Republished from Louis Armand, The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2013) 17-32.*
In the 1950s a group of film-makers – self-styled auteurs – emerged in Paris, associated with the journal Cahiers du cinéma. It’s a well-known story. Led by Jean-Luc Godard, these film-makers – heavily immersed in the traditions of Italian neo-realism and the work of Chaplin, Griffith, Welles and Hawkes – set about inaugurating a “new wave” in French cinema. Apostles both of the film ontology of André Bazin and the montage effects of Eisenstein and Vertov, Godard & Co. insisted upon a new cinematic vocabulary, one evocative of the revolution in language instigated by James Joyce. It’s hardly surprising then, since their work stands in a kind of mirroring relation, to find points of comparison between the two. Pauline Kael, in an early review, observed:
The most gifted younger directors and student filmmakers all over the world recognise Godard’s liberation of the movies; they know he has opened up a new kind of moviemaking, that he has brought a new sensibility into film, that, like James Joyce, he is both kinds of master – both innovator and artist. Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us; we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl’s hair differently because of him.
We might look to the author of Finnegans Wake and to the director of Histoire(s) du cinema as the two major inventors of the modern vernacular – who, like Homer, give us a world and make visible that world in a particular wholeness. A wholeness that exceeds and circumscribes the institutions of Literature and Cinema, remaking them in the image of an impending socio-cultural revolution. A wholeness that articulates new possibilities of experience. A wholeness constellated out of fragments, atoms of existence: “cities, billboards and brand names… a girl’s hair.”
If we say – as the late Donald Theall once argued – that Godard “developed a cinematic form much closer to the complexities of Joyce,” it’s not only because Godard believed “everything can be put into a film,” but because he recognised cinema itself “as discourse, as communication.” In Joyce’s language, cinema is that “chaosmos” of “plurabilities” that comprehends the world, not by repeating it in pictures, but by articulating it and so bringing it into being.And it’s for this reason that Godard speaks of cinema as both “le musée du réel” (the museum of the real) and as “une forme qui pense” (a form that thinks).
1. Discussing Godard’s major work – the eight-part Histoire(s) du cinéma, completed over ten years from 1989 to 1998 – Colin MacCabe, author of James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (1978), writes:
It is not possible to find a comparison to Godard’s Histoire(s) in cinema or television, but there is good reason to compare it to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Finnegans Wake takes the whole of history and language for its subject and uses montage as its basic creative principle, but a montage which operates within the individual word.
Just as, we might add, Godardexposes the montage implied within the individual image – or more exactly, as the foundation of the “image.”
Godard’s Histoire(s), a monumental work of textual and filmic quotation, draws our attention with unrelenting insistence to the work of editing, quotation, grafting. Like Joyce, Godard’s ideal film-maker is a type of engineer vesting the reality of the image directly in the technics of découpage. “To speak of directing,” Godard says, “is automatically to speak… of editing”:
One improvises, one invents in front of the moviola just as one does on the set. Cutting a movement of the camera in quarters can reveal itself more effective than keeping it as it has been filmed. An exchange of glances… can only be expressed with enough pungency… through clever editing.… A simple reversed shot, by its very restraint, is more powerfully expressive than any premeditated zoom or pan…. Editing, therefore, at the same time that it denies, announces and prepares the way for directing…
It’s often been remarked that Joyce himself believed that cinema constitutes a new type of language, whose capacity to mean extended beyond the technical limitations of its time. Just as writing exceeded the physical form of the book, so too cinema transcended the screen. Moreover, Joyce recognised early on that cinema was no more a technology applied to the image than writing was a technology applied to words, since the image, like the word, is already technological. But we need to understand that “technological” here has nothing to do with machines, cameras, celluloid. It’s rather a condition of a common discourse. A condition of the word and of the image entwined into a type of consciousness: a form that thinks.
In a letter sent to his brother from Paris in 1924, Joyce wrote: “whenever I am obliged to lie with my eyes closed I see a cinematograph going on and on and it brings back to my memory things I had almost forgotten.” But cinema for Joyce was never simply an analogue of thought processes – even of the socalled stream-of-consciousness – but constituted an extension of language (an idea shared by Vachel Lindsay in his 1915 study of “pictographic language”). As Freud noted at around the same time, consciousness (and what he called the unconscious) isn’t simply like a language – it operates linguistically. Or more precisely, its technics constitute a species of auto-poetic writing apparatus by means of which socalled psychic “content” is both composed and structured recursively, like a self-modifying computer programme – where “content” is really nothing but its form of production as spatio-temporal difference.
If consciousness is the intrusion of the temporal upon the present, the image is the extrusion of the present into the temporal. Godard himself has insisted that, in cinema, a shot “takes on its real function of a sign” so that the image corresponds to a perception through signification. Its “gestures,” Godard adds, “are meaningful only insofar as they repeat some primordial action.” So if we’re to say that Joyce’s writing approximates cinema in more than a merely cosmetic or evocative sense, then it’s because of this signifying dimension. By which I mean the operations of structure: for example, of metonymy and metaphor, or what Freud in Die Traumdeutung terms condensation and displacement – what Eisenstein calls montage and what in Joyce manifests itself in the economy of the “portmanteau.”
2. In the second volume of his critical writings, Film Sense, Eisenstein makes this point explicitly. In the chapter on “Word and Image,” he relates the emerging importance of montage in cinema to Joyce’s use of portmanteau words like “riverrun” in Finnegans Wake. For Eisenstein, Joyce’s usage represents “an extreme instance” of the “tendency to bring together into unity two or more independent objects or qualities.” Its effect is “built upon the sensation of a duality residing arbitrarily in a single word” – what Joyce called “soundsense” or “sensesound,” evoking a technique of “verbivocovisual presentiment.”
Joyce’s work held particular and sometimes contradictory significance for Eisenstein, who visited the author in his rue de Grenelle apartment in Paris on 30 November 1929. Extensive references to Joyce appear throughout Eisenstein’s subsequent writings. Indeed, Eisenstein – who willingly drew comparisons between his 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin and Ulysses (and later also Finnegans Wake) – placed so much emphasis on Joyce that subsequent historians of modernism have struggled to place this relationship in the critical perspective it requires. But whereas Eisenstein wrote extensively and unabashedly about Joyce (while frequently resisting the implications of Joyce’s work), when we turn to Godard the contrary is the case: the arch auteur mentions Joyce rarely and only in passing, yet his entire cinematic project can be regarded as a direct continuation of Joyce’s project as a writer. Oedipus inverted.
Like Joyce, Godard is concerned not with the image as given, but as a dynamic structure, something in a constant state of coming into being. The “image” is a “mode of thought” – a constellation, a cadence, a rhythm. It’s an enactment that doesn’t merely “represent a theme” but articulates a realisation. Godard, like Joyce, is concerned with possibility, with the way in which “simple juxtaposition,” as he says, “makes it possible to tell a story.” He’s concerned with the way in which intention is accomplished through an encounter with the matter at hand, and with the way in which montage give rise not only to unpredictability, but also to the unrepeatable, the singular, the unique. In the image, Godard recognises an immanence removed from transcendence.
It’s for this reason that we can speak of Godard as one of the inventors of the image, just as we can speak of Joyce as one of the inventors of writing – not because historically they stand at the starting point of what we call Cinema or Literature – they don’t – but because they reveal new possibilities by exploding the old dogmas, changing the whole historical relation to what passes as film form or the novel. And if Histoire(s) asks what is possible in film as Finnegans Wake asks what is possible in prose, this has to do with a particular status of genre or of culture generally.
In 1939, ten years after his meeting with Joyce, Eisenstein was still attempting to come to terms with the coherence of film-making in relation to existing art forms: sculpture, painting, literature, theatre, music. His problem wasn’t a new one. The struggle to come to terms with new structures and methods (here in order to provide a coherent model for understanding and defining “film form”), was as old as humanity itself. And in it Eisenstein clearly recognised the political subtext that has always accompanied such struggles. For Eisenstein, this was specifically manifested in an ongoing antagonism with Dziga Vertov and the Kinopravda school. Interestingly, Eisenstein’s conflict with Vertov mirrors his ambivalent relationship with Joyce, and in turn provides a means of understanding Godard’s own perspective on Vertov and claims of a cinéma vérité.
For Godard, who in 1969 formed a two-man collective with Jean-Pierre Gorin called the Dziga Vertov Group (ostensibly with the intention of producing “political” films such as Pravda and Vent d’est), cinéma vérité (or kinopravda) offered a critical rationale to pose against what had by then become a vulgarised notion of auteur cinema. Godard sought to move away from directing towards a type of film-making in which process played the principal role, an idea encapsulated in what would later become a standard metaphor for Godard: the cinematograph. It’s a metaphor that focuses attention away from the spectacle of depiction and onto the technics of the image itself, since Lumière’s original cinematograph was simultaneously a camera, a developing laboratory and a projector. It implied a type of universal machine, able to comprehend all of what Godard considered to be the essence of cinema. On this basis, Godard began to formulate a position very close to that of Marshall McLuhan, in which the medium constitutes the message, the contents of which is its audience. Ultimately, in Histoire(s), Godard will arrive at the position that cinema, in this revised sense, is nothing less than history itself.
3. Anticipating Godard, it was Eisenstein’s view that cinema alone presented the means of transcending the limits set down by existing art forms. But while Eisenstein would never go as far as Vertov in rejecting narrative drama, he nevertheless recognised cinema’s uniqueness in communicating a contemporary twentieth-century consciousness derived from its form – and that it was this which established content. Only cinema, he argued,
can take, as the aesthetic basis of its dramaturgy, not only the statics of the human body and the dynamics of its action and behaviour, but an infinitely broader diapason, reflecting the manifold movement and changing feelings and thoughts of man.
This, Eisenstein adds, “is not merely material for the depiction of man’s action and behaviour on the screen, but is also the compositional framework over which is distributed a conscious and sensed reflection of the world and reality.” Insofar as Eisenstein was willing to concede any comparable achievement outside cinema, it was to Joyce that he turned. In a well known passage from his earlier collection of essays, Film Form, Eisenstein writes:
The most heroic attempt to achieve this in literature was made by James Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
Here was reached the limit in reconstructing the reflection and refraction of reality in the consciousness and feelings of man.
Joyce’s originality is expressed in his attempt to solve this task with a special dual-level method of writing: unfolding the display of events simultaneously with the particular manner in which these events pass through the consciousness and feelings, the associations and emotions of one of his chief characters. Here literature, as nowhere else, achieves an almost physiological palpability.
And yet, while Joyce’s writing is thus patterned “on the physiological organisation of the emotions, as well as on the embryology of the formations of thought,” the ultimate effect is “the entire decomposition of literary method itself.” Eisenstein concludes that Joyce ultimately failed to widen literature’s frame, because his experimentation points merely inward towards means alone, at the expense of content, and is thus reduced to a type of “abracadabra.”
Like Walter Benjamin, in the notorious conclusion to his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” we find Eisenstein retreating here into Soviet dogma and the ideology of a progressivist social realism. Oddly, it’s a retreat which serves, more than anything Eisenstein has to say directly about Joyce, to illustrate the pitfalls inherent in any categorical, dualistic approach. For all that, the contradiction between Eisenstein’s ideas about montage and his advocacy of content-versus-means remains a productive one. We might go so far as to say that contradiction is in fact what stands at the heart of Eisenstein’s achievement as both a theorist and film-maker – that it’s by virtue of contradiction that cinema discovers in Eisenstein the possibility of a future, as montage. It may be that Eisenstein’s rebellion again Joyce as a writer of Literature stems from the uncomfortable, unspoken realisation that, by virtue of being the type of writer he was, Joyce was no longer making Literature, but cinema. If we mean by cinema, as Godard does, something into which everything can be put. A “museum of the real.”
4. Echoing Eisenstein’s more incisive pronouncements, Marshall McLuhan – who in his own work on media was heavily influenced by reading Joyce – considered Finnegans Wake as one of “the first poetic encounters with the challenge that electronic media present to the traditionally accepted relationships between speech, script and print.” Like cinema, Joyce’s writing not only challenged, but exploded this relationship, “wordloosing celluloid soundscript over seven seas.” Antonin Artaud was surely right when he said that “cinema implies a total inversion of values, a complete upheaval of optics, of perspective and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorous, more captivating than love.” But if this upheaval was foreshadowed in Joyce and Eisenstein, it wasn’t accomplished until Godard who, in adjudging it “the century’s metaphor,” recognised the fuller potential of cinema as a type of Joycean “chaosmos.”
Between his 1955 documentary Opération béton and the Histoire(s), Godard – in a movement contrary to Eisenstein’s film formalism – recognised that “in a place where it is in the living present, cinema [is] the registrar of History” since, at the end of the twentieth century, “cinema is… the image of the century in all its aspects.” Unlike Einstein, who subscribed to a dialectical view of history as progress, Godard understands history as unresolved anachronism: that history “proceeds” not as an unfolding narrative, but fully as montage, of overprinting and portmanteau, of juxtaposition, whereby events see into us through the cut, the découpage. Cinema articulates the violence of history in its structure and Histoire(s), like Finnegans Wake, is also a history of a type of violence – the generative violence of language, of discourse, whose logic requires, for example, that images of famine, war, the holocaust, intersect in a common spatio-temporality with advertisements for conspicuous consumption, erotic pleasure, and so on. All part of what Godard terms the “Fatale beauté” of the image – its “Coinage of the Absolute.”
Montage represents a critical suspense of judgement or pre-judgement: it refuses categorical thought, categorical morality, assuming a status of the socalled “third image.” By itself, an image is amoral and irreflexive, possessing neither content nor conscience. Only through the agency of montage, through the invention of a “third,” does the image communicate as cinema: une forme qui pense. Evidently montage has nothing to do with simply arranging one picture opposite another – the question is rather of “putting two angles side by side.” Two angles or two attitudes. Montage, in effect, is a way of writing with situations. As MacCabe notes, polysemic multiplicity rather than simple opposition of terms is the textual principle of Godard’s films – where the effect of montage is, we’re told in Histoire(s), to describe “a margin of undefinability.”
The explicitly textual character of Godard’s films is matched by the cinematic character of his own writing on film, in that montage is also seen as broadly citational. It’s virtually impossible, in fact, to make any meaningful distinction in Godard’s work between cinema and writing. Not only does Godard make copious references to literature and literary history, freely borrowing from each, while also depictingacts of reading and writing in his films, but he frequently makes a point of exposing the textual character of film-making – adopting for this purpose Alexandre Astruc’s idea of “le caméra stylo.” (It was Astruc who insisted that “cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of the visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of narrative, to become a means of writing…”) Like Joyce, Godard explodes the limits of genre in order to apprehend the medium. It’s in this sense that we should understand Godard’s adoption of the “cinematograph” metaphor: the inscription – graphē – of a certain movement – kinēsis. Montage as the sign of a dynamic interval.
5. Cinema, for Godard, is discursus, the articulation of the particular by way of the universal (“something into which everything can be put”). Like Joyce’s tendency towards the encyclopaedic, Godard’s cinema is a type of self-conscious monstrum that not only explodes genre, but the very logic of generic categorisation. Consider his comments concerning the 1967 film, Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle: “A film like this,” he writes, “is a little as if I wanted to write a sociological essay in the form of a novel, and in order to do this had only musical notes at my disposal.” Unsurprising, then, that a work like Histoire(s) has been described as an “an open archive of literary, philosophical and filmic material” which has been “recycled and transformed.” And while often reflecting on this process in his writings on cinema, it is – as Philippe Dubois has noted – “chiefly in the body of his work itself that, with great perseverance and constantly renewed inventiveness, Godard has succeeded in using… ‘all’ the possible ways of presenting written text in and through images.” Or rather, writing with images, cinema as text. Abundant examples present themselves from across Godard’s career:
…there is the representation of reading… and writing… epistolary videos and film-letters [Letter to Jane (1972)], postcards [Les carabinièrs (1963)]…displayed book covers [Alphaville (1965),Le mépris (1963)]… newspapers [Masculin feminin (1966)],posters, fliers [Vivre sa vie (1962)], neon signs inscribing their messages, graffiti sprayed on walls, carefully crafted credit titles,intertitles,inserts and subtitles, verbal collages that de- and re- construct language, electronic graphics “in the making,” direct inscriptions which seem to turn the screen intoa (black- or white-) board [Sauve qui peut (1980)]… the systematic practice of puns(as wells as letter and images games…) which short-circuit or (re)generate shifts in meaning, and even the image-screen as ‘visual writing’ (of the body, landscape, painting, etc.).
Elsewhere Histoire(s) has been cast as an epic non-linear poem, a freely associative essay, a vast multi-layered musical composition. But also as “a diffuse gesture” of “audio-visual evocation.” In sum,
a denial of an opposition between fiction and documentary; exposing the paradox of the socially engaging and disengaging qualities of the cinema; exploring the affinities between visual and written expression, as well as art and criticism; privileging the more expansive terms sound and image over other possible permutations; overriding the divide between high and low culture; merging theory and practice; and equating reality with the image.
The idea of cinema as writing has a complex genealogy. Besides Joyce and Eisenstein, Godard’s most frequent interlocutor is Dziga Vertov – The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and the “Kino-Eye” project. Vertov, with his brother Michal Kaufman and wife Elizaveta Svilova, established the kino-eye collective in 1922 to explore “the documentary cinematic decoding of both the visible world and that which is invisible to the naked eye.” The objective: to arrive at an “absolute writing in film.” According to Vertov’s manifesto:
Kino-eye means the conquest of space, the visual linkage of people throughout the entire world based on the continuous exchange of visible fact, of film-documents, as opposed to the exchange of cinematic or theatrical presentations… Kino-eye means the conquest of time (the visual linkage of phenomena separated in time). Kino-eye is the possibility of seeing life processes in any temporal order or at any speed inaccessible to the human eye.
Like Joyce’s “ineluctable modality of the visible,” Vertov’s kino-eye was directed towards an immanence of seeing which is that of aconsciousness always on the verge of invention – since this consciousness is a product of the camera and not of the visible image.As Godard says in part 3B of Histoire(s): “True cinema is the cinema that cannot be seen.”
As precursor to the cinéma vérité that exercised such influence over the nouvelle vague, Vertov was known for his propensity for turning the inanimate object into a “visual symphony” – a spectacle avant la letter. In The Man with the Movie Camera, Vertov, like Joyce before him, took as his material “a day in the life of a modern city” – “Casting a spell,” as Sara Danius writes,
over its human and non-human inhabitants alike, Vertov’s camera sweeps an entire city into spirited movement. Chimneys, workers, typewriters, street crossings, automatons, cars, smiles, sewing machines, pedestrians, bicycles, stockings, streetcars, shop windows, telephones: all participate in Vertov’s rapturous urban ballet…
Where Vertov addresses the camera at objects in the socalled real world – objects outside cinema – Godard, like Joyce, addresses a different status of the real. Following from André Bazin, founder and guiding thinker of Cahiers du cinéma, Godard recognised that the cinematic image itself constitutes a reality, and that this reality is no less real than objects in the world. (An idea which leads Gilles Deleuze to the utterly banal conclusion that “in Godard’s film, you paint the painting with the wall.”) But this is only a partial implication. For Godard, the world itself is an extension of cinema – just as, for Joyce, that microcosm of reality called Dublin had first to emerge brick by brick from the blueprint of Ulysses, via a detour through Homer. And from Homer, via Fritz Lang and Joseph Strick, to Godard, this cinéma vérité charts the course of Universal History no less. In place of a located reality, we encounter instead what Fellini termed a “collocation of reality.” As in Finnegans Wake, the epochal spiral of this ciné-language is itself the fabric of the real, not its representation.Its status is as elemental as this.
If Vertov’s camera remains a type of consciousness, a seeing eye directed at the world, Godard’s cinema already constitutes that world; just as language does for Joyce. In place of an exteriorised vision, or exteriorised sense, we discover in Joyce and Godard a “perspective by incongruity.” Through word, image, sound, gesture, we not only apprehend the world, but comprehend a world and are comprehended by it.“Les signes parmi nous” (the signs among us), as Ramuz says, are us.
There’s an utmost seriousness in Godard’s claim that cinema is at the heart of the twentieth century and that cinematic history is the history of that century. In cinema, history dreams itself; through writing it remembers itself.Histoire(s) du cinéma: the cinematograph of history.Like Joyce’s Wake, Godard’s Histoire(s) summons forth the idea of an historical montage machine, a dreamwork or a dream factory, un usine de rêve.
Here I conclude with an image. A backward glance through Godard’s Histoire(s) towards that “penultimate vision” in Finnegans Wake where, as day dawns, “the dreamer reflects on forgetting and remembering, decomposition and recombination, present catastrophes and ancient legacies.” Godard, like Joyce, “spans this gap between processes of memory” and that “labyrinthine semiosis which constitutes human communication,” and human consciousness.
History or histoire(s).
Story, fable, myth, allegory, fabrication.
Night and fog.
* Presented as a talk at the Alpa Adria Trieste International Film Festival 2009; first published in Roll Away the Reel World: James Joyce & Cinema, ed. John McCourt (Cork: Cork University Press, 2010).
 It’s worth keeping in mind that Godard, like the rest of the nouvelle vague directors, was “a film maker who started out as a film critic (and whose reviews were written as if they were already films)” – Philippe Dubois, “Written Screen: JLG and Writing as the Accursed Share,” Forever Godard, eds. Michael Temple, James Williams and Michael Witt (London: Black Dog, 2004) 232.