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The Role of Godard


In cinema Godard currently represents formal pseudofreedom and the pseudocritique of manners and values — the two inseparable manifestations of all fake, coopted modern art. Everyone does everything to present him as a misunderstood and unappreciated artist, shockingly audacious and unjustly despised; and everyone praises him, from Elle magazine to Aragon-the-Senile.(1) Despite the absence of any real critiques of Godard, we see developing a sort of analogy to the famous theory of the increase of resistances in socialist regimes: the more Godard is hailed as a brilliant leader of modern art, the more people rush to his defense against incredible plots. Repetitions of the same clumsy stupidities in his films are automatically seen as breathtaking innovations. They are beyond any attempt at explanation; his admirers consume them as confusedly and arbitrarily as Godard produced them, because they recognize in them the consistent expression of a subjectivity. This is true, but it is a subjectivity on the level of a concierge educated by the mass media. Godard’s “critiques” never go beyond the innocuous humor typical of nightclub comedians or Mad magazine. His flaunted culture is largely the same as that of his audience, which has read exactly the same pages in the same drugstore paperbacks. The two most famous lines from the most read poem of the most overrated Spanish poet (“Terrible five o’clock in the afternoon — the blood, I don’t want to see it” in Pierrot-le-Fou) — this is the key to Godard’s method. The most famous renegade of modern art, Aragon, in Les Lettres Françaises (9 September 1965), has rendered an homage to his younger colleague which, coming from such an expert, is perfectly fitting: “Art today is Jean-Luc Godard . . . of a superhuman beauty . . . of a constantly sublime beauty. . . . There is no precedent to Godard except Lautréamont. . . . This child of genius.” Even the most naïve can scarcely be taken in after such a testimonial from such a source.

Godard is a Swiss from Lausanne who envied the chic of the Swiss of Geneva, and then the chic of the Champs-Elysées, and his successful ascent up from the provinces is most exemplary at a time when the system is striving to usher so many “culturally deprived” people into a respectful consumption of culture — even “avant-garde” culture if nothing else will do. We are not referring here to the ultimately conformist exploitation of any art that professes to be innovative and critical. We are pointing out Godard’s directly conformist use of film.

To be sure, films, like songs, have intrinsic powers of conditioning the spectator: beauties, if you will, that are at the disposition of those who presently have the possibility of expressing themselves in that medium. Up to a point such people may make a relatively clever use of those powers. But it is a sign of the general conditions of our time that their cleverness is so limited, and that the extent of their ties with the dominant ways of life quickly reveals the disappointing limits of their enterprises. Godard is to film what Lefebvre or Morin is to social critique: each possesses the appearance of a certain freedom in style or subject matter (in Godard’s case, a slightly free manner in comparison with the stale formulas of cinematic narration). But they have taken this very freedom from elsewhere: from what they have been able to grasp of the advanced experiences of the era. They are the Club Med of modern thought (see in this issue “The Packaging of ‘Free Time’ ”). They make use of a caricature of freedom, as marketable junk, in place of the authentic. This is done on all terrains, including that of formal artistic freedom of expression, which is merely one sector of the general problem of pseudocommunication. Godard’s “critical” art and his admiring art critics all work to conceal the present problems of a critique of art — the real experience, in the SI’s phrase, of a “communication containing its own critique.” In the final analysis the present function of Godardism is to forestall a situationist use of the cinema.

Aragon has for some time been developing his theory of the collage in all modern art up to Godard. This is nothing other than an attempt to interpret détournement in such a way as to bring about its cooption by the dominant culture. Laying the foundations for a Togliattist variant of French Stalinism, Garaudy and Aragon are setting up a “completely open” artistic modernism, just as they are moving “from anathema to dialogue” with the priests. Godard could become their artistic Teilhardism.(2) In fact the collage, made famous by cubism during the dissolution of plastic art, is only a particular case (a destructive moment) of détournement: it is displacement, the infidelity of the element. Détournement, originally formulated by Lautréamont, is a return to a superior fidelity of the element. In all cases, détournement is dominated by the dialectical devaluing-revaluing of the element within the development of a unifying meaning. But the collage of the merely devalued element has been widely used, well before being constituted as a Pop Art doctrine, in the modernist snobbism of the displaced object (making a spice bottle out of a chemistry flask, etc.).

This acceptance of devaluation is now being extended to a method of combining neutral and indefinitely interchangeable elements. Godard is a particularly boring example of such a use without negation, without affirmation, and without quality.




1. Aragon-the-Senile: popular designation for Louis Aragon after he became a Stalinist. During his earlier surrealist days he had once made a contemptuous reference to “Moscow-the-Senile.”

2. artistic Teilhardism: i.e. a modernist artistic-Stalinist synthesis, by analogy to the modernist scientific-Catholic synthesis of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

“Le rôle de Godard” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #10 (Paris, March 1966). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

For other SI articles on Godard, see For a Revolutionary Judgment of Art and Cinema and Revolution. See also the new section at this website: Guy Debord’s Films.

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