Le décor et son usage

Below: another fascinating anecdote from Günther Anders‘ life, excerpted from Paul van Dijk.

After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, Anders lived in France for a couple of years and then emigrated to the USA in 1936. He stayed in the USA until 1950, sporadically publishing fiction and essays, working odd jobs, adjuncting in the academic system, and putting together his non-fiction magnum opus, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Antiquatedness of Humankind).

For part of his American exile, Anders lived in California, trying (unsuccessfully) to become a Hollywood scriptwriter and making ends meet. Of this period, van Dijk writes:

His job as a cleaner of movie props in the Hollywood Custom Palace thus led him to reflections on the philosophy of history and on the theory of knowledge that are recognizable in his later philosophy on the media. In March 1941, he wrote in his diary:

“Even though I am classified as an enemy alien and as an unskilled worker, I have nonetheless found a job. Although the job is rather odd. For I have become history’s corpse cleaner. Since [sic] one week I belong to the cleaning crew of the Hollywood Custom Palace. The word “custom” has nothing to do here with customs; it refers instead to costumes. The twelve-story colossus, the “palace” where I spend my working days, is a museum of the entire costume past of humanity, an arsenal which rents out everything to the great film companies that our predecessors and our contemporaries, including their slaves, pets and riding animals, ever wore on their bodies and still wear today. From Eve’s fig leaf gadget (in both a see-through and a non-see-through version) to the riding boots of the German attack forces which–oh, such breathtaking optimism–hang next to the footgear of other eras, as if they already are brother and sister to the Greek sandals and the imperial riding boots, past history in other words. If I am instructed to polish these boots, then as an unskilled member of the cleaning crew I can hardly refuse. We flee from the original and then run the risk, a few years later an on the opposite side of the world, to have to clean the duplicates for pay!

Anyhow, we can learn a thing or two from this, even the fundamental truth of the rag philosophy. We human beings do not cover our nakedness to prevent ourselves from freezing to death, but because without cover we would be unable to present ourselves as persons of status, to establish hierarchies, to entice our fellow men or women, or to intimidate others. Surely, there are real needs at the basis of the fantastic discovery that is called clothing, but ultimately those needs are hardly physiological. The pieces that lie around here hardly include any that are strictly meant to keep warm. They are all instruments of dignity or to terrify or flatter, social instruments all. This truth is being whispered into my ear each day as I rub, brush or vacuum these pieces.” (1985, p. 1f)

Van Dijk 10-11

The movie set of Alexandria, constructed in suburban London for Joseph Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA (1963) and abandoned six months into shooting. Accessed at http://images.travelpod.com/tw_slides/ta00/9b9/63e/cleopatra-set-on-backlot-slough.jpg

Anders was not alone in finding inspiration in the cinematic industry for his theories on the substitution of illusion for reality. The anecdote above reminds me of the Situationists’ sardonic treatment of a news item about the movie set for Cleopatra (Mankiewicz, 1963) in their 1961 issue of Internationale Situationniste.

The movie nearly bankrupted its Hollywood studio, in part because of the ornate and gigantesque “ancient Alexandria” set which needed to be built twice over the course of the production. The Situationists found this fiasco emblematic of spectacular culture: they believed capital and its images erode history and the present at the same time.


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