Text from Diagonal Thoughts
“Before being a conflict of classes or parties, politics is a conflict concerning the configuration of the sensible world in which the actors and the objects of these conflicts may appear. Politics is then this exceptional practice, which makes visible that which cannot be seen, which makes audible that which cannot be heard, which counts that which cannot be counted.”
- Jacques Rancière
It is not just a matter of “making political films”, but also of “making films politically”. With this dictum Jean-Luc Godard articulated a longstanding tension between politics and cinema. What is considered as problematical here has to do with the position from which one speaks, with speaking and letting speak, and with the medium that conveys it. Most of all, it has to do with the relations – social, cultural, economical – between people, in front and behind the camera, filming and being filmed, viewing and being viewed. Making cinema in a “political” way can never be about “subjecting” or “identification”, but should rather be about “subjectivation”. Likewise it’s never simply about delivering a “message”, but always about shaping new forms of visibility. One recent, powerful film that has the notion of the political at its very heart is Sylvain George’s Qu’ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre).
“Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it conveys on the state of social and political issues. Nor is it political owing to the way it represents social structures, conflicts or identities. It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with respect to those functions. It is political insofar as it frames not only works or monuments, but also a specific space-time sensorium, as this sensorium defines ways of being together or being apart, of being inside or outside, in front of or in the middle of , etc. It is political as its own practices shape forms of visibility that reframe the way in which practices,manners of being and modes of feeling and saying are interwoven in a commonsense , which means a “sense of the common” embodied in a common sensorium.”
The most avid theoretical explorer of the relationship between art and politics today is undoubtedly Jacques Rancière. For him, the politics of art plays itself out in the way in which new forms of visibility enter into politics’ own field of aesthetic possibilities. Indeed, there is an aesthetics at the core of politics: a configuration of times and spaces, of the visible and the invisible, of voice and noise, that defines both the place and the arena of the political as a form of experience. Politics has in itself nothing to do with the exercise of power or the struggle for power, but rather with the framing of a specific sphere of experience, the setting of objects posed as “common” and of subjects to whom the capacity is recognized to designate and discuss these objects. Politics, then, is essentially the conflict about the very existence of that sphere of experience, the reality of those common objects and the capacity of those subjects. The conflict resides mainly in the tension between the structured social body where each part has its place – what Rancière calls the “police” aspect of the political, the rational administration and control of social processes – and ”the part with no part” which unsettles this order on account of the principle of “universality” – what Etienne Balibar has named égaliberté – the principled “equality” of all men. It is precisely where verification of equality (really the condition required for being able to think politics) clashes with the established order of identification and classification, that the political has its terrain. The essence of politics resides in acts of subjectivation that separate society from itself by challenging the natural order of bodies in the name of equality and reconfiguring what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible”- a system of coordinates defining modes of being, doing, making, and communicating that establishes the borders between the visible and the invisble, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable.
The great danger of our times, according to Rancière, is the contemporary shift in the aesthetics of politics: that what is called “consensus”. Consensus is what reduces politics to police. It does not simply mean the agreement of the political parties or the social partners about the common interests of the community. It means putting a ban on political subjectivation alltogether, by objectivizing the givens of any collective situation in such a way as they can no more lend themselves to a dispute. There is no more contestation over the givens of the situation, over the partition of the sensible, there is only debate over the technologies of management, the arrangements of policing, the configuration of those who already have a place and a stake, whose voice is already recognized as legitimate. There’s no doubt that the political is rapidly loosing ground today, giving way to a post-political, post-democratic arrangement of management and polic(y)ing, occupying the spaces of instituted democracy. Against this consensual order, which squeezes out the political bit by bit, the only way of resisting is staging dissensus. This doesn’t only imply conflicts of interests or ideas, but also that “there is a debate on the sensible givens of a situation, a debate on that which you see and feel, on how it can be told and discussed, who is able to name it and argue about it … It is about the visibilities of the places and abilities of the body in those places, about the partition of private and public spaces, about the very configuration of the visible and the relation of the visible to what can be said about it.”
“The notion of dissensus thus means the following: politics is comprised of a surplus of subjects that introduce, within the saturated order of the police, a surplus of objects. These subjects do not have the consistency of coherent social groups united by a common property or a common birth, etc. They exist entirely within the act, and their actions are manifestations of a dissensus; that is, the making contentious of the givens of a particular situation. The subjects of politics make visible that which is not perceivable, that which, under the optics of a given perceptive field, did not possess a raison d’être, that which did not have a name…. This … constitutes the ground for political action: certain subjects that do not count create a common polemical scene where they put into contention the objective status of what is ‘given’ and impose an examination and discussion of those things that were not ‘visible’, that were not accounted for previously.”
Politics is the struggle for one’s voice to be heard, always setting up dissensus and disrupting the police order by supplementing it with a ”part that has no part”. If police is concerned with the regulation of populations by assigning subjects to their proper place within the social order, seperating those who take part form those who are excluded, politics always involves the subjectivization of those who make a claim to participate in an order in which they have no part. A particular arena in this process of emancipation is taken up by the “sans-papiers”. It is precisely because the logic of police cause these people to exist as an entity – thus clashing with the logic of equality – that politics comes about. In Rancière’s terms, the entity of the sans-papiers is the part that has no part: included, but not belonging. They are the indivisible remainder of the transformation of democratic political struggle into the post-political procedure of constant negotiation and policing. Žižek writes: “Postmodern racism emerges as the ultimate consequence of the post-political suspension of the political in the reduction of the state to a mere police agent servicing the (consensually established) needs of the market forces and multiculturalist tolerant humanitarianism”. When social order is organized in this way, so that constitutive antagonisms and splits within the people are plainly denied, it’s a matter of radically cutting through this order of the visible and sayable. A political moment arises when those “who have no right to be counted as speaking beings make themselves of some account”, at the moment it is shown for all to see hat they “didn’t have the rights that they had” and “had the rights that they didn’t”.
Politics is therefore always disruptive, it emerges with the “refusal to observe the ‘place’ allocated to people and things (or at least, to particular people and things)”. This is why the political is at the heart of Sylvain George’s cinema; a body of work that stems from a refusal to stand by, a will to resist, and, most of all, a drive to turn noise into voice, to make the invisible(s) visible. If the political consists of the demand to be counted, named, and recognized, to receive a place in the order of being, then his films are giving voice to this claim – that of the “nouveaux damnés”, trapped between the rule and the exception: the stateless, the clandestine, the precarious. If politics, as Rancière maintains, is really about “the visibilities of places and abilities of the body in these places, about the partition of public and private spaces, about the very configuration of the visible and the relation of the visible to what can be said about it”, then George’s work is a much-needed intervention in the aesthetics of politics, brimming with urgency and singularity. After having seen Qu’ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre), his impressive first feature film portraying the situation of migrants in Calais over a period of three years, it’s hard to believe George only started making films in 2005. Still, the intention must have been there all along, in the back of his mind, all the way through his studies in philosophy and his experiences as a social worker. It’s in this intertwining of philosophical, socio-political and humanistic concerns that his cinematic endeavors are grounded. “The idea”, he says, “is to make films that take a stand and assert a political position, and at the same time not to separate content from form; to be formally demanding and to manage to define an own view and grammar as a filmmaker.”
“The dream of a suitable political work of art in in fact the dream of disrupting the relation between the visible, the sayable and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle. It is the dream of an art that would transmit meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations. As a matter of fact, political art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an awareness of the state of the world. Suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.“
According to Rancière, the effect of political art is always the object of a negotiation between opposites: the readability of the “message”, that threatens to tear apart the sensible form of art, and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning. This exercise is always present in George’s formal language, which is full of ruptures and displacements, creating multiple games of temporality and spatiality, in his own words “space-time continuums where beings and things are fully restored to what they were, are, will be, could be or could have been”. Beyond the needs of narrative clarity, his focus is rather on an aesthetic of sensation, which tends to play on the material qualities of the medium. Changes in focus, speed, lighting and exposure, use of black & white tints, unusual angles and framing, long shots alternating with close-ups, and (in some of his films) the combination of different media (from Super-8 to DV and mobile phone): all these techniques are subtly put into the service of a certain defamiliarization and poetization, shaping the films as bodies of variating textures and intensities, loaded with intricate energies and arcane regions. While the images often ebb and flow between the figurative and the abstract, it’s the human body that is always present: rough faces, scorched hands, obscure figures. In this way, George’s work inscribes itself in a cinema with, in Nicole Brenez’ words, “a very elevated figural responsibility”; a cinema “capable of refusing physiological fatality, analysing figurative quadrates, discovering other frames and angles to view the body… a series of gestures whereby representation tears itself from itself so that, from a quantitative recording of the trace left by a body, the image becomes a speculative intervention on the body’s presence, its organic life, real needs, screaming and sometimes frenzied desires… As something that is simultaneously a trace, a reconstitution and a flickering, the figurative material appears in the state of a fetish, it is a sample, offering – or not – a hypothesis on being”. The body, after all, is an entirely political organism, craving for survival and recognition.
“Ce qui n’a jamais été vu, n’est pas reconnu”, Serge Daney once wrote. If what Rancière refers to as the police-aspect of the political – the rule governing the appearance of bodies in common space – focuses on the clear categorization of every individual, of every “visible” social unit, recognizing neither lack nor supplement, then the cinema of Sylvain George is an elementary form of resistance. By disturbing the dominant order of the visible and bear testimony to those who remain invisible and inaudible, a true anarchical act of emancipation is undertaken. Surely, we have seen images of “sans-papiers” before – in the news, in reportages that always seem to speak as authority – but never enough, hardly ever “right”. We see too many bodies without a name, too many figures who do not return the gaze we direct at them, who we are spoken about, without them given the chance to speak to us. George’s images make these silent bodies speak for themselves. Far away from any form of didacticism, what these images document is first and foremost an encounter between people, between different realities, in a indeterminant search and constant strive to make images possible that are, as Rancière has noted, “in phase with” the weight of emotions expressed, gestures uttered and words spoken. “For me”, George says, “cinema is a ‘means without an end’ – to paraphrase Agamben. The idea is to privilige the means to arrive at something that I don’t know myself. Starting for there, we are in the ‘demultiplication’ of worlds, rather than in a fixed world that tends to be folded on itself. By world, I mean that what constitutes the singularity of an individual. The objective is to shatter representations, otherwise we’re in the language of the ‘expert’, a language that reifies human beings and relations. There we’re also taking up the question of power. I claim the fact of not having an overhanging position. Yes, I provoke something in the sense that I have a camera and go meet with people, but it’s consideration I give them, in a relation of reciprocity and equality. This is what is eminently political: there we enter a world that opens up, where the borders become nomad.” Here we arrive, perhaps, at what Godard meant with “making films politically”. What is of importance here is installing relations between people other than the ones the dominating information system and police order prescribe, using modes of subjectivation that transform the aesthetic coordinates of the community, by fighting for what is the ultimate presupposition of politics: we are equal.
“Politics is gestures, cries, attitudes. This is what I think one sees in the film. We see in the film a moment in which bodies appear. There are words gushing out. There is a relation with the space which shatters itself. In general, in order to try to think about the relations between politics and aesthetics – not in the sense that it should be in the service of politics – what interests me is precisely the way in which the work of a filmmaker can be in phase with the weight of certain gerstures – be it the gesture of the revolt in the street, or the gesture of burning one’s fingers to prevent police identification. It’s something that is very important for me, the idea that the relation between politics and aesthetics is also the relation between the art form used by the individuals who struggle to change their conditions and the art form an artist applies himself, or tries to apply.”
All quotes (in grey) by Jacques Rancière. The last one is taken from a conversation with Sylvain George (translated from French). See below for video documentation. Also included are some recent interview with George (one featuring Archie Shepp, whose haunting rendition of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ closes ‘Qu’ils reposent en révolte’), and a streaming copy of ‘Ils nous tueront tous’, a short film George has made as part of ‘Outrage et rébellion’, a collective film project born as a reaction to the “Joachim Gatti affaire”. On 8 July 2009, Gatti, a young film director, was seriously injured by the police during a peaceful demonstration in Montreuil. A flash ball bullet hit him in the face and ruptured one of his eyes. Other contributors to the project (45 in total) are Lionel Soukaz, Jean-Marie Straub, Ange Leccia, Peter Whitehead, Robert Fenz, Marcel Hanoun, Philippe Garrel and Laura Waddington, amongst others.
– Qu’ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre) was part of the International Competition at FID Marseille 2010 –
Subtitles:English (some parts)