Godard – The Child of Marx & Coca-Cola

On Godard’s Masculin/Féminin

(Now? The SI?) For many still overawed by the pronouncements of the Situationist International the names of Jørgen Nash and Jean-Luc Godard ring out as benchmarks of counter-revolutionary cultural activity. Godard, the darling of the Nouvelle Vague and regular contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma, came in for an especially strong dressing-down.Yet when you return to these passages from the mid 60s what is striking is the flimsiness of the so-called critiques. What the anonymous author of The Role Of Godard and Cinema & Revolution seems to be rejecting is not the films themselves but their reception in the media and the academy. Deeper research may reveal that Godard was in collusion with such a reception and that he may have been inspired by the films of the SI, but the SI nonetheless reveals itself, in the former article, to be in collusion with the dictates of high art when, in affording Godard “the consistent expression of a subjectivity” they qualify this as a “subjectivity on the level of a concierge educated by the mass media” (1). In the latter article Godard is contradictorily berated as being “not even … capable of the slightest personal originality” (2). So, in their impatience to denounce Godard, the Situationists drop their guard to reveal not only a class snobbery, but an assessment of culture as a site of competing individualities and not as that which can destabilise our idea of individuality. Moreover, as revolutionaries attacking a bourgeois culture which is for them epitomised by Godard’s pseudo political stance in such films as Masculin/Féminin, they do not take cognisance of how their falling back on such a notion as ‘personal originality’ in their ‘critique’ of Godard is precisely to mobilise the very lynchpin of bourgeois culture they want to be seen to be attacking.

This problem of ‘originality’ was one that the Situationists were keen to overlook. The practice of détournement, whilst ostensibly resolving this problem, is one that, in re-appropriating imagery and ideas, does not do away with the misleading status of ‘possession’. That Situationist texts are littered with denouncements of theorists and practitioners whom they drew upon and then claimed to have surpassed may be a point in case. Such manoeuvres, untroubledly legitimated by the SI’s self-appointed status as a revolutionary organisation, have the aftereffect of accruing to themselves the status of ‘originators’ rather than participants in the culture they sought to overthrow. Thus, in the Cinema and Revolution article the anonymous author – presumably Guy Debord – announces himself in the third person as beginning work on a film version of the Society Of The Spectacle. We are to presume from the tone of the article that this work will be a true original; indebted as it is to Eisenstein’s project to make a film version of Capital. But even though Debord’s work is a polemical tour-de-force of roughshod innovation, a film that is unafraid to institute its own form, it is a film that seems to flounder on its own reputation. It is outside the canon but forms its own canon wherein its director becomes the ‘possessor’, the arbitrative filter, of both the theory and the images. In this way the film falls foul of the last sentence of Thesis 108: “Detournement has grounded its cause on nothing external to its own truth as present critique” (3). Watching the Society Of The Spectacle we are witness to the tragedy of one man taking-on the historical dynamic of capitalism in the name of a class that he once forgot himself enough to insult. Is it such a pervasive atmosphere of loneliness that makes Debord’s film work against itself or is that, in increasingly coming to freeze its position as a premeditated ‘truth’, it seeks to freeze a continually moving social practice until any defence of such a ‘truth’ becomes filled with a moralistic nostalgia? The Society Of The Spectacle, as a manifesto which indicts an heteronomous society from the impossible and idealistic position of complete autonomy, comes to surmount the contradictions of practice that were to become increasingly central to a ‘cultural sphere’ that Debord and the Situationists rejected. And so, it is no surprise that Debord’s disgust for Godard comes into sharpest focus when the latter uses popular cultural themes in his work: “His flaunted culture is largely the same as that of his audience, which has read exactly the same pages in the same drugstore paperbacks” (4). This disdain for popular culture and the ‘low’ arts as the products of a spectacular economy is what assures Debord his aloof separation from society: he disqualifies himself from the contradictory ground of practice and alienates himself from any common fight for autonomy that does not seek to conform to the ‘truth’ of Situationist theory. Godard on the other hand, choosing a spontaneity that makes him receptive to contradiction and to the social relations that surround him, may not know what he is doing beforehand, but he at least ensures that the outcome is one that does not burden possible action with the moralism of ‘unrealizable injunctions’. Godard’s interest in popular culture, from the gangster films and westerns that he reviewed for Cahiers de Cinéma to the rise of the pop industry and the counter culture, did not, as the Situationists suggest, compromise his politics, but made them somehow more elusive and paradoxical, more liable to be transmitted through the culture than those of Debord and the SI. In the long run they are a politics that we can see evolving and which do not discount the role of the imaginary, the absurd and the creative, but bring these in to political practice as necessary components of any movement towards social change. Whereas Debord assaults us with a ‘truth’ we have to accede to, with an offer of being disciple to his master, Godard, it seems, takes more risks with being imperfect, contradictory and inconsistent. He doesn’t shy away from being pretentious and exploratory and therefrom opens up the terrain between the screen and the spectator which Debord, in cinematically illustrating the ‘truth’ of his own theory, makes even more unbridgeable. The latter, by establishing an heteronomous relationship of passive dependency between himself and his audience seems to ensure that he expresses the ‘spectacle’ in his own practice and brings along with this an active disdain of our own ‘idiolectic’ potential to be more participants than spectators. If such closure and hermeticism as that of Debord’s is revolutionary then the Society Of The Spectacle is a revolutionary film and Godard, throughout all his works, was pampering to the public taste of imbecilic concierges.

But what exactly is a ‘revolutionary film’? Is it a film that deepens our understanding of capitalist social relations and spurs us to action? Is it propagandist? Is it a film that deepens perception and broadens our notion of the social to the degree that it enables us to recognise that our ‘own’ way of perceiving, our ‘personal originality’, is itself an expression of capitalist conditioning? Is it thus a modulation between the aesthetic and the political? In circling these questions we may take cover behind the one-time Situationist Asger Jorn and side with him when he defines what he calls ‘living art’ as not being an expression of the superstructure, an ideological outgrowth of the capitalistic ‘base’ that is concerned with “the observance of forms”, of moulds, but as a proto-revolutionary activity that encourages the mutual inherence of content and form by means of spontaneity, variation and inclusionary play. Through Asger Jorn we come to see that the categories of ‘revolution’ and ‘art’ are expressions of the superstructure that Debord and the Situationists willfully and mistakenly kept apart, reinforcing the ‘separations’ they set out to combat. Such a non-dialectical approach, one that occludes revolutionary presuppositions, unequal development of the means of expression etc, limits social activity from developing in autonomous directions and is particularly hindered by the appearance of a ‘correct’ and ‘exemplary’ behaviour that the Situationists were always keen to display. Such a vangaurdist and premeditated position, with its non-reflexive eagerness to occupy  the moral highground of ‘revolutionary subjectivity’, seems to necessitate the effecting of a premature synthesis that more often than not gives rise to an overvalorisation of one side of the equation to the detriment of the other. Either art or revolution, spectator or participant. Jorn, a student of history and one time analysand, was not afraid of his own conditioning, and being a member of various groups and never their leader, he could, in accepting paradox as a means of movement, talk of “giving oneself alternatively to both situations with equal abandonment” so that “there arises a new creation, the dialectical result of apparently incompatible oppositions” (5). Such a paradoxical process, shunned by Debord and the Situationists, is one of the main spurs to becoming expressed. It is a rhythmical process that, in offering the contingencies of social activity rather than premeditated knowledge, ensures that ‘spectators’ become participants; they find their way, they find their process, and in doing so they come up against the forms and contents of capitalism. For Godard this is a movie industry that demands set character types and character development, recognisable situations, standardised camerawork and smooth editing. The calm of product. Yet in shaking up such form and content Godard does not simply make the ‘spectacle’ more sophisticated, more modern, as the Situationists would have it, but by revealing cinema’s methods of conditioning and, in presenting various ambiguous paradoxes, makes it such that it demands a more rhythmical form of participation: one that takes account of the intermediate and transitional state of our social experience.This has been described as the spectator having to ‘work’ whilst watching Godard’s films but this ‘work’ of participation is nothing other than the movement of thought as it weighs, balances and is put off-kilter by what is presented; as it occupies supposedly contrary positions in a destabilising of individuality. This ‘work’ of cross-identification and projective-empathy is made prominent in Godard’s films and makes of his movies an experience of the relativity of ‘truth’ and ‘coherence’. Whereas Debord is untouchable and refuses his own advice to make activity carry within it its own critique, Godard, in ‘unfreezing’ practice, in having actors improvise, incites us to be critical of him. Even Pier Paolo Pasolini, a late convert to Godard, is on record as having remarked that he and his friends were embarrassed by Godard’s “stupid dialogue”. This initially off-putting characteristic of Godard’s work, this awkwardness of dialogue and gesture, is a direct result of our discomfort at seeing our own inexpressive fumblings up before us on a screen that we expect to be presenting us with perfectibility. And so the measure of Godard’s pretentiousness is the measure of our own divergence from a conditioning that appears natural and flawless: the movies that teach us what to expect but not how to live through the shattering of expectation. Being ‘pretentious’, eliciting an objectification of the norm, thus becomes a way to identify and elude the behavioural laws and political ‘truths’ that, linked to a social conservatism of power/knowledge and moral exemplars, become the means through which society reproduces the same content of expression in a different form.

(Masculin/Féminin) Godard’s 1966 feature takes the struggle for the “means of expression” (6) as one of its central concerns. Focussing on a group of friends that become variously embroiled in the day-to-day life of a mid-60s Paris it pits a a popular cultural means of expression against a political means of expression and in so doing it poses a question that had been set more explicitly by Asger Jorn: the “choice between indifference and impossibility”. The answer to this paradoxical riddle is the same as that posed by the title of the film: both supposed poles, when they are occupied one in the other, are, by means of contradiction, the very spurs to expression. In Masculin/Féminin the pole of ‘impossibility’ is first occupied by Paul and Robert who are communist militants working to bring about revolution. Their means of expression ranges from graffiting cars with Anti-Vietnam War slogans to writing a speech for the party cell about the labour process. Yet the two are far from being similarly committed and it is this aspect, verging on incoherence and dilettantism, that would raise the heckles of any self-righteous Situationist: Paul comes across as dallying with the party to the extent that Robert has to tell him that they are involved in a strike and later in the film Robert lectures Paul saying, “there’s no individual solutions. We learn by joining the struggle. You accept things too easily”. If anything Paul’s actually stated admiration for Robert as a working class militant casts him in the role of seeking after some identifiable form of ‘authenticity’, some image of the working class. His membership of the party, whilst playful and anarchistic, is full of contradictions: he has just left the army… he seems to be ‘slumming it’ in workers cafes… he is always preoccupied by his relationship with Madeleine… he works in the media rather than in a factory. In one scene he mimics the gait and speech of a worker who has come into a cafe to ask for directions. When asked by Robert what he is doing, Paul replies “I’m putting myself in his place”. Whether this is naivete, an absurd extension of empathy, or a critique of party jargon, remains more or less unresolved. It does, however, make clear that it is Robert who is much more at ease with the means of expression provided by the idealogues of the party. Paul’s ambivalence, perhaps too easily interpretable as Godard’s, is further expressed when, in a darkened street, he stands contemplatively before a row of posters that he and Robert have affixed to the side of a metro station. The posters, proclaiming “Votez”, are met by a street of indifferent passers-by and if Paul is having a doubting moment it is maybe that his preferred means of expression is a more ‘pretentious’ one as, in an adjacent scene, he says: “A philosopher is a man who pits his awareness against opinion. To be aware is to be open to the world”. Such an openness is to embrace paradox and retaliate against being a ‘character’ whose dialogue is anticipatable. With this comes the possibility of different forms of expression. Godard emphasises this interjection of different models and commentaries for thought and speech by having handwritten storyboards intervene into the film and by having various characters read aloud from books and magazines. The choices of voice offered by society seem to be endless and it is this bewilderment before the competing social narratives that appears to lead to the ‘indifference’ that is, at first, more closely associated with Madeleine the wannabe pop star and her friends.

The growth of the media and its attendant consumerist drive was charted by Debord and the Situationists and it is maybe Masculin/Féminin’s play in this same terrain that led the Situationists to make him the target of their invective. In Masculin/Féminin Godard does not come pre-armed with a critique of the media and popular culture but, as with his revealing depiction of the anarchic militant activity of Paul and Robert, he embraces the contradictions that popular culture brings and is at pains to show how popular culture becomes an unavoidable influence upon behaviour and outlook that needs to be negotiated. For the Situationists it must have appeared as if Godard was unduly fascinated by the new media industries and was embracing them uncritically, but with the vantage point of hindsight we can perhaps offer that Godard was exploring a new sector of industry as it was coming into being (indeed Paul is carrying out various surveys in a parody of the classification and quantification of consumer research). This is an industry that offers identities and is so obsessed with image as to actively create insecurities and misleading comparisons in an effort to make unstable adolescent identities ‘fit’: Madeleine works in a magazine photo-library and, in the early sequences of the film, is always absentmindedly combing her hair or doing her make up. Her absence from her self is emphasised by her idolisation of Sandie Shaw, and Godard goes as far as to base his actresses ‘look’ upon this 60s pop singer. The growth of media standardisation is, offers Godard, all pervasive: when Paul and Robert meet in public spaces there is always a television set in shot; when Paul goes to meet Madeleine in the recording studio he is made to pass through an alleyway of advertising posters and when the group of friends go to the cinema Godard makes sure that as they take their seats they have to pass through rows of spectators all reading opened-out broadsheet newspapers. The unavoidable influence of the media is highlighted further by Godard when he has the group of friends adopt the forms of the popular media. Not only is Madeleine a pop singer who, on first meeting Paul, has just cut her first record, but when the two are initially flirting with each other Godard structures the dialogue as a question and answer session. As with their constantly bumping into people who are reading from pulp novels and magazines this interview form, the adoption of a journalistic format, occurs between Robert and Catherine and even forms an entire sequence which is titled by one of Godard’s story boards as “Dialogue With A Consumer Product”. This latter sequence features an interview carried out by Paul with one of Madeleine’s colleagues; a girl who has been chosen as ‘Miss 19’. In this sequence, with Paul interspersing questions like “what do you understand by socialism?” with various banalities, a confrontation takes place between the ‘impossible’ and the ‘indifferent’. The synthesis here is embarrassed silences and insecure expressions which reveal aspects of the effect of both media technique and political faith: flattery provokes narcissism into revealing itself as an important component of ‘indifference’, just as the power/knowledge contained in the militant’s questions seems to infer the ‘impossibility’ of a conjunction. Such unruffled self-containment makes the young model come to personify a passive consumer product whilst Paul’s questions and expressions make him come across as morally superior. In this sequence Godard makes the point that, with it being possible for the model to say anything in this informal interview, she says nothing other than what would be expected of her. She says her lines. In provoking a disavowal of anything that could be seen as differing from standardisation such a media pervasiveness, the forms generating generalisation, has the effect of disseminating a self-censorship that is paralleled in this scene by the self-censorship of the party line that Paul articulates through his choice of questions. He too could have said something else. He too could be ‘indifferently’ occupying the terrain of generality. So, whether or not Paul is intending to politicise the young model or whether or not his lines are intended as an indirect politicisation of the audience, the effect of this sequence is that the two means of expression on offer (the popular cultural and the political) are both shown to be readymade and imbricated in one another. They are both ‘off-the-shelf’.This adoption of an identity and a concomitant means of expression is further emphasised by Godard later in the film when he has Paul in shot leaning against a wall and holding up, in front of his face, the face that adorns the cover of a magazine.The masks that both the media and the party-line create, the encouragement to adopt the identities they offer, is here made explicit by Godard. The offer of ‘change’ and ‘choice’ is made on the proviso that agendas are adopted, that they dictate the pace of self-awareness and that they provide the meter of self-expression. This homogenised difference touted as individualistic freedom, itself a tenet of the Situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’, is here adopted by Godard in a persuasive portrayal of popular culture and its ostensible leftist negation that brings to light a contradictory lived-reality of capitalism that the Situationists attempted to transcend through the theory of the spectacle and the theory of ‘proletarian consciousness’. Knowing-of, and the moralism entailed in acceding to ‘truth’, does not surmount the contradictions and imbrications of living-through. So, by placing Madeleine the pop singer in juxtaposition with Robert the working class militant, by having Paul interview ‘Miss 19’ and then poke fun at party jargon, Godard brings the contradictions that have continually dogged left-culture to the fore: how do the “children of Marx and Coca Cola” bring about the revolution? Is consumerism a blow that the working class is still reeling from? Is culture a sublimation or a site of struggle? Is the site of struggle itself too reliant upon forms of emotional ‘indifference’? Rather than effect a synthesis between these two divergences, a synthesis that could have been played through Paul as comrade and boyfriend, Godard refuses to reject either pole and allows the “incompatible oppositions” of these conjunctions to be held in abeyance to serve as the continual tension of the film: how do the productive powers of the media alter the ethos of political conflict? It would be too easy to be fooled by the apparent naturalism of Godard’s spontaneous shooting style and demand from him an idealistic resolution of the motivating force of the paradox between ‘impossibility’ and ‘indifference’. Having someone in this film speak the ‘truth’ would be to both accept Godard as an ‘auteur’ and to forego the work of the paradox. This would create a situation similar to that effected by Debord’s film version of the Society Of The Spectacle: the problems seem to be theoretically resolved in the neo-reality of the screen.

However, coming at it from another angle, a kind of ‘resolution’ has already been achieved in that Godard has, in Masculin/Féminin, brought together two sets of characters who would never usually meet and has them in discussion and interaction. This play with social relations that the possessors of a coherent theory have already risen above, is itself inferential of a revolutionary presupposition: the coming together of different ‘sections’ of society. It is one of the strengths of Masculin/Féminin that instead of denouncing popular culture as the Situationists were apt to do, Godard, perhaps presciently, addresses the problem from the standpoint of ‘changed’ conditions wherein an incipient consumerism is in the process of relocating the terms and terrain of political struggle and a shift in the productive forces is recomposing the working class (one of the highlights of post-68 social conflict has been a wariness of machinic militantism). This intuitive aspect of Masculin/Féminin runs parallel to the characters’ search for their own means of expression and raises the issue, perhaps, that the growth of the media and the teenage market from the late 50s, severed desire from social struggle and made desire autonomous enough to be monetized. What is raised by Godard, then, is that the desires and passions of popular music, the ‘impossibility’ of a pure and autonomous, almost narcissistic, desire, must meet with the rhythm of a mechanical militantism that is ‘indifferent’ to passion and inflected by superiority in its being in touching distance of ‘truth’. In this way Godard presents Madeleine’s pop record intermittently on the soundtrack and by bringing the lyrics into prominence he shows Madeleine as achieving a form of expression that, as much as it is mediated by the music industry, still manages to be a way that she can articulate her feelings and desires. The quality of yearning that her music adds to the film becomes a means by which Godard, in playing with this crossing of the supposedly ‘separate’, can alloy Paul and Robert’s political activity to the ‘impossibility’ of pop music: both can be comprised of a strong and necessary dose of naivete, militancy and idealism. So, as with the very title of the film with its suggestive profiling of gender as a basic instrument in the production of subjectivity, the conditions of ‘impossibility’ and ‘indifference’ cannot simply be attributed to one sex or the other, to one form of expression or another: the active and passive poles are, suggests Godard, to be taken on as the rhythms of a practice and the political is to be neither privileged-over nor divorced-from the popular. For the Situationists this level of contradiction and paradox was to have been surmounted by a taking sides informed by the duality of ‘proletarian consciousness’ and ‘false consciousness’. For Godard, during this period, there is a notion of subjectivity that takes cognisance of the way that subjectivity is in-forming as a precipitate of practical interaction with other people (social relations) and is not simply transcended by an adherence to ideology which can produce a subjectivity whose coherence is matched by a defensiveness (knowledge/power). At the most explicit level this appears when Catherine, after listening to Robert’s speech on labour conditions, takes the handwritten sheet from him and reads it directly into camera. Whether this his her showing solidarity with Robert or a means of parodying the mechanical production of proletarian consciousness is not something that Godard wants to resolve. It is the interaction, the transversal meeting of different ‘sections’ of society and what it could potentially lead-to, that is important. Similarly when Paul cuts a record in an amusement arcade and has a declaration of his love for Madeleine interspersed with fragments of appropriated advertising copy, Godard is not solely interested in the element of detournement in the scene, but is illustrating how readymade words and phrases, in readily providing a means of expression, are part of an apparatus that produces subjectivity.

So, the divergences of ‘impossibility’ and ‘indifference’ pass through each of the characters to the degree that it becomes impossible for them to remain unintensified. Paradox becomes a motivating force in the creation of a ‘living culture’ that defines reality anew. The confusion of popular culture can be negotiated to reveal new possibilities for defiant expression and militant affectivity and not simply rejected as the site of ‘false consciousness’  –  “you need to learn how to say what you want” says Robert and in this way the adoption of poses can become the adoption of positions. Spectatorship can become participation. The means of expression can become a renewed means of production. And so, when Madeleine’s friends take Paul to an art-house cinema his bemusement at the angst-ridden scenes that Godard parodies on the second screen is transformed into an agitational impulse as he manicly leaps out into the aisle and goes to the projection box to proclaim that the screen-to-film ratio of the movie is wrong before following this up by yet another act of graffiti and only then returning to his seat. In this sequence Godard presents the means of expression (the refusal to be a spectator), the means of production (the film within a film) and the means of distribution (projection room) as terms that can be applied to cultural products as well as to the products that arise from industrial manufacture. But rather than accept defeat at the hands of a commodity-logic that implies passive spectating and passive consumption Godard, in having Paul intervene in the process of quietistic commodification, brings the agitational qualities normally ascribed to working class militancy into a cultural sphere that, bearing in mind the reproductive function of culture, is not so easily demarcated from politics as the latterday Situationists liked to think. Not only does Paul reject the messages and models that the mock film presents to him, he complains about the technical aspects of its presentation. Paul has been stimulated into action and whereas the Situationists may have been more enamoured had Godard made Paul switch the projector off or slash the screen or delivered a speech about the spectacle, Godard is happy to have Paul paint another piece of anti de Gaulle graffiti. What is achieved by this is a continuity between cultural agitation and workerist agitation that still manages to put forward the suggestion that the supposed polarity between the two is an effect of superstructural mystification whereby capitalism, in seeking to prevent the arousal of expression and scupper the challenge of competing definitions of reality, puts forward the categorical divisions of ‘separation’ in an attempt to decrease cultural and political participation. It is Paul’s actions that are noteworthy. In a direct assault on such a ‘professionalisation’ of the right to creativity – a meretricious professionalisation that the Situationists were no strangers to – Godard ends the sequence in the cinema by having Paul muse to himself that: “This wasn’t the film we’d imagined. The perfect film each carries around with us.The film we would like to have made or perhaps even have lived”. Whilst this statement closely echoes Debord’s Critique Of Separation it similarly brings Godard into the frame and by auto-critiquing the film he has made he sheds light on the problem of the means of expression and gives its process an unaccustomed political role. By offering Paul another means of expression, by having a character express the possibility that he could make a film, Godard is intentionally demystifying the process of film making, making it less reliant on qualitative aesthetic principles and more dependent on the spontaneity of play: ‘I play/ You play/ We play/ At cinema/ You think there are/ Rules for the game” (7). The means he chooses to achieve it in this sequence of Masculin/Féminin is through a referencing of the qualities of desire and disappointment that the supposed passive consumer is reputed to be unable to find in any cultural product (be it Madeleine’s pop or Godard’s film). Such products, to quote Jorn again, can “liberate an energy” which is propelled by the fact that they contain varying degrees of transmitted desire. Likewise they can frustrate the desire that hype has aroused. In this case Paul’s disappointment with the film metonymically stands-in for the imaginative potential of all spectators for if he can imagine what the film could be, if he has expectations, then it is such expectations that are not simply an expression of wishful thinking or daydreams, but are what can underpin the development of the means of expression as it is spurred-on by desire to become an imaginatively active capacity. A capacity that itself becomes transmitted as a criticism or as, in the case the of this film, the ‘perfect film’ that Paul could ‘live’. And so, for this imagined film of Paul’s to be ‘lived’ it would not suffice for it to be the creation of a simulacra, a withdrawal into fantasy that could not shake free from conformity to the superstructural injunctions of high art and pop, but it would be a conscious inscribing of fantasy onto the social field. A work with the social materials of desire and relationships that relativise ‘impossibility’ and ‘indifference’. Such an outlook is not offered to us by Debord’s Society Of The Spectacle. This supposedly objective film comes over as having surpassed the social relations of which it is a part to the degree that it aggrandises to itself an entire revolutionary project. Masculin/Féminin may not be a ‘revolutionary’ film but, in profiling the struggle for the means of expression and in using the bridging of ‘separation’ as its mise-en-scene, it shows an awareness of the need for more people to ‘revolutionise’ their lives than those already in-the-know: an indifference to militantism desiring the impossible into popularity.

(Excursus) Under capitalism reality is made illusorily  transparent by a widespread adherence to such mediating factors as categorisation, generalisation and the stabilising equilibrium of ‘truth. Its culture becomes one which never tests reality. A practical upsurge in the means of expression, then, would not just imply a cacophonous culture nor would it necessarily imply a democratisation of culture. Its reality testing would be neither fashionable nor aesthetic. In contrariness to this it would bring-on the multiplication of differences and refound reality as an unseparated social reality that would take the illusion of transparency as its first object. Making the social field opaque in this way could be one of the presuppositions of a revolutionary endeavour in that people other than ‘revolutionary subjects’ could be drawn to exploring the social in order to discover there what has occurred and could occur for them (Paul seeks to ‘live’ his film). Such an opacity is what could issue from a far wider winning of the means of expression than that hereto won under the controlling, divisive and moralistic injunctions of ‘false consciousness’ and ‘proletarian consciousness’ that Debord offers. Whilst this is in no way Godard’s aim in Masculin/Féminin it is a conjecture that is made possible by a film that, perhaps knowingly, elides together and brings into conjunction, a tired leftist politics and a banal popular culture. It is, through their ‘impossible’ imbrication, their sketching-in of social relations, a matter, then, of presenting the individual characters as subjects in continual production and not as ciphers produced as products to carry out a function. This latter would see ‘proletarian consciousness’ as that which allies itself to a notion of individuality that has it that each subject seeks to preserve itself rather than outstrip itself. The issue of ‘coherence’ much vaunted by Debord is made impracticable by an awareness of the contradictions that come to light through a winning of the means of expression. Coherence comes to be about preserving the subject as it is which makes such a subject the locus for a power/knowledge that is wielded like any other moralistic injunction. Debord: “The only limit to participation in the total democracy of the revolutionary organisation is the recognition and self-appropriation of the coherence of its critique by all its members… ” (8). Bypassing the contradictions that run through the means of expression, Debord, in seeking a transparent coherence from his proletarian subject, becomes blind to the ways that a potentially reified language can limit our experience of social relations. Godard, for his part, especially in Weekend, is continually presenting us with bodies in space. Energies emanate from the actors in ways that are parodic, comedic, sensual and violent. Subjectivity, far from being coherent, is in flux and finds other means through which to express itself. It cannot conceive of ‘knowledge’ without its correlate of ‘misapprehension’. In contrast Debord ‘freezes’ the theses he wrote several years before he filmed them and makes no in-roads into the status of his own ‘knowledge’ as a discursive power. He therefore does not enquire into the ramifications for social practice of a ‘misapprehension’ that, all else aside, is intimately bound up with emotional dispositions and affective investments – a ‘semiotic of the impulses’ that cinema can reveal and which, in the micro-moments of social engagement, can be a sufficient enough catalyst to transform a situation. Such an opaque subjectivity, one multiplying the registers at which it can be expressed, is therefore assured of interrogating the manner and situatedness of its production. Infinite affinities make transparent capital’s interior incursions.

Neither Masculin/Féminin nor Weekend approach the illusory coherence of Debord’s Society Of The Spectacle.They have no overarching social theory that they are attempting to pedagogically instill in their viewers. On the contrary, as we have seen, they are replete with contradictions and “incompatible oppositions” that are being enacted as a social relation that is being played-out rather than transcended. They are films that are accented by an improvisatory play that borders, at times, on the pretentious. But it is this very pretentiousness, the continual ‘misapprehensions’ of their characters and consequently those of the audience, that encouraged Gilles Deleuze to offer, albeit a little schematically, that Godard’s “making false becomes the sign of a new realism, in opposition to the making true of the old” (9). It is something along these lines, a moralistic adherence to truth-value, that allows the Situationists to misapprehend Godard as a by-product of their overinvesment of their own truer-than-true theory of the spectacle. As Henri Lefèbvre has said, we cannot talk about a ‘pure’ spectacle because a spectacle, no mater how banal, “arouses emotions” (10). The Situationist overemphasis upon a ‘logic of visualisation’ (a logic Lefèbvre traces to the surrealist preference for the “visual rather than the act of seeing”), with its attendant relegation of the other senses, is, in its fetishisation of intelligibility, intimately tied to a social transparency in which all actions, being seen and repeated, are equatable with one another. This is a transparency in which everything is supposed to fit together without contradiction. A transparency that proclaims its legibility as the proof of its own ‘truth’. The capitalist system does not so much turn all action into a representation (a pure spectacle becoming simulacra) as make transparent preferred actions as representative of the social field and as the limit-point of social relations. As with the equilibria-inducing state of rest that is ‘truth’ or the drive for individual preservation (coherence), such a transparency discourages any action from taking place by making it more than clear that such actions are superfluous and have always already taken place. This perhaps indicates how the need for originality  is policed in such a way as to neither make no disturbing pulse on the surface of transparent calm (institutional mediation) nor to get out of hand as an outbreak of opacity spurred-on by a widening of the means of expression (revolutionary presupposition). But ‘originality’ is only a form by which each person’s singularity is alienated in a transparent culture – originality becomes that part of the singular that is intelligible to the culture. Hence both the popular media and political militantism do not simply offer representations they re-cycle them as intelligible ‘truths’ and circulate them without the singularity and opacity that would make them the adjuncts of a social practice. It is this singularity, with its incoherence bordering on the ‘false’, that a practice such as Godard’s highlights as a ‘new realism’. It is here that pretentiousness becomes that which makes the social opaque because it is through such pretentiousness, when it figures as playful, improvisatory and informed by a gregariousness, that the equalised exchanges of transparency reveal themselves as models and blueprints for a behaviour corresponding to the stability of routines that only benefit the imposition of capitalist social relations. The behaviour of many of Godard’s characters, in often being discontinuous and incoherent, by responding to their own desires to the detriment of coherency and a stable identity, is such that it highlights the ‘new realism’ of a subjectivity in flux. This carries its own set of problems but, for now, it can be said that this ‘new realism’ is one that instaurates a space for the often unintelligible effects of fluctuating emotions and desires, effects that accompany any practice and especially one that can be observed in Godard’s characters as they change tack and as they respond to the situational ambiences they find themselves in. In contradistinction to Debord’s proletarian subjects who ‘must become dialecticians’ Godard’s characters, themselves worked-up in collaboration with actors, are in a process of becoming. This would bring us closer to the Nietzsche who has described the emotions as ‘false’ per se. It would perhaps be better to say that the emotions are more opaque than ‘false’. However, they cannot be so easily discounted when it is the unintelligibility of emotions, their arousal amidst the dialectic of ‘knowing’ and ‘misapprehending’, that are the spur to an “incessant metamorphosis” (11). Such an outbreak of singularity should not be mistaken for an outbreak of individualism. The latter, associated with a carefully curated originality (ego boundaries), is that which maintains transparency and is too easily equatable with ‘truths’ that, in being adopted rather than challenged, maintain the status quo. The appearance of the singular in Godard’s films, is a singular profiled by the differences between people that come to light in any social activity and ensure this activity is communicative. The often banal settings of Masculin/Féminin and Weekend, in not seeking to overawe the improvisatory and inquisitive activity of the characters, allows their becoming to be accentuated as the content of the film. Generally, such a becoming, facilitated by a widening of the means of expression and a concomitant acceptance of the hazards of affective life, is, perhaps, more than just an antidote to a transparent society, but a means through which, in adding its laminates of opacity, it can bring about a reinvention of the social field, a rediscovery of the unintelligible, the experimental ‘false’, that, pursued further and cathected, could lead to the collective unfixing of societal glue: “Every creation of a new type must provoke a state of insecurity: creation ceases to be a game at the margins of reality; henceforth the creator will not re-produce, but will itself produce the real.” (12)

Howard Slater
@ Break/Flow (6/99 +10/00)


(1) Situationist International Anthology, ed Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets,1984, p 175.
(2) ibid, p 297.
(3) Guy Debord: Society Of The Spectacle, Black & Red 1983. A critique of the Situationist project by Jean Barrot can be found in What Is Situationism? ed. Stewart Home, AK Press 1996, p24-62. A facet of this critique is the SI’s reduction of capitalist social relations to those solely ‘mediated by images’. The professed ‘totality’ is absent.
(4)Situationist International Anthology, ibid p175.
(5) Asger Jorn quoted by Graham Birtwistle: Living Art/ Jorn’s Theory (1946-1949): Reflex, 1986, p36.
(6) Jean-Luc Godard: Godard On Godard: Secker & Warburg, 1972, p227.
(7) Jean-Luc Godard, Ibid, p243.
(8) Guy Debord, ibid, Thesis 121.This thesis was omitted from the film version Of the Society of The Spectacle. See Thomas Y Levin: Dismantling The Spectacle in On The Passage…, ed. Iwona Blazwick, ICA 1990.
(9) Gilles Deleuze: Cinema One,  Athlone, 1992, p213.
(10) Henri Lefèbvre: The Production Of Space, Blackwell 1999, p161. For his critique of the ‘logic of visualisation’ which informs these sentences see p75-76 and p96-97. It is from Lefèbvre that the play on ‘transparency’ and ‘opacity’ is also drawn. Transparency is first referred to by Lefèbvre as an ‘illusion’. The social is not transparent per se  but this is the logic of capitalistic modernism as ideologised by architects, urban planners, journalists and other professionals: “Under the conditions of modernity, as absolute political space extends its sway, the impression of transparency becomes stronger and stronger…” See p189.
(11) Nietzsche quoted by Pierre Klossowski: Nietzsche And The Vicious Circle, Athlone 1996, p69. Metamorphosis, like trauma, is too readily discountable as a ‘private madness’  because as a word its meaning tends to be overcoded as in extremis  and not as an everyday facets of social experience.
(12) Pierre Klossowski, ibid, p129.

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