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Camera Obscura 15.2 (2000) 41-73
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Consuming the Other:
Identity, Alterity, and Contemporary German Cinema
Dominant Western conceptions of identity are inextricably bound up with the modern privileging of sight as the primary locus of experience and knowledge, and thus rely heavily on the metaphoric language of vision and visuality. Identity is understood primarily as an image we create so as to assume unique subject positions in social time and space. Our sense of identity brings into view that which sets us apart from one another, the difference between self and other. We speak of its authenticity if we see and know that the image is an accurate image of the "real self." Whenever we regard an identity as authentic, we base our assumption not only on the belief that images can provide essential copies of reality, but also that we can somehow circumvent the paradox of looking at ourselves looking. What in many instances sustains the belief in the authenticity of identity is the presupposition that images originate from our own activity and work, that they show us as active producers, not passive recipients. [End Page 41]
It is understandable, then, that in our present age of digital reproduction and cultural globalization many believe that these notions of identity are progressively losing ground. Postmodern visual culture transplants us ever more aggressively into imaginary "elsewheres" and "elsewhens" while simultaneously shattering the realist expectations previously invested in the photographic image. As exotic images and simulated experiences surround us, our sense for the uniqueness of temporal and spatial positionings seems to be crumbling. Identity refracts into a product of cultural poaching, a matter of continuous acts of self-fashioning and refashioning. The eternal recurrence of the new "fashion," in fact, appears to have replaced what formerly had circulated under the rubric of identity.
This, at least, is what Wim Wenders wants his audience to believe in the opening sequence of Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten [Notebooks on clothes and cities] (West Germany, 1989), a documentary exploring interfaces between contemporary fashion making and the production of visual images, between Yohjia Yamamoto's multilayered style of remembrance 1 and Wenders's unrelenting quest for pockets of expressive authenticity in contemporary visual culture. Following a typewritten poem scrolling across a snowy test picture, the second shot of the film places the viewer behind the windshield of a car traveling down a Paris freeway. In the right half of the frame, an unidentified hand points a Sony video camera toward the windshield in such a way that we can see recorded images of a Tokyo highway trip on the camera's monitor. This perplexing multiplication and refraction of the visual field sets the stage for Wenders's monologue on the power of electronic images and the virtualization of life under the rule of digital reproduction. "We have learned to trust the photographic image," Wenders's offscreen voice muses, "can we trust the electronic image? . . . With the electronic image, there is no more negative and no more positive. The very notion of the original is obsolete. Everything is copied. All distinctions have become arbitrary. No wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state. Identity is out. Out of fashion. Exactly, then, what is in vogue if not fashion itself? By definition fashion is always in." [End Page 42]
Reminiscent of Benjamin's famous argument about the decay of aura in modernity, Wenders's monologue is full of nostalgic overtones. Precisely at the point when the voice-over asserts the end of identity, the image on the video monitor suddenly starts to collapse. For a few seconds, ripples of snow scramble our view of the image within the image, as if reality is struggling against its own duplication and simulation. Wenders's voice seems to elicit a potent return of the real, powerful enough to disrupt the multiplication of viewing pleasures and viewing positions. His voice reframes the screens that displace experience and identity today, the screens that render the image-based clash of temporalities and incompatible social topographies a...