De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: l’invention figurative au cinéma

William D. Routt

Uploaded 1 March 2000

Nicole Brenez,
De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: l’invention figurative au cinéma. Paris, Brussels: De Boeck Université. 1998.
ISBN 2-8041-2999-3.

For Criticism: part one

Readers of this journal should not need much of an introduction to Nicole Brenez, maître de conférences in Cinematographic Studies for the University of Paris I, whose essay, “Le voyage absolu“, was translated in issue 2 as “The ultimate journey”. While I was working on that translation I was struck by the significance the text attached to the French word “figure“. It was partly through the medium of this word (and the word “ ensemble“) that Brenez was able to redraw the map of French theoretical speculation in the eighties and early nineties until it seemed that all those years had been spent in preparing the ground for a truly figural theory of cinema. With the publication of De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: l’invention figurative au cinéma, I take it that she has entered on the task of presenting that theory.

The book, which comprises some 434 pages of text, or about 225,000 words, collects most of Brenez’s work in this area from as far back as 1989, interspersed and filled out with new material. “Le voyage absolu” appears here in a slightly shortened form, as well as what could be called a ground-breaking essay, “Comme vous êtes” (1990) and more recent work, such as the intriguing paper dealing with “dance and the circulation of images” given at a conference at the Cinémathèque Française in 1997. That is, there is nearly a decade of sustained and challenging writing on cinematic figuration in these pages.

Figure and generation

Some ideas of the cinema as “figuration” have been around longer than that. Brenez traces them back to Vachel Lindsay’s writing on hieroglyphics, and includes Vsevolod Meyerhold’s essays on cinema and Bela Balàzs’s “Der sichtbare Mensch” as well as some of Siegfried Kracauer’s Weimar writing and parts of André Bazin in her virtual ancestral rhizome.

But one need not go so far back. In the 1977 “Metaphor/metonymy” essay which signalled Christian Metz’s incorporation of rhetoric into psychoanalytic theory, the term “figure” acts as a significant nexus for the two approaches. Two years later, in the “Body, voice” chapter of Questions of Cinema that inaugurated much of the writing on “the body” in the eighties, Stephen Heath made the same word the last and most abstract of a series of terms referring to illustrated people: agent, character, person, image and figure. In this case figure is what is settled and unsettled by “the circulation” of the other aspects in a given film. He uses as an example the resonances of the scenes between Welles and Dietrich in Touch of Evil (1958), which spill well over the boundaries of narrative and into intertextual relations evoked by the stars and the people who inhabit those personae. In spite of Heath’s focus on human figures rather than to figures of words, the relation to Metz’s usage is marked and surely quite deliberate.

Nonetheless, there are two tendencies here which have proven antagonistic at times but which Brenez endeavours to maintain in a sort of creative tension. “Figural criticism” concentrates on the “figures” in the film. These tend to correspond to the images of people to which Heath refers. At the same time, such figures are treated “figuratively”, in accordance loosely with Metz’s sense of the word, and not “literally”; that is, they are discussed as complex bundles of sense whose relations with each other, with the film and with the cultures of their production and reception are by no means simple or obvious.

Figural analysis of this kind is likely to differ significantly from most narrative analysis insofar as its central concerns are the figures and the (structuring) relations implied by those figures rather than the story and its structure of events. Indeed, figural interpretation would seem better suited to understanding films in which stories are subordinated to other aspects of the cinema – action films, for example – than narrative analysis. At the same time, it is probably fair to say that Brenez’s figural analysis tends to reveal a “deep” structural level of the narratives of narrative films. Figural analysis also differs from mise-en-scène analysis insofar as its primary critical units are figures rather than shots. It is thus less “formal” in the sense that it tends to originate in characters (and other individual figures) rather than in patterns; less “visual” in the sense that it is not constrained to find significance in every visual arrangement; less concerned with specific scenes or specific movements, and less concerned with the detail of what appears in specific shots.

For Metz and Heath and their readers, “figure” and its derivatives – “figuration”, “figural”, “figurative” – referred to notions peripheral to Big Theory and were, consequently, deployed opportunistically (in Heath’s case as skin to be shed in the very next paragraph). The term is, however, central to Dudley Andrew’s attempt to establish a footing in English writing on the cinema for a certain tendency of French phenomenology. Andrew’s 1983 essay, “Figuration”, appeared in the first issue of the bi-lingual film journal Iris, and was reprinted in his Concepts in Film Theory (1989) as the penultimate chapter, followed by one on “Interpretation”. The climactic pairing is by no means fortuitous, for in “Figuration”, Andrew uses Paul Ricouer’s work on metaphor as a counter-position to Metz, insisting on the creative possibilities of the former’s strategies of humanist individualist reading as against the structurally and culturally-dictated spectatorial position of the latter, and preparing the ground for an exposition of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics in the final chapter.

But if “figuration” is perhaps crucial to Andrew’s understanding of hermeneutics and cinema, nonetheless “a figure functions only when it is observed to function” (168). That is, for Andrew at the level of the specific image, “figure” is roughly equivalent to what he perceives as Ricoeur’s “metaphor”: a special case. Only with the intervention of narrative is figure institutionalised, becoming an integral part of what is experienced from the screen.
We are entered on contentious territory here, as witnessed by the absence of this strand of writing and thinking from Brenez’s bibliography. I think the absence can be explained less by whatever limitations there may be in Andrew’s theory than by Ricoeur’s political/cultural associations, which he shares with phenomenology and with hermeneutics itself. Everyone is against interpretation; it’s like capitalism: you do it all the time, but you never say you do it – in the one case, denial as (interminable) analysis, in the other, denial as (entranced) opposition.

It may be that D. N. Rodowick’s “Reading the figural” (1991) has also been omitted in Brenez’s bibliography because, like Andrew’s “Figuration”, it is less interested in the manifold possibilities of the idea of the figural (in this case derived from certain writings of Foucault and Deleuze) than in its strategic deployment (in this case, as a tool for good, old-fashioned ideological analysis). By contrast, the absence of Jean-François Lyotard’s Discours, figure (1971) may perhaps be accounted for by the crazy things perpetrated in its wake, difficult for any responsible person to condone. If Andrew’s and Rodowick’s varying applications of ideas of figuration prove a bit retro in practice, those who are sometimes nominated as Lyotard’s disciples (Claudia Eizykman, Tom Conley, Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumeir in a late incarnation) are the tropprovo close ups of these mean streets. They have found an impossible Situation for figural analysis at the crossroads of Desire Avenue and Délire Street, next to Heartbreak Hotel.

My point is less to castigate Brenez for whatever is or is not included in her bibliography than to suggest that figural analysis is a lively contemporary practice, already caught up in both old and new debates. Brenez’s bibliography, which includes Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer but omits Ernst Bloch and Norman O. Brown, is itself a perfect figure, a self made map, and was clearly never intended to be anything else. It gives us an ensemble that is a ground for these ideas of figure, not the foundation of the idea of figure. Indeed, so pervasive and all-encompassing is figural analysis (like capitalism or interpretation) that one would never be done compiling a complete bibliography.

Figure and rhetoric

The key essay in any such bibliography (including Brenez’s) must be Erich Auerbach’s “Figura“, originally published in 1938 and included, in Ralph Manheim’s English translation, as the first piece in Auerbach’s Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (1959). In 1984 this book was reissued as volume 9 in the Theory and History of Literature series edited by Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse for the University of Minnesota Press. Thus “Figura” has been by no means obscure or out-of-fashion. All the more surprising that it has attracted so little attention in film or cultural studies since then, a time in which quite a lot of attention has been paid to ideas about “the image” and to ideas derived from literary theory.

(Lest anyone mistake me for a real scholar, readers should be advised that I knew nothing of this article until Brenez herself guided me to it.)

Auerbach’s essay traces the word and some of the ideas it engendered from a brief occurrence in a play by Terence (161 B.C.) to Dante’s elaborate literary figuration in The Divine Comedy (c1307-21). Auerbach conscientiously confines himself to an account of what amounts to a mode of thought apparently peculiar to antiquity and the middle ages, but figura as he describes it is obviously of potential use for anyone interested in understanding imagery, not least because of its allusive, morphing sense.

Figura is the Latin noun which has given both French and English the word “figure”. Although it has no phonetic Greek counterpart, by Auerbach’s account the word becomes significant only with the Hellenisation of Roman culture, as a term to cover at least three Greek senses of what we would call “form”. The most important and initially pervasive of these was schëma, “outward shape”, form as perceived. But figura also tended to be used to suggest form in the senses of typos, “imprint”, and of plasis, “plastic form”, suggesting what might be conveyed in a wax seal, and shading into ideas of represented images, including simulacrae. Auerbach is most pleased with the Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius, whose De rerum natura (Of the nature of things, c54 B.C.) pushes figura into highly suggestive territory encompassing, among other notions, ideas of a detachable “film” or skin, ghosts, ideas of dreaming, and ideas of atoms as ultimate figures, much as we might think of DNA today. (Lucretius’ atomistic Naturalism is perhaps better known these days as the subject of a 1961 essay by Gilles Deleuze which English readers have encountered as the second part of “The simulacrum and ancient philosophy” in The Logic of Sense (1990), and which might find a place in another bibliography of figural theory.)

Auerbach’s history of figura in the ancient world closes with Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (A.D. 96), a handbook for rhetoricians. In fact, the rhetorical sense of the word (“figure of speech”) overarched all the others during this period. Quintilian took pains to distinguish figurative usage from everyday usage of language, and figures from tropes. Auerbach, however, does not think he did this very convincingly for, as Auerbach insists and Quintilian himself would have accepted, at bottom “all discourse is a forming, a figure”.

The lessons that Brenez’s contemporary figural theory apparently takes from the ancients are: first, the quasi-Platonic (or Peircean) idea of linked words and images mutually referring to an invisible Something Else (that is, that a picture and a statement may indeed in some sense “mean the same thing”); and second, the idea that even a moving photograph of Something is not likely to signify only that Something but that it will have a “figurative” dimension: it will be discourse imprinted with plastic form and, consequently, conveying a sense beyond simple appearances or literal meaning. What is not being asserted, as I understand it, is that there is a special, visual dimension of communication (“the figural”) where verbal meanings become fuzzy and inadequate or where the symbolic is confounded by the real. On the contrary, figuration is everywhere – in language, in sound, taste, smell and touch as well as in what we see. It is the common currency of experience.

For me, and for others I know, these ideas have always formed an intuitive base of what we do with movies, particularly in teaching. And certainly one of the great pleasures of reading this book has been to find the sort of thing I think is worth doing exposited and grounded at such length. Brenez begins with a figurative open letter to Tag Gallagher in which she sets out what are, for her, the basic steps of a figural approach to film analysis. Gallagher is a significant recipient. His work represents much that is worthwhile in what could be thought of as mainstream writing about films, if it weren’t currently so marginal (other mainstreamers might include Andrew Sarris, Robin Wood, Lealand Poague, Jeffrey Richards). Mainstream analysis tends to treat the screen as a window in which narrative or dramatic action is represented. Only in instances where ordinary cinematic usage is set at defiance does mainstream analysis insist on a figurative (“metaphoric”, “symbolic”) reading. The best mainstream analysis is closely observed, exhaustive, seemingly derived entirely from the text and – in the hands of someone like James Harvey – utterly exhilarating.

Taking off, apparently, from some differences about Howard Hawks’s work (to which I will return somewhat later), Brenez advances as the first principle of figural analysis the idea that a film’s reach is likely to exceed its grasp or, applying Hubert Damisch’s dictum about painting, that a film “ought to be thought about in the relation that it enters into with the real – a relation of knowledge, not expression; analogy, not reproduction; work, not substitution”. What is involved is thinking of images as critical acts, analysing them for the questions they pose and the questions they create (11).

Here it seems that one crucial difference between Brenez’s figurism and mainstream approaches lies in the understanding of discourse as problematised in the former and as (mostly) transparent in the latter. In its turn, this difference often leads figural analysis to quite abstract interpretations. Insisting that discourse is rarely just about what it most directly represents, figural analysis ponders symbols where others only see sights; it happily creates virtual elephants from whatever rope or bark or serpents come to hand; it makes the simple complicated.

However, and this is a key step for Brenez’s approach, the ultimate determining hermeneutic level is that of the film. That is, according to her second principle (figurative economy), “the components of a film do not form entities, but elements”. Together and within the film, in other words, these components make up an ensemble, a patterned whole. “Thus a film necessarily – and this does not mean deliberately – organises itself in a figurative economy that regulates the ensemble of these relations (the morphology of the image, its formal properties, the treatment of motifs) and which it is the task of analysis to discern” (13). The means by which the analyst discerns a film’s figurative economy, at least in this book, are essentially structural, following the lines of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work with myths. (Here there is a strong parallel with Ricoeur’s work on narrative, which is explicitly indebted to Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism.)

If this is what earlier analysis might have called a syntagmatic dimension of a figurative approach, the paradigmatic side is reflected in Brenez’s third principle: the principle of figurative logic. Under this heading, the analyst is enjoined to consider the elements of a film as questions. How does this or that figure in the film relate to a cultural horde of past or current figures? Presumably, this procedure is “logic” because it treats the figures in a film as propositions to be set against other, known, propositions existing outside the film. Here too, what distinguishes Brenez’s application of this principle from ordinary socio-political or even philosophical interpretations of films is the way in which she moves effortlessly into abstraction, swiftly tracing, for example, the development of the figure of the Antagonist in the work of John Carpenter from a faceless shadow (Assault on Precinct 13, 1976) to “a line between phenomena” in Vampires (1998) (14).

Figure and history

Neither of these two latter principles is explicitly part of classical notions of figura as outlined by Auerbach nor, I think, can they be derived directly from those sources. Yet there are some quite interesting – and ultimately quite pointed – implications to be drawn from Auerbach’s account of the later development of figural thinking from early Christianity through the Middle Ages. From what Auerbach says one can understand why medieval figurative interpretation has attracted the attention of those following certain paths of “postmodern” and “deconstructive” thought, and also perhaps some of the ambushes that such an approach prepares for the unwary traveller-critic.

With the advent of Christianity there arose the particular problem of comprehending earlier Judaic tradition within the vision of the world purportedly offered by the new faith. In the crudest terms this meant interpreting one text, “the old testament”, in the light of another, “the new testament”. The entire Occidental tradition of interpretation, “hermeneutics”, is derived from elaborate, centuries-old strategies worked out by biblical exegetes. Indeed, both the bad odour in which interpretation is often held these days and a great deal of contemporary interpretative activity itself can be traced back to this origin, viewed as a form of Procrustean re-shaping in which one text is stretched, folded, bent, stapled and mutilated so as to entirely repeat another (not the bible, bien sûr, but a text called “Freud” or “classic narrative” or, indeed, “true meaning” itself).

However, the demands of religion raised the stakes of interpretation somewhat: for Christian thought it was not a question so much of words having to conform with other words as of actual events prophesying other actual events – prefiguring them, in short. The classical sense of figura, in which verbal language and plastic form co-existed, now admitted a new sense, which perhaps we can understand in the word “incarnation”. Auerbach points out two interesting things about this change. The first is that the activity which discerns a figure of this kind is quite distinct from any chain of actual, historical figuration. Moses prefigures Christ whether anyone recognises this or not. (Ironically, but not surprisingly, such a circumstance intensifies the importance of exegesis and those who practise it). Auerbach’s second aperçu is that the chain of figuration does not culminate in, let us say, Christ, but in what Christ may be understood to prefigure: the second coming, the City of God, the end of history (and, surely, the withering away of the state). Moreover, this future is not something any of us can claim to know: the ultimate fulfilment, although complete and perfect in every detail, remains for God alone to reveal.

What we can learn about figural analysis in film from Auerbach is, first that it is a branch of hermeneutics. Contemporary hermeneutics is not biblical exegesis: it is, among other things, a way of thinking about questions of meaning and sense, of discussing how meanings arise, of explicating the conflict of interpretations. As I said before, everybody interprets what appears on the screen all the time. Perhaps it is even a strength of using figural analysis that it is upfront an interpretive method. Practitioners of narrative analysis, like other neo-structuralists including psychoanalytic critics, are among those most likely to deny that they are doing hermeneutics, as part of a tacit claim to the status of scientific practice. The strategic effect of such denials is to exclude any interpretation but those which conform to certain authorised, but always virtual texts. We go beyond biblical exegesis here and into questions of doctrine, beyond Christianity to the Church.

What Brenez wants to do is criticism, textual analysis, interpretation, or what might be called l’expérimentation des textes. The theory she includes is not so much “film theory” or even “image theory” as theory “for criticism” – a theory that will serve to begin the experimental work of interpretation. Even in the initial “Letter to Tag”, which introduces those basic principles, one can feel the itch to get to the texts becoming more and more powerful. The first two principles are explicated in more or less traditional academic fashion, but by number three she is beginning, almost compulsively, to cite filmic instances in the place of the usual genealogy of intellectual authorities. Paragraph after paragraph of fine, incisive analysis follows and the chapter ends with a tour-de-force of figural interpretation of certain images of monstrosity in Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1994). Her critical work is nothing if not well-grounded in theory, and she seldom loses the opportunity to explicate the theoretical bases of the interpretative method she is employing, but she recognises very clearly that what counts is what she does with the films – her experimental hermeneutics.

But if the connection between Brenez’s figural criticism and hermeneutics is undeniable, the gulf between the figures which concern her and actual historical events and personages seems equally conspicuous. When for example, in a chapter called “Une économie du geste“, she cites certain figural antecedents for Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco giullare di Dio (1950), they are drawn from Giotto’s frescos, painted about seventy years after Francis of Assisi’s death by someone who had never even set eyes on the saint (81-91). Yet Auerbach is definite on this point. Proper figural interpretation locates the origin of the figure and its fulfilment in history, in “real life”. If she were a pure “Auerbachian”, surely Brenez would have to confront the historical reality of Francis as well as the question of the fulfilment of that figure’s promise. Instead, she argues that Rossellini has used Giotto’s imagery as a source for renewing the figure of Francis “as someone who, irresistibly, can only be imitated”. This formulation presumes that it is precisely an ahistorical element of Francis’s figure which is its defining principle, and that such an element is eternally recurring, not that it will someday be fully realised.

And who would blame her? The alternative offered by Auerbach’s understanding is more than a little weird. For the cinema, it would seem to suggest that film does indeed have a significant, not to say mystical, relation to some kind of profilmic reality – not indeed, the world of appearances, but a world of embodied essences. As figures in this sense, film images would be at least on the way to becoming representations of something else which is more real than they are in much the same way that other theories of “cinematic realism” have tended to make film images vehicles for prior reality. Moreover, they would be recuperated into a socially-derived model of communication as communion, aiming at the transformation of society through a common individual experience of revelation and self-monitoring – a Christian model, but one that has proven popular among political and social thinkers of all stripes.

Perhaps this is not so weird after all. Perhaps this is the way things have been.

Consider the tiny bit of Stephen Heath’s writing cited earlier on in this review. In it, Heath offers “figure” as a complex interconnection (a “circulation”) between real people, personae, fictional characters and narrative functions. There is the suggestion of a historical figural grounding here in the conjunction of the real person and the persona or image (in one extreme manifestation, a star). This linkage seems to be an element of actuality that, however masked it may be by criticism which fails to recognise it, in fact serves as an originary point. In the cinema, it seems, there can be no figure without it and there can be no film which does not effect such a conjunction. What is remarkable about Heath’s cogent schema is how clearly it reflects most viewers’ commonsense understanding of what they are seeing. These are liaisons and distinctions that all of us make without thinking every day. There is nothing particularly mystical or Christian about them at all.

However, Heath goes on to warn readers that:

The limitations of this analysis of the instances of the presence of people in films are those of the cinema it describes. Thus, for example, more generally, it would need to be developed to take account of the use of people in films as ideas, elements in an intellectual argument rather than in a narrative … In addition, however, there are limitations to the analysis in these terms even in respect to the cinema described, limitations that are those principally of the way in which it subsumes the question of the presentation and effects of the body under the heading of the person. (182-183)

These are not the limitations of a figural approach derived from Auerbach’s work, and Brenez’s writing does not seem to suffer from them. Her writing is all about “the use of people in films as ideas, elements in an intellectual argument”. More to the point, her analyses directly reverse “the way in which [a figural approach] subsumes the question of the body under the heading of the person”.

The title of the book is “On the figure in general and on the body in particular”; and I have to confess that the body part filled me with dread, even as I appreciated the wit in the reference. Surely like you yourself, I had hoped that they were finished with the body. Twenty years is a long time for an autopsy, and it has been that and more since Stephen Heath wrote “Body, voice”. In those years the always-freshly-incised written cinematic body has become almost as noisome as my own too, too sullied flesh.

But in this instance, I suppose, a body was needed. For “the body” (not the person) can provide the specific profilmic, historical figure for which the film then becomes the medium. And, if this does not seem to be what happens in the case of Brenez’s work on Francesco giullare di Dio, where a more abstract understanding of figuration seems to be in play in which specific historical bodies matter less than what is imprinted in them, certainly specific bodily figures are what draw Brenez’s attention over and over in this text. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, what she does with these figures is never less than interesting. In many ways she seems to have reanimated the flayed corpse of body criticism. There is writing here which compares John Woo’s percepts of action with John Cassavetes’s – and the ways in which work by Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel and Monte Hellman impacts on and extends Robert Bresson’s “unusual approach to bodies”. The chapter on Rossellini’s St Francis film is followed by one on the animals in India `58. As befits a self-confessed fan of Jean-Louis Schefer’s L’homme ordinarie du cinéma, fantasy bodies are a special interest of Brenez’s and she writes with particular perception about the intimations of monstrosity in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) Suspiria (1976) and Predator (1987) as well as its more graphic manifestation in Body Snatchers. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Perhaps Erich Auerbach would be best pleased with one relatively short chapter, “Accès au fantôme“. Certainly, this chapter seems to me to be one of the most convincing justifications of figural criticism I have read. It concerns Die letzten Segelschiffe, made in 1926 by the writer Heinrich Hauser about a four-masted sailing vessel named the Pamir. Like most readers on this continent at least, I had never heard of Die letzten Segelschiffe before, but Brenez contrives to make it into one of the most wonderful films imaginable. She begins by emphasising that all most of us know of the Pamir today is in these images, and continues through a scrupulously detailed and evocative description of the way in which Hauser has transformed the ship into the subject of his film. In the latter part of the article, she analyses what she sees on a specific, practical level almost in the manner of Eisenstein (“Hauser finds the places and the angles to annul the human point-of-view and to place the film not on the scale of an observer but of the ship itself”, 116). It seems to me that what is going on here is founded on the recognition of the absent Pamir as a figure of a particular time and place, and that Brenez’s writing perfectly describes to the reader how the film about that ship has captured and transmitted that original historical figure – much as one might imagine Auerbach would have wished.

What is missing is fulfilment. Or so it seems. In the Christian practice of figural interpretation which Auerbach describes, the fulfilment of the figure in actuality is dictated by doctrine, but it also has an interesting effect on the way in which one understands history. For the figure’s fulfilment ultimately dictates all of its prior existence. The figure is constructed by its unknown future, not motivated by its past. One might say that this process is a great deal more like the retrospective formal action of some fiction than it is like history as we understand it today. But of course, even today it is not uncommon to understand history as a progression towards a goal which is not yet entirely clear: the kingdom of God, a fair and just society, the destruction of the global ecosystem, the end of civilisation as we know it. The attainment of that goal will put in place a hierarchy of meaningfulness which will bestow a final value on the significance of any figure; and a great deal of critical activity, then, becomes dedicated to a kind of clairvoyance. Actions, tropes, ideas, figures are read ahead, in the prospective light of their fulfilment (the utopia, the cure), in order that they may be correctly read retrospectively (as portents, as symptoms).

Of course there is nothing explicitly like this in Brenez’s text. On the contrary, I rather suspect that Brenez, like any critic worthy of her craft, conceives of herself as perched on the very arrowhead of time, scanning ahead, confident she is equipped for all challenges, but, as a matter of strict principle, fearlessly ignorant of what will come to pass. That is, in this crucial respect, Brenez’s figural analysis diverges – or appears to diverge – from the practice Auerbach describes.

But how far is it possible to divest one’s work of the implications of that earlier figural practice? If one wants to make use of the idea of “figure”, surely one will also be used by that idea in ways one cannot anticipate. Isn’t it possible that writing and thinking towards some idea of fulfilment may be a necessary, if concealed, consequence of adopting a figural stance? If that is the case, it would be a good thing to know it – but perhaps it is too early in this review to do anything but raise the possibility.

Figure and criticism

In the “Figura” essay that first outlined the principles of mediaeval figural analysis, Erich Auerbach is at pains to distinguish figural hermeneutics from two other kinds of mediaeval hermeneutic practice which we can recognise as having some currency in film criticism today: allegorical and mythological interpretation. An allegorical understanding directs attention to “a mystical or ethical system” behind the text, and consequently “the text loses far more of its concrete history than in the figural system” (55), which seems to parallel what happens in film criticism, to take only one instance, when a certain sophisticated kind of psychoanalytic method is applied. Mythological or symbolic interpretation, on the other hand, is only contingently involved with the interpretation of texts: “the symbol is a direct interpretation of life and originally no doubt for the most part, of nature” (57). Here the difference lies in the relative sophistication of the idea of the figure which, for all its historical basis, can only be recognised and tracked textually, unlike the symbol, which is imminent, immanent, magical and sacred. This kind of symbolic method had an explicit vogue in film writing in the wake of Lévi-Strauss, but it can still be found in a wide variety of critical practices which emphasise heroes, images from the unconscious, social constructions, and the like.

For the most part at least, Brenez appears to avoid what Auerbach would call either an allegorical or a mythological approach. What gives her critical writing its considerable strength is the reverence it displays towards the concrete specificity of its film texts. The film almost always appears in command; it rarely appears as an illustration of another set of ideas. So in this book films do not usually reveal hidden agendas, nor are the figures in them “phallic” or “archetypal” – and this is, I would say, typical of what is best in figural criticism. Systems of ideas emerge from the detailed analysis of the text and some of the multitude of relations that can be inferred from the circumstances of its production and reception: they are neither found beneath it, nor located obviously on the surface.

In the last section of “Figura” Auerbach takes the first steps towards a figural analysis of The Divine Comedy, “the work which concludes and sums up the culture of the Middle Ages” (64). He begins by discussing the role of Cato of Utica (who meets Dante and Virgil as they enter Purgatory), and continues with Virgil, Dante’s guide to the Inferno and Purgatory, finishing with Beatrice herself, the poet’s lost love and guide in Paradise. There is what Brenez has called “a figurative economy” displayed in Auerbach’s analysis, which proceeds from a relatively unimportant figure (Cato), embodying a certain idea of freedom, through the progressively more significant figures of the guide and the ideal, each of whom Auerbach shows to have had especial significance for the poet’s own life. In each case Auerbach’s understanding of the principles of figural interpretation manages to suggest plausible answers to certain critical questions about these characters (why is Cato, a pagan, included among those doing God’s work? why is Virgil Dante’s guide? how are we to reconcile the real Beatrice of Dante’s Vita nova with her seemingly “allegorical” aspect in The Divine Comedy?). There is, then, what Brenez might call a figurative logic in play here as well.

Auerbach’s interpretation hinges on a really inspired critical insight: that the world Dante describes in The Divine Comedy is one in which figures are fulfilled. Of course this must be the case, for what Dante is describing is his vision of the kingdom of God, in which all figures are finally fulfilled. The real Cato, the real Virgil, the real Beatrice are to be found therein: their figures are what we (and he) knew of them from history or from experience.

If this sounds as if Dante must be confusing himself with God, he is. Auerbach points out that it was common for the culture of the Middle Ages to recognise the artist “as a kind of figure for God the Creator” (62) and that at one point Dante begs that Apollo will help him “make manifest the shadow of the blessed realm imprinted on my brain” (qtd. in 63). That is, in this Neoplatonic formulation, mediaeval artists did a part of God’s work insofar as they were able to “see”, as well as reproduce, real divinity. This justification of the artwork has a longer life than Auerbach gives for figural interpretation itself (which he says “was active up to the eighteenth century”, 61). It corresponds very well, for example, with André Bazin’s (Catholic) cinematic realism.

What Auerbach does not say – because he does not need to – is that these ideas bring the notion of the fulfilment of the figure into the purview of any artwork, not just those works, like The Divine Comedy which explicitly depict the kingdom of God. Moreover, it seems to me, the fulfilment of the figure in the work of art is a function of something beyond any artist’s willing or doing: the inescapable creation of a world in/by/through/with the work. Figures and their fulfilment are functions of the diegesis that any work (and I suppose some would say, especially film) inevitably produces.

If this is so, Auerbach has laid the groundwork for an argument that figural interpretation need not be, in fact, confined to the Christian, or any, religious tradition. Moreover, the idea that figures are fulfilled in artworks restores to figures themselves something of the mutability that being pinned to history and to doctrine tends to inhibit.

For, as Brenez’s second principle suggests, now it is the artwork which realises the figure. Films make new figures as well as making figures new. Ostraniene becomes a foreseeable consequence of the figural system. A great deal, perhaps all, of what Brenez does in the name of figural analysis seems to me to embody these ideas of the relation of figure to work and world.

These days, another level is suggested by Auerbach’s analysis of Dante’s writing. For if on one level the figure is fulfilled in the text, on another the text itself (and thus the figure) is fulfilled only in its interpretation. If the artist acts as God the Creator, the critic, as much or more than the artist, comprehends somewhat in the manner of God the Adjudicator. There is a little evidence in “Figura” that this sort of understanding was not entirely foreign to Auerbach. Writing in Istanbul after having been purged from the University of Marburg by the Nazis, he chooses to begin his analysis of The Divine Comedy in Purgatory with the figure of Cato, a non-Christian who preferred suicide to submitting to tyranny and whose principles are re-figured in Dante’s own desire for freedom (63-67). If the figure of Cato is fulfilled in the kingdom of God as Dante realises it, it gains a new fulfilment in the very real limbo in which Auerbach finds himself and which, in some sense, his criticism in its turn realises.

It seems to me that the fulfilment of the figure prepares a trap for the critic no matter whether the figure is fulfilled in the work or in the interpretation of the work. In either case, the idea of fulfilment implies an end to enquiry and to reading, a time or place at which the myriad transformations of the figure are stilled, or at least encompassed. Writing itself has a propensity to hold things fast in words, a tendency most writers seem to rather like. Reading, on this level, is antagonistic to writing: what the writer sets down, the reader lifts up. Reading messes up the orderly work of writing, skipping what is important, sensing consanguinal ties where there are only affinities. Misreading is unavoidable and powerfully “creative”, but miswriting does not exist (unless I am doing it now). Critics are readers and writers, but most criticism ignores the irreconcilable conflict of its calling. Most critics want to be anything but misreaders. On the contrary, they strive to be perfect readers, which is to say, x-ray mirrors of the writers or the texts they read. Criticism is said to be writing, just writing, but this is only a way of apologising for (and boasting of) critical fulfilment, not for the limits of writing but for its unbounded fullness, for the balloon of meaning that swells but will not burst.

The mutations of the figure are especially displayed in Brenez’s text in little sections of suggestions or notes. One contains a list of 17 titles from Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film – The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) to The Man Without a Body (1959). It is called a “readymade théorique“. Another is in the form of a riddle, titled (in English) “The swiftest the dearest”. The answer to the riddle is “le daim“, but when I sent her an email asking if this was a male deer, the ultimate responsibility, or a common woman, she did not stoop to a reply. There are about 17 such suggestive passages, ranging from one paragraph to several pages, scattered through the book, not counting the “epilogue” which is a long quote. Each hints at reading and writing which is not fulfilled and will never be, each brushes on figures in flux.

The same is not true of the longer critical essays, and perhaps it is niggling to look for or expect uncertainty in such elegant interpretative work, particularly when, as in the essay on Citizen Kane (“L’être selon l’image“, 207-220), that work actually illuminates previous criticism in unexpected and wonderfully productive ways. Yet even in this exemplary piece which demonstrates how much figural interpretation can do with even the most-studied texts, previous work seems have been corrected, not supplemented, reined in rather than extended. This may just be a question of its not being politic in a manifesto (and this book is surely a manifesto) to declare that one is uncertain of one’s results or only partially correct. Or it may be what I have been describing: an unsuspected virus generated in the situation of figural analysis as an all-but-necessary condition of its practice. When either the text or its interpretation rules, certainty and completeness, a desire for absolutes, tend to run away with the chariot of criticism. Fulfilment promises nothing less.

For Criticsm: part two 

Figure and film criticism: an instance

Early in the book, two mentions of Howard Hawks caught my imagination. The first I have already mentioned: a suggestion of some difference of opinion with Tag Gallagher involving Hawks. The second was more intriguing: something about Viva Villa! “reproducing the Hegelian notion of the Great Man with a perfect rigour” (34). (In English translations of Hegel, what Brenez has as the “Grand Homme” comes out as “the world-historical individual”, but I suspect that gender and greatness are important to Brenez’s argument so I have mostly left her phrase as it appears in French.) The first professional academic paper I ever delivered was a long comparison between aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy and the westerns of Anthony Mann, so I was captured right away by the idea that somebody else had seen a nexus between Hard European Philosophy and Crass Hollywood Commercialism.

What she does in the portion of the chapter devoted to the Hegelian thesis is to rely on textual evidence and analysis to demonstrate an uncanny connection between the figure of Pancho Villa in the film and what the philosopher wrote about “the Great Man” in Lectures on the Philosophy of History. This sort of thing does put some people off – the ones who believe that Hollywood movies do not think – but obviously I am not among them. She does not attempt to explain why this particular film should make use of these particular ideas – and that is the responsible thing to do. You show the connection, but in the absence of hard evidence you do not speculate about the mechanism by which it may have been achieved.

We do know that some screenwriters actually did think they were serving the cause of international communism by putting scenes about slavery and such into certain movies, but they surely were as crazy as the men who later accused them of doing exactly that – and how much crazier would you (the screenwriter, director, spy) have to be to spend so much effort in putting big chunks of Hegel or Nietzsche on the screen? Would you please just answer the question for the Committee: have you now, or have you ever, read Hegel on history?

I believe that there is something very interesting and probably quite complex going on in such coincidences of thought (which I also think are quite common). Whatever it is has to do with how culture works, specifically with the inefficient, amorphous and screwy ways in which cultural transmission actually takes place. The commonsense direct-injection models of “influence” which place one painter in the studio of another or have Thomas Edison stealing the idea of flexible film from Étienne-Jules Marey are very crude and almost surely inadequate to explain most instances where two or more people find themselves thinking or doing the same thing. I don’t have to know anything about Nietzsche to do something “Nietzschean” or anything about Hegel to reproduce some of his ideas about The Great Man with perfect fidelity. Some ideas, some figures, enter the culture under a cloak of anonymity, abstracted from their creators. Who knows what bizarre mechanisms of transmission move such things from one time and place to another? Conversation, popularisation, novelisation … Carlyle, Wagner, Teddy Roosevelt? And if one wants to make a film about a Great Man, in certain circumstances (for example, in Hollywood in the thirties to a Chicago writer with a certain intellectual bent) a Hegelian figure will offer itself, pretending to be just a set of reasonably connected notions around the topic, what anybody might think, what is in the air.

But failing some convincing account, or some theory, of how specifically such things are done, there remains the indisputable fact that a film like Viva Villa! can perfectly illustrate philosophical concepts (or, in this case, figures). Of that I am in no doubt whatever. Philosophy, particularly philosophy about greatness, is neither so obscure nor so precious that it cannot be perfectly reproduced in a simple, mass-market film.

Nor am I put off by the circumstance of Brenez’s having to discern this figure through a structural analysis of relations (figurative economy) distributed across several characters and along several axes in Viva Villa!. In about 12 full pages of main text, we are gifted with six tables of triadic structures: historical actors, spouses, lovers, “right hand men”, infidelity, climaxing in a grand tabular synthesis where the triad is doubled into six opposing character slots. You gotta love “em all. This is the sort of structural thing that figural criticism ought to do, and it is done here, as elsewhere in the book, very well indeed.

What concerns me is not what has been done here, but what has not – what has been excluded in the process. The essay begins with a sentence which denies that the people are the subject (“or even subject”) in this film. This is the kind of statement that can be made only by those to whom Apollo has granted the ability to manifest the blessed shadow imprinted on their brains. For surely Pancho Villa might be a figure of the people-as-a-great-man, a populist hero. And he might be that at the same time, in addition to, his being perfectly Hegelian (if, indeed, there is a conflict between the two). Indeed, there is historical evidence that knowledgeable folks at the time read the character in that way. The film was shown at the first Moscow Film Festival at least partly because it could be seen as presenting the kind of hero that would not give offence to the citizens of the Soviet Union in 1935. And there is certainly some textual evidence that the film is actively soliciting such a reading.

Brenez contrasts the film’s figure of Villa with the people as figured in Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! , a film which certainly appears to have had some visual influence on Viva Villa! . But it is obvious that the two films bear only a superficial relation, even though Eisenstein is reported to have liked Viva Villa! quite well. More to the point surely would be a comparison with a film made by two of Eisenstein’s students and also shown at the Moscow Film Festival in 1935: Chapayev (1934). Like Villa, Chapayev is a peasant who has become a revolutionary hero. Like Villa, he conforms perfectly to what Brenez represents as Hegel’s idea of the Great Man. Like Viva Villa! Chapayev is a film noticeably deficient in images of the people-as-collective. But unlike Viva Villa!Chapayev occupies a crucial place in film history, signalling the end of the Soviet avant-garde and the beginning of the regime of socialist realism, a style explicitly dedicated to figuring the people as “world-historical individuals”. In fact, if I had been a movie-literate member of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, I would have had the crew of Viva Villa!  on the stand, so much like Chapayev‘s socialist realism does it seem today.

Consider also the figure of Wallace Beery, who plays Pancho Villa in the film. Stars are, in some sense, concrete historical figures in the way Cato, Virgil and Beatrice are in The Divine Comedy. Beery is very much a populist star: messy, overweight, eminently crude and vulgar. He is not handsome, and in 1937 he was in a movie called The Good Old Soak. He played bad guys and mushy lovable types. In the course of his films Beery’s heroes usually died or had to be redeemed: there was some stain, some incapacity, some lack within that had to be redressed. He was The Champ (1931), Barnacle Bill (1941) and Bad Bascomb (1946). Yet he held a long term contract with MGM (1930-1949) and acted in a total of as many as 252 films from 1912 to 1949. In 1934 he was among the top ten Hollywood box office stars, where he had been before and would be again as late as 1940.

In the context of Beery’s career, the role of Pancho Villa stands out as the only time, I think, that he ever played a “world-historical individual”, a leader. Instead his gross body and his sentimental acting were taken as a typos of The Common Man. Over and over, he was cast as an ordinary man rendered extraordinary by circumstances (even as you or I or Arthur Tauchert, Harry Baur, Dennis Franz, Sammo Hung).

In the movie, Beery’s screen presence, and especially the obscenity of his obesity, works against the good intentions of History and Revolution, mandating scenes of lumpish comedy and ethnically-stereotyped menace. The only production story anyone ever tells about this movie is about Lee Tracy drunkenly pissing off a balcony onto the heads of passers by – which got him fired from the production. And of course, that story is told because it so precisely fits the film that it might have happened in it – in a scene in which Beery would have taken the leading part. The anecdote is not a story about a Great Man, but a satyr play that undercuts the pretense of greatness with the kind of slobbishness in which wholeness leaks away, like the muddy edges of Beery’s corpulence, like his wet-gravel voice, his blurring eyes – in short, in the way this star’s all-too human failing undercuts the putative classicism of the film’s portrait of a revolutionary hero.

This is not at all in accord with Brenez’s interpretation. Her chapter is entitled “L’homme entier“, the whole man, and Brenez’s analysis shows how such an entire being is disarticulated and dispersed through the film by means of a strategy of delegation. For example, and crucially, Villa’s sidekick, Sierra, is the one who kills without thought and without remorse, not Villa. She argues that in this manner Villa’s innocence is preserved, responsibility is taken from him, and the radical political potential of the figure destroyed. Villa is a Hegelian “Great Man” because he is a man of action, not reflection. He acts unconsciously, innocently, as a tool of History.

Almost all of Brenez’s argument seems perfectly acceptable to me. The only places I would balk are, first, where she denies any radical political potential to the figure of Villa in the film; and, second (a related point), where she generalises at the end that “Viva Villa!  seems exemplary of a classicism whose major trait would be the homogeneous organisation of figurative economy” and which is also designed to suppress ideas inimical to bourgeois capitalism (204). I hope that what I have written about Chapayev and about the figure of Wallace Beery suggests some ways in which audiences might have taken at least a little radical political inspiration from the film. But in addition to these points, there is the question of how the innocence of the figure as Brenez has analysed it functions in relation to the bourgeois values that classicism is presumed to uphold. Such a figure lacks both the insight and the foresight of leadership as bourgeois culture understands it; and it is precisely to the extent that Villa is shown to be incomplete in himself, and not a psychologically whole man, that the tragedy which the film might be recounting is called into question. Hegel directly refutes psychological explanations for the actions of world-historical individuals: “This so-called psychological approach contrives to trace all actions to the heart and to interpret them subjectively, with the result that their authors appear to have done everything because of some greater or lesser passion or lust” (87) – or, as we would say, “desire”. As I understand it, classical narration is absolutely bound to psychological motivations and/or desire for narrative actions; and thus Hegel’s or Brenez’s “Great Man” could not, by definition, act convincingly within a classical narrative film, and could only subvert the intentions of the text. Like other cultural products of the thirties, including The Informer (1935), Viva Villa! ultimately juxtaposes politics and humanistic values in the form of a dilemma that has no right answer.

Moreover, as I recall the film, Beery actually plays Villa rather badly. It is precisely wholeness and greatness that his performance lacks. What we are given instead is a two-dimensional caricature of a Mexican gangster, a being led by physical appetite and an opportunistic notion of freedom – no matter how hard Ben Hecht’s script tries to tell us something different.

Here the mythic hero – and the heroic myth – interrupts his pose and his epic. He tells the truth: that he is not a hero, not even, or especially not, the hero of writing or literature, and that there is no hero, there is no figure who alone assumes and presents the heroism of the life and death of commonly singular beings. He tells the truth of the interruption of his myth, the truth of the interruption of all founding speeches, of all creative and poietic speech, of speech that schematizes a world and that fictions an origin and an end. He says, therefore, that foundation, poiesis and scheme are always offered, endlessly, to each and all, to the community, to the absence of communion through which we communicate and through which we communicate to each other not the meaning of community, but an infinite reserve of common and singular meanings. (Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperable Community, 79).

I think it is clear that “the whole man” and “classicism” are related ideas in Brenez’s chapter. Their relation is, however, an allegorical, not a figurative, one; and the interpretation the chapter gives us belongs much more certainly within the tradition of the hidden text than of the revealed figure. Classicism, as “the homogeneous organisation of figurative economy”, underpins and authorises the reading Brenez gives the film. Indeed, the Hegelian figure of the Great Man surely has been selected as the master figure for this film at least partly because it conforms to the tenets of Hollywood classicism as Brenez understands them.

At the same time, this chapter’s reliance on the commonly-accepted political interpretation of the bourgeois capitalist ideology promulgated by “classical” Hollywood films sits uneasily in the context of the rest of the book. Since 1989 we have been witnessing a triumphal wave of global capitalist expansion, spearheaded by the United States. By comparison with the thirties, where capitalism seemed everywhere under threat, today nothing appears more secure than the global capitalist order. Yet Brenez’s most compelling and interesting political analyses are based upon recent cinematic products of that global capitalist order, especially films produced in those most capitalist of economies, Europe, the United States and Hong Kong. In discussing those films, she does not discuss their “classicism” nor demonstrate the ways in which they reflect bourgeois hegemony. How can this be? How can the Hollywood films of the thirties be more purely capitalist and bourgeois than the films of our own culture, which is more capitalist and bourgeois than the culture of the thirties?

Strangely enough, I think the fundamental reasons for what is surely a deliberate misreading on Brenez’s part have something to do with figurative understanding and the fulfilment of the figure. But I shall need another section to deal with this.

Figure and fulfilment

I think in contemporary writing on film, not just film criticism, there is a tendency to treat ideas like classicism, contemporary cinema, postmodernism, the avant-garde and so forth, like fulfilled figures. This is by no means a terrible thing. As I have said, it can hardly be avoided; and I think it is far more accurate to understand such terms as figures rather than “concepts”. Although almost all such ideas are nebulous and can mean quite different things in different contexts, a common strategy is to do what Brenez does with classicism in the chapter I have just discussed. She invokes it wholecloth, not simply as a formal model or as a set of rules, to warrant a connection between formal and political aspects of the film with which she is concerned. Rhetorically, this strategy is itself so economical as to be classical. It saves having to rehash dubious and unsettled arguments by creating an area of commonality: the capacious, tolerant space of a fulfilled figure rather than the crabbed, hostile area obsessively worked over by a theoretical concept. Such fulfilled figures allow one to read backwards, locating and identifying other figures in the light of the master figure, which functions the way the divine kingdom did for mediaeval biblical exegetes.

This way of writing and thinking is not uncommon, and, to some at least, not unexpected. One of the most pointed and potentially productive criticisms of the way we usually write and think asserts that, far from being a tradition that had its last hurrah sometime in the eighteenth century, the fulfilled figure, which this critique locates as an inheritance from Platonism, still founds and guides occidental culture. Much of our thinking aims towards fulfilled figures and by so doing is formed by them. Thomas Kuhn’s once famous “scientific paradigms” are good examples here, as is “the free market economy” – but then, so are ideas like “justice” and “truth”, or at least, so they tend to be. Simon Sparks claims that this radical critique of figural thinking is central to the political work of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, contemporary French philosophers whose writing often focusses on what Sparks calls “a lexicon” of cultural and political terms, including “identification”, “mimesis” and “myth”, that ultimately have to do with the fulfilled figure.

What remains constant throughout this mutation of terms (which, in truth, is nothing of the sort) is the following: an understanding of the political as the will – and that is also to say, the imperative – to realise an essence-in-common (a community even) on the basis of a figure of that in-common. It is this realisation that identifies a community as and with itself, in which case the figure would be seen as the identity principle of community. And this whether it be a matter of a “we”, “the people”, “spiritual or religious type”, “the nation”, “humanity”, “project”, “destiny”, etc. (Sparks xxiv)

This is not the way that a figure like classicism, for example, might be made to work within another understanding of figurative thinking. Here classicism would only exist as it was exscribed in specific instances (“exscribed” rather than “inscribed” because this is a question of its being “written out of” rather than “into” what one is examining). No classicism but Viva Villa! ‘s classicism or Chapayev‘s classicism and so on. Such a way of approaching a work would not deny the figure of classicism itself, but would understand that the specificity of specific classical instances mandates understanding Viva Villa!‘s classicism as difference, not as something entirely predetermined. This approach is related to one kind of “inductive” method of typological classification which derives the typos from a description of instances rather than hypothesising it as a paradigm first, but it differs from that method in hesitating to discern the typos. Classicism would remain in flux, never to find completion until entropy claims us all.

Put in another way, this kind of writing would always be political because it would never settle into a signified – that is, into meaning in the usual understanding of the word, into the fullness and security of meaning. Rather, its signification would resemble the constantly transforming “figure” which Auerbach attributes to the pre-Christian tradition (and which later practice never wholly succeeded in stilling). In the terms of contemporary French philosophy, it would produce “sense” rather than “meaning”, and it would do this to the measure that the writing itself figured relations rather than “reasoning from effect to cause” as more scientific thinking is presumed to do.

I think that Brenez’s criticism mostly adheres to this mode of writing. Its very existence questions most current practice, thus demanding that it be read as a shifting, opportunistic, set of responses rather than as something sprung fully formed from the writer’s brow. And each interpretative piece in the book tacitly demands comparison with what has – or, more pointedly, has not– been written by others on that topic before, while at the same time setting itself in series with other pieces in the book. The Viva Villa!piece, for example, ends with a playfully instructive section on the film’s possible “authors” (Hecht, Conway, Hawks, Eisenstein, Mayer, et al.) and can be sited in a series of chapters dealing with quasi-political leaders in such other films as Francesco giullare di Dio, Citizen Kane and The King of New York (1989). But perhaps the most political aspect of Brenez’s writing has to do with the “body” that her book examines and re-examines so obsessively. For it is not “the” body at all, but male bodies figured. Yet at the same time, this is not a book about “masculinity” nor yet about “the male body”. It is about figuration, about how male bodies are figured, about the infinite degrees of that figuration, about the impossibility of definition and the inescapability of understanding.

In a way any criticism, because of its specificity, its acknowledged finitude, always belongs to this unfinished, frankly provocative, way of dealing with works. Criticism is usually written about finite numbers of instances (one text or several examples). It may be explicitly tied to the time and place of its writing. Its ambitions are often very modest: to explain one aspect of its object, to attempt “a” reading or “my” reading, to enter into dialogue with other critics. The section of Auerbach’s “Figura” which deals with The Divine Comedy is an example of such finite criticism – and the same can be said of most, perhaps all, of the interpretative analyses in Brenez’s book.

Moreover, in “Figura” the mediaeval tradition of figural interpretation occupies something like the place that classicism occupies in Brenez’s “L’homme entier“: a fulfilled figure is implied as the grounds for Auerbach’s interpretation of Dante, just as a fulfilled figure is implied as the grounds of Brenez’s interpretation of Viva Villa!. In both cases some kind of authorial intention has been figured by the critic: an intention to put figural or classical principles into practice on the part of an individual (Dante) or an institution (Hollywood). Even unfigured intentions are notoriously full in any case; and all intentions are notoriously betrayed or limited in the specificity of actual action. What happens in these instances of criticism is that a coincidence of critical and authorial vision is postulated precisely in the nebulous, mutating space of the figure. The critic sees, sees fully, the full intention of the text.

But if that is so, then these fulfilled critical figures do not, in point of strict construction, occupy the same place that the kingdom of God does in traditional mediaeval figural thinking. They are, if anything, convenient masks for another figure fulfilled in the activity of criticism, in much the same way that Dante’s particular version of the afterlife must be seen ultimately as a mask, a figure, for the true afterlife to come.

It seems to me that for Auerbach the figure fulfilled in the activity of criticism is likely to have had a perfectly recognisable name: the community of scholars. Brenez might not use such a dated, not to say naive, formulation, but surely her intention is to commune with a group not unrelated to the one that used to be identified by that label. If Auerbach’s criticism consciously reinvests the figural project into the linaments of modernity, as I believe it does, then it does so partly by redefining the starting point of criticism as the historically specific work instead of the historically specific figure, and by redefining the historically specific but not-yet-realised kingdom of God, which rules the figure, as what was, is and will be fulfilled in criticism: the historically specific but not-yet-realised community of scholars.

Today we can go further than this. The same Jean-Luc Nancy who has been cited overtly twice before in this review has written extensively on what one translator has called the “inoperable community” (la communauté désoeuvrée) summoned into being by writing – most obviously in the book translated into English as The Inoperative Community, but also especially in The Sense of the World. This is a somewhat different (unworking) group than the group of scholars, but not too far removed from it. Moreover, such a community, Nancy argues, is the only proper political community, the only unfulfilling political community. Not wishing to prolong what has become an extremely long review, nor yet to deny readers the very real pleasure of engaging with Nancy’s work themselves, that impossible community seems to me to fit perfectly today where God’s utopia was sited in mediaeval figural thinking – and where contemporary figural analysis desperately needs some analog of the kingdom of God in order to avoid writing predicated on a fullness to come. Indeed, those aspects of Nancy’s writing dealing with figuration and with community bear a more than passing structural resemblance to Auerbach’s account of those aspects of figural thought, refigured for a world in which, as Nancy says, the fulfilment of myth has been “interrupted”.

Contra figure

Figural criticism does not – and, according to my account of it, cannot – pretend to provide those dissatisfied with the current smorgasbord of orthodoxies with an answer for every eventuality. Of the things it does not do, I want to close this review by mentioning only one, but one which is I think crucial.

Figural criticism is, by its nature, static. It is concerned with “figures” – bounded, bundled entities of relations at best. Its notions of time extend only to an idea of duration internal to the figure and an idea of linearity (history) external to it. For example, nowhere in Brenez’s book is there an attempt to deal in detail with the temporal presentation of a specific figure through the film in which it is articulated – what might be called its continuing transformation. Thus in her discussion of Frank White in The King of New York (“Frankly White”, 225-238), the linear narrative presentation of White from his release from prison to his death is treated as an accumulation of figural traits which result in a (complete) figure, rather than as a changing, always incomplete, essay between past and future that never can say all that it might because bits keep falling off and getting added, exposed and obscured, and maybe not logically at that.

Of course, no one writes criticism like that, but that does not mean that no one should. The as yet unmet challenge for film to thinking and writing is the challenge of dealing adequately with experiences of time. Figural criticism is simply not interested in, and not equipped for, fully meeting this challenge. I don’t know what is.

That species of impossible objection aside, it seems to me that De la figure en général et du corps en particulier, and Erich Auerbach’s essay “Figura” are works that anyone interested in the criticism and analysis of films should read and think about. I hope that Brenez’s book – all of it – will soon be translated into English so that her insightful and provocative work can annoy and intrigue an even wider audience than it has until now.


Dudley Andrew, “Figuration”. [1983]. Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. 157-171.
Erich Auerbach, “Figura“. [1938, 1939, 1944]. Translated by Ralph Manheim. [1959]. Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. Theory and history of literature, vol. 9. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 11-76.
Gilles Deleuze,”The simulacrum and ancient philosophy”. [1961, 1967, 1969]. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. 253-279.
Stephen Heath, “Body, Voice”. [1979] Questions of Cinema. London: Macmillan, 1981. 172-193.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Introduction: Reason in History. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Christian Metz, “Metaphor/Metonymy, or the imaginary referent”. [1977]. Translated by Celia Britton and Annwyl Williams. Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier. London: Macmillan, 1982. 151-297.
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community. Translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney. Theory and history of literature, vol. 76. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
—–. The Sense of the World. Translated by Jeffrey S. Librett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
D.N. Rodowick, “Reading the figural”. Camera Obscura 24. 11-46.
Simon Sparks, “Editor’s introduction: politica ficta“. Retreating the political by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. London: Routledge, 1997. xiv-xxviii.
[Note: I am grateful to the editors and to those who will have invested so much time in marking up this review for allowing me to go on at such length. In addition I am particularly grateful to Diane, Adrian Martin, Anna Dzenis, Tim Groves and Deane Williams for things they have said and done during the time I have been writing. Readers should know that I helped to translate Nicole Brenez’s article, “Le voyage absolu”, for this journal. Partly as a result of that translation a desultory, but warm, email correspondence between the author and myself developed. She cites a piece of mine (incorrectly, as it happens) in the book under review. In other words, it would be disingenuous to think this review entirely disinterested.]

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →