Dialector is now online at Poptronics.fr: http://dialector.poptronics.fr/
The text below is reproduced from that page. French version available there as well…
HISTORY OF THE DIALECTOR PROGRAM by Agnès de Cayeux, Andrès Lozano, Annick Rivoire
Sergei Murasaki, Kosinki, Stalker Sandor, Iterovich… No matter which pseudonym we use to refer to him, Chris Marker was the first‚ the first geek, the first programmer, the one who dove into computers, graphics cards, PEEKs and POKEs, who took a bite out of the apples of Alan (Turing) and Steve (Jobs and Wozniak). Marker programmed in 64k, 128k and 256k, wielding 5.25 floppies, poetry and invention. He wrote lines and lines of Basic code on his Apple // e, c and GS, those marvelous machines of the 1980s. Marker was a genius of computer thinking, inversing algorithmic logic, dodging digital syntax and refusing the label of visionary artist : “Let’s leave that to Steve Jobs”, he wrote.
It’s 2010. Marker recalls “the good old days when you could program quickly in Applesoft Basic.” He writes about his artificial intelligence (AI) dialogue program : “DIALECTOR was the sketch of a program that was interrupted when Apple decided that programming should be reserved for professionals. What remains are a few, probably incomprehensible, fragments and a dialogue sample. The original is stored somewhere on 5.25 floppy disks that are unreadable today. I’m sure that if I had been able to continue working on it at a pace of a few lines a day, the program would have had a much richer reserve of conversation, but that’s the way it is (and if CD-ROMs… and if… and if… wrong way of thinking).”
So, more than two decades after the slow-paced writing of DIALECTOR (from 1985 to 1988, time spent on inventing the possibility of a double, an ode to immortality), Chris Marker shares his thoughts : “Translating Applesoft Basic into contemporary code is probably unimaginable‚ this could have been one of my specialties: creating within the realm of the unattainable.”
This is the story of a man, his screens, his machines and his languages. It is also our story, that of computers and of thought : Do machines think ? And the story of an unrealized dream from the 1980s, a utopia developed out of AI.
It’s 2011. Marker e-mails us a few old annotated pages of the DIALECTOR program, as well as a dialogue sample. Then he finds the infamous 5.25 floppy and sends it over. It’s version 6 of the program. Time passes.
It’s 2012. We manage to track down an Apple // machine and its person. Together we set off on this journey into the history of computer programming. The floppy is readable. Version 6 of DIALECTOR, however, won’t execute and stops at the third command line, on the image of an owl. We extract the contents of the disk and discover that all the DIALECTOR files and version 6 of the program are intact, more than 20 years after they were saved‚ a miracle in the merciless world of programmed digital obsolescence. We convert them to text format and return them to Marker the same day, as requested.
It’s 2015. We have analyzed Marker’s lines of code and translated the program originally written in Applesoft Basic into a contemporary programming language. DIALECTOR runs on our computers. History is now imaginable. We converse with the program’s protagonist, whose name is COMPUTER. We spend hours in front of the computer screen, our machines and our apples. DIALECTOR is inexhaustible, with the humor of an English-speaking cat, a New York owl and a passing face.
It’s 1988. DIALECTOR suggests the futuristic and a-mortal vision of an anachronistic computer science dedicated entirely to poetic thought. In his stab at programming, Marker wrote the future face of machines: not very spectacular and, in a way, much more terrifying. He (perhaps unintentionally) predated a model of modernist fantasy that elevates the computer network to a possible matrix world, whose elements are already in place. The static, rudimentary art of reading on screen is now devoted to the irresistible ascension of the owl‚ eternal muse of the world according to Chris.
DIALECTOR is a computer program developed by Chris Marker in Applesoft Basic on an Apple //
The version that Chris Marker sent us is version 6 of the program, written in 1988.
DIALECTOR 6 is a conversational program that also contains visual and audio elements.
The program was originally saved on a 5.25-inch floppy disk.
According to Marker’s friend and engineer Paul Lafonta, previous versions were clearly geared toward multimedia development (touch screen, interactivity, etc).
Agnès de Cayeux, Andrès Lozano, Annick Rivoire
Chris Marker, as you may remember, wrote the narration for Bibliothèque Nationale (Toute la mémoire du monde) and Statues Also Die (which the public still has only been able to see in a version cut to half its length by the censorship board). These incisive, powerful texts, in which cutting irony plays hide and seek with poetry, would be enough to secure their author a privileged place in the field of short filmmaking, currently the liveliest fringe of the French cinema. As the writer of the narrations for these films by his friend Resnais, with whom he shares a marvelous understanding, Chris Marker has already profoundly altered the visual relationship between text and image. But his ambition was obviously even more radical, and it became necessary for him to make his own films.
First there was Sunday in Peking, which justly won a prize at the 1956 Festival of Tours, and now, at last, there is the extraordinary Letter from Siberia. Admirable as Sunday in Peking was, it was also slightly disappointing, in that the restrictions of the short format seemed inadequate for such a big subject. And it also has to be said that the images, while often very beautiful, did not supply sufficient documentary material in the end. It left us wanting more. But the seed of the dialectic between word and image that Marker would go on to sow in Letter from Siberia was already there. In the new film, it grows to the dimensions appropriate to a feature film, and takes the weight.
How to describe Letter from Siberia? Negatively, at first, in pointing out that it resembles absolutely nothing that we have ever seen before in films with a documentary basis – films with “a subject.” But then it becomes necessary to say what it is. Flatly and objectively, it is a film report from a Frenchman given the rare privilege of traveling freely in Siberia, covering several thousand kilometers. Although in the last three years we have seen several film reports from French travelers in Russia. Letter from Siberia resembles none of them. So. We must take a closer look. I would propose the following approximate description: Letter from Siberia is an essay on the reality of Siberia past and present in the form of a filmed report. Or. perhaps, to borrow Jean Vigo’s formulation of À propos de Nice (“a documentary point of view”), I would say, an essay documented by film. The important word is “essay,” understood in the same sense that it has in literature — an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well.
Generally, even in politically engaged documentaries or those with a specific point to make, the image (which is to say, the uniquely cinematic element) effectively constitutes the primary material of the film. The orientation of the work is expressed through the choices made by the filmmaker in the montage, with the commentary completing the organization of the sense thus conferred on the document. With Marker it works quite differently. I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence. The usual process is reversed. I will risk another metaphor: Chris Marker brings to his films an absolutely new notion of montage that I wall call “horizontal,” as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot. Here, a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.
Better, it might be said that the basic element is the beauty of what is said and heard, that intelligence flows from the audio element to the visual. The montage has been forged from ear to eye. Because of space limitations, I will describe only a single example, which is also the film’s most successful moment. Marker presents us with a documentary image that is at once full of significance and completely neutral: a street in Irkutsk. We see a bus going by and workers repairing the roadway, and then at the end of the shot a fellow with a somewhat strange face (or at least, little blessed by nature) who happens to pass in front of the camera. Marker then comments on these rather banal images from two opposed points of view: first, that of the Communist party line, in the light of which the unknown pedestrian becomes “‘a picturesque representative of the north country,” and then in that of the reactionary perspective, in which he becomes “a troubling Asiatic.”
This single, thought-provoking antithesis is a brilliant stroke of inspiration in itself, but its wit remains rather facile. Its then that the author offers a third commentary, impartial and minutely detailed, that objectively describes the unhappy Mongol as ‘”a cross-eyed Yakout.” And this time we are way beyond cleverness and irony, because what Marker has just demonstrated is that objectivity is even more false than the two opposed partisan points of view: that, at least in relation to certain realities, impartiality is an illusion. The operation we have observed is thus precisely dialectic, consisting of placing the same image in three different intellectual contexts and following the results.
In order to give the reader a complete sense of this unprecedented enterprise, it remains for me to point out that Chris Marker does not restrict himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but uses any and all filmic material that might help his case—including still images (engravings and photos), of course, but also animated cartoons. Like McLaren, he does not hesitate to say the most serious things in the most comic way (as in the sequence with the mammoths). There is only one common denominator in this firework display of technique: intelligence. Intelligence and talent. It is only just to also point out that the photography is by Sacha Viemy. the music the work of Pierre Barbaud. and that the narration is excellently read by Georges Rouquier.
Andre Bazin, 1958
Further Reading: Chris Darke, “Chris Marker Eyesight,” Film Comment, 2003.
Bon anniversaire Chris!
What else is there to say? Everything’s been said. Birth and death like an oroborous, the legendary snake eating its tail, where the date July 29, 1921 superimposes itself on another date, July 29, 2012. The two dates merge in an origami fold. Inside the fold is an extraordinary life and a wealth of extraordinary works. Inside is a cat, stretching its paws to the sound emanating from the speakers, a cat reclining on a keyboard. Inside is a love affair with cinema, and a Japanese bow to Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Hitchcock. Inside is a spiral, a tree trunk, the madness of time. Inside are thousands of photographs, each emanating the gaze of the master spectator, the man behind the camera and very rarely in front of it. Inside the fold are memories and a system of memories, strongholds against the onslaught of history’s wounds, erasures, distortions. Inside the fold is the Zone, a place where images mutate and take on disguises, where seekers wander in search of lost time, where stray dogs pace and owls sit with observant eyes, recording. The birth and the death touch like this, like the creation of Adam. The original breath of the baby, the last breath of the old man, still working, always working. The tears of friends and lovers, innumerable fans for the most famous of the unknowns. A loss is felt, because we care for the visions given to us by a man of vision. We care for the traces, relics, breadcrumbs left as a puzzle for our minds but also our hearts. Mysteries of time and remembrance, tastes of the futures fractal in the micro/macro, traces of the places he traveled. The dogs are crazy on the island of Sal, and all the other islands. “I found my dogs pretty nervous tonight; they were playing with the sea as I had never seen them before. Listening to Radio Hong Kong later on I understood: today was the first day of the lunar new year, and for the first time in sixty years the sign of the dog met the sign of water.” He was an island but also a continent, unfindable on any map. There be dragons. There be mysteries. There be celebration, rueful meditation and admiration.
Here’s an intelligent, fun video compiled by ARTE:
“A more modest and perhaps more fruitful approach might be to consider the fragments of memory in terms of geography. In every life we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae. We could draw the map of such a memory and extract images from it with greater ease (and truthfulness) than from tales and legends. That the subject of this memory should be a photographer and a filmmaker does not mean that his memory is essentially more interesting than that of the next man (or the next woman), but only that he has left traces with which one can work, contours to draw up his maps.”
Chris Marker, Immemmory
Our friends at MUBI are putting on a Chris Marker retrospective this Summer, giving UK members the ability to see Chris Marker films online for a small monthly fee. I’m trying to get more details on the programming & country limitations, so please check back here. Note 7/28/15: I’ve confirmed that the retrospective is limited to the UK site.
We’ve been adding one title a week for the past three weeks, and from tomorrow July 29th (and as I’m sure you know, the anniversary of Marker’s birth and death) the four of them will be live.
IN CELEBRATION OF CHRIS MARKER
This summer we’ll be hosting a retrospective on one of our all-time favourite auteurs, Master film & video essayist Chris Marker. Each week we’ll play one of his most iconic works.MUBI Marker Month
MUBI is known for its informed, eclectic and globe-spanning programming. The site has a large archive of films known and unknown, a selection of which are available live at any given time. MUBI screens classics and obscure indie films alike, all curated by people with great taste & wide-ranging interests. You won’t find this cinéphilic catalog on Netflix. In addition, extensive user-contributed lists, ratings, favorites & following functionality add a social media dimension to the site.
It’s been a great pleasure, having been unable to attend the Centre Pompidou’s 2013 Chris Marker exhibition and retrospective, to witness the appearance on Daily Motion of videos of the talks that were held, as well as a wonderfully edited overall / intro video that emerges us in Marker’s visual world. While a longer post is in progress on the series and the practice of video archiving, I did want to present the intro video first, as a kind of teaser and work of art unto itself.
Par Raymond Bellour, écrivain et théoricien de cinéma.
Le Centre Pompidou et la Bibliothèque publique d’information (Bpi) rendent hommage à Chris Marker, à travers ses films bien sûr mais aussi en suivant la piste de ses inspirations, de ses amitiés et de ses rencontres… Au coeur de ce voyage, l’exposition de ses installations et des oeuvres multimédias rassemblées dans la collection du Centre Pompidou, ses films et vidéos et un salon de lecture à la Bpi.dailymotion.com/video | Centre Pompidou channel
An excellent article on Johan van der Keuken’s The White Castle has been published on sabzian.be. The author is Gerard-Jan Claes, and the article In Search of the White Castle. Claes writes:
Rather than talking about film as a language, van der Keuken understands it as a condition, an état or a state of being, as something which defies easy definition and which can rather be approached in terms of becoming and movement. It’s a space of experience, a way of standing within the world. Maybe that also explains the appeal of his films. His films are all spaces in which you can wander, which envelop you, which stick with you and are hard to shake off.
He quotes van der Keuken on the tightrope walk of free composition, a method that creates associative rhizomes between heterogenous materials in an essay film. Editing creates a kind of connective tissue and prismatic relationship between places, topics, images, words. The inner connections are joined by the film’s outer connection, its placement within a triptych focusing on North-South political & economic disparities, within the system of production/labor that van der Keuken calls ‘the conveyor belt’. Van der Keuken’s White Castle forms the second part of his North-South triptych: Dagboek / Diary, 1972; Het witte kasteel / The White Castle, 1973; and De nieuwe ijstijd / The New Ice Age, 1974.
I think it’s fascinating to build within a free form, but a classical form needs to underlie it. The paradox is that if you want to make a free composition, you have to proceed in a stricter way than you would in a conventional film. You namely have to make it plausible to implicate certain things which don’t seem to have anything to do with each other at a first glance. It is my task to prove that, for the duration of the film, they do have something to do with one another. I propose that everything goes with everything, but everything doesn’t go with everything beforehand, but only after modification. Everything only goes with everything if you think about it carefully.
Johan van der Keuken, quoted Gerard-Jan Claes, In Search of the White Castle, sabzian.be
Image courtesy Sabzian
I betrayed Gutenberg for McLuhan a long time ago.Chris Marker
Thanks to Christophe Chazalon, master archivist over at chrismarker.ch, for Christmas in June; CH2 sent a collection of images – page spreads from a curious volume entitled L’An 2000: une anti-histoire de la fin du monde, published in 1975 by Gallimard. Like 2084, 4001, 3009, 2058, Bolaño’s 2066 (& La Jetée‘s un-numbered future dates), here we find more time travels from the late 20th c. to alternate epochs to come, an envisioned ‘prospectivist’ Y2K in this case. This book comes to my attention as something completely new, on my radar at least… It is a book where Marker’s roles seem to have been lead photographer and lead book designer. These images are further evidence of Marker as designer – one with a potent combo of wit, dark humor, visual acuity, and the unique application of montage to book design.
Recent and needed devotion of attention to Marker’s editorial and design role at Seuil has come out of late surrounding the Petite Planète travel book series. It is in this vein that we can perceive Marker’s mastery of layout, via which he brings the Trojan horse of his unparalleled visual & political wit. The spreads seen here are witty, yes, but not whimsical; some heavy political narratives live within the image concatenations.
To touch on the opening quote, despite the extreme aptness & quotability of the line, Marker was as intimate with Gutenberg as he was with McLuhan. The vast majority of his ‘estate’ consists of books. And he knew how to make them too. He weaves the two ciphers for media stages/epochs, over and over again, into rare media fabrics and a new temporal praxis for media. The book form of La Jetée is the most shining example, truly a ciné-roman (and one that was dear to his heart – he absolutely loved the book). Then we have the two volume Commentaires, the book Le Dépays, the out-of-print book of Le fonds de l’air est rouge, and Staring Back. Perhaps the magnum opus of Marker’s book design is Corréennes. I can’t think of any other cinéastes with this impressive skill set and printed oeuvre.
Marker’s layout genius is linked to the true métier of film editing, the cuts and splices, the choices and juxtapositions that make of Sans Soleil such an invitation au voyage. Gutenberg in motion, if you will, with Baudelaire sulking in the background. The tradition of emblems and ‘world turned upside down’ in French literature & publishing would be well-worth exploring in this connection, as it links Marker with a deeper anti-authoritarian artistic tradition, a grand example of which can be found in the hilarious Le Monde à l’envers carnivalesque visual genre of early modern Europe (18th/19th centuries, though examples date much further back).
For further reading, check the “Related Posts” links below, as well as Rick Poynor’s excellent article on book design & Marker’s Commentaires. For an overview of the life and works of André-Clément Decouflé, ‘sociologue, historien et prospectiviste’, consult this French Wikipedia article.
La prospective, qu’il contribua à largement à faire reconnaître en France par ses ouvrages et ses interventions à la télévision, fut progressivement délaissée parce qu’il estimait s’être complètement trompé sur sa vision de l’an 2000, vingt cinq ans avant l’avènement du troisième millénaire.André-Clément Decouflé, fr.wikipedia.org
Finally, let’s not forget the unforgetable publication – with Marker’s aid – of William Klein’s Life is good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956). Subject for another post. Again here, we are witness to the revolution of layout and photography, in a much more extreme manner than Marker’s own work, but certainly not unrelated.
L’idée d’« Album Petite Planète » séduira les patrons du Seuil mais n’aboutie qu’à la sortie d’un volume de photographies de William Klein, Life is good and good for you in New York (1956). L’exceptionnelle qualité des images, de la mise en page et de l’impression singularisent ce livre.Chris Marker au Seuil, Hervé Serry
I’m still seeking to understand this piece of writing, which forgoes a close reading of Marker’s The Last Bolchevik for something else, something akin to thinking out loud in a somewhat associative manner, while using a film – a moment of a film removed from context – for purposes having only tangential connections with the film itself. It strikes me as the philosophical opposite of letting the object speak that Benjamin practiced beautifully and Adorno celebrated but, in the final analysis, failed to achieve in concrete terms (except in his music criticism, of course). It is not all Rancière’s fault, as philosophy struggles on a regular basis with use and abuse of cultural artifacts; either they are subsumed as paradigmatic or used as merely illustrative decoration on the conceptual inner architecture of a system or a way of seeing. This piece tries to be an essay, but it is something else. I haven’t figured out what genre of writing this piece belongs to. I’m reproducing it here to help myself figure this out, in part. If you understand Rancière’s ‘project’, please don’t hesitate to write and clarify things for me, for I feel in a fog after reading this and can only blame it on the author preliminarily, as a knee-jerk reaction. But I can’t stay there. This cannot be my final word, nor hopefully Rancière’s final word on Marker.
I. In front of the camera lens
It is an image from turn-of-the-century Saint Petersburg, both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. The imperial family is passing by, surrounded by an escort of officers and dignitaries. The crowd gathered there, at the side of the road, is addressed by an officer with an imperious gesture: when the Tsar passes, the thing to do is to remove your hat. The commentator’s voice is heard: I don’t want this image to be forgotten.
What is Chris Marker trying to tell us by placing this image at the opening of his 1993 film, The Last Bolshevik? Is he trying to say that the people really were oppressed and humiliated in Russia in the early twentieth century and that, in today’s latest round of score-settling with the communist era, we should not forget what came before that era and justified its coming? The objector will swiftly reply that the evils of the day before yesterday do not justify those of yesterday, which, in any case, were worse. What is can never be justified by what was, no matter what conclusions we draw about the past. Or, rather, such conclusions belong entirely to the realm of rhetoric. It is only there that images suffice as evidence. Elsewhere, they merely show, merely provide a record for posterity. The image of General Orlov and his men imposing a duty of respect on the crowd doesn’t tell us that, all the same, the Bolsheviks had their reasons and their excuses. It tells us both less and more: this was, it is part of a certain history, it is history.
This was. Our present is not beset by skepticism, as people often claim, somewhat superciliously. It is beset by negation.’ If the provocation of denying the Nazi extermination camps has resisted attack and is even gaining ground, this is because it is synchronous with this spirit of the times, a spirit of resentment, ressentiment, not just resentment of the ideals of the new man which people believed in, or resentment of the people who got you to believe in those ideals or the people who destroyed them and brought about the general loss of faith. The object of resentment, Nietzsche tells us, is time itself, the es war: this was. Resentment is sick of hearing about this past of the future, which is also a future of the past. It has had it with those two tenses, which are so good at conjugating their double absence. Resentment is only interested in knowing time without the trickery: the present and its conjoncture, its conjunction of circumstances, as a present that we go on counting endlessly to reassure ourselves that it is woven out of the real and nothing but the real: the time involved in ratings that are expected to recover next month or polls that are supposed to track the same trend one month later. Just as resentment abhors the times and tenses of absence, so it abhors images, which are always of the past and which have probably already been doctored and trafficked by the false prophets of the future.
But the camera lens is indifferent to all that. It doesn’t need to insist on the present. It cannot not be in it. It has neither memory nor ulterior motive and, so, no resentment, either. It records what it has been told to record: the imperial family’s royal procession at the beginning of the twentieth century; or, thirty or forty years later, mobile human pyramids in Red Square bearing vast effigies of Stalin at their apex, which pass before Stalin himself, who applauds his image (Rothschild’s Violin). Someone in power not only allowed images to be made of these parades, which look so damning to us; he ordered that they be made. Just as some other authority, in Indonesia, commissioned those images of local children twisting their mouths in an effort to learn to speak the language of the colonizer properly; or those images of faces in tears before a portrait of Stalin in Prague in 1953. The camera has captured these images faithfully. But, of course, it did so after its own fashion, as a double agent faithful to two masters: the one behind the camera who actively directs the shot, and the one in front of the camera who passively directs the camera’s passivity. In Jakarta, the camera recorded the rapt attention of a child who is so much more anxious to do well than the cameraman is (Mother Dad). In Prague, it not only noted the faces saddened by the death of the Father of the People. It also noted how the photo of Stalin sat behind a glass pane, in a little niche similar to the ones where people used to put statues of the Virgin Mary in the recent past and where they may well put them again in the near future. (Words and Death. Prague in the Days of Stalin). And so faithfully did it reproduce the defendants in the Prague trials, confessing and explaining their guilt, that the rolls of film had to be consigned to the cupboard and concealed even from those who had attended the trials and been convinced by what they had heard. The mechanical eye of the camera calls for an ‘honest artist’ (Epstein) and unmasks the one who has only learned his role for an occasional audience.
This was. This is part of a story. To deny what was, as the Holocaust deniers are still showing us, you don’t even need to suppress many of the facts; you only need to remove the link that connects them and constitutes them as a story. A story, une histoire, is an arrangement of actions according to which there has not simply been this and then that, but a configuration that fits the facts together and allows them to be presented as a whole: what Aristotle calls a muthos — a storyline, or plot, in the sense in which we speak of the plot of a play. Between the image of General Orlov and the images of the Soviet epic and its disastrous collapse, there is no causal link that could legitimate anything whatsoever. There is simply a story that can legitimately include them both. For example, the story entitled The Last Bolshevik, which ties all sorts of other images into the official image of the royal procession: images such as those from the rediscovered footage of Alexander Medvedkin’s films which, in various modes, accompanied the different phases of the Soviet epic. These range from the surrealist images of Happiness, whose burlesque lightness of touch seems mockingly to undermine the promises of the official version of happiness, despite the conformism of the script, to the militant images produced by the cine- train, rolling across Russia to shoot from life and immediately relay to the interested parties the debates of people taking control of factories, land or housing; from official images made surrealist — or surrealist images made official? — produced to celebrate the work of the architects of the New Moscow, to interviews with people close to the filmmaker or researchers busy reviving his oeuvre and status, to images that speak volumes about the Russia of today, such as parties held by merry — and, Marker would have us believe, gilded — youth toppling statues. They range from images of the renewed pomp of religion, similar to that staged by the man who made Ivan the Terrible, perhaps to embrace, in a single sweeping glance, the Russia of the Tsars and the priests and the Russia of the Soviet dictator, and to the enigmatic image of an old man with an inscrutable face taking part in a ceremony. He turns out to be Ivan Koslovsky, the Russian tenor par excellence, a man who traversed the torments of the century imperturbably singing the muted melody of the Indian merchant in Sadko or Lensky’s farewell lines in Eugene Onegin:
Where, oh where have you gone,
Golden days of my youth?
This makes a story. But also a history of a certain era: no longer just an arrangement of actions in the Aristotelian manner, but an arranging of signs in the Romantic manner: signs that immediately talk and fall into place in a meaningful storyline; signs that don’t talk, but merely signal that there is history-making material there; or signs that, like Koslovsky’s face, are undecidable — like the silence of an old man, meditative as a person is at that age, or like the muteness of two centuries of history, the history of the Russia of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky within the history of Soviet Russia.
So, we are talking about a history of a certain era, a story from the time of history. That expression, too, is suspect these days. The current Zeitgeist assures us that all our troubles stem from the malevolent belief in history as the process of truth and the promise of completion. It teaches us to separate the task of the historian (doing history) from the ideological mirage according to which mankind or the masses would supposedly make history. But doesn’t this convenient dissociation obscure the very thing that makes for the peculiarity of the image with which we started this essay — namely, the way the princes passing by and the crowd which parts for them as they pass share the same light and the same image? Maybe this is what the ‘age of history’ is, quite simply, at least to begin with. Long ago, in the days of history painting, people painted images of the great and their deeds. Of course the hordes and humble people could be in the picture, too. It would be hard to conceive of a general without troops or a king without subjects. Occasionally, the hero would address them. Occasionally, the roles might actually be reversed and the old soldier, in great distress at the sight, would recognize his general, the Byzantine General Belisarius, in the beggar crouching at his feet. But there was nevertheless no common fate, shared between the man of glory subject to glory’s reversals and the ‘ignoble’ man, excluded from glory’s order; between generals fallen on hard times and the ill-born, who had already ‘sunk into anonymity’, in Mallarme’s phrase. The old soldier’s image could share the canvas with that of Belisarius. But he did not share the story of the honest Belisarius’s greatness and decline. That particular history belonged to Belisarius’s peers alone, and lor them it was supposed to recall two things that were of interest only to them: that fortune is inconstant, but that virtue, on the other hand, never fails the man who has cultivated it. The name ‘history’ was given to the anthology of such great examples, worthy of being learned, represented, meditated upon, imitated. Each one taught only its own lesson, unchanging over time, and intended only for those whose vocation it was to leave behind a memory of their actions and accordingly draw an example from the memorable deeds of other men worthy of being remembered.
But the image of General Orlov offers instruction of quite a different kind, precisely because it wasn’t made in order to provide anything whatsoever to meditate upon or imitate. The person who took it was not intending to remind us of the respect due to royalty. He took it because it is only normal to get down all that the great and the good do when they’re putting themselves on show, and since machines can do this automatically, these days. Yet the machine makes no distinction. It doesn’t know that there are genre paintings and history paintings. It takes both the great and the small and it takes them together. It doesn’t make them equal by virtue of who knows what mission of science and technology to bring about a democratic reconciliation between noble and humble ranks. It simply makes those ranks liable to share the same image, an image of the same ontological tenor. It does so because, for the image itself even to exist, those disparate ranks had to have something in common already: they belonged to the same period of time, to precisely that time we call ‘history’ – a time that is no longer an indifferent anthology of memorable actions, intended for those who are supposed to be memorable too, but the very stuff of human action in general; a time that is qualified and oriented, that carries promises and threats; a time that levels all those who belonged to it — those who belonged to the order of memory and those who did not. History has always been the story of the people who ‘make history’ exclusively. What changes is the identity of the ‘history makers’. And the age of history is the age where anyone at all can make history because everyone is already making it, because everyone is already made by it.
History is that time in which those who have no right to occupy the same place can occupy the same image: the time of the material existence of the shared light of which Heraclitus spoke, the sun of judgment none of us can escape. It is not a matter of any ‘equality in rank’ in the eyes of the camera. It is a matter of the twin mastery the camera prompts, the mastery of the operator and that of his ‘subject’. It is a matter of a certain sharing of the light, a sharing whose terms Mallarmé undertook to define, a few years before the image we’re dealing with here was taken, in the extraordinary prose poem entitled ‘Conflict’. This is about the conflict between the poet and those bores, the railway workers who, laid out by heavy Sunday drinking sessions, ‘close off, by their abandon, the vespertine distance’. It’s about an internal conflict as well, over the duty incumbent upon the poet not indecorously to step over the ‘carpet of the scourge’ of which he must ‘understand the mystery and judge the duty’.
‘The constellations begin to shine: how I’d like it if in the darkness that runs over the blind flock, points of light, like that thought just now, could be fixed, in spite of these sealed eyes not making them out — for the fact, for the exactness, for it to be said.’ The French poet wanted to steal from the brightly shining stars the right light not only for illuminating the workers’ faces, but to consecrate the shared sojourn. To that dream, as to all dreams, a German philosopher had already responded, some little time before, in his taunting way: ‘Human beings only ever ask themselves questions they can answer.’ Fixing points of light over the ill-born, sunk into anonymity — that had already been done, technically, routinely. It was called photography, which is writing with light; and with the advent of photography, all lives entered the shared light of a writing of the memorable. But the idealist poet, who dreamed of new ‘acts of worship’ by and for the community, may well have seen the central point more clearly than the materialist philosopher of the class struggle: light itself is an object of sharing and distribution, partage, but it is only conflictually common. The equality of all before the light and the inequality of the little people as the great pass by are both written on the same photographic plate. This is why we can read, on that plate, what it was actually pointless looking for in the painting of Belisarius as a beggar: the commonality of two worlds in the very gesture of exclusion; their separation in the commonality of one and the same image. This is why we can also see there the commonality of a present and a future, the future Mandelstam was to celebrate in 1917 in two deliberately ambiguous lines:
O Sun, judge, people, your light is rising over sombre years.
But the sentence of light is not only, as some would have it, the history of the new myths of the red sun and the bloody catastrophe they led to. It may, more simply, be the ‘justice’ that the images from Mother Dao do to the colonized of the recent past. Dutch colonizers in Indonesia took those images to celebrate their work civilizing the natives. In the forest where wild creatures once lived, a humming hive of industry now rose and in it their sons gained skill, dignity and a salary by extracting and forming metal. At school, in the dispensaries, grown-ups and children consented to the teaching that elevated them, to the hygiene of showers, to the vaccinations that saved their bodies and to the signs of the cross that saved their souls. These images of the recent past have been organized differently by Vincent Monnikendam. And the underlying principle of their reorganization is not to show the dark underside of oppression beneath this civilizing parade, to move from the ‘happiness’ pictured by the colonizer to the unhappiness and revolt of the colonized. No doubt the poetic voice off that accompanies the images voices the suffering of the earth and of a life that aspires to resume the ‘course of its thoughts’. But this very accompaniment is not so much a counterpoint to that suffering as the manifestation of a capacity for voicing the situation, for turning it into fiction. What it thereby accompanies on screen is a minute yet decisive change in the appearance of the faces and attitudes of the colonized, in the ‘happiness’ they express: they respond to the surprise of these imposed exercises with attention, with a certain pride in playing the game, as perfectly as possible, before the blackboard at school or the iron at the forge. They quietly assert their equal aptitude for all kinds of learning, for all the rules and every kind of contortion; they assert their equal intelligence. And watching the face of the little girl who takes such pains to spell the master’s language correctly, we seem to catch an echo of a moment of sentimentality on the part of the ironist Karl Marx, when he recalls the gatherings of the League of the Just and celebrates the ‘nobility of man that ‘shines from the workers’ brows’. It is a nobility of the same kind that makes the eye of the camera wielded by the colonizer shine. Consciously or unconsciously. Intentionally and beyond what was intended.
Translator’s note: The French word for Holocaust denial or revisionism, is négationnisme. A revisionist is a négationniste.
Jacques Rancière, “I. In front of the camera lens”, Figures of History, Wiley, 2014.
William Gibson, novelist
I first saw La Jetée in a film history course at the University of British Columbia, in the early 1970s. I imagine that I would have read about it earlier, in passing, in works about science fiction cinema, but I doubt I had much sense of what it might be. And indeed, nothing I had read or seen had prepared me for it. Or perhaps everything had, which is essentially the same thing.
I can’t remember another single work of art ever having had that immediate and powerful an impact, which of course makes the experience quite impossible to describe. As I experienced it, I think, it drove me, as RD Laing had it, out of my wretched mind. I left the lecture hall where it had been screened in an altered state, profoundly alone. I do know that I knew immediately that my sense of what science fiction could be had been permanently altered.
Part of what I find remarkable about this memory today was the temporally hermetic nature of the experience. I saw it, yet was effectively unable to see it again. It would be over a decade before I would happen to see it again, on television, its screening a rare event. Seeing a short foreign film, then, could be the equivalent of seeing a UFO, the experience surviving only as memory. The world of cultural artefacts was only atemporal in theory then, not yet literally and instantly atemporal. Carrying the memory of that screening’s intensity for a decade after has become a touchstone for me. What would have happened had I been able to rewind? Had been able to rent or otherwise access a copy? It was as though I had witnessed a Mystery, and I could only remember that when something finally moved – and I realised that I had been breathlessly watching a sequence of still images – I very nearly screamed.William Gibson