Academic journal article German Quarterly

Of Circles and Riddles: Stefan George and the "Language Crisis" around 1900

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Of Circles and Riddles: Stefan George and the "Language Crisis" around 1900

Article excerpt

I

Let me begin with a look: that is, with a look at a particular photograph. Dated October 1895, it depicts an almost intact locomotive that smashed through the glass facade of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris and crashed onto the street below. A rather curious event, to say the least, the accident prompted headlines in the daily newspaper Le Figaro which reported that the train was running at full throttle when it arrived at the station. Unable to activate the brakes, the engineer had jumped from the locomotive, leaving the train to lunge beyond the end of the tracks and onto the street. Eyewitnesses recalled "an unbearable sound, similar to an explosion which suddenly occurred. Part of the [station's] facade wall was pushed forward and a locomotive emerging from out of the hole, fell onto the 'Place de Rennes,' in the midst of a crowd of horrified pedestrians," killing one woman instantly (Le Figaro, 23 Oct. 1895).

The connection between this accident and the emergence of film becomes obvious if one remembers Lumiere's first public presentation of L'Arrivee d'un train a la Ciotat only a couple of months later in Paris. Lumiere's film, showing a train slowly approaching the camera, is generally regarded as the literal arrival of motion pictures. Rumors have it that during its first showing, the spectators dodged aside for fear of being run over by the train. The accuracy of this anecdote has been subjected to doubt ever since, as the spectator's terror seems inconsistent with both their overall level of education and familiarity with photography in particular.1 According to most critics, the anecdote's relevance lies in the way it emphasizes the absolute novelty of film aesthetics, particularly the unprecedented power of the cinematic apparatus to represent reality.

The aesthetic rupture caused by the violent "break-through" of motion-pictures is strikingly exemplified by the actual train accident at the Gare Montparnasse. The latter lends new credibility to the anxious fantasy of the "incredulous spectator" (Gunning), for it proves, in the most literal sense imaginable, that Lumiere's vision was far from fictional after all. The "real" locomotive smashing through the glass facade of Gare Montparnasse-that is, its violent penetration through the flat surface that delineates the interior space to which the train belongs-signifies the disastrous intrusion of aesthetic representation into reality that nineteenth-century bourgeois aesthetics had declared intolerable since it would destroy the educational and cathartic essence of art. Hence, the "false" story about the frightened reaction of Lumiere's audience somewhat authenticates the physical violence inherent in modern means of representation. Read in conjunction with each other, the "images" of Lumiere's train and the wrecked locomotive at Gare Montparnasse are symptomatic of an aesthetic and technological revolution that literally shattered the closed interieur of autonomous art into pieces, burying the "incredulous spectator" underneath the rubble it left behind: "Medien 'definieren, was wirklich ist'; uber Asthetik sind sie immer schon hinaus" (Kittler, Grammophon 10).

In the following, I want to challenge Kittier's radical distinction between modern media and traditional aesthetics. Given the proliferation of distinct forms of representation around 1900, critics now and then have been prone to exaggerate the differences between them in a way that neglected their shared ground of signification. This is not meant to minimize these differences, but rather to emphasize the discursive foundation that gives rise to the media debate in the first place. In spite of their "more than real" appearance, the magical power of photography and film to "define" reality remains precisely that: an arbitrary definition dependant upon the discourse network that determines the epistemological parameters of what we are able or willing to see. The history of film criticism-what has aptly been called "cinema's third machine" (Hake)-reveals the degree to which every time period literally writes its own theory of the moving pictures. …

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