Monday, September 15, 2014

A tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)

"I have also profited from your blog as a reader so I am glad to give something in return."

A little while ago, I blogged about a new book (Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme - Point of View: Perspectives of political film and video work) which had three new translations of Serge Daney. Thanks to the generosity of the book editor (Tobias Hering, whose quote is above) and of the translator (John Barrett), we get to publish two translations on the blog, starting with a key text on Straubian pedagogy (remember that other text on Godardian pedagogy?).

If you're curious about the book and are in London on October 29th, come and join Tobias at the book presentation at The Showroom. I particularly liked reading some questioning not seen since the political 70s, with a definite current angle.

A Tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)
From Nicht Versöhnt (1) to Moses und Aron, one idea predominates, entirely contained in this title, Nicht versöhnt: not reconciled. Non-reconciliation: that is, neither the union nor the divorce, neither the whole body (to preserve, to regret), nor the bias of disintegration, chaos (Nietzsche: "One must disintegrate the universe, lose respect for all."), but their double possibility. Straub and Huillet basically start from a simple irrefutable fact: Nazism happened. Because of Nazism, the German people of today is not reconciled with itself (Machorka-Muff, Nicht Versöhnt), but the Jews aren't either (Moses und Aron, Einleitung). Nazism, like any power but more than any other, challenges and provokes the artist, and as a result artists no longer have the right to be irresponsible: Schönberg is still not reconciled with Kandinsky, neither is Brecht with Schönberg. In the Straubian system, a retro mode is simply impossible. Everything is in the present.
Non-reconciliation is also a way of making and producing films. It is the stubborn refusal of all the forces of homogenization. It has led Straub and Huillet to what might be called a “generalized practice of disjunction.” Disjunction, division, fission, taking seriously the famous “one divides into two.” The look and the voice, the voice and its material (the “grain”), the language and its accents are, as Chou En-lai said, “different dreams in the same bed.” The films: the bed where what is disjoint, unreconciled, not reconcilable, “plays”, simulates, suspends unity. Not an (easy) art of décalage but the simultaneous head and tail of the one and the same piece, never played, always revived, inscribed on one side (the tables of the Law, Moses), stated on the other (miracles, Aaron).
What is it that imposes this homogenization against which one always has to disjoint, not reconcile, if not cultural imperialism which is in the process of submitting the film industry throughout Europe (England, Germany, Italy), to submit it to its manufacturing standards (a non-rational mess), to bring, for example, a man who, as first and against all, dared to film with direct sound and in dialect (Visconti: La Terra Trema), to no longer think of his films – for the global art market – in any other way than directly dubbed into English, without anchor point, directly mutilated?
Anchoring films, images, voices means taking seriously the cinematic heterogeneity. And this anchorage, the idea that an image is only possible there and nowhere else, is not just a matter of language and voice. There is also the body. Strangely, the Straubian cinema allows us to understand that the reason why the naked body has such exchange value, why it constitutes for capital (porn movies) such a precious signifier, is because it has no attachment to History, because it makes us loose sight of it. Therefore it is necessary to anchor the body. I'm thinking of the jerseys on the torsos of (true) farmers who lay their offerings before the golden calf in Moses and Aaron. And even of the eroticism in the Straub films, discrete validation, of the most neutral parts of the body, the less spectacularly consumable: an ankle here, a knee there.
The minimum device of enunciation is the voice, the phonic device. For Straub and Huillet this is the preferred device (Othon). But there are others. In Einleitung, rarely enough, the technical recording devices, the “sounding boards” are filmed. In Einleitung, Günter Peter Straschek reads a letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky and Peter Nestler reads a well-known text by Brecht. What do we see? Images of a recording studio, images connoting officiality, the weight of legitimate discourse, heavy, coming from above and destined to provoke no response. Images of talkers, of ’speakers’, servants of speech, therefore not having to rise to speak.
When we see the face of, let's say, Léon Zitrone (2) appear on French TV screens, we have to think – very quickly, once past the first moment of revolt – something like: “power – the power of the bourgeoisie – speaks to us directly.” Does this mean that Zitrone (his voice, his face, his eyes, his intonation) is completely transparent? No, it rather means that he is not talking but is just filling his speaking time. Which is something quite different. 
Speaking in the device, speaking ’in position’, means being exempted from enunciation (legitimation). For many years, we have seen oppositional parties fail to master this problem. They spent a huge amount of the time allotted to them (during which time they were actually seen) saying that the rest of the time they were never seen. And then they didn't have any time left to say what they had come to say.
Being removed from power means being removed from one's devices. Being removed from one's devices means being constrained – if only we could break out one day – to take on the dispositives of enunciation (”to distance oneself”) even before stating anything whatsoever. Obligation to note, in the device, an enunciation (the effect and the legitimacy of one's speaking out) which the device dispossesses a priori. This is why the question of enunciation is always linked to one of power (ability to speak, not to speak – Clavel (3) – to say things otherwise), while statements are on the side of knowledge (concentrated power).
And when we return to the images of the two friends of the Straubs (Straschek and Nestler) reading, it is clear that they are not professional 'speakers'. And what do they read by the way? Let us quote. In the letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky: “When I walk in the street and all men look to see if I am a Jew or a Christian, I cannot tell everyone that I am the one whom Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, while doubtless Hitler is not of this opinion.” And Brecht: “Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of barbarism, are like people who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood.
What do these two speeches have in common? These are speeches of victims, of people in exile, speeches that do not participate in any power. Never.
The question at hand is significant: how to stage speeches in a film (or these specific speeches, which are literary texts)? The Straubs' solution is at least paradoxical, something born from fantasy: to inscribe, to lodge discourses “of resistance” in the dominant devices. Fantasy: a state radio voicing Brecht. In order to have, at once, the enjoyment of revenge (the extreme – comical – instance of such a revenge would be Zitrone reciting Brecht), and most of all to get close to the moment when, between dominated discourse and dominating device, the incompatibility, the non-reconciliation takes its course. Still,and again and again. 
Remember Christian Metz saying that the linguistic translation of a shot of a gun would not be the word “gun” but something like: “Here’s a gun” (observe in passing that this example is not neutral: trajectory of finger, eye and bullet, scopic drive, ballistic drive). The whole problem of enunciation in cinema: knowing what, during the time of the projection of a film, functions as the instance that expresses, the voice that silently says: “Here it is... Here are corpses, a B-52... etc.”. Sound has the privilege to assert – as it is through sound that sense is made and from which militant cinema, for example, takes comfort –, but the privilege of the image, presentification, the very act of “Here it is” [voici] hasn't really been examined.
By solely considering the image as a surface, infinitely divisible, by only seeing in its iconic content what can be passed – decanted – from the realm of connotation to that of denotation, one leaves aside the basic fact that in the present of the film projection, something (but what?), someone (but who?) functions as the instance that says, “Here it is.” – We are given to see.
That is why we cannot follow Marc Ferro all the way to the end of his argument (see "Le Monde diplomatique", May 1975). As a good historian, he thinks he can help the maximum of the public by getting across whatever the news images (archive footage, stock-shots) contain haphazardly, implicitly, involuntary, in the domain of the denotable, of information, of knowledge (knowledge after the fact, the historian's knowledge.) However, the problem is not to reduce the image or to dream up one that would be information, purely denoted. This reduction, we begin to suspect, is impossible: like any implementation of code it secretes something irreducible, a “third meaning” (Roland Barthes (4)). The problem is rather that the image is not a flat surface to anyone, except for those who have chosen to make it flat.
As much as an image is alive, as much as it has an impact, as much as it calls out to a public, as much as it provides pleasure, it means that in this image, around it, behind it, something in the domain of primitive enunciation (power + event = “Here it is”) functions. In cinema, enunciation might be, hidden somewhere, a little machine wound up to repeat the Lacanian phrase: “You want to look? Well, look at this”.
The cinematic image can not only be accounted for by the competence of those who know how to keep it at a distance. It is like hollowed out by the same power that has allowed it, that wanted it. It is also this thing that people have enjoyed making and others have enjoyed seeing. And this pleasure remains: the image is a tomb for the eye. Seeing a film is coming into view of what has already been seen. Seen by others: the camera, the author, the technicians, the first audience, those responsible, sometimes political people, tyrants. And what has been seen has already been enjoyed.
It happens that this power is inscribed in the image, as something that marks it, guarantees, authenticates it. Hitchcock, master of suspense and of each image of this suspense, appears briefly to remind us that he is the master (the enunciator). And this “politics of the authors” becomes politics tout court, like in this extraordinary scene in Kashima Paradise [1973] by Yann Le Masson and Bénie Deswarte where we see the police simulate for television a Japanese attack in order to justify in advance their response (that television will be filming).
In this little film by the Straubs, Einleitung, there's the image of the Communards in their coffins, and that of B-52s  bombing. These are of course not neutral images. They serve not only to identify such body or such bomb. They also tell us – whether intended or not – that the camera was American, on the same side as the bomber, just as the photographer probably was on the side of Mr Thiers. The non-neutrality of these images is not only that they put us in the presence of something horrible, it is that they show something for which there is no counter-shot, no counter-proof, no other positive image: a photo taken by the Communards or the B-52 seen from the ground, i.e. from the bombed field, and that is to say, an impossible photo.
The same goes – a fortiori – for these images of Nazified masses feeding the current retro style. We have said that for Straub and Huillet Nazism was a central event. However, they never make use of images taken from the inside of Nazism. Why? Perhaps because they believe that the responsibility of an artist is to create his own image, current and risky, of his own anti-nazism (for them this meant to dedicate their most recent film to Holger Meins (5)), rather than to reproduce images taken by Nazi cameramen in so-called 'critical' or 'detached' montages. Any reproachful and hypocritical commentary would be powerless when confronting the turmoil of these images. The Straubs' lesson: the derisory well-meaning assertions on the soundtrack and the 'Here it is' of the Nazi image have different dreams in the same bed.
What makes Einleitung, as the authors say, "an agitation film" is perhaps its order of exposure, the time that it gives us to restore these images to what they are: images taken on the basis of U.S. power, taken from the other side. It consists of cleaning the images from every déjà-vu. It consists of bringing out (making ooze, bringing to light, driving out) from these images the power that has wanted them and that wanted them to not even surprise us anymore. Therefore, the horror is no longer the eternal return of the Same in the guise of the Same (retro mode), but the intolerable present (Holger Meins, 1975). 
Editor's notes 
(1) Daney frequently abridges film titles in this essay.
(2) Léon Zitrone (1914 -1995) was a host and anchorman on French television.
(3) Maurice Clavel (1920 - 1979) was a French writer and political essayist. The incident Daney refers to was the spectacular scene of Clavel walking out on a TV debate after he had been repeatedly cut off, bidding farewell with the words: "Good evening, my censors." (This detail is explained in an editor's note in a German collection of Serge Daney's essays [Serge Daney, Von der Welt ins Bild: Augenzeugenberichte eines Cinephilen, edited by Christa Blümlinger, Berlin: Vorwerk8, 2000.]
(4) Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980) is credited for the term "third meaning" in the earlier version of the text (Cahiers du Cinéma), but the credit is missing in the "La Rampe" version. Barthes introduced the term in his essay "Le troisième sens" (1970 – English: "The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills", in: Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Transl. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
(5) Holger Meins, German, born in 1941, was arrested along with members of the "Baader gang"; he died in prison in 1974 after 53 days of hunger strike. (Original note by Daney in "La Rampe".)

Originally published as "Un tombeau pour l’oeil (En marge de L'Introduction à la musique d’accompagnement pour une scène de film d’Arnold Schoenberg de J.-M. Straub)" in Cahiers du Cinéma 258-259 (July-August 1975). Republished in Serge Daney, "La Rampe", Collection Cahiers du Cinéma - Gallimard, 1983. First translated by Stoffel Debuysere in the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent”, (KASK/HoGent). The translation has been modified for this volume and made to match the revised version of the text published in "La Rampe". Revisions by Alexandra Bordes, Nicola Guy and Tobias Hering. No reproduction without permission.

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