Arc de Triomphe

“The bird is an animal with an inside and outside. When you remove the outside, you see the inside. When you remove the inside, you see the soul.”

  • Paul, quoting an 8-year-old’s essay about her pet in Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vi [1]: Film in 12 Tableaux [2]
  • I’ll use this French new wave [3] film to help understand Zizek’s set of essays about the process of becoming, essays that examine numerous odd-sounding Deleuzian [4] concepts, such as the quasi-cause[5]. The film, with its unusual style, works well with these articles – two of them even discuss how Deleuze used another event in European art cinema, Italian Neorealism [6], to distinguish between historical causality and the emergence of the New:

    The moments of the emergence of the New are precisely the moments of Eternity in time. The emergence of the New occurs when a work overcomes its historical context … One can, of course, explain neorealism by a set of historical circumstances (the trauma of World War II, etc.). However, there is an excess in the emergence of the New: neorealism is an Event which cannot simply be reduced to its material/historical causes, and the “quasi-cause” is the cause of this excess, the cause of that which makes an Event (an emergence of the New) irreducible to its historical circumstances. [7]

    The movie credits are shown over three successive views of a beautiful woman (Nana, also the name of a tragic novel [8] about a courtesan. The Nana of this film is played by Godard’s wife at the time, Ana Karina.) This overlapping between the character, her resonant name, the actress, her resonant name [9], and the character’s ambition – to be an actress – spotlights how humans are performers in their own lives – acting out their social roles. This aspect of the film also sheds light on Zizek’s/Deleuze’s claim that, rather than historical context enabling us to understand a work of art, it is

    the work of art itself which provides a context enabling us to properly understand a given historical situation. [10]

    After showing us an intertitle announcing the first tableau, Godard shows Nana’s back as she sits at a coffeehouse bar arguing with her husband, Paul. Since we only catch glimpses of her and Paul’s faces in a distant mirror, we are forced to infer their feelings from their words. Nana has had an affair, and Paul asks her if her lover has more money than he does. She repeats the question, “What do you care?” four times, each in a different tone. Her repetitions can recall a Deleuzian paradox regarding the New, that it

    … can ONLY emerge through repetition. What repetition repeats is not the way the past “effectively was,” but the virtuality inherent to the past and betrayed by its past actualization. [11]

    Nana explains her multiple replies, saying she doesn’t know the best way to express the sentiment, and Paul remarks that she isn’t on stage and accuses her of parroting nonsense. We’ll use his accusation to point to the book that Zizek refers to most often in this series, Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense [12], and how the work betrays a deadlock in his thinking that Deleuze had never resolved:

    … 1) on the one hand, the logic of sense, of the immaterial becoming as the sense-event, as the EFFECT of bodily-material processes-causes, the logic of the radical gap between generative process and its immaterial sense-effect: “multiplicities [13], being incorporeal effects of material causes, are impassible or causally sterile entities. The time of a pure becoming, always already passed and eternally yet to come, forms the temporal dimension of this impassibility or sterility of multiplicities.”… [For example, the] cinema image is inherently sterile and impassive, the pure effect of corporeal causes, although nonetheless acquiring its pseudo-autonomy.

    (2) on the other hand, the logic of becoming as PRODUCTION of Beings: “the emergence of metric or extensive properties should be treated as a single process in which a continuous virtual spacetime progressively differentiates itself into actual discontinuous spatio-temporal structures.” [14]

    Nana calls Paul cruel (and we finally get a shot of him, although his back is to us also.) Nana says she wants to die and reproaches him for refusing to introduce her to an unspecified man, a man whom the conversation implies that she thinks will help get her into the movies. She adds that, although she had thought she and Paul might have gotten together again, the more they talk, the less the words mean. She calls him horrible for not thinking of her as special, saying (as we catch sight of his face in the mirror,) “I hardly love you anymore, but I still think you’re someone special.” Paul counters that she is leaving him because he is poor, which Nana admits might be true. She then asks if she can borrow 2,000 francs, and he refuses. Perhaps in memory of happier times together and to part amicably, they play pinball. As Paul takes his turn, he tells her of the essay quoted at the beginning of this entry, and the camera focuses on Nana. The child’s words can illustrate that

    the basic premise of Deleuze’s ontology is precisely that corporeal causality is NOT complete: in the emergence of the New, something occurs which CANNOT be properly described at the level of corporeal causes and effects. [15]

    The second tableau begins with a documentary-style shot of the Arc de Triomphe (the first of 3 of this Arc in the movie,) then shows Nana working in the record section of an electronics shop. There, she first asks after an absent friend who owes her 2,000 franks, and then tries unsuccessfully to borrow the sum from another co-worker, who says that she is broke herself. She asks Nana if her need is serious, but Nana says she is alright. Nana asks her about a book she is perusing, and the woman reads a portion of it as we get a Hopperian [16] (one of many in the film) shot, a view of the city through the window with the jazz section of the store in the foreground. The book’s protagonist tells another character that he attaches too much importance to logic, then feels “bitter triumph” at having told him – “no more struggle to live again.” The references to logic and “jazz” (think “all that …”) resonate with an interesting idea about the importance of “nonsense” in becoming, in that nonsense

    maintains the autonomy of the level of sense, of its surface flow of pure becoming, with regard to the designated reality (“referent”). [17]

    We discover why Nana needs the 2,000 francs in the third tableau, when she tries to get the key to her apartment and her landlords keep it from her. But when her husband meets her and shows her photos of their son, she remarks that the boy looks like Paul, not her (at this moment, A thin young man passes behind, staring at her.) We can relate the reference to fatherhood to the remainder of the previous Zizek quote:

    …does this [function of nonsense] not bring us back to the unfortunate “phallic signifier [18] as the “pure” signifier without signified? Is the Lacanian phallus not precisely the point of non-sense sustaining the flow of sense? [19]

    Not only does Nana not tell Paul that she is now homeless, but she turns down his invitation to dinner, saying she is going to the cinema. We see the name of the film in lights outside the theater, Joan of Arc [20], the “Maid of Orléans,” who led soldiers against English invaders in the fifteenth century and was canonized as a saint in 1920. We then see the inside, mostly empty except for Nana and her date (and, in the third row behind them, the young man from the last scene.) Moved to tears by the silent classic, Nana ignores the man she has come with, even when he puts his arm around her. We watch with Nana as a young priest tells Joan that she will be burned at the stake. When he asks how she can believe she was sent by God, Joan replies, “God knows our path but we understand it only at the end of the road,” and when he asks her what her deliverance will be she replies, “Death” – The word is shown before and after a close up of Nana’s face. This hint of Nana’s fantasy [21] and how it affects her can conjure up this description of the quasi-cause:

    One can also say that the quasi-cause is the second-level, the meta-cause of the very excess of the effect over its (corporeal) causes. This is how one should understand what Deleuze says about being affected: insofar as the incorporeal Event is a pure affect (an impassive-neutral-sterile result), and insofar as something New (a new Event, an Event of/as the New) can only emerge if the chain of its corporeal causes is not complete, one should postulate, over and above the network of corporeal causes, a pure, transcendental, capacity to affect. [22]

    Nana abruptly leaves her date to meet another man at a café, the man who she had argued about with Paul (and who is referenced in the credits only as a “Journalist”) who had offered to take photos of her to help her get into the movies. After she admires his red Alpha Romeo, she looks at a sample of his work – a “composite sheet” of a woman whose only visible covering is a towel. Nana asks him if she can borrow 2,000 francs, and he says he doesn’t have it, but she agrees to go to his apartment to get the photographs taken. Nana’s acting aspiration can portray the connection between the quasi-cause and Lacan’s “objet petit a” [23], equivalents in meaning the

    … pure, immaterial, spectral entity which serves as the object-cause of desire…[24]

    The fourth tableau shows a policeman interrogating Nana over her half-hearted attempt to steal 1,000 francs that another woman had dropped. Finding that she is homeless, he asks her what she will do. She replies, looking down, then away, “I don’t know … I … is someone else.” The fifth shows Nana near a cinema which displays a Spartacus poster [25]. A man, mistaking her for a prostitute, asks if she is available. She acquiesces, and gets 5,000 francs from him. We witness a struggle between them, however, when she tries to avoid being kissed on the mouth. These struggles, inner and outer, can represent the duality in Deleuze’s work on causality:

    This duality is ultimately overdetermined as “the Good versus the Bad”: the aim of Deleuze is to liberate the immanent force of Becoming from its self-enslavement to the order of Being. Perhaps the first step in this problematizing is to confront this duality with the duality of Being and Event, emphasizing their ultimate incompatibility… [26]

    In the sixth tableau, Nana meets an old friend, Yvette, in front of a restaurant. When Nana asks her about her husband, Yvette says that life is hard, and she wants to escape to the tropics. “Escape a pipe dream,” Nana replies, and they enter the restaurant. Inside, a young man looks up at them from his pinball game. After getting a table, Yvette returns to kiss him – he is the man from the second tableau, a pimp named Raoul [27]. The camera lingers on him looking at Nana before Yvette tells Nana her story – her husband had moved her and her children to a hotel by the harbor and then abandoned them to act in the movies. She credits these circumstances with pushing her into prostitution, and Nana counters that people are responsible for everything they do, from their unhappiness to shutting their eyes or raising their hands. This discussion, connecting the physical with happiness, allows us to further elaborate on Deleuze’s ideas of causality:

    Deleuze is not affirming a simple psycho-physical dualism in the sense of someone like John Searle; he is not offering two different »descriptions« of the same event. It is not that the same process (say, a speech activity) can be described in a strictly naturalistic way, as a neuronal and bodily process embedded in its actual causality, or, as it were, “from within,” at the level of meaning, where the causality (“I answer your question because I understand it”) is pseudo-causality. In such an approach, the material-corporeal causality remains complete, while the basic premise of Deleuze’s ontology is precisely that corporeal causality is NOT complete: in the emergence of the New, something occurs which CANNOT be properly described at the level of corporeal causes and effects. [28]

    Yvette then tells her that Raoul wants to meet her, and Nina says she wouldn’t mind. A jukebox plays “Ma Môme,” in which the singer celebrates his wife – no “starlet,” but with more love in her eyes than the virgin saint. Nana listens as she waits, looking at a soldier on leave from the Algerian war and a woman enjoying their time together [29], then at a man at the jukebox (Jean Ferrat [30], the one who had actually recorded the song.) Yvette plays pinball with Raoul, who asks her if Nana is a lady or a tramp, and a voice off-screen advises him to insult her and to gauge her status from her reaction. Sitting at Nana’s table, Raoul says that he knows her well. When she denies his claim, he reveals that he had seen her with Paul when he showed her the photos, then says that her hair [31] looks awful and, like Paul, he says that she will parrot any nonsense. Nana laughs, and he kisses her hand, telling her to wait. At the pinball machine, he looks at an account book with women’s earnings and room expenses. We hear gunshots outside, and a North African man runs in, his face bloodied, rasping, “My eyes.” Nana grabs her purse and flees. The next scene (and seventh tableau) shows Nana in a café writing a letter to Yvette’s former madam. Raoul enters and interrupts her – he has followed her. She notes that he had left the café quickly when the “crook” was shot, and he answers that he thinks the shooting was over “some political stuff.” He says that he can help her make more money than Yvette’s madam can. Nana asks him what he thinks of her, and he says, possibly thinking of the song that was playing when they met, that there is much goodness in her eyes. She says that she hadn’t expected a “Catholic” answer, and clarifies the question, asking if he thinks she is special. He replies that there are only three kinds of girls to him, those with one expression, those with two, and those with three. He then tells her she is pretty, and asks why she hasn’t tried to get into films. She said she had, elaborates, and then apologizes for telling him her life story. He replies that he is her friend, and makes her smile, despite her saying that she doesn’t feel like it. They kiss, embrace, and leave, and we get a second shot of the Arc de Triomphe. Their new alliance can connect to Zizek’s definition of “Event.” It

    …cannot be simply identified with the virtual field of Becoming which generates the order of Being – quite the contrary, in The Logic of Sense, Event is emphatically asserted as “sterile,” capable only of pseudo-causality. So, what if, at the level of Being, we have the irreducible multitude of interacting particularities, and it is the Event which acts as the elementary form of totalization/unification? [32]

    The eighth tableau shows Nana at a typical day in her new profession while we hear her and Raoul’s very clinical discussion of the legal and practical aspects of the business. The discussion ends with the injunction that a prostitute must accept anyone who pays and the assurance that the prostitute’s man takes her to a restaurant or the movies “after the medical check.” The ninth shows Raoul bring Nana to the cinema, saying he will be with her in five minutes. She replies that the movie has already started. As he goes upstairs to discuss business with another pimp, Luigi, Nana orders some wine and notices a handsome young man get cigarettes from the vendor and return upstairs. She follows and flirts with him, then asks Raoul for cigarettes, and he tells her she can get them downstairs. Luigi, noticing that she is disappointed at missing the movie, mimes a boy blowing up (and accidentally popping) a balloon. Nana laughs, embraces Luigi, and says that he ought to be her man. Raoul crossly asks if he and Luigi can talk now. The young man brings Nana some cigarettes, and she plays a big band number from the jukebox and dances, drawing sullen looks from Raoul. Nana’s display of joie de vivre can symbolize that:

    Perhaps the limit of Deleuze resides in his vitalism, in his elevation of the notion of Life to a new name for Becoming as the only true encompassing Whole, the One-ness, of Being itself. When Deleuze describes the gradual self-differentiation of the pure flux of Becoming, its gradual “reification” into distinct entities, does he not effectively render a kind of Plotinian process of emanation? [33]

    Nana is back on the job in the tenth tableau, where she and a coworker admire an inspector’s BMW before Nana gets a customer, a photographer named Dimitri. When they discuss services and pay, Dimitri says something inaudible, and Nana says she will see what she can do. She walks around the hotel, opening doors on various coworkers until she finds one who isn’t currently engaged. When they return, Dimitri asks the name of the second woman, who replies, “Elizabeth. Like the Queen of England.” Dimitri tells Nana not to bother undressing for now, but says he doesn’t know whether he will need her later. The camera moves in for a close-up of her shadowed face as the screen fades to black. We can let the blackness reveal that,

    Against this “idealist” stance, one should stick to Badiou’s thesis on mathematics as the only adequate ontology, the only science of pure Being: the meaningless Real of the pure multitude, the vast infinite coldness of the Void. [34]

    The eleventh tableau takes place in another restaurant, where Nana strikes up a conversation with an off-screen patron, asking him if he would buy her a drink. When he agrees and she moves to his table, we see his face; he is the philosopher, Brice Parain [35]. Nana tells him that suddenly she doesn’t know what to say, and they get into a discussion about language and thought. He tells her a story from Dumas’s novel, The Viscount of Bragelonne [36] about Porthos, the least intelligent of the three musketeers. Porthos has to place a bomb in a cellar to blow it up. As he is running away, he has the thought, “How is it possible to put one foot in front of the other?” This thought literally stops him in his tracks. Parain comments – “The first time he thought, it killed him.” The philosopher’s discussion of the disconnect between thought and action sets off another point of Zizek’s, the ability to conceive

    … of Deleuze’s opposition of the intermixing of material bodies and the immaterial effect of sense along the lines of the Marxist opposition of infrastructure and superstructure … Is not the flow of becoming superstructure par excellence – the sterile theater of shadows ontologically cut off from the site of material production, and precisely as such the only possible space of the Event? [37]

    Nana, slightly offended at Parain’s story, says that she wishes people didn’t have to talk, repeating what she had said to Paul at the beginning – the more people talk, the less the words mean. Parain discusses the impossibility of thought without language, and explains that one “learns to speak well only when one has renounced life for a while.” He emphasizes the need to see life with detachment, and, to Nana’s protestation that one can’t live everyday life with detachment, replies, “[W]e pass from silence to words. We swing between the two because it’s the movement of life…” Parain asserts that the thinking “life presupposes one has killed the everyday too elementary life” and advises her to learn to speak “without wounding anyone.” He stresses, however, the importance of making mistakes, an insight provided by Kant, Hegel, German philosophy – “We must pass through error to arrive at the truth.” This reference to Hegel leads me to Zizek’s discussion of the dialectical process, which Kierkegaard accused of resolving all antagonisms by a “deux ex machina.” Zizek answers that the point of dialectic reconciliation

    …is not that tension is magically resolved and the opposites are reconciled. The only shift that effectively occurs is subjective … the truly New is not simply a new content, but the very shift of perspective by means of which the Old appears in a new light. [38]

    Nana asks if love shouldn’t be the only truth, and Parain answers, “For that, love would always have to be true. This talk of mistakes and the priority of truth over love gives us room to elaborate on the importance of “pseudo-causes,” such as politics,

    … inherently “sterile,” … a theatre of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality… [39]

    In the last tableau, Nana is with the young man from the poolroom. Although their dialogue is inaudible — at times turning the movie into a “silent” one a la Joan of Arc — at others we hear a story, “The Oval Portrait [40], being read. (We see the young man reading, but the voice is Godard’s own.) The Edgar Allan Poe story describes how an artist painted a portrait of his young wife, capturing an absolute “‘life-likeness’ of expression” while unconscious of her life slipping away in front of him. During the reading, the camera focuses on Nana’s face in front of a small photo of Elizabeth Taylor from Butterfield 8 [41]. Nana and the young man declare their love for each other, and agree to live together – Nana will end her employment with Raoul. In the next scene, Raoul forces her into a car with another pimp. They drive by the Arc de Triomphe and a large poster of the movie, Jules & Jim [42], and then stop in front of the “Restaurant des Studios.” After arguing about who gets their part of the bargain first, the other pimp throws a parcel of money to Raoul, who runs to his car. Returning, he grabs Nana and holds her in front of him, saying that there are 10,000 francs missing. The other pimp has his henchman shoot, and Nana is hit. Raoul goes back to his car and, as Nana tries to follow him, shoots her. Both cars drive away, and we get the end credits. Bleak as it is, we can use this ending to remember that

    …human thought, the primordial abyss of pure potentiality explodes, acquires existence, in the middle of created positive reality – man is the unique creature which is directly (re)connected with the primordial abyss out of which all things emerged. [43]

    1. Jean-Luc Godard & Marcel Sacotte. Vivre sa Vie (1962.) in: Script-o-Rama.
    2. This is an interesting choice of words – by using 12 of them, Godard brings to a French Catholic mind the stages of the cross. See: “Tableaux.” in: dictionary.reference.com. 2014.
    3. “French New Wave.” in: Wikipedia. January 15, 2014.
    4. “Gilles Deleuze.” in: Wikipedia. January 15, 2014.
    5. “Line of flight.” in: Wikipedia. May 10, 2012.
    6. “Italian Neorealism.” in: Wikipedia. January 15, 2014.
    7a. SlavojŽižek. “Organs without Bodies: Becoming versus History.” in: Lacan.com. 1997/2008.
    7b. Slavoj Žižek. “Organs without Bodies: Quasi-Cause” in: Lacan.com. 1997/2008
    8. “Nana (novel).” in: Wikipedia. January 1, 2014.
    9. “Anna Karenina.” in: Wikipedia. January 30, 2014.
    10-11. Žižek. “Becoming versus History.”
    12. “The Logic of Sense.” in: Wikipedia. January 19, 2014.
    13. “Multiplicity (philosophy).” in: Wikipedia. December 21, 2013.
    14. SlavojŽižek. “Organs without Bodies: le siècle empiriomoniste.” in: Lacan.com. 1997/2008.
    15. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    16. “Edward Hopper.” in: Wikipedia. January 27, 2014.
    17. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    18. “The Paradox of the Phallic Signifier.” From The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso), pp. 130-131. in: vanishingmediator.blogspot.com. June, 2009.
    19. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    20. “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” in: Wikipedia. January 19, 2014. Note the theater reference in the Cine-Tourist – the film combines 2 different theaters: Roland-François Lack. “the place of cinema: cinema as location in Vivre sa vie.” Undated.
    21. A refresher on Zikek’s/Lacan’s ideas on fantasy seems appropriate here, so I linked to another essay: Slavoj Žižek. “How to Read Lacan .4. From Che vuoi? to Fantasy: Lacan with Eyes Wide Shut. in: lacan.com. in: Lacan.com. 1997/2007.
    22. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    23. As defined in this blog: “The objet a, as both the object and the cause of desire, simultaneously represents “the pure lack, the void around which desire turns and which, as such, causes the desire, and the imaginary element which conceals this void, renders it visible by filling it out” (Žižek 2005: 178). It is a lost object that never existed prior to being lost; it thereby drives Lacan’s concept of desire as impossible to satisfy.” From: Louis-Paul Willis. “From Jocasta to Lolita: The Oedipal Fantasy Inverted.” in: International Journal of Zizek Studies, Volume Six, Number Two (2012).
    24. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    25. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    26. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    27. The same first name of the cinematographer, Raoul Coutard – in: Wikipedia. December 29, 2013.
    28. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    29. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    30. Vivre Sa Vie (1962): Trivia. in: imdb.com. 1990-2014.
    31. Nana’s hair is styled after the protagonist of a movie about a prostitute who is killed by Jack the Ripper. “Pandora’s Box.” in: Wikipedia. December 31, 2013.
    32-34. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    35. Brice Parain, according to an essay by Michael Atkinson, “paved the way for the poststructuralists by maintaining that language begat humanity, not the other way around.” From the Criterion Collection DVD’s accompanying booket. (2010.) The link is to a Google book that mentions his work: The Spell of Language: Poststructuralism and Speculation. in: books.google.com. 1989.
    36. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    37. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    38. Žižek. “Becoming versus History.”
    39. Žižek. “Quasi-Cause.”
    40. The Oval Portrait. 1850. in: American Studies: The University of Virginia. 1994-2005.
    41. Roland-François Lack. “Vivre sa vie: An Introduction and A to Z” in: Senses of Cinema August 2008.
    42. Raoul Coutard was also cinematographer for this movie – in: Wikipedia. December 29, 2013.
    43. Žižek. “le siècle empiriomoniste.”