Cinepoetry: Imaginary Cinemas in French Poetry

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In 1936, Georges Hugnet published a book of poems titled La Hampe de l’imaginaire, after having written the scenario of the first film to be deemed surrealist, La Perle (France, 1929, dir. H. D’Ursel). It is Sartre’s 1940 study, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of Imagination, that first marked a philosophical difference between the imagination and the imaginary, considered its “noematic correlate,” its conceptual structure in Husserlian language. 

Cinepoetry: Imaginary Cinemas in French Poetry

De Christophe Wall-Romana

In 1936, Georges Hugnet published a book of poems titled La Hampe de l’imaginaire, after having written the scenario of the first film to be deemed surrealist, La Perle (France, 1929, dir. H. D’Ursel). It is Sartre’s 1940 study, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of Imagination, that first marked a philosophical difference between the imagination and the imaginary, considered its “noematic correlate,” its conceptual structure in Husserlian language. Sartre follows Husserl in denying that the imagination is a container of either percepts or images, agreeing that it is rather a process, indeed intentionality itself. He insists that in conditioning the purest act of consciousness imagining is equal to freedom: “For a consciousness to be capable of imagining…it needs to be free.”⁸²

Sartre accomplishes several things at once: he pushes aside the romantic imagination of poetry, relegates the imaginary to the structural sphere of cognitive functions, and bestows an intentional and existential primacy to imagining as the essence of free consciousness. Yet greater scrutiny reveals his central argument to rest on an anticinematic stance—under the influence of Bergson. His thesis is that consciousness as an imagining flow may be either real (via percepts or percept-related concepts within duration) or unreal (as an imagining flow of representations removed from duration), but that it is free only when real. Hence Bergsonian duration alone vouchsafes freedom. The imagining flow of the dream presents him with an antinomy, since it must be deemed real even though the dreamer is not free. He resolves it by insisting that a dream is not similar to how “the projection of a film shot faster gives us the impression of ‘slow-motion,’”⁸³ since in that case there would a secondary duration. Instead, he writes, the dream “is constituted by a few truncated scenes which, I imagine, form a coherent whole,”⁸⁴ adding that the illusion of continuity proceeds entirely from “belief.” Hence the dream is a falsified montage, an un-free imagining held together by a further positing of (false) consciousness, rather than corresponding to a second duration compressed or distended, which could still qualify as possibly free. Rather symptomatically cinema is called upon on both sides of an opposition meant to define consciousness as the imaginary of real duration. In another passage, Sartre must gauge “whether kinesthetic sensations play an essential role in the constitution of the image,”⁸⁵ because if the body codetermines imagining flows, consciousness would not be the transparent “nothingness” that alone makes it free. His mental experiment consists of tracing “a figure 8” with his index finger while “his eyes are closed,” to find out whether he perceives it as a sensorimotor experience or only an imaginary thing. “What comes to my consciousness,” he observes, “is the trajectory of movement as a form in process…as do the letters in movie advertising taking shape by themselves on the screen” (comme le font ces lettres des réclames cinématographiques qui se forment elles-mêmes sur l’écran).⁸⁶ On this basis he concludes in quasi-Kantian terms that “it is naturally the unity of consciousness that makes the unity of the image.”⁸⁷ Earlier, Sartre made a similar point when consciousness was couched as the agency animating photographic images: “We are conscious, in a way, that we animate the photo, to lend it its life, in order to make it into an image.”⁸⁸ Sartre’s photographic and filmic illustrations, we see, are far from peripheral. Ultimately, his entire argument comes to revolve around the question of the cinema effect. As perception scholars have shown, retinal persistence, although a real phenomenon, was wrongly thought to be the optical explanation for cinematic perception, especially among French film theoreticians all the way to George Sadoul and André Bazin.⁸⁹ As early as 1912, Max Wertheimer had decisively demonstrated that it was rather due to the “phi-effect,” the synthesis of stroboscopic positions of an object that our brain (not our eye) reads as fluid motion. In denying that the imaginary can produce a true imagining flow, Sartre alludes to Roget’s stroboscopic illusion of seeing a wheel move opposite to its true motion: “It has happened to me that, annoyed to see a luminous wheel [roue lumineuse] turning clockwise, I wanted to make it turn in reverse without succeeding.”⁹⁰ This wheel on film—for what else is a “luminous wheel”?—robs Sartre of his free consciousness, his knowing that it ain’t so.⁹¹ He resorts to bad faith as an explanation: it must be I who, somehow, render myself incapable of seeing the wheel’s true movement. The same goes for retinal persistence: “The movements of this violet spot, that stays in my eyes after I looked at a light bulb” must be willed since they result from “the willed movements of my ocular globes.”⁹² So we must ask why Sartre is so eager to rid consciousness of stroboscopic perception and retinal persistence, if not for the reason that cinema resembles—I even would say, exemplifies—what the imaginary as pure consciousness does for Sartre? In order to protect his fundamental assertion that consciousness is a flow that takes up then cancels out (anéantissement)⁹³ imaginary contents, thereby remaining empty and free, Sartre paradoxically alludes directly to Wertheimer’s phi-effect. He writes, “Already the works of Koehler, Wertheimer and Koffka allow us to explain, by the persistence of formal structures through our positional variations, certain anomalous constants in perception.”⁹⁴ Hence Sartre in the end dismisses retinal persistence (which he takes to be the cinema effect) by invoking the phi-effect (which he does not know to be the cinema effect), in order to preserve the free imagining flow of consciousness. Sartre’s position that there are no images in consciousness, only intended objects, and that consciousness alone links imaginary contents together (including to produce the illusion of movement), sides with Bergson’s condemnation of cinema as a false synthesis of consciousness. But he defines consciousness through the very processes that cinema best instantiates: the agency of the visual sense of motion (retinal persistence and the phi-effect), the editing of imaginary visual contents (dreams), even the trickster of stroboscopic illusions. In the end, the best definition of consciousness as free imaginary, which cannot be theorized without cinema, might be expressed as: a purely immaterial camera. Critics have recently pointed out that Sartre’s early work on the cinema from 1925 to 1931, where he tried to reconcile French impressionist film theory (dominated by Epstein’s thought) with Bergson, was a prototype for his later articulation of the “for-itself” of consciousness. In his 1925 “Apologie pour le cinéma,” for instance, he writes, “film is itself a consciousness, because it is an indivisible flux.”⁹⁵ Unbeknownst to Sartre, it would seem that his early sense of cinema as Bergsonian duration had carried into his conception of consciousness as the imaginary. It then appears that the emergence of the imaginary as a theoretical construct is haunted by its being unwittingly but deeply embedded in the cinema apparatus. The thought of Gaston Bachelard, whose work on poetics has shaped the Geneva School of criticism and continues to influence much poetic theory to this day, shares the same predicament. In 1943, he published his key work, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. It focuses on imagining flows as the thrust of the poetic image: “The fundamental term corresponding to imagination is not image, but imaginary [l’imaginaire]. The value of an image can be measured by the reach of its imaginary aura [aura imaginaire]. Thanks to the imaginary, imagination is essentially open, expansive.”⁹⁶ As in Baudelaire, the imaginary aura is synonymous with movement, albeit in a vitalistic vein: “We must systematically add to the study of a particular image the study of its mobility, its fecundity, its life.”⁹⁷ This vitalist stance, albeit distinct from that of his old enemy Bergson, explains why Bachelard must reject cinema from his imaginary. He posits that “as soon as images offer themselves in series, they designate a primary form of matter, a fundamental element.”⁹⁸ In other words, images in series are not related to cinematic perception. Offering no justification for this assertion, he does acknowledge that cinema is the target, since he adds that “this ‘drive’ [duction] caused by an intimacy with the real,” must be held distinct from “visual mobilism [which] remains purely cinematic.”⁹⁹ It is clear, nonetheless, that technology haunts Bachelard’s conception of poetic movement. When he writes, “Try hard as you might, only flight in dreams allows you, as a whole self, to become a moving object, aware of its own unity, experiencing complete and unified mobility from the inside out,”¹⁰⁰ it is meant to deny that haptic-kinesthetic technologies such as cinema offer such a unified sense of auto-mobility. Yet a footnote on the same page concedes that experiential fusion with machines are possible (he gives as example Saint-Exupéry and his airplane, and Marinetti and his automobile), and that they come close to “a synthesis of the moved and the moving” that is the hallmark of the poetic image. But Bachelard then resorts to a finer distinction, asserting that “the passenger cannot benefit from” the dynamic imagination because only the pilot is “at one with [faire corps avec] his machine.”¹⁰¹ Bachelard maintains cinema outside of the poetic imaginary not by rejecting technology altogether—like Bergson—but rather by suggesting that the mind and cinema can never fuse and be at one, like the poet’s mind and the poetic image, or the body and the airplane, because anything coming from cinema makes us spectators, that is, passengers rather than pilots. In spite of their differences, Sartre and Bachelard deny cinema any epistemological credit, yet they prove equally unable to theorize the imaginary without bringing back cinema as its sticky supplement.¹⁰² It is only after the rise of Filmologie studies after the Liberation that the cinematic imaginary finally received its dues.¹⁰³ Edgar Morin announced as much in the title of his path-breaking book: The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man. A transdisciplinary investigation of the phenomenology and sociology of cinema, the book finally tackled the obvious: “The psyche of the cinema not only elaborates our perception of the real, it also secretes the imaginary [l’imaginaire].…The cinema makes us understand not only theater, poetry, and music, but also the internal theater of the mind: dreams, imaginings, representations: this little cinema we have in our heads.”¹⁰⁴ Morin theorizes the reach of cinema into the imaginary by recognizing it as what Walter Ong later called a “technology of cognition” with regard to writing.¹⁰⁵ In many ways, Morin draws his inspiration directly from the cinema theory of the silent era, and chief among the filmmakers and theoreticians he mentions is Jean Epstein.¹⁰⁶ Morin’s keen analysis of the cinematic imaginary—and with it, the whole genealogy of the imaginary itself—was displaced by structuralism and poststructuralism’s turn to language. This demotion was famously effected by Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Jean-Pierre Richard’s phenomenological criticism of Mallarmé’s “imaginaire.”¹⁰⁷ At stake for Derrida was the philosophical underpinning of the so-called thematic criticism linked to the Geneva School, which modeled the imaginary, pace Bachelard, as a regulative-stylistic domain rooted in the deepest sensorial and biographical strata of the writer. For Derrida—and rightly so—such a model was rife with dubious presuppositions that predetermined the text from the outside, robbing it of ontological relevance, and depriving the act of reading of its potential as an event. The imaginary, he objected, smuggled back romantic and vitalist notions of genius, sensibility and soul under the mask of phenomenology, and the term was unredeemable. Notwithstanding, Dee Reynolds has cogently shown that, while the objections of Derrida to Richard’s romantic postulates hit the mark, his wholesale rejection of the imaginary overshoots it. For in dismissing the nontextual authorial imaginary, Derrida deprives his philosophy of any imaginary space, notably for the reader, even though the “imagining activity can be stimulated by the sensory characteristics of language itself,” she notes.¹⁰⁸ In other words, the famed materiality of the signifier that Derrida defends, tacitly implies a technical agency, a space, and an event that could be called imaginary. Derrida’s “Double séance” illustrates such a mode of imaginary experiencing on the part of the reader—Derrida himself. In fact, his reading of Mallarmé’s is fully in line with Mallarmé’s own poetics in which, Reynolds observes, “the imaginary dimension arises out of the medium.”¹⁰⁹ Derrida had legitimate polemical reasons for rejecting, in the name of the text, the imaginary as the last remnant of the authorial doctrine of the “work,” but this cannot be construed as a dismissal of imagining altogether. Chapter 1 will suggest that Derrida was in fact aware that what distinguished Mallarmé’s writings, that is, the novelty of Mallarmé’s conception that a text could be animated by its “spacing,” was directly connected to cinema. The imaginary, as distinct from the imagination, is haunted by cinema from its modern emergence in Villiers’s L’Ève future in 1886 to its partial dismissal through Derrida’s notion of spacing, or espacement, itself taken over from Mallarmé. Having shown the cinematic tenor of the notion of the imaginary, we now turn to the other pole of cinepoetry, that of the material field of graphic signifiers. The Cine-Graphic Field While the cinematic (and precinematic) imaginary pulled poetry toward a new performative, technological, and corporeal outside, it also had an opposite centripetal effect: it brought a new focus to the scene and materiality of writing, and to the spatial and visual dimensions of the page. As if through a reflex or refractive action, it made writing more aware of itself as a medium. In her 1995 study of literature as a visual practice, Anne-Marie Christin puzzles over the fact that only with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés did the modern Western literary tradition remember the visual aspect of writing, which other eras (the Middle Ages) and other cultures (Japan and China) had considered obvious. She asks, “Why has a revolution consisting only, in the end, of using the alphabet as a true form of writing, not as the recording of speech, occurred so late?”¹¹⁰ In other words, what caused a sudden break with the enduring rationalist view of the transparency of writing, and of language itself? We might find a broad answer in Rancière’s conception of the aesthetic regime of the arts previously mentioned. This new regime synonymous with modernity broke, he claims, with a previous “regime of mimesis” in place until the nineteenth century, according to which each art depended on its own medium-specific form of codified imitation. The new regime instead held that all art products share “an autonomous form of life,”¹¹¹ distinct from other products and practices. One consequence is that such epistemic connection between the arts greatly facilitated transfers and contaminations, that is, interart innovation such as cinepoetry, “because the identification of art no longer occurs via a division within ways of doing and making, but it is based on distinguishing a sensible mode of being specific to art products.”¹¹² This is also a useful way of explaining how a new visuality for writing arose in the late 1800s since it posits an epistemic difference with the ut pictura poesis tradition centered on early modern oppositions/transpositions between text and image, without falling into the Gesamtkunstwerk vanguard with its teleology of interart fusion. Moreover, Rancière considers that the aesthetic regime of the art proceeds largely from literature, indeed, from the new status of the word as decidedly but problematically material. He asserts that “[modern] literature has been constructed as a tension between two opposing rationalities: a logic of disincorporation and dissolution, whose result is that words no longer have any guarantee, and a hermeneutic logic that aims at establishing a new body for writing.”¹¹³ On the one hand, then, literature “lives only by the separation of words in relation to any body that might incarnate their power,” while on the other hand, “the written word is like a silent painting that retains on its body the movements that animate the logos.”¹¹⁴ Literary language’s pull toward utter abstraction—“la parole muette” (mute speech)—comes with a counterthrust toward utter concretion—“la chair des mots” (the flesh of words). Rancière is well aware that this double movement takes place around the turn of the century when cinema presents itself as a new intermedium between words and things. Yet he is intent in suppressing any agency to technology. In his subsequent book on film, he even takes Jean Epstein as his primary target, strenuously dismissing altogether the cinema apparatus and cinema as art because “it is both the art of the afterward, that emerges from the romantic de-figuration of stories, and the art that returns the art of de-figuration to classical imitation.”¹¹⁵ Against cinema’s rear-guard nostalgia, Rancière deploys what he calls “the sentence-image,” which he defines thus: “By [sentence-image] I understand something different from the combination of a verbal and a visual form. The power of the sentence-image can be expressed in sentences from a novel, but also in forms of theatrical representation or cinematic montage or the relationship between the said and unsaid in a photograph.”¹¹⁶ It is not the place here to gauge Rancière’s omnibus proposal. My point here is only that Rancière clearly wrestles with Christin’s question about the sudden birth of modern visual poetry in 1897 by seeing it as a result of wide epistemic changes about writing and visibility from the mid-nineteenth century onward—changes that directly touch upon cinema as both medium and art.

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