A tale of disappointment and struggle


“Il faudrait plutôt comprendre la totalité de ce qui s’est fait ; ce qui reste à faire. Et non ajouter d’autres ruines au vieux monde du spectacle et des souvenirs.”
– Guy Debord, Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps

”The dream is over”, a voice tells us at the end of Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge. Just a few years after the explosion of May 1968, all leftist resolve seemed to have withered away: in France, Chili, Portugal and elsewhere the revolutionary movements fizzled to rupture and defeat, in Italy and Germany the hopes of the radical left collapsed into violence and despair, in China the Cultural Revolution turned out to be a cruel failure leading to famine and chaos. And so mourning began: mourning for failed hopes, mourning for possibilities that turned in on themselves, mourning for a sense of togetherness that somehow collapsed into contorted factionalism. A mourning without end. Soon enough the energies of militant histories were overturned by some of those who had once fully embraced them: all the “children of Marx and Coca-cola” and their actions had accomplished, so they argued, was to pave the way for a rekindled capitalism, allowing our societies to become free aggregations of unbound molecules, whirling in the void, deprived of any affiliation, completely at the mercy of the law of Capital. All resistance was said to be futile, even suspect, in any case causing more harm than good: revolt could hardly change the world, it could only give rise to cruelty and catastrophe. History was identified as an enormous catastrophic ruin, continuously piling wreckage upon wreckage: the memory of the Gulag dissolved all memories of revolution, just like the memory of the Shoah gradually replaced the remembrance of antifascism. In claiming, as Alain Badiou puts it, to have “delivered us from the ‘fatal abstractions’ inspired by the “ideologies of the past'”, Western capitalism, and its political system, democratic parliamentarianism, presented themselves as a universal shield protecting us from all forms of terror and totalitarianism. “Capitalism won the battle, if not the war”, the voice says, “but in a paradoxical logic some of the staunchest opponents of Soviet totalitarianism, these men of the new Left fell into the same whirlwind.” The whirlwind continued to swirl after the fall of the Berlin wall, when the “end of utopias” signaled the retreat of social-democratic politics, the disintegration of the Soviet system and the abandonment of emancipatory movements all over the globe. And so we witnessed the arrival of “capitalist realism”: capitalism now being the only game in town, one that could hardly be called “perfect”, but could at least guarantee public freedom, free market and free choice. We begrudgingly came to admit that recuperation is the fate of all forms of revolutionary thinking: to oppose is merely to consolidate – after all, as Slavoj Žižek has provocatively pointed out, anti-capitalism is widely disseminated in capitalism itself. Rather than evolving towards a revolution that would take us beyond it – which was of course the basic assumption of Marxist thought – it was made clear for all of us that capitalism just capitalizes – it simply produces more capitalism. In the years that followed, more and more moralizing discourses trumpeted a new disaster: the excess of democratic mass individualism, resulting in an infinite drift of narcissistic consumers who care for anything else but the instant satisfaction of their own needs and desires. The same criticism that used to denounce the mythology of consumer ideologies in view of possible change started to turn on itself, trapping itself in an endless vicious circle in which the power of the market could no longer be distinguished from the power of its denunciation.

At the same time as the leftist era crumbled under the weight of historical fatality, a certain utopia of cinema was also believed to have come to an end. Serge Daney once claimed that Pasolini’s death in november 1975 marked the moment when cinema stopped playing the role of “sorcerer’s apprentice” and became a consensual landscape rather than the space for division and confrontation that it used to be. The re-politicization of cinema, whether in content or in form, associated with the upheavals and the hopes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, gave way to a general feeling of disillusionment and powerlessness. Just like the failure of the October revolution accompanied the end of the utopia of cinema as a mystical marriage between art and science, poetics and community, the implosion of the leftist dreams accompanied the dissolution of the idea of cinema as realm of discord or weapon in struggle. What was left was nothing but lost illusions, utopias gone wrong, ruins amidst the ruins. After the deluge, with the disappearance of the material reality of the struggles and the horizon that gave them meaning, the existing forms of “political” cinema could no longer be sustained. In the hour of the shortest shadow, the same procedures that previously claimed to criticize the mechanisms of injustice and exploitation by laying bare the reality beneath the surface (driven by a “passion for the real”, as Badiou would have it), were now used to interrogate this form of criticism itself. In this “cinema of between” (between one image and another, visual and sound, signified and signifier, active and passive, filming and being filmed), the question was no longer what there was to see behind the image, but rather how to find a way in, in order to create fissures and escape the endless chain of images. “The background in any image is always another image”, Jean-Luc Godard stated. Cinema became a vessel to move from one surface to another, a guiding tour demonstrating what it means to see, to hear and to think, a hall of mirrors where the spectator could catch his own gaze. But the same “radical regressism” that aimed to chirurgically deconstruct the various elements of cinematic production and reception also rendered them compatible with what Daney called, in the beginning of the 1990’s, the “infinite games of the media”. What was meant to disrupt the circulation of images, was annexed by that same circulation: “deduction, autonomization, division, humor”, once the main tools of critical cinema, had become the “catch phrases of the current landscape”. In line with the thinking en vogue at the time, Daney set forward a landscape of mass individualism where images could no longer “show” but only “signal” emotions and experiences that had already been produced elsewhere. “Images are no longer on the side of the dialectical truth of “seeing” and “showing”; they have entirely moved over to the side of promotion and advertising, which is to say the side of power.” Increasingly, wrote Daney, images only refer to themselves and no longer to anything “other”. For Jean Baudrillard, this loss of referent meant that appearance and truth could only be one and the same: ultimately every reality vanishes into image, lost amidst a potlatch of signs. In the end the critical tradition that called for an unveiling of the reality behind the surface slowly morphed into the idea that everything is surface, where, as Jacques Rancière writes, “all things are equivalent, where everything is equivalent with its image, and every image with its own lie”. The dogmatism of the hidden truth became the nihilism of the ubiquitous lie of the market: every attempt of resistance could only be recuperated as spectacle, inevitably accomplice to the reign of mass consumption.

“But we can not continue much longer on the way of desillusion”, wrote Daney towards the end of his life. Despite his growing disenchantment with the dissolution of the cinema he had cared for so much, the ciné-fils still put his wager on optimism. “Between the spectacle and the lack of images, is there a place for an ‘art of living with images’, at the same time demanding them to be ‘humanly’ comprehensive (so to know better what they are, who makes them and how, what they can do, how they retroact on the world) and keep at their core this remnant that is inhuman, startling, ambiguous, on the verge?” With Daney, we can ask: how can we regain a renewed trust in the power of the image? How can we get out of the fatalistic skepticism that the critical tradition has bestowed on us? It is clear to us now that the believe in the causal relation between affection, understanding and action that once provided the basic foundation for “political” cinema is no longer valid: the lack of any horizon of change has made sure of that. It has also become increasingly clear that the overwhelming feelings of disorientation and disappointment, the sense of something lacking or failing arising from the realization that we inhabit a violently unjust world, all too easily sweep us away into the never-ending depths of fear and nihilism. Now that cinema, being unsure of its own politics, is once again encouraged to intervene because of the absence of proper politics, the question is then how it can generate a new power of affirmation, one that is in line with the interruption of the logic of resignation evidenced by recent uprisings, one that breaks with the “febrile sterility” of the contemporary world. In a time when capitalism has colonized most of our dream life, can cinema once again become a laboratory of distant dreams, invigorating a new sense of the impossible, something to hold on to, hold on dearly? How can the defaitist melancholy of the left, which has been feeding on its own reflexive impotence for so long now, be toppled over into a re-enchantment of worlds other than the one we are experiencing today, one that is shivering from cruel injustices, growing inequalities, intolerance, insecurity, complacency, corruption, to the point of exhaustion? One thing is for sure: we cannot revert to the old refrains that we got stuck in: we are done with the idea of spectacle, we are done with the sorrow of lost illusions. We can no longer resign ourselves to ongoing disorientation as a choice of lesser evil: if – when – we decide to chase a spark of hope in the past, let’s do so in order to look for the very principles capable of remedying its impasses. When we decide to work our way towards the future, let’s do so in order to break with the pervasive monotony of the present, to rehabilitate the idea of change from its predicament as structural stagnation. Perhaps, as Badiou argues, we do need a new kind of heroism: surely not one that can be identified with the omnipresent figure of the individual warrior in the throes of destiny, or the bruised spirit stepping towards grace out of the shadow of damnation, but one assuming new symbolic forms for collective action. And perhaps this is one of the frames in which the possibilities of cinema can be thought of today: as the invention of a sensible tissue that can contribute to the constitution of a new communal trust, a sense of sharing that exceeds the limits of our social and vital determinations, leading the way to a recovery of agency and imagination. It is time for us to start exploring new countries, to put our trust in invented worlds that are not down on any map (true places never are). One of them could be “a supplementary country, called cinema.”

(image: Sylvain George, Vers Madrid (The Burning Bright)!)