Text: Marx enjoyed visiting the Cirque D’Hiver in Paris / Witnessing the PERFORMANCES OF THE TRAINED PREDATORS and THE ACROBATS allows the people of the industrial and political revolution to visualize their OMNIPOTENCE, he claims / Oskar Negt on MARX AND THE CIRCUS --
Text: Marx and the Circus / The strange art of acrobatics!
Alexander Kluge: When you look at this picture, what do you see?
Oskar Negt: You see an elephant balancing on skyscrapers, a rather unusual constellation.
Kluge: A Russian circus poster.
Negt: Circus poster …
Kluge: There is a moon on his skin …
Negt: It’s colorful, there’s the moon, and stars ... the buildings are illuminated in different colors. A beautiful collage that shows what an elephant should be able to do.
Kluge: From the perspective of the circus. It’s a circus poster. It’s clearly distinct form reality. Because even an elephant is not bigger than the Twin Towers. By the way, on Coney Island – in New York, which provided the model for the skyscrapers – there used to be an amazing three-story sculpture of an elephant. Upstairs, you could spend the night in the elephant’s belly in a hotel; downstairs was a cigar shop and an exchange office. It was basically the center of the amusement park on Coney Island.
Negt: It’s a little bit like the thing with the French Revolution and the cow barn, and the elephant, and … those are all attempts to demonstrate human omnipotence. All the feats that would be possible if we used the means at our disposal efficiently. And of course that involves conquering nature, using and exploiting nature in certain ways, in order to accomplish these exceptional achievements.
Text: Oskar Negt, philosopher
Kluge: What is this cow barn you were talking about? You mean, in Boulet?
Negt: Yes, Boulet.
Kluge: What is that?
Negt: Well …
Kluge: A building?
Negt: A building. A building, a cow barn, open to the public ...
Kluge: In the shape of a cow. An enormous cow, like a multi-story building. Practically a temple of agriculture. You could walk into the cow, and there were displays, altars of agrarian possibilities.
Negt: Possibly, yes. Those are attempts to increase human productivity. And in this context, the circus is a useful way to build a fantasy world for the people – to show what they are dreaming of, what might be possible – and to simultaneously create a spectacle.
Kluge: That was a private development, not a political one. Politically, as a public display of revolutionary ideals, they came up with the Festival of the Supreme Being, of Reason. They cleared out sacred spaces, the bishop got kicked out, they set up a sand hill in Notre Dame. What used to be the altar is turned into a hut for the seats of the city council members, in front of which young women are dancing …
Negt: And of course it makes sense that the whole thing wasn’t particularly interesting or enjoyable.
Kluge: It lasted two hours and practically demonstrated that reason is boring.
Negt: Robespierre specifically got an outfit tailored for this Festival of Reason.
Kluge: He wore a blue gown like a Romanticist.
Negt: Like a Romanticist, or similar to a priest.
Kluge: A gown made from silk. And now everyone has to file behind him like in a very very cumbersome procession.
Negt: But it didn’t last. In comparison to the circus it is a relatively boring enterprise.
Kluge: And the counterpart to the Festival of the Supreme Being, the celebration of Reason at Notre Dame, is the place where the guillotine was set up. That was a public event as well, like theater, and highly frequented.
Negt: They even provided information about who would be executed in advance, in order to fill the seats. That is a demonstration of the terror of reason, which is very different from the Festival of Reason.
Kluge: And there were fantasies revolving around it. It’s not just that people are shocked, but that they wonder: Does some trace of memory remain in the severed heads? Can they still see the sun setting? Do they see their own head, or that of another, rolling into the pit? There’s a macabre kind of fascination with terror... One public spreads terror, and the other celebrates the virtue of reason, but they are both public spectacles that don’t work well politically or even end up having the reverse effect.
Negt: At least people quickly lose interest in both.
Kluge: Not the guillotine. They were still interested up to the very end. They watched with curiosity as Robespierre was executed.
Negt: That is true. But gradually they remove this practice from public sight.
Kluge: And in the meantime people have created their own circus as a revolutionary artform by paying small amounts of money, without any influence from the authorities.
Negt: Of course, since the ancient times of the Circus Maximus, circus was always also considered a form of entertainment and distraction.
Kluge: But leaning more towards the guillotine. That means murder. Big cats got slaughtered, gladiators killed each other. There were duels. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in a modern circus. No one dies at the circus. Except in an accident.
Kluge: So it’s kind of different after all ...
Negt: It’s different. It’s also different from the times of Pompey, who had 500 elephants displayed and then slaughtered in his new theater. The audience finally fled because they couldn’t take the screams of the elephants anymore.
Kluge: It was a reenactment of the fate of the Carthaginians. Rome’s victory over Carthage.
Negt: A demonstration of what happened to the Carthaginians, and a demonstration of his power that made it possible for him to display 500 elephants on stage. Exactly. At the circus, though, it’s a kind of visualization, a form of transformation in the realm of imagination, of visualization – with certain risks for animals and humans, but it turns fatal only accidentally.
Kluge: Karl Marx was very interested in the French Revolution, and he went to the circus a lot. What would he have had to say about the circus as economic, as social phenomenon, as a piece of politics?
Negt: Well, I mean, the circus is also a kind of representation, a display of human desires and possibilities. The training and the fostering of abilities, of skills, of unusual skills, he certainly would have found that fascinating.
Kluge: A greenhouse of human and unexpected skills. Marx would compare it to the greenhouses at the World Fair.
Negt: Yes of course. And his admiration for the World Fair is documented. What is offered here is a compilation of human skills, and therefore his concept of progress, which is very much tied to technical potentials, contains experimental element such as the circus.
Kluge: There are experiments. On the one hand, there are acrobats who can fly across the circus tent. They don’t actually know how to fly, but they can pretend to fly. They are defying gravity.
Negt: Yes, and it’s kind of similar to what the early utopists, like Thomas More and others, associated with certain growth potentials in society. Thomas More speaks of submarines, and flying has been a fantasy since Icarus. That means, these forces are demonstrated in a more less risk-free way to entertain the audience.
Text: Risk the impossible!
Negt: The acceleration, the animal training – an elephant would still not be able to balance on skyscrapers, but it would be able to balance its enormous weight on one leg.
Kluge: Which they only do when coerced by humans. I have never seen an elephant in Africa do this voluntarily.
Text: Verena and Rudi in Hannover
Negt: Well, kind of. Baby elephants do that. Here in Hannover at the zoo, there are two baby elephants, roughly the same age. One is a climber, he loves to climb, and takes a lot of risks climbing. The other one observes and tries to imitate him and constantly falls over. That means, they take pleasure in experimentation. It’s possible of course that there is some kind of human influence involved. The animals’ perception of the audience is …
Kluge: One of them can do something, and the other one imitates him and fails. Both spectacles are equally entertaining.
Negt: Very entertaining indeed.
Negt: It’s basically the aimless play of emotions that turns out to have a hidden purpose after all, and eventually reveals its organization.
Kluge: Its purpose is to express wishes.
Negt: To express wishes, and to playfully – not forcefully – navigate the playful game of different emotions.
Kluge: To establish a balance of emotions.
Negt: That is pleasure.
Kluge: That is pleasure. And at the end, at least in a great French circus, there’s always a big tableau, a living portrait, where they are displaying some kind of fantasy, grief, comfort, something like that. The animals are included, as are all the artists, they grieve together, they are happy together. A triumphal procession is rather the exception. For example, they might show the murder of one of Napoleon’s generals in Cairo, who is stabbed by a radical.
Negt: And his death is lamented again at the circus.
Kluge: There’s the public grief on occasion of the death of General Kléber. And the elephants ... well, they aren’t really grieving ... but when they are kneeling at the command of their trainer, they look like they are grieving.
Text: Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill
Kluge: One of the Sioux chiefs who fought and killed General Custer and his troops later worked with Buffalo Bill at the circus. Under a pseudonym. But he was authentic. A true killer of the white man. That was circus at its best.
Negt: But of course it’s kind of a tragic development. It’s, I don’t know, like Professor Unrat in the play who appears on stage as a humiliated figure. That’s what I always felt in regard to Buffalo Bill – it’s demeaning and humiliating that the great chief performs for the white man. Of course it was also at a time when the circus was an important spectacle. In our mediated world, the circus is only one element among many others.
Text: Marx and the Circus / The strange art of acrobatics!