la chinoise1

“It is necessary to confront vague ideas with clear images.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, La Chinoise (1967)

This is one of Godard’s most famous lines. It is painted on the wall of the Paris apartment where the militant students of La Chinoise carry out their summer reeducation program. In keeping with the tenor of the film, it sounds just like a Maoist slogan, but it is actually more radical than that.

It is a radically simple proposition. It opposes the long and tenacious metaphysical tradition that yearns for the ultimate clarity of ideas above and beyond the confusion of words and images. Ideas are supposed to be perfectible in ways that images and words are not, so that “vague ideas” could always be improved by clearer ideas, according to the principles of logic and the procedures of reason. In such a scheme, images remain perpetually inadequate because they are mired in sensuous particularity, while words are only a little better, useful only for labelling categories and pointing toward higher abstractions. Ideas alone provide true knowledge, once they have worked their way free from their visual and verbal trappings. Even for those who don’t believe in perfection, the hierarchy of clarity still rules: people often feel that they know something deep inside that is always better, always higher, than what can be shown or said.

Now, with a single line, Godard overturns that whole system. Few people will object to the demand to confront vagueness with clarity, but quite a few will object to the suggestion that images are better suited than ideas for the task. As the militant phrasing shows, it is not a matter of preference: ideas stand accused of being incorrigibly vague, which allows them to be used as instruments of a mystifying and dominating power. Images, by contrast, exercise a counter-power that can make things and thoughts clear.

The very notion of “clarity” is changed. It no longer designates the transparency or equivalence between ideas and things. Here “clarity” refers to the illumination of singularities, a greater or lesser degree of fullness and differentiation. A good image makes its particular matter clear: that’s all.

In other words, the slogan is saying: it is necessary to be a materialist. As long as we treat ideas and thoughts as higher, purer, and truer than whatever we can see, hear, say, or show, we submit ourselves to mystification and domination. In the terms of Paris in 1967: ideas stand on the side of ideology; images on that of science.

My teacher Fredric Jameson once said: as materialists, we don’t have ideas, we have words. When I first heard this, I felt a flash of embarrassment: saying that you don’t have ideas sounds like a terrible failure. Aren’t all thinkers supposed to “have ideas”? Isn’t that their job? But a moment later the embarrassment vanished. What a ridiculous pretense—to say you “have ideas” when all you ever have, all anyone ever has, are words!

Godard’s line works the same way. From a materialist perspective, words and images are equally opposed to the reign of ideas. Yet we should insist on the word “confront”: images confront ideas, they do not replace them (as the English subtitle has it).* One does not simply abolish the power of ideas by brandishing images instead; in fact, because the power of ideas is every bit as material as the power of images, the confrontation is recurrent, practical, and strategic, not categorical and absolute. The slogan proposes a dialectical method that must be practiced again and again. To restate the lesson in a more friendly way: whenever you face a vague idea, look for a clear image instead. Repeat as necessary.

***

Godard would return to this formula on another occasion. In 1979, after several trips to Mozambique to advise the government on setting up a television system, Godard published a remarkable “report” on the experience in Cahiers du cinéma, comprising photos, notes, and proposals. (This is the document that provided our first lesson, a page filled with the word “learn.”)

Here is a kind of prose poem from the same dossier:

The signal.

The traces.

Sickness, health, beauty.

Formation, formatting, information.

Memories.

What goes well and what goes badly.

How it goes well.

How it goes badly.

Auscultation and diagnosis.

Vague thoughts and clear images. 

(Cahiers #300, 85)

This is another radically simple text. It is like a protocol for materialist practice: these are the things that must be examined whenever we attempt to communicate with others. We have to check the technical and psychic conditions, the specific operations to be performed, and the criteria for deciding what works and what does not. In a few lines, Godard sketches the scientific and the therapeutic implications of the need for clear images. No beauty without sickness and health; no education (formation) or information without paying attention to the format; no listening to the body (auscultation) without diagnosis. The protocol reiterates the claim that images, far from being mere evidence, illustration or decoration, remain indispensable for every act of learning and knowing.

________________________

*For some reason, the current DVD version of La Chinoise renders the line as:

“We should replace vague ideas with clear images.”

But “We should replace” misses the impersonal imperative tone of the original, as well as the more dialectical connotations of the phrase “It is necessary to confront.”

Strangely, Jacques Rancière misquotes the line entirely in his essay on La Chinoise, rendering it as “Mettre des images claires sur des idées floues.” (La Fable cinématographique, 189). Measuring the consequences of this mistake would require a lengthy discussion, involving both linguistic and political dimensions.

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