s Wall Views


Knut Ebeling


Occurrences do not relate to similar ones, but to the border,

the distance and the attempt to describe them

Uwe Johnson


In 1962 or 1963, shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Maurice Blanchot wrote a text about “Berlin” [1] – a text that is somewhat difficult to read and is not only adventurous for being a translation without an original: written for a legendary international journal project, with which authors such as Italo Calvino, Uwe Johnson and Ingeborg Bachmann were associated, it was originally published in Italian (in the course of which the French manuscript was lost, which is why all the translations that circulated in further journals were taken from the Italian version). [2] No, the text is not only adventurous because this translation without an original then did the rounds of various international gazettes, from the American Semiotext(e) to dry, the review put out by Berlin’s Merve Verlag. The radical chic of these periodicals – Semiotext(e) published the article alongside pieces by William Burroughs and Ulrike Meinhof [3] – corresponded to the diction of a text that strangely alternated between essay and book review, philosophy and literature, theory and empiricism: “Berlin”, said Blanchot, was not only the name of a city and a place. With the construction of the Berlin Wall it also became a synonym for the human capacity for division, differentiation and abstraction. In Berlin, and with the wall, the human ability to abstract had finally gained its concept, one could almost say its structure. The Berlin Wall was a monument to division, a monster of abstraction:

“Berlin, for all of us, is the problem of division. (...) In a further respect it is a metaphysical problem: Berlin is not only Berlin, but a symbol of the division of the world (...) The untenable political abstraction that Berlin represents attained its finest expression when the wall, which is now dramatically concrete, was built. Until 12 Augus 1961 the nature and significance of the division remained doubtful through the absence of a visible partition. [4]


The human ability to differentiate and arbitrarily divide things is, Blanchot has no doubt, absolutely monstrous. He doesn’t even allude to the consequences of political division, which he explains as the result of the human ability to subdivide and abstract things. For in Berlin, unlike other cities, the division was not the result of natural, ethnic, religious or cultural differences – of whatever kind; the partition of Berlin was an act of political and ideological despotism, absolutely abstract and totally monstrous.


The division of the image

The impetus for “Berlin” were the texts of division – like Uwe Johnson’s Mutmaßungen über Jacob [Speculations about Jakob] (1959) or Das dritte Buch über Achim [The Third Book about Achim] (1962) – that deal with the political fate of a nation in the medium of the written language. Ten years previously Blanchot had considered not the texts of division, but the division of the image. [5] For in the same way that text and every written word divide the world into an imagined and a real one, the image too produces a division: it detaches itself, as a work, from the world; it extracts an unchanging image from a changing world. So every image means a separation or division, a negation, if you like, an inversion. In a pertinent text from 1950 the image is defined as the “border to the indeterminate”.

This border – to which I will return, particularly in reference to Johnson – elevates the human being to a “master of absence-become-form”. And then comes the central proposition: “The image, able to deny the void, is also the void looking at us.” The image differentiates and divides the world into the void, which it denies, and the substance of the image, which is affirmed. What it shows is visible enough, and positive, but visibility is purchased through the exclusion and “absence” of the void, which no longer has any place in the image and whose “master” is the human image-maker. For this reason, Blanchot writes, “behind the polished appearance” the image is the “negative of inexhaustible negative depth.” So the void, the “inexhaustible negative depth”, is always the inverse side of the “polished appearance” of the image’s visibility. According to Blanchot the image can be defined as fundamentally ambivalent and two sided: it is the border that divides the world into a visible and an invisible one. But how does the border drawn by the image relate to Marcus Kaiser’s images of the border? How does the division created by the image apply to Kaiser’s images of division?


Images of division

The question is at once the answer: Kaiser shows images of division – the division of a place – and does so using his medium in such a way as to relate them to what division is able to do. His work precisely describes the place where the philosophical ability to divide meets the media-division of the world. For if every image divides and transcends the world, the technology called photography is also involved in the division created by the image: the photographic image is one that divides the world and “breaks apart being.” [6] The camera is accordingly an agent of division and boundary, as it produces an image that breaks the world into a real and a depicted one.

These images of division and boundary, which also indicate a border and the division of the image, came about as follows. In January/February 1990 – the time is significant, as the Berlin Wall had just become open enough to take photographs from either side, but it wasn’t yet open enough to disappear as a monument – Kaiser made a survey of the wall in its intermediate state. It was already showing considerable signs of wear and tear; after only a few months of being opened it had become porous and full of holes: slits, splits, gaps, grooves and scars. But what was usually defused by the term “wallpeckers” was in fact work on an ideology: the monument to an ideology had acquired openings, cracks and breaches that could be observed from both sides. In 1990 the view to the other side of the wall was nowhere near as dangerous as before – you could simply walk around it after all.



Kaiser doesn’t observe the “image of the other side” in a distanced manner. He substitutes the question of the cultural construction of the image with that of its technical constitution: he doesn’t take photographs of small holes in the wall, but through them. The medium is not the message here, as in Marshall McLuhan’s slogan, it is the wall that is the medium. Kaiser transforms the wall into a camera, he engages with a monument, not an ideology. This significant positivisation, through which the entire tradition of the critique of ideology comes to nothing, functioned as follows: Kaiser mounted photographic plates onto openings in the wall, which were taped over in such a way as to create a primitive pinhole camera. The wall became a camera obscura, its thickness the camera’s interior – a passageway that collected and focused the light, inverting its rays as it did so. An incidence of light through the wall’s fifteen centimetres produced an image. An image of the other side, in which the inversion of the image in the political sense met the physical inversion of the rays of light within the camera.

Yet the image of the other side is at first banal; the keyhole perspective – which has brought forth its own history of indiscretion – shows the facades of buildings and television towers, cars, trees and cranes. Although these glimpses through the wall are of historically loaded places like the Reichstag Building, Potsdamer Platz or the checkpoint at Prinzenstraße, what these places and crossings show is somehow disappointing: what we see on the other side are walls and people, dreariness and no-man’s-land. In short, in its raw, unformed aesthetic the image of the other side reveals the same thing as on this side. This is the sober secret of ideology: it doesn’t point to the other, but to the same, only the other way round and back to front. On the other side it looks just the same as on this one, only different and in reverse. So ideology, like the image and the technology of the camera obscura, consists in the procedure of inversion.


The image of the border

But what does the camera, which sections off inverted images of the world, have to do with world images and ideologies, which for their part divide and invert the world? What kind of inversion is performed by world images and ideologies, and why does ideology itself imply inversion? A passage from Blanchot’s text dealing more directly with Johnson’s novel suggests that ideologies and borders might have something to do with inversions – Johnson’s Mutmaßungen über Jakob was after all published in Paris in 1962 as La frontière. In “Berlin” Blanchot examines the nature of the border, describing it in such a way that “border” and “ideology” coincide:


“What was that? A border? (...) Certainly (...) crossing it didn’t mean passing from one country to another, from one language to another, but, in the same country and the same language, from ‘truth’ to ‘error’, from ‘evil’ to ‘good’, from ‘life’ to ‘death’, thus being subject, as it were without knowing it, to a radical metamorphosis (although you could only decide through partisan deliberation where exactly these so brutally separated ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were).” [7]


So a border can also imply an inversion and a change of sides, a “crossing” that can in turn coincide with an ideology as “partisan deliberation”. Someone who crosses something – like Jakob, who “always cut across the tracks,” [8] as the first sentence of Mutmaßungen über Jakob goes – can change sides through an ideological decision, in the same way that you can cross a border through “partisan deliberation”. Everything relates to the border; perhaps everything is the border, which distributes the various positions and roles. Such is the epithet of Das dritte Buch über Achim: “Occurrences do not relate to similar ones, but to the border, the difference, the distance and the attempt to describe them.”

But how are we to write the border, how are we to depict it? If Johnson’s question was that of writing the border, Kaiser’s is that of its image: how can one depict borders if every image is already the effect and product of them? Kaiser has found a simply complex answer to this question; he counters the division of the image with images of division – images that not only depict division, but are division and deal with it by relocating the division of the medium in the monument of division.

But if there is an internal connection between boundary and ideology, how is it with the camera obscura? The camera’s focusing of light certainly represents an inversion – but does the camera have something to do with ideology simply because of this? What role does the camera play in the complicity of boundary and ideology? In 1973 the French philosopher Sarah Kofman wrote a book about the camera obscura as a visual metaphor for ideology or the ideological. [9] Historically the camera obscura was a technology for producing and selecting images and transferring them onto new surfaces. [10] But it doesn’t only have one interesting history; in the 19th century, at least, the camera lucida was joined by a discourse about these optical media. This discourse took the camera as a model or metaphor for various things – ideology, for example. Kofman’s book describes how three great thinkers of the 19th century – Marx, Freud and Nietzsche – all made use of the metaphor of the camera obscura: in their texts the physical inversion of light rays becomes the philosophical inversions of the real world which have to be focused and translated into the world of concepts and thought; just as the camera produces an inverted mirror image of the world, the philosopher and thinker must invert the world in his concepts to give them their “truth”.

In other words, in addition to the two above-mentioned inversions of the image – the philosophical and the physical – there now comes a third, meaning ideology.


The monument as medium

So the inversion of an image in which an ideology consists is given its philosophical and media-technological concept – or its media-technological monument, as in the end medium and monument coincide in the Berlin Wall (and its fall): after all, it isn’t just any old monument that here serves as a camera to create inverted images; the wall is the ideological monument, upon which world images collapse. As an ideology-become-monument the Berlin Wall marks the boundary that turns world images into their opposite. When Kaiser turns this wall as ideological monument into a camera, his work exactly marks the point at which the ideology of inversion meets the inverting media technology.

Image, medium, ideology – the threefold inversion of this work can be subsumed under these concepts: Kaiser’s camera obscura shows, firstly, the inverted, the ideological, the other side within a monument that is already a sign of ideology and inversion; secondly he shows ideology as a media-technological effect of the camera obscura, which physically focuses light and inverts its rays; and thirdly this media technology shows an image that is not only technically inverted, as an image of a camera obscura, but that as an image philosophically turns the world into a form of being. In short, in Kaiser’s images of the Berlin Wall the physically inverted image encounters the image as philosophical and ideological inversion. The business of ideology couldn’t be encapsulated better or technically more exactly. The activity of looking through the wall – i.e. the formulation of ideology – is reflected technically here; we have to do with a technical reflection on ideological method. Kaiser’s images of the Berlin Wall are an archaeology of ideology or the ideological in that they engineer an encounter between  ideological method and its real material and technical conditions.

So the ideological hallucination to a certain extent meets its technical reality – which is already insisted on by the dust inside the wall that becomes visible during the exposure in a kind of self-depiction of the camera. Kaiser’s glimpse into the interior of the medium called the Berlin Wall not least makes the hidden code of a visual representation visible. Through this view of the (otherwise concealed) medium of the camera, the formulation of images, not the image itself, comes to the fore. It is not an object that is depicted here; the object of these images is the formation of object-like visuality, the becoming-an-image as the collecting point of visual representation. What becomes visible here is the raw exterior of the ideology-producing subjective interior; no subject was at work here, after all, but the camera, the medium: the wall. The wall takes photographs. Hence the now-visible interference factors like dust – or the film itself, which appears in some of the images. Hence also the rigid, predefined section, the static, mechanical – or perhaps it would be better to say monumental – focal distance. The photographer is not a subject, but a monument. No one is looking here; it is the “void looking at us” (Blanchot). The no-man’s-eye creates an anonymous, neutral image, a de-configured image that has never been seen before. In this image “the neutral and impersonal relationship of the gaze to depth is without gaze and contour, is absence, which we see because it blinds.” [11]

[1] Maurice Blanchot, “Berlin”, in ibid., Politische Schriften 1958-1993, Berlin/Zürich 2007. p. 79-83

[2] For the publication history of this text cf. Blanchot, Berlin, p. 83.

[3] Semiotext(e), vol. IV, no. 2, New York 1982, pp. 60-66.

[4] Translated from Blanchot, Berlin, p. 79ff.

[5] Maurice Blanchot, Das Museum, die Kunst und die Zeit, Cologne 2007, p. 55f.

[6] Georges Didi-Huberman, “Der Tod und das Mädchen. Literatur und Ähnlichkeit nach Maurice Blanchot”, in Trajekte. Zeitschrift des Instituts für Literaturforschung no. 9, 5, October 2004, p. 33.

[7] Blanchot, Berlin, S. 81.

[8] Uwe Johnson, Mutmaßungen über Jakob, Frankfurt am Main 1959, p. 7.

[9] Sarah Kofman, Camera Obscura. De l'idéologie, Paris 1973.

[10] Cf. Friedrich Kittler, Optische Medien. Berliner Vorlesung 1999, Berlin 2002.

[11] Maurice Blanchot, Die wesentliche Einsamkeit, Berlin 1959, p. 44.