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The Others, the Elsewhere of Our Here

[Still image from the film [Still image from the film "Ici et ailleurs"]

John E. Drabinski, Godard Between Identity and Difference. New York and London: Continuum, 2008.

John Drabinski’s Godard Between Identity and Difference is a rare thing in the world of contemporary academic writing: a book that reveals the author’s personal, idiosyncratic, and loving relationship with his subject. The reader comes away from this book not merely impressed by its arguments and enlightened by its readings, but also moved by its passion. One feels that one has just had an extended discussion with a smart and funny friend at a bar or a diner after coming out of an all-day Godard festival. From the book’s opening acknowledgments, which include, in addition to the customary thanks to family, friends, and colleagues, a note of debt to a coffee shop in Amherst (“big thanks for letting me sit there for so many hours. For real. It would have been completely legitimate to ask me to leave”), to the book’s conclusion, which calls us to attend to cinematic language, “ever precarious,” as “philosophy’s finest risk,” we find ourselves in the presence of a work of great generosity and passion as well as wit and erudition.

Drabinski’s previous book focused on Emmanuel Levinas’s relationship to Husserlian phenomenology. Truth be told, Godard Between Identity and Difference, despite its title, is also at its heart a book about Levinas. One suspects that if Drabinski were to write a book about Flemish architecture, or horses, or the cultivation of orchids, it would wind up being a book about Levinas. This, I should hasten to add, is neither a criticism nor a complaint. Drabinski’s readings of Levinas are thoughtful, well informed, and—especially considering the esoteric nature of some of Levinas’s work—satisfyingly accessible. Of particular interest to him are Levinas’s writings on the singularity of the Other and Levinas’s contributions to our thinking about ethics. To this end, in Godard Between Identity and Difference, he spends a good deal of time analyzing the exchanges between Levinas and his frequent interlocutor Jacques Derrida (particularly Derrida’s long essay “Violence and Metaphysics”) regarding violence, difference, and ethics, with a particular emphasis on the question of ethical responsibility, which he sees as central to “the Levinasian corpus as a whole, all of which revolve around the meaning and significance of the singularity of the face of the Other.” “Our responsibility is infinite,” Drabinski argues, and is also constitutive of our subjectivity: “To be is to already be responsible, not just as a feature but as the very condition of the possibility of a subject who persists in space and time” (emphasis in original).

However, Godard Between Identity and Difference is, thankfully, not a “Levinasian reading” of Godard’s films. Drabinski’s project here is both more interesting and more complex. Against the prevalent tendency in philosophical writing on film (and, I would add, in cultural criticism more generally) to “keep the work of art at some distance from the already articulated theory” and as a result to “see the film as either an example of philosophy or [in] some other sort of pedagogical relation to ‘real’ theory,” Drabinski’s project is to read a series of Godard’s films from the late 1960s and 1970s “as primary texts in philosophy.” His claim is that in the films from this phase of his career, “Godard establishes himself as a philosopher in a number of senses, most notably in his sense of language and how to pose a conceptual dilemma.” In other words, Drabinski’s project is to consider Godard’s films as philosophy, specifically as contributions to philosophical debates regarding language, alterity, and ethics, rather than as testing grounds for philosophical theories. Those looking for an approach grounded in either a historical analysis of Godard’s body of work or one informed by canonical film theory will have to look elsewhere, but those interested in a philosophical approach that illuminates some of Godard’s most complex and opaque films will be rewarded by Drabinski’s project of placing Godard, Levinas, and Derrida together in a philosophical dialogue.

Drabinski sets out the terms of this project most clearly in his introductory chapter, “Cinema as a Kind of Philosophy.” Demurring from Jacques Rancière’s claim that the unrepresentable “represents” a decisive crossroads for philosophy, one that may put the very future of philosophy in crisis, Drabinski counters with a Levinasian assertion: the challenge of the unrepresentable is precisely the moment of philosophy, the moment in which to undertake “a systematic, rational inquiry.” Indeed, Drabinski points to what he sees as the two major questions that arise from the long conversation between Levinas and Derrida regarding representability—Derrida’s question of whether it is possible to speak about the Other if the Other is unrepresentable in language, and Levinas’s rejoinder, which asks us to conceive of representation itself “as attuned—or perhaps subjected—to the unrepresentable”—and finds in these two questions the very sense of “philosophy’s possible future” that Rancière had called into question. It is here that cinematic language can play a crucial role; indeed, Drabinski goes so far as to suggest: “Perhaps cinema, in the wake and in the midst of the unrepresentable, bears within it, for philosophy, a certain saving power” (emphasis in original). In true Godardian fashion, Drabinski’s exploration is guided, not by a sense of certainty, but by the skeptical spirit of the “perhaps” found in the above statement.

It is not, however, cinematic language as such that interests Drabinski in the pages that follow, but Godard’s cinematic language in particular—and, even more particularly, the cinema that Godard evolved (oftentimes working in collaboration with other filmmakers, a point that Drabinski downplays in his analyses) in the late sixties and early seventies to address certain ethical problems about the nature of filmmaking itself. As Drabinski notes, “Godard’s work in the seventies is distinctive for its systematic—even obsessive—thinking about how it thinks about what it represents.” This is cinema as “transcendental critique,” as Drabinski puts it. Accordingly, the chapters that follow focus on four of Godard’s films from this era: 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1966); Ici et ailleurs (1976, made in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Pierre Gorin); Comment ça va? (1978, made in collaboration with Miéville); and Numéro Deux (1975). In his final chapter, Drabinski jumps ahead two decades to consider Godard’s epic Histoire(s) du Cinema, completed in 1998. Each individual chapter reads one of these films around what Drabinski calls “a leading question about difference,” and each question emerges out of the ongoing conversation between Godard, Levinas, and Derrida. For 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, Drabinski’s leading question is: “Is it possible to describe a singular existence?”; for Ici et ailleurs, “Can language be wrested free of the logos?”; for Comment ça va?, “How does the gaze function as a liminal concept?”; for Numéro Deux, “How does sexual difference transform the language of alterity?” For his final chapter on Histoire(s) du Cinema, Drabinski finishes with two large questions that have haunted the book as a whole: “How do we remember who and what we are? And how does cinema compromise or enable that remembering?”

Described in this way, structured as a set of philosophical questions matched with a set of films, the book could be mistaken for something overly schematic, a list of topics to be checked off one by one through a series of clever and opportunistic readings. But it is to Drabinski’s credit that these questions act only as starting points, and that his readings of Godard (and of Levinas and Derrida as well) consistently open out in new and unexpected directions. This is, again, due to the refreshingly idiosyncratic nature of the book. This scheme of directive questions is balanced by an admission made by the author in his preface, where he notes that as much as anything else, the book “is an attempt to reckon with two loves: Godard’s often-strange films and the intractable problem of difference.” It may seem a small point, but one rarely finds an academic writer stating outright that the reason s/he undertook a particular project is simply because s/he liked the topic—or, to use Drabinski’s stronger word, loves the topic. But love, in its strongest and most complex sense, has always been at the center of Levinas’s and Derrida’s engagement with ethics, and it is certainly not foreign to the filmmaker responsible for Éloge de l’amour. If Godard Between Identity and Difference escapes from the threat of dry didacticism, it is largely because it proves itself to be a labor of love.

This is not to say that the book is without problems. Drabinski’s chapter on Ici et ailleurs is a good example of both its strengths and its (perhaps inevitable) shortcomings. “Dead Time and the Image in Ici et ailleurs” focuses closely on the relationship between representation and responsibility in Godard’s ethical cinema. The film in question provides a wealth of possibilities for such an investigation. Drabinski calls Ici et ailleurs a “failed documentary,” albeit “a failure in the most interesting and fecund sense”; Godard and Miéville constructed the film over the course of four years from the ruins of Jusqu’à la victoire, a planned documentary shot in 1970 by Godard and Gorin in support of the Palestinian revolution, with funding provided by the Arab League. The original footage was shot from February to July of 1970; immediately after came the “Black September” massacre of Palestinians by the Jordanian army, the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan, and the bloody repression of this phase of the Palestinian independence struggle. As a result, Ici et ailleurs became, when it was finally released six years later, something very different.

“Almost all the actors are dead,” a blinking computerized text on the screen informs us at the beginning of the film. “This, and this, and this, and this,” Godard’s voiceover states, showing us footage shot in the summer of 1970, “became that,” cutting to a still photograph, perhaps from a morgue, a close-up of the face of a young Palestinian man killed in September 1970. In the film’s closing minutes, we are shown four fedayeen sitting in a field, discussing strategy; “I remember when we shot this,” Godard’s voice informs us, “It was three months before the September massacres. That was in June ‘70, and in three months, the whole little group will be dead. What is really tragic is that here they are talking about their own deaths. But nobody said that.” Miéville’s voice counters: “No, because it was up to you to say it, and what is tragic is that you didn’t.” Here is the responsibility of the filmmaker writ large, no longer theoretical but tragically real: not only the responsibility to honor one’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, but also to the singularity of those individuals caught on film who are now dead. While it stirred its share of controversy when it was released in 1976,[1] Ici et ailleurs has since fallen into the undifferentiated mass often referred to as the “transitional period” of Godard’s career.

Drabinski begins his analysis of Ici et ailleurs with questions that are apt both to a reading of the film and to his larger concern with Godard’s ethical cinema: “How is one to bring what has been lost, and remains only as a ruin, to a new presence? What is this singularity? And how does that singularity configure the responsibility of the auteur?” (emphasis in original). He moves to a key question for Godard—how to find a way to let the Other speak—and quotes Godard’s critique of films that attempt to transparently render the Other’s voice: “there is a problem, which is that the very medium we use was, up until now, in the hands of those we’re fighting against….So I have to find a way to approach these people and, most of all, to let them speak.” Drabinski sees in this a dilemma for the ethical filmmaker: “In order to let speak, the auteur must craft a representation. In order to craft a representation, the Other of the crafting and crafted representation must speak. Thus, the aporia from which Godard seeks to free himself or even just negotiate within” (emphasis in original). This is of course exacerbated in the case of Ici et ailleurs in that the Other who is asked to speak is now dead; Godard thus must “bring death’s haunting to that speaking.”

After bringing this problematic through Levinasian and Derridean approaches to heterology, Drabinski shifts back to Godard’s film, and in particular to the film’s title, which leads to the question of what the film was meant to have been and what it in fact became. “In 1970 this film was called Victory,” Godard and Miéville take turns intoning at the film’s opening. “In 1974 it is called Here and Elsewhere. And elsewhere. And.” As Drabinski notes, the title is very intentionally not “here and there,” but “here and elsewhere,” a place that is neither here nor there; he notes that Godard presents us with a set of binaries between here and elsewhere: France/Palestine, spectator/actor, utopia/defeat, revolutionary documentary/failed revolutionary documentary (to these, I would add life/death), each calling for a move across space and time. But Drabinski also reminds us that the title is “here and elsewhere,” and it is the “et” that becomes the key to his reading, since it marks both the impossibility of the passage from one element to the other, and also the ethical filmmaker’s responsibility to imaginatively address this impossible abyss. He reads this attempt in Levinasian terms: “The et is out of focus, yet relates in what Levinas calls a relation without relation—that is, a relation that does not establish or draw upon a correlation between the two terms of relation….Godard’s confrontation with the image aims at the collapse of at least a bit of the separation carried by the et of Ici et ailleurs” (emphasis in original). Importantly, this attempt to collapse the abyss of the “et” brings Drabinski back to the problem of ethical representation, specifically the problem of how to represent “elsewhere” from “here,” that is, how to let the Other speak: 

The filmmaker himself is the first betrayal of elsewhere; the spectator cannot but fall to the image’s seduction….For Godard, however, this is not only (or even primarily) a problem of troubling identification with the victim. Rather, it is a problem of the persistence of narcissism in the transmission of the image. The spectator is seduced into seeing only herself in the image by the image itself. Perhaps that is always the economy of identification. Whatever the pretensions of sympathy and its overly earnest sibling empathy, perhaps we see only ourselves in the Other. This is the ethical crossroads for the auteur, without a doubt. Another sort of cinema has to emerge in response to this demand. (emphasis in original)

This is a particularly crucial ethical problem in representing the Palestinian struggle: the temptation to identify too easily (through a feeling of sympathy or empathy) with the suffering, struggling, ultimately martyred victim, and the consequent refusal to see oneself where one is, and as one is. “If we wanted to make their revolution for them,” Miéville declares near the end of the film, “it’s perhaps because at that time we didn”t want to make it where we are, instead of where we are not.” Godard’s response to this challenge, according to Drabinski (who has little to say here about the role of Miéville), is to abuse, break, and remake cinematic language, the relationship between image, sound, and meaning, in an attempt to provide “a glimpse of the radically heterological.”

This is a strong and persuasive, not to say moving, reading. One would love to see it taken further, however, including away from general questions about the possibility of a “language of heterology” and towards some specificities: the question of Palestine, for example. At the end of the chapter, Drabinski cites a voice-over from the film spoken by Godard, talking about the dangers of representing the other in moments of political and ethical crisis:

We took images and put the sound too loud. Vietnam…always the same sound, always too loud. Prague, May `68—France, Italy. Chinese cultural revolution. Strikes in Poland. Tortures in Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Chile, Palestine. The sound so loud that it almost drowned the voice it wanted to draw out of the image.

Drabinski goes on to link the problem of the almost-drowned-out voice of the Other to the problem of parricide in Derrida and Levinas, to a “demand for a break with the logos.”

However, it is also worth putting this passage back into its context in Ici et ailleurs, and into Godard’s cinematic engagement with Palestine more generally.[2] The sequence of the film containing Godard’s voice-over is immediately followed by footage shot by Godard and Gorin in Palestine: a young girl (described by Godard in voice-over as “a little girl from Fatah”) recites a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, surrounded by the ruins of the city of Karameh, site of a major battle between invading Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters. The site of the scene, Karameh, identified without further explanation in the film, is worth unpacking in its own right: in March 1968, Palestinian fighters resisted an invading Israeli force, in what Edward Said, among others, saw as the beginning of “the possibility of popular resistance to a political enemy”: “At that moment, when an invading Israeli force was met by a local one defending what it could no longer afford to give up, the void changed into a direct experience of true political discontinuity…An event like the battle of Karameh was a decisive moment which, for the Palestinians, was suited to be a certain demarcation between what came before it and what came after it.”[3] This context is key to Godard and Gorin’s staging of the scene for the original documentary, although this remains unspoken when it becomes part of the film Ici et ailleurs. (Note: In the clip below, the scene, beginning with Godard’s voice-over, begins at the 2:12 minute mark.)

The scene itself is obviously staged, the girl’s language and gestures rigidly rehearsed and overly dramatic. It is worth noting that the poem she recites is not translated (indeed, the English subtitles do not even mention Darwish, simply stating that the girl “recites a poem,” although Godard identifies Darwish in his voice-over); in place of the expected translation, we get a voice-over from Miéville, commenting on this form of “political theater” and linking it to the French revolution. “She is innocent, but maybe not this form of theater,” Miéville suggests, and the comment is clearly a reflection back upon both the original project, Jusqu’à la victoire, for which the scene was filmed, as well as Ici et ailleurs itself. What of the poet, writing these words from exile? What of Darwish’s voice, remaining at the level of background? What does it say about the development of Godard’s ethical cinema, as well as his engagement with the Palestinian struggle, that in his 2004 film Notre Musique, Darwish himself appears onscreen to speak a long monologue about the nature of being a poet of defeat? “There is more inspiration and humanity in defeat than there is in victory,” Darwish states. Does this statement return us to the originally intended but ultimately unmade documentary, Jusqu’à la victoire, with a different set of eyes? And what about Levinas’s place in all this, the unavoidable question of Levinas and Palestine? What about his famous refusal to grant the status of Other to the Palestinians who he saw as threatening the Zionist dream to which he was committed? How does this refusal affect Drabinski’s deployment of Levinasian ethics for an understanding of Ici et ailleurs?[4]

These are important questions, but in a sense, it is unfair to ask this particular book to answer all of them. Godard Between Identity and Difference sets out its perimeters with fairness and generosity, and it keeps its promises. A reviewer of the book should honor these. However, it is to Drabinski’s great credit that one finishes the book wanting more. One wants to ask these questions because one genuinely wants to see how Drabinski, as a reader of Godard’s films as philosophy, would respond, and because the framework that he has constructed for this analysis is so convincing (and also, needless to say, because the political and ethical questions involved continue to be of the greatest importance today). One wants the conversation to continue. We can hope that this book inspires other interlocutors to carry the conversation forward, Drabinski himself among them. As he notes at the end of the book, this depends on “our ability or willingness to see and consume cinematic image and sound as philosophical texts.” He also notes that this approach has its dangers, since “cinema is a risky endeavor…[it] provokes vision only to confound it.” But ultimately, he concludes, “this is a risk for which we as spectators and consumers are responsible” (emphasis in original). It is just as well to end with this question of responsibility, for when it comes to the questions with which Godard, Levinas, Derrida, and Drabinski (to this list we can add Darwish as well) are all obsessed—“the pain of the world, the unrepresentable, and the ghostly”—we always begin and end with this question of our own responsibility, here and now; the responsibility “to learn to see in order to hear elsewhere,” as Godard and Miéville state at the close of Ici et ailleurs, “To learn to hear oneself speaking in order to see what the others are doing. The others, the elsewhere of our here.”

Notes
[1] See the spirited debate about Godard’s techniques and approach originally published in the French film magazine Écran in 1976: Guy Braucourt and Guy Hennebelle, “Here and There. Six Times Two. Godard and Miéville’s Recent Experiments Debated,” trans. Tiffany Fliss, Jump Cut 18 (1978): 8-9.
[2] For two recent takes on Godard’s engagement with Palestine, see Irmgard Emmelhainz, “From Third Worldism to Empire: Jean-Luc Godard and the Palestine Question,” Third Text 23.5 (2009): 649-656, and Godard’s own remarks in a conversation with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, published as “Qu'est-ce qui t'intéresse dans mon film?” Telerama (13 May 2010), and translated by Craig Keller as “Jean-Luc Godard Speaks with Daniel Cohn-Bendit: A Smile That Dismisses the Universe.”
[3] See Edward W. Said, “The Palestinian Experience,” in The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994 (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 9, emphasis in original.
[4] I am putting this much too simply, and the point deserves infinitely more elaboration than space here can allow. For Levinas’s original statement on the Palestinian as Other, see “Ethics and Politics,” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (London: Blackwell-Wiley, 1989), 289-97; for further discussion of the issue, see, for example, Jason Caro, “Levinas and the Palestinians,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 35.6 (2009): 671-684, and John Docker, “Cosmopolitan Conversations: Settler Societies, Education and Decolonisation,” Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal 5.1 (2006): 113-118.

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