A right hand glove could be put on the left hand, if it could be turned around in four-dimensional space.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.36111
When I came home I expected a surprise & there was no surprise for me, so, of course, I was surprised.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 52e
In his study of the “ontology of film,” The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell has written that “Wittgenstein investigates the world (‘the possibilities of phenomena’) by investigating what we say, what we are inclined to say, what our pictures of phenomena are, in order to wrest the world from our possessions so that we may possess it again.”1 “Possess it again”: though Cavell doesn’t pursue the matter—if he’s interested in the “ontology” he’s not really interested in the material constitution of film—it’s worth asking how we might take the suggestion attributed to Wittgenstein (like Cavell a fan of Hollywood film) quite literally in the case of film. How might film—it already presents or in the first place possesses a “picture of phenomena”—possess the world again?
1. Like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to use the title adopted in the English translations of his Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung of 1921, Peter Forgács’ film Wittgenstein Tractatus (1992) has been divided into seven parts, each constituted from found footage of seemingly ordinary people engaged in seemingly mundane activities. Each shot lasts only a fraction of a minute and sometimes only a few seconds; each tends to represent a single, simple event: a woman walks towards us with a dog on a leash; an elderly man gets ready for bed; a man seats himself at a café table and tips his hat to the camera. The identification of these people and of the places and times depicted—i.e., the origin of the found footage—remains uncertain throughout the film. Hungary before or after, or before and after, the Second World War seems to be the usual location, though one series of shots has been taken in ski country (the Austrian Alps? Switzerland?) or in Scandinavia (Wittgenstein’s house in Norway is explicitly recalled). The seventh and last part of the film includes several shots that seem to be set in Budapest in the 1950s—horse-drawn carts mix with trams and taxis in the streets; television has appeared in the home. In other films, Forgács secures a precise historical localization; whether or not the found footage itself permits a determination, the filmmaker supplies documentary commentary. But Tractatus doesn’t require—it actively questions—such localization and what might be gained from it, namely, an iconographical or iconological understanding of what we’re seeing which in turn can sustain historical interpretation and moral consideration. In this respect Tractatus offers a philosophical meditation on Forgcs’ own quasi-documentary practice as a historical-moral vision—in particular, its assumption that in its reconstruction and interpretation of its found footage and film (and its viewers) can see what’s going on. This meditation proceeds in part by exploring the conformation and in part by exploring the substantive claims—and in this case conformation and claims cannot be neatly separated—of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. It goes without saying that what Forgács reads in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus for the purposes of making his Tractatus is his own affair as a filmmaker—one of the matters of his film whose lines we can try to trace. It’s neither interesting nor productive, and it won’t be a concern here, to try to decide whether Forgács’ Wittgenstein matches the real—or some professional philosophical—Wittgenstein.
Preceded by a short pause separating it from the previous part, each one of the seven parts of the film begins and ends with a freeze-frame of the initial shot or the final shot in the sequence of shots in that part. As we watch, the frozen image comes together like a jigsaw puzzle or mosaic being assembled (at the beginning of the part) or comes undone like a jigsaw-puzzle or mosaic being pulled apart (at the end of the part). And as each piece of the puzzle floats into the frame or floats out of it, building up or reducing the whole image, we see the fragment of the image from both or maybe all sides—our “front” and its “back” (though in reality we can’t see what’s in back of what we’re in front of) or maybe all the way round. As the film unfolds—and as we can rewind it to pull apart the image that’s been put together or to put together the image that’s been pulled apart—we come to see, as we’ll see, that these framing sequences offer the first and perhaps the best instance of philosophy in the film.
The seven parts of the film are roughly equal in duration—about three or four minutes each for a total of thirty-two minutes. Whatever the image track might show us, each part of Forgács’ film quotes—in interleaved titles, in voice-overs, in overlaid titles and images—from individual passages in the corresponding part of Wittgenstein’s text, i.e., the first part of film quotes from the Tractatus 1 – 1.121, the second part from the Tractatus 2 – 2.225, etc.2 In the film this complex stratigraphy to some extent replicates the labyrinthine lemmata of the Tractatus—though in the end, as the film tells us in quoting Wittgenstein’s words, Der Gegenstand ist einfach—“the object is simple” (2.02).3
Sometimes when they are quoted Forgács displays Wittgenstein’s numeration of the lemmas (1, 1.1, 2.02, 4.002, 5.634, 6.36311, and so on). Therefore we can see that as the film unfolds it goes “deeper” into Wittgenstein’s text. And it would seem to travel certain tracks—they combine the logical and the mystical—within it. Moreover, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the first part consists of seven sentences, numbered 1, 1.1, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.2, 1.21—sentences therefore indicated as not all having the same conceptual scope or “logical importance” (logische Gewicht), as Wittgenstein tell us in his footnote to 1, even if “all propositions are equally valuable” (6.4). The seventh part is only one short sentence. But in Forgács’ Tractatus the first and the seventh parts of the text receive about as much film time as the second through the sixth parts of the text, which occupy several dozens of pages of printed text. This is certainly as it should be. The movement from 1 to 7 and equally important the movement from 7 to 1 constitute the essential burden of Wittgenstein’s text, pursued in an organization conceived to be lemmatic rather than narrative or wholly argumentative: though not exactly in a series of syllogisms, one can “read” from statements that appear to be more general and comprehensive to statements that appear to be more narrow and derivative—and, of course, vice versa. As Wittgenstein says at one point (6.54), this lemmatic labyrinth of sentences might be a “ladder” (Leiter). But it’s not—and no ladder is—a one-way street.
2. Consider the first sentence of the text, the first of the seven most important lemmas (1): Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist, “the world is all that is the case.” A more literal translation—“The world is all, what the case is”—would seem to be clunky and ill-formed. Nevertheless it would relay a crucial connotation lost in the logicizing translation. For Wittgenstein it’s not only that the world is everything “that is the case”—a kind of impersonal general logicity characterized preeminently by its truth. In his formulation Wittgenstein manifestly avoided the predicative structure absorbed into the translation (S says that P) to recognize a juxtapositive relation. All the world is / what the case is: der Fall was Freud’s and the common word (well known to Wittgenstein) for a “case” (as in a Freudian “case history”) or better for an “affair”—as in those things and events, Gegenständen, however “simple” (einfach—single, homely, “in a nutshell”), captured in found footage, and whether or not they might be a “case in point”—ein vorliegende Fall—of a general truth “in any case,” auf alle Fälle. Ein Fall is also, of course, a falling, an actual waterfall or any kind of general failure or downfall. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s formulation reads almost palindromically, and it would seem to have been formed precisely to permit the recursion: the world is all what the case is; the case is all what the world is.
Forgács’ film succeeds in representing such conformations of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (and as its way of representing the world it imagines or understands) in a way unavailable to its standard written exegesis—for example in Max Black’s well-known commentary.4 Black begins with Wittgenstein’s title in translation (“probably suggested by Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, it is said to have been proposed for the English edition by G. E. Moore”5). He ends with Wittgenstein’s final sentence (i.e., 7)--Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Black here recalls the more euphonious—and more famous—English translation by C. K. Ogden: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”6 Both English translations, however, lose an echo in the German—“whereof” or “about what” one cannot speak, one must be silent darüber, “over it” or “over there”—that Wittgenstein summoned in the immediately preceding remark (6.54) in asserting that a reader must “overcome” (überwinden) the philosopher’s sentences or propositions in order to see the world rightly. “Over there”—where we cannot speak about the world, even if (or maybe precisely because) we see it—we must be silent.
This picture of things (for the text represents what it imagines the world to be) tends to be occluded—and a logicizing direction and completeness or conclusiveness tends to be imposed overall—when it’s said, as Black himself does at the very beginning of his commentary, that “Wittgenstein treats the famous concluding remark [i.e., 7] as summarizing ‘the whole sense of the book’.”7 This is certainly what the English translation of Wittgenstein’s Preface says: “The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” With the exception of the substitution of reden (to talk) for sprechen (to speak), the word Wittgenstein actually uses in 7, the final phrase of this remark in the Preface does reproduce the text of 7. But in his Preface Wittgenstein himself does not say, as the English translation would have it, that 7 “sums up” the “whole sense of the book.” Rather he says Man könnte den ganzen Sinn des Buches etwa in die Worte fassen: Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen. “One can comprehend the whole sense of the book somewhat in the words: . . .” If we take him at his word, then, the single sentence of the seventh part of the text cannot be so much a conclusion—in the sense of a derivation—or a full summary as one part of a serviceable understanding of what the entire book says. The other part asserts that what one can say in general—e.g., 1 to 6—can be “clear” (klar). In this regard 7 speaks in general about 8 and 9, and so on, and about 1.111, 1.1111, and so on—where we can’t speak clearly, there we must be silent. “Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical” (6.45).
As Wittgenstein says in his penultimate remark in the text (6.54), his “sentences” (Sätze) can “at the end be known as nonsensical” (am Ende als unsinnig erkennt): after going “through” them and “on them” and “over them” (durch, auf, über), one can “get out of them” or even “dismount” or “alight from” them (hinausgesteigen; steigen refers not only to climbing but also to riding). In parenthesis, Wittgenstein adds that the reader muß sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist—“he must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” The translation conflates hinausgestiegen, Wittgenstein’s initial word, and hinaufgestiegen, his parenthetical elucidation; steige aus and steige auf—in the metaphor of a Leiter—would have to be climbing down (the other side?) and climbing up (whatever side one’s on?) respectively. According to the translation, one must “transcend these propositions”—the sentences of the text. Wittgenstein actually says, however, that Er muß diese Sätze überwinden—one must overcome these sentences (or propositions if the specialized logicizing sense must be preferred)—literally, one must “overwind” or “twist over” them. In this Überwindung we can see the world clearly.
Wittgenstein’s last sentence (from the point of view recommended in the text it could also be the first sentence) prompts the question with which Black completes his own commentary: “Is the ‘Tractatus’ self-defeating?” By “self-defeating,” Black means to assume a series of propositions that one might take to develop in sequential consequentiality from 1 to 7, for Black wants to rescue Wittgenstein from the charge, popularly associated with him, that his text fails itself (ein Fall?)—that 7 doesn’t follow from, and even undoes, everything leading up to it from 1 onwards.8 Even if Black thinks Wittgenstein doesn’t contradict himself, he has to aassume a text in which contradiction could be a feature of its sentences in relation to one another. This doesn’t always sit easily, however, with the lemmatic conformation of the text. Presumably a sentence numbered 1.2 has “equal value” as a sentence numbered 4.2, and a sentence numbered 1.21 or 4.21 can be regarded as stating an aspect—or pursuing a particular implication or giving a partial elucidation—of 1.2 or 4.2, even though it would seem to have less scope or generality. Nevertheless it doesn’t follow that 4.2 derives—as aspect, implication, or elucidation, let alone as logical consequent—from 1.2 through any number of intermediate sentences, even though 1.11 “follows” or better flows from 1.1 which “follows” or flows from 1. To “read” the first part of the Tractatus, for instance, one could read:
But with equal cogency one could also read:
To ask how sentences ordered in this quasi-palindromic way might conclude in narrative or argumentative sequence and especially what they might prove or how they might be “summed up” doesn’t seem apposite to the assertion of 7 itself—“whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.” 7 seems explicitly to draw our attention to the fact, obvious throughout the series of sentences flowing to this point, that there are many “gaps”—as it were “nothing there” over there—in their representation of a world said to have this very structure (see especially 2 – 2.225). More important it offers a showing (but cannot be a telling) of something endless or infinite, or maybe nothing endless and infinite, extending in all directions before and after and around and between all the sentences actually given. In the first short part of the text alone, for example, there’s a 1.11 but no 1.111, a 1.2 and 1.21 but no 1.22 (though there is a 1.12), a 1.1 and a 1.2 but no 1.3, etc. To notice these gaps or places of no-speaking or (from another point of view) to make these discoveries—here’s a density of elucidatory representation, there’s a thin overlay of general understanding, and “over there” we can’t speak—we must continually read back through or rewind the text: after absorbing 1.13 following 1.12 following 1.11, we reconsider 1.1 (and maybe even 1) before flowing to what follows it, namely 1.2.
3. I belabor these points because the particular directionality and the general reversibility of world-perspectives was at the heart of Wittgenstein’s psychology and his constructive practice in written and other media.9 As film, and precisely as film, Forgács’ representation turns out—we can use that verb advisedly—to be peculiarly capable of an exegesis of the philosophy it engages.
Like Wittgenstein’s text, Forgács’ film has constant refrains. Two ubiquitous motifs complement one another. First, we’re constantly presented with shots and scenes of people going in a particular direction—taking a road, following in line, making or riding a track. For example, the first part of Tractatus opens with a shot of a carriage or cart wheel, seen from above, churning over muddy ruts in a road (“the world is all that is the case” ).10 Next we see the cart trundling along the road itself, running through a flat farmland, then poled across a river by a ferryman; an intervening shot shows a rowman in a single scull rowing downstream (“the world is the totality of facts, not things” [1.1]). Second, these motifs are frequently followed, or inflected, by shots or scenes of a person or people dancing or otherwise “going or turning around.” Different people doing different kinds of dances appear throughout the film. For example, the first part of the film ends with a brief shot of a man walking in a circle upside down on his hands followed by a scene of a group of men and women dancing in a round with joined hands (again, we’re told, “the world is the totality of facts, not things” [1.1]). As these descriptions suggest, both motifs—going somewhere in particular, going round and round—embed images of going backwards (the rower sits facing away from the direction in which he’s rowing) or being upside-down (like the man walking on his hands). More important, then, the motifs support the film-philosophical investigation of Wittgenstein’s world-picture—his claim that if the world is everything that is the case it could be otherwise.
The middle sequences in the first part of the film suggest the nature of Forgács’ Wittgensteinian direction of approach, even though it will take the entire duration of the film to secure the viewer’s sense that it’s been seen there at all. After the sequence of the carriage traveling the road and ferried across the river in the first part of the film, we see a striking scene of a dying pig rolled over and over on itself in its own blood and shit, prodded first by a human leg and foot encased in a polished jackboot and then by a leg and foot wearing a heavy workboot. (In the fourth part of the film, Forgács briefly repeats a segment of this shot [here, the voice-over quotes Wittgenstein’s remark that “the horrors of hell can be experienced in a single day”11].) The owners of the boots aren’t shown and we’re left to speculate on their historical Austro-Hungarian or other identities; in other films Forgács has proffered scathing condemnation of German and Austro-Hungarian Nazism and Soviet-satellite Communism alike. In the succeeding sequences in the first part, we see a group of dancers (though it’s hard to tell, the dance seems to reverse itself partway through) and then a group of people, clearly friends if not relations or lovers, seated in row in a mountainside meadow, relaxing or having a meal. The camera pans from left to right across the group, showing each person in turn—smiling, smoking, looking at the camera, looking elsewhere. Then it reverses itself, though whether the person originally holding the camera has simply panned back or whether the film maker using the footage has “rewound” it partway through remains an open question. Either way, however, when it returns to where we thought it began “seeing” the camera now reveals two women, one leaning intimately against the other, whom we didn’t see in the initial scan, even though one of the other women in the group—we’ve seen her twice—appears to have been looking right at them. (“How hard I find it to see what is right in front of my eyes.”12) Though it’s hard to tell, this group of men and women appears to be the same as the group of people dancing hand in hand, already noted, which concludes the first part of the film (“the world is the totality of facts, not things”[1.1]). We would need nothing more than all this—neither brief close-ups of Wittgenstein’s face (taken from well-known portrait photographs) nor occasional overlays of his handwritten texts nor quotations from his writings—to grasp that the film tries to show (though it would be difficult or impossible to “speak”) the could-be-otherwiseness of the depicted world or to show the world as a picture, specifically, a film-like-picture in which its could-be-otherwiseness can be shown.
4. “When an acquaintance greets me on the street by removing his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of colour, lines and volumes which constitute my world of vision.” With this example, Erwin Panofsky, writing thirteen years after Wittgenstein (and likely not aware of his work), began his reflections on the relations between “factual,” “expressional,” “conventional,” and “instrinsic” meaning underwriting his theory and practice of the iconography and iconology of works of pictorial art.13
At the level of factual meaning, we see that the configuration in our world of vision is our friend, a gentleman in the street, and that the change of detail in it—in him—is an event, his removing his hat. At the level of expressional meaning, we perceive our friend’s intention; we apprehend this not by “simple identification” but “by ‘empathy.’”14 Panofsky doesn’t actually tell us whether his friend has “a good or bad humour, and whether his feelings towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile.” But in principle we will be able empathetically to grasp these “psychological nuances.” For Panofsky, both factual and expressional meaning are “pre-iconographical”: we require no special knowledge of conventions or cultural traditions and practices to understand them. Thus they can be called “primary or natural meanings.” They devolve from our intrinsic abilities—identificatory and empathetic—to see what’s going on in our world of vision.
By contrast, the conventional meanings of objects and events—what Panofsky calls the iconographical meanings—depend upon our historically specific knowledge and our culturally particular situation. “My realization that the lifting of the hat stands for a greeting . . . is peculiar to the western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others.” According to Panofsky, these historically and culturally particular meanings can be called “secondary or conventional” because they derive from, and represent a local coordination of, the primary or natural meanings that devolve from our ability to see the world. Someone who does not belong to the world of vision of the post-medieval “western world” (Panofsky imagines an “Australian bushman” or an “ancient Greek”) might not and perhaps cannot see the greeting even though they can see the man lifting his hat in an indifferent, a friendly, or a hostile way.
Now we might wonder whether and how an acquaintance could or would remove his hat to us in a hostile way—Panofsky has already said that we might empathetically apprehend such a psychological nuance—if the postmedieval tradition or custom of greeting means “peaceful intention.” There could be conflict, though Panofsky’s art and cultural history does not really address it, between expressional nuances and cultural conventions; by tipping his hat perhaps my friend wants to blow me off. And perhaps in a particular historical situation there might be a different cultural convention in which one can greet someone by lifting one’s hat as a warning or threat. But would this be a greeting at all in the sense of greeting in the post-medieval western world? Moreover, outside the post-medieval western world within which hat-removing upon encountering an acquaintance stands for a peaceful greeting, our friend in the street might not remove his hat when he meets us anyway “were he not conscious of the significance of this feat.” Panofsky notices, then, that it might be odd to encounter the hat-removing in worlds that do not include the greeting as and in the hat-removing.15 Still, it remains an empirical and a logical possibility—indeed, it would seem to be a logical necessity in Panofsky’s theory—that hat-removing in its primary or natural meanings, both factual and expressional, might transpire in a way, and thus in a world, that is different from the way in which it transpires in our post-medieval world of pseudo-chivalrous greetings. Though this world would be a world essentially different from our own, it would look just the same to us in our world of vision—from the “formal point of view” of the visual configuration and the change of detail in it. If the world is everything that is the case then it could be otherwise.
For Panofsky, an essential meaning—it’s the object of what he calls iconological analysis—resolves the primary and secondary meanings. In his account, the “intrinsic meaning or content” of the change in detail of the configuration in our world of vision tends to ensure that primary and secondary meanings converge seamlessly in a unified (“synthetic”) meaning. We know that our acquaintance lifting his hat to us in the street is greeting us in a friendly (or, in a different situation, in a hostile) way—that he is our friend, or not, that he is greeting us, or not, and so forth—because his action “can reveal to an experienced observer all that goes to make up his ‘personality.’”16 We know—on the basis of primary and secondary meanings of the configuration in our world of vision we see—something of his “national, social, and educational background [and] the previous history of his life and present surroundings” and even “his individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the world which, if rationalized, would have to be called a philosophy.” With his personality and in his philosophy, we see he greets us in a friendly way. Of course, it might be that we can only see his personality and his philosophy—they are only shown to us—in the fact that he greets us in a friendly way, and we have already noted that this “friendly greeting” can look (for logical purposes it must be able to look) just like its opposite, say, a threat or warning. (If his hat-removing always can only be a friendly greeting as a primary factual or expressional matter [der Fall] then there could be no question of its “standing for” a particular customary intention in the first place—and of implying a culture and having a content of any kind.) Panofsky assumes our “experience” of him and our ability to “coordinate a large number of similar observations” about him—possibilities Panofsky has built into his thought experiment in advance insofar as the man in the street has been said from the beginning to be an “acquaintance.” But can’t someone we’ve never seen before greet us in a friendly way? Panofsky provides no reason to suppose that the “content” solves the problem of what’s going on in what we see—only that it offers a resolution of what we see in (and as) a circulus methodicus.17 We go round and round—we might even find ourselves turned entirely around—in coordinating our world of vision as our world: our world is a tapestry of “intrinsic meaning or content,” a picture, even if (and precisely because) in the relays of consciousness tracked in Panofsky’s theory it could be entirely otherwise, another world. Panofsky’s iconology proposes to interpret actual pictures, picture-worlds, on the basis of the fact that the world in our seeing is a picture, a world-picture. The picture-world supposedly inherits the form of the world-picture (i.e., its “content”). For this reason it can be understood with considerable confidence—or so Panofsky thinks—even though the world-picture itself can be nothing but a picture-world resolving possible otherwiseness.
5. In the final shot of Forgcs’ Tractatus, closing the seventh part of the film, a middle-aged man dressed in a street suit approaches a small round table in what seems to be an outdoor café (though no sign or other kind of activity is visible). We don’t recognize the man—he hasn’t appeared earlier in the film—and the scene gives us few clues to know who he might be. He seats himself facing the camera, tips his hat toward it, and blows his cigarette smoke sideways out of his mouth—almost as if trying not to blow it in our eyes and almost as if we’re in his way. His expression is a shade off the neutral—definitely not friendly except so far as the tipping of the hat, within the “limits of my world,” might itself essentially be friendly. To revert to the possibilities in Panofsky’s thought experiment, he may be studiedly “indifferent,” possibly even slightly “hostile.” It certainly appears that he doesn’t know and maybe doesn’t want to know the person behind the camera. The tip of the hat seems sardonic; we feel the force of the man’s exhalation between pursed lips—almost hear the vigorous hppphhh. Just before the shot begins, a title gives us the full text of the final lemma of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” The silence denoted here is not the silence of a silent movie or of the found footage in Forgács’ film, in which we don’t hear the filmed human beings saying anything: rather the film investigates what “we must pass over in silence”—it might be unspeakable—in the fact that “what can be shown cannot be said” (4.1212). It’s the easiest thing in the world to miss what the film shows in what it can’t say about the world, about “everything that is the case”—to overlook the fact that the world it depicts, and precisely because it depicts it, might be entirely otherwise at the same time as it is nothing other (and for us can be nothing other) than what it is. In Forgács’ hands, this insight becomes beautiful and optimistic at the same time as it might be ominous and horrifying.
In this respect Tractatus belongs to Forgács’ broader project—especially in his films confronting the historical destruction of Central European Jewry—to figure the consubstantiality between everyday human happiness and an unsayable—and unspeakable—futurity and fatality shown to be entirely outside it, turning everything upside down or inside out. (If we could speak about it, it wouldn’t be fatality entirely beyond but simply part of our actual life.) The film repeatedly proffers a formal congruence between motifs already noted; we come to see that they’re the same thing viewed “from within” or from one side and “from without” or from another side. On the one side, people join hands and dance side by side or in a line or in a circle. On the other side, the dying pig rolls over on itself in its own blood and shit, prodded by booted human feet (once or twice the film seems to solicit us to wonder whether we see the same boots on the dancers and the torturers—but we’d have to rewind and replay to be sure); in the opening shot in the fifth part of the film, a dying rabbit, neck or back seemingly broken, crawls round itself in a backwards circle as if trying to put its head back on (“the limits of my language are the limits of my world” [5.6]; “whatever we see could be other than it is” [5.634]). As suggested already, however, it’s the easiest thing in the world to miss the deeper visual fact distributed throughout the film that two-wayness and could-be-otherwiseness characterize the whole human dance itself—if it’s not the Totentanz maybe it must be, or will be, and if it’s a Totentanz maybe it won’t be or needn’t be. (In one of the series of shots closing the last part of the film Death—a street hawker in black cloak and skull mask—wears a placard readable to us whether he’s coming or going.18) In Tractatus, it’s the essence of the world we’re in that we’re never quite sure whether we’re seeing things “going forwards” or “going backwards” or “right way round,” whether there’s a “change of direction” in the middle of things or “another side” to them, whether things are “going the right way” or “going the wrong way,” what exactly and whether anything will “turn out.” “I am my world—the microcosm” (5.63): A woman enters a swimming pool—she’s walking backwards facing us—she comes around in a circle, always facing us—she steps out of the pool. At any point has she turned around to go another way? Or is she always turning around and backing up and going another way as she goes her way? (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” [5.6].) Toward the very end of the film, an elderly couples prepares a bedroom and the old man undresses and goes to bed reading his newspaper (“the world is independent of my will” [6.373]: is he going to die?)—we seem to go “in” to a photograph in the newspaper and there to see scenes shown to be televised (a ping-pong game!)—and come back out again (hinausgestiegen), where the old man’s wife dances with a younger female companion—and touches hands with the old man sitting by her side. Have we gone back in time? Is this somewhere else? A dream? (“Death is not an event of life: we do not live to experience death” [6.4311]; the text continues, though it’s not quoted in the film, “Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.”) The fact of the matter always seems to be at the horizon of what we see, the edge of what’s going on.
At points in the film we certainly do see that what’s said in a language of describing isn’t at all what’s shown, what’s actually going on in what’s depicted. For example, the early shot of a rowing man—because he’s seated backwards, he seems to be going forwards in reverse—finds a supplement in a later close-up, seemingly drawn from the same or a similar sequence, of the action of rowing. Here, on a shot of an arm and hand pushing the oar up, over, down, and around Forgács has superimposed a notation of a movement going in the opposite direction. The contradiction in representations is actually quite hard to see—“how hard it is to see what is right in front of my eyes”—and a viewer could easily overlook it. But the cumulative effect of all the footage in the film provokes a sense that something’s not yet wholly aright in what we’ve seen in relation to what’s been said. In setting up this effect (there are many like throughout Tractatus) Forgács isn’t especially, however, interested in routine conflicts between natural language (spoken or written) or other notations on the one hand and pictorial representation or depiction on the other. He’s interested in the fundamental could-be-otherwiseness of anything being on this hand or that—it’s the rower’s right or left, up or down, this way or that—in the first place. This feature of the found footage—after all, are we always sure how to show it?—can be brought out not only in its contradiction with a linguistic description or other nondepictive notation. It can also be shown in its conformity with a description, for it could be otherwise: it could be not so much this depiction in conflict with that description as not this depiction at all, something for which there is no description or notation.
As I’ve stressed, Forgács deploys an essential logical property of the picture-world of cinema to show the essential could-be-otherwiseness of the world-picture: Wittgenstein called it “mystical.” It’s clear at points in the film that in making it Forgács has actually replayed the rewound footage, as it were running its backwards forwards—even though we think we’re seeing something “going on” in one and the same continuous way. (Needless to say Forgács’ work here and elsewhere meditates on traditional pictorial and filmic representations in view of effects easily constructed in, and now fully associated with, our manipulation of video representation—forward; pause; rewind; (re)play; etc.) In one notable sequence, we see a man dancing and leaping in a circle; the footage clearly speeds up (fast-forwards) at a certain point and at another point—even though everything seems to be one continuous shot—seems to be playing in rewind. This next-to-final shot in the second part of the film, like earlier shots, explicitly deals with pictures—“it is impossible to tell from the picture alone whether it is true or false” (2.224)—and implicitly with our world, the facts of things, as a picture (“we picture facts to ourselves”). In another shot, a young woman standing behind a fence bordering the track at a train station looks one way, then the other: is she really doing this, or has the film “rewound” her? Similarly, a man and a girl standing at the fence—they seem to be strangers to one another—seem to look toward without fully converging on the same point between them, though there isn’t anything there, then to look in opposite directions. Are they waiting for the same thing or has the film, rewound-replayed, shown that they could be waiting for different things—or vice versa? (“What is thinkable is also possible” [3.02].) In the third part of the film, we see a series of shots of a group of people in a bright snowy landscape—they are skiing—they put on lotion, they eat the snow, they stretch: “Their inner life will always be a mystery.” Or yet again, a man fires a revolver while a female companion clutches his arm (they seem to be at a house party in a country chateau, as if in a scene from Rules of the Game)—we see him pull the gun from his coat, extend his arm, a flash, then the whole movement in reverse. But then did he really “pull” the gun? Or did he fire it and put it away? We’re never quite sure—even if and perhaps especially when we rewind and replay—that we’re seeing something all the way through, or the same thing different ways through, or different things the same way through, or the same thing both ways, or different things the same way. The film asks us to rewind and replay as the indefinitely extended condition of coming to understand things next time: maybe then we’ll see, maybe there things will turn out differently.
In much of Tractatus it’s as if the very same things are simultaneously being seen, or could be seen, from the other side of the film stock projected before us. Thus in the end Tractatus—like other films by Forgács that proffer more overt moral-historical perspectives—tends to ask us what side we’re really on. When a man walks left to right in front of us, swinging his arms left and right, his right arm swinging before him is on our right, and it’s also on his right—but if the action is the same (for Panofsky, a “change of detail” in the configuration of his and our world of vision) for him our right is his left. Is it all the same to him and us? When a man lifts his hat up and down to us, his hat goes up for up for him and for us—but his up isn’t necessarily ours. Tractatus exposes such incoincident congruences in their recursion, asymmetry, and intransitivity, and thus in its implicit empathetic morality investigates the deeper human identifications they require: to understand the man we must know what it’s like for him to tip his hat in the way he does even though we’re on the other side. Is he friendly? Indifferent? Is he hostile? To discover this we feel we’d have to lift our hat, and purse our lips and vigorously blow our cigarette smoke sideways, just as he does. But to do this just like him we’d already have to know what he’s doing—we’d already have to be “on his side.” No mere rewinding (a mechanical Überwindung) can get us “over there” (darüber); we can show it only as an another side of where we are.
Panofsky identified this circulus methodicus in order to dismiss it. He believed it could be controlled in the empirical, “experimental” method of his cultural history.19 In particular, iconological interpretation and its historical-cultural particularizations wants to guarantee an understanding of our hat-tipping man—Panofsky’s or Forgács’—in our “experienced observation” of his personality and philosophy. But if Forgács immerses us in the historical and cultural situation of his filmed world, however vague its particular location in this case, ultimately he prefers the primal empathetic identification—a visceral appreciation of the meaningfulness of people’s lives even as he recognizes its limited vision. Like Wittgenstein before him, Forgács admits a leap of faith: since what I see could be entirely otherwise, what I see—it’s how things must be for me, the “totality of the facts” (1.1), the “limits of my world” (5.6)—partakes of the “mystical” in the fact that it exists (Nicht w i e die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern d a ß sie ist—“It is not how the things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” [6.44]). In his filmic repossession—rewound—Forgács’ found footage, sometimes unsettling, often ambiguous, is always sacramental: “Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical” (6.45).20
The happenstance incidence, the astonishing preservation, the manifest unlikeliness of the found footage as such—in its blithe and deadly existence a reminder of everything that could be pictured that was never filmed—becomes a total representation of consciousness as such: in my world it’s the greatest surprise of all that the world—everything that’s the case, my affair, my failure (alles was der Fall ist)—isn’t a surprise at all, for it would be a surprise beyond measure—certainly unsayable, maybe unspeakable—that the world is a surprise. As Forgács shows, however, it’s all there in the world at the press of a button.
This essay germinated while I was a Scholar in Residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2001-2002, along with Peter Forgács and other scholars and artists, to study the topic of “Reproductions and Originals.” I’m especially grateful to Peter Forgács for discussions about his work and about our mutual interest in the life, constructions, and ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Thanks also to Steven C. Seid of the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley for help with technical matters.