The Moses complex’s place is exile.

Ute Holl

The Moses Complex

Übersetzt von Michael Turnbull

Aus: The Moses Complex. Freud, Schoenberg, Straub/Huillet, S. 7 – 38

I have been a stranger in a strange land

Exodus 2:22.

“We are strangers,” is a worn-out Christian sentence.

But consider for a moment the potential that lies within it.

In it lies the potential for reversion [Umkehrung].

Jacob Taubes1

Before the Law

The Moses complex, so the premise of the following deliberations, raises the question of the transformation of the political under media conditions, under new and unknown media conditions. Exile, desert, and camp are the constellations from which the emergence of a coming society is perceived. In speaking of a politics of sounds and images, I don’t mean emotions or effects but the construction of effective spaces and people’s distribution and connection within them. The Moses complex is about the difficulty of realizing this emerging politics without imagining it. It marks the problem of not simply being able to fall back on memory but having to continually rewrite and reconstruct it. Its temporality isn’t linear or simple but recursive and complex. Writing will have been there, inscribed, when Moses is called before the law through smoke, fire, and mountain thunder. Numbers will have been there, but only when Moses counts his people, in order to make tribes, armies, gangs, families from them, does counting become the organization of people in space. Cultural techniques bring symbolic systems retrospectively into the arena, but they also distort them. Because recursions are constitutive, things don’t remain with a politics of identities. People can always be counted or added up anew or differently if you want. Identity and knowledge are generated from gaps, and can only be gained recursively. Moses admittedly has to make his first distinction out of nothing: burning bush—voice; thing—God; noise—message. Not imagination but attention, recursion, decision. If he hears nothing, he can move on with his sheep. If he hears a call, he has to answer it. An imposition provokes responsibility. The Moses complex is about recognition from decisions, relationships, rifts, from the blind typographic blank, the fraudulent vanishing point of painting, the logic of signification, and the constitutive relationships in sound and cinema.

In the following a Moses complex will be discussed in relation to musical composition, cinema, and psychoanalysis as cultural theory. Schoenberg.2 Straub/Huillet. Freud. It isn’t shown in images, meanings, or in a logic of representations, but in constellations and relations that bring about image and sound spaces. Forces and power relationships, which as politics underlie new perceptual spaces, the behavior and action they initiate, and their results, can be located in connections and transmissions, rifts and caesuras, but also in latencies, temporal shifts, and stratifications.

The Moses complex deals with monotheism as a problem of conceiving the unconceivable under respective historical conditions. It isn’t about the “terrible abstraction” that George Steiner saw as provocation and “Jewish extortion,”3 but rather a caesura and a resulting “now of discernability.”4

For this reason I don’t examine the meanings of sounds or images but the texture and connectivity of tones and shots. Here lies the media aspect of the Moses complex: to bring out the underlying and imperceptible structure or order of possible relationships within artworks and practices. This order is prematurely, and under changing media conditions, attributed to the divine, especially when its orders seem to come from nowhere. The appearance of gods is supposed in lights, sounds, and symbols, from electromagnetic fields and electronic circuitry. But gods should conversely be understood as the ideas implicit to media setups, which, beyond short-term individual interests, maintain wider collective processes and procedures in the long term. Gregory Bateson described this in 1967: “I suggest that one of the things that man has done through the ages to correct for his short-sighted purposiveness is to imagine personified entities with various sorts of supernatural power, i.e., gods. These entities, being fictitious persons, are more or less endowed with cybernetic and circuit characteristics.”5 Bateson’s ecological, feedback media gods are too kindly conceived for the twentieth century, in which the circuits overheated and anyone issuing an order was greeted as God or Führer. Violence rules before the law, “the force that comes from within to remind us that law is always an authorized force.”6

The unkind and inhuman God of Moses in Exodus reveals himself as a terrifying media agent. This is why the Moses figure insistently returns in the arts and sciences of the twentieth century. It corresponds to the fact that the media initially remain concealed when new laws come in with them. When Moses climbs the mountain, the tablets on which the caesuras of writing will turn out to be there already, while the people are still camping in the desert, playing, getting up to mischief, becoming violent, looking for the “liberator and lawgiver.”7 But some kind of perhaps conceivable legalism [for want of a more exact English term, the word is used throughout this book to translate Gesetzlichkeit, in the sense of a system that operates according to a law, as distinct from, although overlapping with, “legality” and “legal system,” trans.] must also have already been there for the lawless in the camp, otherwise the absence of a leader wouldn’t have been noticed. The connections only become apparent with the interruption of the cycles: when tablets are broken, rocks blasted, waters parted, worldly goods and evil distributed. This always comes with unconceivable violence. New media, according to a distinction made by Walter Benjamin, generally appear to preserve the law, or more simply to serve the preservation of law as data processors, but nonetheless violently assert new law in their transparency.8 The violence can be felt, while the media aspect can only be recognized in the rift and break. When Walter Benjamin compares sovereign justice, as an inherent principle of divine purpose, and the obvious manifestation of power in mythical law as forms of violence in his text “Critique of Violence,” from 1920, he marks the exact poles that Moses and Aaron occupy in dealing with the question of images as one of violence in the twentieth century: unconceivable against conceivable violence. Against the advent of a law-destroying, bloodless yet lethal, suddenly striking force whose form evades knowledge, Benjamin sets a law-giving, boundary-drawing, threatening, fault-finding, and bloody—in that it applies to “bare life”9—mythical power. Both belong together, as Samuel Weber makes clear in his commentaries on the text.10

The Moses complex and its various reprises in the twentieth century provoke media-theoretical questions, while calling media theory into question at the same time. Proceeding from an obvious void, a radical not knowing, emergence from the unknown, the Moses complex examines the context of a history that is held together by an enormous, latent, non-specific violence. It explores oppression, persecution, and liberation, the question of what a people should be at all according to the law and the forms and possibilities of historiography. It deals with the inhumanity of perception and decision in pure form, whether media, musical, mathematical, machinical. In this respect the Moses complex is terrifying. It’s complex, because its topological space is differentiated as a relationship of ratios, resonances, and interferences. Its place is exile.

The following study takes its starting point from the film Moses und Aron, realized in 1974 by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet after much preparation and research. The filmmakers had been involved with the work since 1959, through many stations of a European exile, in search of a place where, safe from Straub being called up to the ongoing war in Algeria, they could make their films in peace—politically, economically, aesthetically. Straub and Huillet set new technical-acoustic parameters in their filming of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, but above all they raised basic questions about political thought, action, and behavior proceeding from operations in the acoustic and the optic. When Straub and Huillet cause rifts to appear between structure and things, between the linguistic and the physical, they are working with the potential of resistance in seeing and hearing, demanding attention, distinction, decision, answer. The film Moses und Aron deals with a politics derived from calculated aesthetic operations, in order to make precepts, commands, and laws palpable in bodies. The experiment puts seeing and hearing to the test in relation to law and obedience. This politics of tones and images examines, with Schoenberg, the state of the political before the law. Like Schoenberg, Straub and Huillet turn their attention to a historical moment in which the law is suspended. Aesthetic politics before the law doesn’t happen outside of concepts but in view of the constitutive lack of appropriate ones.

The film by Straub and Huillet is a transfer of Schoenberg’s musical principles into cinematic form. Aspects of Schoenberg’s musical procedure are only described in the following in so far as they are important for Straub/Huillet’s film project. Yet within this framework it’s clear that Schoenberg also conceived his operas in the light of media aesthetics. This applies both to his interest in the implementation of media techniques and to his principle of thinking in relationships and differences. The long composition time of the opera Moses und Aron, which Schoenberg began in Europe during the 1920s, resumed in 1933 in American exile, interrupted, and finally abandoned, covers his struggle against anti-Semitism and fascism, and his involvement with the Jewish project of Zionism.11 Media-theoretical correspondences can be found between Schoenberg’s aesthetic procedures and his political strategies.

Aside from the opera by Arnold Schoenberg and the film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the Moses complex includes a third work, which examines the violence of the twentieth century as a history of the suspended law and thus of perception and its interruption: the text Moses and Monotheism, on which Sigmund Freud worked from 1913 onward, regularly abandoned and took up again, and finally completed in a third version in London exile in 1938.12 In this book Freud attempted to “[reduce] religion to the status of a neurosis of mankind,” that is to infer the “grandiose powers”13 of the collective from individual psychology. He, too, was now interested in what drives the many, what the collective historically shifts and postpones, in layers and dynamics beyond the logic of Oedipus, beyond any kind of Hellenism. Before being compelled to leave Austria by the National Socialists in 1938, Freud was sure that his project would provoke “the greatest resentment of the powers that be.”14 In this book he calls for an observation of the symptomatic, that is, to look in between forms for cracks and scars in order to diagnose the latently potent historical power of suppressed emotions waiting to break out again under pressure. Jacob Taubes, asking about “the political potentials in theological metaphors,” thus reversing Carl Schmitt’s project of inquiry into the “theological potential of legal concepts,”15 sees a further stratification of procedures and texts, and another rift: “I believe that Freud, so to speak, enters into the role of Paul, of the Paul who supposedly brings redemption only phantasmatically, while Freud realizes it through this new method of healing, which is not only an individual method, but also a theory of culture.”16 In the symptoms he discerns, Freud sees a fundamental social injury, the moment in which something was decided fundamentally wrongly and thus can fundamentally be reversed. Freud too deals with the relationship between legalism and violence in the context of Jewish exile and genocide, which he, like Schoenberg—and presumably also Benjamin—anticipated with shocking precision. But he doesn’t imagine it. Rather he suggests a procedure for recognizing and then preventing it, for discontinuing it. Freud’s text can be understood as the draft of a media historiography that teaches us to recognize historicity in the symptoms of its circularly causal logics, in repetitions and distortions.

The project of bringing together the written, acoustic, and visual textures relating to “Moses” into a single context is called a complex in as much as they all have to do power relations that, subsequent to the Books of Exodus and Numbers, are put to work through numbers and counting, numbering off, enumeration, and scanning. Cultural techniques are understood as negotiation and intervention, not as an anthropological unconscious. If, as Mary Douglas writes in an ethnographical decoding of the book of Numbers, culture should be described as a differentiated pattern of claims, and community as a field of relationships,17 in the Moses complex these relationships are constituted structurally, non-mimetically, as relationships without an image. The critique of depiction and representative forms was crucial to new music and the new cinema of the 1960s and 70s.18 No one then assumed a hard and fast reality before the cinema projected it into the world. However, Straub and Huillet’s techniques differ fundamentally from the cinematic forms that were being discussed in France and Italy under the impact of semiotic theories. Straub/Huillet don’t refer to semiotic procedures of subjectivization, but rather to the necessary materialization and embodiment of all signs and rules. Their method corresponds closest to the thought of Roman Jakobson, who semiotically derives the inseparability of materiality and meaning.19 For Straub/Huillet the problem of legalism is also the remanence of signs in the physical, and their insistence on the behavior of bodies. Here they meet Sigmund Freud.

When Straub and Huillet plan and edit shots in relation to one another, they follow Schoenberg in implementing relationships of numbers and frequencies in the varied materialities of a real world, so that unimaginable spaces and directions emerge. They sink texts and verses into bodies as language, into actor’s bodies, singers’ bodies, farmers’ bodies, and into landscapes, so as to visualize an aesthetic of resistance.

The fact that the perception of rhythmic, mathematical, and frequency ratios by the senses, through hearing and seeing, can never be “pure” is the central subject matter of the Moses opera. Where mathematically pure ratios are realized through instruments, technical setups, and materials, new effects and affects are produced for new and real relationships, human, non-human, and inhuman. In Schoenberg’s opera, in resonance with the acoustics of the surroundings, unconceivably beautiful sound unfurls, and this is what is perceived, not the mathematics of the tonal relationships. The operations of strict relationships, when they encounter matter, make their effects visible in the protagonists, in Moses and Aron, 20 the People of Israel, the people in the opera, and equally its audience, a heterogeneous people of the world. With Straub and Huillet the dispositif of the cinema emerges as a space in which these relationships can both be experienced and observed. Arnold Schoenberg’s music of twelve sequentially related tones and its transfer into film thus raises the question of the poetology of media-technical setups in regard to possible coming communities, societies, legalisms. In this complex Hölderlin notes that poetology sounds fine but realizes violence.21 Finally, Freud’s Moses text opens up a perception of the historical and historiographical dimensions of this media politics.

The Moses complex derives its actuality from recalling the emergence of cultures as fields of mutually engendering relationships. From the perspective of media studies, which is a science of differential relationships between materialities and immaterialities, noises and messages, channels and signals, apparatuses and perceptions, the relationship to God or gods turns out to be one between people and their systems of thought. So media studies argues against fundamentalism, whether ontological, anthropological, or technicistic.

The figure of Moses is a decisive node in the network of a discourse that is now being invoked and loudly proclaimed as the Jewish-Christian tradition. This discourse has the tendency to deny that violence was and is constitutive to it foundation and covenant, as sacrifice, command, regime. It equally tends to deny that there are three great monotheistic religions that have to deal with violence at the foundation of their covenant. Currently, arguably not by chance at the end of the culture of printing, this tradition is again being invoked in a Moses-complex boom as the question of what a people is and who belongs to it—in Germany once again as the question of exclusion, once again as the demonization of a cultural minority.22 But what is the question to which the answer is the people? One about Rousseau’s sovereignty, the volonté générale, about Marx’s proletariat? About the exclusive organization of counting votes after the German, Anglo-Saxon, or Swiss model? The structural question of what or who is to be counted, symbolized, represented or not? The aesthetic question of visibility, of the place where the people appears and thus calls for politics? What, in this field, do conflict, controversy, or resistance mean? What kind of politics can sounds and images, tones and takes offer in this context? For Straub and Huillet the people is present when it appears in a place where it isn’t expected, isn’t envisaged, isn’t conceived. Or where it resists. Showing this is not only cinematically complex but also requires the making of images outside of figurations, conventions, and laws.

Four constellations manifest the Moses complex as one that has at its core to do with media and collectives: first, the relationship between migration, medium, and law; second, the relationship between counting and ratios; third the relationship between the law and the people; and fourth, the relationship, which represents the actual urgency of the subject, between exile and space.

Medium, Migration

The Moses complex is about the simultaneous emergence or birth of a law, a nation, and a historical media culture. This constellation is admittedly the more complex historically, both in regard to the systems of writing in the transmission of the Bible and to the inscription of the law.23 It has hence been summarized as the “agonizing research history of the Sinai pericope.”24 Media theories have repeatedly constructed their own Sinai situations. Despite the differences between the historical-materialist media theories of Walter Benjamin or Bertolt Brecht, the models of the Canadian school, or Gilbert Simondon’s differentiation of mechanical, industrial, and postindustrial technical objects as evolutionary forms, correspondences appear between radical media changes and juridical constitutions. Gregory Bateson’s ecological-cybernetic thought, together with systems-theoretical media theory, discourse-analytical, and media-archaeological studies or research into cultural techniques, reminds us that the transcendent is better initially understood as a material and operational relay on which social processes are regulated through recursion. The technical, aesthetic, and political spheres are made dependent on one another in this monitoring circuit. Only in this sense can the Old Testament be understood as the implementation of a universal order: “One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.”25 The law always needs to be reconceived on the arrival of new strangers, if you decide not to combat unfamiliarity but to optimize communication.

The “Sinai pericope” was already governed by the dazzlement and latency that would characterize the Moses complex in the twentieth century. Indistinguishable, awe-inspiring fire, smoke, and thunder compel necessary distinctions: call, dictation, and inscription, which are then understood as law. The imposition of a distinction, of having to decide without knowledge, is the constitutive void, the constitutive off at the center of media science. The difficulty of differentiation is the cause of the latency, and hesitation, faltering that interrupt events and writing about them. Even Moses has no interest at first in becoming the speaker of a downtrodden class. Twice he must climb Mount Sinai to fetch the laws that God has inscribed on the stone tablets.26 God provides the tablets the first time, but the second time Moses has to hack them out himself, so that only the writing, and no longer its medium, is of divine origin. Law and cultural techniques superimpose. But only when both noise and signal come into view and a decision is necessary and taken does it become clear which law has been in effect all the while. The Moses complex is recursive; there will never be a definitive work on Moses.

Once the emergence of a new medium releases an excess of possibilities, decisions, practices, relationships, and meaning, corresponding cultural techniques, regulations, and precepts organize this surplus and assert differences from which new and unknown social forms develop. The dynamic of migration, medium, and legalism also determined the transmission, transcription, and editing of the Moses story. For the exiled People of Israel it was the introduction of writing that tied the complex of freedom, autonomy, fear, and law into a bundle and a covenant. Media thinking unties it again. It understands dispositifs—that is, power relationships that proceed from forms of data processing and circulation, and establish new spaces and correspondingly new controls—as the relay of a legalism that can come into conflict with juridical systems.27

Contemporary experience includes the networking and restructuring of knowledge and relationships by media setups at a speed that disallows their accompanying observation by an individual political consciousness. The statistically regulated dynamic logic of big data renders both the psycho-logic of individual subjects and the “grandiose powers” of religion as mass psychology inoperative. This is where questions about coming societies begin: the link between connectivity and collectivity in electronics points beyond simple mass psychology. Straub and Huillet’s version of the Moses opera also marks a turning point in this political respect: in 1974, parallel with the individualized search engines of Horst Herold, president of the BKA, the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany, they made clear that the people must be spoken about differently from masses, and also differently from statistics. Their approach to cinema, which was uniquely able to connect the particular and the mass from the very beginning, is correspondingly resistive. With their cinema Straub and Huillet anticipate the question of the political aspect of new media.

In both Schoenberg’s opera and the film Moses und Aron conflict and action, which primarily means acts of speech, take place before the law. The lawless camp as socially, politically, and aesthetically unorganized space and time determines the artistic constellations and solutions of the libretto and mise en scène. This was quickly identified by critics of the opera: “Pure art, subject to no law except its own, is equivalent to the omnipotent deity Moses encounters on Sinai.”28 This will by examined more closely in the following for the cinema: what laws of the medium and what media laws intervene in art and its forms? What forms and operations remain before the law? What does media art mean and what does it accomplish? Whom does it bear upon, and how? The matter in question is the coming of the media.

Arnold Schoenberg’s opera and Straub/Huillet’s film show that long times in the wilderness and desert are the precondition for reaching the place before the law and so, as the Moses of the opera dictatorially demands, to “purify your thinking.” The aesthetic and political aspects of this wilderness of perception can be reconstructed historically, but require times of blank hearing and seeing, of hesitation and decision. The growing of the desert is suddenly a question of time. How must we listen, and in what direction, to hear the grind of stone on stone? What is at stake is the paradoxical mission of liberating a people, of forming a free people, and thus Moses’ claim in the opera: “ […] der Mensch ist unabhängig und tut, was ihm beliebt aus freiem Willen [(…) man is independent and does what pleases him, according to free will].”29 The advice Moses gives the people, now only represented by a couple of warriors, at the end of the opera, to go into the wasteland, there to remain forever before the law, can be seen as totalitarian or anarchic: “Aber in der Wüste seid ihr unüberwindlich [But even in the wasteland you shall be victorious].”30 This argumentation is continued in the strategies of nomadism.31 Chantal Akerman described this superhuman effort as a necessary part of the liberation of all oppressed people: “The 40 years the Jews spent in the desert to lose all trace of slavery: something the blacks and the concentration camp victims didn’t have.”32 Today the Mediterranean is the wasteland of the migrants: monstrous blue-eyed death stares back; European voraciousness is a sailing casino called Costa Concordia, giving Africa the slip again.33

The People

In talking about people, the people, the multiple people, does it make a difference whether they are refugees, strangers, travelers, migrants, exiles? How does the emergence of masses, multitudes, mobs, movements, communities, collectives, bands, or swarms relate to the law? When does flight turn into colonization? What is the situation before the law? What is the camp? How does the people relate to the camp? Why do the tent cities that have sprung up in the early twenty-first century in cities, not in the desert of the refugees, call themselves camps, protest camps? In parks and squares, Tahrir, Zuccotti, Gezi, or Nahda, forms of power and the political before the law are being staged and improvised. The concept of the camp is no longer the same as in the twentieth century. But it is always linked with violence. The people camp in the desert, the mountain swathed in smoke; God, who has borne the people on the wings of an eagle into liberation, announces himself in a trumpet call, presses and urges, signals commands. The genealogy of the people is linked to the history of violent transmission. How can we think of a collective of hearing and seeing, of the visual and audible? A collective that has always been constitutively linked, below the threshold of perception, by the cultural and media organization of the senses? A collective whose visibility, speaking, hearing, and acting is apportioned to media faculties that relate to one another through administrative, scientific, and cultural channels? Jacques Rancière sees the principle identity of politics and “aestheticization” in modernity as arising from these constellations. Hence “the autonomization of aesthetics as a new nexus between the order of the logos and the partition of the perceptible [as] part of the modern configuration of politics.”34 While the organization of a Greek people in a city state, requires “the lack of any vacuum, [and a] saturation of the space and time of the community,”35 at least in his theory, the modern sovereign people demonstrates its political concentration in the setting of breaks, absences, and gaps. It “reveal[s] the noncount” to those it excludes, and distances itself from the “toiling, suffering population, the ignorant masses, the rabble bound or unbound.”36 Anyone who gives voice to this radical gap “between real justice, resembling divine proportion, and democratic stagings of wrong, assimilated to the reign of injustice,”37 who argues and acts in the sense of a communal archi-politics, is called a terrorist. The film by Straub and Huillet opens and frames its discussion of the people with exactly these two poles of fundamental political opposition: with the Luther Bible and the dedication to Holger Meins; between the account of divinely legitimized terror and the remembrance of a filmmaker and colleague who, as Rancière put it, “adopted as [his] political task the requirement of achieving community arkhe, its internalization and promotion of total awareness of it.”38 However, all “promotion of total awareness” in Holger Meins’ film Oskar Langenfeld. 12 mal [Oskar Langenfeld. 12 Times] (FRG 1967) is achieved through precise shots and sharply analytical montage that don’t allow a nostalgic proximity to ordinary people. The film shows the abandonment of figures such as Langenfeld, a homeless man with tuberculosis in Berlin, Kreuzberg. Twelve months in the life of this ragman are put together like a Way of the Cross or as a reminiscence of Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie [My Life to Live] (F 1962).39 So Holger Meins’ work is both a reference to cultural and cinema history and a rehabilitation of ordinary people in film.

The people is the real subject of cinema, which not only convened its folk in the collective of an auditorium and the shared experience of a public screening40 but also, and from the very beginning, formed national and international presentation networks, a virtual cinema people between Los Angeles and New York, Moscow and Vladivostok, Bombay and Jakarta that was able to have the same film experiences from the 1920s onward. This relationship between cinema as the first mass medium and a virtual people of viewers is also a part of the Moses complex in the twentieth century. While no constitution has ever made room for the people as “rabble,” that opposite of the sovereign people, the “uncounted”41 and non-registered could appear for the first time on the cinema screen without being theatrically staged. Dziga Vertov gives prominent place to an infamous bunch of ne’er-do-wells and alcoholics, to the mad and the indigent, thus allowing them to become and participate in the coming people. The problem and the challenge of cinema as a cultural technique will remain that of developing a sense of where expulsion from the official people takes place, where one of us, on the street, is uncounted, sans papiers, or suddenly no longer counts.

“[…] when I walk along the street and each person looks at me to see if I’m a Jew or a Christian”42—so Arnold Schoenberg begins his comments, in a letter to Wassily Kandinsky dated May 4, 1923, on an incident in 1921 in Mattsee near Salzburg, when he was forbidden by municipal resolution to vacation there with his family.43 Schoenberg contrasts points of view as behavior: “You will call it a regrettable individual case if I too am affected by the results of the anti-Semitic movement. But why do people not see the bad Jew as a regrettable individual case, instead as what’s typical? […] But it isn’t an individual case, that is, it isn’t merely accidental. On the contrary, it is all part of a plan.”44 Action grows out the way in which people look at you, diagnoses or prophesies Schoenberg in 1923: “But what is anti-Semitism to lead to if not to acts of violence?”45

In order to begin to perceive those who find themselves looked at as other, spaces of hearing and seeing have to be understood and exploded and a space opened up that causes people to appear, to become visible, where there was otherwise nothing to be heard or seen, or nothing was supposed to be heard or seen. The creation of spaces of ideas is the problem of the works associated with the Moses complex. To do this they invent new aesthetic procedures of narrating history, arranging tones, differentiating languages and images in opera, cinema, or dream bodies. Schoenberg, Straub/Huillet, Freud. It has to do with art as a space for people.

When describing art as resistance in his commentary on the films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Gilles Deleuze speaks of the lack of the people. Proceeding from a remark by Paul Klee, “The people are missing,” he explains to the students at the IDHEC, the French state film school in Paris: “The people are missing and at the same time, they are not missing. The people are missing means that the fundamental affinity between a work of art and a people that does not yet exist is not, will never be clear. There is no work of art that does not call on a people who does not yet exist.”46 Art is supposed to bring forth the people it is about. Recursively. Proleptically. The people is an act of creation. The people marks the awareness gap from which it can be experienced as strange. This is a constitutive void that draws attention to the circularly causal production of cultural perception.

From the structural perspective, and likewise as an effect of a void, Ernesto Laclau has described a constitution of the people in the futurum exactum of possible appellation. From the “pure” structure of difference and ratio, and in the linguistic practice of combination and substitution, fully in the spirit of Saussure, he outlines the process of designation that causes a people or the people or simply people to appear as the result of a subsequent signification. He rehabilitates the term “populist” through showing that it is itself the strategic exclusion of an unpredictable plurality or mass from political thought. In a “populist reason,” the logic or reason of the popular—which is distinguished in its own freedom not only from the sociologically described Volk and the ideologically invoked völkisch [literaly “ethinic,” “of the people,” but we should not forget the National Socialist overtones of the word, trans.] in German, from the Hispanic/Latin American pueblo and popular, and altogether from the demos—the people for Laclau appears as a complex of discursive differentiations and relationships that is realized among folks themselves. This, however, is precisely what makes the people real and effective, and brings real action or behavior into the arena: “‘The people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group.”47 It is the aim of all the Moses works by Freud, Schoenberg, Straub and Huillet, by Deleuze, Douglas, Assmann, Laclau, and Taubes, to awaken an awareness of unheard and unseen but operative relationships in noises and sounds, in landscapes and historical constellations, between and among different people. Yet they all point out the terrible violence that ensues when strangers remain strange in a strange land.

The people arises as a difference phenomenon. In the network of difference relationships there is principally no center, only a “differential ensemble,”48 which is brought into play by the discourse as “any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role,”49 be it linguistic, acoustic, or optical. The political comes into view in the collapse or destruction of signification as a system, because only then can new combinations of elements be produced. An empty signifier, writes Laclau, would only be “a sequence of sounds.” 50 The politics of the desert, as Schoenberg’s precondition of liberation, could hardly be described more precisely: a new space can only unfurl from the leveling and equal distribution of the twelve tones related only to one another. Laclau even brings in the difficult concept of purification at this point: an empty signifier must be “deprived of any signifying function”51 in order to reveal the system of signification and make it operative. Thus political activity always means keeping open the irreducible gap between words and things, so that criticism can be deployed as a question of the power of appellation and the foundation of a discourse with its rhetorical differentiations. Laclau encounters the Moses complex in the constitutive failure of every appellation and designation. In Schoenberg’s opera Moses realizes, in his dramatic collapse at the end of act II, that he can’t lead the people, can’t be a leader, but can only keep open the gaps and caesuras in the linguistic system, and thus has to become the people he liberates. With Schoenberg it’s a despairing Moses who calls “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt! [O word, thou word, that I lack!].”52 Laclau points out that the lacking word, which both breaks off and renews Moses’ mission, is the beginning of every resistant rhetorical strategy to turn the foreign into the people. The popular limps in on semantic crutches, in torn garb: “The political construction of the people is, for that reason, essentially catachrestial.”53 Jackals, Arabs, Niggaz. A residue of strangeness must remain, to avoid pure order. For Laclau a people is characterized by its resistance to integration into symbolic systems: “The ‘people’ will always be something more than the pure opposite of power. There is a Real of the ‘people’ which resists symbolic integration.”54 The people means dealing with strangers. But there are historical differences within the network of signifiers and representation in Latin American, German, French, or Jewish contexts under Peronism, fascism, Zionism, or present-day globalized capitalism. Continuous renegotiation is necessary. The people doesn’t insist as a sovereign but as a difference phenomenon, as the effect of a difference that it must simultaneously keep open in speech, music, movement, and montage.

With this strategy a different kind of counting comes into play from the one Jacques Rancière criticizes as a police method, as upholding the state, repressive, and exclusive.55 It’s a counting of the uncounted, and can admittedly only appear as conflict and claim, as an interruption of the course of events, an upsetting of the balance. This new counting, which is likewise used in the non-linear aesthetic of Schoenberg and Straub/Huillet, also involves subjectivization processes that, at the end of the age of printing and in the era of big data, are no longer covered by Rancière’s logic of the “literary animal.”56 Different people show up in singular and unforeseeable forms. These new forms of the multiple and varied people were already being sought in the twentieth century and its projects of the disorganization and equalization of signs and tones, its projects of nomadism. The beginning of an unknown constellation isn’t heralded by a number or the difference between 0 and 1, but by emptiness, noise, and awe, the perception of which initially requires a decision. The film Moses und Aron opens with this. There’s something stirring in the bush; a noise is about to evolve into sound.

In this book the evocation of a people is considered in the light of media-theoretical studies that depart, at the end of the Gutenberg era, from the idea of nations, masses, and the collective, and examined as a question of the texture of affiliations, connections, bodies, and controls. Works of art don’t only address a not yet existing people; they also construct it in their execution. Commenting on Straub and Huillet’s take on the people, Jacques Rancière argues in the sense of the distribution and organization of sensualism, and therefore media-theoretically: “The people are missing. You don’t need Klee and Deleuze to know.”57 And he adds that with Straub and Huillet the people “is what is spoken by bodies taking its part. And, of course, everything plays out in the specificity of this embodiment.”58 But it’s also crucial that this decision remains recursive: only the decision, and not without violence, shows the nature of the captivity, of the camp that provoked it and what can come of it. The decision evokes a memory and a future.


The film Moses und Aron opens with two numerical reminders: a page from the Luther Bible of 1523, Exodus 32:25–28, which tells of the murder of three thousand men ordered by Moses when he returned from the mountain and finds the people worshipping other gods. After the production titles there is the briefest of dedications to Holger Meins recalling his cinematic method of mercilessly throwing the life of the infamous (un-famous) Oskar Langenfeld into relief in twelve murderous strategies in order to ask what the life actually is for which all battles are fought. For Straub and Huillet there’s obviously a correspondence in Meins’ undramatic uniformity to Schoenberg’s compositional technique, but this could equally be interpreted as the reckoning and vengeful Old Testament power. The number twelve is compelling. Holger Meins’ shots strive against this power twelve times. Schoenberg forcefully dissolves its hierarchy into twelve equal relationships between the semitones. first counting, then distinction, then a new beginning.59 Straub and Huillet transfer this to the cinema.

While the film was being made the German police was beginning to count differently. “The police have become aware,” wrote the inventor of the INPOL system, Horst Herold, “that in as much as they fight crime they actually represent a gigantic enterprise of data processing.”60 The gathering, storage, combination, and processing of thousands of data led to an overwhelming quantity of crime statistics. During the system’s first year it netted around 52,000 people. Its first international success came in 1975, when at the push of a button its database of the numbers of stolen vehicles was delivered to Stockholm, where a group calling itself the Kommando Holger Meins had stormed the German Embassy. Herold, the bringer of new media, and thus of a legalism that could correct “the enormous superstructure of laws and decrees from which the actual conditions have long since moved away,” called on the basis of these new media techniques for the police to take on the “state’s task of shaping the future.”61 Very soon the rank and file old lawyers were murmuring against him on the basis of the old data system.

In the Old Testament the relationship between space, community, law, and history is recurrently taken up as a relationship between counting and numbers. In her astonishing reading of the book of Numbers, Mary Douglas has shown that this book, thought to have been put together from heterogeneous sources and edited late, actually follows an exact logic of non-linear construction. Its structure is not only determined by doubling and repetition but also by a circular logic that connects laws and legends in mutual commentaries like ritornelli. “We are so used to linear writing that it is a shock at first to imagine a whole law book or epic constructed as if it were a sonnet with a very definite rhyming system.”62 She also compares its combinatory construction, in reference to an early text by Miriam Hansen, with the principle of montage in film.63 As in all the books of the Pentateuch the description of cultural techniques is also their incorporation, transmission, and reflection. This particularly applies to their linguistic collocation, in whose strict structure practical knowledge is conveyed.

The book of Numbers is about counting people, the people, about census, which Jacques Rancière called the most important apparatus of contemporary law enforcement.64 Douglas in no way describes this counting as a precise classification system. For Deleuze and Guattari enumeration marks the transition from the machinery of state to the war machine. The numerical principle of organization belongs to the state’s deployment of armies, but on the other hand the state takes on the martial form of traversing the country through its enumeration of the people: “Its numerical organization into tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands, etc., and the associated spatial organization were obviously adopted by State armies, but basically bear witness to a military system specific to the great nomads of the steppes [...] Moses got the idea from his father-in-law, Jethro the Kenite: he used it as an organizational principle for the march and migration, and applied it himself to the military domain.”65 During an exodus, on the run, in exile, the distinction between the self and the other is renegotiated. Douglas also subscribes to this theory in reconstructing the situation of an army of refugees numbering several thousand claiming previously settled land in the Near East.

According to Mary Douglas the editors of the book of Numbers were priests who were not in the least interested in the establishment of rules of inclusion and exclusion, but were concerned, on the contrary, with the avoidance or at least moderation of “populist xenophobia.”66 The book was written in order to discover ways of integrating strangers. Correspondingly different from the book of Exodus, the figure of Moses in Numbers is the gentle head of a mixed enclave community and, just like the one in the opera libretto, a typical representative of an egalitarian society. “The Moses described in the book of Numbers is the only kind of leader that a sectarian enclave can tolerate: a charismatic leader who never speaks in his own name, who is always the servant of God.”67 Douglas also develops this egalitarian culture as an aesthetic model, as a “surprisingly open political vision […] supported by the cosmopolitan literary style,” as the model of a non-hierarchical, complementary institutional organization of contrapuntal thought. The relationship structures of these cultures were ensured through common rules about impurity, not as laws but as an agreement to prevent disease and contamination under the conditions of migration and the camp. In such a “benign doctrine of defilement” it is not the stranger who is excluded: “Contact with a foreigner is not defiling, only idolatry.” Douglas sees the aniconic aspect of this society as a “cohesion of dissent”68 in the common rejection of idols. She suggests a reading of Korah’s revolt and destruction as a governmental attack on the priestly caste, reported by the priests from their perspective as historical losers. The King James Bible correspondingly tells of “two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown,” who “rose up before Moses”69 for the community of refugees against the claim of Moses and Aaron to speak in the name of God. Moses as a sectarian leader doesn’t see the rebels as operating against him personally but as “gathered together against the Lord” and murmuring against Aaron.70 The earth devours two hundred and fifty ritually distinguished men and all their households. Walter Benjamin uses this episode of enumerated violence to exemplify the sudden striking of divine power to secure its rights over the living and “for the sake of the living,”71 and differentiates it from the bloodletting of bare life as practiced by the Greek deities. Jacques Derrida further differentiates this as a distinction between Greek and Jewish law-making. The primitive Greek blood sacrifice is contrasted with the “absolute imperative”72 of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” For Benjamin the destruction of Korah’s people is an annihilation of the “privileged Levites,”73 and in this respect his argumentation doesn’t differ from Mary Douglas’s later anthropological interpretation.74 Samuel Weber, drawing on a Zwingli Bible, conversely objects that “the violence, as Benjamin suggests, is not simply retaliation on a privileged priestly class, but rather on the representatives of the community, who rose up against Moses and Aaron in the name of the people whom they represent: ‘Now we’ve had enough. For the entire community is sacred’.”75 The problem of advocacy disturbs the Exodus and makes people resistive. Everyone counts, but no one speaks for himself. After the company of Korah has been swallowed up, the people murmur all the more.76 So the Bible text to which Benjamin refers doesn’t tell “a completely different story,”77 as Weber protests; it is more that all translations and interpretations take sides, for which they have to decide. What is the problem represented by the mass migration of foreigners? How should it be approached? What legal forms are useful in this circumstance? How forward-looking is it to portray truth and legalism as exclusive? Mary Douglas’s philological-anthropological reconstruction of a society of different strangers who have to come to a recursive understanding and should never be counted down to two poles is just as unequivocal.

Even cursory readings of Moses’ strategies in regard to the people, foreignness, and violence according to the logic of numbers and payback show how precisely the Moses figure in Arnold Schoenberg’s libretto and opera is put together from various Old Testament layers but is still contemporarily biographical. Schoenberg’s Moses is a protean figure that adopts heterogeneous positions and carries on a kind of soliloquy along the texts and stages of exile. So with Schoenberg the “Now we’ve had enough!” with which Korah rises up against Moses and his claim “to speak […] in the name of the entire community he is held to represent”78 comes at the beginning of the third, discontinued act of the opera, which Moses, speaking as always, opens with “Aron, nun ist es genug! [Aaron, now this must cease!],” to which Aron, who has hitherto sung and is suddenly disturbingly human in his speaking voice, answers: “Willst du mich morden? [Will you then kill me?]”79 In the context of the biblical quotation Moses would be speaking as the rebel Korah against himself. The answer that Schoenberg’s Moses then gives to Schoenberg’s Aron explicitly corresponds to Benjamin’s assertion that divine power must be exerted “over all life for the sake of the living,”80 so it seems likely that Schoenberg was thinking about Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” while he was writing the libretto: “Es geht nicht um dein Leben … [It is not a matter of your life …]”;81 it’s for the sake of the living. Samuel Weber’s reading, drawing on a radically reformed Bible translation, shows that the German text can be read as nothing less than “demonically equivocal”:82 “The destruction of Korah can be read [...] as the eruption of violence interrupting the claim to speak lawfully in the name of the other,” but also “in [...] the opposite sense, as the reinstatement of this very claim.”83 The binary opposites of Greek and Jewish tradition, democracy and permanent revolution, tallying votes and advocacy, sedentary and nomadic, which echo in the discourse of the Moses figure, and not only in Schoenberg’s opera, also need to be deconstructed and increased to triple and multiple models. Then it can certainly be shown that “deconstruction is justice.”84 Moses doesn’t represent a distinct historical figure but a complex of negotiations that Sigmund Freud will ascribe to various historical layers of traumatic events and their working through. Schoenberg’s Moses is at most characterized by repeatedly wanting to withdraw from his pre-eminent mission, by his procrastination. Only if observed as a texture of relationships, rhythms, numbers, and paybacks, as undertaken by Mary Douglas, can the Moses texts, operas, and films be understood as dealing with “populist xenophobia.”85

It will be seen that the radically egalitarian Moses in the book of Numbers corresponds both to the radically relational procedures of Schoenberg’s composition in twelve equally related tones and to the practice of the segmented distribution of bodies and spaces in Straub and Huillet’s film. What can be experienced in cinema doesn’t result from the depiction of a previously existing reality but from the constellation of shots and spatial division. The strictly egalitarian formalism and constructivism of twelve-tone composition comes from a radical unwillingness to compromise in Schoenberg’s work. While Theodor W. Adorno criticizes twelve-tone composition as a lugubrious Enlightenment dialectic, Schoenberg’s attitude is neither dialectic nor eschatological but committed to philosophical and historical irreconcilability from the point of view of exile. The new sound spaces he opens up don’t provide a home; they are expansive, unpredictable, awe-inspiring, recursive spaces for strangers in strange lands.

Arnold Schoenberg, who, as letters to students and friends document, decidedly and energetically returned to Judaism after the so-called Mattsee episode and reports of anti-Semitic activities at the Bauhaus, had been committed to the Zionist movement since 1924.86 After Max von Schilling, president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, announced his intention to purge the institution of Jewish elements and influences in 1933, Schoenberg resigned from his professorship of composition in Berlin and went via Paris and Arcachon into exile in New York. There, in October and in English, he wrote the first version of his famous “Four-Point Program for Jewry.” After working on it for five years he deposited the typescript at the Writer’s Registration Bureau of the Authors’ Club Inc., in Hollywood, the heart of California’s film and dream industry. “Registered 11/29, 1938 at 3:45 PM,”87 the text begins with a list of numbers; in retrospect one could say an enumeration of lists:

500,000 Jews from Germany, 300,000 from Austria, 400,000 from Czechoslovakia, 500,000 from Hungary, 60,000 from Italy—more than one million and eight hundred thousand Jews will have to migrate in how short a time, one does not know. May God provide there will not be an additional 3,500,000 from Poland, 900,000 from Rumania, 240,000 from Lithuania and 160,000 from Latvia—almost 5,000,000; and Yugoslavia with 64,000, Bulgaria with 40,000 and Greece with 80,000 might follow at once, not to speak of other countries, which are at present less active. Is there room in the world for almost 7,000,000 people?88

This enumeration is disturbing in how precisely it prophesies, despite its numerical approximations, what will happen and how people will be counted off. In 1938 at the latest the coming catastrophe had become calculable for Schoenberg, not in the singularity of biographies but counted in numbers. “In retrospect,” writes Alexander L. Ringer, “the sheer numerical weight of the article and speeches, calculations, aphorisms and miscellaneous notes from those hectic initial months in exile appears staggering.”89 The numbers initially produce an equality that permits no difference between the assimilated and the non-assimilated, between rich and poor, East and West. Schoenberg, who leaves no doubt in his text that he himself would lead a Jewish society in an authoritarian manner and as a sovereignty beyond democratic law,90 also makes clear that the simple rescue of a community could lie in equal distribution, the rescue of a people that in 1938 was only equal before death, not before the law. Here Schoenberg also considers every individual and the possibility of a very large number, which he calculates down to the last penny: “The immediate goal of my efforts is the commitment of all Jews in all countries to a monthly contribution of two Marks per head for several months,”91 he wrote while still in Arcachon, before departing by ship to exile in New York. In 1938 he thus drafted the plan to realize the Promised Land himself without further ado, to push through the project of self-created spaces, in Africa if need be, as had been discussed in 1905. He was thinking of a potential space, preferably able to defend itself:

“How different would be today’s Jewish situation were there now an independent state in Uganda, founded in about 1905, counting perhaps a population of five to ten million, able to provide homes for ten to twenty millions in addition, independent economically, perhaps also provided with a modern armament and even perhaps not without political and diplomatic influence.”92 In exile an idea becomes concrete. Space emerges through violence. Like Moses, Schoenberg will never enter a promised land as a territory. He maps the road to it in the opera Moses und Aron.


Complementary to circularly causal argumentation, the Moses complex evidently includes the retrospect in which camp, desert, and exile are recognized as such. Bluma Goldstein, who as a literary scholar applied herself early on to the Moses complex,93 tells of only understanding in a later rereading of the opera libretto how prominent are the changes to the biblical text that Arnold Schoenberg made from the early 1920s onward in the awareness of his own danger from the “swastika-wearers.”94 Goldstein, having studied the opera for many years, discerns a “systematic editing, restructuring, and rewriting the record of Moses’s divine commission as liberator and architect of the nation Israel.”95 The opera, she says, doesn’t describe a historical, physical land grab but the spiritual state of people in exile. The liberation it deals with is from mental not physical shackles.96 The historicity and physicality of colonization in the biblical narrative are systematically replaced by exercises in spiritual liberation, and the God who announces himself in the book of Exodus as historical, namely as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, becomes an abstract and ahistorical principle in the opera. Its film version by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, however, draws attention to the fact that its musical realization represents a “specificity of this embodiment,”97 a re-materialization and decisive historicization of the Exodus and of exile. Through the film’s precise deployment of aesthetic and media procedures it reveals Schoenberg’s own method and his interventions into the biblical sources.98

The opera and therefore the film begin with the calling of Moses and his reluctance to understand what he has heard and to accept what is being imposed on him. This moment, which in both opera and film sets the radically existential tone, is still the topos for every blockbuster: the call-up to a mission of liberation. Here Goldstein points out the first departure of the libretto from the Bible: in the book of Exodus God has seen and heard the suffering of his people—“I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters: for I know their sorrows” (Exodus 3:7)—but in Schoenberg’s libretto it is Moses himself who must have seen and heard what is going on:

Du hast die Greuel gesehen,
die Wahrheit erkannt:
so kannst du nicht anders mehr:
du musst dein Volk daraus befrein!
You’ve seen your kindred enslaved,
the truth you’ve known;
so you can do nothing else.
Therefore you must set you folk free!99

The first liberation would be from self-induced anesthesia, from the blindness and deafness with which we keep the responsibility for violence and horror at arm’s length. Schoenberg, in his music, and Straub/Huillet, more radically in their images, systematically deprive the Moses story of any transcendence: in the opera God no longer speaks after his first call, and, as Goldstein puts it, becomes the deus absconditus who characterized the cinema history of the twentieth century.100 Moses defends this spiritual abandonment, or, as Siegfried Kracauer also put it from the experience of exile, the “ideological vacuum” in which no one can live and breathe,101 almost beyond endurance against his brother Aron, who wishes to have the divine manifest and the new land as a proper new home, who wants to be sure of the guidance and protection of God in pillars of cloud and fire, in wonders, in images, and things. The figure of Aron is thus conceived closer to the text and probably also closer to the spirit of the book of Exodus. The figure of Moses demands the experience of radical insecurity as the precondition for social communication and commitment. The unconceivability and ineffability of a god and the ambiguity of the idea, not the safe realm of a present god, are the political preconditions of the twentieth century. This is where modernist aniconism begins.102

The opera therefore doesn’t begin in a concrete situation, as told in the Bible and as described by Martin Buber in his Moses book, which he published in 1944 in Jerusalem, in his eyes only conditionally in exile. Buber takes an anthropological slant, observing the Palestinian Bedouins: “Moses, grazing his father-in-law’s sheep, drives them across the familiar steppe, as we hear from the Bedouins of this region that they take to the mountain in the early summer, where their herds can find food that is still fresh.”103 In contrast to Buber’s location of the foreign in a particular landscape, the opera and film situate the burning bush in an undefined wilderness, a non-place, an acoustically amorphous, sandy space to which Moses, old and already disillusioned, has dragged himself. “Bist weit genug gegangen [You have gone far enough now],”104 says the voice that differentiates itself in Schoenberg’s first few bars from a humming of soloists into individual singers and a four-part chorus, which is then designated the “Voice from the Burning Bush.” In Straub and Huillet’s film this sequence, like all others, is set in an entirely concrete yet historically stratified environment, in a historical interstice. This book’s examination of the opera and film will show how Straub and Huillet’s palimpsest-like historicization of Schoenberg’s work reconstructs a specific historical power relationship. Where Schoenberg causes the space of the biblical narrative to emerge in a confrontation of counting and singing, mathematics and music, purity and spatiality, Straub and Huillet return the conflict to a historicity of the physical, which must of course always resonate in Schoenberg’s music to be audible at all.

In the media setups, voices, movements, and sounds of the opera and film, reality is created from differentiations that undermine the homogeneity and hierarchy of an imagined pure space. The ambivalence, or as Adorno thought, the dialectic of monotheism becomes a political issue. If it is denied, the Promised Land doesn’t become a new experience but a nostalgic demand for a home.105 A politics of tones and images, however, as found in these works on Moses, remains dependent on and oriented to the experience of becoming alien. Its exploration here may remain an awkward attempt to approach a world in which 65 million106 migrants are currently en route, having left or been driven out of countries that were once theirs for an uncertain, desolate outland where in most cases they are again threatened, expelled, or killed. Today, as in Schoenberg’s time, migrants retort with counter-stories, counter-memories, counter-identities, counter-religions.107 Under what conditions are these visible and audible? At what point do they turn into a violence of enumeration? When does exile become occupation or colonization? Or a war machine? This is the final layer of the questions raised in this book.

This attempt to reconstruct a Moses complex remains incomplete and goes round in circles. Sigmund Freud, in his foreword to the third supplement to his Moses book, wrote wittily and elegantly in 1938: “To my critical faculties this treatise, proceeding from a study of the man Moses, seems like a dancer balancing on one toe.”108 Jan Assmann, who in his extensive contribution to the Moses complex from the perspective of a history of memory also sees it as a negotiation of the confrontation with the alien, observes that the desert diverts all Moses researches from their intended path: “All those who turned the kaleidoscope and contributed a new variation on the story of Moses wrote a different text than what they intended to write. [...] It is as if the story of Moses the Egyptian had a life of its own, incorporating itself in different versions: passing through the media and the conceptual frameworks of theology, Freemasonry, philosophy, history, literature and psychoanalysis.”109 Let’s give the kaleidoscope another turn, adding a media-theoretical question: what does it mean to give people a text to read?

1 Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, Stanford 2004, p. 60.

2 In the following, except in quotations and citations by others, Schoenberg will be spelled with “oe,” the way he wanted after 1933. See a letter from June 25, 1947: “My name should be written with oe. I changed it after coming to America because so few printers had the letter ö, and I wanted to avoid the spelling ‘Schonberg’.” Arnold Schoenberg Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, London/Boston 1964, p. 9. This spelling will also be used retrospectively here for the Arnold Schoenberg before 1933, who he will have become from the perspective of later exile.

3 Most recently in an interview to mark his 85th birthday: George Steiner, “Pessimisten sind lächerlich,” in Die Zeit, no. 17, April 16, 2014, p. 45.

4 Translated from Anselm Haverkamp, “Kritik der Gewalt und die Möglichkeit von Gerechtigkeit: Benjamin in Deconstruction,” in Anselm Haverkamp (ed.), Gewalt und Gerechtigkeit. Derrida – Benjamin, Frankfurt/Main 1994, pp. 7–50: 34ff.

5 Gregory Bateson, “Letter to Warren McCulloch,” December 20, 1967, in Gregory Bateson, “‘They threw God out of the garden’: letters from Gregory Bateson to Philip Wylie and Warren McCulloch,” ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, CoEvolution Quarterly, 32 (winter), 1982, pp. 62–67: 65.

6 Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: the ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar, New York 2002, p. 233.

7 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, ed. Katherine Jones, London 1939, p. 29.

8 See Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”, in Walter Benjamin, Reflections. Essays. Aphorisms. Autobiographical Writings, ed. and intro. Peter Demetz, New York 1986, pp. 277–300: 284.

9 Ibid., p. 184.

10 See Samuel Weber, “In the Name of the Law,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, New York 1992, pp. 232–258; and Samuel Weber, “Deconstruction before the Name: Some Preliminary Remarks on Deconstruction and Violence,” in Cardozo Law Review, vol. 13 / 1991–1992, pp. 1188–1191.

11 See Alexander Ringer, “Schoenberg and the Politics of Jewish Survival,” in Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, vol. III, no. 1, March 1979, pp. 11–48.

12 For a philologically exact reconstruction along the manuscripts see Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Freuds Moses-Studie als Tagtraum. Ein biographischer Essay, revised edition, Frankfurt/Main 1994.

13 Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 91.

14 Ibid.

15 Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, Stanford 2004, p. 69.

16 Ibid., p. 95.

17 See Mary Douglas, In the Wilderness. The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (Sheffield 1993), paperback reprint 2004, p. 43.

18 In 1974, when Straub and Huillet were editing their film, a ten-year-long debate within semiotic film theory on cinematic structural relationships was reaching its height. See Umberto Eco, “Articulations of the Cinematic Code,” in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods, Berkeley 1976, pp. 590–607; and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, Milan 1972.

19 In a series of lectures in winter 1942/43 in New York, Roman Jakobson also in exile, developed the idea that sound and meaning can never be separated from one another. See Roman Jakobson, Six leçons sur le son et le sens (1942/43), Paris 1976, p. 22.

20 Translator’s note: In order to underline the book’s specific reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s opera, this figure is generally referred to in Schoenberg’s deviant spelling. Exceptions are made, however, when the figure is mentioned in wider cultural contexts, in quotations from the Bible, or from the English translation of Schoenberg’s libretto by Allen Forte, which appears in parallel with the German text in the vocal score by Winfried Zillig (Mainz 1957) and uses the conventional spelling “Aaron.” The pronunciation of Aron, “Ah-ron,” differs from the English “Air-ren” and the Hebrew “Ah-ha-ron.” Interestingly, Schoenberg names Moses in the English spelling, not the usual German “Mose” (pron. “Moz-zuh”), both of which differ from the Hebrew “Mo-sheh.”

21 See Friedrich Hölderlin, “‘The declining fatherland …’” in Friedrich Hölderlin, Essays and Letters, ed. and trans. Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth, London, 2009, pp. 271–276.

22 See the essay by Alfred Bodenheimer, Haut Ab!, Göttingen 2012.

23 For the basis of writing and the materiality of writing in the context of the Hebrew Bible see Alexander Achilles Fischer, Der Text des Alten Testaments. Neubearbeitung der Einführung in die Biblia Hebraica von Ernst Würthwein, Stuttgart 2009. The fact that the Decalogue is an asynchronous compilation of historically heterogeneous ethical and cultural precepts was already supposed by Martin Buber, Moses, Zurich 1948, p. 176.

24 Translated from Matthias Köckert, “Wie kam das Gesetz an den Sinai?,” in Vergegenwärtigung des Alten Testaments. Beiträge zur biblischen Hermeneutik. Festschrift für Rudolf Smend zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Christoph Bultmann and others, Göttingen 2002, pp. 13–27: 15. Translation from p. 27: “Once the Decalogue was inscribed on the tablets in Deuteronomy, it could no longer be missing as such on Mount Sinai.”

25 Exodus 12:49, The Bible. Authorized King James Version, ed. intro. and notes by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, Oxford, New York 1997.

26 Exodus 32:16.

27 See Cornelia Vismann, Medien der Rechtsprechung, Frankfurt/Main 2011.

28 Daniel Albright, “Series Editor’s Foreword,” in Charlotte M. Cross, Russell A. Berman, Political and Religious Ideas in the Works of Arnold Schoenberg, New York 2000, pp. xvi/xvii.

29 Arnold Schönberg, Sämtliche Werke, section III, stage works, series A, vol. 8, parts 1 and 2, Moses und Aron. Oper in drei Akten, ed. Christian Martin Schmidt, Mainz 1977, act III, p. 503 (quoted as Schönberg, Moses und Aron, score). The English translation, by Allen Forte, appears in parallel with the German text in Arnold Schoenberg, Moses und Aron. Oper in drei Akten, vocal score, prep. Winfried Zillig, Mainz 1957, act III, unpaginated.

30 Ibid.

31 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “1227: Treatise on Nomadology: The War Machine,” in A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, ed. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis 1987, pp. 351–424.

32 Chantal Akerman quoted from Nicole Brenez, Chantal Akerman, The Pajama Interviews, Vienna 2011, p. 61f.

33 See Film Socialisme, F/CH 2010, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, various formats, HDTV, 102 min.

34 Jacques Rancière, Dis-agreement. Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis 1999, p. 58.

35 Ibid., p. 67.

36 Ibid., p. 80.

37 Ibid., p. 81.

38 Ibid., p. 80.

39 See Harun Farocki, “Das Vorbild jeder stilisierten Jugendunsicherheit muss James Dean sein,” in Gerd Conradt (ed.), Starbuck Holger Meins. Ein Porträt als Zeitbild, Berlin 2001, pp. 178–182: 181.

40 See Heide Schlüpmann, “Das Aufklärungsversprechen des Kinos oder: die Ablösung der Metaphysik durch die Medien,” in montage AV “Erfahrung, 19/1 2010, pp. 161–174.

41 Rancière, Dis-agreement, p. 80.

42 Arnold Schoenberg to Wassily Kandinsky, Mödling, Austria, May 4, 1923, in Schoenberg, Letters, p. 89.

43 See Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Schoenberg – His Life, World and Works, Richmond 1977 p. 274.

44 Arnold Schoenberg to Wassily Kandinsky, May 4, 1923, in Schoenberg, Letters, p. 90.

45 Ibid., p. 92.

46 Gilles Deleuze, “What is the Creative Act?” in Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness. Texts and Interviews 1975–1995. Semiotext(e), New York 2007, pp. 317–329: 329.

47 Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London 2005, p. 73.

48 Ibid., p. 69.

49 Ibid., p. 68.

50 Ernesto Laclau, “Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), London, New York 1996, pp. 36–45: 36.

51 Ibid., p. 65.

52 Schönberg, Moses und Aron, score II, act II, bars 1133–1136.

53 Laclau, On Populist Reason, p. 72.

54 Ibid., p. 152.

55 Rancière, Dis-agreement, p. 36: “Political subjectivation produces a multiple that was not given in the police constitution of the community, a multiple whose count poses itself as contradictory in terms of police logic. The commons, the people, are the first of these multiples that split up the community.”

56 Ibid., p. 37.

57 Jacques Rancière, “Arithmetics of the People,” (accessed June 8, 2015). Originally published as “Arithmétiques du peuple (Rohmer, Godard, Straub),” Trafic, no. 42, summer 2002.

58 Ibid., p. 185.

59 See Thomas Macho, “Zeit und Zahl. Kalender und Zeitrechnung als Kulturtechnik,” in Sybille Krämer, Horst Bredekamp (eds.), Bild – Schrift – Zahl, Munich 2003, pp. 179–192: 180. “Counting is older than numbers” (translated from ibid.).

60 Translated from Horst Herold, Kriminalität und Gesellschaft. Rationalisierung und Automation in der Verbrechensbekämpfung, RIAS Funkuniversität 1975 (79th lecture series, broadcast Monday July 7, 1975), typescript copy of the RIAS manuscript, Berlin 1975, p. 2.

61 Ibid., p. 61.

62 Douglas, In the Wilderness, p. xxiii.

63 Ibid., p. xxviii.

64 See Rancière, Dis-agreement, p. 21–43.

65 Deleuze/Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 118.

66 Douglas, In the Wilderness, p. 39.

67 Ibid., p. 58.

68 Ibid., p. 41.

69 Numbers 16:2.

70 Numbers 16:11.

71 Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” p. 297.

72 Derrida, “Force of Law,” p. 288.

73 Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” p. 297.

74 See Samuel Weber, “In the Name of the Law” and “Deconstruction before the Name.”

75 Samuel Weber, “Deconstruction before the Name.” The King James version of Numbers 16:3 says “Ye take too much upon you.”

76 Numbers 16: 41.

77 Weber, “Deconstruction before the Name,” p. 1188.

78 Ibid.

79 Schoenberg, Moses und Aron, vocal score, act III, unpaginated.

80 Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” p. 297.

81 Schoenberg, Moses und Aron, vocal score, act III, unpaginated (emphasis added).

82 Weber, quoting Benjamin, “Deconstruction before the Name,” p. 1188.

83 Ibid.

84 Derrida, “Force of Law,” p. 243.

85 Douglas, In the Wilderness, p. 39.

86 For the reports and rumors of the anti-Semitic attitudes of Bauhaus associates, which were the reason why Schoenberg turned down Kandinsky’s suggestion of applying for the directorship of the Weimar Academy of Music, explaining himself in letters on April 20 and May 5, 1923, see Stuckenschmidt Schoenberg – His Life, World and Work.

87 Arnold Schoenberg, “A Four-Point Program for Jewry,” in Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, vol. III, no. 1, March 1979, pp. 48–67.

88 Ibid., p. 49.

89 Alexander L. Ringer, “Arnold Schoenberg and the Politics of Jewish Survival,” p. 33.

90 See Schoenberg, who gives an example of necessarily authoritarian leadership of a society in “A Four-Point Program for Jewry”: “I was a kind of dictator in 1920, in a musical society, erected by myself in my ideas and on the whole successful,” p. 55. See also Bluma Goldstein, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. A Vanishing Biblical Nation,” in Charlotte M. Cross, Russell A. Berman (eds.), Political and Religious Ideas in the Works of Arnold Schoenberg, New York 2000, pp. 159–192: “Among Schoenberg’s most troubling characteristics, especially given what he suffered as a result of fascist rule, were his antidemocratic and authoritarian predilections and solutions, blatantly apparent in Moses’s autocratic rule over the Israelites at the conclusion of Moses und Aron, in the authoritarian organizational structure planned for the Jewish Unity Party and elsewhere as well,” ibid., p. 187.

91 Note by Arnold Schoenberg, quoted from Ringer, “Arnold Schoenberg and the Politics of Jewish Survival,” p. 33.

92 Ibid., p. 56.

93 Bluma Goldstein, Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, Cambridge 1992.

94 See Schoenberg’s letter to Albert Einstein on January 1, 1924: “While abroad I am considered one of the leading musicians, for some inexplicable reason people in Germany are quite happy to ignore the ascendancy of my music in order to prevent it being linked with my name. In this, in the hatred against me, Jews and the relevant swastika-wearers are in one mind.” Translated from Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, vol. X, no. 2, November 1987, p. 153.

95 Goldstein, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron,” p. 159.

96 “Moses’s concern, in Moses und Aron, is not with the actuality of Egyptian oppression and enslavement, but rather with the spiritual impoverishment of a people too preoccupied with the transitory and the quotidian; and the promised land – here associated not with a place or territory for settlement but with a spiritual state of absolute devotion to an abstract deity – is divested of its reality as a discursive site of national identity in the biblical text.” Goldstein, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron,” p. 161.

97 Rancière, “Arithmetics of the People.”

98 George Steiner, who apparently didn’t know the film, also accentuates the opera’s intended materialization: “What Schoenberg had in mind is something very different from an ordinary operatic ballet. It is a total dramatic integration of voice, bodily motion and orchestral development.” George Steiner, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron,” in George Steiner, A Reader, London 1984, pp. 234–245: 243.

99 Schönberg, Moses und Aron, score I, act I, bars 23–27.

100 Goldstein, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron,” p. 166. For the deus absconditus, particularly in the works of Robert Bresson and his successors, see Ute Holl, “Vom Teuflischen, der Kybernetik und der Ethik des Kinos in Robert Bressons Le diable probablement (1977)” in RISS, Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, special edition on cinema, ed. Andreas Cremonini, Zurich 2009, pp. 53–76.

101 Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton 1997, p. 295 f.

102 Gertrud Koch has devoted an outstanding critique of mimesis to the figure of an “image of the imageless”: Gertrud Koch, “In Sachen Moses gegen Aron. Die Kritische Theorie und das Kino,” in Koch, Die Einstellung ist die Einstellung. Visuelle Konstruktionen des Judentums, Frankfurt/Main 1992, pp. 12–114.

103 Translated from Buber, Moses, p. 51.

104 Schönberg, Moses und Aron, score I, act I, bars 12–13.

105 Sidra De Koven Ezrahi has written from the perspective of Jewish experience and in regard to an omnipresent exile: “One could even go so far as to argue that monotheism evolved into a strategy for making the world into one’s home, preparing the way for eliminating exile altogether as a category of experience.” Sidra De Koven Ezrahi, “Our Homeland, The Text … Our Text, The Homeland … Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination,” in Michigan Quarterly Review 31, no. 4, 1992, pp. 463–497: 471.

106 Global Trends 2015, UNHCR, June 20, 2016.

107 See Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, Cambridge 1997, p. 3

108 Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 95.

109 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, pp. 165–166.

  • Migration
  • Oper
  • Exil
  • Politische Theorie
  • Jean-Marie Straub
  • Danièle Huillet
  • Gemeinschaft
  • Arnold Schönberg
  • Psychoanalyse

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Ute Holl

Ute Holl

ist Professorin für Medienwissenschaft an der Universität Basel. Zu ihren Forschungsschwerpunkten gehören Medienästhetik und Wahrnehmungstheorien, mediale Anthropologie und experimentelles Kino, sowie Kinosound und Elektroakustik. Sie ist Autorin mehrerer Bücher.

Weitere Texte von Ute Holl bei DIAPHANES
Ute Holl: The Moses Complex

Ute Holl

The Moses Complex
Freud, Schoenberg, Straub/Huillet

Übersetzt von Michael Turnbull

Gebunden, 332 Seiten

PDF, 332 Seiten

Moses has long been a source of modern fascination. For Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, Moses was a particularly fruitful subject for the study of memory and historiography. He also held great interest for the visual and performing arts. In the 1920s and ’30s, the composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote the three-act opera Moses and Aron. First performed just a few years before his exile to the United States, it required that its audiences distinguish voices from forceful background noise, just as Moses had to confront the burning bush before he could hear the voice of God. In 1974, filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet created an avant-garde cinematic adaptation of Schoenberg’s opera that continued the composer’s examination of the established hierarchies of seeing and hearing.

In The Moses Complex, Ute Holl analyzes these major works in detail and deep historical context, synthesizing the complex models of resistance to explore the relationships among media, migration, and politics. Since Moses descended from Sinai with the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, new media and new laws have often emerged simultaneously. Liberation, in particular, has been negotiated through many different cultural media, with psychoanalysis, music, and cinema all describing exodus and exile as a process of force. Offering a dynamic and comprehensive political and cultural theory of migration and violence, The Moses Complex speaks equally well to psychoanalytic, musical, and cinematic thinking as it does to our tendency toward violence in the treatment of migrants today.