THE POST-PHOTOGRAPHIC IN 1951: A SECRET HISTORY

This entry was posted on March 12th, 2015

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By Adrian Martin

Who wrote this statement, when and where?

 If we can’t get past the photographic screen and reach something deeper, then cinema just doesn’t interest me.

They could be the words of a British avant-garde filmmaker of the 1970s, or a cosmopolitan digital New Media artist of today. But the declaration was made in 1951 in France, by a Romanian-born Jewish polymath named Isidore Isou, early in the course of a 150-page manifesto titled “Aesthetic of Cinema” – a sustained, rigorous, in fact brilliant piece of theorisation which is almost unknown today, beyond a small circle of specialists. The text has been ignored; it has yet to be translated into English, for example. It has existed, for 60 years, entirely outside the institutions of most universities, festivals and cinematheques; this may be its saving grace, seeing now that it returns to us like a bomb.

In this text by Isou, the term ‘post-photographic’ appears often – and prophetically. And let us take in the shock of this context: Isou wrote this smack in-between the publication of André Bazin’s endlessly anthologised “Ontology of the Photographic Image” essay in 1945 and the birth of Cahiers du cinéma magazine in 1951. Bazin, even though we take him today to be the absolute defining point of mid-century European film theory, does not even rate a mention from Isou, even as an enemy to be vanquished. Yet there is no doubt that Isou sought to wipe away most of what preceded him, as well as much that would follow him. Indeed, his proposal is still a radical manifesto waiting to be fully actualised. At the very least, we should do Isou the favour of reading “Aesthetic of Cinema”, since its untimely time may well have finally come in the 21st century.

Who is Isou? Some may know that he was the founder and leader of a movement in art and thought named Lettrism. Some may know the remarkable film he made a year before he wrote his manifesto, the Treatise on Slime and Eternity, a breakthrough work of feature-length experimentation that was to win fans including Stan Brakhage – Isou himself would coldly remark, many years later, that Jean-Luc Godard and Guy Debord (to name only two luminaries whom he considered his mortal enemies) stole everything from it. Some might have come to the legend of Isou through the fond passage devoted to him in Greil Marcus’ book on the distant origins of punk, Lipstick Traces – a book whose subtitle evokes ‘a secret history of the 20th century’. In that book, Marcus tells the fine story of his teenage niece stumbling upon the photos on his desk of a young Isou in the late 1940s, and mistaking the artist for a contemporary pop star. And Isou did indeed look the part – especially in a self-portrait which was an example of what the Lettrists called hypergraphics, a work mixing the media of photography, painting, drawing, and Lettrist poetry.

IsouVenom

Isou was a precocious sort. He published his first Lettrist manifesto when he was 16. By the age of 25 he had written over half a dozen books, covering an amazing diversity of fields, and all under an increasingly unified system which he did not hesitate to call ‘Isouian’ theory. These books include Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music, Treatise on Nuclear Economics, Youth Uprising (in 3 volumes), Aggregation of a Name and a Messiah (the name and the Messiah both being Isou), and my favourite, The Mechanics of Women, which is a sort of self-help sex manual that presents itself as a learned, lived testimony to the science of ‘erotology’. On the importance of his film Treatise on Slime and Eternity, Isou declared:

There is no work in the entire history of cinema comparable to Treatise on Slime and Eternity, in terms of the richness of its creations. Preceding film creations were only particular applications from more advanced aesthetic domains, while Isouian creations are the straightforward promises or presentiments of a total transformation of knowledge.

Isou’s own artistic productions covered many media – and combined many media in the same gesture, as in his hypergraphic images – but a special place was reserved for his theorising, which was of a vaulting, indeed messianic ambition, because it aimed to interrelate all major areas of human and social activity: art, technology (which he called ‘mechanics’), science, mathematics, economics, sex, and so on. Today, only someone such as Alain Badiou comes close to this scope. Isou wrote: “In the period circumscribed between 1931 and 1945 [basically the period since his own birth], nothing new has been revealed in poetry, the novel, philosophy, economy or cinema”. Isou gave himself and his comrades the task of revealing this something new.

My own encounter with Isou’s work came near its end (he died in 2007). In 2001 he wrote a massive, 1400-page synthesis of his thought and method, called The Creative and the Innovative. There is a superb little anecdote in this book that has really stuck with me. Isou details how he invariably reads a classic work of philosophy, for instance, by Hegel: he scribbles furiously in the margins and indeed all over the pages with his critical annotations. Then, when he reaches the end, he takes apart the book’s spine, throws away any pages he has not written on, transcribes what he did write, and voila: he has written his own, new book. That is how, Isou says, one book, an inferior book by Hegel, begets a superior book by Isou: and that’s the theory of the creative and the innovative in an allegorical nutshell. Isou makes the good point in this passage that he is not really desecrating or defiling a respected work, since he is only ever attacking a relatively valueless copy, not the original – although he adds that if he could somehow access an original, the template from which all the copies of Hegel in the world had been struck, he would also defile that.[1]

This attitude towards originals and copies is, as we shall see, central to Isou’s savage thinking about cinema. For he regarded the first projection of a film as the its fatal consummation, its ‘wedding night’ as he said, where its destiny is set and fixed forever more, whereas the Lettrist mission, as he described it, was to sneak in and interfere with the bride before that malign, conservative, suburban destiny could occur. Isidore Isou, needless to say, was an anarchist and a provocateur.

At the start of the 1950s, cinema as we knew it (and still pretty much know it) was quite dead for Isou, the mission or vocation of its heroic era over, finished with. In the course of “Aesthetic of Cinema”, he rails (often in a wonderfully insulting mode) against such filmmaker-theorists as Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Sergei Eisenstein, and René Clair, as well as neo-realism (which he viewed as a regressive movement), and the animation experiments of Walt Disney!

Such wiping-off of all previous achievements in a field is the founding tabula rasa gesture of many an avant-garde manifesto, but in Isou’s Lettrist system, it has a particular and special coherence. In a striking move that anticipates much contemporary continental philosophy, Isou stakes the claim early on in his text that his definition of cinema “is the result of an invention, not a given”. And his definition is, in the first place, that any bit of film is the unfurling or the unwinding of a reproduction – and he extends this to the soundtrack as well as the image track, which were for Isou always two different, ‘discrepant’ things. Cinema is thus this thing which is, above all, printed, and copied (reproduced), it is fundamentally serial in nature, and its ‘original’ (the film’s negative, in those celluloid days) is always hidden away, occulted, secreted from the interfering hands of true subversive artists.

So, cinema is in the first place for Isou a strip of film, and as such has the status of a ‘found object’, even if he generated the images and sounds himself. This emphasis on the mechanical, printing and serialisation in Isou immediately does away with any sacred ontology of the photographic (or cinematographic) image, any fetishisation of the index, any eulogy of the trace, any redemption of physical reality – and in this founding, definitional moment we can measure the distance between Isou and Bazin as well as a large, internationale army of post-Bazinians including Kracauer, Cavell, Mulvey and Deleuze. And we can also sense Isou’s proximity to our present-day digital moment in culture. Isou set himself against the theories of his time that based themselves primarily in the photographic – which he posits as neither the origin nor the destiny of cinema, but something more like a sorry, limiting ‘historical accident’ of its development and exploitation.

In terms of immediate artistic strategy, Isou’s theory led him to the cavalier disrespect of the image in Treatise on Slime and Eternity: he scratched on it, flipped it upside down, blacked it out for long periods, and so on – gestures that now have a long history in experimental film and beyond. Bear in mind, though, that this provocation had a particular edge in 1950, since many of the people who had agreed to appear in the film were Parisian celebrities, and there they were at the Cannes Film Festival watching their eyes and mouths being scratched out by marks on the film frame, while reams of Lettrist nonsense phonemic poetry cascaded discrepantly on the soundtrack. To cap off the scandal, Jean Cocteau, on the Cannes jury that year, decided to give the film (in which he himself appears, duly scratched over) a major award”.[2]

But back to the theoretical argument – very elaborate and detailed – of the 1951 manifesto “Aesthetic of Cinema” itself. Isou had a global theory of artistic creation. Each medium, he argued, passed through its amplic phase of expansion – its conventionally expressive novelistic or pictorial or musical phase – until this ‘classicism’ becomes (to use his word) ‘sclerotic’. Then the medium arrives at its chiselling phase, its state of breakdown. Lettrism, as a practice and an idea, always installs itself at this chiselled point, the phase of a violently happy negation of the medium at hand. A negation but also a purification, since Isou was always after what was essentially specific to each medium, and abhorred what was simply lazily ‘imported’ into a medium from other media. A chiselled medium dissolves into its smallest and purest particles: its letters and phonemes, its dots and lines. In terms of cinema, Isou insists that we must find its ‘primary particle’, and that particle is the individual film frame, or what he calls the film medium’s physico-chemical base.

This is an important insight: I personally believe that all film theories can be divided and classified in relation to whether they attend to the frame as an essential unit of cinema – as some film semiotics, avant-garde and animation approaches do – or whether they bypass this primary particle to begin at a higher level of representational abstraction, such as the shot or the take or image or the scene or the narrative (all the things that Isou unfussily relegates to the category of ‘secondary elements’ in cinema).[3] Brian Henderson once remarked that “the shot and its concept, base and mainstay of classical film theory, have a complex fate in avant-garde film and theory”[4], and this is indeed true. It is intriguing to note, in this regard, that Raymond Bellour’s major book The Body of Cinema takes us right back to individual film frames, and their interrelation in movement (as Jean-François Lyotard did in his famous article on the “Acinema”), so as to locate what Bellour calls the ‘beating heart’ of this medium.

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Isou writes in a crucial passage of his “Aesthetic of Cinema”:

Once we reach the primary particle [of film], we must halt the kinetic élan [explored by previous filmmakers] and reverse the ‘movement’ towards (and on behalf of) the photographic. Thus, it’s above all a question of provoking an anti-cinema. Then we will be able to touch the image that usually passes us by at each of its 24 frames per second, and we will be able to imprint our stamp on an element [i.e., the frame] which is usually turned towards reality, thus ignoring us.

Once again, the sovereign Lettrist ethos of getting in, breaking in, and touching, imprinting, interfering with the medium comes to the fore here – along with the disdain for being ignored, rendered a passive, witnessing spectator by the film apparatus. Isou takes this orientation in a striking metaphoric direction in the words that follow the previous quote, in his evocation of film’s ‘secret flesh’:

We must discover the secret line of the particle and work with it. This is how we will render our presence visible within the secret flesh of a representation. The negative of the film is the foetus of the work, the monstrous element of the beautiful image of reality. We must incrust our individual presence, our act of creation, within the palpitating somersault of this ‘virtuality’.

What a passage! Firstly, the horror-movie imagery: Isou’s celebration of the filmic negative as the monstrous foetus that subverts the formed, finished ‘beautiful image’ of reality-based photographic-cinema. And secondly, his association of this foetus-negative with the virtual, logical enough for his time but again spookily prophetic of our digital age, in both its technology and its aesthetic philosophies.

Now, there are aspects of Isou’s theory that I wouldn’t necessarily want to defend, save or rehabilitate. The emphasis on medium specificity, on the purity of a medium, for example. The boyish, anarchic glee about always breaking in and messing up things, refusing at all times the modest position of being ‘subject’ to anything anyone else has made previously. Or the amazing Isouian sexual metaphors that are symptomatic of the gendered misogyny of their time and place – although let us note the intriguing fact, in passing, that of the ten contributors to the Lettrist journal Ion in which “Aesthetic of Cinema” appeared, three were women, which is not such a bad ratio for a European avant-garde movement in 1950.

But there is, indeed, not only much that is prescient in Isou’s propositions, but also much that remains challenging, and points to a road not taken, or rather a road sometimes tentatively taken and then regularly abandoned in film theory.

Isou resurrects the challenge to traditional (and largely still dominant) film theories, as regards the role of the experimental in both cinema practice and cinema theory. Thirty-five years ago at a conference in Australia, the American scholar Brian Henderson (whom I have already quoted) asked hopefully whether “the attempt to include the avant-garde cinema [will] explode film theory and turn it into something else […] hasten[ing] the completion of the critique of film theory by inducing in it a kind of nervous breakdown or a catastrophe in the mathematical sense”[5]. Alas, this breakdown-catastrophe has yet to happen – and Isou could sure have helped get us there quicker. But, in the meantime, and especially now in the digital moment, avant-garde practices dare us to consider materiality-effects over and above reality-effects in cinema (to employ a distinction proposed by Thomas Elsaesser). The question, as always, is where we choose to locate this materiality in cinema, at what level and in what depth.

Although Isou prophesised the digital, he could not have known the new paradoxes that its actual technological-mechanical invention would bring to us. Isou sought, above all, the material base of an object, a work, a medium: even if that base remained inaccessible or phantasmic, like the book laid out on the printer’s tablet or the film negative in the lab. Digital audiovisual creation – which no longer has film frames in the celluloid sense, and no negative, although it does have particles, and you can freeze and grab image-wise, and there are still ‘masters’ stored in some computer somewhere – confronts us with the paradox of a mixed-media that is at once material and immaterial, and we are still learning how to think this and (as Isou would say) work with its secret line.

But I would like to stress, to conclude, that it is not a matter of locating Isou and jamming him into a preordained Lettrist slot of an empiricist 20th Century Art History, between Dadaism and Surrealism on one side and Fluxus and the Situationism on the other side. The only kind of history worth a damn is secret history, in the sense that it can make a sudden surprise appearance in our present context, speak to us and shake us up in its eruption. For, like Isou in 1951, we too, today, are in search of the ‘palpitating somersault of the virtual’.

© Adrian Martin November 2010/March 2015

[1] In a similar vein, he remarked that the scandalised viewers who revolted at the premiere screenings of Treatise on Slime and Eternity and tore up the seats didn’t bother him, since he didn’t own the seats.

[2] Other Lettrists in Isou’s wake, such as Maurice Lemaître and Marc O, created some of the first important experiments in expanded cinema and multi-media theatrical spectacle.

[3] See my “Game with DVD”, forthcoming in VLAK magazine (2015).

[4] Brian Henderson, “Film Theory and the Avant-Garde”, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, issue 9/10 (1981), p. 156.

[5] Henderson, “Film Theory and the Avant-Garde”, p. 165.