The pursuit of trivial men


“Russell Brand may have started a revolution”, a headline reads. “Brand nails the political zeitgeist”, says another. Why is it that Brand’s recent interview on BBC’s Newsnight sparked so much attention? A video of his discussion with Jeremy Paxman went viral overnight, popping up all over the global infosphere. Why is it that so many who otherwise would not even think of striking up a conversation about the necessity or possibility of change, seem to get all worked up when seeing a “trivial man” like Brand call for revolution? After all, he is not saying anything we don’t already know: indeed, the world is full of dark shadows, terrible injustices, growing social and economic inequalities; yes, in the name of the crisis, all aspects of life have increasingly been submitted to the laws of the market; yes, the notion of liberal democracy is hollowed out by an excessive diet of cynicism, corruption and indifference; surely, many of us feel afflicted with a wearying syndrome of apathy, impotence and nihilism; and yes, this sense of political disappointment has been appropriated equally by right-wing and left-wing discourse, the first driven by outright rage, the latter steeped in dreary melancholy. These are not trivial matters, nor, by any means, should they be trivialized. But isn’t this just what is happening, Paxman seems to suggest, when they are being taken up by a buffoon – he who can never resist a joke, he who lacks good taste and refinement – who is really “out of place” and “out of line” when trying to voice political concerns? But perhaps what strikes us is not what the celebrity fool is “inexpertly” saying for our own amusement, but precisely the out-of-placeness of his voicing, and the condescending attitude with which it is being condemned.

Perhaps, we too, are tired of hearing how unrealistic and utterly naive it is to try to think about change without being able to put forward a well-defined alternative. Perhaps we are just affected by the proclamation that this man, however vain he may be, just doesn’t know either. And perhaps we are slightly tantalized by the thought that it is not the point of knowing where to go, as long as we dare to take a leap of faith, led us lead by what the act itself holds as possibility. For how long now have we been hearing the rhetoric of illusion and incapacity coming from the mouths of the so-called specialists? “Forgive them, for they don’t don’t know what they do” is the never ending mantra preached by those who, yesteryear, claimed to know what was needed to break with the dominant ideological illusions, and today, complain that there are no ideologies left to guide the quest for change. To take action, so the argument goes, only makes sense when there is a sense of direction. If there is no direction, there is no point in mobilizing for change. It implies that “realistic” and “democratic” politics can only be a matter of creating alliances, setting out strategies and managing common economic interests, all univocally in the name of a non-conflictual principle of community or identity. That is what the political horizon of the thinkable is today, defined by the logics of what is called capitalism and liberal democracy. Without a view on another future, we can only keep circulating, or as the police always says in case of disturbances: “move along!” It really means that change can be nothing else but moving in place.

But do we really need what Badiou has called “the existence of the inexistent” to give sense to political processes? Is framing a future not part of (political) invention itself rather than being its condition of possibility? In the words of Rancière: “if people are moving today we don’t quite know what we are moving towards, which perhaps obliges us to shift the question into the logic of what we said earlier about the fact of ‘coming after’ – namely that, perhaps now more than ever, the meaning or direction [sens] of the action is given by the potentialities of the action itself.” We have seen in recent years how sentiments that were deemed useless and senseless have led to a renewed trust in political action. What was important in these cases was not so much the attempt to unveil the illusions and laws of the system in name of a better future, but precisely the emergence of a new collective sentiment, based on a certain intolerance with the dominant order and, at the same time, of a communal trust amongst those who are searching for a way out, unsure of their orientation. Perhaps this is what is appealing in Brand’s plea for “revolution”: not the spectacle of a clown whose only concern should be to amuse others, deliriously ranting about what is obviously not his to talk about, but the recognition of a “trivial man” who speaks out about what is, more than anything else, ours to say and do. Perhaps the court’s jester is, after all, not betraying our grievances, but urging us to all play the fools at the king’s table.

No Sir, it’s still not over


“There is a whole history of idiocy as a figure apt to blur the game of explanations and strategies. Of course Dostoyevsky comes to mind and there is something of Myshkin in the Valuska of Wreckmeister Harmonies. Dostoyevsky constructed the figure of the idiot as an antidote to the progressivist-socialist view of history that he saw emerging. In contrast to Béla Tarr, who arrived after the historical sequence of ‘real socialism’, he sought in the figure of the idiot to preserve a figure of refusal, to save it from the disaster of the system. The question that traverses Béla Tarr films and is emblematized in these figures of idiocy is to know whether one draws from the communist failure a simple lesson of the nihilist equivalence of everything with everything else or whether one extracts figures of refusal out of nihilism. What appeared clearly at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc is that the supposed ‘ideological cement’ linking individuals to a system of domination was nothing other than people consenting to pay lip service to the official lie. Against this consent to the lie, Béla Tarr sets figures of idiocy that do not accept that the promise of words is only consent to lying and the madman that does not renounce the promise of harmony present in the celestial system. This attitude can be defined as proto-political, in the sense that through their stubbornness these characters radicalize a decision prior to all political action – the decision to verify through one’s own actions that not everything is a lie. But it scarcely makes sense to oppose this ‘stupid’ stubbornness to the intelligence of a strategic aim. Only things that actually stand opposed really ought to be set against one another. And the complement that Valuska lacks that would allow a real political subject to emerge is not some strategic aim. All that he stands opposed to is general cowardice and petty individual arrangements.”

“If we leave the context of Béla Tarr’s films, we come across an analogy in the arguments used by strategists of anticapitalist combat against the ‘indignant’, who are ‘without project’. The problem is that these strategists don’t have any project either. What they do have is imply the ability to explain endlessly that a project is required. The opposition is in fact an opposition between two sorts of obstinacy: the obstinacy to turn around in the circle of explanation, which is part and parcel of the consensus: and the obstinacy to mark a distance that at least conserves the possibility of dissensus.”
– Jacques Rancière in conversation with Oliver Davis, 2013


“The police are not the law that interpellates the individual (the “hey, you there” of Louis Althusser) unless we confuse the law with religious subjection. The police are above all a certitude about what is there, or rather, about what is not there: “Move along, there’s nothing to see.” The police say there is nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving, circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics consists in transforming that space of circulation into the space of the manifestation of a subject: be it the people, workers, citizens. It consists in refiguring that space, what there is to do there, what there is to see, or to name. It is a dispute about the division of what is perceptible to the senses.”
– Jacques Rancière, Aux bords du politique (1998)

“We would do better to ask what is a subjective or implicit presupposition: it has the form of ‘Everybody knows .. .’. Everybody knows, in a pre philosophical and pre-conceptual manner … everybody knows what it means to think and to be. … As a result, when the philosopher says ‘I think therefore I am’, he can assume that the universality of his premisses – namely, what it means to be and to think … – will be implicitly understood, and that no one can deny that to doubt is to think, and to think is to be …. Everybody knows, no one can deny, is the form of representation and the discourse of the representative. When philosophy rests its beginning upon such implicit or subjective presuppositions, it can claim innocence, since it has kept nothing back – except, of course, the essential – namely, the form of this discourse. It then opposes the ‘idiot’ to the pedant, Eudoxus to Epistemon, good will to the overfull understanding, the individual man endowed only with his natural capacity for thought to the man perverted by the generalities of his time. The philosopher takes the side of the idiot as though of a man without presuppositions.
(…) At the risk of playing the idiot, do so in the Russian manner: that of an underground man who recognises himself no more in the subjective presuppositions of a natural capacity for thought than in the objective presuppositions of a culture of the times, and lacks the compass with which to make a circle.”
– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and repetition (1968)

Politics of Uncertainty


“Inscribed in the militant and nationalist pretensions of the term ‘third cinema’ is a certainty which simply cannot be spoken anymore. A certainty of place, location and subjectivity. What now characterizes the ‘truths’ of cinema, politics and theory is uncertainty.“
– John Akomfrah, Black Audio Film Collective (1988)

Uncertainty. Radical uncertainty. In economic theory the term refers to a lack of knowledge concerning the set of alternative outcomes of a choice and of alternative options for choice. It indicates a situation in which the possible states of the world cannot be imagined. Is this what we are experiencing right now? A predicament based on the idea that there is only one viable option left, that the choice has already been made, that the outcome is out of our hands? Is this a time for dreaming, dreaming the impossible, refusing what is refused, so to reshape desire and reorient hope?

In his talk Akomfrah was not invoking this particular conception of uncertainty. His statement corresponds to a time when notions of subjectivity and location were being thorougly re-examined, leading to the long debates on multiculturalism and identity politics that are still dominating our political landscape today (the “culturalisation of politics” that Slavoj Žižek and others have criticized). What was at stake at the end of the 1980’s, particularly in the discursive practices in the UK and US, was the coming to terms with the rise of so-called new subjectivities, identities and ethnicities, as well as the kinds of racism and xenophobia that had grown in response to them. For those living “diasporic” lives, there was the feeling that what Akomfrah called the certainty of subjectivity that once characterized the discourse around “third cinema”, this wide range of militant film practices mainly associated with the liberation struggles in subaltern regions, had given way to a non-unitary vision of subjectivity, one in constant flux, never complete, always in the process of becoming. The conception of cultural identity in terms of a shared culture and history that informed the various manifestations of “third Cinema” and played a vital role in the post-colonial struggles, was increasingly met with an alternative interpretation, focusing on an identity living with and shaped by, rather than despite of, “difference”. Soon terms such as “hybridization” and “creolisation” teamed up with the jargon that claimed the prefix “post”: postmodernity, postidentity, posthumanity. The notion of “heterogeneous” identity has of course been countered with vigorous critique, especially in view of the Benetton-style commodification of “difference” and the identity-consumerism promoted by the liberal-pluralist version of multiculturalism, but some have also been looking for affirmative interpretations. In a rapidly changing world, so the argument goes, where worldviews are crumbling, bodies circulating, old identities dissolving and new connections arising, the question is no longer to know who we are, but what we want to become. It is no longer solely a matter of living with the past, but also of imagining the future. Or, in Foucault’s terms: we need to refuse what we are, and imagine what we could be.

It is in this discursive context, concerned with the unsettling interplay between being and becoming, past and future, sameness and difference, that the work of Black Audio Film Collective has to be situated. “A diasporic cinema”, as Reece Auguiste has written, “which has a multiplicity of configurations, of identities and histories, of rewriting visual styles.” Kobena Mercer called this form of dialogue a “’syncretic’ dynamic which critically appropriates elements from the master-codes of the dominant culture and ‘creotizes’ them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning. The subversive force of this hybridizing tendency is most apparent at the level of language itself where creoles, patois and black English decentre, destabilize and carnivatize the linguistic domination of ‘English’ – the nation-language of master-discourse – through strategic inflections, reaccentuations and other performative moves in semantic, syntactic and lexical codes”. The interstitial experience of diaspora and hybridity is put forward as a productive and even “subversive” space, in which possibilities still lie open, where awareness is still fully in the making and has not yet become solidified. It is a space of uncertainty, where the relation between sense and sense is unhinged and unsettled, where the dialogue between past and present, between the time of utterance and the space of memory, is unfinished or severed, leaving room for revision and initiation; a space that allows one “to think through and move across established categories and levels of experience: blurring boundaries without burning bridges” (Braidotti). It can also be considered as a space of marginality and minority. Not a minority as a category that is differentiated and defined by the majority, but as a process of becoming, a zone of indiscernibility (Gilles Deleuze). And not a marginality one wishes to loose or surrender as part of moving into the centre, but rather as a site one clings to, because it offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to imagine new worlds (Bell Hooks). The margins, as the motor of active processes of becoming, taking place in the uncertain space between multiplicities.

What shape could an account of this becoming take? “Thinking in movement”, according to Cyrille Offermans, is what characterizes the “essay”, which he sees as a “product of uncertain times”. The essay, he says, is the report of a journey without preconceived maps or goals, a form of inquiry that is not in search for the one and only Truth, but for a sincerity of relative and tentative truths that are bound to a certain location in time and space. But what is the location one is speaking from? Rosi Braidotti has stressed that the process of becoming ought to be grounded in a “politics of location” (a term she borrowed from Adrienne Rich), in a “situated knowledge” (a term coined by Donna Haraway) as opposed to the universalistic nature of statements. “In its political applications the politics of location determines one’s approach to time and history. The sense of location, for me, has to do with countermemory, or the development of alternative genealogies. In other words, it means that it does make a difference to have the historical memory of oppression or exclusion, rather than being the empirical referent for a dominant group… The politics of location functions as a strategy of resistance.” A location then as an embedded and embodied memory, as a set of counter-memories and genealogies activated against the grain of dominant representations, as part of a passage between the no longer and the not yet, between letting go and becoming “other”. It is easy to see why the so-called “essay”, in cinema and elsewhere, is taken up as the ultimate figuration of this space of transformation and uncertainty: as an unclassifiable category that continues to grope for its own position and form, it is well suited to the exploration of dislocated cartographies of location. Writing about the work of Chris Marker, Claude Lanzmann and others, Jacques Rancière proposed another term: “the struggle for the appropriation of forms”, he writes, is what characterizes the “political fictions of the real”, that he opposes to the “real of fiction” which “ensures the mirror recognition between the audience in the theaters and the figures on the screen, and between the figures on the screen and those of the social imaginary”. Rather than attesting to the real, the fictions of the real problematize what is given as such, and in doing so shatter the relations between real and fictional, past and present, History and histories, the individual and the collective. In a time when the “real” goes by largely unchallenged, it is up to politics and art alike to produce “fictions”, undo the connections between signs, images, spaces and times, that frame that existing sense of reality, and instead propose new configurations of the visible and the thinkable.

Memory too is a work of fiction, an arrangement of relations between one time and another, one place and another, between what is seen and said, between what has been done and what can be done. Especially for those whose history has been denied, excluded, silenced, for those whose past is determined by “an absence of ruins”, it is not a matter of preserving memory, but rather of creating it. It is not a matter of claiming a place within the continuity of history, but of evoking its gaps and discontinuities and questioning its dominant representations. Before being able to let go of fixed or forged identities, it is necessary to recreate, “fictionalise” them (in an “act of fabulation”, as Deleuze would say). It does not involve overcoming the past in order to live in the present, but owning the past in order to overcome the present. What memory, in this sense, connects with is not a static holding stock of past experiences, but a continuously recomposing configuration of the past and the present, the present and the absent. Refering to Deleuze’s “minoritarian” interpretation, Braidotti describes how memory, in stringing together these virtual possibilities in an unstable fashion, works to destabilize identity: “Like a choreography of flows or intensities that require adequate framing in order to compose into a form, memories require empathy and cohesion between the constitutive elements. It is like a constantly reshuffling that yearns for the moment of sustainable balance or expression, before they dissolve again and move on.” Identity is always retrospective, according to Braidotti: it is a map of where one has already been, but no longer is. The cartographies need to be redrafted constantly, as a set of steps in an ever changing itinerary, a constant becoming that isn’t going anywhere, at least not anywhere in particular. It is this in-between that the work of John Akomfrah and Black Audio Film Collective engages with: these undetermined spaces of uncertainty and contingency where identities and identifications are unsettled and reordered. In a time of moralistic depolitisation, when politics is increasingly identified with the “self” of a community, when our relation to the “other” can only seemingly be one of contempt or compassion, reviewing their work reminds us that we need to let go of the idea of uncertainty as a liability, and start validating it as a requisite for active imagination and imaginative action, to create spaces of invention and dissension where new forms of visibility of the common can be shaped. Politics, according to Rancière, is always a matter of putting other worlds in the same world: a politics of emancipation which is ultimately a politics of the self as an other.

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)!)

Eisenstein, a cumbersome centenary


By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘Eisenstein, un centenaire encombrant’, in Cahiers du cinéma, june 1998, n° 525.

Some centenaries are more cumbersome than others, judging by the quietude of the echoes aroused by the Eisenstein retrospective. In reality, the “salvaging” of great artistic figures who are emblematic for communism is not evenly evident. It’s not enough to have been criticized and heckled by the Soviet regime. Eisenstein has had as many problems as Shostakovich, but unlike him he hasn’t benefitted from the repercussions that have transformed an official renowned artist into an honored dissident. He has, just like Brecht, maintained his “pensée de derrière”, his deeper motives. But his distance in itself is of another kind than that of the dramaturg. Brecht was able to identify the figure of the cynical observer with that of the committed critic and the lessons of dialectical pedagogy with the athletics of boxing or the derisions of cabaret, in accordance with the esthetical canons at play in the times of dadaism and the new objectivity. He has identified the practice of the marxist dramaturg with a certain artistic modernity, that of an art staging the denunciation of historical ideals of art. This ironic modernity has outlived the political fall of communism. It has become the banal form that allows to preserve the alliance between artistic novelty and criticism of dominant imaginaries.This banalization threatens Brecht, and protects him at the same time.

The case of Eisenstein is more redoubtable. Because he did not care about educating, learning how to see and distance oneself. All of which Brecht claimed to purge theatrical representation, identification, fascination, absorption, he wanted, on the contrary, to capture and boost its force. He announced his intentions clearly: this omnipotence of mimesis, which he had seized on the face of a child reflecting all the events of the scene, he had to extract and rationalize its principle. The effect of identification with the story and the characters had to be replaced with a direct identification with affects programmed by the artist. He claimed not to advance the communist idea as rational explication of the contradictions of the world, but to impose the force of affects in a direct way. No matter his disputes with soviet composers and the infinite distance of his artistic culture, nourished by Greco and Piranese, Diderot, kabuki or Japanese painting, from the official marxist culture. He was able to write without turning a hair that his cinema was meant to plow like a tractor through the spectator’s psyche in order to raise another consciousness. His writings did not stem from an assignment but from his own believes, the believes of an artist, not a propagandist. He didn’t put the young cinematic art in the service of communism. He has rather put communism to the test of cinema, to the test of the idea of art and modernity of which cinema was, for him, the incarnation: that of a language of ideas becoming a language of sensation. For him, a communist art was not a critical art, aiming for some kind of awareness. It was an ecstatic art, directly transforming the connections of ideas into chains of images, in order to establish a new regime of sensibility.

Of course this ecstatism looks to rationalize itself in terms of dialectics: the mathematical rigor of “organic” montage leads up to the qualitative jump of “pathetic”. And The General Line (the old and the new), film without “story”, without any other subject than communism itself, is supposed to illustrate this dialectical law. The pure means of montage have to pathetise an idea deprived of any identificatory agency. The construction of sequences alternating between the old (the procession asking for rain) and the new (the cream separator), the accelerated multiplication of shots going from the rotation of the machine to faces, alternately dubious, joyous and gloomy, on their own have to exalt the event, it itself little attractive, of the condensation of milk. Constructive mathematics has to take the place of the Dionysiac orgy. But who doesn’t see that it is only possible on one condition? That its “abstract” frenzy would already be anticipated by the sequences of the “old” themselves.

What is of importance in the sequences of the procession, more than the “dialectical” games of oppositions complacently enumerated by the filmmaker, is the crazy pantomime of cross symbols and genuflexions. It’s not only the old submission to superstition that has to be replaced by the simple attention to verifiable performances of the machine. It is the force of incarnation of an idea in a body that cinema has to capture in its procedures to allow its conversion in another body of ideas. Yet the montage does not assure this conversion of affects by way of a simple calculation of “attractions”. In order to operate it, it has to resemble to this possession of a body by an idea. The principle of montage, stated Eisenstein in his writings, is entirely tied to the perception of the superstitious for whom the cat is not only a fury mammal, but a combination of lines that is since the beginning of time associated with darkness. This is not much of a boutade. And it is not more of a pirouette than this paradox that was, in 1935, thrown in the face of the congress members who denounced his formalism and urged him to regain the values of warm humanity: the claimed formalism, he replied, was actually the language restored from preconceptual thinking. The metaphors and the synecdoches in the General Line and Battleship Potemkim assure the adequation between the pure conscious calculation of the communist oeuvre and the unconscious logic governing the deepest layers of sensorial thinking.

But if they do assure that, it’s because the montage refitting the sensorial affects of superstition is itself accomplice. The young Komsomol in The General Line can turn away his head when the Kolkhozians put the heads of dead bovines on the fence to exorcise the disease of the bull. The filmmaker can punctuate with an inter-title the return of superstition. But the mise-en-scene, it cannot separate the force of these exorcisms. It cannot do without these masks, faces of death , metaphors and animal masquerades. And without a doubt the taste of masks and hybridations is a taste of the time. But its ordinary usage is “critical”: in the paintings of Dix, the montages of Heartfield, or in the scene of croaking toads in You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang), the metaphor or the masquerade denounce a certain inhumanity of man. Eisenstein bestiaries do something else entirely. Beyond caricature and metaphor, they take us back to a positive affirmation of the first unity of human and non-human. They properly constitute a mythology: perhaps the last version of this mythology of reason becoming sensible in which the “Oldest Systematic Programme of German Idealism” saw, at the dawn of the 19th century, the task of art converging with that of the new community.

That this programme has become suspect to us is not the heart of the problem. Our unease when seeing the waterfall of milk or the wedding of the bull in The General Line is not ideological. It is properly esthetical. It concerns what we see. We would like to get rid of it by denouncing it as a propaganda film. But the argument fizzles out. Not only because the shots in the film are the most beautiful, the most free that Eisensetein has ever composed. But because propaganda films does not function like that. They have to assure us of what we see, choose between the documentary that gives it to us as tangible reality and fiction that proposes it as a desirable end, put in their respective places narration and symbolization. And that is the certainty that Eisenstein systematically refuses us. Let’s go back to the sequence in which two brothers, according to the law of the “old”, share their poor inheritance. They lift the thatch from the roof and saw the wood of the isba; The metaphor of “dismantlement” of property is literalized and we expect to see, in the course of the sequence, an isba surrealistically being cut in two. But what we get to see is different and is allocated in two incompatible registers. Symbolically the sawn wood immediately becomes a new fence around the fields. Narratively the family of the brother leaves while carrying on their cart this wood that the metaphor has already “used” to construct these barriers. The filmmaker borrows a classical rhetorical figure, the syllepsis, consisting in taking an expression at the same time in its literal sense and in its figurative sense. The syllepsis takes together the small scene and the world it symbolizes. But it only does so at the price of leaving the elements disjointed and the eye uncertain of what it sees. The end of the well known sequence with the cream separator presents us with the same counter-effect: narratively the milk has to turn into cream. Metaphorically this thickened flow has been anticipated by its symbolic equivalent; an upward flow of water, synonymous of prosperity. And the body of Marfa on her knees has to visually carry the two meanings, in stretching out her hands flowing with spattering liquid – in opposition to the water coming from the sky of the procession – and in carrying on her cheeks the traces of thickened cream – in opposition to the stains of earth on the forehead of the farmer woman who is recovering from old genuflexions.

It’s too much for a body – and too little at the same time. And everything unbearable about the film can be condensed in the body of Marfa. It’s about making collectivism desirable. And the ordinary way to make an idea desirable is to let it be carried by desiring and desirable bodies, by bodies exchanging the signs of desire. To seduce in favor of the idea, Marfa not only has to undo her scarf a few times. She also has to signify, though as little as it is, a desire for something else than her cream seperator, her bull and her tractor, a human desire.

To make the law lovable, bodies need a weakness, a violation of the law. And the joyous lad in By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet) who abandons the communist work for the beautiful eyes of the Kolkhoz girl does more to make communism lovable than this figure in all her devotion. Woman without man, without husband or lover, without parents or children, Marfa only desires communism. This would still work if she would be a virgin of pure thought. But there is nothing of an ideal in the communism of Marfa. There is a constant mobilization of romantic affects culminating in the fake-real love scene that does not unite her with the tractor driver but with the tractor. To replace the driving belt of the broken down tractor, a cloth is needed and the driver who has already sacrificed his shirt is prepared to use the red flag when Marfa takes back his hand. A silent dialogue. Marfa half-opens her coat, uncovers her skirt and helps the driver to tear off some cloth. Crouching down under the tractor, the driver piece by piece tears off the cloth and Marfa hides her face in her hands while giggling, like a shy virgin both laughing and crying when exposing herself. The tension of the scene is as superb as it is intolerable (as was the confrontation regarding the use of profits, when Marta suffers the equivalent of a collective rape).

That is what frightens us: this gigantic détournement of energies that gives the communist tractor affects that are “normally” only at stake in the relation between one human body with another. But, once again, ideology is not the heart of the issue. We are not upset with Eisenstein because of ideals that he wanted us to share. We are upset with him because he takes our claimed modernity from the rear. He reminds us of this idea of artistic modernity with which cinema, at one time, could supposedly identify its technique of anti-representative art that was going to substitute to stories and characters of yesteryear the language of ideas/sensations and the direct communication of affects. The skirt that is lovingly torn from Marfa does not only take us back to a century of illusions that has capsized. It also asks of us in which century we are living ourselves, we who take, with Deleuze in our back pockets, so much pleasure in the love between a young girl in first class and a young boy in third class on a boat that is sinking.


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

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