Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film is an anthology compiled and edited by Graham Jones and Ashley Woodward from papers presented at the “Acinemas: Aesthetics and Film in the Philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard” conference held at the University of Dundee in 2014. The book demonstrates a collaborative resolution and, occasionally, the performative qualities of the papers presented, such as in Kiff Bamford’s chapter “Give Me a Sign: An Anxious Exploration of Performance on Film, Under Lyotard’s Shadow.” Its title, Acinemas, references Lyotard’s discussion of experimental and avant-garde film, and particularly a way of thinking about the economic “form” of acinema as affective and political. Acinema is the moving, figural aesthetic of experimental cinema. Acinema is also a way to express non-productive “exclusions” in narrative cinema, which allow for a consideration of the “real oppression of orders” not simply in affective art forms, but in the “conventional movements” of our social and political realities (pp. 33-34). Acinemas proposes to make a substantial contribution to how we understand Lyotard – not simply as a poststructuralist and aesthetician, but also in the schema of film-philosophy, by figuring his notion of acinema as a form of film-philosophy.
Precisely because this book proposes a contribution to film-philosophy, what we find therein is an extensive compilation of not simply critical responses to Lyotard’s philosophy, but of critical approaches and interpretations of films, television programmes, and performances. The essays include analyses of works that Lyotard was involved in making and/or that he made appearances in, analyses of films from both early and contemporary cinema, which seek to unbind Lyotard’s film-philosophy or that seek to understand the performance of artists through his philosophy, all supplemented by an historical and thematic account of Lyotard’s own film work.
Jones/Woodward’s foray into Lyotard’s writings on cinema comprises four sections. The first section includes three essays: the editors’ own introduction to Lyotard, an essay by Susana Viegas and James Williams that introduces the importance of Lyotard’s four essays on cinema to film-philosophy, and Ashley Woodward’s translation of Jean-Michel Durafour’s “Cinema Lyotard: An Introduction” (a chapter first published in La Furia Umana in 2013).
The second section consists of four translations of Lyotard’s work; two have previously been translated into English and two have not. All four translations are significant for giving weight to the interpretations in the sections that follow. The essay “Acinema” (from which Jones/Woodward’s book takes its name) has been published a number of times in English, originally appearing in Wide Angle in 1978 in an English translation by Paisley N. Livingston. Livingston’s translation has been modified by Peter W. Milne and Ashley Woodward for this book. “The Unconscious as Mise-en-scène” was first translated into English by Joseph Maier and published in Performance and Postmodern Culture in 1977. The translation that appears in Acinemas is a reproduction of Maier’s translation. Originally published as “Deux métamorphoses du séduisant au cinéma” in La Séduction in 1980, the third essay, “Two Metamorphoses of the Seductive in Cinema”, has never been previously translated into English, and the translation presented here by Peter W. Milne and Ashley Woodward shows the importance of Lyotard’s move to linguistic pragmatics in his work published around this time. “The Idea of a Sovereign Film” is a paper that Lyotard presented at the Institut français in Munich in 1995. It was originally published as “Idée d’un film souverain” in Misère de la philosophie in 2000 after Lyotard’s death, and is here translated into English by Peter W. Milne and Ashley Woodward. This is a provocative work emphasising the development of Lyotard’s thought from the libidinal economy of avant-garde cinema analysed in “Acinema” to the sovereignty informed by Georges Bataille’s economic theory and, in Lyotard’s analysis, its encounter with the experimental and neo-realist cinematic “event.”
The third section includes interpretations of the newly-translated essays listed above. Julie Gaillard’s essay “Imaginary Constructs? A Libidinal Economy of the Cinematic Medium” questions the relation of the Lacanian Imaginary to the libidinal set-up posed by cinema in a consideration of Lyotard’s “Acinema” and “The Unconscious as Mise-en-scène” essays. Keith Crome’s essay, “Lyotard and the Art of Seduction,” describes the terms of the operation of seduction in Lyotard’s “Two Metamorphoses of the Seductive in Cinema”: terms such as deception and dissoi logoi (duplicitous speech) that are also found in Lyotard’s Duchamp’s TRANS/formers. In the essay “Authorisation: Lyotard’s Sovereign Image”, Peter W. Milne writes about the authority that the philosopher has to speak and, as such, the authorisation that Lyotard has to appear as a philosopher on the television programme, Tribune sans tribun, which was aired on March 27, 1978 for the series Tribune Libre. In an analysis of Lyotard’s essay, “The Idea of a Sovereign Film”, the question of authority is developed by Milne to consider the authority of the image.
The fourth section of Acinemas, “Applications and Extensions”, is composed of essays that apply Lyotard’s film-philosophy to television programs that he wrote, directed, and in which he appeared (such as Lyotard’s performative dialogue with artists about painting, including in the short video, À blanc  on René Guiffrey, and the two films, Premier tournage  and Peintres cinéastes  on Jacques Monory), films by Christopher Nolan, Caroline Leaf, David Lynch, and Roméo Bosetti, and films about or including performance artists (such as Marina Abramović’s biographical film The Artist is Present  and the performance of Stuart Brisley in the film Ghost Dance ), to otherwise extend his ideas.
There are common themes that run through this book; one is cinematic movement in terms of experimental acinema as an aesthetic encounter – in the examples given, these aesthetic encounters are not simply encounters with the image, but encounters with dialogue (Lyotard as “academic” or as “art critic”) and performative bodies. The aesthetic encounter is also described as an aesthetic “openness” for somatography as the “inscription of messages on human bodies” (p. 185) in Kiff Bamford’s “Give Me a Sign: An Anxious Exploration of Performance on Film, Under Lyotard’s Shadow” and Lisa Trahair’s “Aberrant Movement and Somatography in the Hysterical Comedies of Roméo Bosetti”. Acinemas further outlines Lyotard’s positivist work and the difference between his understanding of desire and the notion of “lack” found in Jacques Lacan. Desire as a non-signifying “force” is given its due as the libidinal focus of Lyotard’s work in two essays, Julie Gaillard’s “Imaginary Constructs? A Libidinal Economy of the Cinematic Medium”, and Graham Jones and Ashley Woodward’s “How Desire Works: A Lyotardian Lynch.”
Although the majority of Lyotard’s work makes only limited reference to cinema, this book proposes that we consider him as a film-philosopher. The question of Lyotard as a film-philosopher is the starting point for Susana Viegas and James Williams’ essay “Why Lyotard and Film?” Viegas/Williams assess the case for a Lyotardian film-philosophy upon the dialogues from which such film-philosophy arises (Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze); how the concepts that arise out of Lyotard’s work “inspire an aesthetics of film” (“acinema”, “the figural”, “the sublime”); and upon the film theories that had come to be reference points for film-philosophy in the 1970s, such as Lacanian psychoanalysis, structuralism, semiotics and Marxist film theory, which Lyotard’s work moves beyond, (p. 11). What is perhaps of most interest for me in Viegas/Williams’ essay is their tracking of the “libidinal economy of cinema in ‘Acinema’” (p. 12). Viegas/Williams also make claims about how Lyotard’s larger work (not just the essays in which he specifically references film) relates to cinema. They write:
We would also argue that Libidinal Economy is itself in many of its emblematic moments unusually cinematic for a work of philosophy; notably, in its initial lingering on the unwrapping of a body, in the various dramatic scenes of discombobulation by labyrinth, and perhaps also in its picturing of sexual exchange, money and desire chiming surprisingly with post-crisis Hollywood high-finance film. (p. 12)
It may not be immediately apparent how Libidinal Economy incorporates film-philosophy in its “unwrapping of the body” and “labyrinths.” In his text Lyotard describes the “opening” of the libidinal skin wherein energy is structured and exploited by the dispositif. Such a material-intensity structure wherein energy flows, and is channelled and exploited, can also describe the arrangement of the components (image and spectator) of cinema. The “unwrapping of a body” as libidinal skin is an “opening” of the sites where intensities flow: in the appearance and disappearance – the flicking up and passing away – of intensities in the libidinal band/skin, intensity is transformed into the “virtual image.”1 However, this “labyrinth” of libidinal surfaces structured by the dispositif or arrangement of intensities can not be conceived as a structure of identity, but is tied to the force of intensities. As Lyotard writes: “the labyrinth is not a permanent architectural construction, but is immediately formed in the place and at the moment (on what map, according to what calendar?) where there is terror.”2 Such an emphasis on the “moment” or the encounter with intensities is a good descriptor for the cinematic “event”. This background is crucial to understanding that Lyotard’s body of work, as Viegas/Williams argue, can be considered a philosophy of film.
A libidinal economy is also found in the essay “Acinema”. Here, libidinal affect is conceived as a non-productive process in experimental cinema. Viegas/Williams write that in Lyotard’s consideration of the “selection and elimination” of sequences in filmmaking that make up narrative and non-narrative (or experimental) cinema, what is in question is the “law of value that rules the ‘which’ and the ‘why’ of the productive process” (p. 13). For Lyotard, the question is whether avant-garde or experimental film can comprise an “ethical work of resistance” by its inclusion of sterile moments of “paradoxical jouissance” that are outside of cinematic conventions and do not have exchange value (p. 13). If, in “Acinema”, Lyotard struggles against the conventions of narrative cinema determined by production-consumption, then a further struggle is exemplified by Peter W. Milne in his essay “Authorisation: Lyotard’s Sovereign Image”, which makes a significant point about Lyotard as a (film-)philosopher and what Lyotard himself questions as the right to claim this position of philosopher at all. This right can also be extended to cinema itself and the “real” it conveys. Milne writes: “Perhaps it is less a question of the image of authority, then, than it is one of the authority of the image – that of the cinematic image as much as the TV image.” (p. 104) Indeed, Jones/Woodward stake out their book as a summation of an aesthetics of affective cinema in its concerns with “real” intensities at the outset: “Lyotard’s concerns are often closer to several key themes on which the accent has begun to fall in much contemporary research. These include affect, matter, and a concern with ‘the real’.” (p. 8)
For Viegas/Williams, Lyotard is not simply a film-philosopher, but an aesthetician in his concern with affects or intensities in the schema of acinema:
This aesthetics of film, concerned with the gesture of the work, differentiates cinema from acinema by taking into account the temporal economy of images and sound, as well as sensuous and affective qualities of film, rather than an intellectualised system of moving images, or an analysis of the images’ representational content, or a study of the processes of filmmaking. (p. 12)
Lyotard’s aesthetic concerns are often conceived in terms of intensities which can not be signified. Building on this sensory encounter, Jones/Woodward return to the question of Lyotard’s conceptualisation of desire and his departure from Lacanian “lack” in their essay “How Desire Works: A Lyotardian Lynch” with the aim of presenting David Lynch’s images as having a “capacity to convey powerful effects through images that defy meaning or signification” (p. 164). Lynch’s images, for Jones/Woodward, demonstrate that “[d]esire does not signify, but works” (p. 173). They write:
In Lynch’s films, where others look for signs and codes to interpret them, we see and feel libidinal energy and its transformations, desire inscribed in deformed and explosive images and sounds, and the affects they transmit to bodies. (p. 175)
Jones/Woodward’s essay does much to rectify any lasting effects of the intrusive imposition of Lacan on a Lyotardian libidinal economy of images. Indeed, Lyotard’s work on libidinal investment and energetic set-ups – a “libidinal economic aesthetics,” as Jones/Woodward dub it (p. 174) – can do much for our consideration of cinema if we let it. However, we must make the terminological transition. To show why, I want to quote from Julie Gaillard, who also turns to desire in her essay, summarising Lacan’s conceptualisation of desire as wish and Lyotard’s as desire as force (Lyotard makes this distinction in his essay “Painting as a Libidinal Set-up”3):
A film should not be considered as a phantasmatic scene where elements would be staged and, in turn, interpreted. It should primarily be envisioned as a set of devices conveying effects on bodies. (p. 85)
While it is strange that Gaillard does not use the phrase “set of devices” earlier to describe the libidinal set-up of the phantasmatic scene of “A Child is Being Beaten” – that is, libidinal devices for the staging of the phantasy and linguistic devices for its utterance – the terminology she uses is also more mechanistic than how one would like to describe the libidinal economy of cinema; as Iain Hamilton Grant writes in the glossary to Libidinal Economy about the dispositif: “conventionally rendered as ‘set-up,’ ‘apparatus’ and the like, this [characterisation] gives a somewhat banal mechanistic picture of Lyotard’s efforts.”4 In a sense, Gaillard has fallen doubly into the trap of giving precedence to the mechanical apparatus of cinema (the “set of devices”) “conveying effects upon bodies,” rendering Lyotard’s libidinal set-up mechanical rather than energetic, while at the same time, rendering a Lyotardian perspective on film and film’s ability to “convey[…] effects” mechanistic. This book as a whole can be seen as illustrating a terminological transition required for a Lyotardian film-philosophy, but there are still a few bugs in the program. Cinema is not simply made up of an arrangement of machines and their effects. Rather, by another and more apt description, it entails an energetic dispositif in the arrangement of image and spectator, one in which affective bodies are active components.
Graham Jones and Ashley Woodward (eds.), Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
- Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 36. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 32-33. ↩
- The citation comes from Keith Crome and James Williams (eds.), The Lyotard Reader and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. 202-203, and is quoted in Acinemas, p. 174. ↩
- Iain Hamilton Grant, “Glossary,” in Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. x. ↩