Panto Rancière

The twin towers have been so often represented that it is barely possible to see them now for the fug and smoke. In a certain sense, and for some critics, the question of representation collapsed for Cultural Studies on that day in September, 2001. Of course everything has already been said about it, and nothing heard. The towers are silent, the lives erased then, and the many more lost since (and the billions in war credits) are also verbosely inarticulate.

In his book Film Fables, Jacques Rancière offers the intriguing suggestion that documentary fiction ‘invents new intrigues with historical documents’. It ‘joins and disjoins – in the relationship between story and character, shot and sequence – the powers of the visible, of speech, and of movement’ (Rancière 2001/2006:18). Rancière is talking of Chris Marker’s film The Last Bolshevik and Goddard’s ‘Maoist theatricalization of Marxism’ in the pop age. These fictions using historical documents and making pointed reference to political struggles and current events (the collapse of Soviet power in the USSR; the cultural revolution in France) are glossed by Rancière as an indication that laments about contemporary commercial cinema or mass television as the death of great art, or even over the impossibility of cinema after Auschwitz, are premature. Not just a ‘machine for information and advertisement’ (Rancière 2001/2006:19), Rancière has a more nuanced, even Adorno-esque critique (and I do not mean the Adorno as rendered too simply as an elite critic of mass culture, but the Adorno that wrote of the two torn halves of a bourgeois culture, ripped asunder by industrialization, and which cannot, perhaps should not, be repaired – see Hutnyk 2000, chapter 1). Rancière writes:

“cinema arrives as if expressly designed to thwart a simple technology of artistic modernity, to counter art’s aesthetic autonomy with its old submission to the representative regime. We must not map this process of thwarting onto the opposition between the principles of art and those of popular entertainment subject to the industrialization of leisure and the pleasures of the masses. The art of the aesthetic age abolishes all these borders because it makes art of everything” (Rancière 2001/2006:10).


Although there is no reference here to Wiesengrund, nor even to the notion of real subsumption, there are reasons to consider the predicament of the political fable here as the question Adorno brought into Marxism, in however European a way [Euro-Marxism] and consider the possibility that the question of art remains a ground of struggle for representation and politics in the widest sense. Adorno’s sentence about the ‘secret omnipresence of resistance’ that I have so often quoted, seems apt yet again here as I try to bring forward the discussion of cinema to include not just the staples that reach from Eisenstein’s montage through to Marker or Godard, but also the much more prosaic art of the pop promo and the documentary television moments of the period immediately after Rancière wrote his book. Has representation collapsed, or is there a secret resistance to be revealed in the silence of the images of which we see and hear so much? The book “Pantomime Terror” will be an attempt to work with and through these scenes towards something more than the melodrama or melancholy that Rancière diagnoses as innocence become guilty sacred mission (Rancière 2001/2006:186). In a brilliant moment he recognizes that it is what he calls the burlesque body – and what I will call pantomime – that provides us with a ‘dramaturgic machine’ for cutting ‘the link between cause and effect, action and reaction’ by throwing ‘the elements of the moving image into contradiction’ (Rancière 2001/2006:12). It is this secret contradiction that we need to see at work.

The terror for me is this delinking cause and effect. That the image becomes mute, that we become blind, is a problem. These are the terms used by Buck-Morss and Žižek in books that address the events of 2001, and it was the constant refrain of former British Prime Minister Blair in defending British foreign policy in the wake of the July 7 2005 tube and bus bombings in London.

More detail will be needed on this mutation and blindness of representation, but is it enough to note that in his 2008 book Violence Žižek calls terrorist attacks and suicide bombings a ‘counter violence’ that is a ‘blind passage a l’acte’ and an ‘implicit admission of impotence’ (Žižek 2008:69) and Buck-Morss, in her book Thinking Past Terror, offers ‘the destruction of September 11 was a mute act. The attackers perished without making demands … They left no note behind … A mute act’ (Buck-Morss 2003:23). It should be said she qualifies this ‘Or did they?’ but the choice of an absent verbal – mute – message is something we should return to, listen closely to, consider again, and not just with our eyes scanning for evidence, but ears as well. In a similar tone, we might pass over the curiosity that Žižek chooses the infirmities of blindness and impotence to characterize the terrorist suicide bomber, as if the twin towers indicated a scene of masturbation (too much and you lose your sight) and castration (impotence, symbolic castration of the towers, mummy daddy, the old psychoanalytic staples are invoked). More details to be added here on the symptomatic eventuality that has to be pathologized via fables and pantomime in order to be dismissed.

More to come…