This article seeks to interrogate the role of the image in confronting changes to the ways they function within what we may term ‘new media’, and the effects these have had on the traditional “apparatus” of the cinema. Working through the writing of three significant theorists – Serge Daney, Jacques Aumont and Jean-Louis Comolli – I argue that all three figures witnessed, from the beginning of the 1980s onwards, a thoroughgoing metamorphosis of visual culture that effectively marginalised the cinema from its earlier position of social dominance. Its substitute was what had previously adopted a more amorphous audiovisual position that we may call “new media”, “the visual” or the “spectacle”. This essay will therefore focus on the writings of all three figures on “new” media, and link it to their earlier output at Cahiers – including, most notably, the Althusser-inspired analysis of the television show À armes égales published in 1972.

Writing for the daily newspaper Libération on 8 October 1987, Serge Daney turned his critical eye to photo-journalism, and in particular the coverage of war zones and natural disasters. Rejecting the self-exonerating argument of professional photographers that their work can save lives or popularise a worthy cause, Daney adjudged that, in the case of such images of devastation and suffering, “nothing is less evident than their social utility”.1 The critic’s focus turned to one of the most acclaimed photographs of the decade: an image of a 13-year-old girl from the village of Armero in Colombia, caught in a mudslide in November 1985. Omayra Sánchez Garzón had been located by the rescue team, but her legs were trapped by the debris. For approximately 60 hours, she was cared for and fed by aid workers, and interviewed by journalists. To no avail. Shortly before she died of hypothermia, French photographer Frank Fournier captured a snapshot of the girl, her hands already a chalky-white due to the chill, her eyes glazed as she slipped into deathly hallucinations. The resulting picture found its way onto magazine covers and television news broadcasts around the world. The photo, it was hoped, would call attention to the lacklustre response to the Armero disaster by the Colombian government. Daney, however, was rather more dubious: “It would be abusive to claim that the shot of the little girl from Armerio [sic] helped to raise awareness of anything at all. And if the live broadcast of a little girl’s death was needed for decent-minded people to look up Colombia in an atlas, this is a rather high price to pay for pedagogy.”2 He goes on to note the exceptional role played by images of suffering children in the media: “these images, because they are without any possible reverse-shot, doubtless function as the only pious images left to us, and it is without any shame that we keep a hold of them in our memories.”3

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Omayra Sánchez Garzón


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Aylan Kurdi

Reading Daney’s words today, it is hard not to think of the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy whose dead body was found washed up on the Turkish coastline in the summer of 2015, having fallen victim to the treacherous passage charted by the exodus of Syrians who fled the country’s civil war for the safer confines of Europe. As if by miracle, the distressing image seemingly changed Europe’s attitudes to refugees from Syria overnight – even xenophobic tabloids such as The Sun and Das Bild appeared to have been moved by the boy’s fate, and the European populace became tangibly more welcoming of the new arrivals. As Daney would have said, however, Aylan’s death was a high price to pay for this change in public opinion.

In making this connection between an article written in 1987 and an event from 2015, I do not seek to make Daney a visionary oracle of the present day media-political landscape. Rather, I wish to highlight that, beyond his profound critical analysis of the cinema, Daney was also a perspicacious observer of “new” media – television, video, print journalism – to which he gave the overarching term “the visual”.4 In this he is joined by other alumni from Cahiers du cinéma: in particular, Jacques Aumont and Jean-Louis Comolli, who have also turned their attention to the thoroughgoing changes to the ways images function in the contemporary era, and the effects these have had on the traditional “apparatus” of the cinema. The concepts developed by Cahiers during its Marxist turn of 1968–1974 – when Daney, Comolli and Aumont were all active contributors – have since come to be seen as belonging to “apparatus theory”, and it is for this reason that I use the term in the title of this paper. But there are nonetheless considerable limitations to this label: it narrows not only the wide range of theoretical influences operative on the Cahiers writers at the time, but also restricts their elected subject matter to the cinematic “apparatus” alone. In fact, from as early as the mid-1960s, the journal took a vivid, if intermittently articulated, interest in analysing other audiovisual media from a theoretical standpoint. This essay will therefore focus on the writings of all three figures on “new” media, and link it to their earlier output at Cahiers – including, most notably, the Althusser-inspired analysis of the television show À armes égales published in 1972.

Cahiers du cinéma and the “televisual state apparatus”

Cahiers du cinéma represents a shared formative experience for Daney, Aumont and Comolli in their maturation as film theorists: writing for the journal in the late 1960s and 1970s, they all went through the roiling theoretical and political debates of the era. The paths these three figures took after their time at Cahiers differed widely: Daney embarked on a journalistic career by becoming a reviewer for Libération, while Aumont entered the academic world, and Comolli focussed his energies on the theory and practice of documentary filmmaking. Moreover, major political and theoretical metamorphoses have undeniably taken place in the more than four decades since the end of Cahiers’ political radicalism. Nonetheless, I will argue that this mutual point of origin – a half-decade long cauldron of militant activism and theoretical innovation – has resulted in a deep-lying unity in the broader outlook of these three figures, even decades after their collaboration ended. This outlook, in essence, consists of a volatile fusion of the “ontological realism” of Bazinian theory – received within Cahiers as the inescapable heritage of the journal, whose founder was recognised as fundamental while at the same time subject to rigorous critique – and the structuralist-Marxist critical theory that became dominant in French intellectual culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, having drawn from the work of Althusser in the sphere of politics/ideology, as well as, in other fields, figures such as Lacan (psychoanalysis), Barthes (semiotics), Derrida (early deconstructionism) and Kristeva (literary theory).5

Admittedly, the key articles of this period – Comolli and Narboni’s editorial “Cinéma/Idéologie/Critique”, Comolli’s “Technique et idéologie” and the collective text on Young Mr. Lincoln – are not known for their preoccupation with new media, and instead focus almost entirely on providing an ideological analysis of the cinema as a relatively monolithic entity quite remote from our contemporary situation of media hybridity. Less well-known texts, however, evince an interest in other media forms, especially television. Although the preoccupation with television is sporadic, and far from being as theoretically fleshed out as the intense concern with cinema, these texts are fascinating precursors to the later writings of the Cahiers alumni, and point to the possible application of the theories developed by the journal to media domains outside of the cinema stricto sensu.

An early text in this vein was Comolli’s “Notes sur le nouveau spectateur” from April 1966. Here Comolli points to the social and psychological function of the darkened movie-theatre and its innate kinship with the “cinema of consumption”, which requires a hypnotised, somnolent spectator prone to the “machinery of dreams.” By contrast, even the most modest auteur-film requires a “veritable effort of resistance” in order to be appreciated, because it “does not conform to the norms, vaguely fixed by tradition, of the darkened theatres.”6 This antimony leads Comolli to call for “lighted theatres”, which would not absorb the brightness radiating from the screen, thereby placing the character and the spectator in a state of equality. While admitting that this proposal is little more than a dream, Comolli finds a curious equivalent to his “lighted theatres” in the television set:

The major use television makes of cinéma-vérité is no accident: the small screen is the only one that often opens onto a lighted “theatre”. This is confirmed by re-watching film masterpieces on television: […] if you re-watch these films in a half-light propitious to attentiveness, I believe that you watch them differently, and better, than in the movie-theatre.7

This positive appraisal of television viewing would, however, remain an isolated case in Cahiers. For the most part, the newer medium was discussed in desultory fashion. The next prominent article to focus specifically on television would not be until 1972, by which time Cahiers was in the throes of its Maoist period. The 25-page article, “‘À armes égales’: Analyse d’une émission télévisée” (“On a Level Playing Field: Analaysis of a Television Programme”), penned by the “Groupe Lou Sin d’intervention idéologique”8 sought to analyse a television programme from the standpoint of Althusser’s newly devised concept of the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), which the philosopher asserted was a pluralised set of public and private institutions used to cement a given state formation’s ideological control over its population. Althusser’s ISAs included the church, the education system, the family, and, of most pertinence, to this discussion, the “communications ISA (press, radio, television, etc.).”9

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À armes égales (1970–1973)

Loosely following Althusser, the Groupe Lou Sin’s introductory remarks align television and the cinema as twin “information ISAs” which “support and maintain each other, reproducing the ideological conditions of each other’s functioning, renewing the systems of ideological recognition that programme them and that they, in turn, confirm.”10 Beyond their common material basis (mechanically reproduced images and sounds), the cinematic and televisual apparatuses have a privileged relationship: television “institutionalises and perpetuates the spectacular and distractive functions of the cinema such as they were defined by Hollywood.”11 Moreover, with a national viewership of 30 million people a night in France, the televisual apparatus is, in fact, “more massive and more legible” than its cinematic counterpart, and relegates cinema to a “secondary front” in the contemporary struggle within the ISAs.

Indeed, by focusing on the programme À armes égales, the Groupe Lou Sin specifically chooses to highlight an alternative relationship: that between television and the political ISA. À armes égales (the title means “on a level playing field”) was a political programme that broadcast 33 two-hour episodes on a monthly basis on the main channel of state broadcaster ORTF between February 1970 and March 1973.12 The novelty of the show was twofold: firstly, its format combined political debate with short films made under the auspices of the participants, and secondly, it specifically aimed to confront two contrasting views on the topic under debate. Here it should be recalled that this was a new phenomenon for the freshly liberalised ORTF; prior to 1968, French television was a far more monolithic mouthpiece for the Gaullist state. Notably, À armes égales frequently gave opportunities for prominent Communist Party figures to appear on the show (the PCF had previously been almost entirely excluded from expressing its view on French broadcast media, despite winning up to 30 per cent of the vote in elections). In the episode analysed by Cahiers (broadcast on January 25, 1972), PCF representative Roland Leroy faced off against Gaullist politician Michel Habib-Deloncle on the topic “Ideology and Culture in French Society”.

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Roland Leroy on À armes égales (1972).

Given that the magazine at the time considered the “revisionist” PCF to be entirely absorbed into the structures of bourgeois parliamentarism, this gesture to political ecumenism was far from convincing proof, for Cahiers, of the programme’s supposedly ideologically “neutral” nature.13 Rather, constructing a critical analysis of the ideological structures underpinning the format of À armes égales would reveal, in the Groupe Lou Sin’s view, the specific manner in which the show “marks the encounter […] of two apparatuses: the political apparatus (the political debate) and the broadcasting-information apparatus (television).”14 These two, mutually reinforcing apparatuses have the same function: in both cases they deploy debates over “fictive stakes” in order to mask the real primary contradiction governing capitalist societies: the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. In both apparatuses, too, the impression of impartiality has a repressive function, serving to obfuscate the real ideological fault-lines in a given society. In the Leroy/Habib-Deloncle episode of À armes égales, for instance, both sides, while vigorously disputing secondary differences, gave expression to a bourgeois-humanist concept of art and culture that was never contested or open to question within the parameters of the debate.

At this point, the Groupe Lou Sin’s analysis of À armes égales was a rather standard Althusserian account of a cultural product. What sets this article apart, however, is the subsequent discussion of the scenic structure of the programme’s “basic dispositif”. In particular, by condensing political struggle into the staged representation of a duel between two sparring individuals, the show’s format is overdetermined by the “universal norms” of Hollywood cinema, and in particular “the most universal of its genres, the Western.”15 Not only does television re-broadcast Hollywood films ad inifinitum, but the ideology of Hollywood’s aesthetics impregnates even those programming categories that would at first glance appear remote from the cinema (news, sports, talk shows, etc). Hence television, rather than being engaged in a “struggle to the death” with cinema, can more usefully be seen as the “triumph, the apogee of Hollywood: the transparency of the world in one’s home, the representation that abolishes class divisions, the ‘universal family spectacle’ par excellence.”16

Serge Daney: the triumph of the visual

Dating from July 1970, Serge Daney’s short text “Sur Salador”, took a more specific look at the role of advertising within what he called “the ideology of visibility”. While noting that recent film theory had begun to focus on the ideological status of the camera, Daney argues for the need to go even further in this direction and interrogate the hegemonic status of vision in Western metaphysics. Taking inspiration from Derrida’s notion of photology in Writing and Difference,17 Daney writes that “the cinema is therefore linked with the Western metaphysical tradition, a tradition of seeing and vision whose photological vocation it realises.” He defines “photology” as, “this stubborn insistence on confusing vision and cognition, making the latter a compensation for the former and the former the guarantee of the latter, and seeing in unmediated perception [immédiation] a model of cognition.”18

Daney finds one of the most striking manifestations of this ideology of the visible in an unexpected source: TV commercials, which he labels “a cinema of évidence and the splendour of the true.” In this branch of the film industry, “every truth is immediately verifiable,” since we “clearly see the irruption of the white tornado, the softness of the Krema caramel, or the most rebellious stain yielding to K2R.”19 While Daney asserts that the vast majority of cinema conforms to the twin aesthetics of “advertising and propaganda”, he nonetheless argues that the series of commercials for the Salador brand of olive oil has an “undeniable beauty”. Here it should be noted that the spots for K2R, Krema and Salador that Daney refers to all have a similar formal quality: far from being standard representatives of French television advertising of the day, they were fast-paced, slapstick affairs with a “pitch” that was so exaggerated as to be nearly parodic. In fact, all three campaigns were the work of the duo Pierre Grimblat and Gérard Pirès, who had long careers in television, radio and genre cinema.20 Noting that the Salador commercials had “taken a decisive step forward for advertising cinema through the extreme care and precision of its work”, Daney suggested that big capital should not let other talented figures go to waste on “pseudo-films”: instead of Lelouch shooting Vivre pour vivre (Live for Life, 1967) in the Congo with Yves Montand, he ought to sing the praises of a brand of khaki jeans, while Melville would be better served hawking a style of raincoats than persisting with his polars.21

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Advertisements for K2R, Krema and Salador (Pierre Grimblat/Gérard Pires, 1970).

After Cahiers’ near-collapse in 1973, Daney took over as editor-in-chief alongside Serge Toubiana, slowly returning the journal to the cultural mainstream. While cinema continued to be the main focus of activity at Cahiers, Daney did oversee an irregular column on television called “Chronique des repondeurs automatiques”, and in 1976 the journal published a special issue on the interpenetration of advertising imagery and cinema, a phenomenon that led the critic to claim that “We have always suspected, at Cahiers, that advertising was not the lowly fringe of the cinema, but its truth.”22. It would not, however, be until Daney left for Libération in 1981 that this subject matter would assume a central importance to his thinking. From this point until his death in 1992, his views would grow progressively more downcast, a tendency which was primarily determined by the broader changes in the political and cultural landscape in the 1980s: the election of François Mitterand as president in 1981, the privatisation of television and advent of satellite and cable networks, the rise of the cinéma du look and the Hollywood blockbuster film, and finally the seismic collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the decade.

Perhaps the key change of the decade for Daney, however, was his recognition of the marginalisation of the cinema in toto: from an earlier position of cultural dominance, it had retreated to occupying a niche position within the more totalising entity of audiovisual culture – or “the visual” as he came to call it. This realisation had a couple of major consequences for the critic. Firstly, it entailed a greater acceptance of a much broader swathe of the cinema than that which had earlier been defended at Cahiers, and Daney tangibly warmed to “non-Cahiers” filmmakers such as Fellini and Kubrick.23 Additionally, the cultural dominance of television called for increased attention to the medium, and a more nuanced theoretical account of its role in society.

As with Comolli two decades earlier, Daney did not fetishise the dispositif of the movie-theatre, and he noted the negative and positive mutations films undergo when shown on the small screen.24 Resisting a Manichaean opposition between cinema and television, Daney instead referred to the “incestuous” relationship between the two media. By 1987, however, he began to suspect that this proposition “had ceased to be true.”25 To put his hypothesis to the test, for a period of three months (September-December 1987) Daney spent most of his waking hours in front of the television set, remote control in hand, recording his experiences in a regular column for Libération, later published in book-form as Le Salaire du zappeur. The guidelines he set himself for systematically watching the six channels of French TV were to “observe, describe, and not laugh too much” as well as to write on a daily basis about “that continent, strangely little known and even less commented on, that is television.”26

A singular area of preoccupation for Daney was the practice of zapping (channel-hopping), which had the potential to introduce acts of montage generated by the viewers themselves. This capability, however, had already been lost: despite the proliferation of networks in the 1980s, the processes of privatisation and “Americanisation” had led to television broadcasts becoming ever more homogenous and formally rigid, and the zappeur only had the possibility of flipping “from Charybdis to Scylla”.27 Moreover, the act of channel-hopping went hand in hand with the mode of programming innate to television:

“It is not because the remote control has generalised zapping that it invented it. Zapping has always been an invention of television, it is inherent to it and, zapping like madmen, we only generalise its usage and realise its concept. Now that the ball is in the TV viewer’s court, he takes revenge for his ex-passivity by exaggerating the normal functioning of television.”28

Looking back at his experiment after bringing it to a close, Daney nonetheless avowed that he was reasonably optimistic about the results, and concluding remarks were upbeat: whereas television may have become the “prose” of the modern world, cinema now had the chance to be poetry; after having been “industrially outmoded”, it could embark on a second life as a minoritarian, artisanal practice, such as could be found in the work of Straub/Huillet, Ruiz or Robert Kramer.29

By the time Daney left Libération, however, he had become steadily disabused of this optimism, as evinced in his texts of the period 1988–91.30 Here his discussion of television and other audiovisual media increasingly takes on the allure of “post-modern” theorists such as Baudrillard and Virilio. Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum is, in fact, close to Daney’s thinking: for the critic, the onset of the 1990s is marked above all by the omnipotence of “the visual” and its ascendance over “the image”. In this concept, the unremitting torrent of audiovisual imagery is specifically counter-posed to the cinematic image, which requires a conceptual “reverse-shot” generally lacking in television. Following Godard’s phrase “always two for an image” (in other words, a true image requires a montage of two distinct aesthetic elements), Daney insists on the importance of alterity for an image to exist: “Godard, who is always the best guide for this type of thing […], would say: with which other image would you show this image in order to have the inception of an idea?”31 By contrast, “the visual” is defined as being purely “connected to perception, the optic nerve, physiology. […] But the visual does not relate to seeing, it relates to all these words that are now so successful: viewing [visionnage], visioning [visionnement], vision.”32

Two geopolitical events were decisive for the development of Daney’s ideas in this period. The first was the overthrow and subsequent killing of the Ceaușescus in Romania, the media coverage of which formed a model for the executions of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Gaddafi in more recent years. The Romanian “revolution” of 1989 was unique in its relation to broadcast media, as the headquarters of Romanian state television itself became a key stake in the struggle for power – occupied by insurgents, it was the ability to freely broadcast anti-Ceaușescu messages that truly heralded the end of the regime. Here, Daney not only saw “traces of the footsteps of Bazin, Rossellini and Godard” in the snowy streets of Bucharest, he also divined a “democratisation” of cinematic grammar: “It is as if everyone had suddenly become a ‘film critic’. Not out of cinephilia, but because the need so tremendously made itself felt.”33 In particular, the live broadcast of the death by firing squad of Nikolai and Elena Ceaușescu enabled “notions of the freeze-frame, slow-motion, the hors-champ and the ellipse” to be elevated to the status of “information to be decrypted.” Following on from Bazin’s discussion of the “ontological obscenity” of newsreel footage of the gunning down of Chinese revolutionaries in 1949,34 Daney concluded that the “macabre feuilleton” of the executed couple and the “eternal return” of their dead bodies on the screen revealed three key aspects of the “truth regime” specific to television:

There is no other truth on television than that of the live broadcast [le direct]. 2. When it comes down to it, the only live broadcast that is worthwhile is death. 3. The only proof of death is the possibility of producing a corpse.”35

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The corpse of Nicolae Ceaușescu shortly after his execution, broadcast live on television.

The euphoria of the events in Romania, however, was soon followed by the much more chastening experience of the 1991 Gulf War, whose round-the-clock reporting brought Daney in close proximity to the Baudrillard of La guerre du golfe n’a pas eu lieu (The Gulf War Did Not Take Place).36 Typifying the war as a “return to order”, Daney charted the obscene nightmare of watching “war broadcast live” in a series of articles for Libération, taking particular aim at the rolling CNN coverage of the combat, which transformed the reality of war into “a Schwarzenegger action-hero movie”.37 In the key text “Montage obligé” from April 1991, Daney returned to his opposition between the visual and the image, noting that the video game-style depiction of the war concealed the existence of “a true missing image, that of Baghdad under the bombs”, and that this absent image “obliged all of us to ‘imagine’ something, which would depend on our opinions, nightmares or memories of war-films.”38 Whereas Bazin spoke of a “prohibition” of montage,39 Daney here calls for the obligation of montage, but one of an imaginary, purely mental nature: “I had the sentiment, euphoric in the beginning and onerous at the end, of having become an editor [monteur] in my head. A history of fabricating enough imaginary to struggle against the real threat of irrealisation. Like a madman, I randomly edited what I saw with all the missing images, all the hors-champs.”40 In this context, the simple acts of seeing and showing had become “acts of resistance”, and the imagination, as a “phantom of the image”, was “our bitter victory.”41

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Television coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.

Jacques Aumont and Jean-Louis Comolli: the image in the 21st century

Serge Daney’s untimely death prevented him from continuing his work beyond the early 1990s, but his reflection on the contemporary status of the visual image has been continued by two other former Cahiers writers. Aumont and Comolli both left Cahiers in 1973, and from that moment on their lives would take rather different trajectories. Whereas Aumont shifted to a doctoral thesis on Eisenstein, eventually carving out a prominent position within French academia, Comolli focussed on filmmaking, and would only return to a serious engagement with film theory in the late 1980s.42 Despite these divergent paths, both figures have pursued a prolonged investigation of the cinema and its relationship with “new media” that has resulted in a voluminous array of writings.

Central to Aumont’s writings has been his project to develop an aesthetic theory of the cinema, in part by drawing relations between film and other, more established art forms (in particular, painting).43 For the most part, this project has focussed on the work of canonical auteurs. Occasionally, however, Aumont has tackled audiovisual artefacts that would seem far less propitious as an object of aesthetic discourse. In 1984, for instance, he offered a close analysis of the Japanese animation show Grendizer.44 This series, a cheap industrial product made with the single goal of keeping children entertained on a Saturday morning, could hardly have been more remote from the auteurist cinema on which Aumont had otherwise concentrated his critical energies. Although there is a certain degree of playful irony in his discussion of the show, Aumont nonetheless discerns a cinematic heritage in its visual elements, particularly when it comes to framing and editing. The frequent use of high-, low- and Dutch-angled shots recalls Welles (“a style in which we see not only what we see, but also the manner in which we see it”), while the fast-paced editing, in which “the change of shots never, or only very remotely, follows the rules of classic match-cuts, the passage from one shot to the next being effected according to a logic of minimal narrative implication” harkens back to the Soviet montage tradition.45 Certain “shots”, meanwhile, are so abstract as to approximate tachist painting, and Aumont also finds the show’s stylistic Japonité to be striking.46 But the most unique aesthetic characteristic of Grendizer, and the major source of its “strangeness”, comes in its articulation of filmic rhythm and temporality: cuts are so frequent that the saccadic tempo created leads to time in the show being read rather than perceived: “we see here the production of something like a temporal scintillation […] whose reference to real time becomes more and more doubtful.”47 This brings it aesthetically close to, of all the arts, music: “The film does not reproduce […] a profilmic time; it produces time.”48

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Grendizer (1975–1977)

In more recent years, Aumont has dedicated two short pamphlets to the question of contemporary cinema and its relations with the broader culture of image production in the 21st century. In the first of these works, Moderne?, Aumont investigates the question of modernism in film, arguing for the existence of two strands of cinematic modernity in the post-war era: the Welles line (vaunting the freedom of the artist to experiment formally) and the Rossellini line (highlighting the filmmaker’s receptivity to his surrounding reality).49 In more recent times, however, the situation becomes less clear: echoing Daney, Aumont pinpoints the end of cinematic modernism as taking place in the early 1980s, but this is the conclusion of a process that had already begun at the time of the student revolts of 1968.50 At the same time, the cinema’s aesthetic specificity has come under threat. Whereas Daney located this menace in the cultural dominance of television, Aumont highlights the absorption of the cinema’s heritage by the contemporary art world – whether through the “museification” of filmmakers through the increasing trend of galleries to dedicate exhibitions to canonised figures in film history, or through the reproduction of cinematic forms in the work of contemporary visual artists. In the end, however, Aumont does not accept the notion that the cinema has been assimilated into the broader phenomenon of contemporary art; instead, it continues to possess the quality of “eternal contemporaneity”, and has not ceased to invent forms which have both “effects of novelty and effects of actuality.”51 In other words, “the cinema has not changed; in the same evening, I can see a Ford or a Hitchcock, and a John Woo or a Kiarostami; I will have less of a sentiment of travelling in time than of travelling between styles.”52

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Russkij Kovcheg (Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

These ruminations will be continued in the 2012 book Que reste-t-il du cinéma?. Here, Aumont tackles head-on the purported “crisis” brought about by the rise of digital technology in the production and dissemination of audiovisual works, and offers a polemical riposte to the theses on the “death” of the cinema that have been articulated in recent years. In particular, Aumont spars with D.N. Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Film, in which the American academic argued that the advent of digital imagery represented the definitive end of the cinematic era, and that “digital-native” works such as Russian Ark can no longer be considered films in the traditional sense of the word.53 For Aumont, Sokurov’s piece is “still a work of moving images, and this is what I call a film. In short, to my eyes, film is defined in spectatorial, not creational terms.”54 Conversely, however, he also repudiates the advocates of “expanded cinema”, from Gene Youngblood to Philippe Dubois, who have argued that all forms of moving image culture belong to the same broad social practice. He contends that the “segregation of milieux” is “far from having disappeared, even if it has shifted its frontiers.”55 Aumont’s avowedly pragmatic position is, as he concludes, that the cinema “remains, quite simply the cinema.”56 He nonetheless admits that there have been major metamorphoses in recent times, of which he points to two: firstly, that the cinema “no longer has the exclusivity of moving images”, sharing this role with television, the internet and the gallery; and secondly, that “mass cinema” (Hollywood and its international counterparts) has returned to the “Méliès path”, abandoning Bazinian realism in favour of the use of CGI imagery and spectacular special effects without any grounding in an earthly referent.57

Elsewhere, however, Aumont is more circumspect about professing a continued faith in the vitality of the cinema, as well as, more specifically, film theory. At one point in his recent text Montage, he claims that, “Ours is not a theoretical age, no more so in the cinema than elsewhere.”58 Similarly, his conclusion to Les Théories des cinéastes seems particularly pessimistic: not only does he confess to not being “absolutely sure, in the end, that the cinema is an art”, but, noting that few of his chosen filmmaker-theorists are under the age of 50, he also muses that “perhaps theory, like art, was a matter for the 20th century.”59 For a writer who devoted much to developing the foundations of an aesthetic theory of the cinema, this appears to be a particularly dispiriting verdict.

For a more stridently militant standpoint on contemporary visual culture, we can turn to the work of Comolli. He is strikingly unrepentant when it comes to assessing the merits of the core theoretical project of Cahiers under his editorship, the tenets of which have been continued, to a large degree, in his more recent writings. But his departure from Cahiers in 1973 did, however, entail a major shift in his activity, ushering in a turn to the practical realm of filmmaking. Since the 1975 release of La Cecilia, he has made more than 40 films, the vast majority of which have been documentaries made for public television.60 The interest of these works is immeasurably enriched by the theoretical writings by Comolli that have accompanied his documentary work since 1987. Here, then, we have an instance of “theoretical practice” in the cinema which, albeit modestly, can be compared to that of Eisenstein, Vertov and Epstein. Moreover, many of his films directly engage with the intersections between politics and the media, including, notably, the seven-part Marseille contre Marseille series (1989–2002), which explored electoral politics in the southern French city in collaboration with Libération journalist Michel Samson, and Jeux de rôles à Carpentras (1995), which examined the media response to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries by neo-Nazis in the early 1990s.

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La Campagne de Provence (The Provence Campaign, part of the Marseille contre Marseille series, Jean-Louis Comolli, 1992).

Comolli’s critical/theoretical writings have been collected in two anthologies, Voir et pouvoir (2003) and Corps et cadre (2010), totalling more than 1200 pages. His major work of this period, however, is the monograph Cinéma contre spectacle (2009), which combines a reprint of the six-part article “Technique et idéologie” from 1971–72 with a new text tackling the same subject from the standpoint of the early 21st century. Inspired by Althusser’s theories of ideology and over-determination, the guiding thesis of the “Technique et idéologie” articles is well-known: the invention and subsequent evolution of the cinema has been defined by the “reciprocal reinforcement of an ideological demand (‘to see life as it is’) and an economic demand (to make it a source of profits).”61 Writing from the perspective of 2009, Comolli in no way retreats from his earlier line of argumentation, instead insisting that “these six articles from 1971–1972 have not ceased to shape my work.”62 But in the intervening 37 years his field of reference has been substantially expanded from the strict Marxist-Leninist framework of the early 1970s, taking in theorists such as Rancière, Nancy, Deleuze, Stiegler and Adorno. It is the work of Debord, however, that is of greatest importance for the Comolli of 2009, and a central claim of his new text is that,

The holy alliance of the spectacle and the commodity, foreseen and analysed by Guy Debord from 1967 onwards, has now been realised. It governs our world. From pole to pole, across the tropics, capital in its current guise has found the ultimate weapon for its domination: images and sounds combined.63

Comolli even suggests that the dominance of the spectacle in contemporary society, and its inversion of the Marxist conception of the relationship between economics and ideology, has “gone far beyond what Debord was able to predict and announce.”64 He refuses, however, the thesis of a totalitarian omnipotence of the spectacle that would render void any form of resistance to the status quo, and maintains a belief in the viability of the struggle to “salvage something of man’s human dimension.”65 Here, Comolli references Rancière’s notion of the “emancipated spectator”, but argues instead for a “critical spectator” capable of analysing and critiquing the forms presented by the spectacle, and welcoming the advent of new, liberated types of image production.66 Importantly, and in this area he follows directly the line of his Cahiers heritage, Comolli insists that such a struggle cannot merely take place on the level of content; rather, “defeating or overcoming the existing order of things requires the invention of forms that are different to those serving to repress our consciousness and our movements.”67

Comolli devotes the rest of his text to an extensive discussion of film form and its theoretical implications, but when it comes to specific forms of resistance, he perceives a second historical irony. Whereas fragmentary techniques such as the rapid montage of Vertov or the Godardian jump-cut were initially developed as a means of emancipating film form from the stifling conventions of narrative cinema, the same procedures have now been generalised by television’s “aesthetic of abbreviation”, which mandates a “frenetically agitated scopic drive in a kaleidoscope of visual effects.”68 Following Daney, Comolli notes that “channel-hopping [zapping] occurs less between ‘programmes’ broadcast by different television channels than it does within the programmes themselves – and it thus becomes a programming of vision.”69 Therefore, the “principle of fragmentation has switched sides in the battle” and it is “by entirely different formal means that the cinema today hopes to resurrect the vitality of Vertov’s utopia.”70 Comolli, indeed, finds appropriate forms of resistance to the spectacle at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum: in the long-take aesthetic of contemporary “slow cinema”, and in particular the distinctly neo-Bazinian work of filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhangke and Pedro Costa. In his view, this “anti-spectacle, capable of dis-alienating us from the dominant spectacular alienation” is the only viable means for the cinema to persist as an autonomous art form.71

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Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa, 2006)

*          *          *

Comolli concludes Cinema against Spectacle by declaring that “the techno-ideological history of the cinema is an analysis of the particular states of the desire to see and be seen, of the need for reality or virtuality. The cinema explores our time, which is, above all, the time of the cinema.”72 It is perhaps this sentiment that unites his writings not only with the earlier era of Cahiers du cinéma, when texts such as “Technique and Ideology”, “À armes egales” and “Sur Salador” made tentative critiques of new mass media phenomena, but also with the later works of Serge Daney in the 1980s and early 1990s, and Jacques Aumont from the 1980s up to the present. All three figures witnessed, from the beginning of the 1980s onwards, a thoroughgoing metamorphosis of visual culture that effectively marginalised the cinema, from its earlier position of social dominance, and substituted for the role it had previously played a more amorphous audiovisual entity that we may call “new media”, “the visual” or the “spectacle”. And yet, while all three offered lucid analyses of this sweeping transformation, none have succumbed to the kinds of nihilistic despondency or collusive triumphalism that have marked the intellectual trajectories of many other figures of their generation. In the end, all three have still clung to the utility of critical analysis, and this, as Comolli claims, can be the first step on the path to the wide-reaching cultural resistance to the audiovisual forms of contemporary capitalism that is necessary today.

This article has been peer-reviewed.



  1. Serge Daney, “Plein feu sur l’image”, Libération, October 8, 1987. Repr. in: Serge Daney, Le salaire du zappeur (Paris: POL, 1993), pp. 62-63. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
  2. Ibid., p. 63.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Daney’s death due to AIDS in 1992 prevented the critic from having insights into the Internet. We can only speculate as to what he would have made of online phenomena such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
  5. The Bazinian aspect of Cahiers’ outlook in its Marxist period is, admittedly, not a straightforward proposition: the journal’s writers were known to vociferously criticise its founder for his ostensible “idealism”, and they have generally been interpreted as being in opposition to Bazin. This is a complex question that warrants more discussion; here it will suffice to quote Jean Narboni, who spoke in reference to Bazin, of “the essential almost nothing that separates idealism, in one of its most coherent manifestations, from materialism.” Jean Narboni, “La vicariance du pouvoir”, Cahiers du cinéma 224 (October 1970), p. 45.
  6. Jean-Louis Comolli, “Notes sur le nouveau spectateur”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 177 (April 1966), pp. 66–7.
  7. Ibid., p. 67.
  8. Named after the early 20th century left-wing Chinese writer Lu Xun, the identity of those who wrote under the rubric of the Groupe Lou Sin was deliberately kept obscure. Serge Daney, Jean Narboni, Serge Toubiana and Pascal Bonitzer were, however, undoubtedly participants in the group. Alongside “À armes égales”, the GLS wrote articles on the Groupe Dziga Vertov (which was a clear point of inspiration for the Cahiers group), and the programmatic text “Combattons le révisionnisme dans la culture” in the period 1972–73.
  9. See Louis Althusser, “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état (Notes pour une recherche)”, La Pensée 151 (June 1970), pp. 3–38. The text, which had an immediate influence on Cahiers, was part of a larger, unfinished study posthumously published as Sur la reproduction (Paris: PUF, 1995).
  10. Groupe Lou Sin d’intervention idéologique, “‘À armes égales’: Analyse d’une émission télévisée”, Cahiers du cinéma 236–37 (March–April 1972), p. 4.
  11. Ibid
  12. A number of these episodes – although not the one studied by Cahiers – are now available for watching at the Inathèque in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
  13. The ideological limits of the programme were ably demonstrated in its 16 May 1972 episode, soon after the Cahiers article was published. Dedicated to the theme of “gauchisme” (far-left politics), neither of the two participants on the show politically identified with the movement discussed.
  14. Groupe Lou Sin, “À armes égales”, p. 5.
  15. Ibid., p. 20.
  16. Ibid.
  17. See Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris: Seuil, 1967).
  18. Serge Daney, “Sur Salador”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 222 (July 1970), p. 39.
  19. Ibid., p. 40.
  20. See Philippe Rège (ed.), Encyclopedia of French Film Directors vol. I, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009), pp. 471, 823–24. Grimblat was friends with Boris Vian and Raymond Queneau, and directed the Serge Gainsbourg vehicle Slogan. Pirès directed Erotissimo in 1968, and later made the first film in the Taxi franchise. A certain anarcho-surrealist heritage can be seen in the commercials they made together, many of which can be viewed at the Inathèque and on its website (www.ina.fr).
  21. Daney, “Sur Salador”, p. 40.
  22. Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, “Présentation”, Cahiers du cinéma 268–69, “Images de Marque” special issue (July–August 1976), p. 5
  23. This is not to say his taste for polemic had dampened: the works of Godard and Straub were still doggedly defended, while the cinéma du look was pitilessly attacked. Indeed, it was the fall-out from a particularly withering review of Claude Berri’s Uranus in January 1991 that led to Daney leaving his position at Libération and setting up the journal Trafic. See Serge Daney, “‘Uranus’, le deuil du deuil”, Libération, 8 January 1991, in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains: cinéma, télévision, information (Paris: Aléas, 1991), pp. 153–56. Claude Berri demanded a right of reply to the review, which was published on 28 February 1991, after two court cases between Berri and Libération on the matter.
  24. For instance, Daney noted that watching Woody Allen’s Zelig on Canal+ allowed him to find in it “a weight that it had less of in the darkened theatre, faced with a public that was too self-aware, too in on the joke.” Serge Daney, Le Salaire du zapper (Paris: POL, 1993), p. 58.
  25. Ibid., p. 188.
  26. Ibid., p. 187 and back cover.
  27. Ibid., p. 12.
  28. Ibid., p. 22.
  29. Ibid., pp. 189–90.
  30. A number of these texts were collected in the book Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains (Aléas: Lyons, 1992), while the remainder have been included in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. III: Les Années Libé 1986-1991 (POL: Paris, 2012).
  31. Serge Daney, La Maison cinéma, vol. III, p. 328.
  32. Ibid., p. 324.
  33. Ibid., p. 314.
  34. See André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma, vol I: Ontologie et langage (Cerf: Paris, 1958), pp. 65–70.
  35. Daney, Devant la recrudescence, p. 144.
  36. See Jean Baudrillard, La guerre du golfe n’a pas eu lieu (Galilée: Paris, 1991).
  37. Daney, Devant la recrudescence, p. 157.
  38. Ibid., p. 165.
  39. See André Bazin, “Montage interdit”, in Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (Cerf: Paris, 1958), pp. 117–30.
  40. Ibid., p. 165.
  41. Ibid., p. 166.
  42. An exception here was a handful of in-depth articles written for Cahiers in the late 1970s, which did not, however, signal a re-absorption of Comolli into the journal’s editorial team.
  43. See, in particular, Jacques Aumont, L’œil interminable (Séguier: Paris, 1989), À quoi pensent les films (Séguier: Paris, 1996) and De l’esthétique au présent (De Boek & Larcier: Brussels, 1998). His attitude was expressed clearly when interviewed in the documentary L’homme aux cheveux bleus (Sylvie Pierre and Georges Ulmann, 1989): here he states that the main point of interest for film studies is now “the problem of the filmmaker as artist, not the filmmaker as auteur.”
  44. Grendizer, produced by the Japanese firm Toei in the years 1975–77 and known as Goldorak in France, featured a robotic spaceship, and was a precursor to 1980s shows such as Voltron and Transformers. Aumont’s article was originally published in Italian as “Un’ estetica industriale (a proposito di Goldrake)” in Francesco Casetti (ed.), L’immagine al plurale (Marsilio: Venice, 1984), pp. 233–47. The original French version was reprinted in Aumont’s À quoi pensent les films (Séguier: Paris, 1996), pp. 174–95.
  45. Aumont, À quoi pensent les films, p. 180. Aumont would further discuss the phenomenon of the “migration” of aesthetic forms in the later article “Migrations”, Cinémathèque 7 (Spring 1995), pp. 35–47.
  46. The two examples of this Japonité given by Aumont are the frequent visual allusions to the Japanese imperial army and some more abstract parallels with the tradition of East Asian calligraphy.
  47. Aumont, À quoi pensent les films, p. 195.
  48. Ibid.
  49. These two lines, of course, represent tendencies that dominated within Cahiers in the 1950s, especially in the writings of André Bazin and Jacques Rivette. The journal famously neglected avant-garde and experimental cinema, and was actively hostile to most of the New York underground filmmakers – a prejudice which for Aumont issues a humble self-criticism. See Jacques Aumont, Moderne? Comment le cinéma est devenu le plus singulier des arts (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2007), pp. 69–70.
  50. That cinematic modernism had reached its historical endpoint in the early 1980s was recognised almost immediately by those who wrote for Cahiers, with Alain Bergala pinpointing the phenomenon in his report on the 1983 Cannes film festival. See Alain Bergala “Le vrai, le faux, le factice”, Cahiers du cinéma 351 (September 1983), pp. 5–9.
  51. Aumont, Moderne?, p. 101.
  52. Ibid., p. 112.
  53. See D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  54. Jacques Aumont, Que reste-t-il du cinéma? (Paris: Vrin, 2012), p. 18.
  55. Ibid., p. 21.
  56. Ibid., p. 116.
  57. If there is one technical innovation from the late 20th century that Aumont finds truly significant from an aesthetic point of view, it is, curiously enough, neither the digital image nor the proliferation of miniature, mobile screens, but rather, the “pause” button on video players, which produces “an image of a new nature”, a hybrid fusion of the still and moving image.
  58. Jacques Aumont, Montage, 2nd ed (Montreal: Caboose, 2014), p. 46.
  59. Jacques Aumont, Les Théories des cinéastes, 2nd ed (Paris: Armand Colin, 2011), p. 179.
  60. Comolli found public television to be a suitable arena for his work because he was thereby able “to reach viewers who have not already been strictly classified within the cultural segments of the market.” Jean-Louis Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited, trans. Daniel Fairfax (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), p. 105.
  61. Ibid., p. 168.
  62. Ibid., p. 57.
  63. Ibid., p. 49. Even the global economic crisis that had just begun at the time of writing did nothing, in Comolli’s view, to significantly alter this fact: “The show must go on! The same screens show, on loop, the same audiovisual standards, the same commodified buttresses for the need to see and hear, the same forms and the same formulae.” Ibid.
  64. Ibid., p. 50.
  65. Ibid., p. 51.
  66. Ibid., p. 52. See also Jacques Rancière, Le Spectateur emancipé (Paris: La Fabrique, 2009).
  67. Ibid., p. 51.
  68. Ibid., p. 118.
  69. Ibid., p. 131.
  70. Ibid., p. 126–27.
  71. Ibid., p. 136.
  72. Ibid., p. 140.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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