Thinking of Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy (L’Héritage de la chouette, 1989)

Inner Time of Television, © The Otolith Group 2010

Inner Time of Television, © The Otolith Group 2010

 

Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy was broadcast only once, in 1991 on the British Channel 4.  I came across it in 2010 when The Otolith Group presented it as a part of their Turner Prize installation, Inner Time of Television, when the entire series was shown simultaneously on thirteen gallery monitors.

1989 was a year of particular personal importance. Not only did the Cold War ‘end’ (or carry its battles elsewhere), the Berlin Wall fall and a set of events that will mark the collapse of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia begin, 1989 marked the cultural end of the twentieth century. Chris Marker’s series The Owl’s Legacy, made in 1989, highlights this. Its theme (the key legacies of Ancient Greece), its ambitious scope, televisual strategies and the focussed temporal space providing ‘collective thought’ were no longer possible since the onset of the digital television. As the Otolith Group wrote, ‘To look at The Owl’s Legacy today is to see the ways in which it dramatized the project of memorialisation in an age of poststructuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism.’

For me, the series is fascinating both in its original frame and as an excavated copy. The irony of the discourse that ‘desires to question and to complicate the mythical authority of the West’ at the precise moment when the West was politically and economically establishing crushing authority over the non-capitalist regions is biting. As are the various legacies of poststructuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism two decades on. The idea of a ‘conceptual architecture for an archive in order to emphasise a mode of connectibility’ shares its characteristics (and its corroded neoliberal language) with the internet; and yet the sheer depth of the ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with its dead white men at the helm, offers up a provoking and provocative analysis of the present.

Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy (1989) can be viewed here.

More about Chris Marker and the Left Bank Group can be found here.

Below is The Otolith Group introduction to Inner Time of Television (2010). © TOG, bold highlight my own.
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A BRIEF MEDITATION ON THE 13 LEGACIES OF ATHENE NOCTUA

’22 years after it’s first and only broadcast on ARTE and Channel 4, L’Héritage de la chouette, referred to by its English title The Owl’s Legacy remains the most mysterious of Chris Marker’s many projects. Marker’s ambitious televisual essay has only ever been screened at a small number of international film festivals. Filmed in 5 cities over 2 years with 59 guests, this 13 part series on the potentials, legacies and afterlives of Ancient Greece has never been broadcast within Greece.

By creating a context within the space of The Turner Prize exhibition for audiences to encounter The Owl’s Legacy, Inner Time of Television seems to be understandable as an act of appropriation or curation. In its initial appearance in the context of the First Athens Biennale of 2007, the work seemed to be a matter of rendering previously inaccessible work visible. Indeed, Inner Time of Television might be considered as a public service that parallels the kind of work made available on Kenneth Goldsmith’s invaluable ubuweb site. In this sense, it might be understood as an encounter with the forgotten archives of contemporary televisuality.

On reflection, however, ambiguities emerge that are both instructional and elusive. Inner Time of Television is not an act of appropriation in the normative sense nor is it a curated project in the sense normally implied by that term; instead, like all Otolith Group projects, it works with a notion of excavation that complicates the stance of condescension which the present holds towards the recent past. While Inner Time of Television can be seen as bearing a partial relation to the Group’s parallel curatorial engagements with the works of Black Audio Film Collective and of Harun Farocki, it might be usefully viewed as an operation of exhumation, reconfiguration, displacement, invitation and encounter. The reframings it deploys are multiple; this essay indicates some of them while hinting at others.

On encountering Inner Time oF television, what becomes immediately apparent is that a television series such as The Owl’s Legacy could never be broadcast on British television today. Marker’s sustained, recursive focus on notions of the Symposium, the Olympics, Democracy, Nostalgia, History, Mathematics, Logomachy, Music, Cosmogony, Mythology, Misogyny, Tragedy and Philosophy, voiced for Channel 4 by British actor Bob Peck, foregrounds a seriously playful pedagogy whose scale, scope, aspiration and ambition has long since disappeared from high definition digital television. In the British context, it is clear that the increase in the number of television channels has gone hand in hand with the elimination of time and space for cultural interventions such as The Owl’s Legacy, Jean-Luc Godard’ s Histoire(s) of Cinema (1988-98) and Noel Burch’s The Silent Revolution: What do These Old Films Mean? (1987). The Britain of 1989 still operated with four terrestrial channels; the move from the broadcasting culture of the late 1980s to today’s culture of narrowcasting implies a shift from a captivated mode of attention towards a mode that media critic Linda Stone calls ‘continuous partial attention’.

To reconstruct the serial format of The Owl’s legacy within the environment of the gallery therefore means to excavate an earlier kind of televisual public space. What was once routine and domestic returns in 2010 as an artificial encounter which makes visible the technical conditions of a now extinct form of mass spectatorship. To encounter Inner Time of Television is to be invited to self-consciously inhabit a reconstructed mode of attention. Faced with a spatial configuration of 13 monitors, the viewer comes face to face with a monument to dead television.

The subtitle of The Owl’s Legacy is: 13 Greek Words Deciphered By… What follows is a list of 21 names although the series contains many more guests. The interviewees range from the political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis and the composer Iannis Xenakis to the filmmaker Elia Kazan and the classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant; all of whom have since died. The opportunity to hear figures such as these is rare; all the more so, indeed, to hear them talking aloud in a montage whose organization takes its cue from the unfolding of a series of unscripted expression.

What is specific to this form of montage is its logic of keywords. The Owl’s Legacy might be characterised as an associative archaeology of knowledge, a digressive excavation of concept manufacture that seems, initially, to be ordered as a taxonomy, but functions more precisely as a thesaurus. The distinction is significant; a taxonomy privileges the individual items of a collection; a thesaurus, by contrast, constructs a conceptual architecture for an archive in order to emphasise a mode of connectibility.

The architecture that structures the audiovisual imagery of The Owl’s Legacy is totemic and iconic. The owl, like the cat, is Marker’s totemic creature; it never fails to make an appearance in all of his films. Images of owls are secreted within and between shots, operating beneath and across the diegesis. In The Owl’s Legacy, by contrast, the image of the owl is continually foregrounded; it becomes an iconic image that reappears throughout the series. Each interviewee is assigned their own specific owl. A giant white barn owl looms behind the classicist Manuela Smith, who actually turns round to ‘speak to the owl’ at one point; to the right of the singer Angelique Ionatos can be seen a giant grey Collared Scops owl while a giant green owl face lurks behind Iannis Xenakis. It is as if each guest has been indexed according to a dedicated icon; as if each owl is summoned by the appearance of each speaker and is called into existence by the laws of the studio-world within which it appears.

This sense of iconographic revelation is partially explained by the fact that the presence of the owl emblematises the possibilities of newly available videographic technology. The chromatic palette of postproduction that woudl become increasingly important to Marker throughout the 1990s is announced here for the first time; the menu of vision mixing options is integrated into The Owl’s Legacy with an excitement that is palpable; each episode seems to offer the opportunity for television to display its newly enhanced graphic capabilities.

Each speaker is assembled under the sign of an owl; each owl is associated with the sign of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and her Roman equivalent Minerva. When Hegel asserted that the ‘owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk’ in the preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821), what was being suggested was a work of vigilance; as darkness closes in and obscures the events of the day, the owl begins its work of comparison; it scans the nights in the forest of history, belatedly grasping the images of departed daylight in order to organise them as montage. The temporal distance offered by Ancient Greece renders the new technology of the present instantly visible even as that same technology is deployed in the service of rendering Ancient Greece visible in its difference. By integrating the imagery of antiquity into modern media, The Owl’s Legacy sets a dialectical rigour in motion that calls to mind the time-travelling aesthetic pioneered by Wendy Carlos in the analogue recompositions of her albums Switched on Bach (1968) and The Well Tempered Syntehsiser (1969).

Marker’s playful approach to the form and format of the television series is allied to a seriousness that resonated with the cultural climate of the late 1980s. In 1989, Channel 4 was only seven years old; conceived by a community of progressive filmmakers that had participated in and were shaped by the triple legacies of cineculture circa 1968, the subcultural permission of 1976 era punk and the demands for media access signalled by the Brixton uprisings of 1981, the Channel saw itself as an independent network that could enact the idea of cinema as social practice on a national scale. For the first time, the closed world of terrestrial television could be opened up to ideas formulated by the Brechtian vanguards of Third Cinema. Channel 4 committed itself to participating and promoting the aspirations of the ‘new social movements’ of working class, feminist, gay, lesbian and African-Carribean and Asian diasporic subjects mobilized by the social energy specific to the events of 1968, 1977 and 1981.

The Owl’s Legacy does not, initially, seem to concern itself with any of those revisionist imperatives. To analyse the cultural practice of the ‘Greeks’, the name that stands for ‘ancient Greek civilisation’ and by association, for the ‘foundation’ of ‘European civilisation’, would not, on first viewing, seem to be a radical project. Apart from the presence of the comparative mythologist Atsuhiko Yoshida, all of its speakers are white European or North American; of these, female scholars constitute a reduced but significant presence. Each episode, however, includes scenes of women conspicuously younger than the men to whom their attention is directed. Head tilted, each woman meekly listens to the discourse of the elders seated at the table. One woman, anticipating the role of Catherine Belkhodja in Level Five (1996) appears as a silent screen avatar nodding in appreciative encouragement of George Steiner’s verbose erudition. The camera continually returns to stare at these women while the montage uses their image as a mute commentary upon the circulating speech even as it insists upon their secondary, submissive status. These impassive figures seem to evoke the hetairai that played a role similar to that of Japanese geishas within the homosocial milieu of the symposium. As historian Christiane Bron points out, however, the hetairai, like the geisha, were recognised by men for their conversational acumen. Here, by contrast, the contribution of the young women is demoted to that of accompaniment, thereby reinforcing, even flaunting, the scholarly sexism of the symposium.

As a result, the series could be characterised and caricatured as five and a half hours of white male thinkers talking about the importance of the ideas of dead white men. By the time The Owls Legacy broadcast on Channel 4 in 1991, Britain’s Sunday newspapers were beginning to report the appearance of the phrase ‘dead white men’ in American campuses; uttered derisively or approvingly, the phrase chrystallised the animosity between deconstructionists, cultural materialists and conservativists in the field of literature, literary theory and art history over the canon and the curriculum of common culture.

Canon, curriculum, common and culture: each of the terms listed in that sentence were disputed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, 1989 is often indexed to the two events of Der Mauerfall: the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. Watching The Owl’s Legacy recalls a related but distinct moment that has been somewhat overshadowed by these events; a moment in which the meaning and authority of origin, ancestry, inheritance, legacy, history, nationality, race, civilisation, authority and the idea of the West was being contested across an increasing number of disciplines.

In 1985, for example, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism analysed the mediated formation of nationalisms. As filming began on the Owl’s Legacy in 1987, Volume 1 of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization emerged onto the English market; Marker indeed read it carefully and alluded to its subtitle – The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985 – in the voiceover script of Episode 2’s investigation of the myth of the Olympics. In the same year, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul of Today’s Students lamented the supposedly corrosive effects of Continental philosophy. In 1988, Valentin Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa appeared in English translation; this pioneering deconstruction of fantasies of Africanity was followed in 1990 by Robert J. C. Young’s White Mythologies: Writing History and the West which teased out the implications of the poststructuralist critique of humanism, subjectivity and historiography; Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by contrast insisted upon a revisionist pulp-Dionysian reading of canonical cultural forms. In 1991, The Use of Pleasure, the second volume of Michael Foucault’s The History of Sexuality appeared in English translation, followed a year later by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s edited anthology The Invention of Tradition. In his introductory essay, Hobsbawm made an observation that could have easily served a motto for The Owl’s Legacy: ‘Novelty’, he wrote, ‘is no less novel for being able to dress up easily as antiquity.’

What was at stake in these texts was the desire to question and to complicate the authority of the West, whiteness and Europe as a founding origin of culture; an authority that Derrida had described as white mythology. In an interview conducted with critic Walter Cohen in 1993, Bernal summarised the mood of the moment, insisting that what ‘I’m trying to do is destroy the image of Europe as sui generis and autochtonous.’ When Cohen asked Bernal whether ‘you take your work to be anti-European’ Bernal replied that ‘my enemy is not Europe; it’s purity – and the idea that purity ever existed or that if it does exist, it is somehow culturally more creative than mixture.’

To look at The Owl’s Legacy today is to see the ways in which it dramatized the project of memorialisation in an age of poststructuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism. Some scholars enjoyed the shifting terrain of the late 1980s, others scrambled for high ground and others liked nothing better than to plant flags in sinking sands. In Episode 1, the classicist Mark Griffith posed the question: ‘What I’d like to ask is what is this generation doing to the Greeks.’ John Winkler, who was to die from complications from AIDS only a year later, took up Griffith’s point: ‘What’s most interesting now,’ he said, ‘is to study the difference between the idealisation and the reality.’ Classicist David Halperin suggested that what was commonly thought of as ‘Greek genius’ was ‘a kind of legal fiction by means of which we get to authorise our own inquiries into our own identities.’

Halperin and Winkler’s revisionist thinking was clearly informed by Foucault’s writings on sexuality in Ancient Greece. Marker interviewed both scholars in the amphitheatre at University of California, Berkeley where Foucault put the final touches to The Use of Pleasure and the Care of the Self in 1983 until his death in 1984. As Michael Hardt has recently suggested, the temporal distance of Ancient Greece offered Foucault a position from which to grapple with contemporary political problems while its scholarly seriousness provided a space from which to experiment with dangerous ideas. The Owl’s Legacy similarly juxtaposed critical perspectives informed by feminist anthropology and New Historicism with more conservative positions, each of which were nonetheless linked by devotion to their subject. Interviewees such as Oswyn Murray, Manuela Smith and George Steiner were unreconstructed Hellenomaniacs that had pledged their troth to Greece and who loved nothing more than to generalise on questions of nationality and race. Greek interviewees like Marios Ploritis and Kostas Gorgouspoulos, by contrast, tended to declare the superiority of Greece with a peculiar kind of defensive pride while Cornelius Castoriadis and Michel Serres articulated their insights with an enthusiasm for self-critique that was compelling to watch. Marker complicated the unquestioning assumptions of many interviewees by having guests such as Balthasar Lopes and Atsuhiko Yoshida to rethink classical discourse through the transcultural connections between Ancient Greece, Ancient Japan and contemporary Cape Verde.

In its totality, The Owl’s Legacy might be interpreted as a collective conversation in which Hellenism, understood as the inverted twin of Orientalism, could be invoked, decoded, interrogated, summoned, channelled, celebrated, critiqued, feted, mourned and marvelled over. To watch The Owl’s Legacy is to observe the ways in which statements are constantly modulated, modified, qualified, contradicted, affirmed, underscored and emphasised by the weight, frequency and placing of image, sound, music and voice. It is to encounter the moment when the intelligence of television was networked into a form of collective thought. By using its guests to excavate and to mobilise the forms of antiquity, Marker assembled an archaeology of knowledge in the age of broadcast media whose effects challenge the certitudes and condescensions of the present.’

The Otolith Group

16:57 / 26:08:10

10:31 / 1:08:07

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