Date of Publishing:
March 8, 2015

2015 © Anderwald + Grond

Distraction as a Landing Net? Notes on the Potential of the Amusement Park

Kathrin Wojtowicz

“The Prater was consistently erased from my being,” writes Elfriede Jelinek in her “Text für den PRATER von Ulrike Ottinger,” in which she formulates her observations on the relations between the empowerment and domination of an individual in the context of the attractions – the “amusement machineries” – at the Prater in Vienna, with particular regard to repetition, childhood, social directives, and a form of escapism:

So the bright colors and the multifariousness of the Prater attractions were simply there to be used as a physical means to make something that always seemed new available to the visitors using them – human beings, children, and adults alike – something that always seemed new to them as they clambered down from them or came out of them, even if they were just the same old rides. This capacity for replication – and it was no more than a capacity for replication – temporarily turns people into something, I’d say, that relates to all other people, in the sense that the amusement machinery takes people out of themselves, alleviates them of themselves, just temporarily …[1]

In her comments she refers to a pattern of temporary change, which occurs within a particular time-span and situation, but which subsequently seems not to have any long-term impact. Jelinek wrote her text in connection with the production of the film Prater (A/D 2008), in which Ulrike Ottinger explores the subject of the Prater as a “time machine.” Ottinger’s documentary film-essay sketches in the (old) connection between fairgrounds and the cinema; she uses the attractions in the amusement park as an aid to her own pictorial creativity, and – drawing on self-referential quotes from films, literature, and music – investigates the structures of this kind of amusement. Taking as her example one of the oldest amusement parks in the world,[2] she analyzes and ironizes the nature of fairgrounds and the associated mechanisms for distraction and illusion, as well as their cultural and colonialist roots. During the course of her investigation the amusement park, as a site, is seen to connect with the medium of film, which, since its earliest days, has incorporated carousels, leisure parks, and illusionism into numerous feature films and art films – as motifs and as symbols of spectacles, in self-empowering moments of rapture, ecstasy, dizziness, and exhilaration when even the “dream of flying”[3] seems possible.


The amusement park as a hub of distraction and as a setting for both avant-garde films and feature films has been analyzed by various authors with regard to the cinema of attractions, which is above all defined by its visual appeal.[4]

In light of the notion of distraction as a technique of perception and as an (ambivalently discussed) strategy of escapism, the question arises concerning the extent to which the amusement park with all its attractions is a place that can promote “technologies of the self” for any individual. Michel Foucault regarded “technologies of the self” – in relation to the domination of others and the domination of the self – as a specific process whereby an “individual acts upon himself.”[5] These supposedly private technologies are nevertheless closely related to political technologies and rationales. The way individuals handle themselves is integral to any political analysis of society, although self-technologies cannot be equated to technologies of domination, but rather – due to their ambivalent relationship to the latter – can also, as a form of power, resist “domination.” The place where this relationship of the domination of the others and of the self plays out – that is to say, the amusement park – is presented in what follows here as a heterotopia in order to clarify its status as a site that relates to both social and cultural practices.

The Amusement Park as a Heterotopia

If we view the amusement park in relation to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, we can arrive at a definition of it in terms of the social and cultural practices it facilitates, which in turn points to the potential for interaction between these variables. Heterotopias imply the ongoing reorganization and alteration of their structures and unite that which can supposedly not be united, in their capacity as “real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.”[6]

These places are often linked to slices in time, which Foucault calls heterochronies: “The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.”[7] Similarly, any visit to the attractions in an amusement park is also significantly tied into the notion of time, in the sense that the amusement machinery, as Jelinek puts it, “temporarily turns people into something.” Heterotopias always imply a system of openings and closures – behavior that deviates from the norm is ritualized and localized. Ultimately they are characterized by a particular function that they have in society, for instance “to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory. [...] Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”[8]

Heterotopias are places in society which (to a certain extent) use society’s structures as their own internal principle of order or which turn this internal principle of order against supposed disorder in society. By reflecting, representing, negating, or reversing a society’s condition heterotopias create a small-size image or counterimage to society. One of the instances of heterotopian spaces named by Foucault is the fairground, which is connected to a notion of time as something extremely fleeting and precarious. “These heterotopias are not oriented toward the eternal, they are rather absolutely temporal. Such, for example, are the fairgrounds, these marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.”[9]

By contrast Foucault describes the mirror as providing an experience that mingles both utopia and heterotopia, since the mirror, by virtue of its status as a mediator, can give a temporary location to a place without it actually having a location of its own: “it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.”[10]

The screen in a cinema can be read as a mobile mirror, as a place of transition, as a threshold and a passage between the actual and the virtual[11] – in that sense the cinema is also a place that unites the un-unitable. From the perspective of the audience the screen becomes a mirror (in the form of a hybrid experience) of the filmed amusement park. As a product of the epoch of place, the cinema also embodies “the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.”[12] This epoch of juxtaposition and of distraction is, as Foucault sees it, perceptible as a realm within which places, things, and people have variable positions, as a realm of juxtaposed simultaneity.[13] Different configurations of places, things, and people are explored; these together constitute “a set of relations”[14] that constantly has to be reordered. Individual elements in this metaphorical network can be dispersed or concentrated; configurations change and require relocation. The amusement park and its rides and illusion-businesses can be read as variable, precarious configurations of people, things, and values – a situation in which a multiplicity of people and objects, their mobility and movements, constantly have to be reconfigured. Its function as a place of illusion, which reveals the even more illusory nature of real places, is dependent on the perception of the individual in this place.

Perceptions of the Amusement Park (in Films)

In film the representation of these uncertain configurations and constant structures of change, of self-orientation in different forms of illusionism – the big dipper, the ghost train, and the carousel – can function not only as a symbol of pleasure and spectacular delights, but also as a setting for narration and association, a strategic realm of affect and attraction. In view of the physical effects of film, this realm can be read as a kind of test bed for a perception technique of distraction as diversified attention, which – in the ideal case of detachment-from-oneself – facilitates the potential recognition of illusory scenarios of realities.15 At the same time there is also the possibility of perceiving this realm as a construction mechanism for images of the self and of others, of gender and genre, for cathartic effect, as the locus for the enaction of historical connections between the cinema and fairgrounds, or, as a means to engage (in the context of a critique of consumerism) with distraction as a mechanism of escapism and as a strategy to hinder attention. However, the realization or representation of the amusement park in images and sound is also subjective and dependent on the intentions and perspectives of the film-maker. Any scrutiny of the amusement park as a filmic motif and the allocation of its perception to categories such as gender and genre, and the effect this may have on the individual watching the film, are tied to the perspective and background of that individual and dependent on the situation in which the latter receives the film as well as on the modes of perception that are shaped and automated by personal or social experiences and background knowledge. As ingrained models of perception they influence the film’s reception, although at the same time the situation of the film’s perception is also affected by differences between recipients and dependent on different viewing experiences.[16]

On the Threshold

In what follows here I would like to touch on one scene in particular from Prater as a means of outlining various possibilities for interpreting and representing the amusement park, which – as an accumulation of ambiguous tactics for perception and representation – opens up a network of possibilities for identification and differentiation. The passage cited at the beginning of this essay is spoken (in German) in Prater by Jelinek herself. As her words are heard in a voiceover, she is seen standing silently in front of a wooden wall that is decorated with a painting of “exotic plants” and a gorilla. This image, with its allusions to portraiture, opens up associations with the representation of highly sensitive social and political issues, all of which featured in this place of amusement at the time (and some of which still do): the construction of the colonial image of a “big black ape” as a symbol of all things foreign or menacing, memories of fin-de-siècle exotic fetishism, and the racist and discriminatory exhibition practices that were seen at the Prater and at fairgrounds in general (see, for instance, the scenes concerning the Ashanti village in Prater and the “freak” shows). Connections with the history of film (King Kong) are also visibly woven by Ottinger into this exploration of the amusement park. Elfriede Jelinek is seen here in the midst of relics from the old Prater. She gazes into the camera with open defiance. The image that Ottinger has constructed is contradictory – split, shifting – looking back in two senses: to the history of the amusement park as a place that figures in the history of film, to the (sensation-seeking) gaze of the visitors back then, to the audience today, with reference to the active gaze as an instance of the power of the subject (the individual) over the object, on the silver screen and in society.

Elfriede Jelinek herself has described the ambivalence of her perception of the Prater, first as means to sharpen her own senses but then as a futile attempt at self-empowerment:

Only, when I was a child, the Prater was taken away from me by my mother, because my determination to tame these amusement machineries with my little body was in fact a determination directed towards something else and ultimately would have resisted any attempt by my mother to subdue, to restrain me with every atom of my will. But the idea was that I should be quelled. I was not to adorn machineries with myself and thus attain a degree of domination over them. If I had, I could have learnt something about domination, but that was not allowed. Anyone subjugated to another’s will drifts past life like items of cargo, bits of paper, branches. The Prater could in fact have been a landing net that could have got one out.[17]

This endeavor to dominate the machines, which is equated with the attempt at emancipation from the structures of power, ends here as a missed opportunity for transformation. The Prater as a landing net becomes a symbol of the chance to interrupt domination by an external force. This interruption, as described by Elfriede Jelinek, can be read as an attempt as self-domination, as a self-technology on the part of the individual. In light of this, it is interesting to discover the manner in which this “will” arises and how it is communicated. In Foucault’s concept of the practices of domination it is impossible to separate the structures of domination of the self or of others:

Consequently, there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay. In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination). The relationship between power and freedom’s refusal to submit cannot, therefore, be separated. […] At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.[18]

At the interface of domination of the self and of others it becomes clear that the self only arises at the point where it becomes a target for domination of the self and the other. It does not precede any practices of domination and is dependent on forms of knowledge about itself. The possibilities for breaking through or countering power structures are reliant on the deportment of the self and pertain to the knowledge-power-subject triangle. Judith Butler sees the process of the constitution of the subject not as determined, but as a notion of performation: potential for action arises from the possibility of variation:

Indeed, when the subject is said to be constituted, that means simply that the subject is a consequence of certain rule-governed discourses that govern the intelligible invocation of identity. The subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantializing effects. In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; “agency,” then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.[19]

As a culturally and socially informed site where illusion and imagination come into their own, the amusement park constructs the illusion of a concept of reality and thus becomes a training ground and test bed for techniques of distracted perception. As a setting in a film the amusement park has, amongst other things, variable possibilities for communicating affects and attractions, for reflecting on historical images, and constructing potential for identification. If places of distraction are construed as heterotopian places that unite things which cannot normally be united and constantly renegotiate the latter, then a mutable realm arises that facilitates shifts and exchanges between the cinema screen and the cinema audience, an exchange of glances, a mobility of bodies and space, that can open up – through this exchange – new perspectives and possible actions. In this realm the possibility of transformation or the (temporary) exercise of contradictory self-technologies remains dependent on the constitution of individuals, who define themselves in relation to and through domination by the other on the basis of their particular schemas of perception and their environment. They become possible in the variations of the self’s processes of repetition.Translation: Fiona Elliott


Elfriede Jelinek, „Text für den PRATER von Ulrike Ottinger“ in Prater, supplement to DVD, ed. Deutsche Kinemathek, Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin: Edition Salzgeber 2008, 24–29, 29 [trans. FE].

The Prater in Vienna, as a fixture in the city’s program of culture and entertainment, served as a model for Coney Island in New York, Vidámpark in Budapest, and Treptower Park (as it once was) in Berlin (see “Kino der Attraktionen. Interview mit Ulrike Ottinger,” in Kultur des Vergnügens. Kirmes und Freizeitparks, Schausteller und Fahrgeschäfte. Facetten nicht-alltäglicher Orte, ed. Sacha Szabo, Bielefeld: Transcript 2009, 69–80, 71.

See Walter Benjamin, Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert, in idem, Gesammelte Schriften vol. IV/1, ed. Tillmann Rexroth, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 235–304, 268.

See accounts of early cinema, such as Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avantgarde,” in Wide Angle 8,3–4 1986, 63–70. Early cinema became a source of a new kind of immediate excitement. Responding the public’s love of sensation, it favored spectacular images over narration and its mode of presentation often had an affinity with the fairground. Gunning cites L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (1895) by the Lumière brothers as a typical example of the cinema of attractions.

Michel Foucault: “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1988, 18–19.

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heteropias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, 3–4.

Ibid., 6.

Ibid., 8.

Ibid., 7.

Ibid., 4.

See Anne Friedberg, „Die Architektur des Zuschauens“ in Umwidmungen: Architektonische und kinematographische Räume, ed. Gertrud Koch, Berlin: Vorwerk 8 2005, 100–17.

Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1. [Translator’s note: at the end of this quote, the English translation naturally uses “dispersed” for Foucault’s “dispersé.” However, this is rendered in the standard German translation as “zerstreut,” which means dispersed in a physical sense but is also used metaphorically of a person’s mental state, where the meaning ranges through the entire range of “distraction” – from a positive, pleasurable experience through preoccupation to absent-mindedness and more.]

Petra Löffler has made a detailed study of the venues for distraction and amusement (fairgrounds, panoramas, cinemas, movies) as heterotopian spaces and has argued the case for a shift away from the notion of distraction as dissipated attention in favor of distraction as a technique of perception in its own right. See Petra Löffler, Verteilte Aufmerksamkeit. Eine Mediengeschichte der Zerstreuung, Zürich: diaphanes, 2013.

Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 3.

In Verteilte Aufmerksamkeit. Eine Mediengeschichte der Zerstreuung Löffler discusses the notion of detachment-from-oneself as a consequence of distraction/diversified attention with reference to Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Jean-Luc Nancy as a means of passing into “empty space.” For Kracauer fulfilled, empty space is a realm of communal life in a higher sphere (see ibid., 309); for Nancy community is itself space, “the opening-up of a space of experience of the external, of detachment-from-oneself” (trans. from ibid., 311). For Löffler distraction, if it is improvised and has a sensory potential that promotes the recognition of illusory mise-en-scènes of reality, can be read as an experimental way of perceiving and questioning reality (see ibid. 309–17).

See Andrea B. Braidt, “Kein Gender ohne Genre: Zum Zusammenhang von Geschlecht und Gattung in der Filmwahrnehmung” in Inszenierte Erfahrung. Gender und Genre in Tagebuch, Autobiographie, Essay, ed. Renate Hof und Susanne Rohr, Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 2008, 151–68.

Jelinek, “Text zum PRATER für Ulrike Ottinger”, 29.

Michel Foucault, “How is Power Exercised,” trans. Leslie Sawyer, in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Second Edition, With an Afterword by and an Interview with Michel Foucault, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1983, 221–22.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge 1990, 198.