Nothing New?

Eye /Machine II (Harun Farocki, 2002)

von Tom Holert

Extended version of the opening address at the exhibition “Harun Farocki Against War”, Forum Stadtpark/Steirischer Herbst 2022, September 23, 2022, originally published in A War in the Distance, edited by Ekaterina Degot, David Riff und Christoph Platz [Steirischer Herbst ’22], Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2023, pp. 278-280

In times of war, the work of filmmaker and writer Harun Farocki (1944-2014) resonates especially vividly and urgently. Farocki has been invested in the analysis and critique of war (and its visual production) since the times of his activist involvement in the anti-war movement entailed by the American war in Vietnam (and other parts of Southeast Asia) since the early 1960s.

His 1969 film Inextinguishable Fire (Nicht löschbares Feuer), an early success of the young Farocki that has long since become an iconic example of political filmmaking, demonstrated how such analysis and critique could deploy a didactic methodology informed by Brechtian Lehrstücke, in combination with the spectacle of the destructive effects of napalm (performed, in a somewhat milder, but still bewildering version, on the filmmaker’s body by way of self-mutilation).

Inextinguishable Fire didn’t comply to the rules and protocols of documentary film; it rather operated in an experimental vein of revolutionary, radical, theatrical pedagogy; it was also an early attempt at avoiding the narratives, arguments and iconographies that make up the majority of fictional and non-fictional films on war.

Rather than showing the war in Vietnam as an exceptional event of affect—of violence, destruction and resistance—, and thus as an incursion into an alleged peaceful normalcy, Farocki emphasized the dimension of historical materialism, political economy and the geopolitical entanglements of the military-industrial complex. Driven by the basic persuasion that capitalism always implies war and warfare, that capitalist production always already operates in a relation of continuity and contiguity between the realms of the so-called civil and the so-called military, Inextinguishable Fire also famously riffed on the apocryphal Marxist tale that the knowledges and materials that allow the production of a vacuum cleaner can be converted into means for the production of a machine gun at every time.

We might think we know this film, but now is the time to watch it again. With the full-scale Russian war on Ukraine at its most palpable, the question of how to speak of war differently, in a critical, defying flight from hegemonic media narratives, outright propaganda, insidious disinformation (with their traumatizing, stupefying effects of brutalization, dehumanization, and fear) is an urgent one, and Farocki’s filmmaking, thinking and writing has much to contribute to the current conjunctures and calamities of war.

The “against”, the gegen, of the exhibition’s title may prove crucial here, depending on how you want to read or understand it. In my view, it could indicate much more than the simple opposition to war as such, although pacifist underpinnings can be traced throughout Farocki’s oeuvre. Much more, it may hint at a militant notion of fighting the economic interests, political ideologies and cultural dynamics that have led and will lead to wars. Thus the “against” would be one of counter narratives and counter images, of an attempt at telling the stories and the history in other, primarily materialist terms.

Between the late 1960s and the early 2010s Farocki’s interests and research shifted significantly. It reached from the critique of the industrial imperialism in America’s war in Vietnam, to the reconstruction of the Fascist war economy between the First and Second World War, to the discovery of the writings of Vilém Flusser, Paul Virilio and others (who guided him to work on the interdependency of photography, cinema and war in his 1988 Images of the World and the Inscription of War), to the irruption of a new militarized vision in the course of the Second Gulf War and the images of aerial/vertical dominance entailed by camera equipped missiles, to the research into the intersections of military training, psychological therapy and computer gaming in projects such as Serious Games (2010).

Since February 24, 2022, at the latest, I have often asked myself how Farocki, who followed the events of the Maidan revolution of 2013/14 and had been in touch with the organizers of the Kyiv Biennial, before he passed away in the summer of 2014, would have responded to the war in Ukraine. In particular I would be interested to learn about his take on pseudo-concepts such as “hybrid war,” the role of user-generated evidence and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), Germany’s wobbly stance with regard to humanitarian and military support of Ukraine, or to the countless economic, ecological and political fall-outs of the crisis.

Putin’s open nuclear threat that catapulted the world back into the darkest times of the Cold War, relates the current situation to the 1980s when Farocki quoted Günther Anders, one of the most persistent critics of nuclear armament in the post World War II era, in the title of his 1988 essay “Reality Would Have to Begin” (“Die Wirklichkeit hätte zu beginnen”),[1] to emphasize the importance of recognizing the actual, material nuclear arsenal, and the threat it entails, as a crucial element of any notion of reality (and realism).

Farocki and others in the 1980s and 1990s have chosen the ideological instrumentalization and ominous truth politics of evidentiary visual production as their object of study and scrutiny. It is in this spirit that the Harun Farocki Institut in early March 2022 published a statement that was also conceived as an invitation to contribute to a special issue of our online journal Rosa Mercedes.[2] We called it “Against ‘Special Operation’ Images”, a title that carries—obvious—references to Putin’s political-military lexicon, as well as to Farocki’s concept of the “operational image”.

By conflating, or rather juxtaposing, different meanings and semantic values of “the operational” and the “image”, and placing an “against” in front of them, we aimed at a critical and probably controversial reflection of the productivity of Farocki’s concept as well as at the question of how information and disinformation, semantic-linguistic manipulations, the entire gamut of epistemological and psychological gaslighting that is currently being deployed to discredit evidentiary truth and to take the documentary image “as hostage,” to quote a statement published in the context of the 2015 Kyiv Biennial.

Farocki has always been a partisan of the documentary image. At the same time, he acted as a fierce, outspoken critic of the many visual practices—in film and television —that turn documentary image-making into an ideological tool in the manufacturing of consent and cliché. In many respects, he was looking for ways beyond documentarism, while remaining committed to those deployments of the documentary where an image objects or revolts against the representational and political functions it is supposed to serve. In late 1975 he wrote the following about the reliability of the documentary image as a source of historical knowledge:

“A newsreel from 1947 tends to document how a newsreel was cut and spoken at the time, rather than how things looked then and what a speaker said. Unlike in textual work, editing the negative definitively biases the material toward a particular substantial/representational interest.”

And later on:

“What is called documentation shows the world as if it were known, which has the effect that a few years later, we can no longer experience what it looked like. Images must be made with which today’s strange world can be discovered and the present becomes history.”[3]

So, here we have both—first, a critical view of a certain understanding of the documentary image as a transparent window into a historical reality to which Farocki opposes a critique of representation as well as a politics of truth associated with the documentary image; and second, a call to work towards the production of a different kind of image that would make accessible, visually and cognitively, the historicity of the contemporary moment.

Since the 1980s, at the latest by the time he worked on essay films such as As You See (1986) or Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Farocki became increasingly interested in a type of photographic and filmic image that he would later dub “operational image” (and which he elaborated for the first time in the 2003 lecture “Phantom Image”).[4]

Crucial for this interest was the insight into the interactions and incompatibilities of human and machine vision, of the biological and the mechanical eye, of perception and calculation. Farocki was both fascinated and appalled by what appeared to be a process of increasing replacement of the human by the machine, of the sensory by the algorithmic—in Capitalist production and destruction, in factories and on the battlefields, leading, ultimately, if dystopically, to work without workers and wars without soldiers.

In works such as Eye/Machine I-III (2000-2003) he contemplated the implications of the deployment and advertisement of so called smart bombs by the Americans in the Second Gulf War of 1991 and the extent to which these weapon systems were designed (and marketed) on the ground of a notion of automated/computerized vision, that is, using “operational images” that exist independently, in a purely intra-machinic realm of communication taking place ultimately beyond the reach of human cognition.

As terrifying as the substitution of conventional representational images by operational images, of human vision by machine vision may seem, in Farocki’s view it also held a critical promise or potential. Two of the early inspirations for a thinking beyond representation and the subjection of visual images to ideology he found in Sergey Tretyakov’s Productivist concept of factographic, “operative” literature and in Roland Barthes’s concept of an “operative language.”

The call to abolish myth, and therefore the bourgeois image, formulated by Tretyakov and Barthes in quite different but sympathetic terms, entails the question: what functions and uses of the visual image may remain? For Farocki, the post-Productivist “operative film” of the radical Left around 1968 had been one option. But what about the later notion and the phenomenon of the “operational image”, this post- or even anti-human modality of the image which can also be called, to draw on theorists such as Alexander Galloway or Jonathan Beller, an “actionable” or “programmable” image?

Farocki seemed to have lost traction with the Tretyakovian or Barthesian concept of the “operative” when he worked on the “operational image” in Eye/Machine and other works of the early 2000s, but in my view, he never dissociated the one from the other entirely. Rather, I’d say that he found himself caught between his longstanding critical mission of dismantling any mythic language (and image) and his more recent critical endeavor of analyzing the dehumanizing effects of the “operational image”’s operations.

However, the denigration of manual labor, the abstraction of work, the pervasive value extraction of individual and collective creativity by racial capitalism, the computerization of production and the monopolist networking of image and text  didn’t leave much room to fantasize about revolutionary modes of image- and worldmaking along the lines of operationality, that is along the lines of an image that works for and by itself.

Today, the “operational image” of the smart bomb and the drone robot has been joined and partly replaced by a wide array of image and text operations, which are constantly blurring the lines between old school propaganda, visual war reporting, citizen online journalism, open source image forensics and investigative aesthetics, etc.

Moreover, the term “operation” has been occupied in the most insidious manner, namely in an attempt to distract attention away from the fact that Russia has started a full-scale war. On the very day of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian military on February 24, Vladimir Putin called the war that he was about to start a “special military operation”, only to censor and penalize any use of the term “war” thereafter. That way he conquered the meaning of the term “operation” to exclude any association not only with war but also with work, opera. Deliberately, one has to suspect, Putin used a technical, clinical and therefore rational sounding word to name his attack. Supposedly, an “operation” is a limited act with a precisely defined aim to be pursued in economic, efficient manner.

Of course, Putin could draw on a certain knowledge and understanding of the term, particularly in the West. For a long time, “special operations” featured in the lexicon of military language, it has been a key instrument of cold war strategies, especially by the United States. According to NATO, special operations are conducted by „specially designated, organized, selected, trained, and equipped forces using unconventional techniques and modes of employment.“[5] Strategically, special operations are part of an “indirect approach”, suggesting that – in the words of a US military expert – “the ability to operate with a small footprint and low-visibility, invest time and resources to foster interagency and foreign partnerships, develop deep cultural expertise, and rapidly adapt emerging technologies”.

Putin’s Russia has relied on these principles of special operations for some while, particularly in its military engagement in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea of the same year, but also before. For years, the Western military community has been studiously interpreting the Gerasimov doctrine and other key texts as open secrets underlying Russia’s hybrid or nonlinear warfare. Presumably, these texts aim at the dissolution of any differences between military and non-military actions, between economic sanctions, diplomatic manoeuvring and warfare, and assume “information confrontation,” leaving much room for speculation about the actual—military or non-military character of such operations; but also about the misleading and disinforming function of these texts and the graphs/images they entail.

For years  Russia—and certainly not Russia alone, but Russia in particular—has been busy expanding the “gray zone” of warfare, constructed by means of “ambiguity of attribution, indirect approach, and below the threshold of open conflict“.[6] In many respects, contemporary warfare is about creating epistemological insecurity and instability, about shifting the grounds beneath perception, about producing conflation, ambiguity, indistinguishability etc. And it is here, in the realm of Fascist epistemics, amid the active construction of a despotic “unreality” (Timothy Snyder), where any decision, in the final instance, appears to be left with the arbitrariness/capriciousness embodied in the autocratic ruler. This said, the operational image as the embodiment of epistemological crisis that Putin, like other Fascist leaders before him, has turned himself into, seems to call for a “special operation” to remove it. However, as should have become clear by now, to fight one operational image with the other would yield no solution whatsoever. And thus we’re left with Farocki’s call from 1975: “Images must be made with which today’s strange world can be discovered and the present becomes history.”[7]



[1] Harun Farocki, Reality Would Have to Begin,” transl. Thomas Keenan, Thomas Y. Levin and Marek Wieczorek, Documents, no.1-2 (Winter 1992): 136-146.

[2] Harun Farocki Institut, “Against Special Operation Images. Invitation to Contribute”, Rosa Mercedes 05, March 9, 2022, /en/2022/03/09/against-special-operation-images-2/

[3] Harun Farocki, What Ought to Be Done. Document – Commentary – Material [1975] (Berlin: Harun Farocki Institut, 2016), /wp-content/uploads/2016/08/HaFI002-EN-CC.pdf

[4] For a succinct overview of Farocki’s uses of the term “operational image” see Volker Pantenburg, “Working Images. Harun Farocki and the Operational Image,” Image Operations. Visual media and Political Conflict, Jens Eder and Charlotte Klonk, eds. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 49-62.

[5]“Introduction to Special Operations,” Army Command and General Staff College, SOF Reference Manual, 1999/2000,

[6] “Russian Influence and Unconventional Warfare Operations in the ‘Gray Zone’. Lessons from Ukraine,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the Committee on Armed Services. March 29, 2017,

[7] Farocki, What Ought to Be Done.

May 21st, 2023 — Rosa Mercedes / 05