How to find an image of change? It’s a question Godard brought up three decades ago. More pressingly, how to think of an image of change when change itself cannot be imagined? It’s a question in line with the perceived impasse of our consensual times. If words such as “revolution” and “dialectics” are indeed the remnants of old ways of thinking politics, if names such as “worker” and “proletariat” have indeed lost all meaning, implying a termination of the politics bound to these names, how can we even start to consider what change might actually mean in this instance? If the word “change” itself has been emptied of all revolutionary meaning, smothered in slogans such as “Change we can believe in”, “Le changement, c’est maintenant!” (Change is now) or “Veranderen om te verbeteren” (Change to improve), how can it still be used to invent another future? If, as anyone with the slightest sympathy for Marxist beliefs or convictions would tell you, transformation of society should be our prime concern, what new worlds can be brought into being? It is precisely the absence of any horizon that has plunged the Left in an immobilizing feeling of impotence, inducing an oppressive sense of melancholy and cynicism. Views on the possible future before us have turned towards the catastrophe behind us, a pile of debris incessantly growing skyward, piling wreckage upon wreckage. Any hope of an emanipatory politics has been replaced by a defeatist Realpolitik, affirming that liberal democracy and global capitalism are here to stay, no matter what. In lieu of the grand narratives of yesteryear – or rather because of the inversion of their meaning, pointing only towards the impossibility or resisting – the only thing we can seemingly do is wait, await the safety of an improbable ontological revolution, until we finally become different from what we are.
Godard made Changer d’Images (Lettre à la bien aimée) as part of the series Le Changement a plus d’un Titre, commissioned on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of François Mitterrand’s election in 1981. Although many saw this victory, hinged on an exuberant promise of “change”, as the beginning of a socialist new dawn, it turned out to be quite the opposite. The Mitterrand era came to be known as one which was characterized by consensus-oriented politics, solely in service of the integrity of the social whole and the embrace of financial globalization. This outcome was facilitated by an intellectual climate that was overtly keen on denouncing the revolutionary tradition of the Left and repenting the wreckage it had left behind. The message was clear: the utopias of emancipatory politics, whether under the guises of Marxism or Third Worldism, could only lead to catastrophe and totalitarianism. Any hope there might have been before was violently overtaken be an overwhelming sense of guilt. Not only in France, but elsewhere as well leftist dreams had been crumbling: in Germany, Italy or Japan they exploded under the weight of the violent excesses of the radical left, in Portugal the tides generated by the carnation revolution receded as fast as they had risen, national liberation struggles worldwide were being renounced and surrendered, and in the United States and Great-Britain Thatcher and Reagan were pursuing vigorous programmes of neoliberal economic policy and regressive social agendas. The leftist decade was over, that much was clear, and the dreams of the political creation of a “new man” withered soon enough, only giving way to demands for the conservation of the age-old humanity.
The end of the 1970’s not only marked the expiration of the “red years”, but also of particular forms of militant cinema, as emblematized by the work of Godard’s and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group. One of their films in particular can be considered as a testimony to this ending: the one that was supposed to be titled Jusqu’à la Victoire, but in time was given another destiny and another name: Ici et Ailleurs. According to Serge Daney this was the last time a great filmmaker joined forces with a political cause: a long period of film history came to a close. But the film also made use of the critical paradigms of that time to witness how difficult it had become to intervene with images. “There are no more simple images… the whole world is too much for an image”, Godard declared, not much later echoed by Daney: an image all too often “takes the place of a link in a chain, preventing all other images from being seen”. Godard was the one who took up the task to put a halt to the circulation, suspend representation and demonstrate its falsehood. The screen was turned into a blackboard, teaching us how to see what there is (just an image) and imagine what is missing (a just image, arguably). But this art of criticism also turned out to be a labor of mourning. Looking back at this period of widespread Althusserian critique, Jacques Rancière wrote : “as if we had started wanting to read and see, started learning to read and see only when such things were entirely taken up in the system of shock and interpretation and already had no more importance.” As indicated in Daney’s last texts, the same forms of critique that claimed to disrupt the circulation of images, might have just been annexed by that circulation. In a sense, Godard’s film already came come too late: criticism was already inherent in the image, affected as it was by a overhanging sense of distance and irony. Perhaps, in all its eagerness to look behind, it forgot to look aside, ending up conforming to the established system of places.
What could an image of change be for those who grew up after the 1970’s, when the bitter end of the revolutionary era accompanied a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image? “The current skepticism”, writes Rancière, “is the result of a surfeit of faith. It was generated by the disappointed belief in a straight line between perception, affection, comprehension and action.” It now appears that mourning is not only Godard’s sensibility, it is also ours. For those of us who “came after”, a search for grounding and orientation commonly seems to result in a fascination for the dreams and energies of this past revolutionary era. It is no coincidence that numerous artists and filmmakers have recently been staging installations, performances and films as nostalgic tributes to a time when there was still something to fight for, and the image was still something to fight with. The optimistic interpretation of this renewed interest could be that there is still life left in the power of these dreams, even though there’s no way of escaping the truism that we are living in a very different world. Perhaps some of these accounts and fictions can act as potential sources of inspiration, historical poems that gives us new courage in a time of deep despair. Or else, they can give insight in the mechanisms that led to cruel failures: ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better. But by any means, let’s try to get rid of any petrifying sense of guilt and mourning. Let’s get rid of the assumptions that images can act as instruments of change, by rendering visible that which is already recognized as possible. There can be no image of change, for the simple reason that change cannot be anticipated, nor can it be identified. However, what could be subject to change is the configuration of what is visible and invisible, thinkable and unthinkable, as a rupture with the very logic of the system of identification, keeping us in our place. And what this change could bring into being is the invention of a new landscape of the possible. Let’s be done with it: an image of change can never be fully captured. In the end, it might be just another commonplace to cancel out the art of the impossible.