Von Ehren Fordyce
16.01.2007 / This Century's Review
Following the privatization of Deutsche Post in 1995, the company built a new office building in
Bonn in 2002 to highlight the strength of its corporate image. The Post Tower, at 162.5
meters, is now the tallest building in Bonn, and as designed by architect Helmut Jahn, its oval
glass sheath provides ventilation in the summer and insulation in the winter. Moreover, as
befits a company devoted to communication, this monument in glass and steel sends a
message: We are powerful; we are also transparent. See, nothing up our sleeves.
Such transparent design has a curious side effect in terms of the architecture of power,
however. Unlike Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which provided a hidden center from which to
survey prisoners on its periphery, the Post Tower reveals its interior, making its workers
permanently visible to visitors as they look from the outside in. In that sense, the inherent
promise to make the building’s internal workings transparent seems to be an odd form of Big
Brother-like paternalism. Keep working because you never know who might be watching you.
As with Richard Rogers’ 1986 transparent Lloyds of London building, with its playfully exposed
escalator machinery, one can have the sense when looking at such architecture that the
human inhabitants are so many bespoke suit-and-tied mice running around on treadmills.
Along with Sir Norman Foster’s cupola for the Reichstag and Jahn’s Sony Center at Berlin’s
Potsdamer Platz, the Post Tower forms part of a trinity of transparent German civic
architecture: with the Reichstag as the state (the Father), Post Tower as the information
society (the Son), and Sony Center as the society of
the spectacle (the Holy Ghost). What transparency means as a sign, applies to each. How
much does one really see? How much insight does one actually get? Does being able to look
down at the representatives of the Bundestag from the glass dome of the Reichstag really
indicate that one has access to transparent, good government? Or does it disguise how
political representatives metaphorically look down at the Volk? According to Gianni Vattimo in
The Transparent Society, “As the self-transparent society becomes possible from a purely
technical point of view, this self-transparency is shown to be an ideal of domination and not
emancipation, as demonstrated by Adorno’s critique. At the same time – and this is what
Adorno missed – within the communication system itself, mechanisms develop (the ‘rise of new
centers of history’) that make the realization of self-transparency in principle impossible.”
While modernity pursued the demythologization of the world, attempting to render material
reality transparent to the observer, Vattimo proposes a demythologization of this
demythologization. To put it another way, perhaps we now need a de-obfuscation of
transparency, given such overworked phrases as “transparent government,” “transparent
accounting,” and “transparent trade.” Or, to take another example, the supposed benefits of
making civic space “transparent” through surveillance technology.
As one alternative to the modernizing impulse for transparency, Vattimo looks towards those
aesthetic experiences “constituted as much by the experience of ambiguity as [. . .] by
oscillation and disorientation. In the world of generalized communication, these are the only
ways that art can (not still, but perhaps finally) take the form of creativity and freedom.”
Regarding this observation, one is reminded of the German performance group Rimini Protokoll
and their project Deutschland 2, in which 237 audience members became performers in a
re-presentation of a live debate from the floor of the Bundestag. Participants wore headphones
and enacted their representatives’ arguments simultaneously in Bonn as they occurred in
Berlin. For a time, citizens became representatives of their representatives. Meanwhile, the
predominantly auditory nature of the project suggested, unlike the transparency often
associated with visibility, how ambiguous and oscillating the act of performative surrogation is.
What do you stand for when you stand for me, or I for you? Is the bond really “clear”? Do we
see “eye-to-eye”? Why do we not speak of hearing “ear-to-ear”? Does such surrogated
communication always threaten to become a tragicomic form of miscommunication, like the
child’s game of “Telephone”?
Despite the seeming benignity of Rimini Protokoll’s undertaking, the fact that the company was
originally permitted to use the Plenarsaal of the former Bundestag in Bonn and then forced to
move to the Schauspielhalle Bonn gives a sense of how transgressive it was perceived to be in
practice. According to former Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse, who forbade the use of
the Plenarsaal, the project “interfered with the respect for and the dignity of the German Lower
House of Parliament.” Yet, what is undignified about representing one’s representatives?
Perhaps part of the threat of the project derives from how it reveals that liveness (mediated or
otherwise) does not secure a transparent relationship to events. In an era of “generalized
communication,” being “live” functions almost as an ontological guarantor of truthfulness, but
Rimini Protokoll’s Deutschland 2 shows something else: that liveness itself is simply another
simulacrum. Furthermore, qua their status as representatives, the members of the German
Bundestag do not occupy an ontologically higher level of representativeness than the citizens of
Bonn, and yet by having cameras and microphones focused on them, they appear to do so.
Deutschland 2 muddies the seeming transparency of representative government by turning it
into a mediated feedback loop, a mise en abîme of re-representation.
If modern science, sociology, and government often seek an ideal of transparency, art can help
to reveal transparency as a sign, in part by making transparency opaque. Lars von Trier’s
television series Riget (The Kingdom, 1994), with its hospital setting full of spooks, demons,
mean doctors, messy organs, and bloody bodies, offers a comically grotesque vision of how an
elemental form of voodoo underlies even the seemingly scientific practice of modern medicine.
While science offers access to some eternal verities, it cannot eliminate history, and the mess of
history is what makes transparency so hard to achieve. Ghosts linger in The Kingdom,
transparent but just opaque enough to be seen, like a constant reminder of science’s limits.
In a sense, the transparency of ghosts reveals the limits of transparency as a metaphor and
goal of epistemology. The end-point of knowledge – death – becomes materialized as a
translucent veil of the body, different enough to indicate that ghosts are no longer alive, but
not dead enough to lose the shape of their bodily form. While ghosts may appear inscrutable at
first glance (one cannot quite grasp them with the eye), once one knows their history, their
transparency often signals a kind of reduction to an obsessional intentionality. Their psychology
becomes too clear in a sense, not multivalent enough to be that of an ordinary human. The
obsessional streak to ghosts, however, has its analogy in the human world in the manias of
Riget’s doctors. In a running joke, the Swedish doctor Stig keeps denouncing the threat to
modern medicine of homeopathy and other “natural” cures. He screams at his Danish
colleagues when asked to perform brain surgery on a patient who, allergic to anesthetic, must
be hypnotized in order to undergo an operation. Yet, Stig’s own fixations lead him to take
revenge on a fellow doctor by seeking the aid of a voodoo priest and turning a colleague into a
zombie. Even the hospital administrator who tries to introduce a “Sunshine” policy to the
institution, asking everyone to be kind and open to patients and colleagues alike, exhibits his
hypocrisy when he routinely closes off hospital rooms in order to show that the hospital is
overbooked and in need of money. Transparency in operations would actually kill the hospital.
All the undead ghosts, demons, and zombies running around the hospital function as a
constant reminder that the transparent society needs dreck in order to run properly.
Perhaps the most famous story of a Danish ghost, Hamlet, is also a meditation on the
epistemological boundaries of life and death. In the New York performance company The
Wooster Group’s recent staging of the play, the work serves as a reflection on ghosts,
transparency, liveness, and history. Taking a 1960’s live television version of the play
performed by Richard Burton, the company meticulously re-enacts the blocking and vocal
rhythms of the original. On video monitors around the performance space, snippets of the
original are screened, and as the live performers re-enact the parts of the original actors, the
images of the video players are gradually erased and become “transparent,” nothing but
see-through ghosts that have disappeared into the background of history. In effect, The
Wooster Group’s Hamlet plays with the idea of how previous productions always linger behind
new ones. The meticulous “realism” of the Group’s production – its seemingly exact copy of an
original – is nonetheless anything but transparent. Realism’s goal of a transparent aesthetic
becomes instead a sign of the opacity of history. In the final images from the production, as
Hamlet dies and orders Horatio to live on, two black silhouettes of the live performers are
composited over the video image of the performers playing Horatio and Hamlet in the Burton
production. As Hamlet dies, he acquires at last
a kind of opacity. As his spirit disappears, he becomes almost the opposite of the transparent
ghost. He turns for a moment into pure body, that end-point which always belies the ideal of
transparency contained in the dream of pure spirit. The destiny of Hegel’s Geist of history,
rather than self-transparency, may be self-opacity.
When Christo wrapped the Reichstag in silver bunting in 1995, perhaps this was the lesson. In
order to see through to the ghosts of history, one must render the transparent somewhat