Recombinant Narrative Machines: Journey into Fear and Suspiria (2005)
I was asked by Scott Watson of the Belkin Art Gallery to write a text for their exhibition of Stan Douglas's Inconsolable Memories. I decided to write about Inconsolable Memories in the context of Douglas's previous recombinant works. After I had written 10,000 words on Journey into Fear and Suspiria for a 5000 word limit essay, I set the text aside to concentrate only on Inconsolable Memories [click to read]. This is that material to the point I abandoned it. Subsequently, Stan Douglas asked me to write his DuMont book and so some of this material, in a much reduced form, resurfaced there [click to read]. (Note that some of the later notes are incomplete.)
Recombinant Narrative Machines
1. Journey into Fear
That Stan Douglas’s film and video projections are complex mechanisms, we know. Yet, how they function as the closed system of a machine is not the same as how they are constructed. The process of their making connects them to other series that exist in the world, whether these are actual conditions or fictional representations, which the completed machine, in the end, stands to and acts on. We commonly call these relations the work’s sources and references. Any work of art, however, cannot be reduced to either as the place where meaning resides—if we believe that meaning resides anywhere except in and through the work’s mechanics. We may be surprised, though, how some of these sources may enter into the mechanisms or technique of the work.
“Sources” in Stan Douglas’s works function within referential chains and the final work converges with or diverges from them in decisive ways. Where do we start in a chain that does not necessarily have a specific origin (chronologically or otherwise)? For Journey into Fear (2001), we choose 1975, which Douglas identifies as the year of one of the first major motion pictures to be shot by a local company and crew in Vancouver, which since has become an important centre of outsourcing for Hollywood production. The 1975 Journey into Fear was a remake of the 1942 film of the same title, which featured Orson Welles’s Mercury Players, and which itself was a contemporary rendition, even though its script widely diverged, of Eric Ambler’s novel of 1940. The historical and economic conditions that each of these dates signify—1942, 1975, 2001—register themselves in these commonly titled works in different ways that modify the novel’s themes. The 1975 version transformed the war-time original that dealt with weapons espionage to the economic aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis. Douglas’s “remake” of the 1975 version ambiguously sets itself in 1975 or today, we’re not sure, but incorporates this span, and that of the war as well, within the consequences pursuant on the world transformation from internationalism to globalism and the monetary arrangements that induced it.
All three pictures set their climax on a ship; however, Douglas’s is the only one where the container ship itself figures within the advantageous, fiduciary scheme of the plot. Douglas abandons the plot as a whole and focuses on the crucial scene set in the protagonist’s cabin where a “deal” is proposed. This offer occurs within a larger concatenation of similarly structured, though inconclusive, exchanges that serve to deflect this event as the dramatic turning point it is in the “original” films. Douglas deviates from his sources here to incorporate another reference into his work, Herman Melville’s 1857 The Confidence-Man.
Not so coincidentally, The Confidence-Man is a story set on a boat. Melville uses the Mississippi steamboat, the Fidèle, as the setting for his story of a day and night of confidence swindling. This story from the birth of the Age of Capital is arranged as a series of dialogues on the topic of confidence; these conversations, where money is exchanged for words, on trust, do not so much mask a deception as leave it in the open. The repetitious structure of these conversations, where we come to believe that the series of con men are one transforming agent, lends the novel its abstract, mechanical quality; nothing dramatically seems to happen. While this quality accounts for the book’s initial negative reception, it is evidence of its striking modernity: the book is a literary machine. The text is a linguistic mechanism where each element of its structure contributes to transformation and exchange, the exchanges of the ongoing series of conversations pursuant on an immediately preceding transformation. (Unspoken book conventions, such as chapters, are used to divide the production into units of dialogue, and the hiatus between them allows the confidence man’s off-stage disguise switches to take place as the means for the narrative to proceed.) Translating these structural elements to their function within a communicational model reveals the parts played by context and character: the flow of the Mississippi is a channel of communication and the Fidèle is a conveyance of exchange, more than a vessel for the transport of goods. Sender and receiver are merely poles, not individuated actors or subjects, but role players. The con man is the agent of transformation; his message of confidence is adapted to its reception, varied according to its potential dupe of a series of addressees.2 Confidence in this message system—the basis of trust in the conduct of affairs—is established by a shared code and context. The exchange from one form of value to another, from words to money, transpires only because of this guarantee of understanding. Participants accept the security of the code as a guarantee also of meaning, a presumption that truth, not falsity, will prevail. The confidence man succeeds because he does not play only one role but operates the system as a whole. Rather than attempt to communicate a message, to deliver a truth or meaning that could be taken away by its receivers as so much product of understanding separate from its delivery, the confidence man constructs a falsifying narrative within and as the conversation itself. The success of the “message” is not the delivery of a truth but the confirmation of the con man’s performance when money passes hands.
One criterion for a structure is reversibility (another we find in Melville is seriality). Curiously, contemporary reviewers of The Confidence-Man mocked the book by saying that it could be read forwards or backwards or started anywhere in its sequence. While Melville’s book maintains a timeline that is not reversible (our understanding of the shifting disguises of the confidence man and his successive dupes are dependent on this), these reviewers’ comments were unconsciously prescient. Douglas’s Journey into Fear fulfills the experimental destiny of the Fidèle, and the artist acknowledges his kinship to Melville’s falsifying narrative by commemoratively baptizing his container ship by the same name.
Between these two ships that bear the same nomination, both which assert the function of their vessels as the constant of their name, appeared a third not indicated by Douglas, a ship that plied a different waterway than the Mississippi River of 1857 or the sea lanes of today. I refer to the Argo, which Roland Barthes set sail in 1975 as the product of two operations—substitution and nomination: “Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.” I mention Barthes not as an unacknowledged maritime source for Douglas, because Douglas achieves something unprecedented with this body of work, but only to signal some of the tools necessary to craft an analysis of his ambitious narratives. Like Barthes, we must derive them from the vessel itself, from the procedures that establish the identity of its form. To do so, we must first describe the narrative construction of Douglas’s Journey into Fear.
In Douglas’s Journey into Fear, we are thrown into the middle of the (in)action. With neither context given nor plot or character developed, we must understand the story through dialogue alone; but the dialogue doesn’t serve to further the action, only to repeat the situation.4 A disjointed series of conversations between two characters in a ship’s cabin, a reciprocal exchange of letters, and two inconclusive “foot-chases” on the container deck hardly swell dramatic action. We seek another logic to explain the serial repetition of the work’s dialogical emphasis, which means paying attention to longer cycles of repetition. In successive loopings of the fifteen-minute film, the dialogue changes, though the scenes remain the same. As a consequence, in none of these scenes does the talk synch with the actors’ lips, as if the images were filmed in a language other than the dubbed English (six other dubbed language versions exist, created for the locales in which the work is shown).
Writing about this work, Douglas sets the context of the dialogue: “In an exchange inspired by the Price/Waterston [Möller and Graham respectively in the 1975 version of Journey into Fear] two-hander, a supercargo (Möller) and pilot (Graham) argue over the details of an arbitrage scheme Möller’s associates have assigned him to engineer. Apparently, if a particular container were to arrive a day late, confidence in a certain Asian contractor’s company would be shaken and either the services offered by his Export Production Zone, or shares in the contractor’s company, would be up for grabs.” A series of conversations proliferate based on the structure of this original exchange. However, the timeline is broken at four points to permit a computer randomly to select one of five different dialogues for each segment. No two sequences can repeat until all the permutations are performed.  (Each dialogue segment has to be written with the same number of syllables, pauses, emphases, etc.—a remarkable achievement by the screenwriters Douglas and Michael Turner.) “One timeline, based on Journey into Fear, lays out the characters’ respective bargaining strengths and weaknesses, describes the arbitrage scam and threat of death,” while four others loosely adapt their sixteen segments from Melville’s novel. The computer shuffles the dialogues so that the four derived from Journey into Fear are dispersed randomly amongst those drawn from The Confidence-Man. The explanatory character of the former is confounded since these episodes have no more dramatic privilege than any other whose obliquely charged banter seems to mask their arguments in parables of sorts.
Already this near equivalence of segments (both variation and sequence) lends the dialogues their quantifiable character and offers them to a manipulation that does not follow the rules of organic narrative. A computer might, thus, become the narrative operator. As the computer selects and combines dialogue segments in Journey into Fear, it fulfills, on its own without authorial agency or the “mystique of creation,” the poetic function, which according to Roman Jakobson, “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” We can fruitfully analyze an artifact—the closed text of a work of art—in terms of this combination of the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic axes (selection and combination respectively). But do we ever witness this projection happening in the active process of the time-based performance of a work itself? Not in musical performances or the temporal duration of film. As it happens in Journey into Fear, we see ever-new relations of recombining images and sound. But if recurrent recombining necessarily occurs in tandem, image and sound do not have equal roles in this process. The image track repeats while the dialogue varies. Only the paradigmatic axis of each segment allows dialogue to permute and to combine with the image track in each of its syntagmatic sequences.
This continual reordering of the elements of narrative construction through a differing arrangement of sound and image is, in fact, a new order that elsewhere has been called dysnarrative. Gilles Deleuze writes that the “‘dysnarrative’ only needs the paradigm to become crucial to the structural order, or the structure to become ‘serial’, for narration to lose the accumulative, homogeneous and identifiable character that it owed to the primacy of the syntagm,” which rules organic narrative.  While repetition, permutation, and transformation are the effective features of dysnarrative, Journey into Fear realizes this new structure through its paradigmatic permutations more radically than any film Deleuze proposes. At the same time, it fundamentally denies the premise of Deleuze’s argument that dysnarrative—which transforms narrative “not according to subjective variations, but as a consequence of disconnected places and de-chronologized moments”— is a consequence of the new post-war order of cinema where the time-image supplants the movement-image.10 In Journey into Fear instead, time is annulled in space.
While Douglas writes of his “dysnarrative” that the characters’ “conversation seems to go nowhere, and more than that, it appears to go on forever as two different variations of the scene alternately loop with two exterior scenes (flashbacks? flashforwards?) that sets the tone for their antagonism,” we do not yet know how permutational technique relates to content in Journey into Fear. Deleuze, coincidentally, identifies The Confidence-Man as a precursor of what happens in this new order of cinema where “narration ceases to be truthful, that is, to claim to be true, and becomes fundamentally falsifying.” Not withstanding the objections to Deleuze’s time bias, in what sense is Douglas’s Journey into Fear, in part based on Melville’s novel, therefore a falsifying narrative? Douglas writes that “The Confidence-Man, in all his seven guises, gives or takes the confidence of his interlocutors by determining whether their particular form of self-interest is best described as greed or charity and then entangling it in a financial contract.” The calculation of exchange of Douglas’s Journey into Fear assumes another accounting than it does, of course, in The Confidence-Man, though the ends are the same: a transformation of words into money (beliefs into value), and although a delay must intervene to make the money accrue. The negotiations that ensue in Douglas’s work—the dialogue timelines based on Journey into Fear and derived from the adaptation of Melville—are framed within a periodization that takes in all three film versions of Journey into Fear, from World War II to the present. The negotiations on the Fidèle now situate themselves within the economic transformations of this period, from the abandonment of the gold standard in 1944 to the breakdown in the 1970s of the Bretton Woods system that had replaced gold with the US dollar, to today’s global movement of capital that creates profit, as Douglas says, from “minute shifts in the relative value of—not things and commodities—but of value itself.” No more than its namesake simply carried passengers and cargo, the new Fidèle is a vessel for exchange through value itself. Although Graham and Möller are necessary to its monetary schemes, the subject is absent from exchange, or is merely a product of belief in its various representations, appearances, or fetishes: for Douglas, the humanist Graham is still tied to a belief in the gold standard while the cynical Möller is unconcerned about the larger forces that regulate his small profit. The certainty that gold stands for Graham and the duplicitous strategem Möller engineers, which will mysteriously result in unearned monetary profit that has nothing to do with the manufacture or sale of a commodity (that is, with labour), do not make each, gold and money, bearers respectively of the true and the false. Such a dichotomy perhaps would only be a sleight of hand of value itself, a falsifying gesture of capital. That is, neither is true or false, only the relationship of the two is falsifying. Certainly, determining self-interest for Möller and Graham and entangling it in a financial contract by trying to rationalize the disjointed narrative within a storyline tells us nothing about what is falsifying in this story. The confidence trick here relies on a displacement of expectation because the falsifying narrative doesn’t appear on the level of content but on that of form. And here the question of appearance of the falsifying narrative is exactly something that cannot be seen or shown, because, as a relationship of value, it is abstract. If it is at all visible, it is only as a fantastical or phantasmagorical figure.
An analysis that situates the arbitrage scheme within the larger picture of capital (global financial markets that have supplanted the politics of nation states) cannot be conceived, let alone stated, by either Möller or Graham. If Journey into Fear is the demonstration lacking in its dialogue, it is because Douglas has taken capital to be a type of falsifying narration. Capital here is not the legal guarantee that the gold standard might have represented in the past, analogous to that of truthful narration that “is developed organically, according to legal connections in space and chronological relations in time.” The work itself fulfills the conditions that cannot be stated within it by its characters but that, at the same time, determine them as mere “personifications of economic relations,” as Marx defines “characters who appear on the economic stage.” While this demonstration is given through images and texts that have the appearance of real life (offered through the naturalistic conventions of film), the means of production of its effects are abstract. This is because Journey into Fear is a machine, not a vessel like the Fidèle for transporting goods to market but a machine for producing dialogue.
In this machine, dialogue is quantified, parsed into equivalent and interchangeable units, and joined, according to a set of rules, in random sequence with other segments that function similarly. Permutation is only possible on the basis of this equivalency. Dialogue is an operation of the machine, not a consequence of the utterances of actors representing individuated agents. The machine regulates the distribution of roles as a function of its reproducible conditions. The ever-renewable product of these reproducible conditions is value. Value is an expression, not of the subjective individual, but of the objective relations of quantified units of dialogue, which are always combining in new configurations of value.
This machine is more the master of Möller than his own bosses; at the same time, the machine carries out Möller’s task, while realizing or mimicking the conditions of the market that his employers want to exploit. “Like any machine,” Douglas writes, “this remake of Journey into Fear has the effect of transforming time into space, by translating mutability and transience into a constellation of reproducible elements that are simultaneously present within a predetermined system. … Meaning inheres to units and periods of time because we make them that way—as a means of representing our experience of time to ourselves.” If meaning equates to time in the machine Douglas constructs, in the reversal he performs, its quantified form would be units of dialogue. Yet, we know that there is no subjectivity here, when it comes to dialogue, but the machine’s, which is to say none at all. There is no identity to the individual units, no meaning to them, than what the machine puts into circulation as relations of value, that is, of the changing relations of units of dialogue. Within this machine, identity is bound with value, the concept that links linguistics and Marxist analysis and that provides Journey into Fear with its working parts drawn from these two domains.
The quantification of what we take to be qualitative experience (meaning, temporality) is due to the reification of daily life associated with capital. On the basis of one of the dialogues, we might speculate that the emblem of this illusion we give ourselves, of meaning within a subjective consciousness we call our own, would be the “the false idol” gold. Douglas is not the cynical Möller who chastises Graham for this belief in gold. He constructs a machine that displays not just images but exemplifies the workings of value. In this joint venture of linguistics and Marxism, Douglas has found in capital instead a working model for permutational narratives.
We know that this machine does not derive its momentum from the exchanges that result from buying and selling—the simple circulation of commodities. Möller and Graham’s endless, non-conclusive negotiations (their exchanges) are played out within larger circuits of monetary speculation that do not announce themselves because the product they “exchange,” value, is invisible. We also know that the circulating of commodities, in which the Fidèle plays a role in taking them to market, is only the starting point of capital. No thanks to Möller, though, the Fidèle will not reach its destination in time, because in the conditions that Douglas constructs it will never arrive (like the product of meaning we expect or the Confidence-Man’s message that will never translate into cash for us). In spite of its permutations that take six-and-a-half days to unfold, Journey into Fear is a closed system whose long cycles ultimately result in stasis, as if a ship becalmed at sea. This crisis is the critique Douglas has built into his model machine. This machine, however, draws its resources and constructs its mechanics from two conditions of capital—from capital’s valorization of value, that is, its self-valorization, its ability to add value to value, which is to say, profit without seemingly resorting to labour. [although this is exactly what Douglas short-circuits in his closed machine] One is capital’s constantly renewed movement, its “perpetuum mobile”: the limitless movement of capital is the means of the valorization of value when the circulation of money as capital becomes an end in itself. The other is its incessant transformations: value’s circulation of money and commodities as forms of existence of itself (the former as its general, the latter as its disguised mode), changing from one to the other without losing itself in these transformations, rather being the independent agent of them in the operation of this system. It’s tempting to say that the latter explains the content while the former provides the form for Douglas’s work; however, even in the case of capital these two movements are not easily separated. Except the point is not to separate these movements but to mesh them together; capital’s ability to make value independently turns the self-creation of value into an automaton, an autonomous machine.
In Journey into Fear, Douglas has realized what Eisenstein failed at when the Soviet filmmaker said, “It’s settled: we’re going to film CAPITAL, on Marx’s scenario—the only logical solution.” He has not, however, like Eisenstein, announced it as his intention. Yet, capital underlies the propelling structure as well as offers the forms of appearance of what Douglas calls his recombinant works. Marx believed that his theories would have to transform themselves over time, from generation to generation, with developments in capitalism. So it goes in film, as well: if cinematography could be “genetically ideological” in its screening of concepts, as Eisenstein’s plan was for his Capital,  Douglas’s recombinant Journey into Fear provides the form for the expression of ideology’s dynamic system of value as it exists in capitalism today.
1. In his second chapter, Melville implicitly sets out the elements of his system that function through forms that assume the names “Mississippi River” and “Fidèle.” His terms of description of the Mississippi—“Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.”—suggest that the river itself is the source or at least a complicit channel of the swindles. Similarly, the Fidèle is a conduit of exchange: “at every landing, the huge Fidèle still receives additional passengers in exchange for those that disembark; so that, though always full of strangers, she continually, in some degree, adds to, or replaces them with strangers still more strange.” Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 9, 11.
2. Semiotics bases itself on the possibility of the lie, the performative on the promise; the confidence man plays on their incompatibility. The Fidèle’s passengers, so much human cargo, Melville classifies by type, representing the possibility of permutation. Amongst them are various hunters—“heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters”—the confidence man being the latter who outwits even those “truth-hunters” who would attempt to dispel his sophistical simulacra. Ibid., 10.
3. “This ship Argo is highly useful: it affords the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest actions (which cannot be caught up in any mystique of creation): substitution (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts): by dint of combinations made within one and the same name, nothing is left of the origin: Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.” Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (NewYork: Hill and Wang, 1977), 46.
4. “Organic narration consists of the development of sensory-motor schemata as a result of which the characters react to situations or act in such a way to disclose the situation.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galatea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 127.
5. Stan Douglas, “Journey into Fear,” Journey into Fear (London: Serpentine Gallery; and Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2002), 135. All unacknowledged quotations in this section are from this source, 135–38. As if to make up for the originating function of this particular scene on which the 1975 film turns, in Douglas’s remake no one dialogue sequence is an “original” in which image and dialogue are in synch.
6. A different combination of dialogue segments is selected for each loop until all permutations have been heard. There are 625 possible combinations that would take 157 hours to complete.
7. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” Language in Literature (Cambridge, Mass. & London, Eng.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 71.
8. Yet, script notes indicate that “additionally there are two variations of picture track montage and performance blocking.” “Notes on the Script,” Journey into Fear, 26.
9. Deleuze, 136–37.
10. Deleuze, 133. Deleuze, however, has reservations about the linguistic inspiration of the paradigmatic-syntagmatic analysis of film narrative, insisting that falsifying narration (his preferred term for the new order of the cinema of the time-image rather than “dysnarrative”) and its regime of images (opsigns and chronosigns) cannot be brought under the signifier underwritten by linguistic structure. Deleuze, 136–37.
11. Deleuze, 131. Falsifying narration has consequences not only for claims to truth (the confidence swindle) but also for conceptions of time and space—not to mention the notion of the self that an actor represents, standing in for us on screen. See Deleuze, 133 and passim. The lip-flap of Journey into Fear undoes the imaginary constitution of the self that was fully realized with the synching of image and sound with the beginning of the talkies.
12. See Barthes’s analysis of the change from the indexical to sign function of money in the shift from land-based to industrial monarchy, from feudal to bourgeois society. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 39–40.
13. Deleuze, 133.
14. Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), I, 179.
15. See Marx, chapter 5 “The General Formula for Capital,” especially 256.
16. Sergei Eisenstein, “Notes for a Film of Capital,” October, 2 (Spring 1977), 3.
17. Eisenstein quoted in Annette Michelson, “Reading Eisenstein Reading Capital,” October, 2, 29.
Stan Douglas’s film and video projections are complex mechanisms in which an archaeology of media production is linked to an historico-economic analysis of site. The subsequent narrative is then fabricated from a technical intervention into media representation. Thus, for his contribution to documenta XI, Suspiria (2003), site analysis figured in the final work through the linking of a symbolic eighteenth century landmark—the Herkules folly—to the popular work of two of Kassel’s most famous inhabitants, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Media analysis functioned somewhat differently, as if the artist brought something of a reminder of North America to his European sojourn. Suspiria exploits a feature of NTSC, the North American television standard, that is, as well, a ghostly remainder of its technological development:
NTSC was, initially, a black and white system. When color was introduced, the standard was not reconfigured but simply adapted by using the black and white picture information (luminance) as a carrier signal over which the color information (chromalence) could be superimposed—the color television system in North America is, in effect, a system of ghosts. If two video signals share a common “time base” or synch, their luminance and chrominance components can be interchanged by simply switching a few cables: using the same technique, scenes taken from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales will be superimposed on live images from the Herkules.
The ghost is the figure that haunts this project. Douglas is no stranger to the uncanny, whether it manifests itself in Europe (Der Sandmann) or his native North America (Le Détroit). Yet, Jacques Derrida contends in a 1993 lecture, given a few years after the spectre of Communism supposedly was laid to rest there, that “haunting would mark the very existence of Europe.” If we consider another source for this project, whose over-saturated Technicolor process lends its look as well as its soundtrack to Douglas’s work, namely Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, we might think Douglas akin to the film’s American heroine, Suzy Bannion, who kills the ancient crone of the witch’s coven doubling as a dance academy of one of Europe’s cultural capitals, the German city where she has gone to study. But this character is left to Else, the female protagonist in Douglas’s reworking and regendering of the Brothers Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Walt Disney’s animated adaptations of these tales are another source for the visual effects of both Suspirias. Addressed mainly to children now, the sanitized cartoons and the written tales partake in the same spirit of innocent entertainment and moral guidance; yet the Grimm’s collection was originally directed to its bourgeois German audience, as part of the brothers’ larger agenda to forge national unity through linguistic identity. “The brothers’ folklore and philology were ultimately educational, intended to instruct a bourgeois subject who—through a combination of guile and good fortune—could defeat a giant, outwit a gnome, marry a princess, or build a modern nation.” There is no room for das Unheimliche in such a national project.
Douglas, however, does not just adapt these stories, which have always existed in the public realm through their homely origins in popular culture, to a new technical presentation. He and his fellow scriptwriter, Michael Turner, rewrite a large selection of them, following the original, though, like their first compilers, rearranging the patterns of recurring narrative elements. They now, however , distill them so that they might be variously reassembled according to the work’s permutational bias. This exercise, which proceeds before the work is made, entails a study of narrative function that follows upon the investigations of folklorists and anthropologists such as Vladimir Propp and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) is the founding study that organized tales according to the identical actions (functions) of its various characters. “The number of functions is extremely small, whereas the number of personages is extremely large. This explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition.” Propp determined that functions always follow an identical sequence, whether all of them appeared in a tale or not. His arrangement of these linear sequences in chronological order would be called a syntagmatic structural analysis. Lévi-Strauss, on the contrary, proposed a paradigmatic model that rearranged constituent units, consisting of relations of subjects and functions, by similarity of type in the spatial order of a table or chart. Though not a source for Suspiria, Lévi-Strauss’s model, which defines myth by all its variants, turns myth (and myth analysis, which is one other logical variant, though of a higher order) into a machine in which Propp’s multiformity and repetition are the products of the combinational variations of a permutation group. Repetition and reversibility are features of this machine, which can operate in both the diachronic and synchronic orders of time. This machine is not just an abstract model whose working parts are elemental analytical units; it produces meaning through the combination of collections of constituent elements (mythemes) that are not just “isolated relations but bundles of such relations.”
Douglas and Turner’s script radically edits tales, reducing personages and functions—and everything that accounts for the tales’ multiformity, picturesquesness and colour—yet retaining their repetition. (One could argue, however, that the visual now carries some of this fantastical purpose.) While she may not be the protagonist of all, Else is made the overall hero of the tales. She replaces several figures, notably changing the gender of the typical hero. Likewise, the innkeeper becomes the main other character, variously representing figures no matter what station or gender. (Other characters still maintain necessary functions, such as giants and the devil.) Neither character type nor gender is important here, but rather the function the innkeeper fulfills in relation to Else. This interchangeability of character is no different than that of folk tales: functions remain the same while characters may reverse roles and social hierarchies. So, likewise, Else might assume the roles of three different characters from one tale, for instance, the common pattern of three sons set out on a journey, task, or exile, a condition that opens a story to permutation.
What remains of a tale in Suspiria when initial situations or terminal functions are lacking? A long story might be reduced to a couple functions, such as the switch of a letter by the devil that leads to alteration of the status of the messenger: death or arrest for Else administered by the message’s receiver, the innkeeper. This reduction from two long tales, which maintain the overall functions Propp analyzed, elides, significantly, the concluding function, which is taken by Propp to be the prototype for all folk tales, of marriage. As well, bracketting one episode in both these cases reverses the fortune of the outcome found in the original tale: from wealth, marriage, and inheritance to the misfortune of robbery, arrest, or death. Yet, perhaps it is not so much functions that are reduced—because the combination of segments from different tales into a new story accumulates them (though destroying their canonical sequencing)—as it is the linking of functions in what Propp terms “moves” that are affected (at least two moves comprising many functions are necessary for a tale). Thus, Suspiria can start its stories and end with the second move, which is the means by which the hero can suffer a loss not the reward that concludes a tale. (Contradicting fairy tale plots, Else is as often a loser, as if in some mystical shell game.) As in Journey into Fear, rules dictate selection and combination of the elements that compose a story in Suspiria. The original tales, mostly broken down into two to four segments, sometimes only one, and never more than a couple of instances of six, are combined with segments from other tales that follow, or they may branch to an appropriate segment elsewhere in the script (which follows the standard numbering of the tales). Each story is introduced by one of two narrators; the total number of both introductions and segments must be exhausted before any are recombined. The same rule applies to segments with variations, such as those mentioned above where three characters (brothers) are conflated in Else’s, or to those with multiple question and answer schemes.
Segment combination, as well, cannot break the rules of spatial and economic continuity. The stories are organized according to Else’s spatial location (Else is accused of a crime; encounters with giants; tales of the inn; events in the underworld; travels in the woods) and relative wealth or poverty. The former allows narrative to develop from the meeting of characters; the latter expresses the exchange of goods between two characters or the magical increase of wealth of Else. Yet, some of these location categories include others; for instance, encounters with giants take place during travels in the woods. The two main locations of the stories—the inn and the woods, with the underworld a subset to the woods—are opposed as poles. Similarly, Else’s change in economic status, from rich to poor and vice versa, might be schematically represented as a binary opposition (+/-). Axial classification of the spatial and the economic, however, is no more than an abstraction. Reducing the stories from ends (marriage) to means (economic transformation) changes the tales’ orientation. Though robbing the stories of their narrative diversity, this economic relation (which, all the same, still encompasses a number of functions) focuses us on other possible interpretations of the transformations that work through these tales.
In folk or fairy tales, exchange has a narratological function; it does not define social relations. Certain objects—magical agents—have transformative qualities or capacities that assist the hero in his task. Thus, the magical agent that the donor offers the hero in some tales (either the services of an animal or the power of an object) spontaneously creates the wealth that alleviates the lack or misfortune that initiates the narrative (the goldshitting donkey, the magic table or cloth that prepares lavish dinner, the protective club that restores stolen riches). If Propp suggests that magical agents, whether as living things, objects, or qualities, “from the morphological point of view, founded upon the functions of the dramatis personae, must be examined as equivalent quantities,” he was not suggesting that spiritual quality (transformative power) emanates from quantified substance; nor was he calling for an examination of the fantastical character of the object itself in order to demystify the social relations that it disguises. To do so would be a perverse misunderstanding of the function of the folk tale. Douglas, however, has already taken liberties with the uniform sequencing of functions. The rules that establish his permutations are not the same strict determinations that permit relative variation in the folk tale. What would happen if we treated the magical agent as a commodity?
In their script, Douglas and Turner frame the story sequences they derive from Grimm’s fairy tales by means of introductions, narrated by Suspiriorum or Tenebrarum, that contaminate the timeless purity of the fairy tale by untimely political intrusion: “The language of the project will be derived from that of a German intellectual a generation younger than the Grimms, Karl Marx, by assembling all of the literary allusions that are used as illustration and anecdote in volume 1 of Das Kapital.” Inviting an unwelcome guest into the inn reopens the tales to their haunting by a spectre—not necessarily the feared spectre, “the spectre of communism,” which to Marx was no more than “a nursery tale spectre,” but the spectre of the commodity itself.
Even if it is by way of literary allusion, Capital seems like wielding a cudgel to fairy tale narrative. Sometimes the analysis can be turned to effect, as in Marx’s famous analysis of the difference between use-value and exchange-value by illustration of a wooden table, as follows, when rewritten into Else’s story:
Marx: A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it…. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made from it. Nevertheless, the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to being dancing of its own free will.
Suspiria: Else found herself quite rich. Wealth altered her self-esteem, just as wood is altered when a table is made out of it. Nevertheless, the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing, but grotesque ideas began to dance from Else’s brain as if of their own free will.
Rather than serving as an analysis, it seems Marx’s words here (not always literary quotations from Shakespeare, Latin and Greek authors, etc.) have only been twisted into a moral epigraph, albeit ironically figured with those of the Grimm’s. Then again, another introduction—“Else’s friend always said, ‘The value of a thing is expressed in a series of different things.’ If you can trade a grinding stone for a duck, and a duck for a goose, and a goose for a pig and a pig for a cow, then a cow must be worth as much as a grinding stone”—that refers to the diminishing value of the exchanges of goods that Lucky Hans/Else inanely makes is not necessarily informed by its other reference to Marx’s analysis of the total or expanded form of value.
What do we expect of Marxist analysis in this re-writing and re-reading of the Brother Grimm’s tales? Does it offer tools for narrative analysis in the fashion of structuralism? That, in their analyses of mythic or capitalist societies, structuralism and Marxism share the fundamental concepts of exchange and contradiction does not mean that the myth analysis machine and the Marxist analysis machine can contribute to narrative construction in the same way. Marx is put to another use in Suspiria. Freud believed that, unlike haunted houses, the uncanny was not possible in fairy tales. How then has Marx come to haunt the Brother Grimm’s tales? In spite of Douglas’s assertion that the language of the project is derived from Marx, Suspiria does not so much signal an analysis as a staging. This stage machinery is of a spectral origin. Haunting comes from elsewhere.
Our over-emphasis of the narrative construction of Suspiria has made us overlook the fact that this work composes itself from different places, at different distances. We are repressing the ghoulish, unheimliches character of its visual construction that surely must first strike us when we view this work in favour of familiar narrative patterns, exactly what Freud did with his predilection for literary texts in his consideration of the uncanny. Haunting of tales that cannot be uncanny (pace Freud) would entail the visitation of an off-stage spectre.
Is there a spectral mechanics that Suspiria speaks to? Its exploitation of the tele-visual technology of NTSC makes the image a doppelgänger of itself, although the doubling is only a splitting of a signal. The ghoulish chrominance gives the figures a discarnate appearance, as if they do not physically inhabit luminant space but are mere visitations, frequencies—“the frequency of a certain visibility, but the visibility of the invisible.” Revisiting the origins of technology, Douglas discovers that it seems the very “essence” of media to spook itself.
Is media haunted? Or, conversely, can media haunt? Thomas De Quincey, a contemporary of the Grimms and Marx, thought the latter. “The brain is haunted,” he believed, “as if by some jealousy of ghostly beings moving amongst us,” brought about by the technological agitation of the age.31 Could this be the reason De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis lends names to the two narrators of Douglas’s Suspiria. While Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum are allegorical abstractions De Quincey wants to make incarnate, his descriptions would seem to pose them as ghosts, impersonations of flesh. “For,” as Derrida writes, “ it is flesh and phenomenality that give to the spirit its spectral apparition, but which disappears right away in the apparition.” According to their receiver De Quincey with his “electric aptitude,” these sisters of darkness and sighs communicate without sound: “They telegraphed from afar; I read the signals.” In Suspiria, they talk, although in voice-over. Spirits themselves, their speech conjures a convocation of apparitions.
It is not just the divergent technology of NTSC, then, that makes these figurations or frequencies visible in their supersensible sensuous, to use the language by which Marx describes the commodity in its “phantom-like objectivity.” Off-stage constructions place the spectre on stage—the conjuring voices of the spirits Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, for instance. De Quincey wanted to cloth these allegorical figures with human attributes. Isn’t the use of literary allusions in Capital merely parerga that clothe the work’s abstractions, off-stage supplements to Marx’s purpose—perhaps no different than the frequent references to spirits, spectres, and ghosts of Marx’s analysis of the money? But we could ask where is on stage and off-stage in Suspiria? As in a page conjured from the internet, everything in Suspiria comes from elsewhere. That the artwork Suspiria seems to congeal in the apparition before us, which we witness as a video projection in a gallery, belies the sources of its construction—not only the permutations that variationally sequence its narrative, which we might believe to be the locked syntagmatic order of a typical film, but also the sites from where the elements depart to arrive together here and now. What we receive is only the frequency we are attuned to. It comes and goes. But from where? And how is what we see held together in its disparateness? The technical brief of this work for its documenta premiere states a real time luminance signal transmitted from the Herkules Octagon is mixed with prerecorded chromalence signals of actors in their scripted variations and then projected for us in the gallery. We receive the combined image in this space, but can we say that this is where the work takes place? Just as much as the elements are transmitted from different sites, we cannot say that they reside, find their home, in the singular space of our reception. The image before us is no singular haunting. Bearing its technological history in the ghostly fabric of its image, the split signal of Suspiria masks through the presence of this image both a dislocated space and a disjointed time. We should ask not only from where these live and recorded signals come but also from when they arrive?
Then and there, here and now—haunting is always displaced. Can’t we say, with some justification, that the actors now inhabit or haunt the Herkules Oktagon, as well, not just the installation as the projection before us; that more than apparitions, it is language that haunts its gothic, dungeon-like corridors (but only a fragmentary language or, rather, a commodified language, whose sequences can be combined and recombined in various linkings of a chain, but not to produce riches as could the object of a transformative magical agent, nor in their restless assemblage to remain the stagnant treasure of some miser’s hoard); that this folly, a baroque expenditure built on the back of labour erased by the gothic romanticism of its fictional conceit, is haunted, perhaps not yet exorcised, as if by Suzy Bannion, by a spectre that arrives from … Vancouver; or that if there is always a commerce of spectres, not one alone, that this new world arrival from the divided realm of NTSC meets its spectral foes in the old-world woods where the magical agent is already self-haunted and doubled, the fantastical and the commodity in one?
Haunting multiplies. Each of Suspiria’s elements or sources seems to haunt the other, each other, the other in reverse, as doppelgänger twins. Layer on layer. Argento’s horror film haunts the Grimm’s fairy tales. Suzy haunts Else who haunts lucky Hans. Marx haunts the Brothers Grimm. A natural affiliation exists between the folk tale and the horror movie, the latter a technological updating of the oral tradition, more so than between these German authors of the nineteenth century. But just as the abstractions of capital provided the working model for the dialogue machine of Journey into Fear, the phantasmagoric nature of the commodity as analyzed by Marx now offers a model for what is visible and audible in Suspiria, even to the secrets of its writing, the rules by which the economic haunts the spatial in the structure of its stories—as long as we leave Marx’s text open to its own haunting by specters as characterized by Derrida. The literary allusions of Suspiria’s script lifted from Marx’s text to infiltrate, inhabit, or to exchange with the language of Grimm’s tales are iterations, not just rhetorical flourishes, of displacements from the theatrical spectres of Marx’s own text to haunt another. If we return to Marx’s text guided by the script, we often find that these quotations are situated crucially. We realize that Capital is another site of Suspiria not just a source, and that it, as well, works at a distance.
In the history of its settlement, North America has never known anything but capitalism; we are marked through and through by its economy. Tales of the dark woods are but some immigrant’s distant memory to us, Walt Disney not withstanding. Capital belongs to us more than do the Brothers Grimm’s tales. When we travel to Europe as cultural naïfs, we are branded on our foreheads and forearmed by selves already divided by commodity relations.34 We are well conditioned by capitalism and taught by Marx to understand that, alienated from our labour, the “social relation between men … assumes … the fantastic form of a relation between things.”35 So when we find a magical agent in the woods, or in the corridors of the Herkules Oktagon, that promises riches outside an economic exchange, we wonder whether we have stumbled on a backpack of gold that is rather some miser’s hoard.
As in Journey into Fear, it comes down to a matter of gold—however, not really its matter but its fiduciary sign: money. In both Journey into Fear and Suspiria, gold is a decoy, a false idol, to the functioning of value. If social relations are excised in fairy tales by exchanges that are only transformative narrative functions at times assisted by fantastical objects (magical agents), the outcome is still a pile of gold. Fairy tales still function like capitalism: “the characters who appear on the stage are merely personifications of economic relations.” In both, value creates itself, spirited by some magical agent; as Marx writes, value has the “occult ability,” in adding value to itself, to lay “golden eggs.” Yet, if economic exchanges defined as commodity relationships are lacking in fairy tales, it may be only that gold is taken out of circulation there, that it “is petrified into a hoard.” We find a disproportionate number of references in Suspiria to the literary allusions in Marx’s subsection on hoarding in the chapter “Money, or the Circulation of Commodities” that suggest that gold may not be only the “dazzling money-form,” the ghostly spectre that haunts commodity relations. It may also be the lack that propels the system of Suspiria’s machine. Just as stasis was the machinic short-circuit Douglas made of the perpetual motion automaton of capital in Journey into Fear—while utilizing the resources of capital, at the same time, to construct his apparatus—so gold is the means of Suspiria’s contradictory mobility, once we identify whose property it really is. Enter the hoarder to recover his loot.
The obsessive fantasy that propels the hoarder’s Sisyphean task of accumulation is the contradiction between the quantitative limitation of ready money and the qualitative lack of limitation due to money’s universal convertibility into any other commodity. This contradiction accounts for the double motion of the hoarding machine: the hoarder both withdraws gold from circulation but obsessively must return to accumulate it there at the same time. Could this quantitative-qualitative contradiction explain as well the lack that initiates tales and the magical accumulation of wealth that concludes them, if we consider that in folk tales “the number of functions is extremely small, whereas the number of personages is extremely large [which] explains the two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity… and … its no less striking uniformity, its repetition”? Is this a fortuitous homology? Might Marx haunt the Grimm’s tales in more ways than by the phantasmagoric commodity relationship that conjures Suspiria’s spectropoetic stage-works?
I am suggesting that Marx’s haunting is double, corresponding to different functions, visually and textually, that yet combine to make Suspiria the work and machine it is. On the one hand, the spectropoetics that derive from the haunted commodity provide the mechanics of its on and off-stage theatrics. On the other hand, Douglas has discovered the place where capital secretly operates in the tale: as the hidden, petrified hoard. The quality or capacity of the magical agent corresponds to the hoarder’s fantasy and, thus, the tale function of the magical agent expresses the desire to arrest the metamorphosis of capital in its first magic act—transforming the commodity object into the “gold chrysalis” of its money form. (The haunted commodity spooks/haunts the exchanges of the magical agent.) Economic exchange returns to the fairy tale in its arrest of circulation mystified by the magical transformation of riches; social relationships are obscured by the displaced image of the solitary hoarder that haunts the hero who has returned to society. Thus, social relationships based on commodity exchange do exist in fairy tales, only in disguised and distorted forms.
The machines that Douglas manufactures, conjured here from the spectral confrontations of capital and its famed haunted ghost hunter and set in motion by the quantified mechanics of a permutational narrative, are also unstated critiques that operate by the machine breaking down, although the work’s subtle mechanics that keep it in motion, here for a hundred days without repetition, might camouflage a contradictory movement we have already seen hoarding display. The critique is performed through the contradiction it enforces: what keeps the tales in motion is also what breaks them down, as the miser’s hoard disturbs the pure functionality of folk or fairy tale [the hoard/exchange].
Douglas doesn’t conjure in order to exorcise, though. Neo-liberalists like to describe capitalism as a “win-win situation.” Suspiria, on the contrary, operates by a loser’s mechanics. Someone always loses, but in the selections and inversions the machine performs and permutations that reinforce these perpetuations, this loser is often the hero, Else.
18. Stan Douglas, “Suspiria,” Documenta 11_platform 5: Catalogue (Ostfilden-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 557. (While Documenta was staged in 2002, the final form of Suspiria dates from 2003). The quotation continues:
"Thirteen synchronized black and white video cameras will be installed in and around the corridors of the Oktagon [of the Herkules monument]. Their video signals will be fed to a computer-controlled switching system that will combine their real-time luminance signal with prerecorded chromalence signals played back on DVD. The DVD material will be shot in a studio using an array of cameras that exactly match the height, focal length and angle of the cameras to be installed in the Oktagon. Actors in brightly colored costumes and makeup will perform scripted narrative fragments, which will then be edited and encoded on DVD. Each segment will constitute one of a number of possible scenarios that may be played back at a given point on a timeline. At particular (two-dimensional) branching points, the computer will select and play one of the … of possibilities and match the recorded set of set of camera angles with those of the live video feeds. The effect of this superimposition will be to cause oversaturated faces and figures to bleed over and into its setting, changing in hue as the quality of daylight changes within the space."
19. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York & London: Routledge, 1994), 4. The spectre is question is that of communism famously introduced in the first line of the 1848 Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.”
20. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, 2d ed. (Austin & London: University of Texas Press, 1968), 20–21. Propp determined thirty-one functions that could be distributed into spheres of action: the sphere of action of the villain, of the donor, of the helper, of a princess and her father, of the dispatcher, of the hero, and of the false hero.
21. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Shoepf (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1963), 206–31. I limit “structural analysis” to this essay knowing, nonetheless, that Lévi-Strauss refined it in later books.
[“… it is as though a phoneme were always made up of all its variants.” 212 [phoneme: paradigmatic]
22. Ibid., 211.
23. A variation on this function is the innkeeper’s attempt, at the conclusion of a similarly structured tale, to steal Else’s newfound wealth by switching her backpack (100). We should note that Grimm Brother’s fairy tales, while adhering sometimes to “the seven-personage scheme,” by which Propp wanted to rename fairy tales, is a “less pure and stable form of it.” Propp, 100.
24. Nor does this reduction delete others functions that are its reflection: for instance, the clever/stupid function of the servant /friend… inversions. … reverse roles and social hieracrchies. Duping: Else may be duped by the innkeeper; she may unintentionally dupe the deceptive designs of the innkeeper; while some inane action of the servant, whose narrative role is stupidity, may lead her to dupe her master, the innkeeper. However, the stupid servant only uses her cunning against humans, not giants, devils, or witches.
25. Propp, 82.
26. Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), I, 163–64. Derrida, 149 ff….
27. Stan Douglas and Michael Turner, Suspiria, unpublished screenplay, 2003.
28. Marx, 154. Can we look at the hero’s task as an employer-employee relationship? Can we treat the magical agent and the riches that result as commodities? The first corresponds to the initial situation of a tale: the hero is paid by the devil for his seven year indentured service (wealth subsequently is lost and regained); the hero sets out into the world through poverty—sent by family, rightfully or wrongfully—or to fulfill a task, which by cunning and deception, results in riches. Riches can derive from payment, from the assistance of the magical agent, or from a royal reward for services. None of these realms of payment (underworld/supernatural/royal) correspond to common commerce. Riches just as easily are lost as gained (though recovered once again), through a deceptive exchange for worthless goods or theft by a switch of goods, usually by a devil or witch or in the human realm by an innkeeper. Wealth may also come to the hero in the human realm not through intentional deception but through the stupidity of others. No labour, other than that of the task, or purchase is involved…
29. Freud, “The Uncanny,” Collected Papers (New York: Basic Books, 1959), IV, 395.
30. Derrida, 100. Any discussion of Marxist spectrology is indebted to Derrida.
31, Thomas De Quincey, …. 87. [referring to 1845] Stirner… quoted in Derrida, 172.
32. Derrida, 6.
33. De Quincey, 117, 149. [“higher faculty of an electric aptitude for seizing analogies,” 117]
34. [Marx, 167; branding or marking is number seventeen in Propp’s enumeration of functions.
35. Marx. 165. [dies phantasmagorische Form]
36. Ibid., 255.
37. Ibid., 228.
38. Ibid., 139.
39. Ibid., 230–31.
40. Ibid., 227.