The Dictionary of Obscure Figures

Curator's Note

The three entrees that follow are drawn from my The Dictionary of Obscure Figures.[1]


Battal, The Obscure:  The opening shot of Reha Erdem’s Kosmos (2009): a figure in black slowly emerges out of a snowy landscape (Figure 1). Who is this obscure figure that remains a dark spot in the visual field? A series of lateral camera movements shows him running through the landscape and arriving in a border town: then, he jumps into the river, rescues a drowning kid (Figure 2), and collapses on the ground (Figure 3). What follows next is a suspension of time (Figure 4), suggesting that the obscure figure’s arrival in the town is both timely and untimely. Then, the figure is spotted in a coffee house (kahvehane) where he is surrounded by a group of townspeople. He reveals his name once he is asked: his name is Battal (Figure 5). Rooted in Arabic, the name Battal means two things at once: useless and hero. Welcomed and elevated as a dervish by townspeople, Battal, the useless, wanders aimlessly around the city (Figure 6) where he acts nomadically, as if dispossessed: he refuses to work and only eats sugar (Figure 7), in a manner reminiscent of the obscure figure in Chantal Akerman’s Ju Tu Il Elle (1974) (Figure 8), while occupying, occasionally, an abandoned building, the former office of the mayor. (What if Battal were the embodiment of a headless society?) Unlike the exhausted figure in Ju Tu Il Elle (and in Deleuze’s The Exhausted), Battal, the homeless wanderer, is the expended figure—a figure of Bataille’s notion of expenditure. The juxtaposition of two images is an entry point into expenditure. Here is the first one: Battal is seen shouting, his head thrown back, his mouth wide open in an instant of cosmic delirium (Figure 9). This image is juxtaposed with the second: the head of the sacrificed animal in an abattoir (Figure 10). The composition of two images emphasizes negative space and recalls two entries Bataille wrote for his Documents dictionary: “Architecture” and “Abattoir.”  Bataille’s “dictionary critique” of architecture, as Dennis Hollier points out, stems from the fact that “the formation of man” is embedded in architectural form.[2] Following this line of thought, the first image (Figure 9) is telling: Battal, centrifugally, attempts to lose his head in such a way that he escapes the centripetal center of human form. The second image (Figure 10), along with Bataille’s Abattoir, conceives of the slaughterhouse as a religious site of expenditure. Battal, while going back and forth between the former office of the mayor and the slaughterhouse, acts as if he were a sacrificial figure: “Two is better than one,” he says, while having a conversation with the drowning boy’s father in the abattoir (Figure 11). And another sequence where Battal acts as a sacrificial figure at the intersection of jouissance and pain: he attempts to heal the sick in a junk space—the former office of the mayor (Figure 12). This erotic energy is interrupted by the restricted economy of the earth:[3] a group of military figures attempts to capture the excessive energy channeled by Battal, forcing this useless figure to disappear into the landscape (Figure 13). This is how Kosmos comes to an end. 


Black Pen, the Obscure: A new beginning, with a difference: here is the opening image of Kosmos (Figure 1). A figure in black, Kosmos, is emerging out of the steppe. Kosmos is Battal; Kosmos is his pseudonym: he is a cosmic force. Near the beginning of the film, after rescuing the drowning boy from the river, Kosmos is mesmerized by the boy’s sister Neptune (Figure 14). Kosmos and Neptune open themselves up to celestial, yet ruptured events. Here is the first one: accompanied by a steady-cam shot, Kosmos and Neptune unfurl themselves into a cosmic intersection of erotics and poetics. In the labyrinthine space—the former office of the mayor again—they are shouting and dancing, in frenetic yet circular (celestial) motion, while at the same time moving beyond the limits of language. Cinematic framing is insufficient to contain this erotic energy (Figure 15). The second event is wild: cinematic framing is suspended. From a low camera angle, paper sheets seem to be hovering in the air (Figure 16). The following images of toes (Figures 17, 18, and 19) suspend the axes of orientation (up/down, left/right, vertical/horizontal) and mark a departure from idealized beauty, resonating with what Bataille, in “The Big Toe,” describes as “the most human part of human body.”[4] “The base materiality” of these images, borrowing from Bataille, activates a pathway leading to another manifestation of the baseness in art history, namely Dancing Demons: a painting attributed to Black Pen—also known as Mehmed Siyâh Kalem, or Ustâd Muhammad Siyâh Qalam (Figure 20). Who is Black Pen, the obscure? In the narrowest sense, according to several dictionary entries, Black Pen refers to the inscriptions on sixty-five paintings and drawings (mostly nomads and demons) in two albums, housed in Istanbul at Topkapi Palace Library.[5] However, according to dictionary entries, no consensus has been established as to when, where, or why sixty-five paintings were produced (probably, in the late 14th-century, but by who?). The name, Black Pen, is also associated with a group style or a group of paintings, one which art historian Mazhar Sevket Ipsiroglu categorizes as “brutal realism.”[6] When looking at Dancing Demons, one thing stands out: the excess energy that manifests itself as brutal style. In other words, human form is expended by the overflowing energy. Historically speaking, this excess energy, as epitomized by the sixty-five paintings, resonates with the proliferation of dervish groups in the Islamic (later) Middle Period: the Qalandars, the Abdâls of Rūm, and others. These groups, following Ahmet T. Karamustafa, are “the excess of this world,” “God’s unruly friends,” or “anarchist dervishes.”[7] Similar to Battal, they are against gainful employment: they refuse to be productive. Their lives rely on the generosity of others. Suspended between high (elitist) and low (folk) Islam, their socially deviant behaviors suspend societal norms. They move from one place to the next: they practice a homeless, yet communal life: a headless society. What if Battal (Kosmos) were the off-cut, the remnant, of this historical and political landscape?


Bataille, the Obscure:  The letter B in this dictionary will close by coming full circle: a circular motion. Here, again, is the opening image of Kosmos: a figure in black, figuratively, is emerging out of a media landscape (Figure 1). Who is Bataille, the obscure? Near the beginning of the film, Battal, the useless figure, is detained while drifting around a prohibited zone, seeking entrance in to an abandoned architectural site (Figure 21). The brutish style of this site, with a series of rectangular and square voids, resembles perforations on 35 mm film: these voids might be seen as what Bataille might call “the base materiality of film.”[8] These images suggest that Battal, the useless figure, like Bataille, is suspended from humanistic schools of thought—like cinema. This prohibited zone—the zone of interest—is a site where the informe is utilized and extracted by what Bataille, in his Documents, might call “a formal coat” or a “mathematical frock coat.”[9] This moment of suspension is intermixed with two images: first, a close-up shot of the horse (Figure 22). This abrupt cut evokes how the baseness of cinematic motion supplements the base materiality of film. Then, the second abrupt cut: a series of vertical and horizontal lines appear on the screen: the digital excess, or the cinema’s expended life (Figures 23 and 24). A transition from daylight to nocturnal light, as well from analog to digital, in a moment of suspension, is expended: the expended cinema. Who is Bataille, the obscure? What is the desire of Bataille, the obscure? Why do we need to insist on the non-extractive, yet expended Bataille when it comes to film studies? At least, Kosmos, against extractive textual economies, attends to the possibility that certain images reveal the desire of the informe


[1] The longer version of this dictionary is a part of my doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled “The Off-Cuts: The Expended Cinema.” With the generosity of Alessandra Raengo, Jennifer Wild, Jennifer Barker, and Jenny Gunn, I have been working on what I call—after Bataille— “expended cinema.”

[2] Dennis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, translated by Betsy Wing (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), xii.

[3] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay On General Economy, Volume I: Consumption, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988). Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay On General Economy, Volume II: The History of Eroticism, Volume III: Sovereignty, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

[4] Georges Bataille, “The Big Toe.” In Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl, translated by Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 20-23.

[5] The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, Volume III: Mosul to Zirid, edited by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 224-225.

[6] M. S. Ipsiroglu, Painting and Culture of the Mongols, translated by E. D. Phillips (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1966).

[7] Ahmet T. Karamustafa, God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press).

[8] Georges Bataille, “Base Materialism and Gnosticism.” In Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl, translated by Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 45-52.

[9] Georges Bataille, “Formless.” In Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl, translated by Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 31.

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