Rancière and Cinema


How to get a grip on Jacques Rancière’s approach to cinema? Here’s a few pointers, as a modest attempt to put some of his thinking in perspective.

The look of Cinephilia

Where to start? For Rancière, cinema has been an object of interest on different moments of his life. His output ranges from his first interview in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1976 (on the notions of popular memory and the “fiction de gauche”), via his own series of writings for the same magazine between 1998 and 2001, to the publication of La Fable cinématographique (2001) and Les écarts du cinéma (2011). But his affection can be traced even further, going back to the 1960’s, when he was taken in by the wave of cinephilia churning in the Parisian ciné-clubs and Langlois’ Cinémathèque. As Rancière has recounted on numerous occasions, the cinephile passions not only exploded in the midst of the political upheavals that were spreading all over France and elsewhere, but also at the moment when the perception of art was shifting: with the arrival of what he has called the “aesthetic regime” the cultural hierarchies had been disrupted, and at that time the dominant modes of thinking and writing about art were being drastically revised. Cinephilia, as a movement of autodidactic “amateurs” and critics driven by a passionate love for cinema, radically dispensed with the categories of artistic modernity and the traditional hierarchical divisions between popular culture and high art. For them, the output of the European Nouvelle Vagues had no more or less value than the Hollywood products of filmmakers such as Walsh, Minnelli or Mann, or the Japanese cinema of Mizoguchi or Ozu. In completely overthrowing the regular system of legitimization, cinema was made into an art by its spectators themselves, not through a canonization process cultivated by academic or cultural institutions but by the critical appreciation of passionate enthusiasts devoid of any cultural legitimacy. The importance of this movement for Rancière can not be underestimated: by shifting their attention from either the purely plastic aspects of cinema (as celebrated by Jean Epstein and others) and the dramatic developments of the story lines (as advanced by Hollywood’s dream machine), to this strange interconnection between the affect of plots and stories and the splendor of images and sounds, between a recognizable social world and a mythological reign of shadows, the cinephiles pointed out the essential impurity of cinematic art. The cinephile look essentially consisted in taking in consideration the metamorphic power of moving images, the capacity of performing different roles and belonging to several possible worlds at the same time, constantly shifting from one sensible universe to another, as if each representation of a sensible world contained another sensible world. The vague concept of “mise-en-scène” might initially have been largely introduced to obfuscate the intrinsic heterogeneity of cinema, but perhaps, argues Rancière, it is on the contrary more interesting to tie it up with this metamorphic power. Rather than solely ascribing each film to a unique vision of the world, he then chooses to consider the cinematic experience as a perpetual negotiation between what is flickering on the screen and what is done with it.

The Emancipated Spectator

What can be done with cinema? Rancière has always situated himself in the position of amateur, which he considers to be a political and theoretical position, a way of dispensing with the authority of self-appointed specialists by reexamining the ways in which the borders of their domains intersect with the crossroads of experience and knowledge. In many ways, cinema is the domain of the amateur par excellence: it belongs to all those spectators, needless of any particular skillset or training, who are able to re-invent films at each viewing, mixing their own singular perceptions with fleeting memories and wandering dreams. Because cinema itself belongs to the reign of shadows: the spectral realities and fleeting forms on the screen can never be fully grasped, not in their singularity nor in their succession – they can only be sensed. Each viewing of a film constitutes a sensation of an aleatory, enigmatic apparition – which is perhaps what Godard meant when he said that cinema is not an art but a mystery – that takes form in front of our very eyes, and keeps on lingering in the theatre of our memory. It is up to us all to make sense of these forms of existence and set out our own adventurous path through the cinematic landscape, adding to cinema as a world of perceptions, affects and meanings, and keep on exploring it by continuously expanding its borders. The importance of cinephelia, even today, consists in reviving films through writing and talking about them, constantly negotiating between the films themselves and any existing mental images of those films. True, the access to cinema might have changed drastically in recent times, as has the notion of memory, but it can still be said that be cinema only acquires significance through what can be said and thought about it. We all see, feel, understand something in as much as we compose our own cinematic poem. Rancière considers this participatory role of the spectator as an important characteristic of the aesthetic regime of art: because the effect of the aesthetic can never be anticipated, it calls for spectators acting as active interpreters, rendering their own translation, appropriating the story for themselves, and ultimately crafting their own story out of it. This poetic labour of translation and counter-translation through the power of associating and dissociating – in the words of Joseph Jacotot: “learn something and relate everything else to it” – is at the heart of what Rancière calls “intellectual emancipation”, which always begins with challenging oppositions between active and passive, appearance and reality, viewing and knowing. Cinema, precisely because it is not an established language, because it escapes any systematic order of knowledge, as the living art of the democratic age, particularly lends itself to the method of emancipation: looking always also means acting.

Politics of Aesthetics

What does aesthetics mean? For Rancière the term does not refer to a certain idea of the beautiful or a category of art, nor does it align with a certain sensibility. Rather, it is a certain modality, or what Rancière calls a “distribution of the sensible”. This idea can be traced back to at least two texts that have framed the space of aesthetics: Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment on one hand, Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man on the other. In the first Kant defined the object of aesthetic judgment as neither an object of knowledge nor an object of desire; aesthetic apprehension, he argued, rather implied a disconnection from the habitual, socially determined conditions of sensible experience. In the political translation made by Schiller this neither/nor was interpreted as the dismissal of the opposition between those who know and those who desire, between Plato’s class of intelligence and class of sensation. To aesthetics then, corresponds a certain politics, which should not be understood, à la Benjamin, in terms of “the deduction of the aesthetic and political properties of a form of art from its technical properties”, but rather as a way in which aesthetic experience intervenes in the dominant distribution of the sensible that defines the world we live in: the way it is visible and understandable to us, and the capacities and incapacities that reveal themselves accordingly. This intervention takes the form of a neutralization of oppositions between capacities and classes, which can however not be equated with pacification: on the contrary, it stages a certain excess, bringing about a more radical way of considering antagonisms. This is what Rancière calls “dissensus”, meaning a disturbance of the normalized relation between sense and sense, between sensation and signification. In this way, the aesthetic paradigm radically breaks with Aristotle’s representative model: an art work no longer simply makes recognizable, by its resemblance, something that exists outside of it, nor does it correspond to a functional or narrative arrangement of actions in keeping with causes and effects, or means and ends. Not only the logic of representational mediation is ruined, but also that of ethical immediacy, according to which there is a certain continuity between the texture of an artistic work and its efficiency, between the performance of living bodies and its effect on other bodies: art fuses with life, politics and aesthetics vanish together in Ethics. Against all that, according to Rancière, It is precisely the art of mise-en-scène that embodies the whole logic of the aesthetic regime, the way in which the representational and ethical models are doubled, thwarted and overturned by the powers of disconnection and substraction, by means of visual reframings or aberrant, atopic wanderings imposed by characters. “The aesthetic work”, he writes, “has taken the place of the work that would achieve either the law of its medium or the law of pure sensation.”

Cinematic Fables

Is cinema an aesthetic art? It is, but not only. The characteristics of this regime of art – identity of active and passive, elevation of anyone and everything to the dignity of art, a kind of de-figuration that extracts a tragedy in suspense from the dramatic action – are indeed the properties Epstein once attributed to cinema. But it wasn’t for long before the dream of a “cinegraphic art” as the pure writing of light and movement was hijacked by the doctrines of the dream machine, restoring it to the rules of the representational mode. Since then cinema is caught in the tension between the representative and the aesthetic logics. This is where Rancière brings in the idea of the “fable”, as a way to think about this constant ambivalent play of exchanges between the two: between the illustration of a story and its suspension, between the verisimilitude of action and the aimlessness of life, between the fable in the Aristotelian sense, as a dramatic and coherent progression of actions in which the intelligible is contained in the sensible, and the cinema dreamed up by Epstein, as a continuous movement made up of an infinity of micro-movements, in which the sensible and the intelligible remain undistinguished. These two modes are normally used in a complementary way in order to provide a double testimony to the logic of the action and the effect of the real, in a continuous game between effects of recognition and of revelation. But Rancière is more interested in works that open up these gaps and renegotiate their distances and proximities, something that he sees as already present in the most classical of cinematographic forms – in the films of Anthony Mann or Nicolas Ray, for example – but that he today mainly seems to encounter in documentary films. These have the advantage of not having to attest to the real, of not having to create the “as if” of the real of fiction: conversely, when the real is supposedly given, its problem can be invented, allowing more radical experiments with the variable game between action and life, significance and insignificance. They can be made into “fictions of the real”, as Rancière has called them, referring to works by Chris Marker, Claude Lanzmann and Jean-Luc Godard, which he considers to be “new forms of fiction of the aesthetic age”, able to “deploy better than all illustrators of made up stories the polyvalence of images and signs, the potential difference between values of expression – between the image that speaks and the one that silences, between the speech that conjures up an image and the one that is simply enigmatic.” But these new forms of fiction can also be found in the work of Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami or Bela Tarr, filmmakers who have been conducting singular explorations of the divide between a cinema of artificial appearance and one of unblemished presence, between an art of movement and one of contemplation. These are filmmakers who are rerouting the roads paved by cinematic traditions towards new horizons, overturning the genres and logics of cinematographic art, and offering resistance to the dominating modes of visibility and the normalized relations between what is seen, heard and understood. In contrast to the tendency bemoaning the end of cinema, Rancière persists in defending the capacity of cinema to reinvent itself, swimming against the tide of consensus. As the title of one of his pieces states: “And cinema continues”.

Wisdom of the surface

Cinema continues, but where to? It has to be said here that Rancière’s approach to cinema owes a lot to his love for literature, especially for the work of authors such as Mallarmé, Conrad, Rilke and Flaubert, which can be considered as emblematic of the art of the aesthetic age. It is in the attention they assign to the molecular equality of micro-events – of which he observed consonant sensibilities during his research in worker’s archives – that Rancière has found the model for his consideration of possible transformations in the landscape of the sensible. In the work of these authors the equality of all subject matter, of everything that comes to pass on the surface, available for everyone to see, hear and sense, negates any relationship of necessity between a determined form and a determined content. Everything speaks: speech is bestowed on all the things of the world, a “mute” speech that no longer aims to instruct or persuade, but that communicates sheer intensity without rhyme or reason. As if the sensible becomes foreign to itself, extricated from its ordinary connections, freed from the empire of meanings. In this way the “splendor of the insignificant” dismantles all the hierarchies that are characteristic of the representative logic, between the distinctive and indistinctive, proper and improper, poetic and prosaic. It is this “indifference” that Rancière also holds dear in cinema: “the adventures of matter lurking beneath the subjects of figuration, the glimmer of the epiphany and the splendor of pure reasonless being glowing just beneath the conflict of wills”. Everywhere, he claims, thought is at work in the very inertia of things. He has called it the “wisdom of the surface”, a term he has used to question the dominant paradigms surrounding the relation between politics and cinema. The surface, he argues, can no longer be considered as something to look behind or beyond in search for the secret depths of truth (Marxist critical tradition), nor is it the superficial space where the image converges with its own lie (Debord / Baudrillard): rather, the surface is a certain distribution of the sensible, a place where a process of transformation can occur that changes the coordinates of the given. Cinema, he writes, “has to consent to be nothing but the surface where the experience of those who have been relegated to the margins of economical circulations and social trajectories, can be organized in new figures.” The political potential of cinema then lies in singular inventions of figures of condensation: figures at the same time given as shimmering shadows and as recognizable characters, figures that can stand in front of their destiny and receive a new power from the glimmering of light and color, the resonance of speech and rhythm, the wanderings of bodies and gazes. It is a politics of aesthetics that Rancière distinguishes in the work of filmmakers such as Pedro Costa and Sylvain George, which does not propose strategies of radical subversion or dialectical demonstration, but rather a poetics of small ruptures in the texture of the sensible; which does not consist of denouncing a certain situation of injustice, but of bringing about the capacity of those who are living through that situation; which does not search for some kind of synthesis of the materialism of their mise-en-scene and the historical materialism of Marxism, but for a sensible materiality of concrete forms, words and bodies that is in concordance with the capacity of anyone and everyone. Their poetics does not assume a determined link between cause and effect, or an efficient bond between revelation and mobilization, it suggests another kind of “efficiency”, one that sidesteps the dilemma of representational mediation and ethical immediacy and has to content itself with a loss of destination, inviting us to reframe the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. Perhaps this is where the singular power of Rancière’s work on cinema lies: in making us rethink the conjunction of mute speech and organized actions, and renounce the traditional borders between document and fiction, “political” film and “pure” cinema, cinema and the other arts, we are encouraged to explore new roads and forays through the cinematic landscape, rendering a necessary fresh outlook on the coordinates of the possible.