The first part of a lecture given at The Barber Shop, a project space in Lisbon, Portugal on December 19, 2012
In 2011, I had the chance to watch a screening of a 35 mm print of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (made in 1972) as part of the film program KOSMOS: A Soviet Space Odyssey, at the British Film Institute in London. At the time, I was working on my masters dissertation, a study on melancholy in cinema, and I was compiling a sort of inventory of things, objects, substances, colors, and sounds with which one can begin to synthesize melancholy as a relation to the world, one in which characters fabricate new logics of passage, melancholy as a mode of attention in which the psychology of the dejected is folded unto a world of things. Where does melancholy, this hypertrophic consciousness, dwell? In 1621, Robert Burton, writing of a certain Democritus Junior, which is none other than Burton himself, narrates an attempt at anatomizing several beasts in order to find the “atra bilis (black bile) or melancholy, whence it proceeds, and how it was engendered in men’s bodies, to the intent he might better cure it in himself”.
Initially I found myself trying to do the same, but with images and sounds, optical, kinetic, and chromatic inventions in cinema. I was intent on anatomizing the blue monochrome in Derek Jarman’s film Blue for example in order to figure out why a color, a luminous cinematographic canvas that is completely depopulated, engender this acute mode of interiority, this swelling of the senses that we call melancholy? I wasn’t exactly attempting to fashion anthropomorphic readings of that which is inanimate, but on formulating melancholy as a measure of distance, an entanglement between the human and the non-human, eventually translating these multiple encounters into a form of writing that perceives close-reading, or more precisely close-watching as a melancholy method itself, a mode of attuned cinephiliac writing, a vigilant spectatorship.
Adopting Gilles Deleuze’s assertion that “cinema has constantly achieved a language of objects”, I attempted in my dissertation to map out specific melancholic instances in cinema and their respective languages of objects. This led me to Eastern European cinema, a world populated by cyberneticists, astronauts, professors and radiobiologists, where I found a heavy materiality, uneasy images in which melancholy is conceptualized as an intensity determined by the potentialities and limits of scientific knowledge. One of the films I examined is Solaris, by Andrei Tarkovsky, which will be one of two works that will be discussed in here.
The task of this lecture, which is part of a long-term project, is to draw out the theoretical and narrative possibilities that arise when the “normal” or desired methodologies of scientific research falter, and to examine two instances, one cinematographic, the other theoretical and novelistic, in which there is a certain staging or dramtisation, through which the figure of the scientist, researcher, or academic on one hand and the material that is being studied on the other, spill over each other, often quite literally, creating a field of contamination that demands new modalities of making images and watching them, writing texts and reading them. This will be effectuated by paying close attention to two aspects, the first being the protagonists in/of the two works, and the second is the substances or matter which these protagonists are investigating.
The sequences we just watched are extracted from Tarkovsky’s film Solaris and show the liquid surface of the oceanic planet Solaris, an intelligent alien body that will modulate this cinematographic fiction. The film is divided into two sections: the first is set on Earth, and the second abroad the space station orbiting the planet Solaris.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin embarks on an interstellar journey to examine this peculiar oceanic force and determine why most of the crew has succumbed to states of deep sadness, confusion, and even madness. Hesitant about the fate of Solaristics, and the scientific mission that has barely progressed, Kelvin watches a tape of former space pilot Henri Burton testifying to what he claims to have seen while orbiting the intelligent planet. Burton, surrounded by a group of scientists looks distraught and tired. The forum is perplexed, laid bare in a modernist aural and visual disposition of inquisition: a metallic luminosity, an information nucleus noting down Burton’s testimony, a circular area in which the whirring of Cold War electronics intercepts an architecture of listening. Burton recounts the acute bodily and psychological unease of confronting Solaris. He describes a complex life form, a slithering matter that bubbles, oozes, and foams across the planet’s surface.
Burton: “It seemed to be colloidal and viscous. Because of the fog’s resistance, I began to lose altitude. I couldn’t see the sun but the fog glowed red in its direction . . . I notice a change in the ocean. The waves disappeared. The surface became almost transparent with clouded patches. Yellow sludge gathered beneath it. It rose up in thin strips and sparkled like glass. Then it began to seethe, boil, and harden . . . I was being drawn into the fog . . . I saw a garden.”
In response, one of the interrogators addresses the forum and hypothesizes what artist Jeff Wall calls “liquid intelligence”. The interrogator declares: “All of this could be the result of Solaris’ biomagnetic current acting on Burton’s consciousness. We now know the current is not only a gigantic cerebral system but a substance capable of thought processes.”
Tarkovsky orchestrates a twofold staging of this viscous alien body. First, the liquid is unintelligible: that is, it resists Burton’s comprehension. Second, it is extra-cinematic: it resists his camera’s optical capabilities. When he is asked to show the scientists ⁄ investigators the footage he shot of the planet as proof of what he saw, the images display nothing but a sheet of clouds. Besides this scene, in which Burton’s projected footage constitutes a screen inside the cinematographic frame, the planet’s surface rarely shares any screen space all throughout the film. Instead, it fills the entire frame like a cinematographic all-over painting.
A non-diegetic ontology, it refuses any story-space and begins to operate instead by spilling a white light over the spaceship, throwing crew members into deep states of dejection and psychosomatic pains. The film stages a sort of climatic progression of the liquid itself, a storyline of the ocean’s activity that seems more malefic as the film progresses. First, the ocean is placid, its surface reflecting the light of the sun. Then the liquid thickens, transforming into a form of grainy cloudy substance like human tissue until it coagulates into a silver liquid, some sort of slimy mercurial substance multiplying like waves or pockets. When Kelvin first boards the space station he spots a window that has been sealed; he can only hear the deep rumble of the ocean. When he does see the planet for the first time, the planet sends him a specter, what the scientists call a ‘guest’. His deceased wife.
Here lies a trope or invention of Eastern European cinema that finds its apogee in Solaris. Non-human bodies, their activity and transformations effectuate the major plot turns of the film. Filmmakers such as Tarkovsky weaved new plots, new themes that were previously unimaginable before the development of nuclear technology and what Sabu Kosho calls the necro-politics of radiation.
Throughout Solaris, Burton, and later (and more intensely) Kelvin, are marked by an acute melancholy produced not only by the unfathomable affective power of the planet itself, but also by an epistemic failure: a planet not responding to scientific enquiry and experiments in general. In the film, science is shaped as an encounter with the eschatological, with theories of last things. In the case of Kelvin, near-death experiences and revenants, in the form of his deceased wife.
Eastern European cinema broke with the French, German (and later American) tradition of the mad scientist by putting forth instead the figure of the disappointed, dejected, sad scientist. Whereas the derangement of the mad scientist is rendered in inflated appearances and an engulfing aura (the shadow of Dr. Caligari in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the voice of Dr. Mabuse in Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse…), the sadness of the scientist is rendered in his demise, in the degeneration of his appearance, both physical and mental, and in his inability to assimilate matter.
A theological overtone begins to emerge because of an omnipresent material expiration in the film as a melancholy science arises from an incessant labor of coping with finitude. Tarkovsky creates a cinematographic moment during the Cold War in which the triangulation of the looming specter of radioactivity, the figure of the melancholy scientist, and the politics of the space race emerges as malaise.
Solaris finds Tarkovsky morphing his cinematographic language, leaving behind his dramatization of the elemental as inherited from classical thought (earth, water, air, fire) on Earth, and developing instead a theoretical fiction on the planet Solaris more in line with the Occult Philosophy of Henry Cornelius Agrippa developed in the 1500’s. The liquid bubbling and oozing on the planet’s surface is, in Agrippa’s terms, an “occult quality”, matter whose cause is hidden and unknowable by man.
Here I would like to draw on a distinction made by Eugene Thacker between traditional Occult Philosophy, (that of Agrippa) and contemporary Occult Philosophy. In his book In The Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol.1. Thacker writes: “ . . . in traditional occult philosophy knowledge is hidden, whereas in occult philosophy today the world is hidden, and, in the last instance, only knowable in its hiddenness.” He continues: “ . . . whereas traditional occult philosophy is historically rooted in Renaissance humanism, the new occult philosophy is anti-humanist, having as its method the revealing of the non-human as a limit of thought.” Following this logic, Tarkovsky’s philosophy is still embedded within humanist thought. In Solaris, knowledge, and not the world, is hidden.
The plasticity of the science fiction protocol designed by Tarkovsky theorizes the liquid as a quantity that is fictional because it is essentially unknowable, threatening at every turn of its internal activity to operate not only as a catalyst of melancholy, but also as a substance capable of effectuating a radical and instantaneous movement from ambient horror into a defacing epidemic, an incursion of what Reza Negarestani calls the “radical outsider”. Eugene Thacker indicates a difference between the nature of the creature in classic horror, and its nature in Cold War horror. The Cold War creature, unlike those of classic creature-films such as Frankenstein, The Mummy, is amorphous, borderless, and abstract.
In Solaris, the liquid is only an index. The horror is in the air, it can be inhaled. The creature’s formation, propagation, and attack are invisible.