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László Moholy-Nagy: biographical writings

László Moholy-Nagy: biographical writings

by Louis Kaplan

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Marking the centenary of the birth of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), this book offers a new approach to the Bauhaus artist and theorist’s multifaceted life and work—an approach that redefines the very idea of biographical writing.
In Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Louis Kaplan applies the Derridean deconstructivist model of the "signature effect" to


Marking the centenary of the birth of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), this book offers a new approach to the Bauhaus artist and theorist’s multifaceted life and work—an approach that redefines the very idea of biographical writing.
In Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Louis Kaplan applies the Derridean deconstructivist model of the "signature effect" to an intellectual biography of a Constructivist artist. Inhabiting the borderline between life and work, the book demonstrates how the signature inscribed by "Moholy" operates in a double space, interweaving signified object and signifying matter, autobiography and auto-graphy. Through interpretative readings of over twenty key artistic and photographic works, Kaplan graphically illustrates Moholy’s signature effect in action. He shows how this effect plays itself out in the complex of relations between artistic originality and plagiarism, between authorial identity and anonymity, as well as in the problematic status of the work of art in the age of technical reproduction. In this way, the book reveals how Moholy’s artistic practice anticipates many of the issues of postmodernist debate and thus has particular relevance today. Consequently, Kaplan clarifies the relationship between avant-garde Constructivism and contemporary deconstruction.
This new and innovative configuration of biography catalyzed by the life writing of Moholy-Nagy will be of critical interest to artists and writers, literary theorists, and art historians.

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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Biographical Writings

By Louis Kaplan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8267-6



Starting from Scratch: Gramophone, Film, Photogram

The story starts by mapping out the scene of what Moholy labels production- reproduction—that which structures the production of a signature for repetition and, in its repetition, difference. In other words, it will illustrate that a signature, any signature, has been copied in the first place. And in the second part of this odd equation, upon being photocopied (or reproduced in general), it will become another original (i.e., a production). Always already, there follows this thesis: production-reproduction, flowing from one to the other—an absorption of characteristics, but not the same, not "totally" the same on account of re, or because of the return, or to superimpose the two—(re)production is the only formula adequate to figure the original difference at work in the question of the signature whether photographic or otherwise. Moholy stumbles upon this magic formula very early in his artistic career. By 1926, he is already writing in retrospect about his total absorption in the problematic: "For some years, I was totally absorbed by the importance of the equation 'production-reproduction.' I almost tried to control [meistern] the totality of life under this aspect. Specifically, it led me to an analysis of all reproductive 'instruments.' ... A supplementary idea brought me to a basic knowledge of the photographic field." This statement splits the subject of production-reproduction. On the one hand, the author and Bauhaus master tries to control "the totality of life under" the operations of production-reproduction. But through "a supplementary idea," Moholy is led back towards a total absorption of the subject by the signifiers, "of the equation 'production-reproduction'" and, whether sonic or photographic, this absorption of Moholy converts him into a signature effect. For the production of reproduction and the reproduction of production turn the "totality of life" to the service of the modern media personality. The reproductive "instruments" of these broadcast systems turn Moholy around in the process. Reproduction lodged in production, or the essential space generation of a writerly technology, opens the displaced space for the articulation of the Moholy media subject. It moves over, hence moving him over.

Keeping this shift in mind, it is important to take issue with Tilman Osterwold (even though he is one of the few writers who has emphasized the importance of the media problematic for Moholy) when he states, "While an artist, such as Moholy-Nagy, revolutionizes the media in terms of its content by opening up unutilized possibilities (with the implementation of fantasy, ideas, feeling, and intellect), he does not, however, alter the function of the mass media." In this decidedly anti-McLuhanesque analysis that ignores the medium as message, Osterwold keeps matters squarely in the control of the revolutionary artist and the emotional range of his electronic palette which can be switched at will from channel to channel. But before one can criticize the artist's inability to transform how the mass media functions and can hope for its possible mutation, one has to take into consideration the thesis that the problematic of production-reproduction has already conjured up the artistic subject on its screen as an effect of the electronic transmissions of the mass media.

In the first movement of production-reproduction, Moholy constructs media experiments which transform the instruments of reproduction, and perhaps even the entire apparatus of representation, for productive purposes. The first and foremost goal of this research program is construction to serve and to service the human: "Since it is primarily production (productive creation) that serves human construction, we must strive to turn the apparatuses (instruments) used so far only for reproductive purposes into ones that can be used for productive purposes as well." Three areas of research into this media "turn" are detailed throughout Moholy's writings. They involve the use of modern media technologies which double production over into reproduction: the writing of the gramophone, the film, and the photogram. Through the switching on of these inscription devices, the charting of Moholy's biography becomes the history of the graphic in his life. But this investigation into Moholy's life also maps how these reproductive devices generate recordings that get in the way of the subject of biography. Played back through these technological media channels, Moholy is subjected to another type of biofeedback. In the battle of purposes inscribed in the above quotation, the striving after the genuine (human) product unintentionally constructs the distant and distancing strife of (technological) reproduction.

The first Moholy experiment which uses reproduction for productive purposes entertains a new musical signature that turns about, a phonographic. The stylus of the gramophone cuts a new musical style of writing. Starting from a scratch, the operator produces through the dismemberment of wax or vinyl copies. Moved by Edison's phonographics, Moholy's "esoteric graphism" rewires the invention of the wizard of Menlo Park: "An expansion of the apparatus for productive purposes might make it possible for scratches [Ritzen] to be made in the wax plate by a person and without the aid of mechanical means." Previously recorded, the record becomes productive again. The record player no longer reproduces sound as a mere tone arm for the machine or as its "mechanical means." The dead copy springs to life in Moholy's live scratch mix. The player of records becomes a bricoleur who plays off of preexisting materials and exposes their productive possibilities for replays and reinscriptions, that which feeds back into the system. In such re-creation, according to Moholy, there comes the "creation of music."

Yet, through the production of reproduction, the record cuts both ways. Flipping between its passive and active voices, the disc jockey has become the operator of the system. This enacts a double phono-writing set up between the player and the played upon. By producing in reproduction, the musical monteur (i.e., "person") writes anew through the scratch marks. And in writing, through the musical signature of "self-produced" scratches, he is scratched out. This scratching onto the record, cutting back and forth, raises a racket, causes a noise and an interference in the sound track. It resounds in a deafening roar that rocks the Bauhaus, shatters Moholy, and jams—in the thrust of the matter—the subject of biography. Moholy calls this scratch work—a marking, a "making scratches"—"this kind of handwriting." This is the investigation of the self produced when starting from a scratch. It is time, he says, for the investigation of this double-edged signature effect, "... the investigation of self-produced scratches, and finally mechanical and technical experiments to perfect this kind of handwriting done by making stratches [Ritzen-Handschrift]." This mechanical and technical practice carves out the lines and writes out the phonographic symbols and signatures that constitute Moholy in the turning of its tables, in the motion of a hand, or nowadays, it can be added, in terms of word-processing, with a slip of a disk (copy). With the flip of the disk, the Ritzen- Handschrift (scratch handwriting) switches the subject into an effect of a scratching signature.

But the perfectionist Moholy wants to go one step further in the attempt to systematize his scratching. In order to constitute the rules of this new scratch system, Moholy turns to the system of alphabetization from which to draw the necessary resources that would allow for a transposition of media. Therefore, Moholy calls for a new scratch music alphabet, a scratch ABC, to take its place among the languages of art which he taught and, through the transformation of the letter, gets caught up in. In so many writings, Moholy makes reference to any number of these fundamental alphabetical systems in a variety of media—"language [s] of optical expression," Eggeling's "ABC of motion phenomena in chiaroscuro and variation of direction," "an ABC of architectural and projective space," or a Sound ABC that scratches onto film.

This sonic material—ABC's in a jumble that supersede the subject and its meaning—scripts the subject as he (Moholy) scripts the score in "establishing a groove-script alphabet [Ritzschrift-ABC]" by "the incision of groove-script lines" and "graphic symbols [graphischen Zeichen]." Having gotten into the groove, "for the time being"—the time of writing or of production-reproduction—Moholy moves "in a graphic way." This is a special time and a special language where, over and over, one listens to a record skipping in the programming of meaning. The programming of the Moholy playlist lays down two basic guidelines for its listeners:

1. By establishing a groove-script alphabet (Ritzschrift-ABC) an overall instrument is created which makes superfluous all instruments used so far.

2. Graphic symbols (Die graphischen Zeichen) will permit the establishing of a new graphic and mechanical scale (graphisch-mechanischen Tonleiter).... From these, attempts to devise—for the time being, in a graphic way—a special language.

But the conductor of the scene of production-reproduction is not content to stop at this juncture. The media program will be repeated again and again. Conducting bodies, it presses on for another layer, one more time and signature. When stuck in the groove, production-reproduction can function like an infinite tape loop. For Moholy's next move aims for even more feedback. He re-records the production of reproduction to press and repress that wax plate for replays and for a re-sounding of effects. This is what Moholy's scratch orchestra sounds like now: "This sound, when reproduced, might result in acoustic effects [Schallwirkung] which without any new instruments and without an orchestra, might signify a fundamental renewal in the production of sound (i.e., new not yet existing sounds and sound-relationships) for the purposes of composition and the very concept of music [Musik-vorstellung] itself."

The conditional aspect of this paragraph must be stressed in demonstrating how the phonographic medium envisioned here would subvert the traditional concept of music in its every performance. In risking significance, this sound—reproducing the production of reproduction of production, etc.—might result in echoes and feedback ("acoustic effects") which, without any new instruments, overload "the very concept of music itself." This sound might signify for the purposes of composition, but then again it might not (for the purposes of decomposition). The scratch work brings a fundamental renewal in the production of sound and in significance. This renewal of the new, similar in texture to the reproduction of production, deploys a second layer of text which works against the grain of the concept. One must listen very carefully, ear to the ground, as the mixmaster Moholy rubs against the grain of a voice and scratches out static meaning, the not yet existing or meaning.

Moving sound around in a transposition of the new media, Moholy also moves the scratching, the "acoustic alphabet of sound writing," onto film. This enables him to write out the second scratch signature as a "counterpart" to phonographics. In this inter-media experiment, the production of reproduction takes the film strip as its material base in order to rub out the "unheard of" or even the "nonexistent" for both visual and sonic purposes. As was the case with the record, this production of reproduction can happen without any recourse to recording. Moholy writes of an "opto-acoustic alphabet": "We can write acoustic sequences on the sound track without having to record any real sound. Once this is achieved the sound-film composer will be able to create music of a counterpart of unheard of or even nonexistent sound values [hörspiel] merely by means of an opto-acoustic alphabet [optofonetischen abc]."

Written this way on the silver screen, "all types of signs" are liable to crack and crackle as they break the sound barrier. As Moholy records it in writing: "In an experiment, The Sound ABC, I used all types of signs, symbols, even the letters of the alphabet, and my own fingerprints. Each visual pattern on the sound track produced a sound which had the character of whistling and other noises." Moholy's mention of "my own fingerprints" returns the reader to the primal scene which holds up the autographic signature. At the crossroads of psychophysical self-testing and the origins of the sound film, this is perhaps the most peculiar experiment in the scratch history of Moholy-Nagy. In the control room, an avant-garde sound engineer tunes in and turns on to the frequencies of his own fingerprints. He listens into his corporeal remains and residues as they transfigure into a celluloid experience. He overhears the body, the alphabet, the sign systems, the symbolic order, everything and noise. And as the sound is tracked in this way, each character writes out a sonic signature—aleatory to the thing itself, to the representation, to the meaning and which only insists upon its own singular scratch-noise.

The Sound ABC (Tönendes ABC; 1932)—an unheard of or nonexistent piece in that the actual filmic record has been lost—registers a Moholy wrapped up in aleatory experiments which reduce to a whisper or raise to a ruckus each and every visual object. Piercing in their effects, these noises—from the low pitch to the shrill whine or whistle—pierce the status of the object. These noisy experiments between sound and vision even alter our sense and organ of smell: The wondrous playing of a nose is recorded in Moholy's scrapbook. In this transposition of media, the breaking of the nose comes running from and through the ear. "'I can play your profile,' he would say to a friend, sketching the outline of the face in his notebook, 'I wonder how your nose will sound.'" In scripting this movie scenario, Moholy cracks a joke which manipulates media—an olfactory organ into a sonic wave.

The third signature of production-reproduction is written in the key of the photogram for an automatic writing with light. The photogram also institutes the supplement at the origin of production-reproduction in the form of a photogrammatology. The photogram starts from the scratch as well, but the incisive instrument is neither stylus nor pencil. Instead, the photogram reveals how visual experience owes its constitution to the writing, recording, and tracing of light. In order to speak of the site free of signification which the new language of the photogram represents and, therefore, in order to be given a clean slate ("tabula rasa"), Moholy, taking and making notes in his scratch pad, refers to another effect of the signature—the subtle stroke of light-writing (lichtschreiben):

The photosensitive layer—plate or paper—is a tabula rasa, a blank page [unbeschriebenes blatt] on which one can make notes with light [man mit licht so notieren kann] in the same way that the painter works in a sovereign manner on the canvas with his own instruments of paint-brush and pigment.

Whoever obtains a sense of writing with light [licht-schreibens] by producing photograms without a camera, will be able to work in the most subtle way with the camera as well.

Following the dynamics of the graphics of the signatures which record the production of reproduction, photogrammatology also risks the conversion of Moholy into a light-writing effect. When placed into this scene of photogrammatical inscription, the term "sovereign" recalls the impossible investigations of Georges Bataille who defined the sovereign moment of his general economy as "this loss." Even as Moholy works in a sovereign manner by means of a writing with light, photogrammatology traces a signature that stops meaning in its tracks and exposes the problematic master of the "gram" to a loss of meaning (Figure 4).

But the double writing of photogrammatology does not only embroil the Moholy subject in the web of production-reproduction. Moholy captures how photogrammatology contaminates even the Kantian categories of space and time. It is conventionally assumed that photograms exist in space and time. Nevertheless, the signature of photogrammatology acts as if the case were otherwise. It no longer has anything to do with the recording of the fixed object of study nor "with the record of an existing space (or space-time) structure."


Excerpted from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy by Louis Kaplan. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Louis Kaplan is Franz Rosenzweig Post-Doctoral Research Fellow for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is author of The Damned Universe of Charles Fort and coauthor of Gumby: The Authorized Biography of the World’s Favorite Clayboy.

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