Jean-François Lyotard • 06.04.2023
translated, in collaboration with the author, by Paisley N. Livingston
The nihilism of convened,
Cinematography is the inscription of movement, a writing with movements-- all kinds of movements: for example, in the film shot, those of the actors and other moving objects, those of lights, colors, frame and lens; in the film sequence, all of these again plus the cuts and splices of editing; for the film as a whole, those of the final script and the spatio-temporal synthesis of the narration (découpage). And over or through all these movements are those of the sound and words coming together with them.
Thus there is a crowd (nonetheless a countable crowd) of elements in motion, a throng of possible moving bodies which are candidates for inscription on film. Learning the techniques of filmmaking involves knowing how to eliminate a large number of these possible movements. It seems that image, sequence and film must be constituted at the price of these exclusions.
Here arise two questions that are really quite naive considering the deliberations of contemporary cinecritics: which movements and moving bodies are these? Why is it necessary to select, sort out and exclude them? If no movements are picked out we will accept what is fortuitous, dirty, confused, unsteady, unclear, poorly framed, overexposed... For example, suppose you are working on a shot in video, a shot, say, of a gorgeous head of hair à la Renoir; upon viewing it you find that something has come undone: all of a sudden swamps, outlines of incongruous islands and cliff edges appear, lurching forth before your startled eyes. A scene from elsewhere, representing nothing identifiable, has been added, a scene not related to the logic of your shot, an undecidable scene, worthless even as an insertion because it will not be repeated and taken up again later. So you cut it out.
We are not demanding a raw cinema, like Dubuffet demanded an art brut. We are hardly about to form a club dedicated to the saving of rushes and the rehabilitation of clipped footage. And yet... We observe that if the mistake is eliminated it is because of its incongruity, and in order to protect the order of the whole (shot and/or sequence and/or film) while banning the intensity it carries. And the order of the whole has its sole object in the functioning of the cinema: that there be order in the movements, that the movements be made in order, that they make order. Writing with movements--cinematography--is thus conceived and practiced as an incessant organizing of movements following the rules of representation for spatial localization, those of narration for the in- stantiation of language, and those of the form ''film music'' for the soundtrack. The so-called impression of reality is a real oppression of orders.
This oppression consists of the enforcement of a nihilism of movements. No movement, arising from any field, is given to the eye-ear of the spectator for what it is: a simple sterile difference in an audio-visual field. Instead, every movement put forward sends back to something else, is inscribed as a plus or minus on the ledger book which is the film, is valuable because it returns to something else, because it is thus potential return and profit. The only genuine movement with which the cinema is written is that of value. The law of value (in so-called ''political'' economy) states that the object, in this case the movement, is valuable only insofar as it is ex- changeable against other objects and in terms of equal quantities of a definable unity (for example, in quantities of money). Therefore, to be valuable the object must move: proceed from other objects (''production'' in the narrow sense) and disappear, but on the condition that its disappearance makes room for still other objects (consumption). Such a process is not sterile, but productive; it is production in the widest sense.
Let us be certain to distinguish this pro- cess from sterile motion. A match once struck is consumed. If you use the match to light the gas that heats the water for the coffee which keeps you alert on your way to work, the consumption is not sterile, for it is a movement belong- ing to the circuit of capital: merchandise- match →→→ merchandise-labor power →→ money-wages →→→ merchandise-match. But when a child strikes the match head to see what happens--just for the fun of it--he enjoys the movement itself, the changing colors, the light flashing at the height of the blaze, the death of the tiny piece of wood, the hissing of the tiny flame. He enjoys these sterile differ- ences leading nowhere, these uncompensated losses; what the physicist calls the dissipation of energy.
Intense enjoyment and sexual pleasure (la jouissance), insofar as they give rise to perversion and not solely to propagation, are distinguished by this sterility. At the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud cites them as an example of the combination of the life and death instincts. But he is thinking of pleasure obtained through the channels of ''normal'' genital sexuality: all jouissance, including that giving rise to a hysterical attack or contrariwise, to a perverse scenario, contains the lethal component, but normal pleasure hides it in a movement of return, genital sexuality. Normal genital sexuality leads to childbirth, and. the child is the return of, or on, its movement. But the motion of pleasure as such, split from the motion of the propagation of the species, would be (whether genital or sexual or neither) that motion which in going beyond the point of no return spills the libidinal forces outside the whole, at the expense of the whole (at the price of the ruin and disintegration of this whole).
In lighting the match the child enjoys this diversion (détournement, a word dear to Klossowski) that misspends energy. He produces, in his own move- ment, a simulacrum of pleasure in its so-called ''death-instinct'' component. Thus if he is assuredly an artist by producing a simulacrum, he is one most of all because this simulacrum is not an object of worth valued for another object. It is not composed with these other objects, compensated for by them, enclosed in a whole ordered by constitutive laws (in a structured group, for example). On the contrary, it is essential that the entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum be promoted, raised, displayed and burned in vain. It is thus that Adorno said the only truly great art is the making of fireworks: pyrotechnics would simulate perfectly the sterile consumption of energies in jouissance.
Joyce grants this privileged position to fireworks in the beach sequence in Ulysses. A simulacrum, understood in the sense Klossowski gives it, should not be conceived primarily as belonging to the category of representation, like the representations which imitate pleasure; rather, it is to be conceived as a kinetic problematic, as the paradoxical product of the disorder of the drives, as a composite of decompositions.
The discussion of cinema and representational-narrative art in general begins at this point. Two directions are open to the conception (and production) of an object, and in particular, a cinematographic object, conforming to the pyrotechnical imperative. These two seemingly contradictory currents appear to be those attracting whatever is intense in painting today. It is possible that they are also at work in the truly active forms of experimental and underground cinema.
These two poles are immobility and excessive movement. In letting itself be drawn towards these antipodes the cinema insensibly ceases to be an ordering force; it produces true, that is, vain, simulacrums, blissful intensities, instead of productive/consumable objects.
The movement of return
Let us back up a bit. What do these movements of return or returned movements have to do with the representational and narrative form of the commercial cinema? We emphasize just how wretched it is to answer this question in terms of a simple superstructural function of an industry, the cinema, the products of which, films, would lull the public consciousness by means of doses of ideology. If film direction is a directing and ordering of movements it is not so by being propaganda (benefiting the bourgeoisie some would say, and the bureaucracy, others would add), but by being a propagation. Just as the libido must renounce its perverse overflow to propagate the species through a normal genital sexuality allowing the constitution of a ''sexual body'' having that sole end, so the film produced by an artist working in capitalist industry (and all known industry is now capitalist) springs from the effort to eliminate aberrant movements, useless expenditures, differences of pure consumption. This film is composed like a unified and propagating body, a fecund and assembled whole transmitting instead of losing what it carries. The diegesis locks together the synthesis of movements in the temporal order; perspectivist repre- sentation does so in the spatial order.
Now, what are these syntheses but the arranging of the cinematographic material following the figure of return? We are not only speaking of the requirement of profitability imposed upon the artist by the producer, but also of the formal requirements that the artist weighs upon his material. All so-called good form implies the return of sameness, the folding back of diversity upon an identical unity. In painting this may be a plastic rhyme or an equilibrium of colors; in music, the resolution of dissonance by the dominant chord; in architecture, a proportion. Repetition, the principle of not only the metric but even of the rhythmic, if taken in the narrow sense as the repetition of the same (same color, line, angle, chord), is the work of Eros and Apollo disciplining the movements, limiting them to the norms of tolerance characteristic of the system or whole in consideration.
It was an error to accre dit Freud with the discovery of the very motion of the drives. Because Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle takes great care to dissociate the repetition of the same, which signals the regime of the life in- stincts, from the repetition of the other, which can only be other to the firstnamed repetition. These death drives are just outside the regime delimited by the body or whole considered, and therefore it is impossible to discem what is returning, when retuming with these drives is the intensity of extreme jouissance and danger that they carry. To the point that it must be asked if indeed any repetition is involved at all, if on the contrary something different returns at each instance, if the eternal return of these sterile explosions of libidinal discharge should not be conceived in a wholly different time-space than that of the repetition of the same, as their impossible copresence. Assuredly we find here the insufficience of thought, which must necessarily pass through that sameness which is the concept.
Cinematic movements generally follow the figure of retum, that is, of the repetition and propagation of sameness. The scenario or plot, an intrigue and its solution, achieves the same resolution of dissonance as the sonata form in music; its movement of return organizes the affective charges linked to the filmic ''signifieds'' both connotative and denotative, as Metz would say. In this regard all endings are happy endings, just by being endings, for even if a film finishes with a murder, this too can serve as a final resolution of dissonance. The affective charges carried by every type of cinematographic and filmic ''signifier'' (lens, framing, cuts, lighting, shooting, etc.) are submitted to the same rule absorbing diversity into unity, the same law of a return of the same after a semblance of difference; a differ- ence that is nothing, in fact, but a detour.
The instance of identification
This rule, where it applies, operates principally, we have said, in the form of exclusions and effacements. The exclu- sion of certain movements is such that the professional filmmakers are not even aware of them; effacements, on the other hand, cannot fail to be noticed by them because a large part of their activity consists of them. Now these effacements and exclusions form the very operation of film directing. In eliminating, before and/or after the shooting, any extreme glare, for example, the director and to the sacred task of making itself recog cameraman condemn the image of film nizable to the eye. The image must cast the object or set of objects as the double of a situation that from then on will be supposed real. The image is representational because recognizable, because it addresses itself to the eye's memory, to fixed references or identification, references known, but in the sense of ''well- known''; that is, familiar and established. These references are identity measuring the returning and return of movements. They form the instance or group of instances connecting and making them take the form of cycles. Thus all sorts of gaps, jolts, postponements, losses and confusions can occur, but they no longer act as real diversions or wasteful drifts; when the final count is made they turn out to be nothing but beneficial detours. It is pre- cisely through the return to the ends of identification that cinematographic form, understood as the synthesis of good movement, is articulated following the cyclical organization of capital.
One example chosen from among thousands: in Joe (a film built entirely upon the impression of reality) the movement is drastically altered twice: the first time when the father beats to death the hippie who lives with his daughter; the second, when ''mopping up'' a hippie commune he unwittingly guns down his own daughter. This last sequence ends with a freeze-frame shot of the bust and face of the daughter who is struck down in full movement. In the first murder we see a hail of fists falling upon the face of the defenseless hippie who quickly loses consciousness. These two effects, the one an immobilization, the other an excess of mobility, are obtained by waiving the rules of representation which demand real motion recorded and projected at 24 frames per second. As a result we could expect a strong affective charge to accompany them, since this greater or lesser perversion of the realistic rhythm responds to the organic rhythm of the intense emotions evoked. And it is indeed produced, but to the benefit, nevertheless, of the filmic totality, and thus, all told, to the benefit of order; both arrhythmies are produced not in some aberrant fashion but at the culminating points in the tragedy of the impossible father/daughter incest underlying the scenario. So while they may upset the representational order, clouding for a few seconds the celluloid's necessary transparency (which is that order's condition), these two affective charges do not fail to suit the narrative order. On the contrary, they mark it with a beautiful melodic curve, the first accelerated murder finding its resolution in the second immobilized murder.
Thus the memory to which films address themselves is nothing in itself, just as capital is nothing but an instance of capitalization; it is an instance, a set of empty instances which in no way operate through their content; good form, good lighting, good editing, good sound mixing are not good because they conform to perceptual or social reality, but because they are a priori scenographic operators which on the contrary determine the objects to be recorded on the screen and in ''reality''.
Directing: putting in, and out, of scene
Film direction is not an artistic activity; it is a general process touching all fields of activity, a profoundly unconscious process of separation, exclusion and effacement. In other words, direction is simultaneously executed on two planes, with this being its most enigmatic aspect. On the one hand, this task consists of separating reality on one side and a play space on the other (a ''real'' or an ''unreal'' that which is in the camera's lens): to direct is to institute this limit, this frame, to circumscribe the region of de-responsibility at the heart of a whole which ideo facto is posed as responsible (we will call it nature, for example, or society or final instance). Thus is established between the two regions a relation of representation or doubling accompanied necessarily by a relative devaluation of the scene's realities, now only representative of the realities of reality. But on the other hand, and inseparably, in order for the function of representation to be fulfilled, the activity of directing (a placing in and out of scene, as we have just said) must also be an activity which unifies all the movements, those on both sides of the frame's limit, imposing here and there, in ''reality just as in the real (reel), the same norms, the same ordering of all drives, excluding obliterating, effacing them no less off the scene than on. The references imposed on the filmic object are imposed just as necessarily on all objects outside the film. Direction first divides--along the axis of representation--and due to the theatrical limit--a reality and its double, and this disjunction constitutes an obvious repression. But also, beyond this representational disjunction and in a ''pre-theatrical'' economic order, it eliminates all impulsional movement, real or unreal, which will not lend itself to reduplication, all movement which would escape identification, recognition and the mnesic fixation. Considered from the angle of this primordial function of an exclusion spreading to the exterior as well as to the interior of the cinematographic playground, film direction acts always as a factor of libidinal normalization, and does so independently of all ''content'' be it as ''violent'' as might seem. This normalization consists of the exclusion from the scene of whatever cannot be folded back upon the body of the film, and outside the scene, upon the social body.
The film, strange formation reputed to be normal, is no more normal than the society or the organism. All of these so-called objects are the result of the imposition and hope for an accomplished totality. They are supposed to realize the reasonable goal par excellence, the subordination of all partial drives, all sterile and divergent movements to the unity of an organic body. The film is the organic body of cinematographic movements. It is the ecclesia of images: just as politics is that of the partial social organs. This is why direction, a technique of exclusions and effacements, a political activity par excellence, and political activity, which is direction par excellence, are the religion of the modern irreligion, the ecclesiastic of the secular. The central problem for both is not the representational arrangement and its accompanying question, that of knowing how and what to represent and the definition of good or true representation; the fundamental problem is the exclusion and forclusion of all that is judged unrepresentable because non-recurrent.
Thus film acts as the orthopedic mirror analyzed by Lacan in 1949 as constitutive of the imaginary subject or object a; that we are dealing with the social body in no way alters its function. But the real problem, missed by Lacan due to his Hegelianism, is to know why the drives spread about the polymorphous body must have an object where they can unite. That the imperative of unification is given as hypothesis in a philosophy of ''consciousness'' is betrayed by the very term ''consciousness'' but for a ''thought'' of the unconscious (of which the form related most to pyrotechnics would be the economy sketched here and there in Freud's writings), the question of the production of unity, even an imaginary unity, can no longer fail to be posed in all its opacity. We will no longer have to pretend to understand how the subject's unity is constituted from his image in the mirror. We will have to ask ourselves how and why the specular wall in general, and thus the cinema screen in particular, can become a privileged place for the libidinal cathexis; why and how the drives come to take their place on the film (pellicule, or petite peau), opposing it to themselves as the place of their inscription, and what is more, as the support that the filmic operation in all its aspects will efface. A libidinal economy of the cinema should theoretically construct the operators which exclude aberrations from the social and organic bodies and channel the drives into this apparatus. It is not clear that narcissism or masochism are the proper operators: they carry a tone of subjectivity (of the theory of Self) that is probably still much too strong.
The tableau vivant
The acinema, we have said, would be situated at the two poles of the cinema taken as a writing of movements: thus, extreme immobilization and extreme mobilization. It is only for thought that these two modes are incompatible. In a libidinal economy they are, on the contrary, necessarily associated; stupefaction, terror, anger, hate, pleasure--all the intensities--are always displacements in place. We should read the term emotion as a motion moving towards its own exhaustion, an immobilizing motion, an immobilized mobilization. The representational arts offer two symmetrical examples of these intensities, one where immobility appears: the tableau vivant; another where agitation appears: lyric abstraction.
Presently there exists in Sweden an institution called the posering, a name derived from the pose solicited by portrait photographers: young girls rent their services to these special houses, services which consist of assuming, clothed or unclothed, the poses desired by the client. It is against the rules of these houses (which are not houses of prostitution) for the clients to touch the models in any way. We would say that this institution is made to order for the fantasmatic of Klossowski, knowing as we do the importance he accords to the tableau vivant as the near perfect simulacrum of fantasy in all its paradoxical intensity. But it must be seen how the paradox is distributed in this case: the immobilization seems to touch only the erotic object while the subject is found overtaken by the liveliest agitation.
But things are probably not as simple as they might seem. Rather, we must understand this arrangement as a demarcation on both bodies, that of model and client, of the regions of extreme erotic intensification, a demarcation performed by one of them, the client, whose integrity reputedly remains intact. We see the proximity such a formulation has to the Sadean problematic of jouissance. We must note, given what concerns us here, that the tableau vivant in general, if it holds a certain libidinal potential, does so because it brings the theatrical and economic orders into communication; because it uses ''whole persons'' as detached erotic regions to which the spectator's impulses are connected. (We must be suspicious of summing this up too quickly as a simple voyeurism). We must sense the price, beyond price, as Klossowski admirably explains, that the organic body, the pretended unity of the pretended subject, must pay so that the pleasure will burst forth in its irreversible sterility. This is the same price that the cinema should pay if it goes to the first of its extremes, immobilization: because this latter (which is not simple immobility) means that it would be necessary to endlessly undo the conventional synthesis that normally all cinematographic movements proliferate. Instead of good, unifying and reasonable forms proposed for identification, the image would give rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis. We could already find many underground and experimental films illustrating this direction of immobilization. Here we should begin the discussion of a matter of singular importance: if you read Sade or Klossowski, the paradox of immobilization is seen to be clearly distributed along the representational axis. The object, the victim, the prostitute, takes the pose, offering his or her self as a detached region, but at the same time giving way and humiliating this whole person. The allusion to this latter is an indispensable factor in the intensification since it indicates the inestimable price of diverting the drives in order to achieve perverse pleasure. Thus representation is essential to this fantasmatic; that is, it is essential that the spectator be offered instances of identification, recognizable forms, all in all, matter for the memory: for it is at the price, we repeat, of going beyond this and disfiguring the order of propagation that the intense emotion is felt. It follows that the simulacrum's support, be it the writer's descriptive syntax, the film of Pierre Zucca whose photographs illustrate(?) Klossowski's La Monnaie Vivante, the paper on which Klossowski himself sketches--it follows that the support itself must not submit to any noticeable perversion in order that the perversion attack only what is supported, the representation of the victim: the support is held in insensibility or unconsciousness. From here springs Klossowski's active militancy in favor of representational plastics and his anathema for abstract painting.
But what occurs if, on the contrary, it is the support itself that is touched by perverse hands? Then the film, movements, lightings, and focus refuse to produce the recognizable image of a victim or immobile model, taking on themselves the price of agitation and libidinal expense and leaving it no longer to the fantasized body. All lyric abstraction in painting maintains such a shift. It implies a polarization no longer towards the immobility of the model but towards the mobility of the support. This mobility is quite the contrary of cinematographic movement; it arises from any process which undoes the beautiful forms suggested by this latter, from any process which to a greater or lesser degree works on and distorts these forms. It blocks the synthesis of identification and thwarts the mnesic instances. It can thus go far towards achieving an atarxy of the iconic constituents, but this is still to be understood as a mobilization of the support. This way of frustrating the beautiful movement by means of the support must not be confused with that working through a paralyzing attack on the victim who serves as motif. The model is no longer needed, for the relation to the body of the client-spectator is completely displaced.
How is jouissance instantiated by a large canvas by Pollock or Rothko or by a study by Richter, Baruchello or Eggeling? If there is no longer a reference to the loss of the unified body due to the model's immobilization and its diversion to the ends of partial discharge, just how inestimable must be the disposition the client-spectator can have; the represented ceases to be the libidinal object while the screen itself, in all its most formal aspects, takes its place. The film strip is no longer abolished (made transparent) for the benefit of this or that flesh, for it offers itself as the flesh posing itself. But from what unified body is it torn so that the spectator may enjoy, so that it seems to him to be beyond all price? Before the minute thrills which hem the contact regions adjoining the chromatic sands of a Rothko canvas, or before the almost imperceptible movements of the little objects or organs of Pol Bury, it is at the price of renouncing his own bodily totality and the synthesis of movements making it exist that the spectator experiences intense pleasure: these objects demand the paralysis not of the objectmodel but of the ''subject''-client, the decomposition of his own organism. The channels of passage and libidinal discharge are restricted to very small partial regions (eye-cortex), and almost the whole body is neutralized in a tension blocking all escape of drives from passages other than those necessary to the detection of very fine differences. It is the same, though following other modalities, with the effects of the excess of movement in Pollock's paintings or with Thompson's manipulation of the lens. Abstract cinema, like abstract painting, in rendering the support opaque reverses the arrangement, making the client a victim. It is the same again though differently in the almost imperceptible movements of the No Theater.
The question, which must be recognized as being crucial to our time because it is that of the staging of scene and society, follows: is it necessary for the victim to be in the scene for the pleasure to be intense? If the victim is the client, if in the scene is only film screen, canvas, the support, do we lose to this arrangement all the intensity of the sterile discharge? And if so, must we then renounce the hope of finishing with the illusion, not only the cinematographic illusion but also the social and political illusions? Are they not really illusions then? Or is believing so the illusion? Must the return of extreme intensities be founded on at least this empty permanence, on the phantom of the organic body or subject which is the proper noun, and at the same time that they cannot really accomplish this unity? This foundation, this love, how does it differ from that anchorage in nothing which founds capital?
These reflections would not have been possible without the practical and theoretical work accomplished for several years by and with Dominique Avron, Claudine Eizykman and Guy Fihman.
Jean-François Lyotard teaches at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes). He is known for his psychoanalytical and Marxist treatments of literary, pictorial, social and political phenomena, including Figures discours.
Paisley N. Livingston is doing graduate work in cinema studies, theater and literature at The Johns Hopkins University where he has studied under Professor Lyotard. His translations of two articles by René Girard are forth- coming from The Johns Hopkins Press.
This translation was partially funded by a grant from the Ohio University Graduate Student Council.