From 2011 until 2015, I taught a course entitled “Documentary Production” at a small liberal arts college north of Chicago. Rather than basing the class entirely on production techniques, I included aspects of analysis and theory, and used several examples of documentary films to illustrate the many stylistic and thematic approaches they encompassed. The readings came entirely from Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary which I felt was a straightforward, yet comprehensive look at the histories, strategies, criticisms and ethics of documentary filmmaking. Nichols’s classification of documentaries proved to be particularly useful, and students were asked to identify certain films as expository, poetic, observational, participatory, reflexive or performative. For example, the majority of the students believed that Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi was an example of the poetic mode, since its associational images and complete lack of dialogue, text, or narration evoke rather than dictate major environmental themes. The students agreed that the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens (1976) and, to an extent, Steve James’s Hoop Dreams (1994) were observational, since the filmmakers took a largely unobtrusive approach to filming their subjects. However, despite the stylistic and thematic differences of many of the films shown in class, I taught my students that all documentary films have the same objectives: to educate, inform and persuade.
When it came time for the students to create their own documentaries, one of my policies was for them to “throw objectivity out the window”. To quote John Grierson, documentaries are the “creative treatment of actuality.” Capturing the truth, whatever it may be, is quite nearly impossible if not utterly futile. Often, filmmakers deliberately manipulate their footage in order to achieve educational, informative and persuasive objectives. To illustrate, I screened Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North and always marveled at the students’ reactions when, after the screening, I informed them that the film’s depiction of traditional Inuit life was entirely a reenactment. While many students were shocked and disappointed when they learned this, others accepted Flaherty’s defence of the film as true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Inuit’s vanishing way of life. Another example that I screened was a clip from controversial filmmaker Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) which demonstrated how Moore shrewdly used editing to villainise then-NRA president Charlton Heston. Though a majority of the class agreed with Moore’s anti-gun violence agenda, many were infuriated about being “lied to” and “misled” by the editing tactics. Naturally these examples also raise questions about the role of ethics in documentary filmmaking, but even films that are not deliberately manipulative are still “the product of individuals, [and] will always display bias and be in some manner didactic.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 193.)
To further my point on the elusive nature of objectivity, I screened Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008.) Yet at this point I began to wonder if I was still teaching documentary or if I had ventured into some other territory. I was aware that Koyaanisqatsi had also been classified as an experimental film by notable scholars such as David Bordwell. On the other hand, Nuit et brouillard is labeled a documentary film but poses more questions than answers, since it is “unable to adequately document the reality it seeks.” (Alter/Corrigan p. 210.) Resnais’s short film interweaves black and white archival footage with colour film of Auschwitz and other camps. The colour sequences were shot in 1955, when the camps had already been deserted for ten years. Nuit et brouillard scrutinises the brutality of the Holocaust while contemplating the social, political and ethical responsibilities of the Nazis. Yet it also questions the more abstract role of knowledge and memory, both individual and communal, within the context of such horrific circumstances. The students did not challenge Night and Fog’s classification as a documentary, but they wondered if Waltz with Bashir and especially Sans Soleil had entirely different objectives since they seemed to do more than present factual information. The students also noted that these films seemed to merge with other genres, and wondered if there was a different classification for them aside from poetic, observational, participatory, et al. Although it is animated, Waltz with Bashir is classified as a documentary since it is based on Folman’s own experiences during the 1982 Lebanon War. Also, as Roger Ebert notes, animation is “the best way to reconstruct memories, fantasies, hallucinations, possibilities, past and present.” However, it is not solely a document of Folman’s experiences or of the war itself. It is also a subjective meditation on the nature of human perception. As Folman attempts to reconstruct past events through the memories of his fellow soldiers, Waltz with Bashir investigates the very nature of truth itself. These films definitely challenged the idea of documentary as a strict genre, but the students noticed that they each had interesting similarities. Aside from educating, informing and persuading, they also used non-fiction sounds and images to visualise abstract concepts and ideas.
Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983)
Sans Soleil has been described as “a meditation on place […] where spatial availability confuses the sense of time and memory.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 117.) Some of my students felt that Marker’s film, which is composed of images from Japan and elsewhere, was more like a “filmed travelogue”. Others described it as a “film journal” since Marker used images and narration to describe certain experiences, thoughts and memories. Yet my students’ understanding of Sans Soleil was problematised when they discovered that the narration was delivered by “a fictional, nameless woman […] reading aloud from, or else paraphrasing, letters sent to her by a fictional, globe-trotting cameraman.” Upon learning this, several students wondered if Sans Soleil was actually a narrative and not a documentary at all. I briefly explained that, since it was also an attempt to visualise abstract concepts, Sans Soleil was known as an essay film. Yet this only complicated things further! The students wondered if other films we saw in the class were essayistic as well. Was Koyaanisqatsi an essay on humanity’s impact on the world? Was Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006) an essay on the place of religion in society and politics? Where was the line between documentary and the essay film? Between essay and narrative? Or was the essay just another type of documentary? Rather than immerse myself in the difficulties of describing the essay film, I quickly changed the topic to the students’ own projects, and encouraged them to shape their documentaries through related processes of investigation and exploration.
If I had been able to read “Essays on the Essay Film” by Nora M. Alter & Timothy Corrigan and “The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia” by Elizabeth A. Papazian & Caroline Eades before teaching this class, I still may not have been able to provide definitive answers to my students’ questions. But this is not to say that either of these books are vague and inconclusive! Each one is an insightful collection of articles that explores the complexities of the essay film. In her essay “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments” featured in Alter and Corrigan’s “Essays on the Essay Film” Laura Rascaroli wisely notes that “we must resist the temptation to overtheorise the form or, even worse, to crystallise it into a genre…” since the essay film is a “matrix of all generic possibilities.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 190) Fabienne Costa goes so far as saying that “The ‘cinematographic essay’ is neither a category of films nor a genre. It is more a type of image, which achieves essay quality.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 190) It is true that filmmakers, critics, and scholars (myself included) have attempted to understand the essay film better by grouping it with genres that bear many similarities, such as documentary and experimental cinema. Yet despite these similarities, the authors suggest that the essay film needs to be differentiated from both documentary and avant-garde practices of filmmaking. Both “Essays on the Essay Film” and “The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia” illustrate that this mutable form should not be understood as a specific genre, but rather recognised for its profoundly reflective and reflexive capabilities. The essay film can even defy established formulas. As stated by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin in his essay “Proposal for a Tussle” the essay film “can navigate from documentary to fiction and back, creating other polarities in the process between which it can operate.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 270.)
Nora M. Alter and Timothy Corrigan’s “Essays on the Essay Film” consists of writings by distinguished scholars such as Andre Bazin, Theodore Adorno, Hans Richter and Laura Mulvey, but also includes more recent work by Thomas Elsaesser, Laura Rascaroli and others. Although each carefully selected text spans different time periods and cultural backgrounds, Alter and Corrigan weave together a comprehensive, yet pliable description of the cinematic essay.
“Essays on the Essay Film” begins by including articles that investigate the form and function of the written essay. This first chapter, appropriately titled “Foundations” provides a solid groundwork for many of the concepts discussed in the following chapters. Although the written essay is obviously different from the work created by filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Trinh T. Minh-ha, Alter and Corrigan note that these texts “have been influential to both critics and practitioners of the contemporary film essay.” (p. 7) The articles in this chapter range from Georg Lukacs’s 1910 “On the Nature and Form of the Essay” to “Preface to the Collected Essays of Aldous Huxley” which was published in 1960. Over a span of fifty years, the authors illustrate how the very concept of the essay was affected by changing practices of art, history, philosophy, culture, economics, politics, as well as through modernist and postmodernist lenses. However, these articles are still surprisingly relevant for contemporary scholars and practitioners. For example, in an excerpt from The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil writes that, “A man who wants the truth becomes a scholar; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?” (p. 45.) Naturally, this reminded me of my class’s discussion on Sans Soleil and Waltz with Bashir. It concisely encapsulates the difficulties that arise when the essay film crosses boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. However, in his 1948 essay “On the Essay and its Prose”, Max Bense believes that the essay lies within the realm of experimentation, since “there is a strange border area that develops between poetry and prose, between the aesthetic stage of creation and the ethical stage of persuasion.” (p. 52.) Bense also notes that the word “essay” itself means “to attempt” or to “experiment” and believes that the essay firmly belongs in the realm of experimental and avant-garde. This is appropriate enough, given that writers, and more recently filmmakers and video artists have pushed the boundaries of their mediums in order to explore their deepest thoughts and emotions.
Alter and Corrigan follow this chapter with “The Essay Film Through History” which details the evolution of the essay film. Writing in 1940, Hans Richter considers the essay film a new type of documentary and praises its abilities to break beyond the purportedly objective goals of documentaries in an attempt to “visualize thoughts on screen.” (p. 91) Eighteen years later, Andre Bazin celebrates Chris Marker’s thought-provoking voice-over narration as well as his method of “not restricting himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but [using] any and all filmic material that might help his case.” (p. 104) Bazin even compares Marker’s style to the work of animator Norman McLaren, supporting the idea of the essay film’s use of unfettered creativity. By the time the reader gets to the third chapter, “Contemporary Positions”, he or she is well aware of the capricious and malleable nature of the essay film. As Corrigan remarks:
As it develops in and out of those documentary and avant-garde traditions, the history of the essay film underlines a central critical point: that the essayistic should not necessarily be seen simply as an alternative to either of these practices (or to narrative cinema); rather it rhymes with and retimes them as counterpoints within and to them. Situated between the categories of realism and formal experimentation and geared to the possibilities of “public expression,” the essay film suggests an appropriation of certain avant-garde and documentary practices in a way different from the early historical practices of both, just as it tends to invert and restructure the relations between the essayistic and narrative to subsume narrative within that public expression. The essayistic play between fact and fiction, between the documentary and the experimental, or between non-narrative and narrative becomes a place where the essay film inhabits other forms and practices. (p. 198)
Alter and Corrigan’s volume implies that the essay can inhabit many forms, styles or genres. More importantly is the idea that it should be recognised for its intentions and capabilities. Whatever form it takes, the essay is an attempt to seek, explore, understand, visualise and question, without necessarily providing clearly defined answers. The essay film also places considerable value on the intellect and opinion of the viewer, since it is an invitation to reflect on the thoughts, experiences, emotions and perceptions that are being conveyed. “Essays on the Essay Film” sensibly concludes with the chapter entitled “Filmmakers on the Essayistic”. Notable filmmakers, such as Lynn Sachs and Ross McElwee provide valuable insight into their own practices. The featured filmmakers, documentarians and video artists in this chapter do not focus specifically on what form their work takes, but what they are trying to achieve. For instance, in her article “On Writing the Film Essay,” Lynn Sachs proclaims that “My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” (p. 287.) Admittedly, Sachs’s statement contradicts the idea that documentary films seek to educate, inform and persuade, which I taught in my own classes. Yet Sachs’s insights, as well as those of the many other filmmakers in “Essays on the Essay Film” demonstrate how the camera is as versatile as the pen when communicating thoughts, emotions and ideas.
Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)
Elizabeth A. Papazian and Caroline Eades have also compiled several surprising, challenging and thoroughly captivating articles that exemplify the many forms that the essay film can take. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia includes articles by several prominent scholars that explore the essay film’s place throughout history as well as within various cultural settings. Like Alter and Corrigan, they also present a convincing argument that the essay film is distinct from both documentary, avant-garde and narrative filmmaking, since it is “characterized by a loose, fragmentary, playful, even ironic approach […] and raises new questions about the construction of the subject, the relationship of the subject to the world and the aesthetic possibilities of cinema.” (Papazian/Eades, p. 1) Papazian and Eades explore how essayistic tendencies can manifest in narrative, documentary, avant-garde, and even video art through careful analyses of specific films and videos. The book opens with Timothy Corrigan’s “Essayism and Contemporary Film Narrative” which explores how the essayistic can inhabit narrative film, specifically through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, both released in 2011. Corrigan observes that The Tree of Life “continually seems to resist its own narrative logic” (p. 18) by presenting a highly fragmented and non-linear plot. Instead of placing it into the hybrid realm of experimental-narrative, however, Corrigan argues that:
Rather than locate a linear connection between past, present and future, the narrative flashbacks in The Tree of Life become a search for genesis – or more accurately many geneses – which might be better described as disruptive recollections that never adequately collect and circulate, as fractured and drifting images and moments producing not evolutionary lines, but the spreading reflective branches of essayism. (p. 19-20.)
The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia continues with essays by other acclaimed, yet indefinable filmmakers such as Jean Luc-Godard and Claire Denis. Essays by Rick Warner and Martine Beugnet explore how these filmmakers defy closure and continuity, even while appearing to work within established forms and genres. Ann Eaken Moss explores the essayistic approach that Chantal Akerman imbues within her experimental “home movies.” News from Home (1977) is a meditation on Akerman’s own sense of dislocation from her home in Belgium while she adapts to life in New York City. In “Inside/Outside: Nicolasito Guillen Landrian’s Subversive Strategy in Coffea Arabiga” Ernesto Livon-Grosman investigates Landrian’s means of furtively including his own political agenda within a government-sanctioned documentary. What was meant to be a propagandistic documentary about the benefits of Cuban coffee plantations becomes an essayistic critique on the power structure of Fidel Castro’s government. (Livon-Grosman.) Papazian and Eades conclude their volume with an afterward by Laura Rascaroli, affirming that “it is with the potentiality of all essay films to question and challenge their own form”. (p. 300) The essay film may be distinct from narrative, documentary and the avant-garde, but it itself has no discernable style or formula. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia clearly illustrates how the essay film, although bordering on established genres “must create the conditions of its own form.” (pp. 301-302.) Every filmmaker’s unique thoughts, experiences, meditations, questions and perceptions cannot neatly fit into a strict set of generic guidelines. However, this does not make the essay film more difficult to understand, but further implies that it is a unique practice rather than a specific form.
News from Home (Akerman, 1977)
Even with the insight provided by these two volumes, I do not regret introducing the essay film to my documentary students, despite their questions and confusion. As illustrated throughout Essays on the Essay Film and The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia it has typically been an esoteric and transgressive form, and perhaps including it with better known genres such as documentary and experimental films could be an effective way of introducing it to beginning filmmakers and scholars. Then again, perhaps it should be taught as a form separate from documentary, narrative and the avant-garde. I do wish that I was able to speak more about it at length during that particular instance, since the essay film deserves a considerable amount of thought and attention. Whether or not there is a correct pedagogical approach to teaching the essay film, both of these volumes are tremendously illuminating, but also open the door to further discussion about this compelling form of cinema.
Nora M. Alter and Timothy Corrigan, Essays on the Essay Film (Film and Culture Series) (New York:. Columbia University Press, 2017).
Caroline Eades and Elizabeth A. Papazian, The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia (Nonfictions) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
Max Bense (February 7, 1910 in Strasbourg – April 29, 1990 in Stuttgart) was a German philosopher, writer, and publicist, known for his work in philosophy of science, logic, aesthetics, and semiotics. His thoughts combine natural sciences, art, and philosophy under a collective perspective and follow a definition of reality, which – under the term existential rationalism – is able to remove the separation between humanities and natural sciences.
Max Bense spent his early childhood in his birthplace Strasbourg and in 1918 his family was deported from Alsace-Lorraine as a consequence of World War I. Starting in 1920, he attended grammar school in Cologne and after 1930 he studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology, and philosophy at the University of Bonn. During his studies, his interest in literature is revealed by several contributions to newspapers, journals, and broadcast, for which he wrote several radio dramas. In 1937 he received his doctor's degree (Dr. phil. nat.) with his dissertation "Quantenmechanik und Daseinsrelativität" (Quantum Mechanics and Relativity of Dasein). He used the term Relativity of Dasein, which he adopted from Max Scheler, for explaining that novel theories do not have to contradict classical science. Bense – declared opponent of national socialism – knowingly opposed the Deutsche Physik of the Nazi regime (cf. Johannes Juilfs), which rejected the theory of relativity due to Einstein'sJewish origin. Therefore, he did not receive his postdoctoral qualification.
In 1938 Bense initially worked as a physicist at the Bayer AG in Leverkusen. After the outbreak of World War II he was a soldier, firstly as a meteorologist, then as a medical technician in Berlin and Georgenthal, where he was mayor for a short time after the end of the war. In 1945 the University of Jena appointed him to curator (Chancellor of the University) and offered him the possibility of postdoctoral work (habilitation), which was likely to be cumulative, at the Social-Pedagogic Faculty, which was followed by an appointment to Professor extraordinarius of philosophical and scientific propaedeutics.
In 1948, Bense fled from the political development of the Soviet occupation zone to Boppard; and he was appointed as a guest professor in philosophy and theory of science by the University of Stuttgart in 1949, and as senior lecturer (associate professor) there in 1950. In 1955, Bense raised a controversy concerning mythologizing tendencies of German postwar culture. Thereupon he became the target of public polemics, resulting in a postponement of his appointment to full professor until 1963.
In addition, he worked at the adult education centre in Ulm and at the Ulm School of Design from 1953 to 1958; he was also guest professor at the Hamburg College for Visual Arts from 1958 to 1960 and in 1966/67.
Max Bense became professor emeritus on February 7, 1978 and died in 1990 as an internationally accredited scientist.
Mathematics in art and language
Already in his first publication, "Raum und Ich" ("Space and Ego"; 1934), Bense combined theoretical philosophy with mathematics, semiotics, and aesthetics; this remained his thematic emphasis. For the first time, he phrased a rational aesthetics, which defines the components of language – words, syllables, phonemes – as a statistical language repertoire, and which opposes literature that is based upon meaning. Conversely, Bense studied the concept of style, which he applied to mathematics – following Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz' Mathesis Universalis –, designing a universal markup language. "Die Mathematik in der Kunst" ("Mathematics in Art"; 1949) was his starting point for investigating mathematical principles of form in the history of art. From this, Bense developed a perspective to see the mathematical spirit in works of literary art, especially in metrics and rhythm. Bense's thoughts assumed the correlation of a mathematical and linguistic consciousness, which have a common origin and have grown into complementary modes of thought. He considered the atomistic structures of the linguistic modes to be equivalent. By using non-interpretable basic elements (characters) and rules or operators, these forms give meaning, impart information and make stylistically formed language possible. He considered the aesthetic and the semantic information to be generally separated and not to be defined until they are used. This was the first German integration of Ludwig Wittgenstein's work into the field of aesthetics.
Some of Bense's knowledge is based on the investigations of the American mathematician George David Birkhoff. Thus some termini like "redundancy" and "entropy" have to be equated with "Ordnungsmaß" and "Materialverbrauch" (consumption of material) from Birkhoff's aesthetics research.
Technology and ethics
Bense considered the destruction of the social and intellectual middle-class world since the beginning of the 20th century a parallel to the destruction of the concept of being in philosophy. He saw the natural world replaced by an artificial one. As a forerunner of the computer age, Bense thought about the technical counterparts of human existence; unlike many of his contemporaries he considered machines as pure products of human intelligence, having algorithms as a basis, but soon he posed ethical questions, which were not discussed in ethics of technology until decades later. His pragmatic views of technology, influenced by Walter Benjamin, which lacked either belief in progress or its rejection, brought him the criticism of Theodor W. Adorno – and again put him in the role of the opposition.
Structural analysis of language
Inspired by neuroscience, informatics, and the occupation with electronic calculating machines, but also by Wittgenstein's concept of the language-game, Bense tried to put into perspective or to extend the traditional view of literature. In that, he was one of the first philosophers of culture who integrated the technical possibilities of the computer into their thoughts and investigated them across disciplinary boundaries. He statistically and topologically analysed linguistic phenomena, subjected them to questions of semiotic, information theory, and communication theory using structuralistic approaches. Thus Bense became the first theoretician of concrete poetry, which was started by Eugen Gomringer in 1953, and encouraged e.g. Helmut Heißenbüttel, Claus Bremer, Reinhard Döhl, Ludwig Haring, and Franz Mon to perform further experiments, and also had influence on Ernst Jandl's language deconstruction (see also Stuttgarter Gruppe/Schule).
Discussion with writers
In his work with literature and literary language, Bense was not content with only theoretical considerations; he had close contact to authors like Alfred Andersch and Arno Schmidt. His constructions of analogy to visual arts made major contributions to the understanding of cubism and dadaism.
Understanding of science
As a theoretician of science, Bense represented the synthetic intellectual concept, where classical humanism and modern technology constructively complement one another. From this concept of science, he hoped for progressive knowledge, which must always be ethically scrutinized, and at the same time, for the prevention of regression. Because of that, Bense argued for enlightenment and put himself into that tradition.
After 1984 Max Bense applied his theories of visual art to screen media. Because of that, early thoughts of media studies concerning the internet, especially the concept of digital poetry, can be traced back to Bense.
All publications are in German.
- Raum und Ich. Eine Philosophie über den Raum. Luken & Luken, Berlin 1934
- Aufstand des Geistes. Eine Verteidigung der Erkenntnis. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1935
- Anti-Klages oder Von der Würde des Menschen. Widerstands-Verlag (Anna Niekisch), Berlin 1937
- Kierkegaard-Brevier. Insel, Leipzig 1937
- Quantenmechanik und Daseinsrelativität. Eine Untersuchung über die Prinzipien der Quantenmechanik und ihre Beziehung zu Schelers Lehre von der Daseinsrelativität der Gegenstandsarten. Welzel, Cologne 1938
- Vom Wesen deutscher Denker oder Zwischen Kritik und Imperativ. Oldenbourg, Munich/Berlin 1938
- Die abendländische Leidenschaft oder Zur Kritik der Existenz. Oldenbourg, Munich/Berlin 1938
- Geist der Mathematik. Abschnitte aus der Philosophie der Arithmetik und Geometrie. Oldenbourg, Munich/Berlin 1939
- Aus der Philosophie der Gegenwart. Staufen, Cologne 1940
- Einleitung in die Philosophie. Eine Einübung des Geistes. Oldenbourg, Munich 1941
- Sören Kierkegaard. Leben im Geist. Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 1942
- Physikalische Welträtsel. Ein Buch von Atomen, Kernen, Strahlen und Zellen. Staufen, Cologne 1942
- Briefe großer Naturforscher und Mathematiker. Staufen, Cologne 1943
- Das Leben der Mathematiker. Bilder aus der Geistesgeschichte der Mathematik. Staufen, Cologne 1944
- Über Leibniz. Leibniz und seine Ideologie. Der geistige Mensch und die Technik. Rauch, Jena 1946
- Konturen einer Geistesgeschichte der Mathematik. Die Mathematik und die Wissenschaften. (2 volumes) Claassen & Goverts, Hamburg 1946-1949
- Philosophie als Forschung. Staufen, Cologne 1947
- Umgang mit Philosophen. Essays. Staufen, Cologne 1947
- Hegel und Kierkegaard. Eine prinzipielle Untersuchung. Staufen, Cologne 1948
- Von der Verborgenheit des Geistes. Habel, Berlin 1948
- Was ist Existenzphilosophie?. Butzon & Bercker, Kevelaer 1949
- Moderne Naturphilosophie. Butzon & Bercker, Kevelaer 1949
- Technische Existenz. Essays. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1949
- Geschichte der Wissenschaften in Tabellen. Butzon&Bercker, Kevelaer 1949
- Literaturmetaphysik. Der Schriftsteller in der technischen Welt. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1950
- Ptolemäer und Mauretanier oder Die theologische Emigration der deutschen Literatur. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne/Berlin 1950
- Was ist Elektrizität? Butzon & Bercker, Kevelaer 1950
- Die Philosophie. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 1951
- Plakatwelt. Vier Essays. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1952
- Die Theorie Kafkas. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne/Berlin 1952
- Der Begriff der Naturphilosophie. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1953
- Aesthetica (I). Metaphysische Beobachtungen am Schönen. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1954
- Descartes und die Folgen (I). Ein aktueller Traktat. Agis, Krefeld/Baden-Baden 1955
- Aesthetica (II). Aesthetische Information. Agis, Baden-Baden 1956
- Rationalismus und Sensibilität. Präsentationen. (Mit Elisabeth Walther) Agis, Krefeld/Baden-Baden 1956
- Aesthetica (III). Ästhetik und Zivilisation. Theorie der ästhetischen Zivilisation. Agis, Krefeld/Baden-Baden 1958
- Kunst und Intelligenz als Problem der Moderne. Kulturamt, Dortmund 1959
- Aesthetica (IV). Programmierung des Schönen. Allgemeine Texttheorie und Textästhetik. Agis, Krefeld/Baden-Baden 1960
- Grignan-Serie. Beschreibung einer Landschaft. Der Augenblick, Stuttgart 1960
- Descartes und die Folgen (II). Ein Geräusch in der Straße. Agis, Krefeld/Baden-Baden 1960
- Die Idee der Politik in der technischen Welt. Kulturamt, Dortmund 1960
- aprèsfiche für uns hier und für andere von Max Bense. Werbung für „Rheinlandschaft“. Burkhardt, Stuttgart 1961
- Bestandteile des Vorüber. Dünnschliffe Mischtexte Montagen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1961
- Rosenschuttplatz. (With Clytus Gottwald) Mayer, Stuttgart 1961
- Reste eines Gesichtes. (With Karl-Georg Pfahler). Mayer, Stuttgart 1961
- Entwurf einer Rheinlandschaft. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne/Berlin 1962
- theorie der texte. Eine Einführung in neuere Auffassungen und Methoden. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1962
- Die präzisen Vergnügen. Versuche und Modelle. Limes, Wiesbaden 1964
- Aesthetica. Einführung in die neue Aesthetik. Agis, Baden-Baden 1965
- Zufällige Wortereignisse. Mayer, Stuttgart 1965
- Brasilianische Intelligenz. Eine cartesianische Reflexion. Limes, Wiesbaden 1965
- jetzt. Mayer, Stuttgart 1965
- tallose berge. Mayer, Stuttgart 1965
- Ungehorsam der Ideen. Abschließender Traktat über Intelligenz und technische Welt. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne/Berlin 1965
- zusammenfassende grundlegung moderner ästhetik. galerie press, St. Gallen 1966
- Epische Studie zu einem epikureischen Doppelspiel. Hake, Cologne 1967
- Die Zerstörung des Durstes durch Wasser. Einer Liebesgeschichte zufälliges Textereignis. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1967
- Semiotik. Allgemeine Theorie der Zeichen. Agis, Baden-Baden 1967
- kleine abstrakte ästhetik. edition rot, Stuttgart 1969
- Einführung in die informationstheoretische Ästhetik. Grundlegung und Anwendung in der Texttheorie. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1969
- Der Monolog der Terry Jo. (With Ludwig Harig) In: Klaus Schöning (Ed.): Neues Hörspiel. Texte. Partituren. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 1969, pp. 59–91
- Artistik und Engagement. Präsentation ästhetischer Objekte. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1970
- Existenzmitteilung aus San Franzisko. Hake, Cologne 1970
- nur glas ist wie glas. werbetexte. Fietkau, Berlin 1970
- Die Realität der Literatur. Autoren und ihre Texte. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1971
- Zeichen und Design. Semiotische Ästhetik. Agis, Baden-Baden 1971
- Wörterbuch der Semiotik. (With Elisabeth Walther) Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1973
- Semiotische Prozesse und Systeme in Wissenschaftstheorie und Design, Ästhetik und Mathematik. Semiotik vom höheren Standpunkt. Agis, Baden-Baden 1975
- Vermittlung der Realitäten. Semiotische Erkenntnistheorie. Agis, Baden-Baden 1976
- Das Auge Epikurs. Indirektes über Malerei. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1979
- Die Unwahrscheinlichkeit des Ästhetischen und die semiotische Konzeption der Kunst. Agis, Baden-Baden 1979
- Axiomatik und Semiotik in Mathematik und Naturerkenntnis. Agis, Baden-Baden 1981
- Zentrales und Occasionelles. Poetische Bemerkungen. Edition Künstlerhaus, Stuttgart 1981
- Das Universum der Zeichen. Essays über die Expansionen der Semiotik. Agis, Baden-Baden 1983
- Das graue Rot der Poesie. Gedichte. Agis, Baden-Baden 1983
- Kosmos Atheos. Gedichte. Agis, Baden-Baden 1985
- Repräsentation und Fundierung der Realitäten. Fazit semiotischer Perspektiven. Agis, Baden-Baden 1986
- Nacht-Euklidische Verstecke. Poetische Texte. Agis, Baden-Baden 1988
- Poetische Abstraktionen. Gedichte und Aphorismen. Manus Presse, Stuttgart 1990
- Der Mann, an den ich denke. Ein Fragment. (from his unpublished works, ed. by Elisabeth Walther) edition rot, Stuttgart 1991
- Die Eigenrealität der Zeichen. (from his unpublished works, ed. by Elisabeth Walther) Agis, Baden-Baden 1992
All references are in German.
- Eckardt, Michael: "...sich in die wissenschaftliche Welt allerbestens einführen können." Max Bense, Walter Wolf und Georg Klaus zwischen Kooperation und Konflikt an der Universität Jena in den Jahren 1945-1949; in: HOSSFELD, U./KAISER, T./MESTRUP, H. (Ed.)(2007): Hochschule im Sozialismus. Studien zur Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (1945-1990). Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2007, 1929-1970.
- Eckardt, Michael: Max Bense in Thüringen, in: Palmbaum 14 (2006) 1, 104–111.
- Eckardt, Michael: Benses Kierkegaard in Jena, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 31, 2006, p. 8.
- Ernst, Christoph: Max Bense: Der Essay zwischen Poesie und Prosa, in: ders., Essayistische Medienreflexion. Bielefeld, Transcript 2005, 135–144, ISBN 3-89942-376-3
- Thomé, Horst: Einheit des Wissens im Zeichen „technischer Existenz“ – Max Bense, in: Becker, Norbert und Quarthal, Franz (Ed.) (2004), Die Universität Stuttgart nach 1945: Geschichte – Entwicklungen – Persönlichkeiten, Ostfildern, Thorbecke 2004, 345–348, ISBN 3-7995-0145-2
- Eckardt, Michael: Bemerkungen zum Brief von Georg Klaus an Max Bense, in: Fuchs-Kittowski, Klaus und Piotrowski, Siegfried (Ed.), Kybernetik und Interdisziplinarität in den Wissenschaften. Berlin: Trafo-Verlag 2004, 391–392.
- Büscher, Barbara; Herrmann, Hans-Christian von; Hoffmann, Christoph (Ed.): Ästhetik als Programm: Max Bense. Daten und Streuungen. Berlin, Vice Versa 2004, 307 pp., with illustrations, ISBN 3-00-014180-4
- Eckardt, Michael: Angewandte Wissenschaftsrevison – Überschneidungen und Parallelen im Schaffen von Max Bense und Georg Klaus, in: Grundlagenstudien aus Kybernetik und Geisteswissenschaft / Humankybernetik, 43 (2002) 4, 143–152.
- Eckardt, Michael: Philosophie und Philosophen in Jena: Max Bense und Georg Klaus, in: Weißbecker, M. (Ed.), Gewalten, Gestalten, Erinnerungen. Beiträge zur Geschichte der FSU Jena in den ersten Jahren nach 1945. Jena, Thüringer Forum für Bildung und Wissenschaft 2002, pp. 51–69, ISBN 3-935850-12-3
- Michael Eckardt und Engell, Lorenz (Ed.): Das Programm des Schönen. Ausgewählte Beiträge der Stuttgarter Schule zur Semiotik der Künste und der Medien. Weimar, VDG Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften 2002, 334 pp., ill., graph. depict., ISBN 3-89739-315-8
- Elisabeth Walther: Max Bense und die Kybernetik, in: "Computer Art Faszination", 1999, p. 360
- Harry Walter: Max Bense in Stuttgart, 1994. 16 pages, 11 pictures. Stapled. Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach ISBN 3-929146-25-8
- Max Bense in the German National Library catalogue
- Stuttgarter Schule
- Elisabeth Walther: "Max Bense und die Kybernetik", netzliteratur.net
- Elisabeth Walther-Bense: Chronologic Bibliography of Bense's publications and broadcasts, stuttgarter-schule.de
- Herbert W. Franke: "Das sogenannte Schöne. Max Bense, Informationsästhetik und naturwissenschaftliche Erklärung der Kunst", Telepolis, April 9, 1998
- Tilman Baumgärtel: "Die präzisen Vergnügen." "Kreativität mit Großrechenanlagen: Zur Wiederentdeckung der 'Stuttgarter Schule' um Max Bense." Telepolis, March 20, 2005
- Hermann Rotermund: "Keine Anrufung des großen Bären. Max Bense als Wegbereiter für Konkrete Poesie und Netzliteratur", Radio Bremen, 2001
- Marlis Gerhardt: "Modern ist, wer seiner Zeit gewachsen ist. Max Bense: ein Porträt", SWR2, June 19, 2007, downloadablertf-file, 17 pp., 64 kB
- Daniel Fetzner: „fogpatch“ Creative research project (2007-2010) about the text "Existenzmitteilung aus San Franzisko"