Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema. Translated by John Howe. London: Verso, 2014; 154 pages. ISBN: 987-1781686065.
Reviewed by Konstantinos Koutras, Carleton University.
What are the poetics of a cinema of equality? Given the rich history of cinema as an object of philosophical and theoretical inquiry, it comes almost as a shock to realize that this question has not been posed before now. 1970s film theory, for example, designated the cinematic apparatus an instrument of capitalism while diagnosing the film spectator as a shackled subject of ideology. But nowhere in this vociferously political discourse was the question of equality ever broached. This is because the terms of the discussion necessarily motivated the search for a cinema liberated from ideology rather than one founded on equality. The more recent revival of philosophical reflection on cinema—via Žižek, Deleuze, or Badiou, to name only the most prominent figures—does not in any substantive way break with this tradition of ideology critique. Intervals of Cinema challenges this way of thinking about cinema, while also offering an alternative account of the politics of aesthetics it represents. Rancière’s concern is not with advising the reader on how to overcome ideology through cinema (or art), but with the way cinema has been put to use in enacting equality. This is a radical departure, and more provocative than it might at first seem. After all, whole careers have been built on the back of ideology critique, and the tradition retains a powerful appeal for those seeking a means to overturn or resist the prevailing social order. But Rancière makes a compelling, if somewhat inconclusive, case that the politics of cinema and art lie with the staging of equality rather than the subversion of ideology.
Rancière’s motives and allegiances are laid bare in the informative and engaging preface. In these opening remarks, he identifies himself as a cinephile, one who has no interest in advancing a “theory” of film. (5) This marks Rancière’s first overture for a politics of equality, for it allows him to oppose the professional status of the academic film theorist to the amateur status of the cinephile. Rancière considers the professional film theorist to be a kind of pedagogue, and pedagogy, as he keeps insisting, is the enemy of equality. In Rancière’s view, equality must be presumed from the outset for it to be actualized. The problem with pedagogy is that it neutralizes equality by preemptively establishing a hierarchy between one who knows and one who doesn’t, between the authority of the master and the subservience of the disciple. Rancière’s stated commitment to cinephilia is, then, polemical in spirit. It is meant to validate amateurism as a critical mode and, in the same breath, contest the pedagogical model of a master who asserts, if only implicitly, a superior intellect over a disciple. As we will see, if there is a villain to be identified among the essays collected in The Intervals of Cinema, it is unquestionably the pedagogue.
In dismissing film theory, Rancière is also dismissing medium specificity, or the premise that it is possible to deduce an aesthetic program for cinema (or any art) on the basis of the technical means specific to it. For Rancière, it is not that a material embodies or implies a specific art. Rather, art results when an aesthetic logic is applied to a given material or means. Furthermore, such logic always implies a certain form of politics. Rancière takes aesthetics to name that practice that configures sensory perception into an intelligible and communicable form, but that also, in the same gesture, parcels out places and forms of participation in a common world. Every partition or distribution of the sensible describes not only a certain relation to reality, then, but also a certain social order since in carving up the sensible we are at one and the same time defining and allocating places in the community. But just as aesthetics can knit together a given social reality, so too can it be used to undo that reality and, in a political gesture, oppose it with a different distribution of the sensible.
How do the essays collected in The Intervals of Cinema bring these ideas to fruition? The following statement is perhaps key in this respect: “The politics of cinema is played out…in the relation between the ‘documentary’ principle—observation of autonomous bodies—and the fictional rearrangement of spaces.” (122) “Documentary” normally refers to a mode of cinema, but here Rancière repurposes the term to describe cinema’s way of capturing space in its unpartitioned state, when it is populated by beings whose social identities have yet to be determined (hence their autonomy). “Fiction,” too, must not be taken in its more conventional sense. In Rancière’s lexicon, fiction refers not to invented stories divorced from reality, but to a space carved up and distributed into a given regime of meaning and a corresponding social order. The politics of cinema does not reside, as we are accustomed to thinking, in a given film’s commitment to this or that ideology. Cinema is political because it is a form of art capable not only of displaying bodies but of organizing them into particular configurations, and some of these configurations are egalitarian in design while others are pedagogical.
Rancière’s objective in each of the six essays collected in The Intervals of Cinema is to account for and promote the poetics of a cinema of equality while denouncing the stultifying poetics of the pedagogue. Rancière’s more general argument against ideology critique—that politics ought to be conceived solely in terms of an aesthetics or poetics of equality—stands or falls with each case study. The results, however, are somewhat uneven. The first essay, which sets Dziga Vertov’s cinema in opposition to Alfred Hitchcock’s, is perhaps the strongest. In an original and compelling reading of Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Rancière discovers in Vertov a director committed to a cinema of equality. Vertov repeatedly refuses to “fictionalize” the bodies on display, striving always to restore or secure their “autonomy.” In discussing the film’s poetics, Rancière suggests that Vertov uses the camera as a mere “transmitter of movement,” a kind of disinterested relay that testifies to “the equality of all movements.” (31f.) To the egalitarian Vertov, Rancière opposes Hitchcock, whom he rather audaciously casts in the role of pedagogue. In a remarkably astute analysis of Vertigo (1958), often acclaimed as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Rancière contends that through its plotting and structure the film mobilizes a poetics that pits the falseness of semblance against the truth of reality. And Hitchcock, ever the pedagogue, reserves for himself alone the privilege of adjudicating between the two.
Robert Bresson, another celebrated cinéaste, is also targeted. Through a detailed analysis of Mouchette (1967), Rancière discovers that Bresson’s dream of crafting a pure cinema shaped in the image of language falters when confronted by a film performer—in this case, Nadine Nortier, playing the title character—who refuses to let the images speak for themselves. Rancière’s intriguing insight is that it possible for a performing body to express its own discourse, a discourse that does not necessarily align with the discourse of the film, or even willfully runs afoul of it. In short, as the case of Bresson demonstrates, the utopia of a language of images must forever be deferred since it will never be able accommodate the “autonomous” bodies that populate cinema, bodies which have the egalitarian capacity to resist their fictionalization.
Unfortunately, the two subsequent essays are not quite as strong. In the context of Vincente Minnelli’s cinema, Rancière reiterates his commitment to an egalitarian consideration of the spectator. But this theme is explored far more effectively by Rancière elsewhere—in The Emancipated Spectator—and feels redundant here. He fares somewhat better in his discussion of Roberto Rossellini, whose documentaries on philosophy (as opposed to his more renowned neorealist work) serve as an occasion to reflect on the poetic conundrums that arise when attempting to give ideas material or sensuous expression. As always, Rancière’s concern is with the configuration of bodies. According to Rancière, Rossellini’s aesthetic strategy of seeking to link ideas with a specific body—to link, that is, a philosopher’s thought with the philosopher himself—is ultimately an exercise in pedagogy. But the logic that leads to this conclusion is not sufficiently clarified, and Rancière remains frustratingly silent on the kind of poetics that might serve the interests of equality when attempting to give cinematic expression to ideas.
Rancière recovers his footing over the final two essays, which find him confronting the question of politics more directly. In the cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Rancière discovers a break between their earlier, more expressly militant films and their later, “post-Brechtian” ones. Their cinema is thus exemplary of the more general confrontation Rancière stages between ideology critique and egalitarian poetics, between an idea of art whose agenda is to mobilize political activity and one that is content merely to assert equality. For Rancière, art in the Brechtian mould is hopelessly pedagogical in that it replicates the very hierarchy it seeks to annul. What Rancière admires in Straub and Huillet’s mature cinema is a willingness to cede the image to the bodies on display so that these beings may serve as agents of their own fictionalization.
Drawing on the cinema of Pedro Costa, which he considers to be exemplary of the egalitarian tradition, Rancière closes the volume by taking aim at the practice of so-called critical art. In a brilliant analysis, Rancière discovers that critical art often founders on the premise that confronting injustice means either transforming it into art (“indiscrete aestheticism”) or striking a militant tone (“inveterate populism”). (130) The first reduces politics to aesthetics, while the second prescribes in advance the alignment of bodies with social categories. Costa’s camera manages to avoid both fates by making manifest “the capacity of ordinary beings to express the wealth of common experience.” (125) In what is perhaps the most engaging and affective passage in the entire volume, Rancière demonstrates how the apparent destitution of Costa’s social subjects turns out to hide a sensory abode as aesthetically rich and vibrant as any art museum. (137f.) What is valuable in this kind of analysis—and indeed the rest of the volume—is that it invites the reader to consider the decline of ideology critique not as an occasion for mourning, or worse, disillusionment. Rather, by embracing the condition of equality and celebrating the poetics that sustain it, The Intervals of Cinema restores something vital to political thought and practice that the pursuit of a perspective free from ideology often suppressed: the positive capacity we all share to forge or reshape our own fictions. Whether we are prepared to make the leap to equality remains to be seen. But with Intervals, Rancière proves that there is cinema waiting for us if we do.