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“Now I understand the thought process.

It means substituting an effort of imagination

for an examination of real objects.

Saying something, meaning something—yes.

Perhaps they’re expressions of the muscular and nervous systems.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, 2 or 3 Things That I Know about Her (1966)

Here is a somewhat elliptical formulation of the relationship between seeing, imagining, and thinking.It might be approached as a three-part story.

First we focus on the examination of real objects, of which there is an endless supply, but that does not really allow us to engage meaningfully with the world. So with the help of the imagination we project our thoughts outward, trying to connect with other people and other places. But no matter how much we wish that imagination could provide access to everything and everyone, we rediscover that thinking always involves articulation, and the act of articulating is always an “expression” of our own embodiment. By a circuitous route, the effort to transcend the world of objects through subjective projection lands us back in the world where we started, but now everything has changed. The space of seeing and thinking no longer appears to be neatly divided between “in here” or “out there.” The distinction between real objects and imaginary projections has become dynamic. The psychic or spiritual urge to think has been recoupled with somatic impulses. This is the existential zero degree where cinema becomes possible and necessary.

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These remarks on “the thought process” are spoken by a character (played by Marina Vlady) who has a very specific question: how can a European think about a Vietnamese? The question is both absolutely universal (how can anyone think of anyone else?) and absolutely singular (how can she, at a particular place and time, think about someone in Vietnam?). Although she must use her imagination, she wants to think about the reality of Vietnam. Likewise, although she can depend only on her muscles and nerves, she wants to be able to speak meaningfully about the world beyond her.

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As we watch the film, her questions becomes ours. How can she think of a Vietnamese person? How can we think of her? How can her thoughts become ours? Here Godard poses this cluster of questions with minimal ingredients: a few words, a few images, and a few sounds. For a moment it might seem that posing the question was tantamount to solving it. Yet this moment of recognition (“now I understand…”) is only the beginning.

Learning how to see has led us to a new task: learning how to think.

Or rather, we are learning that these tasks are the same.

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