Jacques Rancière, interviewed by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana
Cahiers: If we consider two films, ‘Milestones’ (Robert Kramer & John Douglas) and ‘Numéro Deux’ (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville), it seems to us that the first has a genealogical dimension that is completely absent in the second. We could say that ‘Milestones’ has a place in a history of “genres” (American cinema) while ‘Numéro Deux’ has a place in a history of “forms” (European cinema). The result is that ‘Milestones’, but perhaps also the American cinema in general, is less cut off from the history of the US than ours, and that, in a way, it is more “materialist”.
Particularly striking in American cinema are the characters: they are never caught in a discourse that has already been told, they are free in their practices, gestures, behaviors. They bear gestures rather than ideas, behaviors rather than political ideals. And this doesn’t prevent them from relating to a global, ideological and mythical representation of America. They are the children of a great ideological discourse: that of free enterprise, a discourse that no-one has to completely take responsibility for (because it goes without saying).
Rancière: I guess we can take that as a starting point to ask ourselves what can be, here and there, a film of or about the revolutionary left. Kramer and Douglas can directly give the word to the left, render sensible the formation of a camp, the transformations of a militant form and ideal, because they have a certain genealogical tradition of American cinema behind them. While our film tradition, which is profoundly amnesic, lives off codes and typologies, regularly playing with easy displacements which permit, every six months or so, to welcome a new tone in our cinema, the American cinema has always been playing around, showing the legend of the formation of codes, the system of gestures, displacements, exchanges that lead to what a community recognizes as its own just as it recognizes its law.
Behind the journey that starts with the exit from a prison and ends with a deliberately symbolic birth, we can recognize a fiction à la River of No Return (Otto Preminger): in its first scene there’s a prisoner chopping down a tree to construct his house with and at the end of a series of ordeals, there’s the city, the law and American morality. Of course this genealogical tradition doesn’t present anything more than the American society’s “discourse on itself” and the materialism that we used to admire, or the material force of a national ideology, its capacity to create characters and organize fictions. Nevertheless there is a also certain way of rooting ideas in bodies at play here, which makes possible certain reversals or the posing of different questions.
Our cinema, by contrast, reproduces a fundamental trait of our political culture: this indifference of genealogy that discards the fictionalization of history to the level of commemoration. I’m struck by the concordance between the terms of the debates animating our political culture and the modes of fiction in our cinema. Basically it functions on the basis of an extreme codification of conditions, characters and social spaces, and at the same time of “the small difference”, the effect of the real applied to the code, which is also a supplement of dream induced to the real: small office workers leaving their desk to start dreaming, factory workers discovering the delicacy of sentimental emotions that used to be reserved for the bourgeois dreamworld, characters escaping their social role, having their wandering followed by a camera that is all of the sudden mobile, their words finally seeming to have found the justness of the everyday.
This supplement of conscience induced to the social topology is a bit like the family picture in which there’s always a happy cousin wearing costumes or making faces so that the image wouldn’t procure a family picture, and it is basically given form as a “partage” (at once a sharing and a division) between a “heavy” commercial cinema showing the hidden suffering of the bourgeoisy (executives, doctors, small business owners etc) and a “light” commercial cinema – a role allotted to the young cinema – taking the worker out of the factory and the struggle – too decoded – to follow his or her love affairs (Lily, aime-moi, Maurice Dugowson) or sexual disorders (Claude Faraldo).
This play between observing code and a decoding that in itself is perfectly coded I also see in debates à la “Marx or dream”, in which we find on one hand the discourse of the apparatus, on the other the freshness of the real, desire, dream, the productive/militant force transformed in the wandering of deranged workers and lost militants. A lot of those who pretend to subvert the discourse of the apparatus today, do they do anything else than once more pitting the very superficial discourse of this supplement of the real which is the supplement of dream? The gauchiste doxa finds itself closely depending on the modes of commercial fiction, caught by fetishism, illusion of spontaneity produced by the new registration machines (camera–soundrecorder).
Knowing by contrast how a militant ideal is formed, how the gestures of a body are converted from submission to resistance, how a culture of revolt can be formed and transmitted – including by way of its legend – those are questions that are absent from our fiction and covered up, in our theoretical space, by the stereotypes of “life”. We are always in the order of mythology, not of the legend, of the effect of the real on the code, not of its genealogy. The long repression carried out by the culture from above has meticulously destroyed and replaced the forms of culture and memory from below, producing this amnesic culture which allows for commemorations (La Commune, “la chanson des Canuts”, the former suffering and exploits of the people..) but not for a theoretical reflection or a fictionalization of power and revolt into their material invention.
If we consider a film such as Costa Gavras’ Section Spéciale, we realise that the theoretical figuration à la (André) Glucksmann (the power and the plebs)* is completely dependant of this traditional mode of fiction in our cinema: on one side the power, the apparatus, the ministers, the people from above, the hushed universe of antechambers, and on the other the good guys or the good proletarian communists of Costa-Gavras, with their joie de vivre and their weight of workers’ humanity.
Concerning the representation of power, there’s even more significant things to detect in (Serge) July’s enthusiasm in Libération for Francesco Rosi’s Cadaveri Eccellenti (review 12 June 1976). July doesn’t seem to think that this figuration of power in the form of occult conspirators, long distance phone calls, concealed microphones, mysterious cars pulling out of high walled villa driveways and running over all too nosy investigators, has something in common with the big international conspiracy such as we find in “Tintin” books; nor is he troubled by how in this figuration plebeian honesty is embodied in the figure of the good police officer who sticks to traditional plebeian methods of intimidation and house search, prefiguring the socialist police of tomorrow.
To come back to our starting point: Milestones is able to give voice to the American left, to make it tell its own story because it is a film posited within a culture in which it is natural to represent oneself under the guise of a travelogue. Yet it does not raise any issues of ‘representation’, and it is a bit disturbing (deceiving) to see these characters given as real, who ask each other questions in front of the camera and at the same time organized within a fiction of hope. Conversely Godard (in Numéro deux) denies the left the possibility of telling any story. He radically deconstructs all the lies of the figuration of the left, which also means that he bars any possible reflection about militant history by confronting, from the outset, all militant discourse with its own lies, with its collusion with the modes of fiction of power and of capital. Decisive pedagogy but, in a sense, also suspicious: it seems to boil down to “propedeutics”, asking questions: how does a sound or an image work etc., to teach us how to see and then how to fight. But in reality it rather acts as a sort of endgame, a kind of bird of Minerva that rises when the adventure is finished. It’s the discourse of the old militant, extraordinary condensation of all the Comintern adventure stories ((Jan)Valtin in particular*), spoken in a voice which condenses all the voices of the old proletarian communists that we could have heard, but also pure discourse of death: we can only represent a militant ideal, a sequence of sounds bearing militant code and memory, because it’s something “from the past”.
In a way, doesn’t the pedagogy of Godard, by barring all “right to histories”, run the risk of proposing a pacifist response to the violence of the images of the bourgeoisy? But also: isn’t this too perfect discourse itself a bit rigged, a bit violent, in excess (of despair) on its own principles?
What do you mean exactly by the “society’s discourse on itself”? And can we see how this discourse on itself submits the cinematographic practice, and to what ends?
Instead of “discourse on itself” we should rather talk about dominant fiction, which I understand as the privileged mode of representation by which the image of social consensus is proposed to the members of a social formation, and to which they are asked to identify with. It functions as a stock of images and operator of histories for the different modes of figuration (pictorial, novelistic, cinematographic etc). The amnesia I was talking about seems to echo some distinctive features of our dominant fiction. The American dominant fiction à la “birth of a nation” can represent the codes as the result of a history, replaying the contradictions of that history under different figures (Whites/Indians, North/South, law/lawless, etc.). But the particular features of our history have made such a fiction, as representation of our social concord, impossible : it’s impossible to unite the considerations in the fiction “look at where we come from” without bumping into June 1848 or la Commune, images of the class struggle that are difficult to represent in function of the destiny of that struggle and its relative stabilization since the Third Republic and according to a very unequal development, as factor of a conflicting balance.
If the bourgeoisy would have completely annihilated or domesticated the workers’ resistance, perhaps they could have put forward positive images of Versailles, rendering the communards as happy just as the most distinguished producers of westerns have been able to do with the Indians. The type of ideological compromise (school for all) or political compromise (different forms of the Union sacrée* and contractual politics) that the bourgeoisy has wanted to secure with the working class since the end of the last century prevents them from producing such images or even proposing positive historical images of the reconciliation. Thus power hardly makes itself loved as law, in a fiction à la “here is where we come from”: it makes itself acceptable/forgettable in a fiction à la “we are like that”, a tabular representation of social diversity, in which the policeman, for example, is less the representative of the law than a voyeur going through a set of social types and at the same time part of the typology.
In this fiction that our cinema hasn’t invented but doubled via the prestige of its specific effect of the real, the class struggle is neither represented nor suppressed, it is taxonomized. It seems to me that Marx has brilliantly anticipated the formation of this mode of fiction in his relentless attack against Les Mysteres de Paris (Eugène Sue)*. What is proposed here is not only the first big mode of democratic figuration, likely to provide an image of society which is immediately readable for all classes (and in particular for the workers who start to benefit from the Guizot law concerning primary school); it’s also a fictional structure inherited by cinema, taking up the function of dominant figuration. This is what I call the “voyeurist-unanimist” fiction, a fiction that displays the spectacle of social diversity and particularly the one of its slums, margins etc, under the double glance of a voyeur who feels as comfortable in high as in low places, and of a reformer who acknowledges the social plagues and makes up remedies.
In the curious look of a young writer, amateur of “physiologies” and philanthropist who wanted to mend the social wounds, Marx seized the moment when, in becoming love writing, this voyeurist-unanimist glance, stemming from the right, transformed into political doxa of the left: politico-fictional unanmism formed via the “Montagne” group of the 2nd Republic*, the big legend of the exiles of 2nd December and the big national reconciliation in the 1880’s that still has a weight today, as much in Mitterand’s electoral declarations of universal love as in the infinite tenderness with which the anti-electorist Truffaut films an unhappy childhood, in Thiers or elsewhere (L’argent de poche). No matter what Truffaut does, it’s Mitterand who’s the doctor of the plagues he displays.
This mode of fiction has been able to become dominant, as well as dominant as culture of the left, and this goes back to the eradication (June 1848, La Commune) or the lamination (1914-1918) of the workers’ left but also to the relative weakness of the fictions of bourgeois power In France. On one hand, film is, because of the high costs involved, entirely dependent of capital; on the other, power has established the monopoly on television. But they hardly display this monopoly (this is why the images of power on television are mostly insignificant, simple pretext or illustration for voice). The right who holds political power hasn’t been able to define a positive politics of images, to overcome its distrust of the cinematographic effect of the real. It has bit by bit given away the control of the only representable national fiction – the unanimist fiction – to the left.
Taking images, editing images, composing a fresco of the people: these functions have become in a dominant way the functions “of the left”. The wonderment in front of the real, browsing through social diversity, the displaced, the tramps, the girls of pleasure or the humble melancholic workers, working class solidarity or bohemians between world wars, drowsy workers, “loulous” or the outcasts of today, this whole little world that emblematizes our national fraternity, it’s the left who has managed it, setting up its cultural hegemony from the inside, as part of the political hegemony of the bourgeoisy. In the balance/struggle of classes, the force that manages the working class struggle also tends to be the force that manages the national fiction.
If cinema has played an important role in this historical and cultural compromise, at the same time as it has become the dominant figuration of our times, it’s clear that the voyeurism of its principle and the unanimism of its effects are so natural, so inherent to its being, that nobody cares to pay attention to it (at least untll Godard puts his foot in it). The camera is dead on time to get rid of those redundancies of love writing, for one simple reason: the camera is itself love: just look at the tenderness oozing from our cinema.
The cinema is the art that always holds a supplement of the real or the dream. Most of the time that supplement is simply created from image to sound. We needed the talkie before there could be an unanimist cinema as major piece of the new leftist culture, which became in itself only possible after 1930 (because of the progressive national reconversion of the Communist Party). Or from image to image, as in Le Juge et l’assassin (Bertrand Tavernier), in which the luxuriance of the landscape unites the gauchiste fiction (the wandering of the outcast in the new “Icarie” of the Ardeche) with the revisionist hagiography (the decadence of the old ruling classes, contradiction overtaken by inhuman bureaucracy and wild anarchism, proud songs of the people’s women uniting the calm and responsible strike with the legend of La Commune). The force of Godard and his importance at a time when unanimism takes on new prestige (on the remains of May 1968), can be found in his criticism of the effect of the supplement.
But isn’t there a heavy responsibility of the political and syndicalist apparatus, apparatus of memorization and archiving, but also of forgetting and repression (in France, the French Social Party) in this hagiographisation/loss of legend? You just summed up in one sentence something that we have been trying to say in an article in Cahiers about ‘Section Spéciale’: the story of the big apparatus, of stifled ministries and those incarcerated or subjugated. Why is this the mode of representation of power that structures all cinema of the left? In what tradition does this belong?
It seems to me that, once again, Marx has put his finger on something important when he criticized (Victor) Hugo’s L’Histoire d’un Crime: a conspiracy, something that happens to society from above or from outside, this is necessarily how the bonapartist coup d’état appears for the representative of la Montagne, this new left that claimed power in the name of the people after having fired at them in 1848, and will also cover up the workers memory (that of the fighters of June) with the commemoration of the martyrs of the Republic.
In other words, the responsibility of the left goes far beyond the birth or the degeneration of the Communist Party. It’s about something else than a gap or even the inescapable pressure of the apparatus on the spontaneity of the popular archive. The big tradition of the left, that we inertly relate to 93 and Jacobinism, has in reality taken form with the Montagnards of the 2nd republic who have killed the fighters of June twice: first with arms, then by taking their place as victims. One of the first times when the outlaws of 2 December were able to affirm their legitimacy while commemorating the burial of a worker who died in exile, there was a provocateur present, the worker-poet Joseph Déjacque, to remind them that they had shot at the same person in June they ware burying now. Provocateurs like him died in misery or madness, and the big tradition of the left has been able to settle the game of their commemorations.
So the paleness of the images that the left can produce has a double cause. On one hand, the right gladly leaves them in charge of the commemorations (8th May, for example), leaving them the images of national revolutionary history, but also affecting them with a déjà-vu effect (soldiers of the 2nd year in the processions of the Front Populaire), yellowed photographs, images that are in advance considered as stereotypical, that the left can only produce at the price of redeeming them with commentary. On the other hand, the history of the left (except for the brief moments when there were attempts to set up a political workers left, breaking with the “Montagnard” tradition) has a very precise tradition: it has to legitimize the demand for power of the left with a history of its popular exploits and sufferings of which the left is heir or healer. In order to mask that the left has taken part in the violent repression of the streets or the soft repression of forms of popular culture or memory, it can only represent the contradiction as the opposition of life and the conspirator’s death drive. In this fiction/commemoration, the body and the voice from below will never represent anything else than the plebeian lust for life, the suffering in times of bad government, the demand for good government.
In opposition to the legend of the revolt (element of an autonomous culture, song brought back to its voice, dream or memory reinvested in practice), the hagiography of the people is inscribed in gestures, voices and gazes of people, the demand for power of its representatives. At the end of Tavernier’s film we can see a remarkable condensation of these hagiographic signs: the banner of a factory on strike, suggesting the responsible workers movement, the pride of the woman of the people, facing the power’s uniforms, taking side with her brothers, a voice singing La Commune and the lilas, black images with leftist rhetoric comparing the numbers of victims made by the maniac and those made by capital. There’s not one of those signs that doesn’t flatter the spectator of the left or gauchiste, who takes pleasure in recognizing its good side.
Hence the questions I’m posing in regards to the use of the notion of popular memory. The Cahiers have introduced them in the criticism of the “cinema rétro”*, as a memory of the resistance against the couple retro/submission. It has also functioned a bit as a return to the proper experience of the revolt against militant stereotypes. But if we don’t think about the contradictions of this notion, aren’t we at risk of loosing sight of the revisionist forest behind the retro tree (easily recuperated as sign of decadence of old ruling forces and the madness of bad government)? And aren’t we at risk of falling back on unanimist bliss, providing only a supplement of soul to the commemorations of the electoral left? Reading the letters that (Serge) Maoti received about Pain Noir*, I was struck by the way in which this “memory of the people” that didn’t have any apologetic intentions was spontaneously acknowledged by people such as the delegate of CGT (the national trade union), who didn’t consider it as their memory but as the abstract history of their class. Similarly, I haven’t seen Bertolucci’s film (Novecento), but I felt a bit terrorized by the love declarations to the big Communist Party accompanying his ecstatic account of popular memory.
Popular memory is something that unites the gauchiste demand for a substitute for code with the demand of the left for a supplement of code. Regaining memory: we have to know what we want to say by that. On one hand, the memory of struggle vanishes or spreads in the time of the struggle and that’s an affair for the current politics. But when culture from below has been the object, not of a simple cover-up, but of a double process of destruction and re-inscription, it’s useless to pretend to regain popular memory, because then we risk only illustrating the last re-inscription. We only have the scraps of the history from below or its legend, with which we have to produce something new. It’s not a problem of restitution but of production, because it’s not about uniting but about dividing. If the past interests us in the ‘Révoltes Logiques,’ it’s in its division.
On one hand it seems necessary to provide the elements of a real knowledge about all these questions which are subject of the arrogant chatter of the non-culture of our political doxa. For example: what is workers power, how does the oppressive faculty arise; how can workers fall for a political code (communist or other), how does submission work, etc? But it’s not only a matter of giving the material to politicians and theoreticians. It’s about making a division of their discourse. We don’t want to restore the voices from below but make their division heard, stage their theories in its present provocation. Because the problem today is producing the elements of a new culture in which the image has to have a decisive role.
For Sartre’s programs – of which we don’t have any expertise – we should probably have had this practice: play out the reciprocal provocation of past and present. But the discourse/illustration form probably wouldn’t have allowed to go very far. There should have been a possibility to get out of this double trap of testimony and commentary and that’s a question that forces us to re-pose the problem of fiction.
How to divide what spontaneously unites: memory, cinema? How to represent that division? These questions are urgent in the light of the vertiginous acceleration of the constitution of an official culture “of the left”, of all that is affiliated according to the logic of the supplement. The recent Italian cinema warns us for the sudden convergence of all fictions towards the PCI’s (Internationalist Communist Party) demand for power: images of the decadence and anarchy of power (Salo, Passolini), the vanity of the petit-bourgeois leftism (Allonsanfan, brothers Taviani), the regained memory of the people (Novecento, Bertolucci), the vindication of the vigorous popular police (Cadaveri eccellenti). Rosi’s film is fascinating because it’s not so much a fiction of historical compromise than it is a compromise of the state of fiction. The marxist political doxa that used to define Rosi’s films (the investigation that raises facts about social domination) is reduced to the slenderness of a completely literal and apolitical fiction of power. But the conspiracy/investigation fiction has in turn gotten rid of its spontaneous politics: immediate political positivation of the good investigator, the corrupt apparatus calling out to the healthy state with a popular police, manipulated masses calling out to well managed masses. The production of fiction immediately becomes political doxa. We take in the story of a crime as pure fiction of the demand for power.
This communal program of fiction, this official culture of the left… in many ways we see it invading our cultural space, with the prospect of 1978. Mitterand already established in Le Monde the official writers of the future reign. And we can already sense what scattering there will be on the gauchiste side, given the enthusiasm with which Libération receives every manifestation of the new cultural unanimism of the left, its affection for the new heroes of social-fascism, such as the worker Potapov (La Prime, Serguei Mikaélian) or inspector Rogas (Cadaveri eccellenti).
But how is it that the power (in Europe) submits so easily this medium which is cinema? Historically, we know that it was first the army that used it. We remember the newsreels before the war in which cinema was a way of proving the national influence abroad (in the colonies). In contrast to the other arts, cinema is very easily requisitioned by power. Today, for example, we have seen television asking all French spectators to send in their family films, amateur productions, in order to edit and broadcast them – to code them, while these images have actually been taken outside of any code. This is all happening as if the power, on top of having the monopoly of the historical archives, also wants that of amateur images.
I don’t thing cinema is requisitioned by power, “in contrast to the other arts”. It is in another way. Godard has not become an official institute of the Republic like Boulez or Vasarely. There where art has lost all function of social figuration, power can officialize it as an element of cultural development, without requiring any compromise of the artists. The requisitioning of cinema obviously has a different meaning since it is the figurative art par excellence, of which everyone is more or less consumer of producer. Cinema is the shortest road between the archive of power and the forms of recognition of every individual. It’s normal that power wants to glean something in the voyeurist delirium that characterizes our contemporary culture (the frenzy of the direct take, of documentary, ethnology etc.). Currently there is no corner left in our social space where there is no look, camera or sound recorder, looking for a surplus on the effect of the real. Power wants its part. But it’s also because it lacks it terribly. Our power takes little images and hardly stakes on images. Even on the inside of the state monopoly of images (television) the division comes into play: it’s generally the left that fictionalizes, particularly in regards to history.
The upholders of political power hardly want to show their images of the masses and their struggles, for example. They rather work on the insignificance of the image. The images of the power’s discourse on television, in different genres, all seem to obey one law, which is much more about the annulation than the production of meaning. There are first of all images of power that only reflect its double (the visits of state leaders); there are the broadcasts of Michel Droit in which everything is in the voice commenting the images which are mostly insignificant. This voice creates a reactionary political effect, less by its thinking than by its non-thinking. (Foucault has rebelled against the spontaneous thesis of the left: power is stupid. Regardless I think that the stupidifying effect produced by our television does not come from intelligence but from the stupidity of its contractors.); there are the broadcasts à la “Dossiers de l’écran” in which the often worthless images, characterised by déjà-vu and moreover affected by its role as pretext, introduce a spectacle of discordant voices, which represent the conflictual balance of our society and of which we have in advance heard all what they have to say. So we add a déjà-dit to a déjà-vu. Either the image is only used to align with the voice of power, or it ensures, by its insignificance, the power of the commenting voice, or it returns the discordant voices to the vanity of their déjà-dit and the spectacle of their complicity.
Spontaneously our power only acknowledges the image as support and pretext of the voice. It cancels it out or it is cancelled out by other voices. It prefers to command images (those of the fiction of the left or those of private individuals). In a way, this demand is a sign of weakness, or rather it would be if it wasn’t answered. This is not really the case. It is part of a broader problem. We have a power that occupies more than it produces (on television or elsewhere). It is always looking for supplements, images, imagination, that the left and the gauchistes jointly provide. And this poses the problem: when we are not a party, when we don’t want to supplement giscardism nor the left, how can we keep and use their experiences, their images, their imagination?
It is true that the French cinema is completely a-genealogical. But at the same time, when cinema is directly in the service of politics, whether it’s the militant cinema here or the official cinema in socialist countries, it always has a function of commemoration, as if it has to re-stage, re-affirm something already gained, already judged (this was true of the Soviet cinema as it is of the Chinese cinema today). What brings us to a double question. Is this an inevitable part of making political cinema (militant or propagandist, official or not)? And, on the other hand, isn’t there something there that is connected to the specificity of cinema as a medium?
Besides, you have seen ‘Darboy’, what do you think of it? Do you think militant cinema can play a positive role in the constitution of a memory, in a re-genealogisation (!) of cinema?
I don’t think that cinema holds this aspect of reaffirmation of what is already judged, anymore than other worlds of figuration. The lure of the “real” is in way more constitutive of its diffuse political function than its characteristic repetition. If we leave aside all these films of “the left” that are only political due to the spontaneity of their fiction (the political/commercial cinema of which Italian cinema provided the best example), we could say that there are two big types of political cinema: the one that militates in the service of political power, illustrating its slogans, establishing its legend, and more generally assuring its hegemony. This is the case for Soviet cinema that can of course also inspire the cinematographic practice of militant groups who don’t hold any power but who already consider themselves apparatus of the State to come.
And then there is the militant cinema such as Un Simple Exemple (Collectif Cinélutte) that tries to do politics by its own effect, through its participation in a dynamics of accumulation, representation, exchange of experiences. Its title explains the problem it poses: what does “exemple” mean? In one sense, it is the illustration of a theory. Thus the film is framed with black images displaying two pieces of a citation of the Communist Manifest about the revolt of productive forces against the relations between production and the inexorable catastrophe of capitalism. To use Godard’s words, the elsewhere of an enigmatic citation that needs us to give it a bit of body and the here of one of the innumerable struggles of the industrial restructuring that needs proving that its not one of those classic jolts that precede the definitive liquidation of companies, that it is a small life in the big wheel of revolution. Is this citation not an easy way of producing the + sign : theory of Marx + workers struggles = revolution to come?
That is to say that for them, it was a rather a simple matter. It wasn’t really thought over on the level of the production relation between one and the other. What was important for them was marking that it took place in a period of crisis, that it was a moment of crisis. And the only way we could figure out is this sentence with images that are actually images of 68. It wasn’t more ambitious than that: we hadn’t thought of it as a project: and perhaps, indeed, in return it poses questions.
Yes, but then we are sent back to the other meaning of the word “exemple” and the political fiction it supports: that of “it is possible”. The question of the film is on the level of its spontaneous politics, which is ours, that of the leftism after May 68 that lives off exemplary struggles, privileged moments when workers have invented again, taken up power. These moments, these inventions, these “exemples”… we reproduce them, we amplify them, showing them to those who supposedly will do the same. We put struggles in images in order to provoke other struggles, but aren’t we evacuating the problem of the qualitative jump, aren’t we concealing the burying in the “exemple”? And the necessity of the “exemple” obliges us to erase the important aspects of the constitution of a power of struggle. The main character of the film doesn’t come from the workers world, but from Vincennes, from the student uprising, from May 68. At that moment it’s not only about the constitution of a power of exemplary struggle, but the course of the gauchiste tribe, the constitution of a certain camp. And this aspect is evaded. What becomes significant is the plumpness and the joviality of the character which gives him the weight of a worker, rooted firmly in class.
The film reveals another shady element of our political doxa: the relation with the political-syndical apparatus. On one side, the exemplarity of the unanimity to represent, requires that we erase certain contradictions, especially certain tensions with the union inside the factory. On the other side, it functions on the basis of the spontaneous gauchiste opposition between the electorist illusion of the left and the real struggles lead by the workers, without asking itself (but there too it’s not the film but the whole of our doxa which is responsible) if there’s no complementarity of this “real” and this “illusion”. Hence this slightly bizarre sequence in the film in which the colors of the posters are laughed at. We have the impression that’s it’s there as a sort of counterweight because the filmmakers are embarrassed that they have to thank the union. But there’s also the real problem that stays intact: what is this “real” struggle? Is it a syndicalist struggle with a small supplement of soul? Is it something else? Is the circulation of images going to lead to the constitution of a camp or its illusion?
The other problem for me concerns the camera. In an ordinary struggle, the camera is normally not there, ready to film every gesture, every meeting. Its too natural presence, like the natural workers’ weight of the main character, evades a bit the elsewhere present in this struggle. It’s not a look filming the exemplarity of a workers struggle. The images are taken from a certain place that is also the one where the main actor of this struggle comes from. I agree that the militant camera shouldn’t loose itself in the problems of meta-language or feel guilty about its status, its right to be there etc. Nevertheless, the exemplarity obliges to mask the problems that are part of the constitution of this camp that the militant cinemas has to help form.
It seems to us that what legitimizes the militant cinema is the fact that the films are distributed in the factories on strike, in the places where there is no cinema, where there is a monopoly of the representation of struggle (like the union in 1968 showing La Vache et le Prisonnier (Henri Verneuil) at Renault). But in relation to a larger audience, the audience of cinema, television, the audience of gauchistes as well, we don’t know what sort of demand there is for workers representation. We have the feeling that there’s a division of work: the militant cinema shows the struggles, television the defusing, someone like Godard thinks about “how a struggle images itself” and the commercial cinema (Lily, aime moi etc) stages a playful image, proletarian demobilization. As if everyone manages in their own way the workers body.
For me, the big problem concerns the ghettos operating on the level of distribution. For example, for the supposedly revolutionary worker in the factory or on strike, there are militant films that show the workers struggles; for the supposedly petit-bourgeois worker who goes to the cinema on Saturday evening, there are films showing dimwit, fun-loving workers, with the head of Rufus for example, workers who don’t really care about the workers struggle. So the bourgeois cultural hegemony works in big part through a segregation of genres which is at the same time a segregation of audiences: heavy commercial films for the masses, light commercial films for the intellectual petit-bourgeoisy, militant films for the militants. There’s a double danger there: we inscribe ourselves in the bourgeois segregation, we live in its ghetto, but we also act as if we believe one aims at another audience than its own: just like the gauchiste press, the militant films don’t have the tendency to justify the shortcuts of their pedagogy through the affirmation that they are not aimed at intellectuals, while they still are their principal consumers.
Don’t the gauchiste words and images use as an alibi the fact that the masses don’t hear certain embellishments to confirm the simplism of the intellectuals? The import thing is to take diagonal routes, to produce for each ghetto films that shatter their genre, that provoke and displace the perception of its own audience. (Jacques) Fansten says interesting things about that in his interview with Cahiers (n° 266/267, may 1976). But obviously the destiny of his venture makes you wonder.
You have seen Ici et Ailleurs. What do you think about the way in which the question is posed how to serve a cause (or how to be useful for a cause – which is perhaps very different). And also, how to use a political cause in order to bring about (or liven up) a reflection on cinema?
I don’t know about being useful for a cause. It already has the merit of being harmful to quite a few “good” causes. It is without any doubt the only contemporary film of our political situation, arriving just in time to question the culture of the communal program. I’m thinking of the scene with this too pretty Lebanese woman who is asked by the filmmaker to redirect her head so that she would better play the role of the militant Palestinian who is happy to give a son to the revolution. There is an exact counterpart, I think, in the final scene of Le Juge et L’Assassin, in which an actrice who is also too pretty holds her head up too high to sing a too lilas-perfumed version of La Commune. Godard takes up a function that is decisive today: provoking and dividing. But I think that it’s rather useful to people than to causes. But then to who? For Ici et Ailleurs it’s undoubtedly to us more than to the Palestinians. Which usefulness?
It could be simply the kind of service that helps us not to die stupid. It could be more: the principle of a new vigilance. But then there’s still this aspect that I think is problematic, what I called his pacifism. Godard tells us that it’s shameful to take images, shameful to combine them with sounds that make them lie, shameful to tell stories, shameful to repeat the everyday violation of the representation of power. It’s true, but not the whole truth. One also has to produce images and stories, one has to divide but there also has to be a way of uniting. We cannot stay in a position of culpabilisation, a bit similar – even if it goes back to a infinitly more intelligent practice – to that of post-gauchiste political discourses, culpabilising every political action because it necessarily puts forward a power that necessarily oppresses etc.
If we don’t want to stay disarmed, we have to put forward powers, produce images and fictions that will always be a bit suspicious. We have to divide (the here and elsewhere) but also produce (condense in a certain way the here and elsewhere). This is the time for dialectics. How to divide, who unites and on the basis of what? For example, I Wouldn’t criticize La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli) for taking liberties in relation to the questioning of Godard, but I would perhaps criticize it for unifying too easily on the basis of an idea (the sweet dreams anarchy: images carried by the anarchist song) and then dividing too easily on the basis of the same idea. (closing of the dream outside of the real class struggle): we have to, in one way or another, show that this real struggle also has its closings and collapses (Union sacrée, for example*).
We have to accept Godard’s provocation and yet find ways to go beyond it. Because behind the appearance of a return to the positive (see what the Palestinian fighters whose voices we buried under our noisy ‘Internationale’ actually said, learn how to see, how to listen etc.) there is an aristocratism that is a bit suicidal.
Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).
In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts
* “André Glucksmann, former spokesperson for les ‘enragés’ of May 1968 and the Maoists of ‘La Gauche Prolétarienne’ published under the title La Cuisinièr et le mangeur (The Cook and the cannibal) the first manifesto of the so-called ‘new philosophers’ who went on to build their fame on denouncing ‘concentration-camp Marxism’ and identifying with its victims. From this side, the revolutionary people was liquidated en bloc, turned into pure embodiment of the Marxist dream of mastery, pure justification for the mass crime of the gulag. On the one hand, the denunciation of ‘master-thinker’s simply revivified the old reactionary discourse for which dreams of purity and social justice necessarily lead to the crimes of totalitarianism. But, on the other hand, the purity denounced immediately resurfaced in a new guise when Glucksmann and his colleagues opposed to ‘concentration-camp Marxism’ a plebs endowed with a constitutive virtue of resistance to the assaults of that leviathan power whose final avatar was the Soviet state. The new embodiments of the popular body that the supposed ‘new philosophers’ opposed to Marxism actually reconstituted the same dubious alliance between positive and negative on which Marxism itself lived. And once again the celebration of the suffering and struggling people served to benefit its self-proclaimed representatives. The ‘proletarian’ intellectuals speaking in the name of the builders of a new world were replaced by the new ‘dissident’ intellectuals speaking in the name of the victims of that ‘new world’.” (Rancière in Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double)
* Jan Valtin was the literary pseudonym of Richard Julius Herman Krebs. Krebs, a Soviet and German spy, was author of the best-selling Out of the Night (1940)
* L’Union sacrée (French for Sacred Union) was a political truce in France in which the left-wing agreed, during World War I, not to oppose the government or to call any strike.
* Karl Marx criticized Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris in The Holy Family (1845). Marx found Sue unintentionally making a mockery of mystery, turning character into caricature. Marx’s basic point was that although the social conditions of Paris under Louis Philippe had indeed improved, the underlying belief systems were still medieval. Whatever sympathy Sue created for the poor, he failed to come to terms with the true nature of the city which had changed little.
* The Montagnards controlled the French government during the climax of the Revolution in 1793–94
* Cinéma Retro was discussed in an interview with Michel Foucault in 1974. Pascal Bonitzer & Serge Toubiana wrote: “Lacombe Lucien, The Night Porter, Les Chinois a Paris, Le Trio infernal, etc. These films, whose avowed aim is to rewrite history, are not an isolated phenomenon. They are themselves inscribed into a history, a history in progress; they have – as we are sometimes criticized for saying – a context. This context, in France, is the coming to power of a new bourgeoisie, of a fraction of the bourgeoisie along with its ideology (Giscard, president of all the French; a more-just-andcaring society etc.), its conception of France, and of history. What goes by the name of ‘apres-gaullisme’ is also an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to rid itself of a certain heroic, nationalist but also anti-Petainist and anti-fascist image, which was still reflected if not by Pompidou, at least by de Gaulle and Gaullism. Chaban’s electoral defeat marks the end of this heroic, exaggerated and somewhat grotesque image (cf. Malraux) of recent French history. Something else is beginning to be written and represented: that France wasn’t all that anti-fascist, that the French couldn’t have cared less about Nazism, that anti-fascism and the Resistance were only ever, precisely, this derisory image of Gaullist ‘grandeur’ which is now showing its false nose. What is emerging is a cynical ideology: that of big business, of the multinational and technocratic culture that Giscard represents. The French, it is thought, are ripe for this cynicism (cynicism of the ruling class, disillusionment of the exploited classes): a cynicism illustrated, on the screen, by the phenomenon known as the ‘retro style’, i.e. the snobbish fetishism of period effects (costumes and settings) with little concern for history. This false archaeology of history had to be denounced in all its implications and all its effects. A true archaeology had to be – has to be – put in its place: the popular memory of struggles (of all forms of struggle) which has never really been able to speak – which has never had the power to do so – and which must be revived against all the forces which are constantly bent on stifling it – on silencing it once and for all.”
* Pain Noir: TV Mini-Series from 1974-1975, based on Georges-Emmanuel Clancier’s series of novels in which he told the story of his family, and his maternal grandmother, taking place in the period 1880 – 1936.
* Rancière wrote for Révoltes Logiques from 1975 to 1981. See Staging the People Volumes 1 & 2.