My title might lead readers to anticipate some new odyssey of the image, taking us from the Aurorean glory of Lascaux's paintíngs to the contemporary twilight of a reality devoured by media images and an art doomed to monitors and synthetic images. But my intention is different. By examíning how a certain idea of fate and a certain idea of the image are tied up in the apocalyptic discourses of today's cultural climate, I would like to pose the following question: are we in fact referring to a simple, univocal reality? Does not the term "image" contain several functions whose problematic alignment precisely constítutes the labour of art? On this basis it will perhaps be possible to reflect on what artistic images are, and contemporary changes in their status, more soundly.
Let us start at the beginning. What is being spoken about, and what precisely are we being told, when it is said that there is no longer any reality, but only images? Or, conversely, that there are no more images but only a reality incessantly representing itself to itseIf? These two discourses seem to be opposed. Yet we know that they are forever being converted into one another in the name of a rudímentary argument: if there is now nothing but ímages, there is nothing other than the image. And if there is nothing other than the image, the very notion of the image becomes devoid of content. Several contemporary authors thus contrast the lmage, which refers to an Other, and the Visual, which refers to nothing but itself.
This simple line of argument already prompts a question. That the Same is the opposite of the Other is readily intelligible. Understanding what this Other is its less straightforward. In the first place, by what signs is its presence or absence to be recognized? What allows us to say that the Other is there in one visible form on a screen but not in another? That it is present, for example, in a shot from Au hasard Balthazar and not in an episode of Questions pour un champion? The response most frequently given by detractors of the 'visual' is this: the television image has no Other by virtue of its very nature. In effect, it has its light in itself, while the cinematic image derives it from an external source. This is summarized by Régis Debray in a book called Vie et mort de I'image: "The image here has its light ín-built. It reveals ítself. With its source in itself, ít becomes in our eyes its own cause. Spinozist definition of God or substance."
The tautology posited here as the essence of the Visual is manifestly nothing but the tautology of the díscourse itself. The latter simply tell us that the Same is same and the Other other. Through the rhetorical play of telescoped, independent propositions, it passes itself off as more than a tautology by identifying the general properties of universals with the characteristics of a technical device. But the technical properties of the cathode tube are one thing and the aesthetic properties of the images we see on the screen are another. The screen precisely lends itself to accommodating the results both of Questions pour un champion and of Bresson's camera. It is therefore cIear that it is these results which are inherently different. The nature of the amusement television offers us, and af the affects it produces in us, is independent of the fact that the Iight derives from the apparatus. And the intrinsic nature of Bresson's images remaíns unchanged, whether we see the reels projected in a cinema, or through a cassette or disc on our television screen, or a vídeo projection. The Same is not on One side, while the Other is 0n the other. The set with in-built light and the camera of Questions pour un champíon place us before a feat of memory and presence of mind that is in itself foreign to them. On the other hand, the film of the film theatre or the cassette of Au hasard Ballhazar viewed 0f our screen show us images that refer to nothing else, which are themselves the performance.
THE ALTERITY OF IMAGES
These images refer to nothing else. This does not mean, as is frequently saíd, that they are intransitive. It means that alterity enters into the very composition of the images, but also that such alterity attaches to something other than the material properties of the cinematíc medium. The images of Au hasard Balthazar are not primarily manifestations of the properties of a certain technicaI medium, but operations: relations between a whole and parts; between a visibility and a power of sígnífication and affect associated with it; between expectations and what happens to meet them. Let us look at the beginning of the film, The play of 'images' has already begun when the screen is still dark, with the crystalline notes of a Schubert sonata. It continues, while the credits flash by against a background conjuring up a rocky wall, a wall of dry-stone or boíled cardboard, when brayíng has replaced the sonata. Then the sonata resumes, overlaíd next by a noise of small bells which carries on into the first shot of the film: a little donkey's head sucking at its mother's teat in close-up. A very whíte hand then descends along the dark neck of the little donkey, while the camera ascends in the opposite direction to show the líttle girl whose hand this ís, her brother and her father. A dialogue accompanies this action ('We must have it' - 'Give it to us' 'Children, that's impossible'), without us ever seeing the mouth that utters these words. The children address their father with their backs to us; theír bodies obscure his face while he answers them. A dissolve then introduces a shot that shows us the opposite of these words: from behind, in a wide-angled shot, the father and the children come back down leading the donkey. Another dissolve carries us over into the donkey's baptism - another close-up that allows us to see nothing but the head of the animal, the arm of the boy who pours the water, and the chest of the little girl who holds a candle.
In these credits and three shots we have a whole regime of 'imaginess' that is, a regime of relations between elements and between functions. lt is first and foremost the opposition between the neutrality of the black or gray screen and the sound. The melody that pursues its direct course in clearly separated notes, and the braying whích interrupts it, already convey the tension of the story to come. Thís contrast is taken up by the visual contrast between a white hand on an anímal's black coat and by the separation between voices and faces. In turn, the latter is extended by the link between a verbal decision and its visual contradiction, between the technical procedure of the dissolve, which intensifies the continuity, and the counter-effect that it shows us.
Bresson's 'images' are not a donkey, two children and an adult. Nor are they simply the technique of close-ups and the camera movements or dissolves that enlarge them. They are operations that couple and uncouple the visible and its signification or speech and its effect, which create and frustrate expectations. These operations do not derive from the properties of the cinematic medium. They even presuppose a systematic distance from its ordinary employment. A 'normal' director would give us some sign, however light, of the father's change of mind. And he would use a wider angle for the baptism scene, have the camera ascends or introduce an addítional shot in order to show us the expression on the children's faces during the ceremony.
ShalI we say that Bresson 's fragmentation vouchsafes us, rather the narrative sequence of those who align cinema with the theater or the novel, the pure images peculiar to this art? But the camera's fixing on the hand' that pours the water and the hand that holds the candles is no more peculiar to cinema than the fixíng of Doctor Bovary's gaze on Mademoiselle Emma's nails, or of Madame Bovary's gaze on those of the notary's clerk, is peculiar to literature. And the fragmentation does not símply break the narrative sequence. It performs a double operation with respect to it. By separatíng the hands from the facial expression, it reduces the action to its essence: a baptism consists in words and hands pouring water over a head. By compressing the action into a sequence of perceptions and movements, add short-circuiting any explanation of the reasons, Bresson's cinema does not realize a peculiar essence of the cinema. It forms part of the novelistic tradítion begun by Flaubert: an ambivalence in which the same procedures create and retract meaning, ensure and undo the link between perceptions, actions and affects. The wordless immediacy of the vísible doubtless radicalizes its effect. but this radicalism itself works through the operatíon of the power which separates cinema from the plastíc arts and makes it approximate to literature: the power of anticipating an effect the better to displace or contradict it.
The image is never a simple reality. Cinematic images are prímarily operations, relations between the sayable and the visible, ways of playíng wíth the before and the after, cause and effect. These operations involve different image-functions, different meanings of the word 'image'. Two cinematic shots or sequences of shots can thus pertain to a very different 'imaginess'. Conversely, one cinematic shot can pertain to the same type of imaginess as a novelistic sentence or a painting. That is why Eisensteín could look to Zola ar Dickens, as to Greco or Piranesi, for models of cinematic montage; and why Godard can compose a eulogy to cinema using Elie Faure's sentences 0f Rembrandt's painting.
The image in films is thus not opposed to televisíon broadcasting as alterity is to identity. Television broadcasting likewise has its Other: the effective performance of the set. And cinema also reproduces a constructed performance in front of a camera. It is simply that when we speak of Bresson's images we are not referring to the relationship between what has happened elsewhere and what is happening before our eyes, but to operations that make up the artistic nature of what we are seeing. 'Image' therefore refers to two different things. There is the simple relationship that produces the likeness of an original: not necessarily its faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand in for it. And there is the interplay of operations that produces what we call art: or precisely an alteration of resemblance. This alteration can take a myriad of forms. It might be the visibility given to brush-strokes that are superfluous when it comes to revealing who is represented by the portrait; an elongation of bodies that expresses their motion at the expense of their proportions; a turn of language that accentuates the expression of a feeling or renders the perception of an idea more complex; a word or a shot in place of the ones that seemed bound to follow; and so on and so forth.
This is the sense in which art ís made up of images, regardless of whether it is figurative, of whether we recognize the form of identifiable characters and spectacles in it. The images of art are operations that produce a discrepancy, a dissemblance. Words describe what the eye might see or express what it wiII never see; they delíberately clarify or obscure an idea. Visible forms yield a meaning to be construed or subtract it. A camera movement anticipates one spectacle and discloses a different one. A pianist attacks a musical phrase 'behind' a dark screen. Ali these relations define images. This means two things. In the first place, the images of art are, as such, dissemblances. Secondly, the image is not exclusive to the visible. There is visibility that does not amount to an image; there are ímages which consist wholly in words. But the commonest regime of the image is one that presents a relationship between the sayable and the visible, a relationshíp whích play on both the analogy and the dissemblance between them. This relationship by no means requires the two terms to be materially present. The visible can be arranged in meaníngful tropes; words deploy a visibility that can be blinding.
It might seem superfluous to recall such simple things. But if it is necessary to do so, it is because these simple things are forever being blurred, because the identitarian alterity of resemblance has always interfered with the operation of the relations constitutive of artistic images. To resemble was long taken to be the peculiarity of art, while an infinite number of spectacles and forms of imitation were proscribed from it. In our day, not to resembIe is taken for the imperative of art, while photographs, videos and displays of objects similar to everyday ones have taken the place of abstract canvases in galleries and museums. But this formal imperative of non-resemblance is itself caught up in a singular dialectic. For there is growing disquiet: does not resemblíng involve renouncíng the vísible? Or does it involve subjecting its concrete richness to operations and artífices whose matrix resides in language? A counter-move then emerges: what is contrasted with resemblance is not the operativeness of art, but material presence, the spirit made flesh, the absolutely other which is also absolutely the same. 'The Image will come at the Resurrection" says Godard: the Image - that is, the 'original image' of Christian theology, the Son who is not 'similar' to the Father but partakes of his nature. We no longer kill each other for the iota that separates this image from the other. But we continue to regard it as a promise of flesh, capable of dispelling the simulacra of resemblance, the artifices of art, and the tyranny of the letter.
IMAGE, RESEMBLANCE, HYPER-RESEMBLANCE
In short, the image is not merely double; ít is triple. The artistic image separates its operations from the technique that produces resemblances. But it does so in order to discover a different resemblance en route a resemblance that defines the relation of a being to its provenance and destination, one that rejects the mirror in favour of the immediate relationship between progenitor and engendered: direct vision, glorious body of the community, or stamp of the thing itself. Let us call it hyper-resemblance. Hyper-resemblance is the original resemblance, the resemblance that does not provide the replíca of a reality but attests directly to the elsewhere whence it derives. This hyper-resemblance is the alterity our contemporaries demand from images ar whose dísappearance. together with the image, they deplore. To tell the truth, however, it never disappears. It never stops slipping its own activity ínto the very gap that separates the operations of art from the techniques of reproduction, concealing its rationale in that of art or in the properties of machines of reproduction, even if it means sometimes appearing in the foreground as the ultimate ratíonale of both.
It is what emerges in the contemporary stress on distinguishíng the genuine image from its simulacrum on the basis of the precise mode of its material reproduction. Pure form is then no longer counter-posed to bad image. Opposed to both is the imprint of the body which light registers inadvertently, without referring it either to the calculations of painters or the language games of signification. Faced with the image causa suí of the television idol, the canvas or screen is made into a vehicle on which the image of the god made flesh, or of thíngs at their birth, is impressed. And photography, formerly accused of opposing íts mechanical, soulless simulacra to the coloured flesh of painting, sees its image ínverted. Compared wíth pictorial artifices, it is now perceived as the very emanation of a body, as a skin detached from its surface, positively replacing the appearances of resemblance and defeating the efforts of the discourse that would have ít express a meaning.
The imprint of the thing, the naked identity of its alterity in place of its imitation, the wordless, senseless materiality of the visíble instead of the figures of discourse - this is what is demanded by the contemporary celebration of the image or its nostalgic evocation: an immanent transcendence, a glorious essence of the image guaranteed by the very mode of its material production. Doubtless no one has expressed this view better than the Barthes or Camera Lucida, a work that ironically has become the bible of those who wish to think about photographic art, whereas it aims to show that photography is not an art. Against the dispersive muItiplicity of the operatíons of art and games of signification, Barthes wants to assert the immediate alterity of the image - that ís, in the strict sense, the alterity of the One. He wants to establish a direct relationship between the indexical nature of the photographic image and the material way it affects us: the punctum, the immediate pathetic effect that he contrasts with the studium, or the information transmitted by the photograph and the meanings it receives. The studium makes the photograph a material to be decoded and explained. The punctum immediately strikes us with the affective power of the that was: that i.e. the entity which was unquestionably in front of the aperture of the camera obscura, whose body has emitted radiation, captured and registered by the black chamber, which affects us here and now through the 'carnal medium' of light 'like the delayed rays of a star'.
It is unlikely that the author of Mythologies believed in the para-scientific phantasmagoria which makers photagraphy a direct emanation of the body displayed. It is more plausible that this myth served to expiate the sin of the former mythologist: the sin of having wished to strip the visible world of its glories, of having transformed its spectacles and pleasures into a great web of symptoms and a seedy exchange of signs. The semiologist repents having spent much of his life saying: Look out! What you are taking for visible self-evidence is in fact an encoded message whereby a society ar authority legitimates itself by naturalizing itself, by rooting itself in the obviousness of the visible. He bends the stick in the other direction by valorizing, under the title of punctum, the utter self-evidence of the photograph, consigning the decoding of messages to the platitude of the studium.
But the semiologist who read the encoded message of images and the theoretician of the punctum of the wordless image base themselves on the same principIe: a principle of reversible equivalence between the silence of images and what they say. The former demonstrated that the image was in fact a vehicle for a silent discourse which he endeavoured to translate into sentences. The latter tells us that the image speaks to us precisely when it is silent, when it no longer transmits any message to us. Both conceive the image as speech which holds its tongue. The former made its sílence speak; the latter makes this silence the abolition of all chatter. But both play on the same inter-convertibility between two potentialities of the image: the image as raw, material presence and the image as discourse encoding a history.
Jacques Rancière/The Future of the Image/Part 1: The Future of the Image