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The Body and the Gaze: On Jacques Rancière’s Intervals of Cinema

By Tristan Burke.

Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema, trans. John Howe (Verso, 2014)

Jacques Rancière does not write books with the same sorts of linguistic games as so many important French theorists, though he is one of the youngest, and last, of that generation. His writing is remarkably clear, in keeping with his highly egalitarian politics. This is not to say that his writing is not as beautiful as some of the most linguistically pyrotechnic of French philosophers: Cixous, Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida. Its beauty emerges not from the play of the signifier, but from a passionate belief that his arguments—in this case, these readings of moments in the history of cinema, collected under the title The Intervals of Cinema—are accessible to anybody.

There is another reason why Rancière is so like these other French philosophical giants from May ’68 and afterwards: he is passionately concerned with the life of the body; with the experience of the body, with the way that bodies in themselves are political. This, to my mind, is why the designation “post-structuralist” is so important, and it suggests a slightly different orientation to the common account of post-structuralism as synonymous with deconstruction and the linguistic turn. Rancière is one of a group of thinkers who insist on a movement beyond the linguistic turn, where language is put in relationship with the solidity and palpability of bodies. Post-structualism comes after structuralism because it critiques the linguistic categories into which structuralism divides the world. Whereas structuralism opposes two terms, and in this opposition posits the creation of meaning, post-structuralism suggests that this meaning is faulty because the two terms themselves never have stable meanings. In this sense, post-structuralism never goes beyond the insistence of the letter, the insistence of the signifier. This of course isn’t actually post-structuralism per se but the argument of Lacan and Derrida and occasionally Barthes, but it so often stands in, in pedagogical accounts, for the other great discovery of post-structuralism: the relationship between the signifier, and the body. This is the primary concern found in the work of Foucault, of Barthes, of the late Derrida, of Deleuze and Guattari, of Cixous, of Irigaray, of Kristeva, et al.

None of this is unfamiliar to anyone who has read the work of these thinkers, who has discovered the extraordinary ways that their words, their writing can transform the situations of our own bodies politically, socially, in space and time, in the myriad ways that they are existent and present in the world, a presence that post-structuralism is so often supposed to deny. To borrow Foucault’s title (maybe the most obvious intellectual influence on Rancière’s recent work, though he is rarely, if ever directly, mentioned): “my body, this paper, this fire,” all palpably present. Indeed, images of bodies and flames together are a favourite object of analysis for Rancière in his writings on cinema.

Why is this familiar excursus necessary for this review? Because Rancière is concerned with the political potentials of these bodies, in relationship to the letter, to language, to the signifier, and because he is also concerned with the erasure of the body in pedagogy. And it is these larger philosophical problems to which these essays address themselves, as well as being fascinating readings of individual films. At the centre of The Intervals of Cinema there is an essay on these concerns: “The Philosopher’s Body: Rossellini’s Philosophical Films.” Here, the question of the relationship of the body to thought is explored by asking how the body of the philosopher can be represented through a reading of Rossellini’s late television films, where the politically-committed filmmaker presents the thought of Descartes and Pascal to a popular audience.

For Rancière, the body of the philosopher is vital in order to represent thought. Without the body of the philosopher, and by extension, philosophy in the body, there is otherwise “the fabricated image that the man of power assembles to subject men by imposing it on their imaginations.” That is to say, the philosopher’s body becomes an impalpable image whose very lack of presence is what guarantees philosophy’s distance and ability to dictate reason from a position of power. In order for philosophy to have the ability to change our material conditions, it must be “inscrib[ed]…in a material universe, making it stand out from that universe as a way of interpreting and acting on it.” Bodies themselves must be engaged in thought. In his readings of films, Rancière comes to rather startling conclusions. He argues that Rossellini is only able to depict the correlation of body and thought which will have the potential to change the world by depicting Descartes’s and Pascal’s bodies as “sick” bodies: “The same body that cultivates their thought has to appear recalcitrant to its expression,” otherwise nothing is left but the “talking head framed in the photographer’s viewfinder, the body present merely to recite the great thinker’s best-known phrases.” In this situation, the same intolerable repetition of the thinker as authority would reassert itself. Thus, argues Rancière: “The television audience that was supposed to see an illustration of the development of reason in history instead witnesses a strange entropy, weakness or failure as a constituent of thought.” The weak or failing body is opposed to the strong thought, and this creates a contradiction in the pedagogical-cinematic practice that Rossellini is attempting: “the ideas could be overruled by the feebleness of the bodies that give them palpable life, or … the bodies could be consumed by the statement of the ideas to which they lend their appearance.” What this tension between bodies and philosophical thought suggests, then, is an oscillation between cinema and philosophy, where neither can be permanently sustained in the same space. There are either bodies: their palpability, their occupation in time and space which are represented on the screen, or there is thought. The only way to create some sort of political practicality between the two is in the very gesture which will simultaneously exclude one or the other: “One wonders indeed if this race from one pole [the body] to the other [philosophical thought] does not place the cinematic pedagogy project in a dilemma forcing the audience to choose at every moment between pedagogy and cinema, with the permanent risk of finding neither.”

These incommensurable gaps in cinematic practice are to what Rancière is referring in the title of this book: these gaps are the intervals of cinema. And a slight quibble with the translation by John Howe here. The title in French is Les écarts du cinema, and it would have been useful to see Rancière’s use of the word écart and its offspring placed in square brackets following its English translations, since its multiple meanings do not allow it to be easily translated by a single word. I have not been able to consult a French edition of the book, but I suspect from the style of the translation that whereas Rancière uses a consistent terminology, the multiple translations of écart make it difficult to follow his arguments with absolute precision. These intervals (gaps, spaces, écarts) then are the moments at which cinema creates gaps and impasses as far as what it intends to accomplish. Rancière finds these intentions both in his readings of films themselves as well as in directors’ writings about their films.

These gaps that open between directors’ writings—as well as clearly signposted intentions within films themselves—prevent Rancière from falling into the long familiar traps of the intentionalist fallacy. He suggests that cinema has a sort of force that goes beyond any of its intentions, in both the physicality of the bodies (of people, animals and things) that resist the ideas that the films propagate and in cinema’s vicissitudes when it comes to the spectator. Both of these approaches offer challenges to the dominant academic modes of film criticism, still obsessed as it is with the Lacanian gaze, to the extent of failing to recognise film’s socially situated content, or the dual palpability and fictionality of the bodies and objects that do the gazing. Rancière’s interest, on the other hand, is in the mise en scène, which he rather confusingly defines in his introduction as “an imperceptible difference in the ways of putting traditional stories and emotions into images. [Cinephiles] called that difference mise en scène – staging, direction, production – without being too sure what it meant.”

The intervals of cinema, then, are the gaps in meaning that are produced when cinema is produced from its raw materials: the narratives it is based on, the objects that are transferred from a three-dimensional and singular existence to reproduction on celluloid, the theories and ideas of the director. These elements are translated from their individual roles into the hybrid, combined discourse, that, in total we call cinema. And this discourse we call cinema is marked different from other discourses, and from its component elements, because, in its hybridity, it shows the relations (and thus also the gaps, the intervals) between palpable bodies and words, be those the theories of the director, the words of the source material or the words of the screenplay. For Rancière this specificity of cinema gives it a particular political power because of the physicality with which in imbues words, which no other discourse can attain. Rancière writes that “the art of cinema cannot only be the deployment of the specific powers of its machine.” That is to say, because its source material is physical bodies, it cannot attain the pure representational practices of literature or modern art. Rather, cinema “exists through the play of gaps and improprieties.” The one problem here, though, is that Rancière has suggested that these gaps and improprieties are “imperceptible,” and he never makes it clear how it is then possible for the spectator to read them.

And it is the spectator, as ever, who matters to Rancière. The lessons of his The Emancipated Spectator (2008;, first English translation 2009), are here taken as a given here. In that work he argues that it is still the case that art is conceived as being either a transmission of knowledge from a pedagogical artist to a spectator, thus creating a hierarchical relation between artist and spectator, or, on the contrary, an attempt to bring the spectator into the same position as the artist, thus denying her freedom precisely as a spectator. Rancière instead insists that the criticism of culture must instead create a position of the emancipated spectator, who is creating her own work in defiance of the hierarchical relations by which art has usually been defined. In The Intervals of Cinema, it is in the work of Vincente Minelli that Rancière sees the recognition of the emancipation of the spectator, precisely through depicting an experience of cinema. As he says of several of the characters in Minelli’s The Cobweb (1955): “Being a spectator can also be a performance.”. And he illustrates this by one of the many , to my mind, remarkably beautiful passages of this book, where, with the passion of the cinephile, he describes what the spectator sees on the screen:

A whole modernist tradition is still insisting on the “‘passivity”’ of the spectacle and the spectator. Minnelli turns the game around with those dazzling, quasi-oneiric sequences in which Stevie, who accompanies Sue to the movies, mimes the agility of the Minnellian camera and its ability to slip between the characters of a crowd, by making a path for her through the indifferent multitude of spectators leaving the auditorium, brushing against her on all sides and threatening at any moment to provoke catastrophic reaction.

There is a vital political importance to Rancière’s insistence of the independent activity of the spectator, and I believe that it is vitally important at the current moment, when not only artistic discourses, but much more mainstream media and political discourses are both condemning the spectator as “passive” and lamenting this fact, as well as developing technologies to place her in that position in order to exercise power. Nonetheless, it seems that Rancière’s theoretical preoccupations sometimes actually undermine the theoretically- inflected reading he is articulating. This is a more noticeable problem in his other recent book on cinema, Béla Tarr, The Time After (2011; English translation 2013), where theoretical insistences seem to push against the actuality of the film. Similarly, here, Rancière is insisting on the importance of the emancipated spectator, but he is doing that by insisting that the spectator must be like the filmmaker’s camera and like another figure, over there, seen, on the screen. He is suggesting that the experience of emancipation is in precisely the two elements that he argues in The Emancipated Spectator are against emancipation: the according of particular authority to the didacticism of the artist, and the expectation that the spectator must somehow come to be like, or even part of, the work, rather than standing at a distance to it. Spectating may also be a performance, but the performance advocated here seems remarkably like crude mimicry.

Indeed, it is often in Rancière’s least obviously theorised remarks, in his most inconsequential readings, in the throwaway details of little scenes, in the unexpected comparison that he is most illuminating. The opening chapter of The Intervals of Cinema is a remarkable, virtuoso reading of the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Dziga Vertov, where he contrasts the unveiling of the truth behind appearances undertaken in Vertigo (1958) with the endless transmission of images with no truth behind them in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Rancière eventually suggests that these two paradigms characterise a history of cinema, which is brought to an end by Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998), a film that attempts to combine the two others in a redemptive moment of the glory of the image as a communistic, Utopian form extracted from “subjection to the storytelling industry.” It ends with a demand for a new type of cinema which would put the spectator back at the heart of its politics, rather than Godard’s semi-theological auteurism: “The task of a modern cinema, a cinema that has taken the measure of its own historical utopia, would perhaps be to return to the disjunction of the gaze and movement, to re-explore the contradictory powers of the stoppages, delays and disconnections of the gaze.” However, despite the inspiring philosophical and political importance of this statement, and its implications for the practice of cinema, I wonder whether, as critque, it is truly sustainable as a reading of the history of cinema. Are three mere films enough, if only given the multitude of other material Godard deals with in Histoire(s), and its titular insistence of multiple histories. On the other hand, in a passing comment, Rancière offers a stunning, playful reading of the relationship between Proust, Vertov and Hitchcock:

What Vertov’s camera suppresses is the delay or interval that makes it possible for the gaze to put a story to a face. It is that interval that provokes Scottie’s obsession with the false Madeleine. And that interval is also the one behind the obsession of the narrator in Proust for Albertine. The swarming Odessa beach filmed by Vertov contrasts not only with the quiet deserted places to which the false Madeline leads Scottie in the spiral of her trap, but also to the beach at Balbec where the narrator transformed a fleeting apparition into a love object.

There is no reason within the argumentative thrust for this digression on Proust, but it opens up all sorts of possibilities for creating relationships and intervals between disparate texts, freeing them from received interpretations and viewing them afresh. Rancière is conceptualising the position of the emancipated spectator here far more convincingly and effectively than when he seems to actually be discussing it.

There are moments when Rancière’s broader political and philosophical arguments are absolutely convincing, and these tend to be when he performs more sustained readings of particular films or directors’ oeuvres without trying to make broader historical and trans-historical claims. This is particularly the case in the final two essays in Intervals on politics in film. In the first of these, “Fireside Conversation: Straub and Others,” he identifies an interval of cinema, a gap between two things that cinema does in relationship to politics:

Cinema, whatever the effort made to intellectualize it, is bound to the visibility of speaking bodies and the things they speak of. From that are deduced two contradictory effects: one is intensification of the visual aspect of the world, of the bodies that carry it and the things they speak of; the other is the intensification of the visible as something that disclaims the word or shows the absence of what it speaks.

Thus any discussion of politics that is shown on screen is constantly gesturing towards the lack of materiality of the values of which politics speaks and claims to instantiate: “It confronts [the spectator] finally with the invisibility of justice and injustice,” their ultimate fate as abstract concepts in a world in which we palpably exist. However, it brings a new politics to the bodies of things themselves, one in which abstract judgments can no longer be made, but where bodies exist in a kind of equality conferred by the camera, where everything is given equal rights to representation, a radical democracy of all things in existence, where any of them can speak.

Perhaps more interesting is the final chapter of the book in which Rancière discusses one of his favourite topics: the cinema of the Portugese director Pedro Costa. At times it seems that Rancière may be going back over the material on Costa found in The Emancipated Spectator’s essay “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community,” where he argues that Costa’s films give back the palpable richness of experience to the poor immigrants with whom he makes films, and in the process to create new forms of political subjectivity visible. At the end of this essay, Rancière is sceptical about the extent to which Costa can accomplish this because of the material conditions of the marketplace, but nonetheless allows his essay to linger tenderly over the utopian dream of cinema: “cinema … the art that allowed the greatest number of people to be thrilled by the splendour of the effect of a ray of light shining on an ordinary setting, the poetry of clinking glasses, or a conversation at the counter of a run-of-the-mill café.” In this earlier essay, Costa seems to be the last representative of that tradition.

In The Intervals of Cinema, Rancière still recognises that cinema “is an art in which form is linked to construction of a social relation and which employs an ability that belongs to everyone … [through] a capacity for sharing or a sharable capacity.” In both essays Rancière attacks the modes of distribution of cinema in our current economic climate. His critique is worth quoting at length:

In [its egalitarian capacity] cinema emerged from the depths of a production system focused on making a profit for its owners as an egalitarian art. The problem, as we know, is that even capitalism is not what it once was: while Hollywood continues to flourish, local and smaller cinemas no longer exist as they are progressively replaced by multiplexes supplying each sociologically defined audience with the type of art formatted for it; and like other works that escape this formatting, Costa’s films are labelled from the outset as festival movies, reserved for the exclusive enjoyment of a cinephile elite and pushed into the zone of museums and art lovers. For that, of course, Costa blames the state of the world, the naked domination of financial power, which pigeonholes all those who want to share the wealth of their sensory experience in the humblest lives as auteurs of films only “for cinephiles.”

But whereas before Rancière was happy to move from this to the assertion that Costa produces different forms of subjectivity, he offers a more complex reading here. He argues instead that in Costa’s characters a form of the impersonal opens up and splits their portraits, so that they become double figures, both individuated human subjects, but and also people on the abyss of being. These are precarious individuals whose lives, and more abstract sense of belong to humanity are constantly at risk from those in power. There are times, Rancière argues, in Costa’s films where his characters seem to becoming non-human humans. Lento in Colossal Youth (2006), he writes: “is an inhabitant of the kingdom of the dead who has come back among the living.” But this living-death can take other forms to literal death, other ways in which human subjectivity is thrown into question in modern Europe. As evidence of this, he points to moments when characters go mad, or seem to become like animals, or where the tragedies of collective groups of people become visible on individual bodies. Many of Costa’s films deal with Ventura, a Cape Verdean immigrant in Lisbon, and Rancière remarks of him: “His opaque body has become the surface on which his life, Ventura’s life and that of all who share their condition appears for what it is, a life of the living dead,” because of the barbarism with which they are treated in Portuguese society. This is no longer a creation of new subjectivities, but a mapping of something that is both subjectivity and a kind of non-being that registers political effects. And alongside it, Rancière no longer believes that this obscure cinema can widely disseminate new forms of subjectivity in a way that can create political change. Political effects can be registered on these new, precarious subjectivities, but the films which enact that registration cannot take the further step of revolution. Cinema instead must “consent to being merely the surface on which the experience of those relegated to the margins of economic circuits and social pathways seeks to be ciphered in new forms.”

With these, nearly the very final words of the book, Intervals itself turns full circle, and returns to the political message with which its preface ends: that cinema can register splits, contradictions, gaps, and impasses in the world, but that, for all its palpability, it is still a spectacle of shadows and cannot, on its own, change but only record it. As Rancière puts it, in his reading of Mizoguchi’s Shansho the Bailiff, political films seem to be saying: “These are the limits of what I can do. The rest is up to you.” Despite this, I have reserved this preface to close my consideration here because it is the most remarkable part of this collection. For all that Rancière acknowledges cinema’s the political limits, this preface sets out both the absolute importance and the absolute joy of the experience of the cinema. He tells of his own time as a student trying “simultaneously to learn cinema theory, Marxism and the Italian language” from magazines sent him by “a cinephile Italianist friend.” For Rancière  the importance of cinephilia is in its undiscerning passion, its constant desire to see more and more. Furthermore, cinephilia often found its riches not in a complete work, but in certain moments: striking images or snatches of dialogue. This lack of aesthetic judgments draws into question the modernist paradigm of the internal purity of artistic disciplines. For the cinephile, cinema was so important because it mixed high and low art, and confused literature, the visual arts and theatre in its mélange:

Cinephilia questioned the categories of artistic modernism not by deriding high art but by restoring a closer and less obvious linkage between the types of art, the emotions of the narrative, and by discovering the splendour the most commonplace objects could acquire on a lighted curtain or fumbling with a door handle, a head leaning out of a window, a fire or car headlights in the night, drinking glasses glittering on a bar…it introduced us to a positive understanding, in no way ironic or disillusioned of the impurity of art.

And in this preface, which is a breathless love letter to the absolute pleasure of the cinema, it is this idea of a lack of irony and disillusionment that prevails. Most wonderful of all is his long definition of what cinema is: our memories of films we have seen, “the residue of those presences that accumulates and settles in us as their reality fades,” the actual building we attend, the “ideological apparatus” that produces modern myths, a “problematic dividing line,” that is, a way of categorising and separating artistic films from competent industrial entertainments, a Utopian dream of early Soviet communists, and a “theory of the actual movements of things and thought,” a philosophy whose exemplary manifestations are the books by Gilles Deleuze: Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image. But finally, cinema is vital because as an absolutely everyday, unironic, and popular entertainment it has offered multitudes of people strange and beautiful experiences. As Rancière writes, in the utterly democratic mode he is constantly trying to articulate and here perfects: “[Cinema] is the material place where we go to be entertained by the spectacle of shadows, even though the shadows touch our emotions in a deep and secret way not expressed by the condescending term ‘entertainment.’” And herein lies the basis behind every political valency that cinema possesses.


Tristan Burke is writing a PhD at the University of Manchester. He is a member of the Everyday Analysis Collective whose book Why Are Animals Funny? is published by Zero.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 16th, 2014.