Ulrich Meurer


research project
philocracy: Politics of Friendship in US-American Visual Culture
The project examines how (moving) images represent and produce the concept of a ‘governance of friends’ in the United States from the introduction of the daguerreotype to silent cinema. It analyzes instances of American visual history not as depictions of socio-political reality, but as agents of the imaginary or utopian notion of philocracy – a specific loosely structured, heterarchical assemblage of political elements. While Gilles Deleuze, in his references to American culture and literature, considers philocracy as the United States’ historically unrealized or ‘metastable’ founding ideal, it nevertheless continues to shape cultural imagination from Whitman to contemporary arts, politics, and media. In order to trace the concept’s manifestations, the project concentrates on case studies, e.g., on the collective potential of photographic processes, the composite portraits (and Civil War coverage) by M. Brady, the societal impact of pre-cinematic apparatuses like Edison’s Kinetoscope, or the political substructures of early narrative and experimental cinema.
The project’s key term, philocracy, synthesizes concepts of various authors from Maurice Blanchot to Deleuze. In contrast to the common idea of friendship as a bond between two individuals, they describe the friend or brother as a central figure of thought in debates about democracy since the late 18th century. As a provisional basis for the analysis of historical images, one can deduce several interrelated features of philocracy: 1) its relations are not mere connections between the elements of a group or set, but external and independent from them; 2) hierarchy is eliminated, all components are arranged horizontally; 3) dynastic and blood relations are rejected, oedipal family structures are replaced by a voluntary ‘oath,’ experimental relationships and alternative gender concepts; 4) elements remain in ‘mid-distance’ between fusion and dispersal, unity and decomposition (“a brick wall of uncemented stones”). These defining features of relationalism, horizontality, non-cognation, and internal distance provide reference points for the study of political friendship in (moving) images: they pertain to their contents or diegetic level, to their formal and compositional strategies, and also to the basic structure of the respective medium itself.
Images of friendship not only reflect but perpetually reinvent and constitute the idea of philocracy. In delineating this historical and aesthetic process, the project’s case studies cover a period from the 19th to the early 20th century, including the peak of industrialized modernity with its oft-cited empowerment of the visual. However, due to the unsteady and purely notional character as well as erratic historical recurrences of philocracy, its analysis cannot follow the (chrono-/teleo-)logical lines of a traditional history of ideas. Instead, the project reverts to a number of exemplary moments, shifts, or ‘breaking points’ in US-American visual culture to examine how photography and early cinematography shape the notion of collective friendship as a variant of democracy. In view of the significant changes in the historical sciences, art history, and visual culture studies since the ‘iconic turn,’ the project will result in a more distinct comprehension of the image as an element of political discourse and of the politics of images ...


Gold Ground/Silver Screen: On the Byzantine Form in Cinema
The research project focuses on vestiges of "Byzantine" aesthetics that surface in cinematic modes of representation. While film history has mainly been conceptualized in terms of the Renaissance (ocular perception, perspective spatiality, linear narration, psychological subjectivity, etc.), the project posits “Byzantium” – not so much a historical reference point than a figure of thought – to assemble a set of thematic as well as formal features which connect modern and contemporary film to an alternative iconographic and cultural tradition, favoring non-perspective spaces, formulaic approaches to lighting, flat or haptic surfaces, emblematic presentation, contemplative perception and mosaic-like narrative. However, such instances of iconicity often appear as mere “traces of repression” in dominant filmic imagery and plot.
By abstracting wider notions of visuality from the properties of Byzantine imagery (mosaic, multi- or non-perspectivity, gold, ornament), the project not only addresses depictions of Byzantium since the early and classical phases of cinema (e.g., Louis Feuillade’s L’agonie de Byzance [1913]), or explicit references to Byzantine art (e.g., Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now [1973]). Instead, Gold Ground / Silver Screen seeks to approach these "Byzantine" properties as basic concepts that have a significant impact on aesthetic, political, or economic discourses of the present.
The initiation of the project in July 2014 and first conceptual research work have been made possible through the support of the Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini di Venezia, which provided archive material, museum inventories and infrastructure.