Friday, February 5, 2016

Bruno Latour’s Artistic Practices: Writing, Products and Influence

As an influential public intellectual Bruno Latour has held prominent teaching positions throughout his career – he is currently at the Paris Institute of Political Studies –, has published over a dozen books since the late seventies – including Laboratory Life (1979), Science in Action (1987), We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Reassembling the Social (2005) and An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (2013) –, and has conceptualized some important concepts in the social sciences, most notably Actor-Network Theory (ANT), in conjunction with John Law and Michel Callon. In recent years, he has also served as the curator for successful art exhibitions.
The primary research question for this paper is how does the French sociologist Latour and his theories put pressure on cinema and cinema studies? This question can be interpreted a few different ways. What relationship does Latour have with cinema, in terms of the directors that he has written about and has expressed an affinity towards? Has he been an influence on any specific directors in terms of his mentorship as a professor? Has he himself made any films, or acted in any? Does Latour’s cultural writing in general offer an idea of the aesthetic that he would value in terms of the cinematic? What about his own artistic and cultural practices? Do they have any cinema-related value? And finally, does ANT offer a useful concept for analyzing films?
This paper will try to answer those questions by discussing how Latour has intersected with cinema throughout his career. For example, he developed personal connections with some filmmakers (Paravel and Green) and his theories may have had a potential influence on them or vice versa. Latour himself has made a film, The Tarde Durkheim Debate (1903/2008), or at least conceptualized it and acted in it. Latour’s writing, curation and creation (for example, of Paris: Invisible City) has provided a model for his aesthetic theory as metaphors for his social theory. Furthermore, ANT offers an interesting perspective to the analyses of films, most notably the documentary.

Véréna Paravel and Eugène Green
In recent years, Véréna Paravel, a PhD in Anthropology and one of Latour’s former students at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines, with Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University, made an experimental documentary on a fishing ship, Leviathan (2012). This was the most direct connection between Latour and cinema and film studies. Scott MacDonald in American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary wrote, “Leviathan is surprising – its immersion of its audience within the audio-visual surround... feels not only overwhelming, but quite new in the annals of modern theatrical cinema.” The film would also receive the cover of Cinema Scope magazine and numerous conferences and lectures on it at Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and Visual Evidence. It marked something new and exciting for cinema.
This immersive documentary on a fishing ship in New Bedford, Massachusetts stands out for being the cutting edge of the radical emerging style of the SEL movement and its content and form display certain tenets of ANT.  MacDonald wrote, “these films exemplify the commitment of the SEL to a sense of culture as continuous transformation, interpenetration, and imbrication.” Latour’s theory of a sociology of associations, of circulation and movements, the animating of non-human actors, like marine life or a fishing ship, found in Leviathan is a compelling illustration.
Paravel even, in an interesting anecdote on the French radio-show Hors-champs, spoke to Laure Adler about a unique Skype conversation that she had with Latour. During it he gave her a tour of his apartment room through his computer, as an illustration of some of his ideas. One could even detect certain parallels between this gesture and that of Leviathan’s with its digital cameras that are always in motion and how the film evokes the fascination of the sensory world.
Another example of Latour publicly supporting a filmmaker was in January 2010 at the Centre Pompidou where Latour gave a series of conferences titled Selon/Salon Bruno Latour. There Latour met with other philosophers and artists to discuss eloquence and demonstration and how they come together through articulation and composition. In the description of the series, Latour highlights the oratory arts and how they allow for movement and a liberating potential. The arts are a form of articulation and they relate to knowledge and science. Latour wrote, “Each intellectual discipline learns how to articulate the world in its unique method, to multiply its knowledge, to differentiate itself from other disciplines, and, to facilitate its expressions and representations.” This articulation leads to a need for composition and to understand how to group its varying elements. The archaeologies of these conferences on the social sciences, philosophy and the arts share a more subjective empiricism. Among the conferences the early Einstein-Bergson debate was recreated; Latour, Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers spoke on the potential of cyborgs; and surprisingly the filmmaker Eugène Green discussed the Baroque and L'âge de l'éloquence
 Latour in his introduction spoke about how Eugène Green inspires him. The focus of the conference is on the eloquence of Green’s dialogue most notably in his theater work, but also in his novels and films. Green’s method, he claims, has its roots in the Baroque period, between the Renaissance and an emerging Rational Age, at the intersection of science and religion. Latour wrote,

Through his Theatre of Sapience, founded in 1977, the metteur en scène Eugène Green already was searching to revive an art of the baroque theater through utilizing his declaratory means and proper visuals: pronunciation, accentuation, rhythm, frontal acting, candle lighting, and gestures: Everything was codified by very specific rules. Today as a director and writer, Eugène Green develops in his books and in his films, with the most recent one being La Religieuse portugaise (2009), a new reflection on eloquence and the incarnation of the parole. How to re-find parole by a return to the artifice of the elocution, framing and eloquence?

How to bring together rhetoric and demonstration, Latour asks? These two concepts, which are major preoccupations for Latour, are elaborated by Green through the importance of dialogue and cinematography in his work. This interest in language parallels that of Latour’s in his emphasis on descriptive language for ANT studies. One of the topics that Green brings up comes from his 2009 book Poétique du cinématographe. In it he distinguishes between ‘bougants’ (‘move-ies’) and ‘Cinématographe’. This division into two categories parallels that of Latour’s division between a sociology of the social and that of a sociology of associations. For Green ‘bougants’ represent the commercial, non-artistic movies and the ‘cinématographe’ its more artistic and spiritual potential. Green elaborates in regards to how he films objects, people, geography and architecture which, he posits, allows for their material self to truly emerge. This parallels some of Latour’s concepts of how non-human objects can also have agency.

The Tarde Durkheim Debate
Another example of how Latour intersects with cinema is his role in the recreation of the important social theory debate between Garbriel Tarde and Emile Durkheim. This reenactment of the 1903 debate has Latour in the role of Gabriel Tarde, Bruno Karsenti as Emile Durkheim and Dominique Reynié as the Dean. It was filmed in Paris in 2007 in a conference room, filled with an audience, with its vintage stage by Frédérique Ait-Touatti, research by Eduardo Vargas and recording by Martin Pavlov.
The film illustrates the importance of their theories for Latour and a potential interest in the medium. Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of a scientific sociology, aimed at defining generalizable social facts like, for example, through statistics the general suicide rates in a particular Catholic community. Gabriel Tarde, on the other hand, argued for an emphasis on the microanalysis of actors and networks as, “every thing is a society and that all things are societies.” Latour prefers Tarde’s theory of associations and through this recreation aims to recall and call into question one of the problems with the social sciences.
It is an interesting film as the actors are not necessarily aiming for physical or oratory verisimilitude, and the debate itself has been reconstituted (the original whole is no longer available), but what stands out are the competitive ideologies of the participants, the rationale behind their ideas, and the confrontation between the hardened ‘scientific’ reason and a more abstract ‘subjective’ empiricism. The difference is that of a broad understanding of how society functions through generalizable facts, against that of an attempt to find the truth-value of a situation by a close analysis of the actors within a particular site. Through Latour’s identification with Tarde he is aligning himself with an undervalued tradition in the social sciences. The underlying gesture is to not pass over this monumental event, but to better listen to Tarde as his ideas are revelatory and effective ways to analyze society.
This gesture for a philosopher to recreate an important theoretical work has a precursor with Michel Foucault who participated in the recreation of the facsimile document of Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma sœur et mon frère (1976) by René Allio. Where Latour’s writing on the Tarde-Durkheim debate can appear to be too historical (why is this relevant today?), through its current re-creation the historical event is brought to life and is given new relevance. The debate also demonstrates Latour’s eloquence, as per his discussion with Green, and turns Latour into a cinematic screen persona. With his recognizable long face and stern expression, big black glasses, sharp suit and tie; he is giving his body to cinema as a visual expression for his ideas. The Tarde Durkheim Debate (1903/2008) is a fitting cinematic memorial to Latour’s importance.

Latour’s Art Writing and Paris: Invisible City
Some of Latour’s art and cultural writing offers interesting ways to bring his ideas to cinema. In Latour’s essay, Some Experiments in Art and Politics he discusses Tomas Saraceno’s Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the strands of a Spider’s Web (2008) which he sees as a metaphor for social theory. The work, which was on display at the 2009 Venice Biennale, creates through organized wires an infrastructure similar to how Latour conceptualizes ‘networks’. Latour wrote,

What Saraceno’s work of art and engineering reveals is that multiplying the connections and assembling them closely enough will shift slowly from a network (which you can see through) to a sphere (difficult to see through). Beautifully simple and terribly efficient… Namely of explicating the material and artificial conditions for existence.

For Latour, this artwork offers a great amount of freedom for understanding connections as a thought experiment. Latour further elaborates on his artistic sensibility in the exhibition catalog essay From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public, where he addresses the need to think of the political beyond necessarily human and temporal categories to look at people in relation to objects to create a cohabitation between the two. There are a plethora of artworks, photography and installations from this Making Things Public exhibition at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe that attempt to illustrate this aesthetic. 
 Another good example of Latour’s engagement with artistic practices is his digital media online project, Paris: Invisible City, which is described as a ‘Sociological Web Opera’. It was first launched in 2004 as part of the Airs de Paris exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. In Reassembling the Social Latour wrote, “This somewhat austere book can be read in parallel with the much lighter… Paris ville invisible, which tries to cover much of the same ground through a succession of photographic essays.” There are four stages to this tour: Traversing, Proportioning, Distribution and Allowing. It begins at a department store on its rooftop panorama of Paris. Through this limited view Latour theorizes that there cannot be only one Paris (e.g. a bird’s eye view of the city, does not do justice to its local specificities or how it’s actually operated) but through many isolated representations of it, there can be a better understanding of it as a multiple, invisible (Latour’s word, referencing Italo Calvino) and virtual city.
Anne Friedberg’s conception of the virtual window is useful in relation Latour’s Paris: Invisible City. Friedberg description of the screen is that of both a surface and a frame. The screen becomes a reflective plane onto which an image is cast and the frame limits its view. This idea relates Paris: Invisible City towards the cinematic as, building upon Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, Friedberg argues that computer screens in general have replaced previous incarnations of screens, from the architectural window to the cinema screen, and their specificity is the virtual quality of their representational images. Friedberg wrote,

The term ‘virtual’ serves to distinguish between any representation or appearance (whether optically, technologically, or artisanally produced) that appears “functionally or effectively but not formally’ of the same materiality as what it represents… Virtual images have a materiality and a reality but of a different kind, a second-order materiality, liminally immaterial.

The world that Latour recreated with Paris: Invisible City depends on the computer screen in a novel way, which reflects Friedberg’s conception of the virtual screen, as it finds new ways to describe a society and in its own way tell a story.

ANT and Film Analysis
ANT as a model to analyze films has its benefits and drawbacks. Where it is probably correct to assume that Paravel had been influenced by Latour’s conception of ANT it is more difficult to broadly use it as a tool to analyze documentaries. Though one possibility would be to look at certain documentaries and then make a general taxonomy of how they animate some of ANT’s major tenets. But this can be limiting as well as in then how to interpret these scenes and their meaning? There are a few documentaries such as Silvered Water, Syrian Self-Portrait (2014), The Iron Ministry (2014) and 88:88 (2015) which are worth exploring as case studies for ANT’s usefulness for film analysis and to illustrate its potential.
Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Ossama Mohammed’s Silvered Water, Syrian Self-Portrait is a documentary on the atrocities of the Syrian civil war. It is a hybrid film made from the directors’ personal footage and found footage from the Internet of the atrocities plaguing Syria. The military regime that rules the country does not allow for filming (if caught filming the person is typically killed) and the violence of Silvered Water’s imagery is typically is not reproduced in Western reporting on Syria. In the documentary there is a scene of the ruins of an old building where a broken outdoor faucet is dripping. It is a lengthy scene as Bedirxan decides to focus on this one mundane activity. This broken faucet can take on what ANT describes as the agency of a non-human actor. ANT wants to distribute agency as broadly as possible. The social and historical trajectories of the country with its recent military violence take the specific form of this faucet as an actor in this scene. Even though the city is being destroyed there is still this micro-activity occurring. But the problematic aspect of focusing on this scene, solely to compare it to ANT, would be to take away from the overall project of the film with its message of urgency about the violence of the Syrian military on civilians and the destruction of Homs.  
 Another example is Isiah Medina’s experimental documentary 88:88. Through its portrait of a working class neighborhood in Winnipeg, Medina captures these interactions between nature, people, and community in a striking and unique way. If ANT posits that everyone and everything is profoundly relational then this experimental form of filming and editing can be seen as heightening the performative nature of these interactions and the networks connecting them. ANT presumes that a person’s identity is not prefigured by the moment of analysis (or filming) so in 88:88 brief shots of figures and lack of psychology have condensed the actants in enacting their relationships. These parallels offer some insight but perhaps a more helpful reference in understanding Medina’s film would be to compare it with works that it is most likely directly citing, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010) and Adieu au langage (2014) or other diary and structural films.
The same would apply to J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry. Similar to the SEL Leviathan, The Iron Ministry is a condensed trip through the major Chinese rail-road system. It offers a fascinating glimpse to its busy activity, myriad of passengers and interviews. In one scene the camera is recording a young child criticizing American ideology late at night on the train. This scene recalls Latour’s focus on description without interpretation. But then what? The fact that parallels can be drawn between ANT and certain filming techniques used in specific documentaries does not confirm that it is necessarily a useful tool for the analysis of film. More research on the subject is still necessary.

ANT, Documentary and Media
There has also been scholarship on ANT and its relation to media and documentary which gives a better understanding of how other scholars have imagined this relationship. Here are two examples of scholarship on ANT’s relation to media and documentary: Ilana Gershon and Joshua Malitsky’s essay Actor-Network theory and documentary studies which discuss how science studies and ANT can inform documentary scholarship; and Nick Couldry’s Actor Network Theory and Media: Do They Connect And On What Terms? which elaborates on ANT’s relation to media in general. These two essays offer interesting methodologies on the subject.
Gershon and Malitsky’s essay is perhaps the better of the two to bring ANT to the analysis of documentary and its para-textual objects. Instead of asking how the film animates certain ANT tenets they attempt to use ANT to discuss the larger narratives surrounding the films, the films’ possible truth claims, and the broader social response to them. Gershon and Malitsky are reacting to the post-modernist critiques of ‘claiming the real’ and its recognition that truths are socially constructed. Instead they are claiming a similarity between ANT’s distrust of dichotomies in scientific practice to that of how documentaries construct truths. For this they propose to study the extra-textual information around the film as a method to interrogate its own truth claims.
Gershon and Malitsky, cite John Law, who “delineates how ANT is fundamentally a theory of relationality, the analytical task of figuring how these relationships condense in various people and objects.” ANT allows for techniques to reveal how truths are socially constructed and how interactions are transformed into representations. Gershon and Malitsky propose four conceptual consequences in bringing ANT to documentary: everyone and everything contributes to how interactions take place; not all actants are the same; ANT insists on the performative nature of relations and their forms; and actants are all network effects. This would lead to,

The ANT perspective makes the circulation of putative truth a question of how different actants contribute to shaping a network through specific interactions. What ANT scholars provide are techniques for sidestepping the ontological question of truth entirely and focusing instead on truth-value. In other words, what the ANT perspective offers are techniques for understanding how representations might be transformed into facts through the labour of specific networks.

For documentary the ANT perspective would involve bringing all the aspects of the documentary from production, distribution and reception to see how the documentaries themselves are actants, which each convey their own information. This would make the study of them more reflexive as analytical moves provide ways to think about how truths and facts are constructed. For Gershon and Malitsky, “That is, ANT provides a way of imagining documentary pre-production, production, post-production, distribution and exhibition practices as an integrated network for circulating knowledge.”
In his essay Actor Network theory and Media: Do They Connect and on what Terms? Nick Couldry describes ANT as an attempt to explain the social order. Couldry elaborates,

through the networks of connections between human agents, technologies and objects. Entities (whether human or non-human) within these networks acquire power through the number, extensiveness and stability of the connections routed through them, and through nothing else.

Couldry uses ANT to generate a theory of connectivity that brings together the social and nature, which includes the potential of media. Within these relations, it is the networks that set the agents in positions relative to other agents. Building on Roger Silverstone, Couldry argues that,

Networks (and therefore ANT) tells us something important about the embeddedness of social life in media and communications technologies, but they do not offer the basis for a completely new theorization of social order, nor even a new way of analyzing social action, in spite of claiming to do just that.

ANT is interested in humans and their entanglement with technology. Couldry argues that “ANT’s insistence on the necessary hybridity of what we call ‘social relations’ remains a valuable antidote to the self-effacing, naturalizing potential of media discourse and of much discourse in media studies.” Couldry citing Tarde elaborates on the increasing simultaneous conversations spread over a vast geography as one of the major important developments, which has grown exponentially since Tarde was discussing newspapers. Couldry instead of seeing technology, media or even the Internet as a faceless mechanical entity prefers ANT for being able to localize the specific relations entangled within it.
But Couldry also sees a limit to ANT and has his own critiques of it: ANT has a problematic relation to time since it neglects it. Couldry sees in this neglect of the long-term consequences of networks as overlooking of social power and the possibilities of resistance. He does not view ANT as successful when analyzing texts that are meant to be interpretative. As well Couldry argues that ANT has little to say about the processes that come after the establishment of networks.
Althought Couldry sees a relationship between ANT and media theory, he argues that it is both significant and uneasy. It is an antidote to the more functionalist versions of media theory but its problems of an insufficient attention to questions of time, power and interpretation are still serious. But it is a good base for more research around these questions.

Conclusion
Bruno Latour, even without directly being involved in film studies, has still managed to put pressure on the cinematic in interesting ways throughout his career. This influence is seen through his teaching relationship with Véréna Paravel, who would bring many of ANT’s tenets to the radical approach of the ethnographic documentary Leviathan, and also through his participation in the recreation The Tarde Durkheim Debate, which has him casted as Garbriel Tarde to eloquently debate some of the social theory ideas that contributed to shape him. His art writing, curation, and creations like the virtual Paris: Invisible City have theorized some key concepts in the aesthetics that he would privilege, which would enact his social theories by bringing together objects and humans with the goal of creating new relations. And finally actor-network theory allows for an interesting new approach to study the documentary, which still needs to be further developed. Latour’s intellectual work has provided cinema and film studies with many stimulants and his ideas still need to be further explored for a better understanding of what they have to offer.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Actor-Network Theory, Documentary and The Iron Ministry

Abstract
This essay will elaborate on Bruno Latour’s philosophy in regard to Actor-Network Theory and its sociological goals. To do this there will be an analysis of the context surrounding Latour’s writing on the subject and its theoretical implications. Through ANT’s emphasis on circulation, it offers a unique perspective on the analysis of one form of the contemporary documentary. In particular the documentaries of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, specifically J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), which through their emphasis on rendering the sensory experience into a cinematic form they tend to treat the non-human actors as embodied with a form of agency.
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Actor-Network Theory
“When we believed that we were modern, we could content ourselves with the assemblies of society and nature. But today we have to restudy what we are made of and extend the repertoire of ties and the number of associations way beyond the repertoire proposed by social explanation.” – Bruno Latour

What Bruno Latour proposes throughout Reassembling the Social is a wider definition of the social, which is one of detailing micro-associations between actors instead of utilizing broad social labels as explanations for their behavior. For Latour this is the difference between the ‘sociology of the social’ and the ‘sociology of associations’. The difference between the two is that the former tends to explain behavior and attempts to actively mobilize its data while for the latter there is an emphasis on a return to empiricism and the value of description.
            Latour’s writing on philosophy and sociology rose to prominence in the Early Nineties during the height of the Science Wars. In We Have Never Been Modern Latour argues with the rhetoric of the postmodernist. For Latour the problem with the ‘modernist’ and the ‘post-modernist’ was that their framework overlooked non-human actors and the networks between the different forms of actors. This was because,  “Instead of moving on to empirical studies of the networks that give meaning to the work of purification it denounces, postmodernism rejects all empirical work as illusory and deceptively scientific.” In preferring to be a ‘non-modern’ or an ‘a-modern’, Latour attempted to create a new theory that was more liberating.
            This brings us to actor-network theory. But what exactly is it? Latour even announces the difficulty of defining its label in the introduction of On recalling ANT, “I will start by saying that there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor. the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” One of the goals of Latour’s sociology of associations is to learn from the actors and let them speak for themselves, and this is without imposing on them an a priori definition of their social world. Latour offers in more detail what makes for a good ANT account,

a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. As soon as actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader. Thus, through many textual inventions, the social may become again a circulating entity that is no longer composed of the stale assemblage of what passed earlier as being part of society.

What is specific to ANT in contrast to other forms of sociology is that the actor can take many forms: human or object, insect or animal, microbe or machine. Latour cites the 19th century French sociologist Émile Durkheim (even though Latour is not really Durkheimian) as providing a good definition of what is an actor, “The first origins of all social process of any importance should be sought in the internal constitution of the social group. [italics in text] It is this internal constitution that is fundamental in defining the actor. For Latour, this emerges through their, actantiality which is “what provides actants with their actions, with their subjectivity, with their intentionality, with their morality.”
What ANT analyzes are the performance of the actors and the movements that they create. But one of the critiques of ANT is its flattening of the social and its potential to disregard class, socio-economic background, race, and gender because it strives to compose a common world which extends political participation to nonhumans. Similarly to the emancipatory potential of Jacques Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible, Latour’s argument for this flattening is, “But it is just because we wish to explain those asymmetries that we don’t want to simply repeat them – and even less to transport them further unmodified. Once again, we don’t want to confuse the cause and the effect, the explanandum with the explanans.”
Latour traces the pre-cursor of ANT back to the 19th century in France to the sociologist Gabriel Tarde who defined society as, “every thing is a society and that all things are societies.” Tony Sampson elaborates on this quality of Tarde’s though when he writes,  “Tarde does not completely dismiss the idea of social wholes but argues that the whole is a manifestation of habitual repetitions of social invention and imitation.” Latour building upon Tarde would form his own definition of the network as,

Thus, the network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway or a sewage ‘network’. It is nothing more than an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand. It qualifies its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors when it allows the writer to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations.

ANT concentrates attention on a movement because ANT transforms the social from a surface and territory into a circulation. The dual definition of the social is then its substance and its movements. Its emphasis is on the space between the tiny trajectories. This ‘in between’ of the networks “are the most exciting aspects of ANT because they show the extent of our ignorance and the immense reserve that is open for change.” The network is then the series of transformations-translations that are recorded. Actor-network theory is then the summing up of interactions through various kinds of devices and inscriptions into a very local and practical locus. Latour’s examples in Reassembling the Social includes the novelist Richard Powers in his novel Gain on what constitutes a business firm through the monologue of a CEO and the analysis of eight photographs of a young woman voting in France.  

Actor-Network Theory and Documentary
Latour compares ANT to perspective drawing as it “does not tell anyone the shape to be drawn – circles or cubes or lines – but only how to go about systematically recording the world-building abilities of the sites to be documented and registered.” So in the process of animating ANT into the documentary form there are some preliminary questions that need to be asked: How to give agency to a non-human actor? How would Latour’s concepts of actors, circulation and networks look in a documentary? How would it differ from other documentary forms? What type of forms should be prioritized?
            Before proceeding to analyze the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab as examples of ANT-like documentaries, I want to focus on Alain Resnais’ Le chant du Styrène (1958) as an example of a documentary that gives agency to a non-human actor. As Latour has stated numerous times, it is the actors themselves that make up everything. Le chant du Styrène accomplishes this through its study of styrene, a colorless oily liquid that is used to make plastic, and then from its material bases the documentary examines its relationships and traces at this one manufacturing factory. The documentary begins with shots of its plastic creations, and with an authoritative commentary guiding the viewer, it moves onward throughout the factory to observe its multiple evolutions from pigmentation, storing, and finally its development into a product.
Relevant to this discussion is Martin Heidegger’s Insight Into What Is and the conception of presence and the ‘Thing’. Heidegger’s thesis on objects is similar to Latour’s emphasis on the agency of non-human actors. Graham Harman in Heidegger Explained emphasizes Heidegger’s main idea in it as being the distinction between a thing’s mysterious internal constitution and its explicit appearance. Heidegger elaborates on the concept of the fourfold (of earth and sky, gods and mortals) and how the ‘Thing’ is a mirror-play of all four terms. Harman writes, “Heidegger’s four are present at all times in all things, though they may be more concealed in some cases than in others.” For Harman the Heideggerian concepts ‘earth’ and ‘gods’ represent the past or the concealed realm and the concepts of ‘mortals’ and ‘sky’ the future or the revealed realm. Harman writes, “These bulky-sounding terms simply refer to a kind of thinking that does not represent things as objects viewed from the outside, but points toward their mysterious inwardness as unique events.”
It’s this independence of the thinghood of the thing to use Heidegger’s terms or the emphasis on non-human actors and its surrounding networks to use Latour’s, which should be the focus of identifying an ANT-like sociological documentary. Its aims should be also empirical, descriptive and un-imposing. But what should it not look like?
            Contemporary documentary seems to be experiencing a renewed golden age due to the plethora of human activity occurring in the world, the international connectivity due to globalization, affordability of digital cameras to record these events, and new ideas to engage with this unique film form. Some of recent highlights include Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014) on the Indonesian genocide, Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me (2014) on his year on an experimental AIDS medicine in Portugal, and John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) on the environmental contamination of an abandoned American army base in the Philippines. Though all of these are interesting in their own right, in regard to both content and form, they do not necessarily necessitate an ANT approach to analyze them.
            For the purpose of my argument, Frederick Wiseman’s most recent documentary In Jackson Heights (2015) will be used as an example of a ‘sociology of the social’ type of documentary. Wiseman has been making documentaries since the Sixties and since then, even though they all share a general poetic quality and as he likes to describe them are more ‘reality fictions’, they are generally filmed in a cinéma vérité method as they chronicle a broad spectrum of institutional behavior. In Jackson Heights is set in, as the title indicates, the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, New York and it focuses on the organizing of the Queens Pride Parade and the effects of gentrification on its local business owners who are being forced to relocate. Wiseman in this documentary is invested in broad social labels, as much of the film takes place at identity-based group meetings and in activist groups in opposition to the negative effects of the city’s neoliberal policies. This interest in broad social statements and its disregard to non-human actors makes it that In Jackson Heights is not representative of ANT.
            This leads to the Sensory Ethnography Lab which in their innovative visual ethnography propose a more satisfactory answer of what an ANT-like sociological documentary would look like. The SEL emerged in the mid-2000s and some of its most known documentaries are Sweetgrass (2009), Foreign Parts (2010), Leviathan (2012), Manakamana (2013), and The Iron Ministry (2014). There is an emphasis on travelling the world and rendering an exotic setting into a visually compelling documentary: Sweetgrass follows a group of shepherds and their sheep through the Montana wilderness and mountains, Foreign Parts looks at a junkyard in Willets Point, New York which is in crisis due to a new re-development project, Leviathan explores the marine life and activities of an industrial fishing ship, Manakamana gently rides along with the locals and tourist who are going both up and down a chairlift in India, and The Iron Ministry travels along the public train system in China.
SEL describes their practice in opposition to those of broadcast journalism and the standard discursive practices of visual anthropology. On their website, they describe their work as, “Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.” There is a general disregard for commentary, broad social labels and stereotyping. And for the purposes of this essay, the most direct connection between ANT and SEL is that Véréna Paravel, who is part of the SEL faculty and director of two of their films, studied directly under Bruno Latour.
How The Iron Ministry animates ANT is through its emphasis on non-human actors and the circulation within its networks. Non-animate objects such as fans, cigarette butts, miscellaneous animal parts, and the merchandise of a food vendor receive agency as actors who can create action. It is also sociologically descriptive for the human actors as through casual conversations and interviews they can reveal their own interests and social reality. One passengers describes what it is like being Muslim in contemporary China, another man describes his concerns with the increase in housing cost in the urban centers, and another woman describes her worries about China’s slow ascension into Tibetan society.
The networks of The Iron Ministry include the passengers, trains and its infrastructure in Mainland China. The documentary begins in darkness and all that can be heard are the noises of the train’s progression and its vibrations. J. P. Sniadecki, the director of The Iron Ministry, in an interview with Mark Peranson discussed how the project emerged out of what he described as ‘encounters’ in the Chinese railway system, with the central one being Ning Ying’s Railroad of Hope. Sniadecki spent three years filming train rides in China and turned his footage into one long continuous ride where different passengers of different classes pass through different trains going through different landscapes – all of this seamlessly coming together in The Iron Ministry. Sniadecki describes his approach as, “I took trains throughout China, striving to be thorough without a need to be exhaustive, compelled more by the desire for movement and encounter than by any documentary notion of ‘coverage.’”
ANT’s objectives offer a stimulating entry into these SEL films as its non-conventional emphasis on non-human actors and networks match some of their documentaries’ more experimental approach to render the sensory into a cinematic form. Latour’s call for a return to empiricism and description and letting the actors speak for themselves is a guiding force for his ‘sociology of association’. This clearly parallels Sniadecki’s approach in The Iron Ministry which reaches a peak when the camera carefully captures the monologue of one little Chinese boy riding a train at night. As the train is about the depart, the child, rolling around in his bed compartment, speaks out to nobody in particular,

All passengers, your attention please. The 3838-438 Train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. We ask those who are not aboard please take someone else’s luggage, take someone else’s wife, and hurry aboard. Those who have explosives, bombs, and other inflammable materials with them. Please hurry aboard. And ignite them where there are crowds, to contribute to our nation’s population control policy. The train is moving fast so please extend your hands and head out of the window as far as possible, making it easier to lose them all at once. This is a civilized train, so please feel free to piss, shit, and throw trash all over the aisle. Other passengers may spit in your face and you may spit in the mouth of others, which is good for the thorough absorption of protein.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Serge Daney’s La Maison Cinéma et le Monde – 4. Le moment Trafic

The recent publication of Serge Daney’s last two years of writing, La Maison Cinéma et le Monde – 4. Le moment Trafic 1991-1992 (Éditions P.O.L.), reveals many of his major ideas and how they culminated at the end of his life. The book primarily deals with the launch of his new journal Trafic, through his original three articles for it Journal de l’an passé, Journal de l’an nouveau, and Journal de l’an present; interviews about it and his philosophy, and some of his last few essays and public conferences.

The book is important for bringing together many of these texts that have long been unavailable or difficult to find. The many interviews – fundamental  in his role as a passeur – offer a more casual, anecdotal and richer portrait of Daney, which shows a different side of him then that of Perseverance. Through a close attention to these texts, many of his views become clearer, sometimes even in opposition to his earlier writing, and a more precise picture of Daney finally emerges.

Many of the points in the book are just statements, but which have a lot of meaning for Daney, and he does not necessarily unpack them, so they must be taken at face value. The following is a selection of translations of some of these key points and quotations which represent some of the major ideas of one of the greatest film critics of the twentieth century. - D.D.

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A list of some of Daney’s favorite filmmakers would include the classical carré d'as American directors of the Cinéma Mac Mahon (on Jacques Lourcelles, “the commitment to his tone and being assured in his Mac-Mahoniens taste are intact, and we feel the author being proud of never changing his mind on what’s essential”), the French and nouvelle vague directors of Alain Resnais, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Claude Brisseau (‘Céline is a film of our time’), Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax (more on them below); the more challenging avant-garde films of Guy Debord, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Akira Kurosawa (the book includes a review of his autobiography), Sergei Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates, particularly), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Johan van der Keuken, Raúl Ruiz, Manoel de Oliveira; and Stanley Kubrick (‘the only visionary of contemporary cinema’).

It is interesting to hear Daney discuss many emerging directors, who would never really receive full critiques, and revisit older ones, both which are quite perceptive in how they would evolve throughout the nineties.

Daney, “Actually, the most important director is certainly Manoel de Oliveira… Eighty-five-years-old. He’ll never be for the majority. But he continues making films in a way that is absolutely stupefying, which is both anarchic and completely insolent.”

Daney really likes Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (“au charme absolu”). Daney wrote “There are some really good things in Spielberg.” Luc Besson’s Le Grand Bleu is “the most important film of the eighties,” a lot better than Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’Ours.

According to Daney, La belle noiseuse, “I don’t think it really interested Rivette,” while Le Pont du Nord is his chef-d’oeuvre.

On François Truffaut’s Le Dernier Métro “one of his worsts,” but L'amour en fuite is “magnificent.” For Daney, Truffaut’s Paris, “is by a director of the 19th century, who esteems it, it takes place in Walter Benjamin’s passages.” And, “But either way, I find, in myself and with those around me, that the figure of Truffaut has been growing in esteem since his death. All of his ‘minor’ films are great, and only some ‘serious subject’ films are sometimes shallow. The Truffaut voice, neutral, a little high pitched, is unforgettable. I think that we’ll miss it.”

Daney really likes Van Gogh by Pialat.

On Nanni Moretti, “I for one, I need Moretti. We’re the same age, he’s one of those rare directors who speaks about the world as it is. There are maybe only five or six directors like this today, not enough.”

“Jean-Pierre Oudart once said (or wrote) that what was surprising about Mon oncle d'Amérique, was that the film would be the same if America didn’t even exist. This was a real intuition.”

On Wenders’ newest film at the time, “There’s a lot in it which doesn’t work. The whole last section, for example, isn’t convincing.”

Talks about the introduction of race and European style in some eighties American directors, for Daney, “Spike Lee is interesting because it’s someone who, against all expectations, has never renounced his political conviction. Jarmusch’s is a European cinema… Soderbergh, we don’t know yet. Sex, Lies, and Videotape was malin. But I don’t know how far he can take his project.”

“I saw Drugstore Cowboy, an unknown little film by Gus van Sant with Matt Dillon and the old Burroughs, and I found it formidable. In my usual fashion, I told myself that I needed to follow this director. Two years later, I realize that all of Paris, or at least all of the serious cinephiles in it, were praising My Own Private Idaho. One must no longer ‘fight for’ Gus van Sant.”

 “Abbas Kiarostami, a magnificent Iranian director, makes us think a lot, but at the same time, it’s really strange since it’s the same as Rossellini. We ask ourselves through what alchemy does an Iranian all by himself discovers, or rediscovers or continues, this hypothesis of Rossellini and certain other Italian directors.”

Bertrand Tavernier, for Daney, is “an efficient type, cultivated, who really knows a lot, and who really likes cinema. Because of this, today, he complains a lot against those who don’t like his films.”

Some films that he hated: Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society and Lars von Trier’s Europa.

“One night, it’s been a few year already, there were two of us, S.T. and I, and we were spending time with a director. Everyone loved Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Everyone except for our host, who got really upset when S.T. awkwardly described its characters as ‘formidable’.”

“It’s at this moment that the hypothesis of a resistant-cinema which obliges us to take into consideration the resistance of the characters moving towards their death. It’s without a doubt why, after our incursion, that S.T. decided to return to the subject in Cahiers (N.450) on that annoying question. And when he asks why Olivier Assayas centers all of his film (Paris s'éveille) on a character that, finally, ‘has no chance of escaping their faith’, it’s a question that I could not help but be too familiar with. Didn’t I feel obligated to side myself more with Louise at the end of Assayas’ film? No, because I wasn’t close to the character nor was she sympathetic. No, because throughout the film, through time passing and cinema making it dialectic, I still did not become attached to her. No, because the vitality of Louise did not carry the project… I felt the need to detach myself from the auteur…”

On Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax:

“For my generation at Cahiers, we’ve never really become directors. [On film sets, for example, I get bored too quickly. It exasperated me.] The most important director of my generation, was Garrel, a compagnon de route for Cahiers. Though perhaps less so now. Carax, on the other hand, wastes too much energy trying to decide his projects, though he doesn’t have a problem with desire. But I really like Leos, he’s a really gifted boy, but what he’s interested in isn’t always interesting.”

“I left Les Amants du Pont-Neuf just as I did Mauvais Sang: perplexed and affected. Is it because I re-see Leos, an auditor in the cinema class I was teaching, already anachronistic, fiercely listening and intensely quiet, which makes me ask myself, with each new film, what are his ‘references’?”

“I was giving these courses with Danièle Dubroux, and this young boy intrigued us. He seemed a lot more intelligent than the others, he also looked like he was only twelve. He wasn’t even enrolled in the course, and would just sit at the back of the class, and wouldn’t say anything. But he had this gaze, always extraordinary for someone out in public, who was benefiting from our course, this intrigued us. We took the risk and we proposed to him to write for us. One day, I asked him to write about young French filmmakers. He was so young himself. He first said yes, but withdrew by saying this magnificent phrase, ‘There’s only I that could fulfill it, but I’m not going to.’… Leos, it’s like Rivette. When we run into each other on the streets, we get a coffee together. There, we get into pure emotion. But, for the most part, the cinema that I defended, which I represented, including Leos, though not entirely, but a lot, is constituted by people that now don’t even give a damn to even call me. It’s a life choice. A little sad. But I know that if I was friends with Tavernier, he would take care of me.”

On meeting Chris Marker,

“I remember also, this time in Hong Kong, of my only encounter with the hard to find Chris Marker. It was on such a hot day and we imagined (perhaps to jauntily, I think) the pure and simple disappearance of cinema, its content diluting, its lack of vitriol. As if it was the dream of the 20th century wasn’t going to survive the disenchantment of the awakening of the turn of the 21st century. Here we were.”

On the role of festivals,

“The good ones, those that are a medium-sized ones. Not too large, like the Cannes machines, or too insignificant, like some smaller ones. But more so the friendly ones like Rotterdam or Locarno. There there can sometimes have real cinematographic events.”

Surprisingly, a few positive comments on Michel Ciment and Positif,

“The era of  regular film magazine publishing is over – I think of the courageous little magazine Positif with the elegant Michel Ciment – where you could accompany an unknown Wim Wenders up to the point where the bourgeois from Cannes could no longer ignore him. This was in the seventies.”

“The situation today in France is confusing. I wouldn’t know how to fix it. They should get several of us to brainstorm potential solutions. Even people like Michel Ciment know there’s something wrong.”

On the original Cahiers project and his relation to it,

“Oh, the Cahiers jaunes years, those were the bible. It was the absolute truth, without  a doubt. You would follow it with your life to death. I started reading it in 1959, the N.97 issue, which had Hiroshima Mon Amour on the cover. Then we started going to the Cinémathèque with peers from the lycée. There we met Douchet, the only one that kind-of spoke to us. We quickly realized that a long saga has just reached its conclusion in front of our eyes. That of the nouvelle vague – they won. I loved Cahiers for reasons that might not have been too pure deep down. First, for its writing. After for its independent spirit. A magazine capable of taking down in two lines The Bridge on the River Kwai, this film that was immensely popular and that all of France loved. I told myself: ‘Such bold writers do need really strong arguments.’ But I wasn’t wrong. Because these guys who wrote only two lines on River Kwai would also devote ten pages to Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb. I was taken over by a fury: Cahiers was always right. In fact, I had the impression of discovering a world that wasn’t official.”

“Such a pleasure to like Lang when my cleaning person also watched his films. Even when I was reading Plato, I was also seeing Lang. Such a pleasure for a kid like me.”

“I think that the two last great films where there was something real in terms of an aesthetic and spiritual work, which was provocative, scandalous, and also really innocent. Films that tried to say: ‘With cinema, we are retaking up this dirty story, but if we didn’t, we would always stay within it and we would reproduce it.’ Between 1975 and 1980, there was one film that we ‘missed’ at Cahiers, and that was Salò by Pasolini, and then he died shortly after, and inversely, there’s a film that we spoke highly of, Syberberg’s Hitler, in 1978, that none of you have probably seen, due to the fact that it was never shown again. I think that this was one of the last times that a director that we were not really close with ideologically, Syberberg, thought the cinema in terms of an art-form. This meant a material practice, that of manipulations, language, could displace the field, stop things from becoming fixed, stir up a dialectic, include some humor, to change the perspective: this little Hitler is not like the adult, a spiritual ideological practice.”

And on the early impact of his generation,

“We believed that we could still fight for the cinema, while in fact it was almost entirely constituted, with its great directors. But regardless, I think I was part of the last generation to define the canon, to specify who was a great director and who wasn’t. For the American cinema, the nouvelle vague already did everything earlier. But Jacques Tourneur, for example, was us. If one day Boris Barnet is recognized, one of the greatest Russian directors, it would be without a doubt because of us.”

“One must return to the origins. The image of man has changed, but through Barthes, with his formulas, he was able to diagnose it. Notably through: ‘structuralism, intelligent commentary around the object’. This marked an entire generation, especially those at Cahiers, who started reflecting, reading and writing. In this structuralist ambiance, the cinephiles were like second-class citizens, the most arrogant. They benefited from a sector, that of cinema, which wasn’t too developed intellectually, but through it we were able to do whatever we wanted. After the Barthes of Mythologies, they were able to rediscover things that seemed entirely natural but that, in fact, reflected an ideology. Therefore we prioritized liking an American cinema, with a conviction in taste that I still won’t ever discredit, which we call these days ‘B films’. Well, it wasn’t, in the most strict sense B films, but lets just say these really minor or failed films, which had a personality due to the fact that they were less supervised projects. Where Cukor was trying to get away with anything under Selznick, Nicholas Ray received everything he wanted from the president of Republic Pictures to make Johnny Guitar, a magnificent film, which was made in absolutely incredible conditions. We then had the tendency to be the first petits malins – I don’t know if there were some before us, to such an extent – perhaps even miscalculating the directors themselves, as they turned out to be not as intellectual as we thought. It was fun to bring these objects into a more classic culture, thought, philosophy, critical program, while in fact they were all starting to slowly become for the majority: products… After this pioneering moment, we eventually became more adventurous, arrogant. We started watching pornos, peplums – I still think today, that Cottafavi, the director of Les Légions de Cléopâtre, is a vastly superior director, in principal, to Peter Greenaway.”

On the death of cinema,

“I never heard this discourse on the death of cinema in the intellectual milieu. I talked about it with Wim Wenders at a certain period. It was always frowned upon. I was always forbidden to tell him too much, I was put back in my place. It’s been ten years that I’ve been feeling this way. So it has to become the dominant discourse.”

“By the end I was getting tired of being reproached by others for what they described as my ‘pessimism’. To provoke, I would tell people that the cinema was dead – maybe since Rossellini! But it didn’t provoke anyone, it just made everyone sad.”

“But Carax, he’s not going to be able to do as he likes! He’s going to go to America and get destroyed! No, no! I don’t know why there’s something inadmissible in the fact that the cinema is going to die. Look at the numbers if you don’t want to believe me. And if you don’t want to believe me, who will you believe? I thought that I was partially credible! I’ve heard enough people telling me: ‘Your article is magnificent, but I’m not going to see the film, it’s not my thing.’ As if my review was an end in itself. Or others: ‘You’re acting in bad faith. Cinema is not going to die. Even though I don’t go anymore, I stay home and watch VHS tapes with my children…”

“No, but really, I couldn’t care less about seeing films in movie theaters. I saw some films all by myself in theaters, and to be honest, it was embarrassing. Especially for comedies, such anxiety!”

Daney offers some fascinating answers to what is cinema?: “I always thought that cinema wasn’t actually wonder in front of a moving image, but the reverberation of sound, the sentiment of time, waiting for something, something fatal.”

The need to write, “For me – it’s really personnel –, I never understood how for some they could watch all of these films without talking about them… I think there should always be a need to discuss, write, with interruptions sometimes where the film can speak back. It’s like a tennis match: the roles go back and forth. And for me, as a cinephile, I call this the oral tradition, it’s an ensemble of social practices.”

A fascinating book, La Maison Cinéma et le Monde – 4. Le moment Trafic 1991-1992, is an essential read for more on Daney’s thought later in his life. If only now his radio show Microfilms can be made more widely accessible and also his many printed interviews (a blind spot of these compilations)! There’s still a lot to learn from Daney and these texts still offer a great compass to navigate cinema today. It might sometimes be a bleak perspective, but it's the truth, for those who even care.

Serge Daney’s Last Texts

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
    Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
            - Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXI

Daney’s life was coming to an end. He contracted AIDS and in this period it was a fatal disease since the international medical community did not know yet how to respond it. Toubiana described Daney’s state of mind in this period as, “It was a stage in his life when he was settling scores, with extreme clarity, without lenience towards himself or others. That is the way it was, and the only demonstration of friendship was to be there.” An example of this settling of scores was a letter he sent to Cahiers. The film The Sheltering Sky at first glance would appear to be made as if it was for Daney. It is by Bernardo Bertolucci and it is about this world travelling couple that decided to go on an epic hike through the North African desert; there the man would catch a fatal STD. But Daney’s letter to Cahiers was an angry rant against Bertolucci and how with The Sheltering Sky that he was now corrupted by these prestigious international productions. 
 Daney’s last major essays continued this settling of scores. They appeared in his new journal Trafic which he created in 1990 with Raymond Bellour, Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre and Patrice Rollet. It was a journal of intense theoretical reflection on cinema, culture and politics. Its text-only pictureless design recalled the Cahiers of the Seventies years. The Ezra Pound quotation that opened the first issue contributed to the final and melancholic tone of his last essays there. For example, in the issue with his last contribution when he was alive, it was dedicated to his mother Huguette Daney. They were diary entries of his last two years alive. They comprised of an intense theoretical reflection, settling of scores, and revelations of personal secrets. These traits combined gave these final essays a Rivettian conspiracy quality.
These essays were also similar to Bazin’s late writing as they were both near-death theoretical reflections. In the essays Daney analyzed Bazin’s concept of a transcendent realism in an increasing televisual society. Daney asked what it meant to be human in a media-pervasive world of corrupt politics. The last of these essays also ended rather abstractly with an analysis of humanity as illustrated by an animal documentary, a Bazinian predilection par excellence, that he watched on television. They were also full of references to thinkers and directors such as Roland Barthes, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub.
“Cinema was dying,” Daney proposed… At this late period the directors that Daney admired now disappointed him. These directors included Wim Wenders, Bernardo Bertolucci, Olivier Assayas and even Jacques Rivette. (Daney shortly before even made a documentary with Claire Denis on Rivette for the Cinéma, de notre temps series, Jacques Rivette - Le veilleur.) Daney returned to Cahiers in this period as he was no longer getting along with the staff at Libération. He helped organize an impressive issue on the political activity in the U.S.S.R. and the fall of communism in Romania. Antoine de Baecque would spend a lot of time to interview him as a major resource for his Cahiers history books. But still the fast-approaching 40th anniversary of Cahiers would leave him ambivalent. Daney wrote in his Journal de l’an passé, “The 25th of May. Cahiers is now forty. Its televisual commemorative celebration is something sad.”
The publication of the Cahiers history books and its 40th anniversary motivated Daney to write one of his most famous essays – The Tracking Shot in Kapo – which was published posthumously in the Fall 1992 issue of Trafic. This essay discussed his relationship with Cahiers by psychoanalyzing his own life and how it intersected with Cahiers when he was a teenager. (Daney wrote, “Rivette was 33 and I was 17…”) Through Cahiers Daney discovered Rivette’s critique of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Kapo, On Abjection. Daney had never actually ‘seen’ the film but he described that he had ‘seen’ it through Rivette’s critique. [Paul Louis Thirard criticized Daney for not bothering to see the film for himself since he argued that Kapo might not have even included an abject tracking shot... (Positif, N.543)] In the essay Daney wrote,

Rivette never recounted the film’s narrative in his article. Instead he was content to describe one shot in a single sentence. This sentence, now engraved in my memory, read “Just look at the shot in Kapo where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbed wire; the man who decides at this moment to track forward and reframe the dead body in a low-angle shot – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final frame – deserves only the most profound contempt.” Henceforward a simple camera movement must be the one movement not to make. The movement one must — obviously — be abject to make. As soon as I read those lines I knew the author was absolutely right… Over the years “the tracking shot in Kapo” would become my portable dogma, the axiom that was not up for discussion, the breaking point of any debate. I would definitely have nothing to do or share with anyone who did not immediately feel the abjection of “the tracking shot in Kapo.

Daney’s memory of Rivette’s critique was very precise. What stood out for Daney in this Cahiers critique of Kapo is Rivette’s moral perspective on the film and his strength of conviction. (It may also be worth mentioning that Truffaut was not once mentioned in Daney’s article on Kapo. Toubiana would make up for this in a few issues later of Trafic when he would publish his essay Truffaut, domaine public.) At the heart of Daney’s conception of Cahiers was a strong belief in the courage to denounce something that was wrong. The same idea was seen in Libération when in 1987 Daney switched sections from the cinema pages to Rebonds where he could then address the problems that were going on in French society. Between the years 1987 to 1990, in this ‘post-cinema’ period, Daney wrote mostly about cultural products that he strongly disliked