Anachronism, Survival and Filmic Fireflies

Alison SmithGeorges Didi-Huberman and Film: The Politics of the Image (publ. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

Extract of Chapter 4 – ‘Georges Didi-Huberman and Film: The Politics of the Image’

By Alison Smith

In 2009, contemporary to the launching of the L’Oeil de l’histoire series, (Didi-Huberman) published a small, but very complex work which was to have an effect on his subsequent career and public profile quite disproportionate to its size. Survivance des lucioles (Survival of the fireflies, 2009) is a philosophical essay inspired (or perhaps more accurately triggered) by Giorgio Agamben’s then most recent publication II Regno e la gloria (The Kingdom and the Glory, 2009). Dissatisfied with Agamben’s apocalyptically pessimistic position, Didi-Huberman wrote a response which engaged with Agamben’s own referent, Pasolini, and with Didi-Huberman’s constant intellectual companion Walter Benjamin, in order to elaborate a theory of ‘firefly-resistance’ which might be effective and significant despite (or even because of) its evanescence. The idea proved inspiring well beyond the academic sphere; it gave Didi-Huberman a new audience, younger and more activist than in the past, and created new expectations in his readers and, it might be argued, responsibilities regarding the political charge of his own output… It also offered, in its epilogue, an interesting early case study in cinematic politics, using a contemporary example (Laura Waddington)

(…) In the final pages of the book, this virtual film is materialised in a real one, formally comparable, and yet fully connected to real resistances and dangers which must be urgently countered. This is Laura Waddington’s Border, a short film shot in 2002 outside the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais. Made over several months during which she filmed outside the camp at night and (due in part to the technical limitations of her equipment) in jerky slow motion, Waddington’s film constructs the world of the refugees as a drama of conflicting points and fields of light, which appear and disappear as her subjects make their way along the roads to attempt to embark for England, return unsuccessful, are confronted by the searchlights of the border police or by the glow of approaching dawn. This is a world that has no existence in daylight: unlike Sylvain George, another documentarist of the marginal world of the refugee camps around Calais whose work has drawn Didi-Huberman’s attention, Waddington elected not to live in the camp or to share her subjects’ domestic space. They in turn developed trust in her filmmaking partly because they are portrayed so anonymously and fleetingly. As Eva Kuhn observed, the film presents itself as ‘a representative filmic image – a type of sensory allegory – for the disturbing condition in which these semi-transparent, nocturnal shadow beings at the margins of collective consciousness have found themselves.’

Bearing this out through an approach from the opposite direction, Didi-Huberman sees the film precisely as the cinematic incarnation of the ‘sensory allegory’ he has been developing over the previous 133 pages of his book. For him, Waddington constructs her subjects as fireflies, transient points of light maintaining a flickering, elusive survival in the face of the projected beams of higher authority. The memorable early sequence (3.24-4.59) in which Waddington films a young man, at a great distance, dancing in the darkness with his blanket, seems so perfectly adapted to the metaphor that one could almost believe it deliberate. Concerning this figure, Didi-Huberman speaks of the young dancer’s ‘fundamental joy, his joy in spite of everything’ (SL, 135), the phrase deliberately recalling the images in spite of everything which Didi-Huberman had fought to retain as part of the collective memory of the Holocaust. The refugees – or rather ‘fugitives’ (SL,1-8) – are constantly assailed by searchlights (mentioned by Waddington in the voiceover, 11.46), by the headlights of passing vehicles, often hostile, and by the sudden flashes of blinding light in the episode of confrontation (16.04-19.59). None the less, they persist, they ‘keep arriving’, they set out into the darkness night after night, ‘moving off into the darkness towards a vaguely luminous horizon’ (SL, 138) which will prove – Waddington’s voice confirms – not to be a portal to paradise, even for those who make it across the Channel.

Kuhn offers some intriguing further reflections on the effects of these images, giving them a temporal dimension which it is possible to bring into dialogue – in some ways, however, into conflict – with Didi-Huberman’s ‘survivance’. For instance, she receives these disparate images, accompanied by a narrative voiceover which speaks of them in the past tense, as traces reaching the present across time, carried by a fragmentary and degradable memory: the technical impairment […] symbolizes the deforming processes of time – producing a type of weathered or mentally processed image’. This concept owes a debt to Agamben – cited in the article – and Didi-Huberman takes considerable pains in Survivance des Lucioles to distinguish the `survivance’ from the ‘trace’. The firefly-survivance is not a traumatic dream-image such as Kuhn describes, but a returning reality, not a ‘fantome’ but a true ‘revenant’; on the other hand, it is also, explicitly, an image. It feels increasingly important as Border’s creation retreats into the past, even as refugees continue to arrive at Europe’s borders, to consider the possibility that although the individuals it records are no longer in this place – and we have no access to what has become of them – their images retain, or regain, their resilient power and present relevance at each new viewing. Significantly, Kuhn locates an important factor in the film’s expressive force in its representation of the gestures, not only of the refugees but, even more importantly, of the uncertain observer working at the limit of her powers. ‘The camera movements remain visible as gestures, as actions that are not capable of catching up with their motif’. For Kuhn, the visible gesture represents the process of thought. For Didi-Huberman, steeped in the study of Aby Warburg, it already represents another figure of the ‘survivance’, one which will become increasingly important – and more and more cinematic – as he develops the concept through subsequent volumes of L’Oeil de l’histoire and beyond. The ability of cinema to reproduce and project gesture and movement, and potentially to share them with viewers through a kind of haptic dynamism, takes on increasing importance in his filmic thought. Although he never returns to Waddington’s film in this light, the concept offers a chance for the present-day viewer of Border to re-energise it, reading it not only as a document of past anger but as a prototype for future observation.

Waddington herself endorsed Didi-Huberman’s reading of her film fully and with enthusiasm, in a response to the piece which speaks eloquently to the force which this little book could impress on its readers. The article was requested by an Italian academic review, Engramma, which dedicated a whole issue to Survivance des Lucioles on the occasion of its publication in Italian, seeing in it ‘not so much a rare as a unique opportunity’ to address a number of philosophical questions while at the same time ‘subjecting the meaning of our action to interrogation’. Several of the contributors to Engramma (not by vocation necessarily an activist journal) ended their pieces with a call to put the principles of the book into action.`The rare light of fireflies recalls us to the commitment and the joy of cultivating, despite everything, an undistracted gaze on our times which is not paralysed by desperation’, the edition’s editor Monica Centanni noted in her own contribution; ‘gathering the traces of their momentary, ephemeral lights, we can, and maybe must, invent the design of a new constellation for our times’. Other contributors draw from the book the need to ‘make ourselves bearers of images, and therefore of dissent. Become fireflies, resist. For Anna Banfi, ‘the fireflies teach us […] that […] existence has meaning only if with action and action with thought.[…][T]hus we learn to become fireflies ourselves.’ As for Waddington, whose artistic practice is undoubtedly activist at least in some sense, she describes reading the book as ‘kind of a shock’, before supporting its key theory of the firefly as ‘a diagonal light in the dark … gleams of the will to bear witness and provide counter- information’ – in a poetic rather than a merely journalistic sense – with two anecdotes from her own experience illustrating how texts (including Survivance des Lucioles itself) can be received as messages of hope by people in difficulty.

The power of the firefly concept as an inspiration and metaphor for possible political action in an uncertain context became manifest very quickly. In fact, it could be said that Survivance des Lucioles interrupted, and perhaps lastingly deflected, the developing flow of Didi-Huberman’s oeuvre, by dint of the extraordinary success of its central metaphor. By 2012 it had been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German (an English translation from the University of Minnesota Press, finally appeared at the end of 2018, but is still not easily available even to specialist bookshops in the UK). Not only that, but it found its way out of academic debate into both artistic and activist language: it became a live concept and a form for French activism in the 2010s.

By 2011 the metaphor was being regularly adopted in reference to the Occupy movement. In that year, the filmmaker Sarah Mauriaucourt published on WordPress her ‘Luciola Project’, a mixed-media document which redeployed the metaphor (with its history) as the basis of Indignados’ ‘marches’ on Brussels and Athens in 2011. In 2013 Nicolas Truong, a journalist at Le Monde and frequent interlocutor of resistant intellectuals, transferred it to the theatre for the Festival d’Avignon in the form of a ‘Projet Luciole’; The environmental and political activist Corinne Morel Darleux paid explicit tribute to Didi-Huberman in adopting `Revoir les lucioles’ as the title of her blog, launched in 2015. Also in 2015, a group of academics, post-graduate students and university staff at an unnamed French university launched a publication, named ‘Lucioles’ again in explicit homage to Didi-Huberman’s book, to fight against the various dysfunctional elements of the university system. In a somewhat more official capacity, a ‘Forum des lucioles’ was launched to develop a community-based cultural policy in the city of Grenoble. Pasolini and Didi-Huberman are once again cited on the founding page, and this initiative has maintained its activity up to 2019. With the development of the Nuit Debout movement, the metaphor of lights in the night as a form of political activism could only become more ubiquitous and by May 2016 it had become so all-pervasive that Patrick Boucheron called it ‘our minimal political moral position’ and lamented that it was, perhaps, too facile: ‘How we like this idea, how consoling it is’. Boucheron argued that the elevation of small, ephemeral actions to the status of ideal political responses, while ‘necessary … to combat what I would call apocalyptic dandyism’ (22.00) risked a ridimensionamento of our political life … for a society which is more limited, less young’ (35.00). There is some foundation to this argument: the concept of the firefly as Didi-Huberman intended it is complex and not necessarily consoling, but, in the currency that it acquired, some of that complexity was, at times, lost, leaving a simple assertion of the viability of small-scale or self-consciously ephemeral movements irradiated with the poetic glow of Mediterranean hillsides. The metaphor perhaps attained its most powerful political form in its association with the activists and writers confronting the ongoing disaster of immigration policies at the borders of Europe — the area to which Didi-Huberman had led it with his concluding discussion of Waddington’s film. Notable contributions to sustaining and expanding this association in connection with Didi-Huberman’s work are Vincent Dieutre’s powerful essay-film Orlando ferito/Roland blesse (2013), to which Didi-Huberman contributed and in which he appeared (the film will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter), and, more recently and more intensively, Patrick Chamoiseau’s short, passionate book Freres migrants, which ends with the following call to action and solidarity: ‘May the happiness of all flicker in the effort and the grace of each one of us, until it draws a world where that which tips and pours over the borders is transformed on the spot, on both sides of the walls and all the fences, into a hundred times a hundred times a hundred million fireflies! – just one to maintain hope within reach of everyone, the rest to guarantee the volume of this beauty against all contrary forces’. Chamoiseau’s book opens with quotations from Pasolini and Didi-Huberman, but also from Saint-Exupery and Aime Cesaire (whose poem ‘Vertu des lucioles’, published in 1994, startlingly prefigures Didi-Huberman’s defence of their uncertain flickerings which succeed in not ‘sinking into the inept chatter of the surrounding marsh). Associating the `lucioles’, the sparks of hope, primarily with the migrants themselves – as Waddington did – rather than with activism per se, Chamoiseau relaunches the figure in another political setting, undeniably active, significant and challenging, and ties it closely, and with immediate political fire, to other aspects of Didi-Huberman’s work.

In following the destiny of the firefly image we have moved some way from Didi-Huberman’s concern with cinema, and arguably even further from the subject of this chapter, the survivance, with its temporal warps and curves, which was an essential and integral part of the original concept which Didi-Huberman elaborates in Survivance des Lucioles. Although implicit in the poetic force of the metaphor, anachronism does not necessarily feature prominently among the quasi-activist `fireflies’ of the 2010s (Dieutre’s film is, as we shall see, an exception). For Didi-Huberman, however, it remained absolutely essential, and its importance increases as Didi-Huberman seeks in his work of the 2010s – most of L’Oeil de l’histoire, and even more in his subsequent project, Soulevements – to reconcile his complex philosophical research projects with the possibility of speaking, poetically and politically, to a now attentive non-academic audience.

“Georges Didi-Huberman and Film: The Politics of the Image” by Alison Smith (publ. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020)