Stories from New York.

Or: Concerning the Gradual Formation of Thoughts in Front of the Video Camera

by Anja Osswald

 

I.

What is history, what are stories, and what is the difference between the two? These questions posed themselves some time ago as York der Kn_fel showed me video recordings he had made in New York. While watching the tapes, the observer takes on the role of a mirror. In looking at the monitor, he is the partner of a conversation not directed at him, while from the other point of view, the person appearing on the monitor serves as the screen upon which the observer projects his own associations and thoughts. Perhaps due to the occasionally intimate atmosphere of the presentations, which grip the interest of the observer as a voyeur and witness, the effort to express oneself in the context of these narrations proves particularly significant. Following some unfathomable dramaturgy, each monologue is characterised by hesitations and interruptions, in which language seems to stumble over invisible obstacles, only to set off again a few seconds later. By eavesdropping on the paths and labyrinths of the narration, the observer - here more of a listener - witnesses a 'gradual formation of thoughts while speaking' which has already been aptly described by Kleist .

 

II.

In his essay "Concerning the Gradual Formation of Thoughts While Speaking", Kleist considers the difficulties that arise whenever thoughts are transformed into speech. Each formulation entails a transformation process, because for every utterance thought material is kneaded, molded - and altered. Kleist sketches this problem as follows: "For we do not know, it is initially a condition of ours which knows" . His solution: to clarify one's own thoughts, a counterpart is required to act as a mirror and corrective whenever ideas are formulated. For Kleist, the problem of turning something into speech - at least in terms of the elucidation of content - would seem to be generally solvable through dialogue. The emergence of speech is conceived as the molding of as yet unformed thought material; the gap between a 'certain condition' and 'knowing' can be breached in communication. But what can we speak of when, in an extreme case, all is debatable and nothing has priority?

 

This question applies to the protagonists in Kn_fel's experiment (which by contrast to Kleist's suggestion did not even have the support of a thematic framework). The common difficulty of knowing where to start was countered with references to one's own person. Many of the narrations begin with "I am ..." or "my name is ...", whereby this self-representation is often followed by a nervous, embarassed pause. "Well, what could be interesting to tell you about my life?", asks Mr. Selig, a middle-class New Yorker of Polish origins. After saying this to the camera, he begins to tell the story of his life in standard categories: childhood, youth, military service (with the Navy), education, career, marriage and divorce. Here as elsewhere, the presentation of one's own life story is interrupted again and again with reflections that relativise what has just been said, or declare it to be insufficient. Phrases like "That's probably not interesting" or "That's not what I really am" exhibit the discomfort of the speakers with such stereotypical portrayals, and at the same time illustrate the impossibility of expressing the complexity of the remembered experience in words, i.e., of making the 'certain condition' visible within the conventions of speech.

 

The incongruence that becomes visible in the act of speaking between the speaker and what is spoken is also to be found in a mediated form in Kleist, whose semantic concepts may sound the same - thus suggesting that the two conditions are similar - but whose grammar counters this idea: "For we do not know, it is a certain condition of ours which knows" (my italics). That this 'certain condition' is anything but certain and has surprisingly little to do with knowledge is revealed by the switch from personal to impersonal narrative, which implies a kind of quantum leap. In this context, the modest little word 'it' represents a tertium comparationis, in which - a whole century before Freud - the phenomenon categorised by psychology as the unconscious appears.

 

Freud comprehends the unconscious, insofar as it is part of the psychic apparatus, as an instrument for recording traces of excitation, as a memory bank for sensual stimuli. Counter to this unknown, as unconscious, knowledge of the self stands the consciousness - in Kleist's terminology, 'knowing'. The two systems are connected by complex interrelations. Thus the consciousness shapes the unconscious by taking this vague and formless ground of our being - Freud speaks here of 'inner perception' - and giving it spoken form. However, the unconscious, that unvocalised, unlocalised well of memories, is beyond concrete nominalisation; this shaping manages only to bring forth shadows and distorted patterns. There is no terminology of the unconscious, and thus no form that would prove graspable and conceivable. What remains is the clothing of something ineffable, of what Freud terms a 'surface' , which like the tip of an iceberg can only make the depths of the self visible through symptoms. This dialectic of information and deformation finds its expression in Freud in the assumption that "the consciousness emerges in place of the trace of memory" , whereby the 'in place of' is to be understood as both 'instead' and 'at the place of'. To speak of something perceived (unconsciously) and stored in one's memory, thus always indicates an act of over-writing; consciousness defines itself in acts of dislocation which result in a permanent postponement of what is to be said. In other words, consciousness follows in the tracks of the unconscious, but is never able to catch up with it. Derrida was the one who, in this context and in reference to Freud, established the concept of 'diff_rance', for which he names the difference between language and being as a principle of human existence .

 

Viewed from this perspective, Kleist's categories of 'knowing' and a 'certain condition' mark the two ends of a parabola between which the self is formed as a speaking subject. The path from one condition to another does not follow a linear development; instead, 'knowing' and the 'certain condition' stand opposed as effectively incompatible states of being that alternately determine and exclude each other: consciousness can only be gained at the price of the unconscious; without the unconscious, consciousness would not be possible in the first place.

 

this complex dialectic of a 'certain condition' and 'knowing', and consequently the attempt to raise one by the means of the other into consciousness, is reflected in the monologues of Kn_fel's protagonists. The reported events from their lives represent building blocks, particular points of the consciousness capable of sparking off memories. They provide a system of coordinates by marking the frame in which the self is formed. In this process, the self remains an empty space, the unlocalised place of a memory described in the narration, an essentially wordless level of memory that only language knows, on order to think of itself. This aporetic situation becomes especially clear in Vernita Nemec's monologue, which in its intensity designs her own personal history as a mosaic made of widely varying impressions and perceptions. The ever-changing stories and anecdotes by which the artist describes her past, and in this way reach the truth, constitute a labyrinth of memory, in whose crooked paths the self suddenly appears, only to lose itself at the end of the next fork in the road in the mumblings of language. For the observer following the complex paths of associative thoughts, in the course of time and the order of the tapes, a space of memories emerges. In their transposition of the space of memory into the temporal form of language, each video tape in Kn_fel's "Thoughts" carries a kind of index of the self, a track whose circles lead around that particular narrator and refer to him.

 

The images designed in these narrations take on a particular significance in the way they reveal these tracks. In his memory concept, developed partly in Passagenwerk , Walter Benjamin pointed out the value of images for memory. As "that in which something past and something present are suddenly brought together in a constellation", the image is not only able to convey the memory, but in condensing something past into an instant, is that memory. The most well-known example in this respect is Proust's famous madeleine-effect in Remembrance of Things Past, where the smell of a biscuit calls forth an entire cosmos of memories of childhood and youth in the narrator's mind. The synaesthetic experience is frozen into a picture, the past is transformed into an equally all-encompassing and nondescript metaphor. Similarly, the elderly lady's description of a cranberry harvest in Kn_fel's work can be understood as an entire life reduced to an image. The precise depiction of the dark glow of the fruits, the spots from the sun that reflect light when washed, and the blue of the sky in the water, takes what is being told out of the closure of a long-distant past, and through the intensity of the perception brings it momentarily into the present. At the same time, the latent melancholy with which the past is summoned up shows that the impossibility of catching the self in the net of the narration has been realized. Even a successful description of an image is a distortion, even the most sensual description of an image is a process of paraphrase. In this way, the narration can be interpreted as that which Benjamin called 'homesickness for a world transposed into similar images' . The narration contains a constant desire for fulfilment which finds its counterpart and motor in a thoroughly language-oriented world.

 

Speaking is essentially the same as the chewing of gum, about which Francesca Botta - who let Knoefel film her while chewing - said: "There's something about gum. It's like when you start chewing it and you're really getting into it. It's like nothing else matters. You know you want to get rid of it [...] it kind of becomes part of you [...]."

 

III.

It would be possible to end here, with the individual contributions understood as a kind of search for clues that, despite the varying biographical backgrounds, reveal a similar structure. There is, however, another level in these narratives, one in which New York, woven with these individual memories, is given form. On one hand, the monologues reflect on the life of that person in the city, while on the other showing life in the legendary city of New York. It is thus above all the famous images which are taken up in conversation, regardless of age or social class. In the sense of 'oral history', the forty-nine statements hand down the (hi-)stories of New York, with their fear of an increasingly ungraspable environment, the theme of violence, powerful depictions of the power of drugs, the powerlessness of the individual, as well as visions for a better future, founded on a faith - often formulated in religious terms - in solidarity and humanity. Particularly in the sense of a description of fears and worries, a collective unconscious emerges that could be considered the collective memory of a city.

 

"New York is avery strange place, but I love it", claims one of the protagonists in 'Thoughts', thus expressing the ambivalent status of New York as a moloch full of traps, as well as a land of promise. The choice of one vision over another, or for both, is left to the observer, who, in listening to these narratives, supplements what he sees and hears with his own experiences and myths, after the motto "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" .