Issue #142 Chaosmos Cinema

Chaosmos Cinema

Elena Vogman

Ceiling: Installation view of Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten, 1977. Single-channel video with sound, 9:01 minutes. Left wall: David Lamelas, A Study of the Relationships between Inner and Outer Space, 1969. Single-channel video with sound, 24 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and LUX. Right wall: Eva Szasz, Cosmic Zoom, 1968. Single-channel video with sound, 8:02 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Canadian National Board of Film. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Issue #142
February 2024

Between October 1927 and September 1928, the Soviet director, ecstatic thinker, and pioneer of “montage of attractions” Sergei Eisenstein envisioned a cinematic adaptation of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867). He “dedicated” the film’s “formal side” to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)its “inner monologue,” its “physiology of the detail,” its “dismembered body” and “visceral organs.”1 The Capital project remained unrealized, but Eisenstein left over five hundred diary pages of notes, drawings and diagrams, quotations, images pasted from various sources, captions, and personal and theoretical reflections that enter into manifold interrelations.2

Cosmos Cinema on Two Diary Pages

One of the diary’s spreads shows, on the right-hand page, a stargazing couple in an illustration from a short story by O. Henry translated for the German journal UHU; on the right-hand page of the following spread is an “ancient astrological-astronomical map” from 1609 (the year of Galileo Galilei’s completion of his telescope) taken from Nikolai Morozov’s 1907 book Revelation in Thunderstorm and Tempest: History of the Apocalypse’s Origin. These collaged scenes configure a vertiginous complexity of different temporalities, a cosmos cinema staged on juxtaposed spreads of a notebook. The establishing shot of a couple facing the star-scene at a distance of “sixty-six trillion kilometers” is annotated by Eisenstein in red ink, which plays with the ambivalence between the animal “bull” and the astrological sign “Taurus”: “There is the bull! The stars form themselves into bull pictures and walk through the circling sphere of the sky as bulls.” The frightening chaos of the astral bodies is transfigured into images that move like animals through the cosmic screen and produce meaningful constellations.

Sergei Eisenstein, diary pages from September 13, 1928. Graphical transcription by Uliana Bychenkova. In Elena Vogman, Dance of Values: Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project (Diaphanes, 2019).

On the next page, a pasted photograph of a bull breaks the spherical star chart’s bestiary. This rough incision into the seventeenth-century astrological-astronomical map is an image from Eisenstein’s film The General Line (1926–29). The film tells of the collectivization of agriculture by focusing on an impoverished and famished rural area of the Soviet Union. The propagandistic plot—on the creation of cooperatives, the agitation of peasants, and mechanization—is enacted and traversed by Eisenstein’s uncompromising experiments with montage: its surrealist, erotic, and mythical scenes are the result of cinematic couplings of the vegetal, animal, human, and machinic realms.

In contrast to the profit-driven US film industry, Eisenstein—as with many other figures of early Soviet cinema, such as Esfir Shub, Mykola Shpykovskyi, and Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova—redefined montage as a powerful intervention into the given order, a revolutionary world-making. Shpykovskyi, in his contemporary film Khlib (Bread, 1929), which was banned even before it was released, presents collectivization in the Ukrainian SSR as a complex experiment with rhythms. The cinematic image rhythmically traces the transition from manual labor oriented by natural cycles to the new bodily rhythms structured by human-machine temporality. The linear transition from manual labor on individual landholdings to the industrialized and mechanized production of state-controlled farms (sovkhoz), which installed extractivist relations on social and environmental orders, is complicated in Shpykovskyi’s film, which emphasizes new rhythmic alliances. It deterritorializes the extractivist relation to the earth by opening new cinematically entangled complex temporalities.3 Far from merely serving as an ideological apparatus, in the postrevolutionary and post–World War I reality these montages constituted practices of putting the shattered world back together again, as the playwright, factographer, and film theorist Sergei Tretyakov once stated.4

The use of nonprofessional actors (typazh) was, like the revelation of the optical unconscious, a means of activating a “sensuous thinking” of images, or a cinema “beyond the stars.”5 The protagonist of The General Line, the “actual” peasant Marfa Lapkina, acts in the film as a typazh: a revolutionary peasant whose gestures and facial expressions speak of her living milieu while transfiguring it at the same time through the film as an immanent singularity of expression.6 In the film’s final scene, Marfa drives a tractor while wearing accessories that Eisenstein gathered after seeing them in magazines featuring “stars” of American cinema. By appropriating the means of objectified capitalist representation into a gesture of empowerment, she also acts as an emancipatory force on both the political and sexual planes.

Exceeding the Cosmic Order

Returning to Eisenstein’s diary pages for the Capital project, what order and temporality does their juxtaposition of elements invoke? The collage seems to break through both the cosmic order of astral constellations and the register of their possible meanings. The sensuous fragment of a photograph from The General Line, which is set into the image, joins the sky map but deforms its scale and challenges its legibility. Eisenstein adds a comment in French—with his typical affinity for multilingualism—that links both pages: “Our bull will pass through the firmament, searching [to see] if there isn’t a ‘bull’ between the stars. Thus making it fly to Marthe [Marfa]! The entire celestial system turns! Comets!!!”7 One can read here a prefiguration of “sensuous thinking” as a “law of participation,” which Eisenstein later conceptualizes in reference to French ethnography and anthropology: a theoretical framework that describes a form-immanent perception which inverts causal relationships by way of an animistic-technological partaking in things, a potential both concrete and mystical that is reactivated via cinematic montage.

The photograph of the bull comes from a dream sequence in The General Line: the dream shows Marfa living a new life on a sovkhoz. A montage of heterogeneous times: the bull of the old star chart meets that of the new Soviet command economy. However, instead of the linear progression imposed by the first Five-Year Plan (1928)—a vector causing The General Line to be remade in 1928 and renamed by Stalin as The Old and the New—the film portrays Marfa’s efforts to found an agricultural cooperative, against the opposition of superstitious peasants and a petrified Soviet bureaucracy, as orgiastic, imaginary, and proliferating with dream elements. The dream sequence directly follows the famous “cream separator scene” that embodies the etymological derivation of “montage” as transformation and intensification rather than the merely additive dynamic of construction.

In nineteenth-century France, “montage” referred to the skimming of cream from milk, as in faire monter le lait. Eisenstein’s montage shows this transformation as an ecstatic alliance involving human bodies and the machinic ejaculation of the separator. In the following sequence, Marfa dreams of a utopian sovkhoz that emerges from a morphological constellation of elemental relations: a surrealist elevation of a gigantic bull in the sky covering a herd of sheep that merge with the clouds. The dynamic metamorphoses of animals, environmental elements, and technology transfigure life in the sovkhoz in Marfa’s dream. They exceed the linear progression from one cosmology to another. They operate as an autopoietic process that integrates the elements and bodies into new monstrous arrangements.

This process brings unconscious, imaginary, and mythical realms into a chaosmic order drawn together by Eisenstein’s collage. Its arrangement can be associated with dialectical images that enter a “constellation,” which Walter Benjamin describes as the medium of awakening, as the “breach” that, in Eisenstein’s montage, literally emerges from the material breach in the celestial sphere. However, the images also evoke Aby Warburg’s “constellations,” in which the polarities between astronomy and astrology, between magic and logic, are embodied in a “method” for making the new world legible.8 This montage also refers to a poetic and political position: it effects a return of myth in the “age of technological reproducibility” in order to subject things to a dynamic revaluation. The fragmentation of montage, which Eisenstein also understood as the “Osiris-Method” of archaic division and animation, produces new values out of conflict.9

Transferential Constellations

This “sensuous thinking” reconfigures cinema as the producer of a second, often nonverbal, gestural, neurodiverse, non-anthropocentric, and somatic visual milieu alongside the familiar system of linguistic signs. Eisenstein finds this somatic decomposition of the conventional communicative modalities of language in Joyce. Even though direct quotations from Ulysses are conspicuously absent from the notes for Eisenstein’s Capital, the novel is lauded as “the Bible of the new cinematography.”10

In November 1929, Eisenstein met Joyce at his home in Paris. The nearly blind writer played a recording of his voice reading from his work-in-progress, Finnegans Wake (1939).11 In this experimental novel, Joyce lays bare a kaleidoscopic principle for the sensuous de- and recomposition of language that operates through the production of neologisms and manifold forms of linguistic crossings and pidgin.12 The coherent and reassuring perception of language is dismantled in favor of linguistic material arranged in a rhythmic pattern, with homonymic syllables wreaking havoc on the conventional model of communication:

… every person, place or thing in the chaosmos of Alle anyway connected with the gobblydumped turkery was moving and changing every part of the time … as time went on as it will variously inflected, differently pronounced, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns.13

Just as the word “gobbly” emerges in Joyce from a linguistic coupling of “hobbly” and “gobble,” meaning to swallow hurriedly, “chaosmos” is a montage of “chaos” and “cosmos.” Finnegans Wake processually “reflects distant languages emerging from a general chaos,” as Eisenstein comments after his encounter with Joyce, with this work “written by a fusion of undifferentiated linguistic elemental forces (stikhiia).”14 In Joyce’s decomposed somatic prose, “chaosmos” embodies the ever-newly emerging encounter between repetition and difference, structure and disorder. It convokes an inflection of time that opens to an infinite multitude of perspectives. The “commodious vicus of recirculation” in which Joyce begins the novel “relates to a world of differences implicated in one another” and “to a complicated properly chaotic world without identity,” as Gilles Deleuze observes.15 Alluding to the eternal return which undoes representation, this movement without hold effects “a chaosmos to turn.”16

This is how the “cinema beyond the stars,” configured as a sensuous thinking of images, opposes representation in favor of a singularity of expression: a “formless power of the ground which carries every object to that extreme ‘form’ in which its representation comes undone.” Chaosmos cinema embodies a somatic errancy which permanently differs or defaces “the coherence of a subject which represents itself and that of an object represented.”17

How should Eisenstein’s double-page collage from an unrealized film be seen today, almost a hundred years later? I would suggest reading these pages as proto-cinematic cartography, a divination which addresses future cinema as a chaosmos: a montage of the visceral, the sensuous, and the sidereal, cosmic dimensions which exclude homogeneous linear temporality. Similarly, in his contemporary Mnemosyne-Atlas (1927–29), Warburg proposed treating montage as an encounter of astra and monstra, opposing the power of the starry sky to a constellation of images in motion that follow a nonlinear and nonprogressive logic of survival and eternal return.18

An aesthetic program that configures “sensuous thinking” and the chaosmic montage of infinite perspectives melts down the armature of extractivist relations that structure the narrative line of early Soviet cinema. Chaosmosis—Félix Guattari’s final book, which references Joyce in its title and is based on his lifelong schizoanalytic practice at the La Borde psychiatric clinic in France—insists on the political urgency of the polyphonic and machinic qualities of subjectivity. Opposing the extractivist logic of the homogenizing media regime with an “ethico-aesthetic paradigm” of chaosmosis, Guattari emphasizes the “polysemic, animistic, transindividual” modalities of subjectivity, which were crucial for the “institutional psychotherapy” practiced at La Borde.19

Media experiments undertaken in the frame of institutional psychotherapy at La Borde and also at the Saint-Alban clinic in France, or at Blida-Joinville, the psychiatric hospital in Algeria run by Frantz Fanon, redefined cinema as a process of transversal and polyphonic subjectivity formation. Film, as well as the publication of intra-hospital journals, the collective organization of dance and theater workshops, and practices of cartography, redefined the psychoanalytic notion of transference. These practices foregrounded transference’s collective nature, creating spaces or milieux of transversality that intersected the mental, social, and environmental dimensions of lived experience. According to the psychiatrist and founder of La Borde, Jean Oury, these “techniques of mediation” opened up “transferential constellations,”20 or modes of “transversality” (Guattari) that continuously created new collective vectors of transference. These set in motion new processes of subjectivation and generated alternative social relations. As Guattari wrote: “It is being’s new ways of being which create rhythms, forms, colors and the intensities of dance. Nothing happens of itself. Everything has to continually begin again from zero, at the point of chaosmic emergence: the power of eternal return to the nascent state.”21


Sergei Eisenstein, Montazh (Montage) (Muzei kino, 2000), 262–63.


For excerpts from this archive see Sergei Eisenstein, “Notes for a Film of ‘Capital,’” trans. Maciej Sliwowski, Jay Leyda, and Annette Michelson, October, no. 2 (1976); Elena Vogman, Dance of Values: Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project (Diaphanes, 2019). Soon a more extensive selection from Eisenstein’s Capital project will be published in October.


I would like to thank Olexii Kuchanskyi for sharing her precious thoughts on this film, which derive from her forthcoming PhD dissertation “In-Between Modernities: Media and Milieus in the Ukrainian Soviet and Post-Soviet Moving Image.”


In various texts Tretyakov analyzes the genealogy of the cinematic montage in Dadaism and futurism, movements deeply marked by the destruction of World War I. “But already in the atmosphere of war, in the bloody senselessness of the trenches, in the caning of the barracks, the rudiments of the Bolsheviks’ montage emerge.” Tretyakov, Kinematografieskoe nasledie: Stat’i, oerki, stenogrammy, vystuplenija, doklady, scenarii (Cinematographic inheritance: Essays, drafts, shorthand notes, reports, lectures, scripts) (Nestor Istoria, 2010), 128.


Sergei Eisenstein, “Po tu storonu zvezd” (Beyond the stars), in Metod: Grundproblem (Method: The fundamental problem), vol. 1, ed. Naum Kleiman (Muzei kino, 2002), 33.


Typazh,” the Russian word for “type,” is a concept for “typical appearance,” standing (and acting) for a social class. Eisenstein and other pioneers of Soviet cinema used this term to refer to nonprofessional actors, as opposed to professionals. The latter model presupposed a psychologically laden dramaturgy. The political formula for typazh used by Eisenstein in his manifesto on “Intellectual Attraction” referred to a “social-biological hieroglyph.” Its effect consisted of an immediate visual presence that displaces the norm and moves towards a singularity of expression.


Eisenstein, diary from September 13, 1928, RGALI, 1923-2-1108, 189–90. Emphasis in original.


Aby Warburg, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1, ed. Gertrud Bing (Teubner Verlag, 1932), 506.


Elena Vogman, “Die Osiris-Methode: Dialektik der Formen im Werk Sergej Eisensteins,” in Erscheinen: Zur Praxis des Präsentativen, ed. Mira Fliescher, Fabian Goppelsröder, and Dieter Mersch (Diaphanes, 2013).


Eisenstein, diary from February 20, 1928, RGALI, 1923-2-1105, 75.


Eisenstein, diary from February 20, 1928, RGALI, 1923-2-1105, 75. Joyce eventually confessed to Eisenstein that he saw in him a potential cinematographic adapter of Ulysses. Eisenstein describes his encounter with Joyce in “Inner Monologue and Idée Fixe,” a chapter of his unfinished theory project Metod, vol. 2, ed. Oksana Bulgakowa (Potemkin Press, 2008).


See also Erhard Schüttpelz, “Die Irreduzibilität des technischen Könnens,” in Materialität der Kooperation (Materiality of cooperation), ed. Sebastian Gießmann, Tobias Röhl, and Ronja Trischler (Springer VS), 438.


James Joyce, The Restored Finnegans Wake (Penguin, 2012), 204.


Eisenstein, Metod, vol. 2, 241.


Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. by Paul Patton (Continuum, 2001), 57.


Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 57. Emphasis in original.


Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 57.


See Philip Alain-Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, trans. Sophie Hawkes (Zone Books, 2004); and Georges Didi-Huberman, The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms: Aby Warburg’s History of Art, trans. Harvey Mendelsohn (Penn State University Press, 2016).


Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bainsand and Julian Pefanis (Indiana University Press, 1995), 101. I want to thank Henning Schmidgen for sharing with me chapters from his forthcoming book Maschinische Normativität: Versuche zu Félix Guattari (Machinic normativity: Approaches to Félix Guattari), which reconsiders Guattari’s work from the perspective of cinema.


Jean Oury, La Psychothérapie institutionnelle de Saint-Alban à La Borde (Institutional psychotherapy from Saint-Alban to La Borde) (Éditions d’une, 2016), 35–36.


Guattari, Chaosmosis, 102.

Film, Psychology & Psychoanalysis
Experimental Film, The Cosmos, Soviet Union
Return to Issue #142

Elena Vogman is a scholar of comparative literature and media. A Principal Investigator of the research project “Madness, Media, Milieus: Reconfiguring the Humanities in Postwar Europe” at Bauhaus University Weimar and Visiting Fellow at ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, she is the author of Sinnliches Denken: Eisensteins exzentrische Methode (Sensuous thinking: Eisenstein’s eccentric Method, 2018) and Dance of Values: Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project (2019).


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