Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 3, January 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patrick ffrench

 

Potential Not To Be:

Bersani and Dutoit's _Forms of Being_

 

 

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

_Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity_

London: British Film Institute, 2004

ISBN 1844570150

185 pp.

 

_Forms of Being_ is a seductive, powerful, and intellectually sophisticated book, which I nevertheless found absolutely readable and without jargon or obfuscation. Its argument has an ethical orientation which, while it draws on philosophical and psychoanalytic theory, also challenged me to reconsider my ways of seeing. It also makes connections between divergent theoretical movements in a way which is conversational without being flippant. Being relatively familiar with the work of Bersani, the general thrust of the argument was not strikingly new for me; Bersani's _The Culture of Redemption_ (1990) and _Homos_ (1995) foregrounded literary and theoretical texts (Proust, Genet, Freud), or moments within them which offer the possibility of a movement outside subjectivity and thus outside the circuits of desire and neurosis which are deemed restrictive and imprisoning. I was less familiar with the writing Bersani and Dutoit have done together -- on Beckett, Rothko, and Resnais (_Arts of Impoverishment_), on Assyrian art (_Forms of Violence: Narrative in Assyrian Art and Modern Culture_), and on Caravaggio (_Caravaggio's Secrets_ and the BFI monograph on Derek Jarman's _Caravaggio_), but Bersani's broadly literary and psychoanalytic take on his material is I think enriched and enhanced by the predominantly visual concerns that the books with Dutoit have brought to the fore. Having said this, in my reading of the book the question of the different input of each author did not arise. Bersani and Dutoit write together seamlessly; the aim that Deleuze and Guattari announce in _A Thousand Plateaux_, to 'reach the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I', [1] is applicable, perhaps in a less laboured way, to _Forms of Being_, such that the inability to identify one voice (the fuzziness of the tuning, as it were) makes reading it already an experience of a certain loss of subjectivity, a kind of *jouissance*. To readers new to Bersani and Dutoit I think the book will offer persuasive readings of three landmark films in order to launch an ambitious and exhilarating claim to 're-imagine the relationship between subjectivity and the world' (as it says on the back cover).

 

Philosophically, _Forms of Being_ follows a line of reasoning which comes largely out of French post-war thought, and which is evident in different ways in the thought of Blanchot (as a movement towards the neutral), Foucault (as an attempt to 'think differently' through an analytic disengagement from the net of desire and the bonds of the subject), and, perhaps most significantly, Deleuze (as an entire recasting of thought from the perspective of immanence). [2] To me the aesthetic, ethical, and political impetus of these movements still remains alive, and the pursuit of this legacy in _Forms of Being_ is fascinating. The specific characteristic of Bersani and Dutoit's writing may lie however in the engagement they propose between this movement of withdrawal and the frameworks of psychoanalysis, which, from the perspectives say of Foucault or Deleuze, move in the opposite direction, towards a fixing of the subject in its place, in the place of desire. Bersani and Dutoit, however, take those moments in psychoanalysis -- Freud's *beyond the pleasure principle* or Lacan's *jouissance* -- in which subjectivity is dissolved, and use them in order to move towards what turns out to be an ethics of being, and of being with others. This seems to me a different direction from that of Zizek, for example. _Forms of Being_ sustains an argument which is ethical in its proposition to 'let the world be', with which I have a lot of sympathy. Crudely speaking, the proposition is that in withdrawing from established ways of being and seeing, or those ordained by the structures of subjectivity and desire, the plurality and potentiality of being can become conceivable and visible. This last word makes clear a more specific character to this argument, which is that the three films which it discusses (Godard's _Contempt_, Almodovar's _All About My Mother_, and Malick's _The Thin Red Line_), 'make the invisible visible' (1). This is to say that they proffer the ethics in question primarily in terms of visibility rather than as philosophy, or in discursive language. What the films suggest, Bersani and Dutoit argue, is a certain way of seeing and of being seen which withdraws from action and interpretation and allows for an attitude which is qualified as 'registering' (144) the world in its being. The argument is for a cinematic ontology as opposed to an epistemology. Moreover, the authors affirm, the films put forward this ethics in a way which can do more -- in terms of realising the unrealiseable or making the invisible visible -- than is possible within the limits of discursive modes of argumentation, such as philosophy or psychoanalysis.

 

This aesthetic of ontological withdrawal is held in tension, nevertheless, with 'motivational' structures (94). To a large extent Bersani and Dutoit propose a way of reading film which disdains narrative in favour of 'certain modes of visibility' (3). In the three films they discuss the aesthetic of withdrawal emerges within, but also at the expense of, narrative structures which fall back on recognizable forms -- the disintegration of the couple in _Contempt_, the search for origins and the 'laws of desire' in _All about my mother_, war and heroism in _The Thin Red Line_. In _Contempt_, it is argued, a facile mode of engagement with the film would be to ask, like Paul (the character played by Michel Piccoli), why Camille (Bardot) has fallen out of love with him. Godard's treatment of the original novel by Moravia precisely removes it from the field of psychology and rather proposes Camille as having, as it were, upped the stakes of their passion by promoting herself to the status of an 'enigmatic signifier', thus removing herself from the sphere of knowledge and recognizability. Bersani and Dutoit take the concept of the enigmatic signifier from the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, for whom the infant's relations to the world are understandable in terms of signifiers and the meanings that can be attributed to them: 'The enigmatic signifier is Laplanche's term for an adult world infiltrated with unconscious and sexual significations and messages by which the child is seduced but which the child cannot understand' (37). Its indecipherability determines it as an object of fascination, which holds the look; thus, via the *strategy* of contempt, Paul has been 'stolen from himself' to become 'a secret in Camille's eyes' (41). For the viewers, what is at stake is to see 'what contempt does' (32) to the couple and to the film rather than to interpret the film as the disintegration of the couple. Two modes of viewing and of reading the film are put into contest -- either we adopt Paul's viewpoint, and seek unsuccessfully for the reasons for Camille's contempt in a past comment or action; in this case we have become, like Paul, seduced and fascinated by the enigmatic signifier of Camille. Or, if we ask, like Godard, *what contempt does* to the couple and to the film, we can read contempt as a strategy which elevates passion to something like a tragic impossibility. Theoretically, what is being proposed is a way of seeing, a mode of visibility, which withdraws from subjectivity conceived as interiority or as motive. Crudely speaking (again), this might be put as a rejection of psychology and of over-psychologised ways of relating to art. But Bersani and Dutoit's argument is not crude; what also seems to fall away with psychology are other factors determining interpretation, such as narrative. Indeed the upshot of Bersani and Dutoit's argument might be that we eschew interpretation and narrative as ways of engaging with film, or we engage with these elements at the expense of the film itself. There is an implicit claim in the book that narrative structure and interpretation are not specific to the filmic, and that certain films -- these three being exemplary in this regard -- attempt to disengage cinema from the extraneous elements of narrative and theatre in order to approach a mode of visibility which offers little or no purchase for interpretative desire, and is content simply to 'show', that is to show certain forms or modes of being.

 

There is what might be called a psychoanalytic ethics implicit in this argument, which comes to the fore in the essay on _All About My Mother_. Whereas in Godard's film contempt as strategy promotes Camille to the status of an indecipherable signifier -- capturing vision, installing (following Laplanche) desire as lack -- in Almodovar's film it is a question of moving beyond the 'circuit' of desire (89) or the 'laws of desire' (87, 98, 100). There is a familiar series of Lacanian formulations here: the subject is supported in their place by desire, whose ultimate object is that which stands for all objects without itself being one, the phallus. Fantasy is also a defensive structure, the object of which is to affirm the subject in the place of desire, and foreclose the drives which threaten to dissolve subjectivity as such. Bersani and Dutoit counterpose the imperatives of desire in Almodovar's films -- to *have the phallus* -- with a more interesting (for them) move beyond the laws of desire, towards an indifference to it which allows for what is termed 'prospective sociability' (94). In _All About My Mother_ this strategy is particularly to the fore, especially between the female characters, though it is in constant tension with the 'story' element of the film, loosely framed as a search for the father. Narrative and interpretation, as ways of engaging with film, seem here to be associated with the 'imperatives of desire' (98), and thus with fantasy. What is at stake again is a way of viewing which eschews interpretation, the desire to *find a meaning*, in favour of a certain indifference a receptivity to the visual and to the modes of visibility of being.

 

However, far more crucial to Bersani and Dutoit's concerns than the theoretical lines they draw from Laplanche or Lacan, is their attention to the specifically visual form that being takes in the films they consider. Indeed a major element of their argument is that the aesthetic with which they are concerned insists in a certain way of looking that the film imposes on its viewers, and that communicates or makes itself felt more effectively than discursive argument. This is a difficult claim to uphold discursively, but the authors are impressively attentive to the visual quality and difference of the films they consider. In _Contempt_, for example, the visual backdrop of sea and sky in the sequences around the producer Prokosch's villa becomes a neutral space which is ruptured by the presence of the central characters, whose desire creates 'voids in space' (44). This point is made with reference to a scene on the roof terrace of the Villa Malaparte, in which Paul and Camille seem to circle around each other without seeing or hearing each other, with the blue of the sea and sky dominating the frame. Godard thus puts to the fore the disconnectedness and discontinuity of bodies in space. Bersani and Dutoit are proposing that what is being contested by Godard through the focus on the fractured couple is the very existence of the filmic as such. The enigmatic signifier, which captures and holds the eye of the beholder, causes a 'narrowing' effect on the visual field (42). The effect of discontinuity and rupture induced in visual space by the movement of Paul and Camille's bodies around each other threatens 'our only legitimate activity: the activity of looking and registering what we *see*' (51). To this extent: 'The loss or the violation of space is the loss of the filmic itself' (48). It is as though the filmic here is proposed as a pure visibility, the being of the world in human form without the *tear in space* (see 44) caused by a subjective and desiring human presence. Subjectivity, narrative, psychology would tend towards the non-filmic, away from the film. _Contempt_ is thus rendered as a contest for the being of cinema as such. In Bersani and Dutoit's account, this discontinuity is effaced in the final image of the film ('the nearly uniform spectacle of blue water and sky' (69)), in which: 'All subjects -- human and narrative -- are left behind' (69). Held in tension here is the 'tragic' vision of spatial discontinuity, induced as an effect on space by the desiring and neurotic bodies that move in it, and the visual presentation of a world from which human, or subjective, presence has been effaced. This world, it is implied, recalls the Homeric vision put forward by Fritz Lang within the film; it is a world in which 'everything is illuminated' (70). While this recalls Auerbach's distinction (in the first chapter of _Mimesis_) between the 'fully externalised reality' of Homer's _Odyssey_ and the mode of representation 'fraught with background' of the Old Testament, [3] this last expression suggests the extent to which Bersani and Dutoit's account follows the lead of Deleuze, not only in drawing on his work on cinema, but also in the philosophical affirmation of a 'plane of immanence', in which the subject appears as a fold or an interval and desire as a play of territorialisation. It recalls the moment in _Cinema 1_ where, commenting on Bergson, Deleuze writes: 'Things are luminous by themselves without anything illuminating them'. [4] Indeed the matrix of this essay on _Contempt_ may be already given in Deleuze's description of the film in _Cinema 2_: 'the sensory-motor failure of the couple in the traditional drama, at the same time as the optical representation of the drama of Ulysses and the gaze of the gods'. [5] But Deleuze has little to say otherwise on _Contempt_.

 

The position of the essay on Godard as the first of the three films considered may suggest, however, that there is somewhere else to go. That the image of 'the blue of the sky' appears as the final shot of the film, after the death of Camille and Prokosch, suggests that what is at stake is an effective *opposition* between the discontinuous, ruptured space of desire and subjectivity, and the neutral or immanent space of nature -- that the visual form of immanence appears only at the expense of human presence, after its passing. But Bersani and Dutoit constantly ask what a non-expressive aesthetic might look like, and envisage at least the possibility of *inhabiting* such a world. The risk that the essay on Godard takes is that an aesthetic that would disengage us from our 'fascinating and crippling expressiveness' (70) would be one devoid of human presence and populated by statues and empty spaces. In more theoretical terms,  the risk is that a loosening of the bonds of subjectivity would tend inevitably towards death, and be accessible only through the 'trick' of posthumous commentary, after the event. This risk informs the second and third parts of _Forms of Being_, and the essay on Malick's _The Thin Red Line_ in particular.

 

A further manner in which Bersani and Dutoit attend to the specifically cinematic form of the objects they consider is in their concern with the close-up. Here they draw once again on Deleuze, for whom the close-up of the face has the potential to push it in 'to those regions where the principle of individuation ceases to hold sway' -- if Godard stops short of what Deleuze calls the 'nihilism of the face' (this comment is made originally about Bergman's _Persona_, as the authors note), the close-ups in Malick's film take the face elsewhere; rather than confronting it 'with its [own] nothingness', as Deleuze writes. [6] it makes possible the imagining of other ways of looking. In Malick's film Bersani and Dutoit would like to find a non-deathly and to some degree humanized beyond of subjectivity. They find it, or so they argue, in the way that 'Malick's camera uses the close-up as a way of giving a face to the particularities of its own point of view' (145). Rather than the face *expressing* a psychology or an interiority disconnected from space, the visual field is *imprinted* on the face which thus 'facifies' (from Deleuze's 'faceification' [7]) that which it looks at. Bodies here would not be in rupture with the spaces they inhabit due to the disconnectedness of subjects, but individuated by being, specifically via the visual imprint that being makes upon their ways of looking. In Bersani and Dutoit's reading, this individuation or this imprinting takes multiple forms (those of disgust, anger, compassion) but seem also to be ranged according to degrees of openness, on an implied scale from expressivity to what we might call imprintability, or more simply *affection*.

 

For example, Colonel Tall, the character played by Nick Nolte, is 'all action' (145) and expressivity. His is the perspective least open to the world in which he moves and most intent on acting within it, on 'invading it' (145). Sean Penn's role as Top, on the other hand, is a 'masterpiece of squinting' (149), symptomatic of a will to control the optical field and its affective imprint. But it is in the face of the character of Witt (played by Jim Caviezel) that the authors find the most telling embodiment of their argument. Indeed the front cover of the book foregrounds this image alongside the blue sheen of the final shot of _Contempt_. If in the faces of the characters the viewer sees the imprint of a certain way of looking; if, in other words, the characters act in some sense as cameras, one (Witt) 'has its aperture wide open as it moves within its field of vision' (149), the other (Top) has 'its aperture continuously about to close, at least to narrow the visual field' (149). Witt's look is characterised as bearing a 'remarkable clarity and openness' (151). This openness is characterised as an attitude of 'registering' (144) or qualified with the term 'witnessing', which carries a less objective, more neutral connotation: 'in his look, Witt simply connects to the world through what might seem like a distancing from it: an evenness of witnessing' (158). The ethical thrust of this moves towards witnessing as a way of being connected to the world, being implicated in it, more connected and implicated than in action, desire, or interpretation, since the subjective space that these activities imply creates discontinuity. The image of Witt's look 'communicates witnessing as a mode of implication, of connectedness' (159). It appears insensitive, but this insensitivity 'abolishes distance' (160), as if, rather than being moved by what he sees happening to someone else, Witt witnesses what he sees as happening to being as such, in which he participates and to which he is connected, which he absorbs. Witt's look is thus made to bear a heavy ethical weight. It also supports an argument about the filmic as such, since, as the authors write: 'Through Witt's look, _The Thin Red Line_ films an inherently unrealisable ideal of film itself', which is to offer 'the world as it is', 'to do nothing but receptively register what it [the look] sees' (161).

 

Apart from the fact that it seems that the entire weight of the argument of the book concerning the film's specifically *visual* promotion of a certain ethics is placed on the face and look of Jim Caviezel, I think it is worth questioning the line of argument that is being put forward here on its own terms. Might it not appear that the price of such a participatory witnessing and ethics of absorption in being is a receptivity to evil, an indifference, even an amoral stupidity. Bersani and Dutoit might counter that it is precisely through indifference and stupidity that the possibility of a different world might be entertained, a world different from the one which our restrictive notions of individuality and intelligence constrains us to see. This line of argument might be familiar to those who know the work of Bataille or Blanchot, especially on Sade. It would be only by registering evil as a human reality, and by absorbing this reality in the fullest sense, that the possibility of the good, of another world, or of the potentiality of this world, can be glimpsed. This view would counter the cynical vision that there is only evil, only 'property' (as Top remarks, 161), as well as a redemptive or curative vision, against which Bersani has argued in _The Culture of Redemption_. More generally it implies that it takes a certain indifference (to suffering) to attain the kind of way of seeing and thinking that can 'see' being as potentiality. A feature of this vision, though, or at least of its discursive elaboration, is that it is attained only on the horizon, in the liminal zones of the films and of life, or, as in the case of Witt, through a posthumous voice from beyond the grave. The call the film makes for a withdrawal from invasive individualism and conflict, which paradoxically allows for an inclusiveness and a seeing of 'allness' (177), arises from moments at the edges of what we think of as humanity; Witt's look is allied to that of an owl, the 'other world' he has seen is from the context of the indigenous tribe he frequents while AWOL, where the camera concentrates on children. Is the other world inevitably only at the edge of this one? Ultimately, I believe, Bersani and Dutoit do not clarify whether the ethics of openness to being towards which the films move is *liveable*, just as this question remains open with regard to the theorists whose presence informs the book (Blanchot, Foucault, Deleuze). The challenge of this question, however, makes _Forms of Being_ exhilarating and entirely necessary.

 

It is also worth considering whether these three films are best suited to the book's argument. As noted above, in all three films the ontological exists in tension with narrative and psychology, and thus with interpretative strategies at odds through their 'invasion' of the world with the receptivity of witnessing. In choosing three relatively canonical films (_Contempt_, as they note, is the nearest Godard comes to Hollywood), rather than films which more explicitly eschew narrative in favour of visual reception and 'registering', do they not offer themselves a fairly thin purchase on their material? I wondered whether such a perspective might not have been more aptly drawn from the work, say, of Tarkovsky? But it is perhaps not in the end-point of their argument -- for example, in the acknowledgement that: 'To be that extraordinarily receptive to the being of the world is perhaps inevitably to be shattered by it' (176) -- but in the way that this perspective emerges with difficulty from the narrative spaces of the films and from the circuits of desire and destructiveness they operate, that the specific genius of the book is to be found.

 

King's College London, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, _A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia_ (London: Athlone Press, 1992), p. 3.

 

2. For these writers, see, for example: Maurice Blanchot, _The Writing of the Disaster_ (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1986); Michel Foucault, _The Use of Pleasures: The History of Sexuality vol. 2_ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), or _Ethics_ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997); or _Cinema_ by Deleuze, and _A Thousand Plateaux_ by Deleuze and Guattari. It is surprising that Bersani and Dutoit do not draw on the work of Giorgio Agamben, who has not written extensively on film, but whose conceptualisation of community and of potentiality -- in _The Coming Community_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), and in the collection of essays titled _Potentialities_ (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) -- would have a lot to offer them. Agamben's consideration of Melville's Bartelby, and his 'prefer not to', might also advance the argument philosophically. Consider also Agamben's comment in the essay 'On Potentiality', that, following Aristotle, 'human beings are the animals who are capable of their own impotentiality' (182).

 

3. Erich Auerbach, _Mimesis: Representation of Reality in Western Literature_ (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 12.

 

4. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_ (London: Athlone Press, 1986), p. 60.

 

5. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2 : The Time-Image_ (London : Athlone Press, 1989), p. 10.

 

6. Deleuze, _Cinema 1_, p. 100. Quoted by Bersani and Dutoit on page 49.

 

7. Deleuze, _Cinema 1_, p. 88.

 

 

Copyright İ Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Patrick ffrench, 'Potential Not To Be: Bersani and Dutoit's _Forms of Being_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 3, January 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n3ffrench>

 

 

Read a second review-article and a response by the authors:

 

Peter Caws

'Theory as Criticism: Bersani and Dutoitıs _Forms of Being_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 4, January 2005

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n4caws

 

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

'A Response to Patrick ffrench and Peter Caws'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 5, January 2005

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n5bersanidutoit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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