Prehistory of the Body: Herzog and Anthropology

part of: “But I saw something that others did not see”. Philosophical research program around the work of Werner Herzog.
November 6, 2019, 6:00am - 6:30am
Université Paris 8

Saint Denis, France

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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  • New University of Lisbon (IFILNOVA-CinéLab)
  • University of Liège
  • Goethe Institute Paris


New University of Lisbon


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Prehistory of the Body: Herzog and Anthropology

I teach film aesthetic theory, and the history of European Cinema, at Oxford University, where I am Associate Professor in the Modern Languages Faculty. 

Currently, I am writing a book on spectatorship and anthropology. which is entitled On Forgiveness. In that work, I develop a theory of forgiveness inspired by Nietzsche's Jenseits von Gut und Böse. According to this theory, forgiveness in film representation, and in spectatorship, is a perspective on a character independently of moral categories. In the list of films, which I study, and which includes directors who are contemporary with Herzog, such as Fassbinder or the Taviani brothers, I shall not write on Herzog. The reason for this is directly relevant to this conference.

Herzog's is anthropological vision is much more radical than the perspective on character, ethics and history that one finds, for instance in La notte di San Lorenzo (Taviani, 1982) or Die Ehe der Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1978). In this paper I will explore how the sign value of the body in Herzog is neither intradiegetic nor symbolic, but objective. Through his visionary Romanticism, Herzog seeks to render – but not represent or make intelligible – an anthropologically primary, or prehistoric, layer of existence of the body and its nexus with the world.

The paper explores this in comparison with Deleuze's concept of pre-personal affect and in relation to a late novel by Peter Handke called Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht. In this novel Handke establishes a poetic language, which corresponds to a private and personal sensory nexus between body and world. 

In contrast with Deleuze, Herzog's anthropology of the body does not make the body a site of receptivity. The comparison with Deleuze can thus serve to show how for Herzog the body is an agent. The body is an arena where the subject experiences borders and the transgression of borders. I will develop this theme in an analysis of the film Nosferatu. The vampire here is both messenger of transgression, and himself a transgressive figure. I show how Herzog's aesthetic of fluid transgression in relation to all established borders of civilisation is embodied in Kinski's own fluid style of acting. Especially his voice and the movements of his hands concretely manifest a force, which violates the borders of social semiotics – borders of bodily reserve, of family, of sexual privacy. The objective sign value of Nosferatu is to be outside of historical and biological finitude.

This perspective from outside of history is opposed to the intensely subjective, private perspective, which Handke enacts in his novel Niemandsbucht. Yet the same search for a private language of sensation is manifest also in this attempt to recapture a perspective outside of civilisation history, as it can only take place outside of the social semiotics of the body, organised in view of cultural purposefulness. In Grissly Man, the main 'character' appears thus himself to be located outside of history and social purposes. His project of becoming a bear, is in fact part of a thousand-year old civilisation drama. The tragedy of the Grissly Man resides in being unable to realise that prehistory is not accessible directly. Herzog's radicality is to be drawn precisely to such a literal quest to inhabit a perspective on the outside of history and the social semiotics of the body.

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