On Experience and Illumination: Werner Herzog’s Quest for Ecstatic Truth and its Dialectical Relation with Society

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When Werner Herzog states, in his famous Minnesota Declaration, “[fa]cts create norms, and truth illumination”, he not only opposes his own idea of truth as spiritual experience to the notion of factual truth based on a seemingly unmediated representation of reality and purely rational principles. He also points to a societal problem inherent to such hegemonic attributions of veracity as advocated by the representatives of what he calls “Cinema Vérité”: their “truth of accountants” generates a normative perception and understanding of reality. Instead of producing peculiar images that trigger the imagination, they (re)produce benchmarks, fixed values and stereotypes. Thus, they are perfectly in line with the ideology of the “administered society” (Adorno). Based on the identity principle, this society produces standardized, consumer-friendly forms precluding the individuals from making their own, singular experiences. Films that rely purely on facts instead of seeking for “deeper strata of truth” are thus, for Herzog, instruments of domination in the service of the status quo.
However, Herzog neither avoids the administered society in order to search for an archaic truth beyond or underneath it, nor does he address political issues frontally in the films analyzed in this article. Critique of society rather transpires through particular configurations, notably in moments of confrontation between the “normal” society and the marginalized, “useless”, or otherwise rejected characters. Rather than focusing on the problematic situation of exclusion as such, Herzog emphasizes the very singularity of his protagonists in a dialectical tension with their environment, thus providing an access to the poetic truth which springs out of their individual ways of experiencing as opposed to the normative reality-principle. This article aims to approach Herzog’s notion of ecstatic truth by unfolding the dialectical tension between sensory, perceptual and spiritual experiences on the one hand, and the administrated society on the other.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Philosophy of Werner Herzog
EditorsM. Blake Wilson, Christopher Turner
Place of PublicationLanham, Boulder, New York, London
PublisherLexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-7936-0043-1
ISBN (Print)978-1-7936-0042-4
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Werner Herzog
  • Critical Theory
  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Max Horkheimer
  • Dialectics
  • Society


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