“Try to see something.

Try to imagine something.

In the first case, you can say: look at that.

In the second you say: close your eyes.”

-Jean-Luc Godard, Notre Musique

So far we have tracked how Godard defines seeing by comparing it to reading, writing, and speaking. In each instance, he wants to distinguish what is specific about seeing, understood as a way of knowing and acting in the world. It is not a matter of entirely disentangling the act of seeing from the uses of language, but rather of demarcating their respective domains and powers.

The act of seeing turns out to be complicated and impure. It requires a lot of physiological and cognitive traffic, going by many different names: impressions, expressions, perceptions, affections, recognitions, articulations, and so on. Not only eyes and hands but various mental faculties, body parts, and technical prostheses are involved from the start. And in the midst of all these comings and goings are those things we call images, which are neither produced nor exhausted by the act of seeing itself.

In other words: we do not see simply, and we do not simply see.

Now Godard is asking us to consider the difference between the act of seeing and the act of imagining. We tend to think that they are more alike than different, where seeing would be directed outward, toward material images, and imagining would be directed inward, toward mental images. Both require effort and guidance, that is to say, willpower and thought. Each may be more or less attentive to detail, and more or less “focused” by motives and desires. In neither case is there any guarantee of success: we do not always see what we are asked to see, nor imagine what we try to imagine. Above all, seeing and imagining are supposed to have a common anchor or pivot: our own selves, our minds and bodies. At any given moment we are supposed to be able to tell the difference between them.

Yet the very idea that we cannot always tell the difference has provoked a series of philosophical scandals for more than two thousand years. How can people ever determine the boundaries of reality or agree upon the truth if anybody can just, you know, make shit up? Imagination seems untethered to anything outside of us, nor regulated by anything inside of us: it does not depend on whether our perceptions are reliable or whether our beliefs are justified. It is perpetually unruly.

A major strand of the tradition has responded to this problem by trying to put imagination in its place, subduing it with the tools of reason. At best, imagination would be a childish pastime; at worst, as a kind of temporary insanity. Reason teaches us not to dally with imagination for too long, to come back to real evidence and true ideas.

Yet philosophers have also been tempted to embrace imagination as an indispensable virtue or basic ability, irreducible to any other kind of knowledge.

—For the philosophy of art, imagination is a fundamental creative force. Whether it is attributed to a god or to humans, it is the source of all beauty in the world. Thus imagination becomes the most powerful faculty of all, breaking through every sensory barrier and rational restraint. What we envision when we close our eyes would always be more true, more powerful than anything we can see when they are open. This attitude reaches its first peak in the Fifth Ennead of Plotinus, where the vision of beauty must be heightened within us as a spiritual truth, allowing us to dismiss the merely visible forms of beauty as inferior.

—For the philosophy of mind, imagination becomes a wild card for cognition as soon as it leaves sensory inputs behind. Wittgenstein, in the process of laying down his rules for philosophical language games, wanted to draw a sharp distinction between the process of understanding a sentence and being able to imagine something. Without making such a distinction, we would be unable to tell the difference between making sense of an idea and dreaming up an image. Therefore the rule must be: what we can imagine, in the sense of “visualizing” or “picturing,” has nothing to do with the work of conceptual understanding. Tweaking this point, Colin McGinn has argued that we do not need to dismiss imagination entirely, as long as we understand it as a matter of “entertaining a possibility.” In the process of linguistic understanding, then, imagination supplements conventional competence with “an ability to envisage possibilities by means of constructing novel combinations of objects and properties.” This leads to a simple equation: “understanding is memory plus imagination.” [Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning, 148] In this approach, it is the task of philosophy to supply the verbal distinctions necessary to ensure that imagination nourishes, but does not disrupt, the field of meaning.

—For a philosophy of existence, imagination poses the problem of non-existence. We imagine only what is not there, and if we take this point far enough, imagination can begin to look like a wholesale refusal of existence. For Sartre, this “negative” element characterizes the imaginary itself: “To posit an image is therefore to hold the real at a distance, to be freed from it, in a word, to deny it.” But this denial should not be understood as nihilism. In fact, imagination serves as practice in the exercise of freedom: “For consciousness to be able to imagine, it must be able to escape the world by its very nature, it must be able to stand back from the world by its own efforts.” [The Imaginary, 183-4] Yes, imagination uproots us from the ordinary understanding that is bound up with sensory perception: that is precisely how it allows us to take a free and creative approach to our circumstances.

We might summarize all of these discussions with a simple rule: in order to see, you must be able to close your eyes. In order to imagine, you must be able to open them again.

There is a technological analogy at work, too: both the film camera and the projector function by opening and closing a shudder, either to expose the film or shoot light through it. In cinema, every illuminated image is followed by a black screen of the same duration, each pair of frames occurring (at the standard rate) twenty-four times a second. What happens in our eyes and our brains during those black moments? Alexander Kluge suggests that we see two films, “one made by the brain itself out of darkness, and one in light and color, reported by the eyes.” [Cinema Stories, 12] Video, of course, does not work this way: we are faced instead with incessant streaming light. Perhaps it is becoming harder for us to close our eyes.

Godard does not need any technological explanations. For him the alternation of seeing and imagining has nothing mechanical about it. The act of seeing illuminates the uncertainties of reality—about which we must nevertheless be as clear as possible—while the work of imagination creates certainties of a different order, capable of orienting the way we live. Seeing is aligned with the vagaries of observation, and imagination with the withdrawal into thought. In cinema this play of light and dark can be sculpted into the most extraordinary movements: “our music,” he calls it, notre musique.