“There is no image, there are only images.

And there is a certain form of assembling images:

as soon as there are two, there are three. […]

There is no image, there are only relations of images.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, interview, 1995

I made this video in a workshop. It is a first attempt to reflect on the Godard quotation above. The video is composed of three parts: 1) a recitation of a lullaby I heard from my mother; 2) a presentation of Godard’s quote, joined with a sequence of four images; 3) a lengthy quotation from Bertolt Brecht’s Me-ti / Book of Twists and Turns, joined with a series of drawings by J.M.W. Turner.

1. Godard’s theoretical point is outlined by the lullaby that opens the video:

I see the moon, the moon sees me

Under the shade of the old oak tree

Please let the light that shines on me

Shine on the one I love

The lullaby neatly summarizes the basic dynamics of seeing:

I see the moon” —first image (subject/object)

the moon sees me”— second image (reversed subject/object)

As soon as there is one, there are already two. Seeing necessarily involves at least the possibility of reciprocity: what you are seeing can always somehow “look back” at you. (The commentary surrounding this simple fact is voluminous.) As for the lullaby, it must be noted in passing that even the initial reciprocity is not perfect: how can the moon see me when I’m “under the shade of the old oak tree”? Godard pushes us further: as soon as there are two, there are three. That is to say, as soon as seeing is doubled, it can be tripled (and quadrupled…) in a potentially endless looping and relaying of images.

Sometimes this opening-up of reciprocity is experienced as a terrible, even paranoid, sense of exposure and disorientation. The lullaby, however, turns this problem into a wish:

Please let the light that shines on me, shine on the one I love.”

It might be said that all images can serve as a kind of lullaby, connecting us with distant loved ones who are otherwise unseen.

2.  Expressed in theoretical terms, Godard’s full statement might seem straightforward enough. He is saying that there is no such thing as “the image” in isolation—instead there are always various images. But this lesson will be hard to understand if we persist in thinking of images as discrete objects, modelling the unruly multiplicity of visuality upon the ideal of stable, unified, self-sufficient units. (The famous “subject/object binary” is only one version of this kind of thinking.) Try as we might, the impulse to tame the multiplicity and relationality of images is remarkably stubborn. We can see this impulse at work in the fact that intensive readings of individual paintings and the photographs remain the most highly prized instances of discourse on “the image.” Likewise, more complex artifacts (like movies or videos) are typically analyzed by breaking them down into key frames and privileged moments.

So Godard’s remark offers a quick and useful corrective to the monocular tendencies of visual thinking. The four images that unfold across this sequence demonstrate this argument in a rather simple way.

—The first photograph, by contemporary Belgian artist Sophie Nys, presents two (or three) images, accompanied by the hand of the artist herself.

—Then we see a sketch of two men setting up an experiment in perspective. It appears in a notebook of J.M.W. Turner, who copied it from an engraving by Albrecht Dürer. (The sketch thus both records and exemplifies the learning process of pre-digital artists.)

—The third image is Galileo’s famous drawing of the phases of the moon, celebrated in Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence as one of the greatest scientific images ever created. Through the light of the moon, Galileo’s drawing thus reflects back to the photograph by Nys, which has, however, already disappeared.

—The thematic and conceptual distances set up across these three images are apparently resolved in the fourth image: Turner’s drawing of two lovers in a park under the moon.

3. This aesthetic “resolution” is then challenged by the long quotation by Brecht. The impulse to turn the moon into an aesthetic object, even one thought to be ever-changing, is subjected to a dialectical inquiry. I won’t rehearse each of the twists and turns of Brecht’s text, which oscillates between hard-nosed materialism and affective vitalism, before concluding that we must take care of the words we use to tell the difference. The various drawings by Turner might be seen in the same terms, sometimes backing away into aesthetic splendour, other times presenting themselves as mere smudges and scratches of the artist’s instrument. In the end we might say: every drawing shows us a dead moon, even if the drawing itself is somehow alive.

One final note about the soundtrack of the video: buried deep in the mix is some “found audio” material (street noises, footsteps, etc.). Why is it there? Besides the fact that it is just the sort of thing one often hears in Godard, it also serves to “ground” the whole exercise in a continuous, and Earthly, reality.

(Thanks to Kristin Colaneri for reciting the lullaby!)

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