Mark Images


By Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana.

Originally published as ‘Présentation‘, Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 268-269, the introduction of a special issue dedicated to “Images de Marque” (July-August 1976).

1. A “mark image” first of all makes sense in advertising. A product that doesn’t associate itself with an image is a product that sells badly or not at all. The absence of the mark itself has to be marked out in order to be seen (“here’s washing powder x”). We have always suspected that the publicitary cinema wasn’t the unworthy margin of cinema, but its truth. The dominant cinema, as they say, is most of all aimed at the management of “mark images”. It’s the one of the sponsor (financier), the benchmark (taken for real) of the good cause (to serve once more) or the parent company (“you can find everything in store x”). The dominant cinema only makes publicity for its off-screen.

2. A “mark image” makes (more and more) sense in politics. A minister who doesn’t associate him or herself with an image is a hopeless scandal (it’s the function of polls to watch over it). A cause without images isn’t only ignored, it’s lost. The big scandal, in the eyes of the Europeans, is not that there might be massacres in Cambodia, it’s the audacity of a small country deemed cynical for not feeding its images to the chains that were set up to cancel them out in the first place. And in these chains, the ones of the globalizing media, the watchword is always the one used by the first policeman arriving on the scene: circulate! The Cambodian silence echoes another scandal: Munich 72, the Palestinians taking advantage of the existence of a global stage to make something heard. A frail sound, judging by the consensus (tacit, without images), that risks accompanying the elimination of the Palestinians and their cause (today, 10 July 1976, new attack on the camp of Tell-el Zaatar, without images).

3. The mark is “the sign used to recognize something, to distinguish it from something else, to identify a function”, but it’s also “the trace that a bruise or a blow leaves on the body”. The image marks (it has a power and force in and of itself) but is marked in return (it bears traces of forces, of power that wants to make use of it). Its future as an image? Becoming, in the dreadful circulation of signs, an abutment, an emblem, a signature, a stimulus. Solidified power, a node of domination. Its function? Taking the place of a link in a chain, preventing all other images from being seen.

4. Taking images, arranging them in chains, reducing them, is, as we know, the function of the media. But perhaps we still have naive ideas about that. The first observation made by those who look at, for example, press photographs, is that those pictures are – paradoxically – scarce, timidly or underused. It’s one thing to observe that the power (whatever it is) is eager to install, to strengthen its monopoly on images (taking, circulating, archiving them), it’s another to conclude that it knows how to subject them, manipulate them to its benefit, making them speak for it. Images are – in contrast to an idea that is quite widespread on the Left – for the moment at least, rather frightening the whole world. And if “the audiovisual” (a rather shaky and vague category, coming from above) takes part in the mechanisms of power, it’s rather by making us, every day more and more, blind (only capable of ruminating on what we have seen before) and deaf (for all what is not on the level of the automatic answering machine).

5. What is true of state power, is as true of the parties that have their heart set on the management of that state (and its cultural and information apparatus). At a time when the monopoly of imaging the history of the “people of France” and its social struggles comes back to the filmmakers situated in the Leftist union movement, it seems important to examine under which conditions, on which terrain, this monopoly could play out. It was therefore necessary to bring out the dominant traditional trait of French cinema, which is amnesic and without any genealogical dimension. This is what we have done with Jacques Rancière.

6. This interview derives in the wake of the one we have done in 1974 with Michel Foucault*. At that time, the important event (that we perhaps weren’t always able to see) was the resurgence of what we can call a certain desire for history. This desire expressed itself in two ways, more adherent than we guessed: on one hand, through “retro”, a real curiosity (and its inevitable recuperation by the right) that disrespectfully countered all commemorative and fossilized thinking; on the other, through the reclaiming of a certain “popular memory”, a pious exorcism.

Why Jacques Rancière? Because reading Althusser’s Lesson, more than a year ago, helped us to distance ourselves from a certain fossilized (and sterile) dialectics in which classes, instances and ideologies could only abide and stand by like faience dogs. This book allowed us on the contrary to better understand the game of ideologies, the system of their interleaving and their opposition. A work that is continued by J. Rancière in the magazine ‘Les Revoltes Logiques’.

This interview has a history of its own. Different strata come together. We had to start off with the criticism of Althusserian positions, the post-leftist philosophy, the Glucksmann current etc. And cinema? Unaware of the relation Rancière has developed with cinema, we have been given a few films to see, amongst them some that still haunt us: Milestones, Ici et Ailleurs, Numéro Deux, Un Simple Exemple, etc.


Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation). A translation of the interview with Jacques Rancière mentioned here (“The fraternal image”) will be published in a later post.

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

translator’s notes
* See ‘Anti-retro: entretien avec Michel Foucault’, Cahiers du Cinema 251-2, July-August 1974) Michel Foucault interviewed by Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Toubiana.

The Way South. Johan Van der Keuken


By Serge Daney

Originally published as ‘Vers le sud. Johan Van der Keuken’, Libération (2 March 1982).

We tend to overlook the work of this gliding Dutchman, one of the greatest practitioners of contemporary “documental-fiction”*. The eye of this filmmaker without borders is like a scalpel.

To start off, an answer to the question: who is Johan van der Keuken? He’s Dutch, born in Amsterdam, forty-four years old. An excellent “documentor” (a word I propose to use indefinitely instead of “documentarist”*); The Way South comes out just in time. The films of Van der Keuken were on their way to be more known than seen, more reputed than distributed. Thanks to Forum-distribution the scandal is avoided: the Paris audience gets to see this 28th film of the persistent Dutchman. His seventh long film. His best.

When a documentor comes from the North and has a bona fide passport and conscience, a camera and a good eye behind it, where does he go? Towards the South, of course. Matter of initiation (Brueghel, Van Gogh, Ivens). Since quite some time now, Van der Keuken has been heading “towards the south”. To Paris where he, at the end of the 1950’s, studied cinema (at Idehec) and practiced his first craft (photography). Later, between 1972 and 1974, he composed, bit by bit, an ambitious “North-South” triptych (Diary, The White Castle, The New Ice-age). It was a matter of finding a form of cinema that responded to the third-world sensibility of the time. Imposed figures: the effects on the South of the politics decided on in the North, unequal exchange, ecological disaster. Van der Keuken takes them very seriously. We see him everywhere: Cameroon, Peru, USA, Spain, Morocco. This eye of a lynx has seen countries, this attentive ear has been around the globe, this nose has bumped into the real.

There is (without a doubt) a Batavian “school” of documentors, of which Van der Keuken today and Ivens before him are the most beautiful assets. But contrary to the old Ivens, Van der Keuken hasn’t put his knowledge of filming in service of the world’s most powerful communist states. He has entered the stage later, at a moment when communism has disappointed us (a bit, a lot, madly) and when even the idea of “third world” has gone rancid. Today, the filmmaker who wants to commit his work has to pass the mission to himself. End of the militant mission, arrival of the “filmmaker without borders”. In 1981, filming “towards the South” simply means to head towards the sun and towards the misery, there where it feels right to witness. It’s filming more poverty than one knows. And, “somehow”, being fond of it.

The South, as the reader must have guessed, is a state. A geopolitical state and a physical state. The work of Van der Keuken could be subtitled “the misery caused by the global capitalist system and the infirmity it ensues for the human body.” It’s with the tenderness of a scalpel that the eye of the filmmaker captures what doesn’t work between someone and one’s immediate environment. Van der Keuken is a champion of discomfort, when vital space is lacking. Impeded, twisted, disabled bodies, bad in their skin, bad in their language. His most astonishing film is still Herman Slobbe, Blind Child (1964) in which morality is born out of obscenity and vice versa. The relations between North and South start there: all that is in front of the camera is in the South, the camera is always in the North. The camera is a compass.

But going to the South means loosing the North. The Way South is Van der Keuken’s most simple and direct film to date. It’s the account of a journey, some pages torn from a log book, a travelogue. The filmmaker leaves from Amsterdam and, two hours and 20 minutes later, looses himself completely in the Caïro crowd. He passes by Paris, the Drôme, Rome, Calabria. Those who he crosses paths with and respond to his questions have nothing in common except for this: they have accepted their environment, they don’t want anything else, they want to stay where they are.

In Amsterdam, youngsters get organized to squatter, go head to head with the police and the housing crisis. In Paris, in the neighborhood of Goutte d’or, Ali, who’s abated by an occupational injury, lives in a room surrounded by his medicines and correspondence courses. In the Drôme, some old lavendiers know that lavender doesn’t sell well, but they abide. In Rome, an old Eritrean woman recounts her life, which is quite something. In Calabria, a stubborn priest fights the rural exodus, by setting up a sewing atelier. And then, we arrive in the South. Terminus: Caïro. The filmmaker gets off. The real film begins.

Because I’ve failed to mention something: Van der Keuken is an extraordinary cameraman. One of the greatest. He pushes the passion for the frame towards unsuspected paroxysms. I’ve said it well: passion. Agony and ecstasy. Cinema, for him, is twenty-four frames a second. The remorse of a photographer? Between film and cliché, image slipping and image freezing*: a very particular, a bit asphyxiating, practice of cinema.

Thus in Egypt, nothing much comes out of the interviews. One lies easily to the man with the camera. Aggrieved, he heads off to the road and starts filming the circulation. A packed train, a crowd in pajamas, carts out of a sword-and-sandal film, cars threading slowly, astonished children, deranged animals, fine dust and, in between, faster than them, the eye of the filmmaker. Images without a stake, bath of images, images that have – finally – lost the North. Fantastic.

The culture of Van der Keuken is photography and jazz. He once made a nice film on Ben Webster (Big Ben) and the musician he usually works with is none other than Willem Breuker. He films like Charlie Parker or Bud Powell play: all the notes at a breathtaking speed. Lost in the Caïro crowd, Van der Keuken “plays cinema” like one plays the saxophone; he plays all the frames, very fast. Pan shots as the introduction of the theme, nervous deframings as riffs, reframings as chords, etc. It doesn’t happen often that one can “play” cinema like this, because of the awful way television uses the optical tracking shot. The soloist must be in good shape. Matter of gymnastics.

Some years ago, Van der Keuken told me something that struck me. “Having to carry the camera obliges me to be in shape. I have to find a good physical rhythm. The camera is heavy, at least for me. It weighs 11,5 kilos, with a battery of 4,5 kilos. In total 16 kilos. It’s a weight that counts and that implies that the movements of the machine can’t take place candidly, every movement counts, weighs.”

The great cameramen know better than anyone else how to play tricks on others. In order not to get outrun by their unscrupulous love of filming, they often invent a guard rail, a play rule, each in their own way. I love it that for Van der Keuken, morality goes through physical fatigue. It’s a matter of discrepancy between the time of speech and the time of a look. Talking takes time, looking doesn’t. There’s something diabolical in this discrepancy.

Imagine our documentor of the North behind his camera which is a bit too heavy, asking questions and filming the responses and at the same time, behind the viewfinder, imagine this organ that is excited by every little thing, distracted by everything, exuding frames like one breathes, that goes too fast, capturing more things than aspired; involuntary comedy, emptiness, easy fetishism, scandalous beauty: the immoral eye that, literally, doesn’t give a damn*.


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

The Way South will be shown at KASKcinema on May 3th 2012.

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

translator’s notes
* documental fiction = “documensonge”, a word play with “document(aire)” and “mensonge” (lie, artifice)
* documentor = “documenteur”, documentarist = “documentariste”
* image freezing = “arrêt sur l’image”, a pun on “arrêt sur image” (the French term for “freeze frame”) but means much more than this. See also this translation.
* the immoral eye that, literally, doesn’t give a damn = “l’oeil immoral qui, à la lettre, s’en fout”. I’m sure there are other, perhaps better ways to translate this.

The cruel radiance of what is


By Serge Daney

Originally published as ‘La radiation cruelle de ce qui est’‘, Cahiers du Cinéma no. 290-291 (July/August 1978).

There are, properly speaking, no scenes in the films of JVdK, but fragments. Not parts of all that is to come and certainly not the pieces of a puzzle to reconstruct. But fragments of cinema, that is to say: carrying in them, with them, on them (that’s the whole issue) traces of a mining of the real, an imaginary operation of which they are the enigmatic rests. There is something chirurgical in these fragments, that doesn’t only derive, in the case of Van der Keuken, from his past as a photographer but also from his position, or rather his posture, as cameraman, man-with-camera or man-as-camera: the eye riveted on the peephole of a camera that is too heavy, the eye that sees and chooses at the same time, that is to say: cuts, slices, clean as a laser. There is an extreme, tyrannical attention for all that frames, and the lived sentiment, undoubtedly nauseating, of an excessive frame, everywhere, always, which implies that there is nothing left to overframe, reframe, deframe. And that which constitutes the frame, of course, is first of all that: the frame that isolates it from the rest, that directs the rest to the limbs of the out-of-frame. Furthermore, it’s the fragment that fixes our look, appropriates it and, in turn, looks at us. Cut off from everything, the fragment of cinema gives us the eye.

When we say that the fragment makes us loose the whole – the whole constituted by “all that remains” – it concerns equally the rest of the world, the rest of the images of the world, the indefinite rest of all that could have been in the same place. The fragment is also that what the professional documentarist has to avoid at all costs – he who has as a mission to make us forget the arbitrariness in the choice of images. The paradox of JVdK who, if he ever becomes well known, will be certainly classified as “documentarist”, is that he makes films against himself, like swimming against the tide, against that part of himself that is content with the easy beauty of images. VdK has made his cinema into a strange machine to de-confound, un-startle, a war machine against the enigma of halted movement, against photography. Not by “denouncing” the illusive seduction of images, but rather by way of excess (at which point the plastic sumptuousness of his most recent film, De Platte Jungle, has something discouraging or even excessive). And the only way he has been able to set up this machine is by making us witness and accomplice of this imaginary operation (the mining, the grafting) that breaks the image into fragments.

The fragment is affected by two possible futures: fetishistic and dialectical. Either it’s self-sufficient, makes us forget about the rest, confounds and startles. Or it stands as a moment in a process, a link in a chain, articulation to what is not itself but that which works with it (what for? For sense, always to come, having the last word, never outspoken). But the opposition only appears to be settled. Or rather: it only meets, with a maximum of acuteness, in the work of filmmakers who are the mystics of real inscription, who besides JMS and JLG we should also include JVdk. It’s in their work that the oscillation between the two futures of the fragment is experienced with the greatest violence – and seriousness. At times the petrification of time in an image, fetish that opens up to (perverse) pleasure, at times the stages, the phases, the inbetween, the dialectics that covers up the desire. It’s in their work (and in Eisenstein’s of course) that we see best at which point, in cinema, the willingness of dialectics has always something to do with the exorcism of the fetish.

Don’t we call dialectics this craft, for filmmakers, that consists of not ceasing to retrace their steps, towards their own productions, their images, to feign to find them changed, become “other” (changed by the look of the spectator – this rival), and giving themselves the right to go back, “covered up by dialectics”. Refusal to abandon them, refusal to manipulate them, shame to the spectator for seeing them wrong, duty to do something about it, it’s one single operation, but in multiple times, comparable to the act of the painter who “takes distance” from his canvas, to see it in another way (detached, as if it was made by somebody else), before the silent order to go back to it is suggested (and, between two strokes, the word of order is precisely: don’t touch!). That is how one can turn his productions into objects of his thinking, this is how the two futures of the fragment come together, in this detour which is going and returning at the same time*. I’m thinking of Godard having the “obligation” to go back to certain moments in his film (Victoire becoming Ici et Ailleurs), like going back to the scene of the crime, or Straub-Huillet filming a book that they’ve read and filming the author of that book reading today what he has written yesterday. Or Van der Keuken remaking Blind Kind.

There is an expression that summarizes well the cinema of VdK, form as well as content: unequal exchange. It indicates a political reality which is the last word of the relations between the rich and poor countries as well as the status of all cinematographic fragments. Every fragment is seized (at the same time victory, extortion and mining) from something, cruelly, arbitrary. The unequal exchange constitutes the fragment but in return the fragment makes us forget about the unequal exchange and tends to play fetish. The unequal exchange finds its way about in the situation of filming (extortion of over-imaging) as well as in the choice of places or framings. It’s through this omnipresent dimension of unequal exchange that the moralization of the relation between film and spectator is brought about (the possibility that a film is abject). One could go on to say that every fragment (all that results from a decision, a choice, a toss of the dice) is injust.

And this unequal exchange, if it can’t be abolished (it is inescapable), at least it has to be made present, it has to mark the images and make the spectator responsible. “Every scene”, writes Fargier (Cahiers 289), “even before being incorporated in a sequence, sees itself already being stratified during the shooting by the telling collision of the real and a look.” Since about fifteen years, the films of VdK (that’s where their political dimension lies) don’t stop proclaiming that every exchange is unequal.

Unequal exchange (1): filming/filmed. Only in the act of filming manifest itself the impossible reciprocity between the one who films and the one who is filmed, which VdK illustrates, in the most radical way, by making infirmity one of his favorite themes. Facing the blind (in Herman Slobbe, see also the text by Fargier), the deaf (in De Nieuwe Ijstijd the Dutch workers are deafened by the factory work), the ones who do not dispose of vital space (in Vier Muren, small film about the housing crisis, the impossibility of holding up – see Cahiers 289, “Espaces contraignants”), facing all these limitations of perception, there can be no “good place” for the filmmaker. The unequal exhange, if I dare say so, stares you in the face.

It’s here that VdK commits himself, risks something. He doesn’t turn himself away from these boundary situations (that he visibly holds dear), no more than he enwraps them in the abjection of a discourse of assistance due to the most “disadvantaged”. He pushes the search for the “wrong place” as far as he can. And if the good place, in cinema, is where we forget our bodies, the wrong place, the one of the moralist, is where the body reminds us of ourselves. In order to better bring forward the inescapable character of the unequal exchange, one has to draw out the two poles of exchange, that is to say: one has to bring forward the body of the filmmaker. I refer to the words of VdK, which show evidence of lucidity with regard to what he does: “The camera is heavy… It’s a weight that matters and entails that the movements of the machine can’t take place freely, every movement counts, weighs…”. We are spectators twice. We cannot have a just relation to those who are filmed (all infirmed in one way or another, because they are being filmed) than from the moment where we also have a relation with the pain, the work, the shame (physical and moral) of the filmmaker.

The moral of a filmmaker is always the search for a triangulation: filmer/filmed/spectator. It is always, in the way that it implies a posture of the filmmaker (or an exhibition, a pose), indissociable from a dimension of scandal. The identification of Van der Keuken with Herman Slobbe is scandalous (the exchange is too unequal) because it is scandalous that the difficulties of the filmmaker’s work echo the existential difficulties of a young blind man. In the same way that it is scandalous that Godard tries to make a young welder understand that the gestures of his craft are also the gestures of writing, writing being the craft of Godard (Six fois deux: nobody here). But these scandals are precious. Because it’s on this condition (bringing forward the filmmaker’s body) that Blind Kind sends back to oblivion all that it could have been (humanitary docucu to shameful voyeurism) and ends up giving us access to the character of Herman Slobbe, as he also exists outside of the film, with his own projects, his callousness, and most of all – that’s where the biggest scandal lies – his relation to pleasure. The film ends with a strange “each one for himself” that doesn’t make sense except for the fact that, for twenty minutes in the film, everyone has been (everything for) the other in regards to the spectator.

Inequal Exchange (2): here/elsewhere. Why would there be cinematographic fragments, if there are people for whom there is nothing to see or hear? This question, we just saw, allowed to highlight, almost ad absurdum, the unequal exchange between filming and being filmed, and all of the sudden, the arbitrariness of all fragments. There are other questions, also present in the films of VdK, that have more to do with his ideological and political choices and his rigorous anti-imperialism. Why film here, in this country, if the key of what we are filming is elsewhere, in another country, situated at the antipodes? In the three films that he has devoted to the relations between rich countries and poor countries (the North/South triptych), VdK doesn’t deal with the “good place” as much as he takes infirmity as subject. All the more so because he knows that the exhange between rich countries and poor countries is more and more unequal. It’s a similar reality – imperialism – that all at once yields one people dependant of another, chains them (pillaging, unequal share of the crumbs of pillage) and exotisizes them more and more (folklorisation). It’s also imperialism that allows the filmmaker to interweave diverse fragments: an icecream factory in Holland, a shanty town held by leftists in Peru, a supermarket in the States, fishermen in the Balearic Islands etc.

This game of here and elsewhere subsists even though the third-worldly sensibility (and rhetorics) of the seventies gives way to a certain disenchantment. At the moment of the war between Vietnam and Cambodja or the Marrocan intervention in Shaba, it’s first of all in Europa (Voorjaar), and then where he lives, in Holland (De Platte Jungle), that VdK pursues the dialectics of here and elsewhere. In this shrinkage of political horizon, this passage from macro to micro, it’s always the same search for chainings that moves the filmmaker, who nourishes his coming and going between fetish (the link making us forget about the chain) and dialectics (chain that doesn’t want to know about links).

What accomplishes itself is a ecological sensibility, already present in the triptych and what is without a doubt – for Van der Keuken as for all the moralists of real inscription – the only way to save politics. Which is to say: follow other chains than the chains of economic exploitation, follow the thread that binds the animalcules of the Waddenzee to the workers at sea and the ones in the nuclear power stations. There is, in this dialectics of nature, a politisation of the idea of environment which in return permits to get across the line between here and elsewhere, not only between the continents, but also between things that are infinitly closer, in the same place, at the most in the same scene.

Unequal exchange (3): this/that. It’s the third operation, which consists of marking the arbitrariness of the fragment in the act of filming (it is therefor essential that VdK is his own cameraman). It consists of displacing the attention towards the edges of the frame and towards the immediate out-of-frame. “When I shoot I sometimes try to look a bit towards the left or the right, and when there is something very insignificant or too significant introducing itself, then I go back.” In this strange practice of deframing, it is as if the fragment doubles itself before our very eyes, unhitching from itself, producing the time for hesitation, in a sort of oscillation, the cruel arbitrariness of the cut by the same glimpse that excludes (beyond the edge, the outer-edge). Practicising a right to look, certainly, but of a very particular kind. Because what is produced in this movement of going and returning, is not a dramatisation of the out-of-frame as a supposed reserve of what threatens or boggles the frame, but what Bonitzer calls (in his text about deframing, Cahiers 284) a “suspens non narratif”. Its function is rather to insinuate a doubt, a distrust in regards to the legitimacy of the frame (filming this… but this, next to it, might also be good…). The fragment dramatizes itself, detaches from itself, in order to signify what is a toss of the dice (arbitrary, happenstance) but also a stroke of force.

In the last analysis however, VdK’s struggle to dialectisize the fragment (we have successively seen an intersubjective dialectics, a dialectics of history, a dialectics of edge and outer-edge) stumbles over the irreducibility of the fragment. Of the fragment of cinema, this fetish. Writing about Nietzsche, about ”la parole de fragment”, Blanchot writes: “A speech that is unique, solitary, fragmented, but, by virtue of being a fragment, already complete in the breaking up from which it proceeds and of a sharpness of edge that refers back to no shattered thing.” It is not coincidental that Blanchot signals the sharpness of the fragment, adding at once that it doesn’t refer to any shattered thing. Nor any enlightened thing. Because the shatter leads us towards the light. Writing about the fetish, Rosolato (in Unknown Binding) signals: “the dullest, dirtiest objects always have this ability, proven in a way that is much more blatant than it imposes itself, a contrario, for a glowing that only exists because of the sole attraction that is conferred to them by way of their role as fetish.” And thereby, the light, the dissemination of luminous sources and points in VdK’s work originates in a sort of intimate illumination. The list of points, rounds, luminous circles would be long. Jewels or shiny filth. From the shimmer of a turning door (Vier Muren) to a piece of bloody meat. Eyes built into a wall or onlooking pebbles (Lucebert); Empty orbits of blind children (first version), redoubled from an opening of the diaphragm, to innumerable television stations, lit up or put out. This light, this materialization of a point of view is not the result of an illumination, but of a grafting. A grafting, an implant of light in the fragment. A quick scene in De Tijdsgeest shows a newspaper announcing the successful implant of a baboon’s cornea in South-Africa. The newspaper cutting has itself the shape of an eye. It’s this grafted light that outlines the empty place of the eye, sometimes literary, that also makes the fragment into a fetish, that is to say: an impossible object in which we can gaze at ourselves.

* It can only be a matter of coming-and-going. Absorbing ourselves in the fetish is, à la limite, impossible (it would be like flirting with one’s own images, like Wenders). Adjourning sense ad infinitum in the name of dialectics is, to say it in a vulgar way, “reculer pour mieux sauter”. In Straub/Huilet’s Fortini/Cani, for example, the retroactive game of signifying blocs, the interrelation of all the fragments, the difference of the last word doesn’t prevent the film from closing itself with one of the marxist fetish phrases (the one where it is a matter of concrete analysis of a concrete situation).


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

translator’s notes
(1) The title of this piece is borrowed from James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941):
“For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without a either dissection into science or digression into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.
That is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time; and is why in turn I feel such rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight that I know of less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own.”
(2) JMS = Jean-Marie Straub. JLG =Jean-Luc Godard

Anabasis of Terror


Anabasis of Terror — Trying (Not) to Understand
Pierre Zaoui

Originally written in the context of the exhibition “L’Anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images” by Eric Baudelaire (Delme, 20 May – 25 September 2011). The film with the same title was shown as part of the Reverberances programme @ Courtisane festival 2012.

“The sole and only work and deed accomplished by universal freedom is therefore death — a death that achieves nothing, embraces nothing within its grasp; for what is negated is the unachieved, unfulfilled punctual entity of the absolutely free self. It is thus the most cold-blooded and meaningless death of all, with no more significance than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water”.
– Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

“I have behind me two or three coffins for which I will no longer forgive anyone.”
– Antonin Artaud, Rodez Notebooks

It is hard to imagine a more horrid and absurd act than the terrorist attack of May 30th 1972 at Lod Airport in Israel. Three Japanese kamikazes 5000 miles from home shot blindly into a crowd — mostly made up of Puerto Rican Catholics on a pilgrimage — in the name of the Palestinian cause and of world revolution. One is not quite sure whether to break into laughter or tears, so much does ridiculousness clash here with bloody abjection. So one wavers between Dostoyevskian moral repulsion (“Demons!”) and Monty Pythonesque disbelief (the Judean People’s Front in The Life of Brian comes to mind).
But one need only spend a little more time thinking about the twenty-six victims of that attack, the vile purges that preceded it within the United Red Army, their fascination with violence, and their total confusion between reality and images, between internationalism and nationalism, between freedom and death, to stop laughing altogether. These tragic excesses — not of a generation but of a few lost Japanese — are not fascinating; they are wicked, lamentable. A lament that forces us, symmetrically, to abandon any overly moral perspective. Because after all, in their own way these young members of the Japanese Red Army did not lack morality. At least, they lacked none of the courage, selflessness, loyalty to community, solidarity, sense of sacrifice and other virtues that are the stuff of the most common morals. And it is hard not to detect a profound moral regret in the fact that after this attack, none of their “operations” aimed to kill, as they got lost instead in pure terrorist spectacles. Search as one might, interpretation will always reach a dead end. There will be no “perfect” scumbags nor even “banal” scumbags, in Arendt’s sense of the word. So these terrorists do not inspire laughter any more than do their victims, because like them, they do not make good objects of mockery. The situation is a little more serious than that.
Here it is rather Hegel’s words describing revolutionary Terror that ring truer than ever: their liberation and revolution ideal was nothing but an ideal devoid of content, without mediation, a confusion between images and reality, feelings and reason, deprived of all feeling and all dialectical thought, which could only lead to “the most cold-blooded and meaningless death,” in reality as well as in images. In other words, the Lod attack and the whole associated story of the Japanese Red Army are not intolerable for aesthetic or moral reasons, but because they stem from a political sensibility and mindset that are essentially impatient. Indeed, as Hegel showed persuasively, beyond all morality, impatient sentimentality is the absolute worst political fault, much worse even than patient, well-considered Machiavellian cruelty. It is a disaster for the mind, taking the apparently highest and most generous thought of universality and reducing it to the most insignificant particularity. And it is also a disaster for the body, reduced at worst to the level of an obstacle without importance, at best to the level of an image without real content.
As true as Hegel’s judgment may seem, it is not necessarily wholly adequate for today’s world. First, because he could only formulate it after the event, from the perspective of a subsequent reconciliation between abstract freedom and concrete moral community, specifically the Empire, then the Hegelian constitutional state. But which subsequent reconciliation enables us to speak of those terrorist attacks of the 1970s? What have the Palestinian question and the chances for peace in the Israeli-Arab conflict become if not an endless despair? What has terrorism become today if not a sinister profession of the future? And if the revolutionary perspective has been discredited by bloody, loathsome acts, what has become of the thought on its underlying causes — oppression, inequality, poverty, exploitation?
Second, and most importantly, because Hegel claims to fully understand the terrorist act. That fury of abstract universality has a determined place in his system as a pause in the life of the spirit which must be overcome. Yet who can really claim to understand terrorism, no longer of the State but by various splinter groups? Claiming to fully understand it amounts to either condemning or excusing it, that is, contenting oneself to judge and therefore not really understanding anything at all.
In this respect, a more fruitful approach might be the kind taken by Eric Baudelaire, who aims to understand and not to understand at the same time––to understand up to the point that one no longer understands––and also to show, refusing to understand or explain, so that with a dreadful feeling of confusion we are surprised to find ourselves understanding, discovering a subtle sympathy, telling ourselves that maybe monstrosity is our shared condition. He sets before us a kind of ever-divided desire: the desire to understand and to not understand, the desire to understand what we do not understand and the desire not to understand what we are afraid of understanding all too well. Or it could be written: the desire (not) to understand, in its threefold sense — to see, to hear, and to share.


Where does this desire come from, if it rejects from the start not just all fascination, all nostalgia, but also any elevated position from which to pronounce “the” truth of the past? Perhaps from today, actually, from our latter-day reluctance to understand and not understand what happened and what was lost in those years of powder and lead. What went off the rails? Where? Why? We do not know. The unpardonable criminal failure of those young idealists of yesterday in no way clears us of our own failure, our current inability to offer anything more than talk of an unthinkable new departure and an impossible return. This could almost be expressed as a fake Zen proverb: the certainty that someone else is lost does not in any way guarantee that we have found ourselves, nor even that we have the ability at least to find ourselves.
Taking up the profound intuition of Alain Badiou, who sees in Anabasis — understood as an embarking, a wandering and a return — one of the possible symbols of the century that has (or has not) just ended, Eric Baudelaire suggests that we take another look at one of the movements that drove this modern form of anabasis to one of its highest levels of insanity: the Japanese Red Army.
It is a matter of being precise, however. Not about the idea of insanity, which explains both nothing and too much, but about this very notion of anabasis. Because what exactly is it about here? The anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu and that of Masao Adachi is, in truth, much more literal than Alan Badiou’s. His is a metaphor for a century’s wandering and returning, symbolizing the poetic space opened between Saint-John Perse’s lyrical anabasis and Paul Celan’s tragic anabasis. Eric Baudelaire is by contrast more mistrustful of poetry and metaphor. It is no refusal, so much are his silkscreen prints and his tracking shots of Tokyo and Beirut fraught with tragic poetic richness; yet more mistrustful. Or put otherwise: he is naturally on Celan’s side, deaf to the heavy pathos of the likes of Saint-John Perse. His anabasis does not try prophetically to speak the truth of a century, but circles around absent images of a crime, gropes among its traces, and focuses on those who were not so much actors as spectators of that atrocious expedition from Japan to Beirut and back again. A bit like in Circumambulation, one of his previous films, when he circled around Ground Zero with his camera: wanting to understand, circling, filming, wanting not to understand, refusing to see, his head lowered. And when it is a matter of anabasis, of a wandering and a return, maybe it is better to circle and film than to speak — the literality of images versus poetic metaphor.
For this reason, Eric Baudelaire is also much closer to Xenophon’s text itself. You could even say that he follows its sequence more precisely. What in fact does this so-called “march of the Ten Thousand” entail?
First the departure elsewhere of young men from all of over Greece, thirsty for adventure, glory and money. The elsewhere of that period was Persia, geographically the present-day Middle East. But the goal was already ancillary, mercenary; they were helping Cyrus overthrow his brother, much in the way that, mutatis mutandis, the Japanese Red Army placed itself at the service of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). No romantic indulgence here — not the call of the desert, nor the call of the road to the unknown. Anabasis is primarily the story of an initial confusion between thirst for the outside and mercenary interest.
Next, a wandering, when Cyrus dies in the battle of Cunaxa and the Greek army finds itself lacking any plan or goal. Victory no longer means anything more than warding off defeat. Both groups suffer deep solitude, leading to arguments, division, treason. The destitution of an uprooted herd. And nostalgia for the kingdom of water (Greece? Japan?): “thalatta! thalatta!”. And even worse, boredom. Xenophon is obviously not a great author. He loses himself in images, instead of getting down to construction and verisimilitude, and you get bored stiff reading his work, but it is doubtless a boredom worthy of what the Greeks experienced as they spent months crisscrossing foreign lands in search of some sort of sanctuary from despair.
But this is not a neutral wandering. It is not an intoxicating journey or a series of picaresque encounters, but an organized, compulsory crime. What can a routed army survive on if not plunder, pillage and murder? Even Xenophon could not hide this. At heart, Anabasis is the story of crimes that are paradoxically both necessary and pointless; a very strange war of conquest that has suddenly become defensive, the defense of self outside oneself, hunted conquerors, compulsory criminals that dream they are glorious heroes.
Hence the return. But it was far from being an organized retreat, however much Xenophon may have showered himself with praise at the time (his genius, his know-how, his prudence). It was more of a chaotic flight. How many men had set out? How many returned? Anabasis is a return to the same thing, worse off; it is the sterile dialectic of an enthusiasm and a disappointment that lead back to the point of departure, only burdened by a few more deaths and regrets. And even a collapse: returning not to one’s city steeped in glory, but instead home to Mother, or to no one if she is already in prison. Anabasis is not the tale of a ruin of the ruined, but of a ruin of ruiners, of people who are the chief architects of their own ruin. Once again, Xenophon is no Homer, and Anabasis is the poor man’s Odyssey.
Finally, an apology, a perpetual justification. No matter what some specialists say, Anabasis is essentially an exercise in self-justification. And there is no reason to reproach it for this, so well do we understand why. After surviving one’s own rout, what destiny can one hope for other than having to endlessly justify, to keep mulling over one’s crime, its necessity, the error it represents, and to bunker down behind one’s initial noble reasons? Especially when this justification coincides with a much greater rout, the collapse of Athens. Over subsequent centuries, Athenians were to recognize themselves in this story, which came to symbolize their destiny, and Anabasis was to enjoy considerable success. Understood in terms of its historical reception, it is thus no longer simply the tale of a few lost youths, but more the story of their rout at the heart of an even greater rout that was to mark the end of an era. Ruin within ruin, Athenians of yesterday just like people in today’s societies who are no longer quite sure who is manipulating who, or even for what reason (a past or a future? a private image or a collective destiny?). You would think that not only the failure but its vain justification had been — in itself and in face of an even greater failure — part of the plan all along.


There is no question then of giving in to a romanticization of anabasis, ancient or modern, nor to an unequivocal, too comfortable condemnation of its actors. They certainly had a wretched homecoming as criminals without glory, but we ourselves are still wandering, away from the scene of who knows what new and even viler crimes.
What is the good of such a realization? Is it nihilistic despair, or the same old song about impotent youth, forever spectators of a past that eludes them as much as the present? Maybe not, since this is where everything turns around, where we are seized by vertigo. Eric Baudelaire’s exhibition, in fact, is not a political analysis, it is an art exhibition. We are not dealing primarily with ideas, but with images and voices, images that are indirect, clouded, controlled, and manipulated in both senses of the word. Raw voices, neither judged nor decrypted (in the name of which higher code?). One cannot help thinking of the primitive gestures of contemporary art: of Duchamp diverting common objects and images, of Malevitch melting all figures into the abstraction of color. And of its original purpose: saving the concrete by means of diversion and abstraction (which no longer has anything to do with philosophical abstraction); saving the beauty of the world and the landscape by refusing its human, all too human aestheticization; saving art by denying it. In short, going back to an entirely different anabasis, that of contemporary art, which never stops searching for something new in the point of rout that leads to a return, a reprise, a remake.
So is this the vertigo of analogy, as Jacques Bouveresse would say? An infinitely doubtful vertigo that will end up placing the indistinct suffering of men, all men — Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, Japanese, Greeks, Puerto Ricans — at the service of artists? Absolutely not.
First, because if we accept Gerard Wacjman’s assertion in L’Objet du siècle (The Object of the Century) that contemporary art begins with Duchamp and Malevitch, we have no choice but to recognize that the anabasis image has a much longer history in art than in politics. If art’s interest in this image gives it meaning today, it is perhaps not so much as a lifeline, but as a disturbing mirror that shows a reflection of one’s time and at least provides food for thought. It was neither politics nor poetry that first modernized that ancient image of the anabasis, it was the visual artist working with images, conscious of their perpetual fall and resurrection in a world closed anew.
Moreover, it is hard to deny that in a sense today we live in societies of widespread anabasis where in art, politics and science, in the most public lives as well as the most private, we hear people speaking of nothing but that: of new departures and returns, of conquests and quagmires, of the loss and rediscovery of meaning.
Finally, because if we concede that the greatest wisdom consists in more than just “not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn,” to use Spinoza’s words, but also not to understand as Spinoza would rather have wished, only to convey everything that has happened, with all of the nebulousness and the nagging questions the past entails, then we have no choice but to recognize that art makes use of the past as much as it does not make use of it, makes use of the present as much as it diverts from it to find something new.
In any case, latching onto this anabasis image at least seems a little more interesting than speaking of a postmodern world, the end of history or a clash of civilizations. It allows us to avoid sterile contrasts between fervor and brooding. We have no choice, our age has set itself up between the two, and contemporary art was the first to understand this. And above all, this liberates us from all nostalgia for the past as well as all hope for a more glorious future. Our age is not a great one, and its art must therefore forbid itself from trying to be the greatest art, true art in the Hegelian sense or propaganda art like that of the last thurifiers of revolutionary terrorism. But although this lucid realization can liberate us from all of the garbage of grandeur — glory, fanaticism, sacrifice, war — the modest art of today, which Eric Baudelaire’s work embodies rigorously, deserves its fair measure of thanks. It is an art of peace, of questions, and a call for more sharing, instead of more judgment and conflict.

About the “insane horizon” of cinema


By Philippe Grandrieux

“A segment has been cut out of the back of his head. The sun, and the whole world with it, peep in. It makes him nervous, it distracts him from his work, and moreover it irritates him that just he should be the one debarred from the spectacle.”
Kafka, January 9th 1920.

The future of cinema is to be free and great and strong, to transmit some of that “windy chaos” that we tend to protect ourselves from, as if we desperately wanted to believe that the world is ordered, reasonable, possible, when it’s exactly the opposite: chaotic, delirious, untenable, driven by the unstoppable force of desire. Beyond will and morality, the world is what we desire, absolutely. Terribly. And cinema should be considered commensurate with this excessive horizon. Its projected desire impressed upon the film strip. That is what filming is, to make possible the movement from the self to the others and from the others to oneself. That is what light is, precisely that, the movement of the desire reflected from the face that stands quietly in front of me, and it looks at me, and I feel invigorated by its breathtaking beauty, its unchangeable otherness. That is cinema, to film that presence, the being-there of things, to film trees and mountains and the sky and the mighty flow of the river. That is what it is to be an actor, to be able to carry the weight of reality, its gushing, hallucinating vibration, to embody it (very few succeed), and in the time of a shot, the space of a take, to become sky, mountain, river and the stormy mass of the ocean. And then cinema is immense. We are won over and forget ourselves and we forget what we carry, and what we don’t know, what we can’t know, although it fascinates us and brings us to life, to a life that is lived, and so it unfolds. This rhythm, this way of framing, of lighting the body, of interrupting the take, it comes, it’s there, and cinema closely touches its essence, a sensorial experience of the world, whose destiny is to transmit through sensations, the only means which are its own, to convey a fraction of the passing world, the sensitive world, soon dissipated, lost, carried away by time, a part of time, and that feeling of “inevitable solidarity” may resound in each one of us. It is a far cry from the narrative labour to which most filmmakers submit to, without resistance. Far from psychology, from categories that have been abused by morals. No, the future of cinema is its childhood, its brilliance, its brutality, the world that begins again, it’s an image that is larger than life, in front of which we placed ourselves one day, this vibrating, silent image, for the “infans” is the one who doesn’t speak, who stands aside from social conventions, in front of the chaos, outside of language, of sense, without distance, suddenly captured by colour, and it’s the big red flowers and the field and the woods, and it’s the river and the water that is too cold and their hands rubbing their back, warming their small bodies, and it’s the breath against one’s neck and the wet soil under one’s feet. That’s infancy, to be entirely swept away by sensation, overwhelmed by one’s emotions, subjected to the almightiness of one’s affections. And that is cinema, its future, that time silenced of images, that heroic time, poetic, that time of childhood, where we can all be transported to by the sole force of desire through the body and its stories. And eyes wide open in the dark, and it scares us so much, so much, but also we laugh we cry, and it has held us, breathless, in front of this big face with sealed eyes and with the heart knocking against our chest, we have run along the way, and we have cried out from the dunes : “Johannes…”, and we have waited, and hoped, so much, and against the wind, and against the great cloudy sky, shouted again, with him, with the father, “Johannes…Johannes…” and for a moment we have become, without knowing how, that father looking for his child, his lost son, and then that trampled grass and then the entire moor. That is cinema. Its destiny, its future, is to stand, unfailingly, before the world, to its eternal return, facing the high noon, to the sacred “yes” of the child.

In the beginning, movement analysis. Chronophotography. Horse, birds, man, woman. It runs, it jumps, it flies and it starts again.

And immediately, the pornographic use, for cinema is the industry of the bodies. Our great-grandmothers suck and are humped in the kitchen. The smell of soup and fuck, that is the smell of the century of the locomotive and the unconscious. Men are muscular and have moustaches, they pose for our great painters, they pose with a hard-on for the camera. An assembly of bodies, mise en scène, a litany of sequences, the script of cinema was de Sadean from the beginning. In the meanwhile, Degas brushed bodies, women in the bath, with their backs curved, with their fleshy bottoms in the dark shadow of the greasy ink, available bodies, the flabby bodies of whores, legs wide open, pot-bellied, the exhausted bodies of the brothels, of the dark rooms. Degas worked on the black-coated zinc plates with his hands. With his fingertips, with his palm, he stamps, tears, scratches, removes the dark night. He brings in the light.

His eyes suffer, he touches the image. He photographs absolutely. Tiny, astonished dancers fluttering in the footlights, with long brushed hair, an opaque mass flowing along their backs, crouching women with painted faces, legs in the air, gaping sex, sprawled bodies, rigid bottoms, inscribed by Degas in the thick glue, in the mischief of the ink, the truth of his time. He’s in the room, in the dark. He’s fabricating, blindly and slowly, cinema. And he invents it just as de Sade did before him. He shows us the way: cinema is made (above all) with the hands, with the skin, with the entire body, by fatigue, by breath, by the pulsations of the blood, the rhythm of the heart, by the muscles. Body and sensation, that is the machine, its absolute power, its obsession. That is its becoming. Invented bodies, comical, grotesque, obscene, the improbable bodies of the stars and the monsters, and light, its palpitation, and the beating of shots, and in us, fear, joy, hope, sadness, the obscure deployment of human passions.

What do we seek, since the first traces of hands were impressed in rock, the long, hallucinated perambulation of men across time, what do we try to reach so feverishly, with such obstinacy and suffering, through representation, through images, if not to open the body’s night, its opaque mass, the flesh with which we think – and present it to the light, to our faces, the enigma of our lives. Bodies and thoughts, bodies and sensations, those are the same profound arrangements of cinema. In 1927 Antonin Artaud writes Witchcraft and the Cinema, a seminal and visionary text. “To use cinema to tell stories, exterior actions, is to deny its best resources, to go against its absolute object. I think the cinema is made primarily to express matters of the mind, the inner consciousness, not by a succession of images so much as by something more imponderable which restores them to us with their direct matter, with no interpositions or representations”.

Artaud is delirious. Surely, but not only. What is this imponderable thing? What would the nature of cinema be if it rendered images directly, without interruptions, without representations? Artaud the magician called for the transmutation of cinema, it must be of another substance in order to express the matters of thought, the interior conscience. Such is the insane horizon of cinema, improbable, the secret that haunts it. Such is the energy that animates it, that pushes it forward. One must close the gap between oneself, one’s body, and the source of sensation. Cinema desires a wrapped body, taken by the instinctive material. All projection devices (large screen, 360°, glasses, stereo, Dolby surround, headphones…) increasingly place us inside the cave, at the centre of illusion, in what is already our reality, a cyberspace. Without a doubt, our body will soon be directly connected to the film. A hybrid device of technology and flesh – science-fiction imagines it and science produces it. A cinema in the “folds”, inscribed within the body, in direct contact with the organs, a nanocinema, molecular, contagious, indispensable, will be the next step. But what Artaud foresees is even more insane, more unheard of. Cinema is no longer only “a psychic cinema… a subcutaneous injection of morphine… The cinema is an amazing stimulant (which) acts directly on the grey matter of the brain”, it demands henceforth another body.

In 1947, precisely, the world gets back on its feet, stunned. Artaud launches his programme: the body must now “by placing it again, for the last time, on the autopsy table, remake his anatomy”. Sperm, Americans, synthetic products. His paranoia is fully operational. Vision, inspiration. That is his pace. That’s what he’s made of. He throws out sentences. He whispers, screams, smashes. Under the pressure of his breath, Artaud dictates the order of things, he draws the bodies of tomorrow, he announces the reign of “synthetic products ad nauseam”. The time has come for the actual fabrication of bodies. The voice is hoarse, acute, in overdrive, accelerated. It announces our future. Man will finally accomplish the endeavours demanded by de Sade. He will confront his definitive materiality, absolutely, without deviation. Fabricated, machined, modifiable, transformed into a commodity, he will be a “living currency” (Pierre Klossowski). The exact opposite of virtuality. Bodies will be the simulacrum through which we will experience and experiment the power of our desire, its “voluptuous emotion”. Will fiction be embodied, carnal, made of blood and muscles? Is this the “imponderable thing” which Artaud dreams of, through which we will access our interior conscience without interruptions, without representation, is this the transubstantiation of images in a body? Of course this is an hallucination, but beyond the improbability of such a development, Artaud’s delirium and Klossowski’s fable seem to sketch the destiny of cinema, of this cinema that I love, the one that connects us to the most archaic forces, to what’s more inherent and instinctive in each one of us, inextricably weaving image and body, the very stuff of our affective relationship to the world, by placing us under the threatof the astonishing emergence of what can neither be seen nor heard.

Originally published as ‘Sur l’horizon insensé du cinéma’, Cahiers du cinéma hors série: Le siècle du cinema (November 2000). Thanks to Stéphane Delorme.
Translated by Maria Palacios Cruz.

Philippe Grandrieux is one of the “Artists in Focus” on the Courtisane Festival 2012