The End of Representation? Faraldo's Themroc
Marta Jecu and Jose Manuel Gomes Pinto
This consideration of the cult movie Themroc (1973 by Claude Faraldo), will discuss its apparent apocalyptic vision on humanity transmitted through the decomposition of social forms of urban existence and the way the medium film is engaged in a performative treatment of architecture. The film shows how the annulation of oneself as social being means a way to dissolve ones representation. This devouring of representation itself, in a cannibalistic and orgiastic scenario is intimately connected with the decomposition of architecture. We recall Jacques Derridas's at that time contemporary project of a deconstructivist architecture1 – which pleaded for a critical, performative architecture of which the event is a constitutive part. Not aiming to demonstrate a direct influence of the philosopher upon the filmmaker, the relating of their worlds of thought is meant to approach contemporary but different directions that marked the emergence of a new vision on architecture, that surpassed the boundaries of the discipline.
The film starts by showing a French worker, Themroc (played by Michel Piccoli) involved in a monotonous social routine, imprisoned by his work, in his family apartment (shared with his old mother and his sister) and pressured by the passers by, his fellow workers and bosses. Faraldo does not make use, along the entire film, of an articulated language, the actors shout and babble in a both generic and dehumanising manner. One day Themroc's nervous cough transforms into a roar. When he gets home, he closes off his bedroom with a brick-wall, smashes down the outside wall towards the street to create a cave, and throws away all his possessions out of the window. His orgy of destruction is contagious – soon his neighbors from across the street are doing the same and it's not long before the media and the police are taking an interest. By the end of the film, he commits incest with his sister and kills, roasts in his cave and eats with his friends a policeman.
The strategy of liberation in the film revolves around an attack on the most immediate architecture of their living environment. This destruction and transformation of space is accompanied by a sexual revolution, disrupting bourgeois family dynamics in a contagious way. The neighbors, their opponents even are all attracted into this anarchic performance.
The film has a explicit resonance with the theory and agitation of the Situationist International (founded 1957) and the revolutionary movements of May 1968 in France, when millions of people occupied public spaces including universities and factories, plastered Paris with anti-bourgeoise graffiti slogans, being prepared to a significant extent by the Situationist ideas.
Manifestly political, the movie Themroc is making an aesthetic statement by exhibiting a coherent and functional reverse of social order, balance and progress. Anarchic, but also nostalgic, the character Themroc seems to be in search of a lost model of humanity, which by vandalism and apparent return to chaos, can regenerate and reinstaurate an atemporal construction, which does not subjugate any more the individual to a system profoundly foreign to him. Cannibalism becomes a luscious banquet, living becomes a visceral habitation in caves, until the last scene stages a sort of nature vivante of remains, in a processual annulation of one's own, his environment and of their representation. This latent, ancestral memory of a pure time, which is beyond representation, belongs to a time of the “after”. On a concrete level, this “after” marks the possibility of surpassing an established and dominant neo-liberal order, that lost the means of critical self-analysis.
The medium film is conferred a privileged position along the plot: literally deconstructing the language of public media, strategies of illustrating progress and social communication, or film's own function as carrier of public values, it is here, on the contrary, accompanying processes of dissolution and is transformed into a tool that depicts and transmits decay, the fading of social norms and codes of communication. The movie Themroc shows how the medium film can be reduced to a primordial mode of communication, which opens gates that the progressive sophistication of representational techniques closed. As unarticulated sounds can become a language of their own, so can a hole in the habitational wall become a medial window of communication – that brings, as every new technology does – is own comportamental codes and modes to be, its own anthropological relevance.
In this sense the film shows also how the medium negates itself: by simplifying or completely annihilating mediated devices for social communication (the conventions of social communication, from which Themro runns away) and replacing them with a simple brake in the wall, the communication with the others and the outside changes completely its nature.
The film fights the tendency towards a progressively increasing optimization of media and directs this detournement in visual terms. The visual quality of this film is masterly expressing its conceptual load: the rough cut film, the basic visual alphabet, the immediate expressivity, the infantile expressionist aesthetic of the poster – are totally opposing the imagery of advertisement visual rhetoric of that epoch.
The film is also used in this context to show what cannot be shown, the reverse of social values and of transmittable information. At the same time it is not used as a medium of representing fiction. It is engaged as a form of documentation of non-values, values that cannot be retained in “the historic archive”. It is actually engaged to show what cannot be shown.
We propose that eating is a form of inverted architectural endeavour: through material accumulation and apparent stabilisation and fortification, eating reveals nevertheless the precarious and feeble nature of the human body. The body, as another level of architectural configuration, asserts also the necessity and the longing for another food, incorporeal, which is able to maintain and stimulate the profound life of the human, despite of material capital. The struggle of Themroc for this nourishment is pursued by elimination: by dismantling the social and cultural oppressive burden, he is in the search of an ahistorical, asocial and aprogressive modality, in which society could feed its members.
Eating or building can be seen as alterations or fracturing of the spatial continuum of an object or individual. This process can find its extreme form in the complete destruction as denial of the authority of “architectural models”. This decomposition of architecture is directed in an inverted way rather to progress, than to annihilation. By building or eating, a destructed /reconstructed, un-hierarchical space emerges, which becomes performative. In the following we investigate this banquet of loss as corresponding to the creation of a performative, deconstructed new architecture.
Performativity is regarded by Dorothea von Hantelmann as being the quality of the works to manifest, to articulate in an expressive way, to become explicit and to gain in this way a power to create reality. This power develops independently from the work's content.
„The performative of a work of art is the reality, which it manifests by the force of its existence at a place, in a situation, by the force of its production, reception and lasting. Performative is a allegation, the power to create reality (…) The performative dimension designates the bounding of art in a reality, which every single work is also generating“2 As an interpretative paradigma, as an analytical model, performativity could be apply in principle to any work of art. Each work is performative merely due to its presence and can be therefor assimilated solely by how it affects the viewer, how it acts, how its affect the context. Performativity turns therefor a potential of action concrete, which is based in the conjunction of art with the social3
Cannibalism and regressive architecture go hand in hand. Architecture becomes a medium of deconstruction, of effacement. At the same time architecture is not functioning as an abode – in its classical use, but is made to become a medium that carries an event: it is dynamic, transformative and therefor performative. It functions also like a trigger that reminds of immemorial times, ones that the human cannot remember any more.
In an interview on food and ingestion made by Daniel Birnbaum and Abnders Olsson with Jacques Derrida, few years before his death4, he talks about eating as Erinnerung – remembrance.
“The concept of “Erinnerung,” which means both memory and interiorization, plays a key role in Hegel’s philosophy. Spirit incorporates history by assimilating, by remembering its own past. This assimilation acts as a kind of sublimated eating—spirit eats everything that is external and foreign, and thereby transforms it into something internal, something that is its own. Everything shall be incorporated into the great digestive system—nothing is inedible in Hegel’s infinite metabolism.”
Relevant for the understanding of Themroc is also a differentiation between human and animal, which in the film becomes blurred. Still, contrary to what could seem, I would propose that the film does not show an animalisation of the human, but a regression into memory to lost ways of being human, that carry their own lost spiritual values. The re-assimilation of these lost values presupposes a transformation of the human condition, which the character Themroc performs fhimself.
In the same interview Derrida explains the difference between human and animal from the perspective of eating: eating for the human is always symbolic, in the sense of creating an inner space for assimilating value.
“Hegel draws a distinction between man’s relation to the world and animals’ relation to the world as two different forms of eating. Animals have a negative relation to the object because they simply swallow it. Human negativity, however, is reflected: man does not in fact devour the object, but rather incorporates it abstractly, and thereby creates the inner space that is the subject. Symbolic eating always remains an invisible precondition of thought.”
It is precisely the medium film which is engaged here in presenting cannibalism as a cultural act.
Cannibalism is exploring the hidden fears and desires inherent in breaking the taboo which is destruction, and which at the same time signifies the renewal of life itself. Cannibalism is seen here as an inverted creation, which invests Themroc and his friends with an omnipotent power. By eating the policeman they devour an old order and gain the singular potential of everything edible: that of sustaining life. Eating and building are both processes of an active existential expression: food can be understood as a vivid architecture, and construction, as a consumed or devoured matter.
The film accompanies this cannibalism in medial terms: besides of not using language, it becomes visually and sonorous progressively unarticulated. Sound and image, which constitute a film, decompose progressively, while showing how everything in the depicted environment goes back into being raw material. While communication is solely made through groaning, the images become fragmented and more and more symbolical, until the last scenes construct a non-narrative collage of various architectural environments of a decaying society, interposed with the bliss of the cavemen.
Architecture appears here destroyed, decomposed, a remnant of a self-consuming society. It is depicted as a ruin that society left behind, a leftover that consumes at its turn the individual. Superposed with it, we see the architectural mutation that Themroc operated: the destruction, that is not progressive (like the one that we see in the urban environments depicted and which assimilates and annihilates the individual) but regressive – one that goes back in time, dismantles the layers that society has added to habitational structures.
Destruction is shown as a means of restoring the individual and bringing him back to himself, like medium film itself is fragmenting architecture and re-presents a new habitat that liberates the individual. The architecture created by Themroc proposes a new structure: one that incorporates movement, transformation, revolution, and medium film is not only its support, but makes this architecture possible. In the last scenes, film is creating a movement between a broken, abstractised urbanistic landscape of prefabricated concrete buildings that seem completely deserted with the new anthropological forms of habitation developed by Themroc and his friends. Medium film has the capacity to transform an inert, fossilised architecture into a performative architecture, by investing it with a cinematic movement.
Themroc – a meditation on architecture through the medium film – makes visible those qualities of architecture that reverberate not only with situationist manifestos, but also with Derrida's deconstructivist architectural theories, to which the film is also contemporary. The so called “deconstructivist” architectural style developed in the '80s and its protagonists Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid or the group Coop Himmelblau were trying to find a materialisation for the philosophical teachings of Derrida and transposed them, under his initial supervision, programmatically into a new alphabet of forms. Taken as architectural provocations, the ideas of Derrida were finding a visual outcome that not seldom conceived a habitational architecture that was impossible to be lived in. The so-called deconstructivist architects were criticized from this point of view of operating by negation and transforming Derrida's project into a stylistic solution, through disjunction and fragmentation. The private houses of Peter Eisenman for example (Houses I-X) had no access to the bed, holes in the floor of the living room and stairs leading to nowhere. Functionality is nevertheless rather negated than reformulated and this formal negation transformed into a style that finally inverted the initial project of Derrida – that of finding an architecture that surpasses its function and its formal determination. Eisenman's and Philipp Johnson's curated exhibition in 1989 dedicated to the past decade of deconstructivist architecture in the Museum of Modern Art New York5 is meant to be a collection of the most representative pieces. The exhibition settled the characteristics of a style, unifying the works under the criteria of a common formal apparatus, a temporal appurtenance and choosing some exemplary pieces, that concentrated its features.
Unlike the programmatic realisation of a deconstructivist architecture coming from the discipline of architecture itself, through a multi medial approach and the inclusion of movement and the unexpected into the body of architecture, artists developed progressively an “architecture of the event” that approximated the idea of Derrida. From the early works of Gordon Matta-Clark from the mid seventies, to the recent works of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, in various forms of art and using a variety of multi-medial approaches, an architecture emerged, that is by its essence not subordinated to the function of dwelling and that exists only in interaction.
In many of his texts and interviews Derrida underlines that deconstruction cannot become a technique in architecture and most of all it should not consists in de-constructing something already built. Deconstruction has for him its own rhetoric, which dictates no formal percepts, but on the contrary should introduce a new way to think. Themroc as part of a row of experiments with architecture, coming rather from art than from architecture as a discipline, developed a new thinking on architecture, mainly through its multi-medial approach: a performative architecture that results from film and physical (inter)action.
For Derrida deconstructivism does not belong to a certain period of time. Derrida speaks of Deconstructivisms, in order to stress the heterogenity of the concept6. In his discussion with Christopher Norris, Derrida affirms that Deconstructivism cannot be seen as a phenomenon of the modernism, and even less of postmodernism (as it had been interpreted). It can be recognizable in certain ways to think: “Deconstruction is not only a technique of an architect that knows how he can deconstruct something that has been already constructed. From here we can pass to what deconstruction connects to writing: its space, thinking as a path, the opening of a way, which – without knowing where it leads – leaves its traces.”7
Derrida understands architecture as the writing of space, espacement: the creation of a dimension for the event, the creation of a “constructional event” - a scenography of the transition, that invents a place, which does not overlast through the stability of its affirmation, but by “sequence, open seriality, narrativity, the kinematic, dramaturgy, choreography.” 8 To term performative connected to architecture, Derrida writes:
„[…] We understand in it the moments, in which the knowledge becomes work, when the theoretical assessment cannot be separated from the event, which is called creation, composition, construction. It is not enough to say that architecture is one of the best paradigms for that. Only the word and the concept paradigma, have an exemplary architectural valence.”9
Derrida also stresses not only that the architectural work cannot be understood without the existence of its users, but he affirms that it cannot exist without them. At the same time, his vision of architecture is not an abode, a home, but should be conceived rather as a undermining of the tectonic influences of architecture. “An-architecture” is one that surpassed its functions of habitation, so its heideggerian “dwelling” function. In Themroc, besides the architectural conception of the plot (along the film a building is destroyed, whereas free space is being released), the last scenes of the film reassure us that architecture is the medium through which Faraldo intends to construct his discourse. The character Themroc is literally re-inventing it: finding its new uses and most of all preparing it for the present. The association to Derrida's concept of „maintenant l’architecture“10 is relevant for the imagining of an architecture that is maintained for the present and is infused with the present.
As the film Themroc shows, architecture is a commitment/engagement of those who create it, of those who participate to it, by thinking about it, of those who, with the word of Derrida “experience the space differently”. Derrida writes that:” I think that the architectural experience (we want to call it that way and not talk about buildings) … offers the chance to live the possibility of inventing of a new architecture, one that is not heideggerian.”11