“Artists are Contingency Machines” (english)

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Elisabeth Bronfen

Artists are Contingency Machines[1]

In the light of night

The new thinking that privileges complexities begins with Nietzsche, Freud, and Hegel. The reason I take that as my point of departure is Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert, a thinker who envisions a planetary system of nocturnal views in the natural sciences. He imagines the world and everything we know as a planet that has a bright and a dark side. But unlike the pagan mind, which primarily assigned magical forces, menacing powers, or alchemistic possibilities of transformation and mutation to the night—and certainly unlike the Christian mind, which sees night as the abode of Lucifer, the adversary—Romantic psychology recodes it: the opposition between day and night, between conscious and unconscious, between reason and unreason—or more precisely: between reason and extra-reason or para-reason—is dissolved and blurred. The new attention to specters, seers, intuitions, hallucinations, to everything that will come to be understood, in the twentieth century, as the stuff of parapsychology, marks the beginning of the complexity we citizens of the early twenty-first century now face.

In my book about the night[2], I was not interested in the banishment of night, as the locus of evil, nor in its upward revaluation, as day’s absolutely subversive counterpart. My focus was on philosophers, artists, and writers whose work limns a dialectic of mutual influence between the two. The Romantic psychologists studied all forms of communication between human beings and even—here they included clairvoyance and somnambulism—with the past and the future. These prophetic stories demonstrate that everything we associate with day, with reason and the rules of everyday life, is fragile when taken by itself, that it floats on the surface. That observation gives rise to the idea that all sorts of knowledge and experience are present even during the day if only we pay attention. It entails a training of the eye and of perception we find reflected, for example, in the Romantic night pieces.

Night is the locus of creativity. Even in highly religious cultures that see it as the abode of dark demons and the devil, it harbors a creative spark, a source of radical change and transformation. Once we consider things in the nocturnal perspective, not only does the day appear in a different light; we also see strata of what is not directly visible or perceptible come into view that provide access to the other. So the night has to do with alterity, it brings complexity into play, and that in turn challenges us to develop a more complex view of the night. In the Christian world, where night is the place of the diabolical and the demonic, of seduction and the remoteness of God, it may at once also be the place of closeness to God and epiphany, and such nocturnal epiphany is more important than its diurnal counterpart. The night is when we are seduced and lose our way, but it also leads us to new insight. The nocturnal state, that is to say, engenders a double complexity, in the sense of distinction and contradiction as well as their resolution.

Today, in the perspective of early-twenty-first-century culture, we may wonder whether this fantasy might not have lost all reality: we work at night, our streets are illuminated, trains run, etc. But I am interested in a mythopoetic and cultic thinking, not in everyday phenomena. The former serves to describe the latter, but it does not coincide with them, because everyday life will often see these fantastic phenomena moving from the periphery to the center, where they become symbolically significant stories. This brings the case of a young businesswoman to my mind who was jogging in Central Park at night when she was attacked and raped; a gang of Latinos and Blacks was later charged with the crime. The incident became a huge story in the media even though, in those days, people used to be attacked and killed in Central Park in broad daylight. Even in an era when major urban areas are illuminated to near-daylight levels at night, visibility remains limited, leaving room for the mythical. The difference between day and night subsists even in the twenty-four-hour society, because human beings still need sleep, and so the night continues to exist as the locus of the imagination and its stories. The archaic fear of the night is still alive; so is the fantasy that it is a realm of greater freedom, one where we are invisible. The radio talk show host who pilots his listeners through the night is a very different character than the moderator who wakes everyone up in the early morning. Even now, we are less startled when someone is killed at night, and cities continue to be somewhat more dangerous at night than during the day. What interests me about the night is the archaic aspect, the sense of being allowed to let go once the light dies away.


Yet blurring the distinction between day and night does not result in a non-dualistic thinking. In that regard, I am with de Saussure: the production of meanings requires clear distinctions and differences—for example, we call something a beam and not a dream. It is only by drawing distinctions and comparing that we can delineate contours and define things. And that is exactly why the question of the night interests me beyond its purely material history as a motif. What does it mean to give voice to something, to put it into words, to find images and representations for it? We cannot perceive things but in contrast with other things—that is the core and point of departure for my study of the night.

In painting, enthusiasm for the night had one primary motive: it allowed light to be painted. Light exists in painting only when it can contrast with shadows—most prominently, when it stands out before a black backdrop—and is shaded within itself. When Hegel says somewhere in his Science of Logic that pure light equals pure darkness because both are nothing, he describes a phenomenon of painting as a wonderful figure of thought. What is equal, that is to say, is nothing; it is only in attenuated darkness or darkened light that figures come into being. Dualisms are the prerequisites on which our thinking is based, and when their terms blend into each other, complexities result that allow a colorful palette of figures and ideas to emerge. That is why I cannot imagine a non-dualistic thinking within the confines of our Western culture, and I fail to see why such a thinking should be desirable. In several contexts—Surrealism, the 1960s—there was the desire to break free of the prison of language, of conceptual thinking, of representability, and attain a pure tone. That strikes me as both politically questionable—there is a totalitarian aspect to it—and illusory, for as long as we wish to communicate with each other, difference is the premise with which we must start in order to be able to name anything. Even when we agree on a term like, say, cookie, we do not all think of the same cookie. That is an insight of psychoanalysis as well as linguistics.

Novalis, for example, is a Romantic in whose thought the absence of difference shows a utopian and totalitarian trait. By revaluing, or recoding, the night, he envisions it as a situation from which all difference and tension are absent, in which the maternal and paternal principles are fused. What awaits us at the end of Hymns to the Night is not an everlasting day but everlasting night. To the Christian mind, this would be an eternal state after the apocalypse, an aeon without days or nights. Everything collapses into a total state that we cannot but imagine as a Messianic end point. One can easily see how a line might be drawn from Novalis to Wagner and the fascist total work of art. Yet this utterly undifferentiated eschatological final state is unattainable, and so we cannot escape dualistic thinking.


Some people turn into completely different characters at night—they lose their inhibitions and, as with the dualism of day and night, a complementary personality emerges. A split takes place, or in other words, a demon awakes in man. That is a central plot element, from myth down to comic strips. Cartoon characters are often demonic figures who lead boring lives during the day, only to break free at night and become superheroes. In these nocturnal characters, darkness activates a doppelganger or demon that is a complementary part of the I, as in psychoanalysis. We all have our doppelgangers, in the guise of sleeping egos. When we lie in bed, drowsing, they wake up and play the most outrageous tricks on our minds that we would never permit ourselves in daily life.

Cartoon characters are an extension of the doppelganger, embodying exaggerated versions of heroism, moral fortitude, or libidinal compulsiveness. That is clearly apparent in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: at night, the bashful multimillionaire turns into Batman with his incredible powers. His antagonist is the Joker, who represents a regression to modern utopian and Surrealist fantasies. Creating confusion and chaos, he is a classical trickster figure, able to change his appearance, a shapeshifter. Although the trickster himself is undergoing permanent transmutation, he does not seek to change the world in deliberate or purposeful ways. He is an agent of transformation, interested neither in humans and their fate nor in money or power. In The Dark Knight, he burns a mountain of dollar bills, not for ethical reasons, but because it satisfies his play drive and his passion for confusion. The Joker creates chaos so that something new can emerge from it. Batman, by contrast, guards order and morality to protect them from changing. Nolan’s particular artifice is that he does not contrast the two characters as the bright and dark sides of a millionaire and representative of liberal capitalism, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, instead highlighting their interdependency and interaction. Both characters would be lost, their existence pointless, without their dualistic alter egos.


Freud’s analysis of the subject or individual operated on a different level than the neurosciences, which presuppose a systemic view of the human being. Still, he studied phenomena of depersonalization and speaks of drives as agents. He makes it very clear that we for the most part know not what we desire, do, or want, and have no insight into how we function. His theory unites two different strains in nineteenth-century thought: one anticipates the theories that will envision the human being as a system, the other derives from mythical notions of man as controlled by gods. Freud’s thought is suspended between these two descriptive patterns because he is a child of his times; he cannot entirely shake off the culture that shaped his thinking. Observing his patients, he noticed many phenomena of dissociation that undercut the barriers thought to delimit the unified subject and made it impossible for him to hold on to the concept of the individual, which had been of eminent importance to nineteenth-century thought.

Once we depoliticize and secularize the concept of the demon and go back to the older Greek term daimon, a non-centralized and uncontrollable force comes into play that explodes the idea of a hermetically closed individual. In addition to the central and hegemonic or ruling principle, which plays a certain part in any system, there are forces that, though their action is generally subordinate, may also gain the upper hand to certain degree. This brings us to the threshold of Nietzschean thinking, which forgoes immediately attaching ethical value to the forces that constitute human existence. Far removed from anything diabolical, the concept of the daimon describes an interplay of forces that proceeds according to a program not unlike that of a coffee maker.


As Freud himself admits, he actually drew on paintings and stories of exorcisms for many of the images he described. Psychotherapy wrestles with inward “evil spirits” because they make the patient “sick” and need to be cast out. Even if, like Freud’s contemporary Pierre Janet, we admire psychological disorders because they give rise to ecstatic states and inspired visions, keeping a healthy balance in life is more important. A healthy balance, that means: not too much ecstasy, not too much anxiety, getting a grip on the death drive and the libido. It is about restraint and expurgation, about regulation and control. This is the aspect Foucault’s critique hones in on: what, after all, does a “healthy” life mean if not control and discipline? Therapy seeks to exorcise all disorders impairing the “healthy” life so that the formerly “possessed” patient can function more or less unimpaired in his labor processes. In Clint Eastwood’s movie Bird, Charlie Parker’s wife talks about the musician’s drug addiction. She explains that it is not drugs that are the true cause of Parker’s excesses, but his music. Take his drugs away, and you take his excesses and with them his music. The latter is Parker’s daimon; he is possessed by it and, metaphorically speaking, it illuminates him. It lives inside him like a demon, bursting forth from him and appealing to other musicians. Without his demon, he cannot make music. The same holds true for many other artists, and perhaps also for scientists. In contrast with psychotherapy, a musician like Charlie Parker does not seek to get a grip on the daimon; on the contrary, he must seek to give it free rein. In mythical terms, his is a tragic story, and for most people, it would not be a viable option in daily life. And so the devils must be exorcised; in this regard, psychotherapy is a modern example of exorcism.


There are gifted artists, and there are artists who are possessed. I studied this matter in public figures, so-called celebrities, using the term “diva” to distinguish extreme instances from the wider population of “professional stars.” The divas are the truly possessed ones, the demonic characters who transgress boundaries and are ready to give their all, to burn themselves out. Survival is not important to them, nor does it even matter very much whether their art will live on, as they live exclusively for the moment when art happens. Callas or Monroe could not have foreseen that they would be so extraordinarily famous after their deaths, and they probably would not have cared. To form an idea of the artist, we need both positions—the well-organized artist diligently doing his foundational work and living to a blessed old age, and the artist possessed by his genius. The latter has often been associated with the diabolical.

The demonic is heavily present in nineteenth-century literature, from the figure of Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandman and other stories of automata to the unbelievably brilliant singers in Jules Verne, and on to George du Maurier’s Trilby. Trilby is a girl without musical talent, but after being hypnotized by Svengali, she sings brilliantly. The demonic aspect is apparent in the plot element of hypnosis and the suspicion that an alien voice speaks through her. Absolute, perfect art, art that is superhuman and transcends boundaries, fascinates bourgeois culture, but it is simultaneously terrifying, because it marks the moment at which control is lost. Authenticity, personality, self-determination, self-definition, etc., ideas the bourgeoisie cherishes, are suspended. There is no way to determine whether that is Trilby’s voice or another’s, whether she herself brings forth her voice or someone else produces it. This question occupied poststructuralists like Roland Barthes, who thought that the fact that an author spoke no longer mattered; what interested him was that the language spoke or the singing sang. Incompatible with bourgeois control, that notion is akin to the concept of genius, which the Surrealists reassessed in the 1930s. They rediscovered “insane” artists who did not fall into that category during their lifetimes, like Mallarmé, and reappraised their work. Genius is inseparable from the demonic, an idea we also encounter in Freud: mania comes over the human being like a diabolical spirit that either destroys him or moves him to supernatural achievements. Yet such excess is disconcerting, whence society and medicine tend to sacrifice the supernatural in favor of order.

Moral guardians

Freud’s superego is a villain from Gothic fiction, someone who encourages the libido only so he can mete out even harsher punishment. Freud somewhere paints the sublime picture of two rooms and a guardian watching over the door between them. Yet this guardian is not the superego: the salon is under the aegis of the large eye looking down on the scene. Still, this eye, as the superego, does not see everything, only parts of the room down to the threshold where the guardian stands. The crucial point about Freud’s image is that this sentinel, unlike Maxwell’s demon, can be fooled. If the repressed drives are savvy enough to think of clever disguises, they may effortlessly cross the threshold. So this guardian who may be outwitted and sometimes falls asleep is an odd surveillance agent. He is a character who maintains the balance between the two rooms and enables diffusion between them. If the door were bolted and barred, or if the bouncer made no mistakes, Freud’s system would not work.

The superego is a diurnal demon because it punishes in the name of morality and censorship. Strangely enough, this activates the drives and stimulates the dark side. The police, the law, ideology are diurnal demons, doubles of the people who are their agents. These authorities assign guilt to us, and therein lies the doubling. We are, after all, not guilty, we merely accept the findings of those who represent morality and the law. To use Mladen Dolar’s terms, I would suggest that the subject is a subject beyond interpellation. A sort of split ego results, because we must acknowledge this interpellation in order to survive. At the extreme, that means that the doppelgangers do not just bring forth the libidinal element, they also make sure that the accusations the superego has leveled against the I are put into action as well. The demonic has to do with freedom, but how to define freedom is a difficult question. We must always ask ourselves whether a freedom is genuine or merely a reaction to oppression and repression.

Demons of the Enlightenment

Tiefer als der Tag gedacht, my book about the night, begins with the Magic Flute and Sarastro, whom I call a demon of the Enlightenment because he is possessed by a totalitarian urge to exorcise. Considered under this aspect, the Magic Flute lends itself to a poststructuralist reading influenced by Foucault. The sublime first act, which hews to an old operatic tradition, is set at night, which stands for the mythical, the ontological, the ancient and archaic—night is the mother of dreams and the imagination. We would expect that in the second act, which is associated with Sarastro, everything should be brightly illuminated—instead, it is an artificial night produced by Sarastro. History shows that the Enlightenment needs the night so that it can first demonize and then repress it. If there were no night, the Enlightenment would not work. What it opposes as Enlightenment is simultaneously part of it. This idea runs through the entire nineteenth century and forms the basis of Adorno’s critique as well. Although fascism, in a perspective on semantics, might be associated with Novalis rather than Kant, it is structurally part of the Enlightenment. Demonizing the other is part of how it operates, and that ultimately always means that the demonizer is himself demonic.

This sort of demonization is a pervasive feature of American culture as well as a cinematic subject, especially in American film noir. Numerous crime movies are about a transmutation of good into evil, presenting the police as a party to the crime. No matter whether the adversary is crime, pornography, or madness, it is always about acts of enlightenment in which a demonic transgression is in play: what the hero opposes takes possession of him. Structurally speaking, there is no disengagement from the demonic because this split runs right through him, and the greater the missionary zeal with which he pursues enlightenment, the more obvious the demonic side becomes. Goya’s Sleep of Reason depicts two states, an active and a passive one. The guardian of reason, as Freud would have it, is asleep and passive; sleep itself, on the other hand, is active, building a stage for dreams. Enlightenment produces its demons on this stage in order to keep people in a permanent state of sedation. As in Freud, there are political as well as psychological motivations fueling this scenario; we may apply it, for example, to horror movies, where reason produces demons in order to reassure us. The violence on the stage and the screen trains us to live with everyday violence. The fact that it is the sleep of reason that produces monsters and demons indicates that they originate in reason’s own logic. These same creatures of horror let us sleep calmly, because we sleep much more soundly and stay in our seats at the movie theater much longer when we see a dream world, however nightmarish it may be, rather than reality.

A dialectical relationship links reason and demonic possession. When a certain line is crossed, subversion suddenly and immediately turns into gratification, and gratification, into subversion. We think in categories of day and night, of freedom and its absence; a complex thinking, by contrast, goes beyond such simple partitioning of the world. Reason can don more colors than black or white, and accepting that fact is a political act.

The night of contingency

Contingency must be assigned to the nocturnal side, though not necessarily to phenomenological night. The possible may be found during the day as well, unless the latter’s glaring light brings the necessary to the foreground. I use the concepts of contingency and necessity in the theory of tragedy because I am interested in whether things must needs end tragically; or might there be a way to cheat necessity? That depends on the genre. In film noir, there is no way to outsmart necessity. The best one can do is recognize the corruption of the other side and resolve to stop playing along. That means I drop out of the system, I lose all options, but at least I have broken the iron grip of necessity. Even in ancient culture, the gods of fate and necessity, like the Parcae, were supporters of the dominant system. Necessity has to do with order, ideology, and control. Like language, necessity requires dualisms. Once the latter are dismantled, culture and interpersonal relations dissolve. But necessity may also be tied to the idea of interpellation. I am interpellated by my parents, my school, my profession, etc., and must of necessity do certain things to survive. Yet the subject is more than that; it needs the possibility of functioning in a different way than it has been programmed to.

We tend to locate the ability to override the necessities prescribed to us in the night, in one of two ways: one points toward transgression, the other, in the direction of real insight or an actual revolution. Yet we must always also ask ourselves to what extent these fantasies merely serve to sedate us, a paranoid notion that appears in many texts; for instance, the hero will see a way to fundamentally change the system, but in reality helps stabilize it. The cynical reading is that any attempt to break necessity is our greatest illusion. The humanistic and less cynical view is that it also contains the element of faith that leads to a fertile imagination. Only he who can imagine breaking free can be truly creative. Applying this line of thought to artistic production, we might distinguish between salon painting, which obeys, in beautiful regularity, the necessity of catering to audiences and critics, and art that engages the question of contingency head-on. Change in the realm of art and culture happens only when new possibilities and contingencies emerge. That is why I maintain that good artists are contingency machines.


  1. Das Gespräch zwischen Elisabeth Bronfen und Thomas Feuerstein fand im August 2008 in Zürich statt.
  2. Elisabeth Bronfen, Tiefer als der Tag gedacht. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Nacht, München 2008.