Horizon as a machine to produce visibility

An expedition into the politics of B-Visible

Sarma 5 Nov 2002English

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Contextual note
This lecture was held in the framework of B-Visible at Arts centre Vooruit in Ghent.

“The night was dark and there was no light, no road-marking, nothing except for dark asphalt, that ran through a flat landscape, with a range of hills in the far and here and there chimneys of factories, poles, smoke and colored lights. The journey was a revelation. The street and great parts of the landscape were artificial, but still couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand they gave me something, that art had never meant to me. At first I didn’t know, what it was, but the effect was, that I got rid of some of my opinions about art. It seemed as if there was some reality for which art didn’t have a proper expression. This experience on the highway was something that had been clearly foreseeable, but was not recognized in society. I thought by myself that it should be clear, that this was the end of art.” (my translation, taken from: Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde, Paris 1992)

This is not a quote of David Lynch talking about how he came up with the idea of making a film called ‘Lost Highway’ but one of Tony Smith, Minimal Artist and portrayer of Emptiness. The experience that we witness here, is one of a strange visibility coming out of the opacity of the night. Some signs were still readable: chimneys, poles and colored lights. Paradoxically the near surrounding of the street and even the street itself were not marked and thus close to invisibility. The close area was locked in darkness, while what was far away became closer by being visible through illumination. On the contrary in the opening of ‘Lost Highway’, which at the same time is the leitmotif of the film, we see a highway in motion, we ourselves seem to be driving along that highway, focusing on it, seeing nothing but the lights and the middle marks on the street. The road-marking is heavily present, it shines in bright yellow, but no marks are on the sides of the highway so it doesn’t seem to have an end to the sides, as if there were no landscape around. We can only see what is very close to us, the signs of the highway, and there is no distance. In a sense Lynch destroys already in the beginning of his film what we call the cinematographic horizon. Consequently in his films schizophrenia serves as one of the strategies to undermine the identification with Newton’s Cosmos that is no longer appropriate in a world of multiple identities. Loosing the horizon seems to offer the possibility to get rid of overcome ideas of the self and to frustrate old hegemonies of the visible order. This sounds very deleuzian and it is. Still I am not going to talk about Deleuze tonight since he was not very fond of the concept of horizon. He will be left aside favoring phenomenology as a philosophy of a rethought horizon.

“The paradoxical wish, to walk along the horizon, stems from its optical ambiguity: it opens the field, that it encircles, as the ‘proximity’ of what is distinct, clear and reachable to us, of the orientation in directions and distances; at the same time it restricts us within the confinement of the closeness, withholds us of what would be described at each of its points a new horizon, with the and-so-on of these duplications into an at once tempting and bewildering ‘distance’, which is evoked by the pathetic word ‘infinity’. One can avoid it in defining a world out of the horizon of all horizons.” (my translation taken from: Blumenberg, Hans Matthäuspassion, Frankfurt 1991, 7)

The German philosopher Hans Blumenberg uses the metaphor of horizon in order to be able to talk about Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäuspassion, a composition that he tries to understand from within the horizon of the time when it was created. It is meant here as a social and cultural background, woven of many different factors Blumenberg tries to make explicit in his book. This also reveals one of the metaphoric ways in which the word horizon is being used. It serves as a way to talk about a not specified background that influences any detail that we talk about and is at the same time made of a countless number of details. In this sense horizon is not only an unreachable border, but thought of in an almost pictorial way.

Common sense is probably even here, where we are at a Queerathon that horizon has something to do with space. Most of you will probably connect horizon to an inner picture: here is the beach, then there is the sea and in the very far, where our eyes are almost not able to reach, there is that line, that we call horizon, where sea and sky seem to be entangled, seem to touch. More than being a line it could also be described as a zone where (in case of sunshine) two or more shades of blue are layered. Living in modern times we know well that there is no such line and that the wish of walking along the horizon could only be fulfilled in films as the ‘Truman Show’, where the world of Truman was a huge Studio that at the end is left by the protagonist in walking along that line, that describes in this artificial fantasy world the border of the studio. As Truman’s is the story of a radical visibility without tempting distances, it seems at first sight to be telling a plot without horizon. But: Truman being the true man, wants to get out of reach. He does not want to be visible any more. In walking along the horizon, he crosses the border of visibility in order to enter different spaces. He drops out of the order of the visible to be invisible. I don’t want to strain this example any further. What it shows clearly and what I want to talk about a little bit longer is that horizon can be regarded as a turning point between visible and invisible. In my understanding horizon regulates the correlation between the two and therefore is a central metaphor within an event with the ambivalent invitation to b-visible.

I would like to begin with a short comment on histories of horizon. Meanwhile you will be able to watch some slides as examples of art which wrote this history. Then I will briefly introduce you to the concept of horizon as it was proposed by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the middle of the 20th century. Taking into account his terms I will then return to the intro we saw in the beginning, to David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’. More will come up during the following days. This lecture is meant as an introduction to my workshop on the politics of horizon and is at the same time the first of a series of short lectures dealing with horizontality and commenting on the strategies of making visible followed in B-Visible.


Etymologically speaking, horizon comes form ancient Greek, where it was the word for border, borderline, or range of vision. Taking horizon from this side its meanings seem to be quite obvious, as it allows to name the border of the visible within the range of vision of the spectator. As a phenomenon of border, it is appropriate for the regulation of the absence, through which the signs within its range hold a semantic tension, and for the sake of numberless references those signifyers become significant. In other words: it is precisely the absence, that allows us to regard the world as meaningful – horizon therefore clearly operates along the line of transcendence. Things and places in space make sense and have meaning within a framework that is guaranteed by the structure of horizontality, as we will see later on.

In the middle ages a vertical axes of horizon was relevant, which made it possible for Thomas of Aquino to refer to human beings as horizon, since humans embody the border between life and death, between culture and nature. That horizon was vertical by means of transcendence in a religious sense in referring to God. Dante Alighieri also made use of this connotation of horizon when he spoke of man being the horizon since he was the middle of the two hemispheres of the transitory and immortality. Human horizontality therefore was viewed upon in man being the horizon, and not, as in modern times, in having a horizon. In the history of ideas these concepts change rapidly in the times of renaissance, especially in connection with the journeys of Christopher Columbus, which opened space and established a new perspective on the world.

Since then horizon dropped into horizontal axes, the religious distance turned into a worldly and reachable one. What still remains is the promise of difference that is guaranteed below the horizon. Nietzsche put this in perfect words, that I paraphrase in English: “The mountain, that we see from afar, makes the whole area that it dominates, in any sense charming as meaningful. But as soon as we climb on it, itself and the whole landscape looses enchantment.” While horizon marks an unreachable distance, the reachable landscape looses its significance whilst one explores it. The invention of linear perspective needed the imaginary line of horizon to make the construction of those paintings possible. It was, as Erwin Panofsky put it, a symbolic form, not only valid in art, but connected to the idea of the subject itself. From now on was the world centered around that viewpoint of a spectator, that could draw itself up to the horizon of a possible reachable world. The reflexivity of Modern Art in a way began with the painting ‘The monk and the sea’ by Caspar David Friedrich. This was the first time the viewer of a landscape was seen in the painting of a landscape. The monk is watching the horizon as the observer of the painting is watching him watching. In this way the spectator was shown his own action, the reflection of man watching landscape and thereby rendering it an aesthetic subject was through this painting opened as a new horizon of art.

The notion of the self-reflexive individual subjecting the world would in the 20th century be interfered by Dromologist Paul Virilio, who wrote about the negative horizon and the confinements of velocity in the world. Before Virilio there were of course numerous critics of a vision of horizon, that was closely related to the dominant figure of the subject, trying to subjugate the surrounding under his perspective. Not mentioning all the others, I will now focus as already announced on Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his predecessor Edmund Husserl about whose philosophy Merleau-Ponty wrote: “Just as the perceived world endures only through the reflections, shadows, levels, and horizons between the things (which are not things and not nothing, but on the contrary mark out by themselves the fields of possible variation in the same thing and the same world), of the works and thought of a philosopher are also made of certain articulations between things said. There is no dilemma of objective interpretation or arbitrariness with respect to these articulations, since they are not objects of thought, since (like shadow and reflection) they would be destroyed by being subjected to analytic observation or taken out of context, and since we can be faithful to and find them only by thinking afresh.” (S, 160)

For Merleau-Ponty, as for Husserl, the productive force of horizon and horizontality lies within the correlation of visible and invisible. Horizon stands now for a zone, where visible and invisible are entangled and therefore open a world: “Moreover, the zone of indeterminacy is infinite. The misty horizon that can never be completely outlined remains necessarily there,” as Husserl puts it (Husserl, Edmund Ideas, New York 1962, 92). Merleau-Ponty later focused on the different qualities of the invisible. For him, the invisible is not the non-visible. The word “invisible” is perfectly chosen. The lines of visible things are doubled by a lining of invisibility that is in the visible. Merleau-Ponty stresses this, and by doing so decenters the aesthetic task and desire away from the pursuit of any invisibility that would be a separate reality, a heavenly world apart from this world. In May 1960, just prior to the writing of his important Essay on Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty wrote a four-part outline of invisibility in the Notes for The Visible and the Invisible: “The invisible is
1) what is not actually visible, but could be (hidden or inactual aspects of the thing – hidden things, situated ‘elsewhere’ – ‘Here’ and ‘elsewhere’)
2) what, relative to the visible, could nevertheless not be seen as a thing (the extentials of the visible, its dimensions, its non-figurative inner framework)
3) what exists only as tactile or kinesthetically, etc.
4) the lekta, the Cogito” (VI, 257)

The meaning of invisibility and the aesthetic insight Merleau-Ponty found in art pertains to noticing the hidden things, having eyes that genuinely think. Invisibility is also an invisibility to myself. The eye does not see itself for reasons of principle, The Visible and the Invisible says, for the eye contains a blind spot. What the eye does not see is what prepares and makes possible the vision of everything else in it, as the retina is blind at the point where the fibers that permit vision spread out into it. Self-portraying and the fascination with mirrors are the artist’s attempt to coincide with himself or herself, to be at the heart of one’s own being and make oneself visible. Even if this attempt at coincidence is ever frustrated, and the invisibility of the cogito is an invisibility in principle, the question of self-comprehension persists in the ragged and tattered folds of our bodies, lives and histories, and in the manifold expressions of art. As Husserl, Merleau-Ponty distinguishes interior and exterior horizon: within the interior horizon of a thing everything is implied, that one could experience of that thing, while the exterior horizon contains everything than can be experienced with a thing in connection with other things. Husserl’s famous example is that of a cube: “E. g. the cube leaves on his invisible sights a lot open while it is already recognized as a cube, and then in detail as colored and of what material and so on. This openness is exactly what constitutes the horizon” (Husserl, 1962, 75).

It is the interior horizon that Husserl speaks about here. The exterior horizon on the contrary means the complex set of relations between things in space (and in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking time), that can never be completely grasped. In the words of Merleau-Ponty: “All knowledge substantiates in horizons that are opened through perception. Perception itself cannot be described as one of the facts in the world, since we can never suppress that empty space that we are ourselves in the picture of the world.” (my translation; MP, PhoP, 67) Horizon therefore becomes meaningful in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy as guaranteeing the existence of the invisible, that in its different ways determines visibility. If I want to put you on the track of the horizon of B-Visible, than it is mainly in order to explore the invisible of this event, in order to understand precisely the hegemony which it follows.


Obviously we are in a theatre here and before I come back to my beginning and talk about the overture of Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, I would like to make some remarks on the significance of horizon in theatre contexts. As you might know, stages often used to be decorated in 19th century with the help of a so called “horizon machine”. Before I turn to film as somewhat a successor of that machine, I want to mention very briefly one of the younger productions of Sasha Waltz, where she made use of such a machine. More precisely it was built especially for her choreography ‘S’, premiering in December 2000 at Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin. The machine consists of two rolls, one on the bottom and one in room height, that are held by iron poles on the right and on the left. On these rolls is the prospect of the stage in the form of different paintings. As the scene develops the horizon machine rolls out picture after picture, background after background. Stretched between the two roles you can see the paintings. Beginning with a classical view on a horizon, sea and sky with the famous imaginary line, the horizon machine of ‘S’ takes us through five different backgrounds, shifting from interior two exterior horizons.

The horizon can in general be referred to as paradigmatic for reversibility and reflexivity itself, and the fact that horizons became part of pictures, mainly in renaissance, is often referred to as the beginning of reflexivity of the enlightened subject. I investigate not paintings but a different medium, that is one of the most important factors in the image producing society today: film. Film is nowadays always involved in thinking about world and picture, about the World-as-Picture, as put by Heidegger. When Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote his Phenomenology of Perception he said, that the screen did not have a horizon, meaning that the things we see on the screen don’t have a history of their own we could reconstruct. Turning the world into a picture would then include, that the World-as-Picture in film cannot have a horizon.

I will on the contrary argue, that beyond the point there are several horizons in films, especially in the opening of films, which are projected on the screen. That there is a sense, in which the screen does have a horizon that is closely related to Merleau-Ponty’s thinking of horizon. I am therefore referring to films as art in the way that Paul Ricoeur puts it: “Art, Merleau-Ponty could have said with Klee, does not reproduce the visible; it makes things visible. It neither imitates nor constructs; it expresses that which in some way was waiting to be said.” I will try to show in the following days, how the horizon in film is closely related to horizon in paintings and in performance, and in which sense it closes the gap between reality and fiction in showing how fictional reality itself is. Therefore I will be working with three films, which have significantly different approaches to horizon.

The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has been one of the founding members of Dogma 95, a group of directors, who decided to use current technologies as the DVD camera to create a new form of films, in recentering on the actors as the most important part of film, rather than e.g. the set design. His films often center upon a female protagonist, who is a victim but not in a passive way, but by her own will. In Breaking the Waves he tells us the story of a woman, who loves her husband and trusts in god so much, that she starts to sleep with other men for the sake of the healing of her beloved. For after having been seriously injured in an accident, he tells her, that she would save his life if she told him about how she had sex with other men. It would then feel for him, as if they had sex themselves. By doing so she gets killed. The film is divided into five parts, each of which starts with the image of a horizon, that seems to be painted, but after a while appears to be moving. In iconographic terms there is a lot to say about those pictures and their surrounding. They connect to classical language of painting, but by shifting it just a little bit, it turns to a whole new statement that is made. My thesis is, that by putting these horizons, that derive from art in a Christian context into the movie, they create a whole new idea of the female victim: Rather than being the victim she now brings a sacrifice and that locates her in a new space of the symbolic order.

The second film I want to draw our attention to is ‘Lost Highway’ by David Lynch. Lynch as a director, has always been the master of de-realization. ‘Lost Highway’ doesn’t open with a horizon in the strict sense of the word, but, as I will argue, the image that is shown to us in the beginning works with the concept of horizon. What we see when the film starts is a ‘disfocused focusing’ of the camera on the yellow central reservation of a highway, spotted by the lights of a car, which the eye of the camera seems to be driving with. Even though this is a leitmotif of the film that Lynch already used in ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Lost Highway’ is not a road movie. The protagonist lost track of his life, there is no linear direction in the plot, but many circles, that are not always logically closed. Rather than passing by different stations, this film doesn’t seem to have a real space at all but is located in a disturbing ‘in-between-zone’. The story is about a schizophrenic murderer, a saxophone player, his wife and other more or less weird people. The strange lighting of the film does not relate to our everyday perception, as well as the whole movie undermines what we would think of as our world. Thirdly I would like to mention ‘Mulholland Drive’, the successor of ‘Lost Highway’ with a very close theme and even a related opening that I will show you in just one minute.

While ‘Breaking the Waves’ uses images, emerging on cultural stereotypes and shifts them into another context to think within the medium of film about horizons of society, ‘Lost Highway’ destroys what we might call the cinematographic horizon. The cinematographic horizon takes into account all the structures of visibility, as they are built in the cosmos of Newton: There is a story to be told, there are places in which this story is told, the camera is positioned according to the rules of linear perspective, etc. Merleau-Ponty stated in The Visible and the Invisible, that the visible was only a thin skin between the two horizons of interior and exterior horizon in the tradition of Husserl. ‘Breaking the waves’ reminds us of the hidden world, in this case the world of faith, as it is represented by the protagonist Bess. ‘Lost Highway’ by contrast thinks about the structuring of the world. In the subject of the double a high metaphysical level, since it seems to tell us, that we can only realize what we see: The visibility of the other is the only way of being aware of ourselves. We, as spectators of the film, are always very aware of how thin the skin of visibility is. Hence this film seems to be the product of a beginning of higher awareness and reflexivity in the modes of our perception. And if the horizon is a way to think about what we cannot see, this film by Lynch can be viewed as a reflection about horizon in postmodern terms, while Lars von Trier would be a modern filmmaker, using the traditional concept of horizon.

The self reflexivity of Caspar David Friedrich is maybe the beginning of self reflexivity of art in using the double of the Spectator. At the end of this development there are films as the one by David Lynch. While Lars von Trier could be seen as a believer in horizon, Lynch might be one of those who think about the world after losing modern horizons. The horizon in the beginning of his movie is not by chance a closed horizon, a synthetic horizon of postmodernity, that is not located in an ideal landscape, but emphasizes the limits of the visible world.