Jean-Luc Godard and Giorgio Agamben

Image: Elyeser Szturm


Considerations on the recently deceased French filmmaker.

One image shows two soldiers dressed in olive green fabric. They wear black caps over their heads. They look to the horizon. One has the most apprehensive look, while the other looks more serene, perhaps as if he feels in control of the situation. A soundtrack appears with string instruments in the background, suffering, but which generates an expectation that something will happen. Perhaps the same expectation as the soldiers. A song between apprehension and serenity, of someone waiting for an attack while dominating something or someone.

This is how the brief film by Jean-Luc Godard begins, Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (1993). As we know from the title, it is easy to locate yourself in the time and space of the image: the war between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. It is about the battle in the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo. And this battle has a history. General Tito was a soldier resistant to the Nazis and gained enough leadership to unify these peoples after the end of World War II. But with his death and the end of the Soviet Union, the first years of the 1990s, in the Balkans, were marked by a real civil war – or as the Greeks said, stasis.

Jean-Luc Godard's film is based on the exhibition of a single photo, taken in 1992 by Ron Haviv – a photojournalist who witnessed the war in Sarajevo. Gradually, with Godard's voice in off, we discover why there is a certain serenity in the midst of the apprehension of one of the soldiers. Her hoarse voice spoke of fear, that “in a way… she is the daughter of God.”. Fear is the mocked, cursed, unbeautiful daughter who is "redeemed on Friday night." When he finishes characterizing fear, the musical score stops, as if Jean-Luc Godard were interrupting those watching his film to make a prior clarification: “But don’t misunderstand me, it [fear] takes care of every mortal agony, it intercedes for humanity.".

In making this observation – this disclaimer – about “fear”, another image appears on the screen, with a new statement in an explanatory tone: “Because there is a rule and an exception.”. The phrase is said at the same time that a third soldier is revealed. The image of his left hand appears on the screen, holding a cigarette between his fingers. From then on, the narrative begins to oppose what is the “rule” and what is the “exception”. Still with the image of the cigarette, the voice of Jean-Luc Godard says: “Culture is the rule…”. And during the exhibition of this small excerpt from Ron Haviv's photo, we discover that the right hand of the third soldier holds a firearm pointed towards the bass, moment when the narrator voice completes: "... art is the exception.". Jean-Luc Godard's complete sentence is: "Culture is the rule, art the exception".

The image of the left hand, with a cigarette, returns. In this part of the film, Jean-Luc Godard gives examples of this relationship between rule and exception: “Everyone speaks the rule: cigarettes, computers, T-shirts, television, tourism, war.”. And at the mention of the word “war”, the trail breaks off again. The image of the right hand of the third soldier appears again and again, holding a gun, at which point he says: “Nobody speaks the exception”.

Jean-Luc Godard states this and then gives examples of how the exception is expressed. Examples of it are cited, then, under the exhibition of a part of the photo, until then not shown in the film. This is the moment when the film reveals the direction in which the gun of this third soldier is pointing: it is towards the crouching civilians, surrendered, with their hands on their heads. And in the narrative, in the background, Jean-Luc Godard says: “It [the exception] is not said, it is written: Flaubert, Dostoievski. It [the exception] is composed: Gershwin, Mozart. [The exception] is painted: Cézanne, Vermeer. [The exception] is filmed: Antonioni, Vigo. Or it is lived and becomes an art of living: Serbenica, Show, Sarajevo.”.

Why is Sarajevo cited as an example of “exception”, and in the category of lived exception? Godard does not elaborate further. He then only speaks a phrase that marks a turning point in the film. Jean-Luc Godard finally reveals that these three soldiers are in the same still image. In short, two of them look in the same direction, while a third dominates civilians, with his right hand pointing a gun at them, and, with the other, holding a cigarette. It is at this point that Jean-Luc Godard mentions Europe and the relationship between rule and exception, applied to this context of art, war and death: “The rule wants the death of the exception. So the rule for Cultural Europe is to organize the death of the art of living, which still flourishes”.

The track increases in volume. the voice in off interrupts again. The photo of soldiers and civilians is shown more widely. We now know one more fact: the third soldier has a kind of bazooka, or portable launcher, on his back and is about to kick one of the prostrate civilians in the head. Here you can get a picture of the relationship between rule and exception. War – the rule – wants the death of Sarajevo, its people, its way of life – the exception.


Giorgio Agamben

In the first volume of the book series, in Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life I (1995), the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben remembers the war in Bosnia and in the regions of the former Yugoslavia as being a moment in which rule and exception are confused as a “state of exception as a permanent structure”. Thus, the philosopher says that what happened in Sarajevo are “premonitory events that announce, like bloody heralds, the new nomos of the earth (…) which will tend to extend over the entire planet.”.

In another volume of your project Homo sapiensOn Iustitium: State of exception II, I (2003), Giorgio Agamben develops this idea a little better. The exception is confused with the rule in a similar way to the law when it is confused with life. In this state of affairs, the exception that is confused with the rule is also not a situation to be resolved with a “return”, a “return” to some rule of law, in which rule and exception, norm and anomie, law and life would be supposedly well defined, discerned. Agamben is more inclined to show that, if you want to stop the juridical-political machine of the state of exception, which is made as a rule, the way is to know the lack of substance in this confusion, the lack of foundation of what links violence and law, life and legal norm, rule and exception. And this also reveals two opposing movements: one, which tries to maintain the fictitious relationship between life and law – confusing them –, and another, which tries to separate these “violently linked” elements.

Thus, says Giorgio Agamben, that “[in] the field of tensions of our culture, therefore, two opposing forces act: one that institutes and that posits and the other that deactivates and deposes.”. And what Agamben calls the “state of exception”, which has become the rule, is “the point of greatest tension of these forces”. And this living under the state of exception “means experiencing these two possibilities and meanwhile, separating the two forces more and more, trying, incessantly, to interrupt the functioning of the machine that is taking the West to the world civil war.”.

In another of his texts, when he writes specifically about the French filmmaker, by title, Cinema and history: about Jean-Luc Godard, Giorgio Agamben tries to show us at least some hypotheses about his cinematographic work, which can be summarized by the following theses: Godard's work seems, in essence, to deal with the “constitutive link between history and cinema”; that the meaning of history, in this comparison with cinema, would not be chronological, but messianic, “a story that has to do with salvation. [a]something has to be saved”; and what must be saved is the image – “The image will come at the time of the Resurrection”, Jean-Luc Godard once said, in a tone reminiscent of St. Paul; and, quoting Serge Daney, Agamben follows him, stating that the messianic force of the image would be in an essential element of cinema: editing, and in its double conditioning form, namely, that of “repetition” and that of “pause”.

About these two conditions, repetition and pause, which “form a system in cinema”, Agamben also says that, “[together] they fulfill the messianic task of cinema”. Still in his text on Godard, Giorgio Agamben explains that repetition has already been a theme of interest to philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Deleuze. And it is through these thinkers' notion of repetition that Giorgio Agamben will give his conception of cinema: “the memory of what was not”. The meanings, here, given to the concepts of repetition and cinema, refer to the notion that repeating does not mean “return of the same, but return of the possibility of what was. What returns, returns as possibility. And Giorgio Agamben compares this to memory, claiming that “repetition, for its part, is the memory of what was not”.

Through this interpretation of Godard by Agamben, it is possible to infer that cinema would then be the memory that returns as an unrealized possibility. And this easily takes us back to a very present notion in the thought of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, especially in his famous Theses on the concept of history (1940). In the personal copy of Theses of Benjamin – who, by the way, is under the guardianship of Giorgio Agamben –, so it says in the Tese VI, on this notion of resuming something repressed in historical memory: “[e]very epoch, one must try again to free tradition from a new conformism, which is about to subdue it. For the Messiah does not come only as the Redeemer, he comes as the winner of the Antichrist”, and this “victory” against the Antichrist takes place “(...) by the gift of fanning those sparks of hope in the past (...)”; for “(…) even the dead will not be safe if the enemy wins. And that enemy has not ceased to conquer.”

This enigmatic passage shows Benjamin's theological-political vision of the role of the materialist historian: that of perceiving memory as a possibility of bringing to light what was possible, but not yet accomplished. And to do so would require a victory over those who insist on preventing the liberation of the tradition of conformism. And the enemy, or even the “adversary” of the New Testament – ​​the Antichrist – has not ceased to win over the liberating forces of past possibilities against the historical violence of the dominant class.

It is through these senses of memory and repetition that Agamben sees Godard's work as a way of revealing the messianic task of cinema. For Agamben, Godard reveals “cinema through cinema”: like the task of a materialist historian, the messianic task of cinema, of the filmmaker, is to seize a memory, a memory of what has not yet been fulfilled. , in the fight against the dominant classes and their spoils, their cultural goods, as well as against all kinds of fascism, against all subjugation over the living and over the memory of the dead.

It remains, then, to talk about the second conditioning form of the cinema system. In addition to repetition, there is a pause in the image. Still in Cinema and history: about Jean-Luc Godard, Giorgio Agamben seeks to be more explicit in his attempt to explain the link between history and cinema, through the notion of “cinema's messianic task”. The Italian philosopher goes so far as to put the pause in the cinematographic image and the proletarian revolution as synonyms. As he says, the pause is about: “the revolutionary interruption of which Benjamin spoke”.

The messianic task of the cinema is accomplished not only by repeating what has not yet happened, the unfulfilled promises of the subjugated classes, but also by the revolutionary force of interrupting the course of history of victories of the dominant class; this historical-political course that made the state of exception – which suspends rights and guarantees – the rule, and in the name of progress, of development at any cost. In one of his notes on Theses, Benjamin rereads Marxism differently even from the dominant Marxist reading of his time: “Marx claims that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But maybe this is totally different. Perhaps revolutions are the pressing of the emergency brake by humanity traveling on this train.”

And the pause in the cinema is analogous to revolutionary force in this sense. A force that not only “repeats”, in the sense of only resuming unfulfilled historical promises, but which also “pauses”, in the sense of interrupting bourgeois history, of the victors, who bequeath cultural goods, which are, at the same time, time, “documents of barbarism” (Benjamin).

Thus, says Giorgio Agamben, the messianic task of cinema and history is not only to create the new, but also to “uncreate” (Deleuze). Perhaps as in that sense of that force about which Agamben spoke in his state of exception: that of “disabling” what violently unites law and life, nomos and anomie, rule and exception. Only in this way could the image of cinema emerge in this salvific time, of redemption of what has not yet been, via the interruption of events in progress, which leave us in danger, in the present and in the past – alive and dead.

Returning the image to Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo, of the three soldiers subjugating civilians, in the middle of the civil war, which used, as we know, a genocidal strategy, of “ethnic cleansing”, Jean-Luc Godard closes the film with a new and final pause in his narration. Now for a longer time, a few seconds longer. The track increases in volume. The still image is revised in the parts that were shown only bit by bit, until we have the view, once again, of the whole picture of Ron Haviv. It is the opportunity when Jean-Luc Godard's narration moves to his last words. These are phrases that are only apparently disconnected from the central theme of the film. It does not speak of fear, nor of war, but it speaks of life and death. This final part seems more like a farewell to the narrator. A closing of a book. Maybe life.

Jean-Luc Godard passed away on September 13, 2022, aged 91. In the final sentence of the film Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo, Godard's voice seems to be at peace with its own finitude. A peace of someone who made his art an art of living, or even a way of life. Because Godard singled himself out in the face of “rules”. It has stood out even in times of fear with which we have been living – the fear of imminent environmental catastrophe, of the neo-fascisms of our times, of the neoliberal economic crisis, of the refugee crisis in Europe, of the Cold War that still continues, with its dangers. of nuclear apocalypse, of the fear of civil war that is increasingly internationalized, in the paradoxical forms of world civil war, in short, of the permanent state of exception. Jean-Luc Godard says goodbye to the film and to life, which made him a true “exception” in this world with so many “rules”, saying: “When the time comes to close the book, I will have no regrets. I saw so many live so badly, and so many die so well.”

*Ricardo Evandro S. Martins Professor at the Faculty of Law at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).


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