Entering the Zone

by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Serious essays on films are normally of an academic nature. Thus, it is no surprise that a philosophical film like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) has attracted the attention of several academic philosophers. My first thought when I heard of Dyer’s project was: how can a writer (not a philosopher or academic) write a whole book about a film? My next thought was: why Stalker and not Nostalghia? To be clear right at the beginning, I am one of those academic philosophers.

Dyer leaves no doubt that for him, Nostalghia is a sort of self-celebratory, pretentious kitsch movie that he has despised from his early youth on while Stalker was a revelation. Watching it for the first time in a godforsaken cinema in Gloucestershire in the 1980s, he realized that the film was bound to determine his entire future existence. Well, that is what Nostalghia was for me. Is that how some people become writers and others philosophers?

The answer is no. What matters is the difference between Gloucestershire and Westphalia. I am serious. Reading the book, I not only came to understand Dyer’s point about the difference between Stalker and Nostalghia, but – without doubt due to my keen philosophical spirit – I now understand it even better than Dyer understands it himself: Stalker is zen while Nostalghia is not. Stalker is Bach while Nostalghia is a Mozart opera. Stalker is a viola da gamba sonata while Nostalghia is similar to Händel’s mindless pom-pom, pom-pom bass.

Where do I get all this from? From another Brit, R.H. Blyth, who did with Zen Buddhism more or less what Dyer is doing with Stalker: expanding it. In his Twenty-Five Zen Essays from 1962 (originally the fifth volume of his Zen and Zen Classics), Blyth divides the whole world into manifestations of either zen or non-zen (with intermediate states between them) and spells out what many of his readers have found most plausible ever since: Händel is ‘more zen’ than the self-pitying Schubert, who is ‘more zen’ than bombastic Italian operas, and with Chopin and Wagner (!), things are getting as ‘un-zen’ as anything on this planet. Almost.

Russian stamp (2007) commemorating Andrei Tarkovsky (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

What is the contrary of zen? The moral, the beautiful, the intellec­tual, the emotional, the world-weary, the philosophical. Blyth’s final conclusion is even crueler than that: The Brits are the most zen-like culture in the entire Western hemisphere and perhaps even beyond. In any case, they are much, much, much higher up on the zen scale than the hopelessly Heidegger-heavy Germans who are culturally insensitive to the noble austerity of the zen spirit (even Händel was merely a “jolly good fellow”). Anyone who has ever sat for more than two hours on the antique wooden benches of Oxford’s dining halls understands what Blyth is talking about.

A man named Stalker guides a writer and a scientist through “the Zone”: an apocalyptic wilderness supposedly endowed with supernatural qualities. Rumour has it that a meteorite crashed into the zone twenty years before, creating a kind of cosmic abyss. Inside the Zone there is a Room said to grant people’s most intimate wishes. Porcupine, Stalker’s teacher, had entered the Room and, a week later, became immensely rich. The conflict between his mental inner reality and the reality outside had been so big that he committed suicide. In the end, none of the men dare enter the Room.

I do not know if Dyer knows Blyth, but he mentions Allan Watts, who is a similar ‘expander’. However, Dyer’s book is zen, just like the film he is writing about. Dyer talks about the serious in a lighthearted fashion and becomes profound by doing so. Is this not – in a formula – the contrary of what philosophy is doing most of the time? (And much of philosophy is German.)

Dyer himself says that the book is not a synopsis but an amplification of the film. Amplification towards what? Towards the metaphysical, of course. The book is philosophical in that it asks essential questions: what is film, what is literature, what am I, the writer? Nevertheless, Dyer’s approach is peculiar. He is not writing philosophy, he is not analyzing, and he is not even telling us the story of the film. “Literary anthropology” comes to mind, which does indeed exist. I know some self-critical and repentant philosophers (not all of them Germans) who have consciously turned towards that genre. Dyer himself mentions “Tarkovsky’s filmic archeology of the discarded” (p. 117) and I believe that this is exactly what Dyer is doing himself. The ruminating exploration of places draws us into Stalker, which is a film about a place (the Zone). Dyer retells this place with all its décor, colors, flickering lights, noises and smells. We might have seen the stone in the water, but Dyer lifts it up and tells us what is underneath. Finally, his anthropology of things brings us closer to the metaphysical meaning of the film (he does not identify the 1961 Peugeot 404 convertible, though).

Having started talking about zen, I want to go on a little (I am imitating Dyer’s style). In my opinion, Stalker puts forward zen as the religion of the age of post-secularism and Dyer is showing exactly that. I am not saying “neo-religious age” but “post-secularism”, and to make it clearer, I should perhaps call it “secular post-secularism” to further distinguish it from “religious post-secularism.” The differences are complicated and cannot be explained here. The former option can be found in the existentialist religion of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky whereas the latter is rather that of the Southern Baptists and the Muslim Brothers of Cairo. Stalker’s Writer is a secular post-secularist who “has gone from extreme skepticism to fearful belief” (p. 137) – but who will return to skepticism sooner or later. At some point, Writer clutches a weapon but is ready to let it drop when Stalker tells him to. That is exactly what makes the film so zen and so deliciously (and secularly) post-secular. Writer would be ready to believe in the Zone, but at the same time, nothing of what he experiences can convince him of its superior character.

Some things do not work: “Writer is the one doing the drinking—maybe he should have been called Drinker.” Dyer’s countless rantings about the vulgar films of Lars von Trier and about the “witless Coen brothers” on the other hand, are interesting and always to the point.

Dyer expresses his post-secular feelings about the film like this: “The Zone is not simply a source of solace, the heart of Marx’s heartless world, it is a source of torment, a system of traps that constantly teases and threatens not just his clients but Stalker himself. No one is immune to the capriciousness of the Zone” (p. 90). The entire film works with the intensity of his despair and – strangely – also with the intensity of hope. Dyer attempts to grasp the post-secularist constellation of despair/hope by researching Stalker and by intermingling the film with his own existential situation. Saying that “the film is in some way about itself, a reflection of the journey it describes” (p. 123), Dyer manages to capture Stalker’s self-reflexive tone and produces a Stalker of its own. What is film, what is literature, what am I the writer? Can anybody “see their – what was considered to be the – greatest film after the age of thirty?” What does it mean to see a film at a young age, to see it again as a disinterested adult? Is it like trying to come to a definitive assessment of your own childhood?

There is a nice allusion to Rilke and his idea that all Russians are sort of proto-Germans in their profoundness and unconditional (crazy?) search for truth. Are Russians zen? Too late to ask Blyth.

Original Mosfilm poster advertising ‘Stalker’, 1979 (Source: Wikimedia Commons, thumbnail used under Fair Use provisions)

And finally: What is a book? What is a book for Dyer, the writer? He tells us what he feels when he receives a copy of his new book: “The next moment comes not when the book is finished … but some time after it is published, when you see it for what it is… Then you see that actually those big desires and hopes, your deepest wishes, turned out not to be so deep at all…” (p. 186). Ha, I found what I was looking for: a point clearly demonstrating that philosophy is superior to literature because a philosophy book can be so entirely incomprehensible that its incomprehensibility alone gives the author full satisfaction or, more precisely: gives him hope that, even in a hundred years, people will still be trying to make head and tail of what he has written. Not that he believes anybody would do this (philosophers are not naïve), but he hopes that somebody will do it. This plunges us into the central subject of Stalker with its Room in the middle of the Zone, which grants wishes but yields disappointment after disappointment, even though – paradoxically – it creates the one thing that humanity needs in a post-secular age: hope. Hope implies a sense for the future and a discontent with the present because what would we need hope for otherwise? This paradox is implicitly contained in Stalker, and Dyer is making it explicit. It is exactly the paradox that, most probably, neither Southern Baptists nor Muslim Brothers will ever figure out.

Interestingly, Dyer mentions secular, over-happy Americans who have similar problems with the paradox of hope and should perhaps be sent to the Stalker school: “When you’re happy, hope, like all the other big questions … becomes meaningless. It is possible, in parts of California particularly, to live a life full of happiness (for what is here now)” (p. 211). Did Blyth not say that the world-weary are un-zen? I don’t remember if he says anything about the overly happy.

The Zone is a matrix and a reality at the same time. Dyer reproduces a Zone in the form of a reflection about a spacein which we are confronted with our hidden wishes and daydreams. In that sense, every book is a Zone and every work of art is a Zone. That might be the gist of Stalker. There is actually, according to Blyth, also a lot of zen in Mozart (though not as much as in Bach). So what about Nostalghia? I still have hope.

Geoff Dyer: Zona. A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
Price: GBP16.99
Edinburgh, Canongate, 2012, 228pp.

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait. He is the author of Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, Wong Kar-wai (2007) and has written a number of books on topics ranging from intercultural aesthetics to the philosophy of architecture.

Where Techno Lives

by Norbert Niclauss

It has been some time since the phenomenon of rave disappeared from the perception of the general public. Nowadays, when one speaks of the ‘techno movement’, one typically does so in the past tense. The images of Berlin’s ‘Love Parade’ are but faint memories, documenting how a carnivalesque subculture has been absorbed by the mainstream of a ‘fun-driven society’ (Spaßgesellschaft). That great musical current of the 1990s, it seems, has turned into a mere trickle.

View of the Berghain (Photo: Bart van Poll, used under cc-by-sa-2.0 Wikimedia Creative Commons licence.)

Tobias Rapp, in his book Lost and Sound, objects to this scenario of decline and attempts to show that, despite its reduced ‘surface visibility’, the culture of techno music in Berlin is alive and well. After the end of the hype, about ten years ago, the techno scene – this is one of Rapp’s central theses – withdrew from everyday culture and went underground, where it went through a period of renewal. One might think that Rapp is dealing with a niche phenomenon, which would be at best of local interest. But the author – who recently moved from being editor of pop culture at the Berlin daily Tageszeitung to a position at news-weekly Der Spiegel – argues convincingly that the clubs of Germany’s capital have shaped how German culture as a whole is perceived at an international level.

Tobias Rapp combines subjective first-person reports from Berlin’s nightlife with other passages that are written in a sober, more analytic mode. At both levels, he describes the astonishing attraction that Berlin has been exerting on DJs, producers, and weekend ‘Easyjet ravers’. Rapp estimates the number of techno tourists, who arrive each weekend on budget flights headed for one of Berlin’s airports, to be (‘not implausibly’) around 10,000. As a main cause for this boom, Rapp identifies not only the emergence of budget air travel, but also the oversupply of real estate in the German capital. Thanks to low commercial rents, a relatively egalitarian clubbing scene has emerged, which – ‘unlike in other major cities’ – does not target the celebrity and luxury segment of the market.

One can read Rapp’s study from different perspectives. As a book about Berlin, it may not provide touristic advice on the city’s hottest night spots, but it provides a well-researched survey of the clubs along the river Spree. To be sure, the author sometimes writes with the passion of a true aficionado, but for the most part he manages to keep a professional distance between him and his topic. Nonetheless, he hardly hides his satisfaction when he recounts, for example, the observation of a female club-goer, who describes ‘Techno in Berlin’ as ‘just like Reggae in Kingston’.

Rapp did not intend to write a music book that would describe the evolution of house, techno, and related genres of electronic music (although his recommendations of recordings, given in the appendix to the book, provide an excellent starting point). Rather, his interest is more in cultural-sociological findings: such as the ‘commune model’ that is being practiced at ‘Bar 25’ (‘Hippie de luxe’), or the only partial visibility of the clubs. Thus, at the ‘Berghain’, the leading club in its segment, a strict ‘no photos’ policy is in place, which not only gives the place an aura of exclusivity but also allows for an element of egalitarianism: what counts is ‘the celebration of a collective subject without celebrities’.

That Rapp’s concern is with general conclusions, not merely with Berlin-specific observations, is especially noticeable in his discussion of online communities. He describes in detail how ‘an authentic local subculture … becomes the topic of discussion in global networks’. This provides a good insight into the structure of a wider public of pop culture, which constitutes itself via the internet with its global reach. For example, in a relevant internet discussion group, Rapp encounters one 17-year old from Toronto who has never been to Europe, but knows everything about the current preferences of the DJs at ‘Berghain’, the place of his longing. One of the interesting aspects of the book is how it makes tangible – via the example of Berlin’s club culture –  the much discussed notion of ‘glocalisation’.

Lost and Sound is not a political book in the narrow sense. However, Rapp’s reference to the asymmetrical perception of techno culture – ‘hardly any in Germany, a lot of attention abroad’ – is nonetheless relevant to cultural policy-makers. With respect to the role of local politics and economic development, Rapp argues that the current boom of medium-sized clubs and venues was only possible against the backdrop of the failure of wholesale urban redevelopment policies in the 1990s. In a detailed and sophisticated manner, he describes how popular criticism led to a referendum against the large-scale redevelopment plans that had been drawn up for the bank of the river Spree. The fact that the controversy about the MediaSpree plans culminated in the slogan ‘place for clubbing or location for investors?’ may well be due to the specific conditions in Berlin. However, looking beyond the political sensitivities within the German capital, this case study may well contain general insights into the relation between, on the one hand, alternative culture with its hedonistic outlook and, on the other hand, institutionalised politics.

Not least from a creative industries perspective, the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature. Rapp describes the change in significance of record labels, which, in times of a crisis-like decline in record sales, have become an integral part of strategies of self-marketing, by DJs who team up with producers (and vice versa). He also explains how it is that certain record shop are able to maintain their economic and cultural function, even in times of crisis, because they cater to a specialised audience. Part of Rapp’s study is also concerned with the interdependence between club culture, fashion, tourism, and technology: for example, DJ software from Berlin is now being exported to the U.S. for use during church services. 

Regarding the clubs themselves, the author arrives at an upbeat conclusion: ‘With a bit of good will and some idealization one could say: the house and techno scene in Berlin has retained the good aspects of independent culture – economic independence, artistic integrity, and an unwillingness to compromise – while simply having done away with the bad aspects: simplistic anti-capitalism, glorification of self-exploitation, and lack of professionalism.’ In times of a global economic crisis, that is not a bad result.

Tobias Rapp: Lost and Sound. Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset.
Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2009.
ISBN-13: 9783518460443
Softcover, 268 pages, EUR 8.50

Norbert Niclauss works on music and cultural policy at the German Federal Government’s Commission for Culture and the Media (BKM), Berlin.

The German version of this article first appeared in Berliner Republik, No. 2/2009; translated and reproduced with permission. Translation: The Berlin Review of Books.