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The Ister: An Excerpt
From Novi Sad to Vukovar

David Barison & Daniel Ross

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The Ister is a film based on Martin Heidegger's lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin's poetry, delivered in 1942 at Freiburg University. It is a journey from the mouth of the Danube River on the Black Sea Coast to its source in the Black Forest.

The following excerpt from the film commences at 1585 kilometres from the source of the Danube in what was at the time of filming named Yugoslavia, and hopefully gives the reader a sense of the relation between place, image, poetics and thought in The Ister.





In Plato's dialogue, 'Protagoras', the sophist Protagoras retells the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus, while engaged in a discussion with Socrates:

Prometheus, being at a loss to provide any salvation for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gifts of technical knowledge, and of fire, and bestowed them upon man. With these gifts he knew enough to survive, but he lacked politics.

So men lived at first in scattered groups; there were no cities. Consequently they were devoured by wild beasts, since they were in every respect weaker. They sought to save themselves by coming together and founding cities, but when men gathered in communities they injured one another for lack of political skill, and so scattered again and continued to be devoured.

Zeus, fearing the total destruction of our species, sent Hermes to give to men the qualities of respect for others and a sense of justice, so as to bring order into our cities and create a bond of friendship and union.

Hermes asked Zeus in what manner he was to bestow these gifts on men ...

Zeus responded: 'To all. Let all have their share. There could never be cities if only a few shared in these virtues, as is the case with the arts. Moreover you must lay it down as my law, that if anyone is incapable of acquiring his share of respect and justice, he shall be put to death as a plague to the city.'





Distance to source: 1585km

The NATO bombing campaign destroyed all three of the city's bridges in April 1999. The first replacement bridge consisted of barges blocking river traffic (pictured left). The temporary bridge is opened regularly to allow boats to pass.

A replacement railway bridge was opened by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in May 2000. Following his defeat in elections in September 2000, Milosevic was arrested and handed over to the tribunal in The Hague. The bridge is temporary.



NEMANJA CALIC (pictured left)

Nemanja Calic was interviewed in late 2002, when he was the supervising engineer of the Debris Clearance Project on a destroyed six-lane highway bridge over the Danube called the Sloboda (Freedom) bridge in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. He spoke about how the NATO bombings impacted on the different bridges in the city, the political context surrounding the reconstruction of the bridges, and the impending death of the engineering company which was overseeing the debris clearance project, which was a relic of Yugoslav economic organisation.





NEMANJA CALIC: ...There was a great animosity you know, when it all started, between the local authorities and the European people who were coming to talk. Because frankly speaking they were not interested in our bridges. They were interested in the restoration of river traffic. And our authorities had the stance that, OK, you need the river traffic, you restore it yourself. And then they said, ok, we will remove the bridges.

And they said, no we will not allow you to remove the bridges. You will have to build them again, because you were the ones destroying them.

So at the first moment the stances were very far apart, because the Yugoslavian government did not allow any interference whatsoever, within the river, without prior commitment to restore all the bridges.

And the European Union did not have an idea to restore all the bridges, because itís terribly expensive. And then after months and months and months of very tough negotiations, they came to this solution.




NEMANJA CALIC: ...So it was already a subject of some studies for reconstruction. It was narrow, it was old. Ok, a bridge is a bridge. A loss is a loss, but it was no big deal about that one. Now we have there a new bridge (pictured left), which is not very significant, but having in mind that it was constructed in a record time period, when Yugoslavia was under international sanctions, by our own local resources, when we were in the lack of everything. It is quite an accomplishment.

See what is impressive, for example, is that this is kind of a sophisticated structure. With stay cables, with high pylons and everything. Although it's a little bit old-fashioned now, for that time [the early 1980s] it was really an accomplishment.




And the other bridge, the big concrete bridge, Zezelj Bridge (schematic plan pictured left), was built a decade earlier in a classic style, an old-fashioned arc bridge. And having a look at the way they were destructed, the sophisticated structure gave up instantly, and the old one had suffered, let's say, seven attacks, with more than thirty missiles, bombs, whatever was launched on it, whilst the Sloboda Bridge collapsed after only two Tomahawk missiles, very precise in the base of the pylons. And it was down in a minute.

But Zezelj Bridge, concrete arc structure, retained, although very heavily damaged, perforated by various hits... And finally they could not put it down. And they concentrated their attacks on the middle pier, in the river. They gave up targeting the beams, the arcs, and then they concentrated their fire on the middle pier, and then they just destructed it. It was just blown away, and without the pier, both arcs collapsed in the river.




I just wanted to point out the difference between modern, sophisticated technologies, even in the construction business. The more sophisticated they are, the more sensitive they are. I don't say that the other one is safer than this one, but it's more sophisticated. Vulnerable. If you touch it at the proper point it will yield, it will give up.

So that's how it went...





Distance to source: 1507km

The city of Vukovar is located on the banks of the Danube, which marks the border between Serbia and Croatia.

In 1991 it became the site of a siege by Serbian forces in their war for control of Croatian territory.

After holding out for 86 days, Vukovar finally fell to the Serbs on 18 November 1991.

When the siege ended, 200 Croats were taken by the Serbs from the hospital to a nearby farm and shot. Their bodies were buried with a bulldozer.

The Serbian Orthodox cemetery was later desecrated.

Each year on November 18, thousands of Croats gather to commemorate the fall of the city.




Born in 1952, Bernard Stiegler spent five years in prison in France for armed robbery. During this period of enforced isolation, he became a philosopher. He was released from prison in 1983. In 1994 he published the first volume of his magnum opus, Technics and Time. The work was an examination of the essence of humanity in its relation to the essence of technology. On the one hand, Stiegler is engaged in an argument about archaeology and the history of technology. On the other hand, he is engaged in an argument with Heidegger about the nature of the human, the nature of memory, and the meaning of mortality. Although profoundly indebted to Heidegger, Stiegler argues that Heidegger cannot grasp the way in which man is originally and profoundly technical life, for whom all access to the past and all knowledge of death springs from a relation to technical prostheses.



BERNARD STIEGLER: Why then have I turned towards Prometheus and Epimetheus? Well, if we want to understand the question of technics as it poses itself to us today as men of the 21st century, we must go back to ancient Greek mythology, not only to philosophy, but to the tragic mythology of the ancient Greeks.

This ancient Greek mythology poses the problem precisely and correctly, in mythological terms of course, and in terms of primitive Greek religion, of tragic religion.

But, incredibly, it poses the question as it must be posed. So, Prometheus will steal fire, in other words technics, and also the intelligence of Athena.

And man will be a mortal living being condemned to fabricate prostheses.



In other words he has no qualities. He is obliged to endlessly equip himself with new artifices for survival. And since they have no quality defined in advance men enter into conflict with one another, to decide on their quality, on their future.

Some say 'we should do this,' others say 'no, we should do that.'

The animal, the zebra, the gazelle of which I spoke a moment ago, the cow, the lion, they have no question to pose concerning 'Who are we?' It's not a question for an animal.

But for man, it's an eternal question. Who are we? Should we develop computers? Should we land on the moon? Raze that forest? Build that dam on Hölderlin's river? Should we do that?

Technics is the question.


  As soon as I am technical, I am questioning. This is why Zeus is forced to send Hermes.

Because men want to make war against each other.

They ask themselves questions, they don't agree on the answers. So they massacre one another. Thus the famous civil war which inspires so much fear in the Greeks. What the Greeks called stasis.

And it's an historical fact. At the time when Plato retells the myth, through the mouth of Protagoras, the Greeks are in the middle of the Peloponnesian war; the war between all Greeks.

I was saying earlier that man is a being who adopts: new technics, new names, new ideas, new art works, without end. Adoption is war. The possibility of adoption is the risk of war. Without end.

Protagoras recounts that Zeus will send Hermes, the knowledge of dike, justice, to prevent men from annihilating one another.





Poet commemorating the fall of Vukovar in 1991, speaking at the hospital in Vukovar from which 200 patients were taken and executed by Serb forces in November 1991:



...which gives birth to us again through thick gloom and toxic smoke.
You ask: if we exist, why can we not be seen?
We attempt to denominate causes;
ever more like silhouettes with no fears;
we are eroded by damp;
cold creeps in like decomposed corpses.
Filled with numb negation in the shelter where nothing has an exact shape;
to endure in the dark place
with no darkness, no food, no water;
where the sound of a bomb resonates off the sandbag;
where you see nothing and hear nothing
but the tortured Croatia
and those who defend its crude strongholds.
We will emerge to the sacred soil made of ashes, dust and death;
with a muddy torch and declining world in our arms.
Restore the wasteland of demolished houses;
rebuild houses
devastated in horrific sights.



BERNARD STIEGLER: But for dike to become necessary there must first be technics. Technics, the prosthesis, the artifice, which permits men to survive against their predators, as the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus recounts.

But technics is also the support of memory: books. Books are a support of memory, a prosthesis, which will also allow Hermes to write the law.

(in English) To write the law, you know?

In the ancient Greek world, Prometheus and Epimetheus are gods who belong to the tragic epoch of Greece, when the Greeks didn't believe in the immortal soul.

In the tragic epoch of Greece there is no immortal soul. There is a conception of the soul which as a spirit wanders in the realm of the dead.



But it is not immortal. This is important. It means that the thought of Prometheus and Epimetheus is a pre-Christian thought, prior to Christianity and prior to Platonism.

It's Plato who introduces the idea of the immortality of the soul, preparing for the later appropriation of Greek thought by Saint Paul.

Before Plato no one in Greece thought the soul was immortal. It was thought the soul, or man, or consciousness, or the ego, but let's say the mortal, was exactly that: mortal.

What does it mean, that man is mortal? It means he is condemned to anticipate his own death. His own end. Man is always restless, in perpetual anxiety about his end. What Heidegger calls Angst. Anxiety about death.



(in English) We are always in the obsession of the death, and so we always say, we must take anything to eat, in the wood.

We must pick, gather, stock up, and finally construct, build houses and so on, bustling about without end.

The myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus tells the story of this fundamental anxiety, of a being who is fundamentally mortal. A being for whom there is no way of escaping death.

But who on the other hand is in charge of his own destiny: Geschick.

This means that the myth retells in a pre-metaphysical version, before Plato's metaphysics, the articulation between Geschick (destiny), time and technics. Because the question is indissociably that of memory, of forgetting: Epimetheus: 'I forgot!'

This problematisation of technics as memory, as time, as forgetting and as destiny, is opened up by Protagoras who draws on Aeschylus and Hesiod.

And this opens up the question of the political.


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© David Barison & Daniel Ross 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the authors and editors of Rouge.
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