The war of images



Excerpt selected by the author of the recently released book “Contemporary art in three times”

It can be said, generalizing, that at the center of the contemporary aesthetic debate, is Jean Baudrillard's diagnosis, which remains current, according to which we live in a moment in which the future of the image, in its relationship with the “strong references ” (as the “intractable reality”), is being decided; that is, there is a “drama of perception” in the present, in the expression of playwright Heiner Goebbels; or a “war of images”, as Bruno Latour wants;[I] or, even, a “biopolitics” of images, in the direction of Michel Foucault.[ii]

According to Hans Belting,[iii] reader of Jean Baudrillard and Aby Warburg, the challenge is to discover “the flaws and omissions in the dizzying chain of images”, in which “a given image merely leads to the next image” – which brings us to the idea of ​​“total canvas” – , an image in which something comes from outside: “the true image”, “one in which there is the irruption of the “real”, which has already become strange to us, without us having planned it”.[iv] It is in this exceptional image that the power to restore vision to the saturated eye resides, thus reacting to “contemporary iconomania”.[v]


This focus on perception is also central in Gilles Deleuze's reflection[vi] about cinema, given that it asks about the status of the cinematic image within our society of images. It would be in the “self-reflexive cinema” of Jean-Luc Godard, and not in the “reflexive cinema” of Ingmar Bergman, or in the cinema of political denunciation based on the “direct representation of an object”, nor in the parodic cinema, associated in the 1980s in “retro fashion”,[vii] that we would have – according to Gilles Deleuze – the drama of perception.

The most relevant cinema, according to the author, “engaged in its highest reflection, and never stopped deepening and developing it”;[viii] in such a way that we would find, especially in Jean-Luc Godard, “formulas that express the following problem: if images have become clichés both inside and outside, how can we extract from all these clichés an Image, 'just an image', an autonomous mental image?”[ix] And he concludes: “From the set of clichés an image must emerge… With what policy and with what consequences?”,[X] after all: “What is an image that wouldn’t be a cliché? Where does the cliché end and the image begin?” – the one that becomes more difficult every day” (close, here, to Jean Galard’s notion of “difficult beauty”).[xi]

In his book about Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze reiterates: “Cliché, clichés! Not only has there been a multiplication of images of all kinds, around us and in our heads, but also reactions against clichés engender clichés.”[xii] Therefore, it is not “by transforming the cliché that we will escape from clichés”; it is “only when we get rid of them, through rejection, that the work can begin.”[xiii] The spectator's problem then becomes, in the well-known closing passage of Time-image: “what is there to see in the image” we have before us?; “and no more, what will we see in the next image?”[xiv]

One can ask, therefore, how to expect an image to emerge from the succession of simulacra on the total screen that “forces thought”, in the sense of Gilles Deleuze; something like the “arrival”, says Jacques Derrida;[xv] something that “happens in the event”, in the proposition of Jean-François Lyotard;[xvi] something like “the unthought” in Michel Foucault’s statement;[xvii] something like an “indefinite possibility”, in the expression of Hans Thies Lehmann;[xviii] something, finally, like “it”, in the psychoanalytic sense of drive, of the unconscious, of the other sense; something that breaks, finally, with the horizon of the probable, that interrupts every performative organization, every convention or every context dominated by conventionalism; because only in this way, in the subtraction of elements of power, would the non-communicative force of an image be released.

Faced with the war of images, the ethical and aesthetic challenge of art criticism is to select enigmatic images amidst the performativity of simulacra (or clichés) that circulate uninterruptedly on the total screen, warning of the risk of the dissolution already underway, of art. in communication. To grasp the non-communicative force of an image, it is necessary to distinguish communication, or “simulation of communication” as Jean Baudrillard prefers,[xx] of art considered as a form of “communication… without communication”, in the expression of Jean-François Lyotard.[xx]

This apparently contradictory notion of “communication… without communication” designates, for the author, “an “original” communicability, “prior to communicational pragmatics”, which operates a suspension (epokhé) or renders it “inoperative” (désœuvrée) or “disoriented” (let go) this pragmatic.[xxx]

This conception by Jean-François Lyotard is, therefore, opposed to the lack of distinction between art and communication that was disseminated by the cybernetics theory of Norbert Wiener and the information theory of Abraham Moles and Max Bense, in the years 1950 to 1970, and which, today, it is peacefully accepted. These authors, it is worth remembering, argued that the difference between art and communication is only a quantitative difference – therefore, measurable with regard to the informational level (the redundancy or message information rates: from 0 to 1) –, and not a qualitative, if not ontological, difference between artistic form and cultural commodity.

This indistinction that is currently being revived, in another theoretical configuration, has become widespread to the point of becoming the dominant doxa. If this distinction, however, is not preserved, art will end up subsumed under culture. mass-media and the digital network, as demonstrated by Jean-Luc Godard's synthetic formulation in Je vous salue Sarajevo: “In a way, fear is the child of God, redeemed on Friday night. He is not beautiful, he is mocked, cursed and denied by everyone. But don't misunderstand, he takes care of all mortal agony, he intercedes for humanity. Because there is a rule and an exception. Culture is the rule. And art, the exception. Everyone says the rules: cigarettes, t-shirts, computer TV, tourism, war. Nobody talks about the exception. It is not said, it is written: Flaubert, Dostoyevski. It is composed: Gershwin, Mozart. It is painted: Cézanne, Vermeer [work of art]. It is filmed: Antonioni, Vigo. Or it is lived, and becomes the art of living [poetics of gesture]: Srebenica, Mostar, Sarajevo. The rule wants the death of the exception.”[xxiii]

Georges Didi-Huberman asks whether this maxim by Jean-Luc Godard (“For there is a rule and an exception. Culture is the rule. And art, the exception”), which guided him in harassed, launched in 1960, the Goodbye to language, from 2014, did not itself acquire a normative character, insofar as it would have converted the exception into a new rule.[xxiii] Em Goodbye to language, royally faithful to the exception, in our view, Jean-Luc Godard examines the poetic power of 3D images, not even an interview in the films blockbusters North Americans.

In this visual essay, we do not have the usual special effects of entertainment films, but an inventory of the poetic possibilities opened up by digital video, such as the superimposition of brilliant colors, which results in a color blow-up, an evocative effect analogous to that obtained by post-impressionist or Wildcat; or, even, the distortions in the figures resulting from the relationship between the plane (the two-dimensionality of the canvas) and the effect of depth in the 3D digital image, referring, in the latter case, to the practice of anamorphosis in painting.

These distortions, resulting from the collision between plane and depth, allow Godard's “film” to approach an aesthetic of imperfection, not in the sense of valuing low tech, as we will see in Wilhelm Kentridge, but due to the limitation of the verisimilitude effect of the 3D digital image – explored by the filmmaker, by the way, with a clear ironic intention.

Before Goodbye to language, which is cinema about life (because it is open to the referent: morals, history, politics, etc.), and also cinema about cinema, given its self-referentiality, the observer must focus not only on what there is to see to each image, painting or plane considered in its singularity, as Gilles Deleuze requested; but also its composition based on the accelerated assembly of images, words and sounds that, arranged as “disjunctive dualities” (that is, as conflict, hesitation, oscillation, or paradox), activate its reflection, as they open the images ( and the present) to “the unthought”, in the term reiterated by Godard in Film history(ies).[xxv]

Through “critical thinking that judges and chooses, that produces differences, that selects images” it would be possible, according to Jean Baudrillard,[xxiv] also opposing the exception to the rule, “liberating the meaning”; however, “the masses do not choose, they do not produce differences, but indifferentiation”: they “maintain the fascination of the medium (as McLuhan prophesied) that they prefer to the critical demand of the message”. The rule mentioned by Godard corresponds, here, in Baudrillard, to “asyntactic forms”, interchangeable, as is typical of commodity forms or advertising forms; and the exception would correspond to “syntactic forms” (the idiolect: the singular code of each work); that is, the “forms that articulate meaning”, which would be incommensurable, whereas they cannot be exchanged, unlike goods, which can be measured according to an abstract value.

One cannot, therefore, assume the existence of a communication society, strictly speaking, in the sense of the democratization of access to information, or of a communicative rationality, in the direction of Jürgen Habermas, because, according to Jean Baudrillard,[xxv] the “mass scandalously resists the imperative of communication”, thus conceived, to the extent that its “only massive affection” is “voracious consumption” – “seeing, deciphering, learning does not affect it” –, in such a way that “discourses articulated elements end up reduced to a single dimension in which all signs, media, and reality itself lose their meaning” (being replaced by the “simulation of meaning”).[xxviii]

Faced with this deterrent effect of communication, or its implosive violence, one can ask, however – distancing ourselves, here, provisionally, from Jean Baudrillard – how it would be possible to resist the conversion of art into merely performative images.

To say that culture has become the rule implies stating, in short, that it ended up being limited “to an instrument of totalitarian barbarism, since it is currently confined to the mercantile, prostitutional realm of tolerance or generalized indifferentiation”, in terms of Georges Didi-Huberman;[xxviii] in other words, that culture, thus conceived, is no longer that which protects us from barbarism and that, therefore, it “should not be protected by us” in the face of its relapse into horror.

The relationship between culture and art, in Jean-Luc Godard, is analogous, it is worth noting, to the opposition between light and shadow, in Didi-Huberman, given that the latter refers to the “violent contrast between the exception that receives or radiates the light of desire” and the “rule of a reality made of guilt, a world of terror made concrete by the inquisitive ray of projectors and the frightening bark of guard dogs of the night”,[xxix] in the characterization of fascist society by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which is possible to extend, in our view, to the neoliberal society of hypervisibility, in the direction of Baudrillard. This exception as “innocent joy would operate like a beckoning in the closed night”, after all, all art, says Didi-Huberman, is “erratic flash, but live flash or flame of desire”; it is an “exceptional moment in which human beings become luminescent, dancing, erratic, untouchable and resistant”, “under our amazed gaze”.[xxx]

It should be noted, before presenting other images of resistance, that it is necessary, despite the difficulties, to sharpen one's perception in order to grasp the singularity of such images. It would be necessary, for example, to sharpen sensitivity to what is changing in images, to what Roland Barthes called “neutral” – “an increasingly rare commodity, if not a true luxury in the present”.[xxxii] This “aesthetics of the neutral”, proposed by Roland Barthes, is thus opposed to the aforementioned idea of ​​neutralization of images, in Jean Baudrillard.

It is necessary to realize that there are images that are “completely and as if exhaustively nuanced spaces”; in other words, that they are “colorful”; that “subtly change aspects, perhaps meaning, or configuration, according to the inclination of the observer’s gaze”.[xxxi] This search for nuances in the image, which is proposed here as a form of resistance to the images of the simulation society, does not mean a claim for intellectual sophistication, in the sense of a stylization of thought or a dandy refinement of sensitivity, but merely an attempt to prevent the gaze from becoming hostage to the fatal fascination caused by the high definition signs of the digital world.

The perception of the nuances of an image implies the temporary interruption of the impositions of a visual language that is taken as anonymous, dogmatic, or, simply, as natural, because certified in the endless reiterations of the total screen. The perception of the nuances of the image, its syntactic and, consequently, semantic inflections, thus denouncing the “arrogance of language” (the “fascism of language”, in Roland Barthes, corresponds, here, to the “fascism of the simulacrum” , in Jean Baudrillard) requires waiting and slowness, the idle or postponement, in a world governed by electronic media and information technology that create a “sense of simultaneity and immediacy” typical of financial capitalism, which calls into question any long-term vision, in favor of the accelerated circulation of capital on a global scale.

This hidden perception, proposed here, may seem fanciful in a world colonized by the sphere of technique and science, that is, by the operation, for the effective procedure; after all, “Enjoyment, narcissism, competitiveness, success, performance, achievement, performance”[xxxii] These are the watchwords, as we know. It is precisely, however, in the perception marked by delay, by hesitations, by wasted time and wasted time, by patience in unveiling the secret of an image, a face in it that only allows itself to be glimpsed, that we would have the denial of the temporality of the image. production of capitalist simulacra and consumption (voracity and haste), and, consequently, the “anxious hedonism” that governs life in “hypermodernity”, according to Gilles Lipovetsky.[xxxv] In short, the question “what do images expect from us?” can be answered, which is the technique of delay: the jealous and slow perception of its nuances.


In the enigma-image, on the contrary, there is a zone of opacity, or indiscernibility, which triggers in the viewer a kind of “seeking schism”,[xxxiv] given that it circulates, without ceasing, between the studium and the point; between the representative and the indexical, between the expository value and the cultural value, between the given and the secret, since such terms are not exclusive. In the indexical character of this “scrupulous image”,[xxxiv] of “difficult beauty, there is precisely the passage from one term to another, thus allowing us to glimpse the intractable reality. It is the image, finally, that, interrupting the self-referential remission of simulacra, allows a reinvestment “in the referential and the real”, without this implying a return to representation.[xxxviii]

However, this discourse in the field of arts of a “return of the real” in the midst of an “irreferential world”, warns Baudrillard himself, could be a new move in the “game of simulation”: “While the historical threat came to him from the real, power played with deterrence and simulation, disintegrating all contradictions into the force of producing equivalent signs. Today, when the threat comes from simulation (that of becoming volatile in the game of signs) power plays with reality. Play with the crisis; plays by refabricating artificial, social, economic, political issues. For him it is a matter of life and death. But it's too late.”[xxxviii]

This fatality (“But it’s too late”) must be understood, however, based on the author’s own discursive strategy, which contrasts “ironic nihilism” with the “nihilism of neutralization” characteristic of the hegemonic system. His “active nihilism of radicality” is that of “dramatic anticipation”, of the one that “takes this same current system” to the limit of the unbearable: “Theoretical violence, not the truth”, is after all – concludes Baudrillard – “the resource that currently we are left”, even though we are in the “era of theories without consequences”.[xxxix]

In judgment: “But it's too late”, by Jean Baudrillard, echoes Pier Paolo Pasolini's requiem from 1975, taken up by Didi-Huberman in 2009, according to which the “firefly is dead, has lost its gestures and its light in history politics of our dark contemporary, which condemns their innocence to death.”[xl]

What Pasolini and Baudrillard take as spectacularity, in the fascist regime, in the first case, and in the neoliberal capitalist regime of fictitious sociability, in the second, using the figures of light projectors and the total screen, respectively, is the same “realized hell of the which no one else escapes, and to which we are all henceforth condemned”: “Guilty or innocent, it doesn’t matter” at this point, for these authors, because we are all equally “condemned either way”.[xi]

Regarding this “historical thesis” of the disappearance of Pasolini’s fireflies – which we extend here to Baudrillard’s notion of fatality – Didi-Huberman[xliii] considers that, although we are, in fact, “experiencing it” every day, its luminescent dance, “this moment of grace”, that is, “what is most fleeting and most fragile”, still resists “the world of terror” or contemporary horror.

Even admitting that the present time is a situation of “latent apocalypse”, given that nothing else seems to be in conflict, as the collapse “does not fail to wreak havoc on the bodies and spirits of each person”, no one can exhaust themselves, argues Didi -Huberman, the “overdeterminations and indeterminacies” of “apocalyptic stratagems”.[xiii]

In other words, in the “immanence of the historical world”, where “the enemy never stops winning”, as Didi-Huberman wants, the enigma-image operates as an index of survival.[xiv] The surviving image is the one that criticizes the hegemonic image, or, rather, the “image generating machine” of the mass media and the digital network (or, of virtual reality and artificial intelligence in the “datasphere” of Big-Techs) which is “practically tautological”.[xlv]

From the point of view of the rule, the diversity of images circulating on the total screen may seem immense, or even incommensurable, as the idealized view of the network typical of common sense supposes, when in reality it is highly limited, or even non-existent; as from the point of view of the exception, the uniqueness of each surviving image is an index of the infinite potentiality of enigma-images (to come).

It is not necessary, however, to attribute to this surviving image, understood as the residual power of a counter-image (the “pensive form”: the one that returns our gaze because “in it there is no point that does not look at us”), a value of redemption or salvation, especially because, as Didi-Huberman himself highlighted, destruction, even if continuous, “is never absolute”. [xlv]

To assume that the machine of vision would carry out its work without leaving any residue or possibility of resistance would be to allow itself to be so blinded by the force of the projectors or the total screen that one would not be able to see the flashes or bright spot who state “beautiful luminous communities”: “Although they are close to the ground, even if they emit a very weak light, even if they move slowly, the fireflies do not, strictly speaking, represent such a constellation”[xlv] that operates as an index of possible otherness?

*Ricardo Fabbrini He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Contemporary art in three periods (Authentic). []


Ricardo Fabbrini. Contemporary art in three periods. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, Essays collection, 2024, 174 pages. []


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[I] Latour (2008).

[ii] Foucault (2008, p. 304).

[iii] Belting (2011, p. 18-23).

[iv] Belting (2011, p. 26).

[v] Belting (2011, p. 23).

[vi] Deleuze (1985, p. 264).

[vii] Baudrillard (1991, p. 59).

[viii] Deleuze (1985, p. 264).

[ix] Deleuze (1985, p. 264).

[X] Deleuze (1985, p. 263).

[xi] Deleuze (1985, p. 263).

[xii] Deleuze (2007, p. 93).

[xiii] Deleuze (2007, p. 263).

[xiv] Deleuze (1985, p. 323).

[xv] Derrida (2003, p. 76).

[xvi] Lyotard (1987).

[xvii] Foucault (1981).

[xviii] Lehmann (2011).

[xx] Baudrillard (1991, p. 55).

[xx] Lyotard (1993, p. 258).

[xxx] Lyotard (1993, p. 112).

[xxiii] Godard and Miéville (2006, [sp]).

[xxiii] Didi-Huberman (2015).

[xxv] Augusto (2015).

[xxiv] Baudrillard (1985, p. 130).

[xxv] Baudrillard (1985, p. 14-15, 33).

[xxviii] Baudrillard (1991, p. 92).

[xxviii] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 41).

[xxix] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 21).

[xxx] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 23).

[xxxii] Barthes (2003, p. 27).

[xxxi] Barthes (2003, p. 109).

[xxxii] Gagnebin (1999, p. 88).

[xxxv] Lipovetsky (2004, p. 55).

[xxxiv] Lacan (2008, p. 71).

[xxxv] Baudrillard (1991, p. 33).

[xxxiv] Galard (2012).

[xxxviii] Galard (2012, p. 32).

[xxxviii] Galard (2012, p. 33).

[xxxix] Galard (2012, p. 195-201).

[xl] Pasolini (2020, p. 162-169).

[xi] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 39).

[xliii] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 25).

[xiii] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 75).

[xiv] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 78).

[xlv] Groys (2015, p. 21). See also Beiguelman (2021).

[xlv] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 118). See also Didi-Huberman (1998, p. 169-199).

[xlv] Didi-Huberman (2011, p. 60).

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