Jacques Rancière, In front of the camera lens

Eisenstein, Odessa steps

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

Jacques Rancière, Figures of HistoryIt 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.

Eisenstein, Odessa steps