Whether we're dealing with the recent vogue for 'relational aesthetics', the curating of avowedly radical or committed exhibitions such Documenta 11 or the more ironic Communism exhibition at the Project Gallery in Dublin, or the prominence of figures such as Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou in the pages of Art Press and Art Forum, it is evident that the entanglement between aesthetics and politics has been a major practical and theoretical preoccupation as of late, both in the artworld and in academia – indeed one could argue that thematising this link has been one of the principal ways in which galleries and museums have organised affiliations with centres and departments, and vice versa. One of the ways of approaching this phenomenon is through a narrative of ebb or even defeat. Take, for instance, the following declaration by the British philosopher and critic Peter Osborne, from the pages of the journal Radical Philosophy: 'With the decline of independent Left political-intellectual cultures, the artworld remains, for all its intellectual foibles, the main place beyond the institutions of higher education where intellectual and political aspects of social and cultural practices can be debated, and where these debates can be transformed'.
The two films discussed by Rancière and Badiou (La Chinoise and Tout va bien) in a sense book-end the period of the Dziga-Vertov group, that is to say the period of Godard's attempts to match his political commitment with forms of filmic production adequate to his sui generis Maoism. As I will suggest in the conclusion, this absence of any but a cursory discussion of Godard's experience of collective political and aesthetic militancy may be regarded in some sense as symptomatic of a certain absence of the political economy of cinema – of the question of production – in Badiou and Rancière's 'subjectivist' treatments of politics and aesthetics.
Rancière considers La Chinoise at length in Film Fables, revealing much both about his own understanding of the articulation of politics and aesthetics, and about the specificity of Godard's 'Maoist' moment. Affirming the very impurity that he elsewhere uses to unhinge Badiou's contorted modernism, Rancière, picking up on the film's key caption 'Un film en train de se faire' (A film in the making), identifies as the stakes of the film the combination of an exposition of the montage/production process and of a Marxism staging itself. Marxism in La Chinoise is both what is represented and the principle of representation. But where does Godard find his principle of representation? In Althusserianism, the key reference (or material for excerpting) in the film, not to mention the target of Rancière's brutal break of 1969 (La Leçon d'Althusser) and the object of a mixed fidelity and polemic in Badiou himself. For Rancière, Godard's whole method may be located in a paragraph from Reading Capital, and grasped as the experience in cinema of the difference, to use a constant Maoist distinction, between that cinema which divides one into two and the one that fuses two into one. The latter, according to Godard, plagues 'correct' Marxist cinema, which always unites words and images by subjecting the latter to the former. To put it otherwise, Marxism tends to feature as a voiceover that directs the consciousness and affects of the viewer into the proper stance vis-à-vis the images flowing on the screen. Althusserian simplicity is portrayed as the antidote to Marxist dogmatism. As Godard put it in a discussion in California in 1968: 'La Chinoise had to be very simple, because they were very simple people trying very modestly to learn about simple things. So I had to be the simplest I could. It was the beginning of a new alphabet, so I didn’t even know how to speak'.
If Godard's films can be said to be political even when their subject-matter is not, it is because they undo this relationship. To stay with his more explicitly 'political' films we can think of the bizarre short-circuits in Le Petit Soldat, where he constantly wrong-foots our expectations of the 'right' images: thematising the problem of torture by showing the torture of a right-wing militant by a sympathetically portrayed FLN, depicting him making raised fist salutes in memory of the Spanish Republicans, and so on. More explicitly, the pedagogic work of Letter to Jane, or Godard's earlier short-circuiting of political expectations in Far From Vietnam fit this bill. In effect, following Colin MacCabe's pioneering analyses in Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, we could go further and track the various manners in which Godard's didactic anti-didacticism constantly frustrates that organisation of the image which would allow the overlay and imposition of meaning from director/producer to viewer/audience. One of the key aspects of Godard's films, in this respect, is the suspension of the illusion of knowledge, of 'oversight' provided to the viewer by the alignment of the perspectives of the camera, the spectator and the characters, a critical misalignment that takes place by refusing, within the image, some of the key technical tropes that make possible a totalising organisation – the pan where the camera pivots on its axis, the complementarity of shot and reverse-shot. Thus, beyond the difficulty of identifying political content (as in Le Petit Soldat) the requirement of the viewer-as-participant is induced by various ways of hindering the formal unity that would trigger a comforting, totalising knowledge. In Letter to Jane, we can see how these two analyses (at the level of form and of content) are conjoined. Likewise, with Godard's own self-criticisms – especially in his work with Miéville on Ici et allieurs, the principle will be similar: to undermine the fusion of the right image with the right sound under the aegis of a non-filmic transcendent idea.
In Rancière's terms, when the word 'lets you see' you can no longer understand, and when the image allows you to understand, you can no longer see. This two-in-one can be summarised for Rancière under the principle of metaphor, whereby an abstract idea is incarnated in a concrete image, and a concrete image can be identified by the abstract 'voiceover'. In discussing Godard – despite having put him in the register of the very Althusserianism he famously repudiated (perhaps thereby showing a surreptitious fidelity) – Rancière states one of the key principles of his understanding of the convergent work of politics and aesthetics:
This is the common work of art and politics: to interrupt the scrolling, the ceaseless substitution of words that make you see and images that speak, imposing belief as the music of the word. The One of the representational magma must be divided into Two: to separate words and images, to let words be understood in their strangeness, and images seen in their stupefaction.
Hence the protocol of separation that governs La Chinoise, which involves cutting off political discourse into the incongruous domain of the bourgeois flat in Paris: the aim is to produce an artistic understanding of political speech (not a suture of politics and aesthetics, but a critical-didactic dialectic, one could say). As Rancière puts it: 'The work of art is to separate, to transform the continuum of the sense-image into a series of fragments, of postcards, of lessons'. Think of the protocol of separation and estrangement in Les Carabiniers, where the brutality of war is conveyed through the conjunction of written placards (poems, quotations, declarations); farcically simplistic representations of battle; and the presence of a whole archive of postcards, of plundered territories as mere images, in one of the film’s most effective scenes. In La Chinoise it is dialectical comparison or dissociation of images and sounds which for Rancière constitutes Godard's unsparing artistic work on politics. (We could think of how this disjunction in politics eventually becomes a disjunction from politics, as if Godard loses all hope of a critical politics that would also be a critical practice of the image – or we could recall the brutal Situationist critique of le plus con de pro-chinois suisses position would be that he was on the wrong track to begin with.)
Godard's own estimation of his Dziga Vertov group is uncannily close to the very framework and terminology employed by Rancière. As he and Gorin remark about Letter to Jane: 'This is an aesthetic, this is a movie dealing with aesthetics understood as a category of politics. We prefer to speak of aesthetic and no longer of politics. We are only interested in knowing about a kind of expression. If I were in Vietnam, looking at a dead Vietnamese child, I would have exactly the same expression, as would Nixon or John Wayne...The term "proletarian revolution" in our country has become so misused that we prefer to say we are interested in aesthetics'.
Badiou turns to Godard's political aesthetics in an article entitled 'The End of a Beginning', recently published in L'art du cinéma. Like Rancière, he seems to skate over the Dziga Vertov works, strangely concurring with the consensus whereby in 68-72, Godard entirely subordinates his film to political imperatives, suturing his art to his politics.
The structuring category in Badiou's treatment of the film is that of periodisation (hence the title of Badiou's article 'The End of a Beginning'). Badiou reads Tout va bien as an attempt to make the gauchiste or Maoist 'real' of French visible in the midst of a situation of severe reaction and political closure (this is the sense in which he reads the title as a reference to the Chinese sayings in times of crisis: 'the situation is excellent'). If La Chinoise presented a filmic dialectic of political utterances and convictions, Tout Va Bien tries to make class struggle visible (in the arrangement of the factory, amusingly repeated apolitically in The Life Aquatic, as well as in the long pan at the end dealing with the intervention/expropriation in the supermarket, which as Badiou wistfully notes, repeated one of his own group’s actions). The film, for Badiou, aside from the historical referents of gauchisme stages the juxtaposition between the claims about objectivity (by the integrationist rhetoric of the boss and the PCF/CGT representatives) and a subjective possibility embodied in the workers' revolt. According to Badiou, Godard's focus is the issue of conversion, and one of the questions we may raise is whether there really is attention to the cinematic tools employed for this didactic/anti-didactic exercise.
The key question dealt with by Tout va bien for Badiou concerns the link between the vicissitudes of the couple, the politics of aesthetics (cinema, TV) and the aesthetics of politics (the presentation of revolutionary politics), and the political situation in France. The question that Badiou sees the film posing are subjective: what does the completed political beginning allow by way of subjective transformation? Note the question of the education of the characters. 'The film's conclusion regards the fundamental historicity of all things, the division of all that is, and therefore the resource in concrete possibilities of every experience, in particular that of the couple'. Badiou too is attentive to the formal dimension, which, alongside Rancière, he sees in the Brechtian dimension of Godard's work (Brecht is an explicit reference throughout Godard's work.)
Badiou cites seven elements as structuring the film: 1. Figural minimalism (the typological reduction, in the staging, of the action to a few representatives and key settings); 2. Typical gestures (running, fighting, etc. – following burlesque – already a principle of Les Carabiniers, but also one could argue of Breathless, where it is linked to advertising and spectacular stereotypes); 3. The monologue in front of the camera; 4. Documentary fragments linking typology to historical complexity; 5. Exteriors, indicating the outside; 6. symbolism of colours, indicated also by Rancière; 7. Again, dialectics, great symmetries: strikes and work, the office of the boss and his sequestering, the factory and the filming of adverts. We might wonder whether Badiou doesn't miss other aspects of the dialectic – for instance the significance of cheque signing at the beginning (to which we'll return) and the disjunctive placements of Montand and Fonda in the factory (as well as the background story regarding the choice of actors for those roles, to exacerbate a sense of struggle). This dialectic of cinema and politics (see Letter to Jane) will only be resolved by a (re)turn into the image and its analysis. Pedagogy is again at stake – since the film's theme is viewed as re-education, as the transformation of life, indirectly, by struggles. For Badiou, Fonda is the heroine because she draws from the declaration of the workers' novelty in situation the possibility of her own novelty in love.
Politically, both at the level of the entanglement of politics and aesthetics, and in terms of the concern with political pedagogy, Badiou and Rancière seem rather unconcerned by the prevalence of the theme of money in all of Godard's films, and those of the Dziga Vertov period in particular. Godard had been employed by Fox's publicity department in Paris for a spell and was always insistent about the centrality of currency to cinema – this is evident in his relationship to the star-system (think of the casting of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt) and also comes to the fore in his tactical and manipulative relation to film funding – from using his notoriety to garner commissions for the Dziga Vertov films from European broadcasters that would then refuse to show them, to putting 32 'political directors' from disparate left-wing factions on the payroll of his Marxist-Leninist Western Vent d'Est. The opening sequence of Tout va bien, showing the cheque-signing for the various contributors to the film, especially Fonda and Montand, is emblematic in this regard.
It is worth noting that Godard was emphatic in this period, both in his programmatic statements and his practice, about the primacy of the process of production over the moments of distribution and consumption in what he called the making of films politically (as opposed to the making of political films). Production should here be understood in a number of ways – in the sense of the function of the 'producer'; in terms of the mode and relations of production dominating the filming itself (the role of the collective in the Dziga Vertov group for instance); but also in terms of technique and technology, as when Godard powerfully argues that ideological relations are already embedded in the material apparatuses of film, the editing table for instance. (Not that Godard ignores the link between production and distribution, such as when the voiceover of British Sounds famously quips: 'If a million prints are made of a Marxist-Leninist film, it becomes Gone with the Wind'.) A further and very significant sense in which production is at stake for Godard is the extent to which film is capable of entering, to put it with Marx, the 'hidden abode of production', a problem Godard will encounter in different ways in British Sounds, Tout va bien, Passion and Sauve qui peut (la vie). In this regard, Godard's bitter 1973 letter to Truffaut, discussed by Richard Brody in the last issue of The New Yorker, is of interest. In that letter he mentions a film, tellingly called A Simple Film that would be the counter to Truffaut's Day for Night, a film that Godard regarded as a capitulation to a degraded Hollywood. Godard's film (which was never made) would be about
The other people who make movies, and how those 'others' do it. How your intern dials the phone, how the guy from Éclair carries bags, how the old man from Publidécor paints the ass [in the ad] for [Last] Tango [on a billboard] and each time, we compare the sound and the image… the sexual output of the old man from Publidécor and that of Brando.
Among the image's conditions of production, it is the relationship with money that particularly preoccupies Godard. As Colin MacCabe recounts, in the late 1970s Godard planned a film called The Story, with Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton, a film about the tortured production of another film, on the mobster Bugsy Siegel, entitled Bugsy (which of course will later be made by Warren Beatty). In the script for this film about a film that is not made, which itself will never reach production, we find the following line, spoken by Bugsy's imaginary producer: 'Let the images flow faster than the money does.' As MacCabe notes, contrary to the producer in The Story, who seeks to hide the 'financial determination' of images, 'Godard's project is the direct reverse – to slow down the images until the money appears and the phantasy displays its very constitution’. For MacCabe, Godard's initial images of money – in particular the juxtaposition of money as normalising social function to criminal money in Breathless – will give way to a concern with 'the money in the image', a problem that as MacCabe notes is primarily mediated in Godard by the image of women and the economy of looks this image depends on ('the problem of the look is inseparable from money'). The Dziga Vertov films, on this account, despite their purported 'unwatchable' character, permitted Godard to formulate with greater precision the strategies for breaking with the manner in which the order of money dictates the order of the image, or better, to try and break with 'the order which crystallizes in a set of money-relations'.
This problem is both financial and formal. Against the classical alignment of the look of the characters, the look of the camera and the look of the spectator (to which we can add the crucial alignment of the sound) Godard and Gorin's films seem to oppose a practice of dislocation, with more or less overt Brechtian resonances. To show the money in the image, to make possible the concrete audio-visual, to enable the concrete audio-visual analysis of concrete audio-visual conditions this dislocation is crucial. For film to become a political tool – the aim of the Dziga Vertov group – it is thus necessary to suspend its mere instrumentalisation, its aesthetic and political alignment (this is evident in Godard's contribution to the Chris Marker-organised collective film Far From Vietnam, as well as in his dispute with the Maoist filmmaker Marin Karmitz). The pedagogical drive of the films of the années Mao interestingly reflects the dispute between Badiou and Rancière. For Godard both employs a didactic-exemplary mode, as affirmed by Badiou with respect to the typologies of Tout va bien, and seeks to short-circuit the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics by slowing down, dislocating and disjoining images. But crucially, it is his attention to cinema's conditions of production – especially the role of money in the image – which allow him, while sharing Badiou and Rancière's egalitarian politics, to work through the enormous difficulties that beset the production of egalitarian images and image-relations, whether exemplary or critical, emblematic or dissensual. In this perspective, political prescription and aesthetic critique can only be attained or prepared by a method of detour, a way of making films politically which, while not necessarily generating political films, will permit a political reflection on the aesthetics – the visibility, audibility and legibility – of politics. As in Letter to Jane, this involves a certain subjective stance (not speaking in another's name) and also a certain claim about the situated character of political and aesthetic interventions (how does Tout va bien go to Vietnam by staying in France – a question Godard and Miéville will pose about Palestine in Ici et ailleurs). This is not a prescriptive but a preparatory work of art on politics, whose aim, as Godard and Gorin argue, is to explore the aesthetic preconditions for the following conundrum: 'How can new political questions be asked?'
Sunday, 1 June 2008