Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reply to C.T.

Here are two replies to C.T.'s excellent post on "Word and Image in Vivre Sa Vie." These comments also allow me to nuance some of the arguments I made in class last night.

(1) Having reviewed the position of the philosopher Brice Parain (whom Nana meets in a cafĂ© in Vivre sa vie), I don't think I made it clear how his views can be squared with existentialism. His arguments can be understood as existential because he both acknowledges the constraint or limitation of language as well as the necessity of making sense, of communicating, of forging relations, through or within language. We cannot simply or passively accept the norms that serve as the basis of language, but neither can we believe it possible to wholly overcome them either; rather, we have to discover a usage of language that allows us to express our limited but necessary freedom. Moreover, Parain's insistence on silence – as a respite from language – can be understood as akin to Godard's examination of the image/word conflict in his film. In this way, Godard's film can be seen as an attempt to put into practice not only these moments of solitude or silence (and the withdrawal of meaning or sense) but also a modified – personalized – use of language or grammar.

(2) Despite the placement of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc on the side of image and on the side of silence (it being a silent film), Carl Dreyer's great 1928 work is itself a complex examination of the relation between words and images. Here, I refer specifically to the way the filmmaker places words (logos) on the side of patriarchy or Law, becoming the means whereby the tribunal comes to condemn Joan of Arc and consign her body to the pyre. Dreyer uses historical documents to accurately replicate the actual words used at Joan's trial and he juxtaposes these words, used as intertitles, with a series of revelatory close-ups (but revelatory of what, exactly?). This reminds us that Godard too doesn't simply forego words or language and in the name of a silent image. Rather, he will increasingly foreground their relation, showing us – among other things – how words, in cinema, can become images (and, in the process, lose their fixed sense). 



  1. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between existentialism, authenticity and language. According the philosopher Brice Parain, language is constraining, however it is necessary for communication, expression, etc. Similarly, in existentialism, one is limited by social constraints, yet one should act authentically by breaking free of those social constraints. However, how can one ever know that one is acting authentically? Is going against the norms of society, enough to ensure authenticity? Obviously not., but isn’t’ it often thought of in that way? Even those ideas and ways of living that contradict the moral and social values of society usually are result of a belief system that one has been introduced to and has made a choice to adapt as one’s own. A possible solution to this question is that each individual should make sense of the world for themselves by reflecting and acting accordingly. But how often is one involved in truly original thought or action. Usually, we are choosing between existing ways of being in the world, just as we are putting together words to form a sentence. How can we know whether we are choosing authentically and is it even possible to do so?

  2. Dori,
    I don't know that its necessary to conclude in a general way that society is always a form of constraint and hence authenticity requires that one break free from it. It seems more relevant to emphasize the point that existentialism requires individual responses to particular circumstances, and that these responses carry the weight of decision (or, following Nietzsche, the weight of the Eternal Return). More than this, that such decisions require continuous vigilance and effort. That's why it's existential: it involves one's existence and the way one chooses to understand, and live, it – and not just at this moment but at every moment of one's life.