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 (Post-)Cinema
The project explores the potential of "Byzantium" – both as a concrete reference point in art history and as a figure of thought – in film & media studies. While traditional approaches tend to correlate the pre/cinematic with Western Renaissance (monocular perspective, narrative linearity, immanent subjectivity), the introduction of a "Byzantine mode" can display neglected forms of the moving image and counterbalance dominant (ideological) patterns in media history and theory.
Therefore, the project abstracts a set of basic iconographic, aesthetic, formal and media features from Byzantine art and late-antique visual concepts (gold ground / luminosity / mosaic / reverse & non-perspective / formulaic representation / contemplative perception, etc.) that not only inform depictions of, or references to Byzantium since early cinema, but may be transferred to a wider range of photographic or electronic images. In this sense, the Byzantine will also shed light on contemporary shifts in visuality and digital media technology at the closure of the cinematographic era: as a liminal figure, it seems linked to the changing ontology of images, to the transition from photographic presence to pixilated virtuality and from projection to emission.
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.
Video: Gold Ground / Silver Screen: Trailer for the research project, 2018