Sensible speech


By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘La parole sensible’ in Cinéma, n°5, 2003. This text is a transcription of a lecture given on November 2001 in Nantes, at the invitation of ‘La vie est à nous’.

Operai, Contadini engages with a certain idea of sensibility and the sensible essence of art. In order to try to define it, let us begin with the beginning: in front of us we have immobile characters, who will all stay that way except for one of them, who we will see leaving the field of vision. On one occasion, another character promptly lifts his arm in the air to accentuate a word. Otherwise, their hands are generally occupied holding a notebook, their eyes often lowered towards this books, of which we wonder if they are actually reading it. In any case the book is there to call to mind the centrality of the text. Furthermore, the characters hardly ever look at each other, even when responding. They keep their eyes on the book. And when they do raise them, their gaze, turned to us and not to their companions, is generally directed slightly above the normale line of gaze projection.

So the sensorial dispositif of the film essentially consists of things being said, voices saying them, a distribution of bodies in space, and finally what we could call the frame: the place – the clearing of a forest – the games of light and shadow, the sounds of leaves or the singing of birds.

The things being said generally speak about sensorial elements. The history – if there is one – of this community of workers and farmers is recounted by the characters through small stories of frost, milk or light – of the stars or electricity – or blows and fights. The community is called by its chief, Faccia Cattiva, “the good thing”, and this good thing is constantly presented as an entirely physical thing.

To this idea corresponds a certain poetics, an aesthetic poetics, which is to say anti-representative: it’s about transforming a story in a presentation of significant or privileged moments. From Vittorini’s book Le donne di Messina, containing 82 chapters, the Straubs have only extracted four chapters composing these accounts. In the fictional economy of the book, the narrator is absent during wintertime and the famers tell him how it went after his return. But in these chapters, Vittorini himself has been conducted by something else than the only fictional logic. He didn’t really need to make this connection, but he has used it to inject the heart of the narrative with a sort of poem in prose. The Straubs have radicalized this displacement by substituting the narrative sequence with this selection of privileged moments which speak for themselves, or which have to show directly the sensible force of what is being said. They have clearly opposed a poetics of fiction with a poetics of embodiment.

We can see why there is this rejection of fiction. Fiction, in the traditional sense of the word, with its beginning, middle and end, is condemned to always having to end, nolens volens, but in any case to finish, to reject all of which is spoken about in the past, in the “having-been”. Compare this film to another one based on a similar story about a community: Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia, in which we witness the birth, the life and death of an utopian community in Brasil. In the Straub’s work, nothing begins, nothing ends. The blocs of embodiment are there for ever. This position in regards to fiction is also a political choice. Operai, Contadini speaks about one of the communities we tend to call utopian. However, an utopia is by definition what is destines to give way to the real and end up badly. And in Vittorini’s book things end just like in Comolli’s film: the community explodes as soon as it comes in contact with the external world, the real world, with politics and history. At the end of the book, the hunters arrive and recount what happens in the Italy of 1945: there is the Republic, the elections, and the people will find that it is possibly more interesting than their stories of milk and cheese… Yet the Straubs refuse this politico-poetic scenario. Their community has no history, it only has moments, and any of these moments holds the global force of the community. We can say that this film is a communist film, presenting communist moments in which its real is never confronted with another real that would be its exterior referent. Which means that these moments are for ever.

This poetic and political choice of presenting sensible blocs instead of a narrative rests on a paradox: these sensible moments themselves only exist as reports in the form of narratives. But perhaps the word “narrative” (récit) has to be put into question in the context of this film. Because the talking bodies it presents are not informers, who have to connect the unknown with the known. Even when they speak about having-been, the film does not at all take the form of an inquiry in which a puzzle has to be put together. They are not narratives of the community but communist voices, bodies giving voice to the community while giving voice to these things being said. Everything has to pass through the force of what is being said: the snow and the frost, the ray of light produced by the work of the community, the blows given to the deserter Spine, or the preparation of ricotta. Everhing has to pass directly via speech, which has to equal the force of these moments of community.

But this direct passage via speech can not come about in the classical way: by an appriopriate choice of expression producing the impact of sentiment or sensation. We could imagine the phrases being spoken in a tone of tenderness or anger, horror or nostalgia. But this is eschewed here. The passage of the sensible of the community to the sensible of speech doesn’t occur in the unity of an expression or a system of signs, instead it operates by dividing the speech in two. The speech does not express the sentiment of what is being said, it rather accounts for its sensible force. And it does so by dividing.


In this film, essentially a film of speech reminding us that cinema is also an art of speech, this is actually twofold: there is lyrical speech and dramatic speech. Lyrical speech attests to what we could call the fundamental tone of the community – an expression which has a heideggerian resonance, but this resonance is also in the film. Dramatic or dialectical speech attests to an agnostic mode, the essential nature of the community, which is to say its divided nature. Speech, in the poetic economy of the Straubs, is communist because it at the same time unites and opposes these two poetic registers: a lyrical register, which is the expression of the common as common, and a dramatic or dialectical register which is the expression of the common as divided or marked by division.

At first sight it is the second aspect that seems to impose itself here: in this film we have the impression that we are seeing a well-known political scenario (at least for the generation of the Straubs and myself): the contradiction at the heart of the people. Here it takes on three figures: firstly, workers and farmers, meaning the worker’s activities of construction, concrete and electricity against the earthly obedience to the laws of nature; secondly, masses and avant-garde: the masses responding to the everyday of suffering and insufficiency, the avant-gardes dealing with the future of the community; thirdly, men and women: the women claiming their intellectual and sexual autonomy opposite or alongside the men who make them either into objects of desire, or mirrors to admire their own image in.

A lot of the progressist fictions function by drawing episodes and affects from the game of these three contradictions, to which often is added a fourth one, opposing the proletariat to the lumpen-proletariat or the marginal. But what happens here? On one side, the Straubs radicalize the thing. There is a distribution of voices, of groups, of postures that we recognize materially and on the terrain the contradictions and their terms: we first see the group of famers and the one of the workers responding (without looking at eachother), then a group of managers responding to the masses, from a separated space, itself divided into two groups, each one marked by the division men/women. But in this visual dramatization of things, there is at the same time a gap in regards to the progressist fiction that plays on the affect of contradiction and in which division is often presented as a misfortune of history, an fatal absence of synchronism. There is division because the farmers are not advanced enough – technologically as well as ideologically – to be able to follow the worker’s dynamics or, inversely, the workers are not advanced enough politically to recognize what is positive in the farmer’s prudence. The division is the misfortune, due to the fact that the whole world doesn’t march at the same rhythm. It is a sort of essential delay.

Here, in return, the division is principal: it is logical, axiomatic. The division in the heart of the people is not an accidental phenomenon, or a sign of immaturity, a fatality of history. But the subject-people is as if defined by division, evinced by it. There are artists and filmmakers of the people that are missing, according to Deleuze’s formula. This is exemplary the case for Godard. In Straubs’ films, the people are present, but present as what divides them, what evinces them by upholding themselves in the affirmation of their division, by contending this division. Of course, there is still something of the old dialectical formula according to which “one divides in two”, but here it also means, and more an more vigorously, that the one is evinced by the two. This communist people, going through communist moments, evinces itself by its division. Operai, Contadini, the title of the film, is also the beginning of the last verse of the Internationale: Workers, farmers, we are / The great party of the workers. In this film, this comma between workers and farmers becomes a co-presence on the mode of conflict, or a conflict on the model of co-presence. Which is to say that division is a matter of logic affirmation: here there are no bodies living the contradiction, suffering from it, as in la Cecilia, but rather bodies contending it. They occur in a dialectical, materialised dispositif, which has a double effect. Each group contends its quarrel with the other, or contends it in a internal way (in the case of the last two), but each one attests at the same time to the reality of the gathering mentionned by Faccia Cattiva, the reality of the communist people. It attests to it in front of a third party, suggested by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet as the vis-à-vis of their gazes, when raised. In their text, this third party has four names, all followed by an interrogation mark: the judge? Investigator? Spectator? God? We could even add a fifth: history as instance of spectator-judge-investigator-God pronouncing the fact that it has been, which is to say it is dead, and who judges that what is dead deserved to die.

The line of gaze, always slightly raised, is adressed to the spectator-judge of history. This is how poetics is reconciled with politics. Refusing the traditional fiction also means refusing this judgement of history, while at the same time setting up a counter-process. The disputants contend together against this “witness” who pronounces in the name of history the judgement on what has been. This imaginary instance who says what is dead and that if it’s dead, it means it had to die, is here defied by the affirmation of a “this has been, we maintain that it has been, so it is.” Hence the central importance of the character of Carmela, who counts, over-articulating, those who come and go, her eyes always fixed on her text or absent-minded. This voice keeping count acts as a sort of stubborn bass of the film: a film keeping count itself, correcting the count.

This is how the one is evinced by the two: the game of affirmation continues, which reminds us of this verse of Mallermé’s Prose pour des Esseintes: “Nous fûmes deux, je le maintiens.” Even if in the film the logic is very different, there is still something that says: “we were divided, so we maintain”. Significantly, the character of the worker saying “no, there is no dissension” is the one who we see leaving the field of vision altogether.

But the quarrel tends to change meaning itself. Originally, the dispositif of the dialectical discussion had a Brechtian tonality in the Straubs’ work: in History Lessons, just as in the other films inspired by Brechtian pedagogy, the display of arguments took on the value of an exercise. The dialectical exercise had a recognisable imaginary destination: the young revolutionary in need of exercising his aptitude to apprehend the contradictions of speech in order to apprehend the political and social contradictions. Such is the case in films like Fortini – Cani or Dalla Nube alla Resistenza. However in Operai, Contadini, as in Sicilia!, the addressed spectator is not an imaginary militant who needs to be schooled by dialectics. It is rather the sceptic, the judge, who has pronounced on all this the verdict “utopia”, the point of view of history. In regards to this spectator, this judge, the contradiction evinces existence, more than an exercise schooling a dialectical mind.

This evidence, this communist affirmation proposed by the film passes, as I’ve said, through a relation between two forces of language; lyrical speech and dramatic speech: there are bodies contending division, on the basis of a common affirmation, of a common force of speech.


It is clear that the common speech of the farmers is not the voice of the farmers. This was already the case in Vittorini’s book, which doesn’t bear any trace of accentuation of a way of speaking which is characteristic of a specific group. But here the choral distribution of quarrels and the voicing (mise en voix) of the text reinforce this affirmation of a common property of language. Bodies never express any trait of expression particular to workers, women, etc. In their eyes or in their gestures, they never mime what the texts recount or their inherent sentiments. They are bodies bearing voices; they attest to what the text says and the common force of its writing. The mouth takes on an remarkable importance. What we see is first of all the work of the mouth articulating every syllable, every wording of the quarrel. It’s the way in which the farmers over-articulate and make the sobriquets and reproaches of the opposing clan resonate. But this articulation had to render the syllables as sensorial as the blocs of ice, the ricotta or the aroma of burning laurel leaves of which they are talking. The traditional expressive mimetic is opposed with a sort of equivalence or equality of intensity. This is particularly perceptible in the case of the widow Biliotti or Carmela: each time the mouth has to make an effort to keep the speech at the level of the experience, at the communist level of language. This is, I think, the meaning of these eyes so often lowered to the book which they don’t really seem to read.

This supposes a unique intervention in the text, not consisting of adding or removing words, but of correcting them in setting up a lyrical disposition. Danièle Huillet has translated Vittorini’s continuous description in prose into a poem in verses, which have to resonate a bit like a translation of Sophocles by Hölderlin or of Aeschylus by Claudel. Thus the voice has to adapt to the exigencies of the poem: exigency of the perpetual upswing of the voice, of adhesion to every word, of equality between intensity of experience being said and verbal intensity. The disposition in verse creates numerous breaks in the phrases, or breaks in the middle of the verse itself. These breaks can be very spectacular, like when the widow Biliotti conveys the worker’s accusations to the farmers (e Fischio venne urlando / che noi contadini / avevamo in testa / di fare la strage degli innocenti) or when Elvira, for the workers “deserters”, evokes these white kitchens they have never known (di cucine bianche / in cui mai siamo entrate). To this is often added the force of indirect discourse, where every part of the phrase becomes an autonomous affirmation: there is an autonomisation of each intensity, a constant relation between dramatic speech and lyrical speech, debative speech and speech that is intensive, equal, common.

It is interesting to confront this use of speech with two other ones. It is first of all opposed to the classical representative tradition according to which languages are assigned according to the dignity of the characters: grand language for the eminent character , shallow language to the minor one. But it also opposed to the counter-tradition, which counters this hierarchy with a cultural model (popular culture versus elevated language), or opposes the arts of making or living, designated as popular, to the arts of language designated as those of the dominant. Here such an opposition is untenable. The quarrel of the dominated is asserted in an equal language. And the savoir-faire of the people is not asserted in a popular idiom but in the language of poetry. Virgilius is already called upon by Vittorini and the Straubs do so even more. Their method disrupts the opposition between the arts of supposedly noble language and the supposedly popular arts of savoir-faire and savoir-vivre. Here there is a short circuit that puts the arts of popular living in direct relation with the grand art of speech. That is how the voice most in line with “classical tragedy” is given to the widow Biliotti, the character designated the most (woman/farmer) as belonging to a world of the dominated.

Following this tension of speech, the curve of the film, starting from situations of quarrel, goes more and more towards affirmations of sensible and shared fulfillment, culminating in the evocation of the preparation of ricotta, of the community of pleasure that it supposes – which is also the pleasure of the community to which it gives rise (behold the intensity of narratives speaking about fire, laurels, sharing). This implies the passage from a dramatic tonality to a lyrical one, from Brechtian quarrel to Virgilian idyll around ricotta and laurel leaves. This passage principally comes about through the relation of equivalence that is constructed between apparent contradictions; the famers savoir-faire of the fabrication of cheese and the capacity of life spoken in noble language. Between the ricotta, its sharing, and the eloquent speech, the film establishes the same relation as between the cantate of Bach opening and closing the film, between the presto chords, the striking assonances and the force of words: Es schallet kräftig fort und fort / Ein h¨chst erwünscht Verheissungswort / Wer glaubt, soll selig werden.

Between the intensity of speech and the intensity of the communist experience it recounts, the film searches for a identical accord to the one that links the force of Bach’s music to the force of the promise the cantate expresses. The equal aptitude to the fabrication of ricotta and the grand poetic speech renews an experience that was already present in the mother-son episode in Sicilia! Against the son-investigator-inquisitor, the speech of the mother affirmed an equivalence between a savoir-faire (the prepartion of a grilled fish), an affirmation of sexual liberty, and a dignity of speech: there was also an intensity and amplitude which became more and more powerful in the speech of the mother at the moment when she told the son how she had been unfaithful to his father. A equivalence was constructed between the grandness of speech, a pride of possession of her body and the glorification of the socialist grandfather leading the cavalcade of Saint Joseph: equivalence beween a popular art of the body and the most elevated resources of language.


In the same way, Operai, Contadini passes from dialectical game to direct affirmation, a direct lyrical force of communism: affirmation of a popular pride, a proud speech in which the political audacity of subverting the order of the world and history is on equal par with the savoir-faire of elementary things. Even though the assembly of the two takes on an almost sacramental dimension. This affair of preparation, of sharing and degustation of ricotta takes on the quality of a celebration of the people.

One has to talk about the mythological dimension of the film. Here once more, this is first of all a sensorial affair. It starts with the decor: this forest with the ravine in which farmers and workers are confronted, the fringe where the group of “managers” tears itself apart; the sun, exposing the last trio, continuously shifting place in the ravine, shining on a shoulder, a character, making its radiance coincide with a voice’s, before gliding to the side to shine its light on wild grass, dead leaves, rocks or foam. Our attention is split between things spoken from the lips of the speakers and the light events dancing in their necks or on dead leaves. There are all these sounds continuously meddling with words or punctuating silences; bird songs, insects drones, the screams of a rooster in the distance etc. This is what is always so striking in a Straubs film: it starts a bit like a lot of films, with little birds and water sounds. But in ordinary films, it only serves to create an ambiance of euphoria that has to preside over the film’s viewing: in short, a sensible captatio benevolentiae. In the Straubs work, on the contrary, it continues, it never comes to a halt. Nature is something other than a repertoire of uplifting effects. It is a phystical, metaphysical and mythological force. Here, in particular, it is three things at the same time; it is the ante of debate (up until what point can we interfere with it in our attempts to institute a better human order?), at the same time it is its arbiter, invoked by the parties; and it is also, for those who see the light shifting and the bird singing without caring much for the speakers and their expressive needs, the mute force, indifferent to the debate.

The text of the cantate speaks about an “inconceivable light”. It is the light of God and grace. But the film proposes a more literal translation; the inconceivable light is that which does not depend on a concept, carrying out its work without caring about what is being thought and spoken, and continuing to shine here and there, just like the water continues to stream and the birds continue to sing. Nature is what does not stop, but also what does not stop erasing traces. On one side, it is the non-human force that scoffs at what is being said and done. And this is translated in the film by the ambiguity of its manifestation: when we hear the distant shriek of a rooster, at the moment when someone evokes the deserters, we can think that it serves as a symbol of derision and betrayal. But in fact, this shriek belongs to a continuity of nature that doesn’t care for what is being said and whatever can be symbolized by a rooster’s scream.

On one side, an indifferent nature, but also a nature-ante: this is what is at stake in the debate between workers and farmers: what audacity we can take towards it. There is the audacity of the sons of fire, de mechanic constructors and the electricians who would prefer, very much like nature, to never stop. Opposite, there is the cautiousness of the men of the earth, the farmers, who would like community life to follow the rhythm of peace and quiet and the earth’s activity. The conflict at the heart of the people becomes a conflict of elements, a mythological quarrel of fire and earth. Behind Vittorini’s text, we find a dramaturgy of pride of men, who’ve wanted to seize nature’s secrets and energies, force it to be completely active, completely at their disposal. We hear other texts the Straubs have used earlier: Dialogues with Leuco, in which the communist Pavese charged history from the rear while recovering the weight of mythe and the inhuman; Hölderlin’s drama’s of Empedocles with Oedipus challenging the sun god or Antigone dealing with the underground gods. In evoking Hölderlin, we could also evoke his favored reader, Heidegger. I don’t know what kind of relation the Straubs have with him, but I am struck by the way in which their dramaturgy tends to recode the Marxist dialectical schema in a game of oppositions of a Heideggerian sort: that is what the disposition of places conveys: clearing of the “Open”, where the chiefs set up their camp, withdrawing from the ravine where the masses are. As in Heidegger, the reality of conflicts can be translated in a metaphysical war of elements, leading up to a position of defense of the earth.

Story of salvation, in any case. The difference is that for Heidigger only a God can save us. In the Straubs work a more complex game is set up around the cantate and the speech of promise. To the devine promise they continue to oppose a human promise and a promise that has already been achieved. One shouldn’t say, like in the cantate, that the one who believes will be saved. One should say: the one who believes is saved. He is saved in the eternity of a here and now of maintained experience, having become the speech of life. This way the movement of the film leads us from the process to a new celebration, to the affirmation of a salvation that is already there and of which the force is affirmed, in the final crescendo, in passing from the evocation of a fire of laurel leaves to this grand ascending panorama that leaves us in the overture of reconciled elements and a communism elevated to a dimension of eternity.


Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translations).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts