Sunday, July 08, 2007


The dialectical image

Our view of history is shaped by economic factors, as we have said, but by technological factors as well. The photographic image and film have altered the past immeasurably, of course because they enable it to be seen, but also because of their dialectical nature. The film quite clearly shows movement, but the image is in motion too. One cannot view the image in isolation. It is defined by what precedes it and what follows. The art historian Aby Warburg saw the image as a still, charged with movement, and wrote his doctoral thesis to this effect on Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

The Birth of Venus depicts Venus emerging from the sea in a shell. It is a still image, but when we imbue it with movement we get Ursula Andress emerging from the water to greet James Bond.

If a still image is charged with motion such that it could be the missing part of a film, film itself must merely be a set of images, fluid but liable to be cut at any point.

I love my camera because I love to live

When we see a film, we are in a sense repeating the event which is being filmed. Now that we all have digital cameras, we can take movies so that we can relive the moment later on. We thus become the passive spectators of our own lives. The same applies when we see a documentary film of an historical event. As Giorgio Agamben points out in an essay on the films of Guy Debord, film works in the same way as memory. It "restores possibility to the past." Agamben quotes Walter Benjamin when he talks of memory as making "the unfulfilled into the fulfilled, and the fulfilled into the unfulfilled." We could see cinema in the same way. It allows us to project possibility into the past.

But the possibility created by the image can be killed off by that very same image. Images can deaden the imagination, especially when they illustrate the dominating effect of commodities. We are surrounded by these sort of images - in advertising, all forms of news and entertainment media, pornography etc etc. They project onto us, the unsuspecting viewer, all the hopes and desires of the capitalist system. We think we are watching them, but in fact they are watching us.

Our society is what Debord calls a society of the spectacle. An advert for an early home movie camera illustrates the point perfectly :

"I love my camera because I love to live. I record the best moments of life and revive them at will in all their richness."

The girl in the advert can permanently live her life by recalling memories. With her Eumig camera, she can recall her own memories ; via other media, she can recall the collective memories that have been projected onto her. Either way, the present has been petrified, and life with it.

Debord recognised that cinema must undergo a radical change in order for it to be revolutionary. This is not to say that cinema per se is an inadequate medium, merely that the commercial form in which its presents itself - narrative, plot, characterisation etc, all aimed at a market - inevitably means it will be overshadowed by the capitalist spectacle. The cinema works in the same way as the cathedral, with passive spectators being fed a message.

The Romanian angel

Debord was directly inspired by Isidore Isou, a Jewish Romanian émigré in Paris, and the founder (and initially the sole member) of the Lettriste movement.

Isou had been inspired by the Italian poet and philosopher Giuseppe Ungaretti, who stated that language is all that stands between mankind and chaos. But in turn, Ungaretti believed (like Debord, and Adorno/Horkheimer, and Derrida later on) that Enlightenment rationalism had turned everyday language into la parola abusata : the deliberate misuse of the word. Writing in the 1930s, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Ungaretti’s apocalyptic message was unmistakable. And Isou, a Jew who had escaped from Nazi-run Romania ten years later at the age of 23, heard it : meaning must be untied from a bastardised language. Poetry must be stripped down to the letter. Only then can a new language be created. Or, as Isou put it, “you couldn’t kill five million Jews and go on living as if nothing had happened.”

Amplification and chiselling

This stripping down of artistic forms came about as part of a natural process, and this became the basis of Isou’s all-encompassing theory of amplitude and chiselling. This theory stated that there are two phases to any development, be it artistic, political, economic or whatever. The first phase is called the Amplified phase, and is the period in which the form is born, acquires its vital characteristics and has its basic parameters set. In the case of poetry, for instance, Isou believes the Amplified phase began with Homer. Homer established what poetry is ; those who followed wrote poems according to the Homeric form. But eventually, it becomes impossible to innovate any further. Everything that can be done within the form has been done – any more additions to the canon from this point on are extraneous, “dead commodities”.

At this point the second stage, called the Chiselling phase, begins, whereupon artists must deconstruct the form. Rather than the poem being used to express subjects outside of it, the poem itself becomes its own subject. During the Chiselling phase, language is whittled down to the letter – the indivisible phoneme. The letter is all that is left after the poetic work is thoroughly deconstructed. Once this deconstructive Chiselling phase has been completed, a new Amplified phase may commence, and poetry can be reborn as the purified letter becomes imbued with new (and perhaps negative) meanings.

Lettrist poetry therefore has no meaning in any classical sense. According to the diagram above, which shows the entire Chiselling phase and how it acts upon poetry, writers from the past 100 or so years (all, save Tzara and Isou himself, French) have reduced poetry to the plastic image, then the sonic image, then the word, and finally the letter. Isou has set language free to “digest” new images and meanings, as in the hypergraphic or “superwriting” of Lettrism.

Slime and eternity / Howls for Sade

In 1951-52, Isou and Guy Debord, who had recently joined the Lettrist movement (and who would later resign and form his own Lettrist International) made two films which would completely disrupt all classical notions of what a film should include : Traité de bave et d'éternité and Hurlements en faveur de Sade.

The Lettrists recognised that even Dadaist films such as Rene Clair’s Entr’acte, which did away with the demand that cinema should follow a narrative path and somehow “make sense”, had not provoked the kinds of riots that the Dadaists intended, and had become almost reified into the artistic canon – the opposite outcome to the anti-art proposed by the manifesto writers of the movement. If this sort of revolutionary cinema could not be the hammer which would shape a new reality, it was clear that something far more radical had to be done.

The history of cinema in both of its phases is outlined very early in Hurlements, when Debord gives us his cinematic crib sheet :

1902: Voyage dans la lune
1920: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
1924: Entr’acte
1926: Battleship Potyomkin
1928: Un chien andalou
1931: City Lights. Birth of Guy-Ernest Debord.
1951: Traité de bave et d'éternité
1952: L’Anticoncept. Hurlements en faveur de Sade.

The films of the very early twentieth century set the template for cinema and Expressionists,. Dadaists, Bolsheviks, surrealists and American social comics have played with the style. Now, in 1951/52, is the time for chiselling to begin. Indeed, the protagonist of Isou’s Traité de bave et d'éternité famously states the Lettrist manifesto :

I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It's reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this pig filled with grease will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which is called film.

The chiselling techniques of which Isou speaks and which feature prominently in his film - discontinuity of sound and image, the scratching and tearing of celluloid, the use of flicker and negative sequences - are taken to their logical conclusion in Hurlements, a film with no images, no soundtrack, just voices uttering and repeating legal articles, declarations of love, gnomic edicts (“There is no film. Cinema is dead. No more films are possible. If you wish, we can move on to a discussion”) and surrealist elegies (“Death is like steak tartare”), as if from a disordered script. The film concludes with 24 minutes of imageless silence.

Debord had been attracted to Isou in part because of the way he had taken his film to the Cannes Film Festival in 1951and disrupted every board meeting until his film was shown (or rather heard – only the soundtrack to the film, and not the images, were ready for broadcasting). The Lettrists’ troublemaking had angered and excited people in equal measure, but it certainly attracted attention. With the first showing of Hurlements, Debord took this to its logical conclusion.

During a final silence of twenty-four minutes, when the only sound in the room was the turning of the reel, a member of the audience got up, thanked Mrs Dorothy Morland for an interesting evening and apologised for having to leave early. Everyone else stayed to the end, hoping that a sensational tidbit might still be coming. When the lights went up there was an immediate babble of protest. People stood around and some made angry speeches. One man threatened to resign from the ICA unless the money for his ticket was funded. Another complained that he and his wife had come all the way from Wimbledon and had paid for a babysitter, because neither of them wanted to miss the film...

The noise from the lecture room was so loud that it reached the next audience, queueing on the stairs for the second house. Those who had just seen the film came out of the auditorium and tried to persuade their friends on the stairs to go home, instead of wasting their time and money. But the atmosphere was so charged with excitement that this well-intentioned advice had the opposite effect. The newcomers became all the more anxious to see the film, since nobody imagined that the show would be a complete blank!

- Guy Atkins (with Troels Andersen), Asger Jorn : The Crucial Years, 1954-1964

The second film here is the full version of Hurlements. Sit down and watch it now, in its entirety. Unlike the original audience, you will have the option to pause or stop or fast-forward the film on your laptop. Resist this temptation and watch the whole film.

By its very nothingness, Hurlements fixes the audience’s attention onto nothing but the medium itself – the projector, the screen, the monitor. It is awesomely boring and utterly infuriating, and as such represents the last stage of the chiselling phase. It killed off cinema, just as Finnegans Wake had killed off the novel, and in doing so it all but killed off Lettrism.

Postscript : the destruction of idols

In 1952 Charlie Chaplin, whose City Lights had been part of Debord's crib-list, visited Europe to promote his new film Limelight. Debord had admired Chaplin for the same reason as Barthes did : because “he shows the public its blindness by presenting at the same time a man who is blind and what is in front of him. To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see.” Chaplin’s sophisticated portrayal of the pre-proletarian, pre-class-conscious worker had earned him a blacklisting from the United States, where he had recently been denounced as a traitor.

But in Europe, Chaplin basked in the glory of still being worshipped. He accepted an audience with the United Kingdom’s new queen, and the prestigious Légion d’Honneur in France. After a press conference in the Paris Ritz on 29 October 1952, Chaplin walked out of the hotel to face an adoring crowd, plus four men called Serge Berna, Jean-Louis Brau, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, Lettrists all. They hurled abuse at Chaplin and scattered splenetic leaflets which suggested to Chaplin he might not be so welcome among all Parisians :

The point of this stunt was threefold : to turn in an easy target, to destabilise the position of Isou (who played no part in it) as leader of the Lettrists, and to signal the end of Lettrism itsekf. For the Chaplin stunt (and the ICA screening of Hurlements) had both gone beyond Lettrist theories. Isou himself sympathised with his colleagues at the time, but disapproved of attacking Chaplin, who he regarded as untouchable. Debord was unrepentant : “the most compelling exercise of freedom,” he said in the first issue of the Internationale Lettriste, the splinter group formed by Debord after his brutal rupture with Isou, “is the destruction of idols, especially when they speak in the name of freedom.”

Isou and Lettrism were withering, they had become “submissive and graying.” Debord, ever the frosty strategist. was in the ascendant, and the seeds of Situationism had been sown.


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