To Care with One’s Eyes – Mediating Cinema and Ways of Relating
In Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), there is a sequence in which one of the rich elderly women traveling on the cruise ship wants all the employees to take a bath in the open sea. Her wish is granted as any rich person’s wish is granted on this boat. We watch some of the staff make preparations before we see them all come on deck and enter the water via the emergency slide. This scene crystallised the uneasy feeling which had taken hold of me and grown stronger with every minute of the film: The perspective from which we see the staff going into the water is exactly that of the rich people standing on the deck; our gaze is aligned with those whom the film pretends to ridicule, their inhumane spectacle becoming ours without the slightest notion of rupture.
Triangle of Sadness is a film about how the rich relate to the world through money, acts and words, and particularly towards those that are not of their class (as well as towards each other). But it merely tells us about these people and does not seem to ask itself how it is positioning us, the audience; our gaze towards these acts. It does not seem to care. To care for the world, for people, for ourselves – but also to care through cinema – means to reflect on how we are situated, how others are situated, and how we do and could relate to each other. Or, to put it the other way round: Understanding and reflecting on the specific forms of relating is the basis for establishing a caring relation towards others and the world. Cinema can allow us to enter productively, politically into that process, Triangle of Sadness does not. Cinema can make us reflect on the relationships that structure our world, Triangle of Sadness merely reproduces them.
In her book Beziehungsweise Revolution(1), Bini Adamczak examines the ultimate failure of the revolutions of 1917 and 1968 and comes to the conclusion that the profound transformation of any society must be brought about primarily through the transformation of its ways of relating – “from a hierarchical relationship to an egalitarian one, from an objectified one to a factual one, from an insecure relationship to a secure one. From an indifferent or competitive to a cooperative and solidary relationship.”(2) Thus, society is thought of as a web of relationships, its specific form determined by their concrete form. Images play an important role in this making of and reflecting on ways of relating. As Guy Debord writes in The Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”(3)
It makes sense, then, to grant art a place in this model as the sum of its specific modes of relating. Works of art, which are perceived and reflected in relation to their concrete aesthetic-material form as well as by the dispositifs in which they appear, do not establish just any relationship, but take on a constantly evolving, concrete form; an ever-new mode of relating between the things and people they deal with as well as with the viewers whose gazes they address.
Alexandre Astruc, whose 1948 text “Naissance d’une nouvelle avant-garde: la caméra-stylo” is considered pivotal to an understanding of cinema as a form of thinking in images – in moving images, that is – also locates the potential of cinema in the multiple ways it can establish relationships. He writes: “All thought, like all feeling, is a relationship between one human being and another human being or certain objects which form part of his universe. It is by clarifying these relationships, by making a tangible allusion, that the cinema can really make itself the vehicle of thought.”(4)
Cinema incessantly establishes and – to use Astruc’s term – “clarifies” relationships, which in turn can become a means of mirroring some aspect of society: in a picture – via the arrangement of objects and people within a space; through montage, by juxtaposing images with other images and sounds; through glances, the interplay of multiple camera perspectives, a film’s overall form and the specific temporality by which it relates to viewers and their world; and, finally, in the relationship that it takes to other films – that is, to film history.
Mediating film is also an act of establishing ways of relating.(5) For the time being, I want to understand mediating as a very broad field that includes speaking and writing about film as well as conducting seminars in universities and outside of them, curatorial practices for festivals, museums, and cinemas, or even just designing a homepage with moving image materials. To mediate film means to intervene for a short or longer moment – but, in any case, limited in time – in the direct perception of a work, that is, between the work and its viewer, and to influence this perception via acts of speaking, writing, or creating constellations – of excerpts and entire films, of images and texts, of images and spaces.
In the French tradition of cinephilia, the concept of the “passeur”, as used by Alain Bergala, describes mediation as an act of ‘crossing over’ from one shore to another, whereby the mediator is as a ferryman or ferrywoman whose accompaniment makes this crossing over possible. In this model, the mediator possesses a knowledge or a certain form of relationship to the film that Bergala calls “taste”. In the act of mediation, they make this available to the pupil in order to guide them towards this pre-ordained destination.
In his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Jacques Rancière formulates the role of the mediator in a less hierarchical way. He states that mediators must, first and foremost, make visible a will – that is, a way of relating to the object of mediation which is endowed with urgency and passion – in order to evoke in pupils a desire for just such an intense mode of relating to the object (or any other object). “Man is a will served by intelligence,” says Rancière.(6) The mediator’s mode of relating to the object is thus not one of knowledge that they possess and others do not, but simply that of an urgency, a wanting, a will that exists independently of a hierarchy of understanding. If, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, we are all desiring machines that ceaselessly want to relate to and connect with the individual elements of the world, mediators are those who make this part of the mediation process visible. They make themselves visible as a desiring machine; as one who steps into a relationship with an object in order to generate in others the desire to connect with comparable things in their own way. If this succeeds, a group of desiring machines can sit together in a seminar and begin to relate, negotiate, and balance a range of desires, thereby creating different ways of relating.
If one understands the act of mediation more generally in this way, a specific form or expression in the case of a particular mediator can be understood from the circumscription of the will of this mediator. Hence, at this point, this text must move from the anonymous “one” to a concrete “I”: If I describe more precisely my involvement with cinema, which has now lasted a little over 20 years, and so make that which I want in/for the practice of mediation visible, the following five parameters might serve as a broad outline. Again, these five parameters can all be described as forms of relations that might be redefined or renegotiated in the engagement with a single work or the relations between works:
I understand the mediation of film and its history as an attempt to think of cinema along all its forms and social practices (while constantly being aware that this is an open process with no conclusive end): film is narrative film, it is documentary film, experimental or avant-garde film, industrial or advertising or amateur film. But film is also a set of social practices, ranging from going to the movies on a Friday night to offering a way of capturing one’s own family life, from being instructed on how to operate a machine in a factory to initiating and accompanying political struggles. Mediating film means making conceivable this mode of relation between a specific form and aesthetic experience, and its social uses.
To think film means to think it along its images as well as its means of production: In this thinking, the means of production and materials are not merely the means of giving a form to a theme, a topic, an idea – making use of them does not only give shape to the work, but can itself be the condition, the starting point of a thought that can only arise on the basis of and in confrontation with the means of production. To mediate film means to make this mode of relation conceivable; to place the means of production and the images produced with them in relation to each other.
Film includes not only those moving image works that were created using a photochemical process, but also its pre- and early history, as well as its expansion into television, galleries, and streaming services. Mediating film must therefore always include a reflection on the dispositifs in which it becomes visible. The goal of mediation is neither the insistence on an essentialist purism (‘Film is only this!’) nor the negation of the medium’s diverse histories. To mediate film means to make these ways of relating conceivable, in order to counter the idea of essence with that of specificity.
The history of the medium is not one of progress, in which the means of production become ever more complex and therefore the forms of telling, showing, and thinking ever more advanced. The reflexivity and modernity of early cinema, which Tom Gunning has dubbed ‘the cinema of attractions’, anticipates that of the avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s (to cite just one example). From the way one relates to the other, a different, sequential understanding of history emerges which is neither a chronology nor a genealogy but is nevertheless capable of conveying an idea of historicity and – like Walter Benjamin’s angel in the rubble of history – potential for the present or the future. As Heide Schlüpmann puts it, “Dealing with cinema’s history is about discovering moments of another history in the past and searching for them in order to let them gain influence in the present – a history that is not part of the narrative of progress but rather a counter-history resisting it.” (8)
Through the medium of film, society has expressed itself as a multitude – which Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri understand to be the opposite of the idea of ‘the people’. “The multitude is a multiplicity, a plane of singularities, an open set of relations,” they write, “which is not homogeneous or identical with itself and bears an indistinct, inclusive relation to those outside of it. The people, in contrast, tends toward identity and homogeneity internally while posing its difference from and excluding what remains outside of it.”(8) To make this multitude visible, it is not enough to teach the established canons of cinema. A Western, classicist, ableist, racist, and sexist gaze must be countered with a multiplicity of gazes whose situatedness allows them to look differently at the world through films. Mediating multiplicity means never fixing modes of relation, but keeping them in motion, constantly re-negotiating them, in the potentially infinite formation of chains of differences. This does not produce dialectical oppositions but sharpens the eye for gradations of difference and ways of relating. Inspired by Homie K. Bhabha’s reflections on the place of culture, we can say that difference is not the marker of a boundary between inside and outside, between centre and fringe, but rather an inescapable place right in the middle.
Mediating therefore also means to keep the act of thinking with and through and along the images of film in motion – in speaking; in writing; in curating; in teaching. Rancière writes: “Intelligence’s act is to see and to compare what has been seen. It sees at first by chance. It must seek to repeat, to create the conditions to re-see what it has seen, in order to see similar facts, in order to see facts that could be the cause of what it has seen.”(9) This process can never be completed: To mediate means to create the conditions for the intelligence to enter again and again into this process of seeing-and-comparing.
In order to counteract the consolidation of a certain, fixed, and thus limited knowledge of film history, it is essential to foreground in the process of mediation the situatedness from which one speaks – about what and in what way and to whom – so that it seems indispensable to understand knowledge in general as something that is situated and not neutral. In her essay “The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Donna Haraway describes situated knowledge as that which is aware of its situatedness and therefore always already thinking along a number of questions that are also central to an examination of cinema and its history: “How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who intercepts the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision?”(10) She adds: “Moral and political discourse should be the paradigm for rational discourse about the imagery and technologies of vision.”(11)
In order to speak about film as an “open field of singularities”, it is also necessary that we understand ourselves, the viewers, as singularities with different perspectives. Our perspectives are not simply relative and never one-dimensional, but come with different levels of being heard, seen, and listened to.
Mediating cinema can be a process through which to establish an attitude of care. By incorporating film’s potential for reflection about ways of relating into one’s own understanding of the medium, one can create a practice which cares for the multitude of a given society’s structures, of cinema histories and audiences, and the relations between those who teach and those who are taught. The cinema of Agnès Varda can give us an idea of the potential of relating to the world in such a way. Like Triangle of Sadness, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000) is about how people relate to the world, the objects they glean, the land they own, the people they talk to, and so on. Unlike Östlund, however, Varda brings into being a cinematic form of care through the sensitivity with which she situates herself – as a woman growing older; as a filmmaker with a camera in her hand. The way she uses that camera to frame people from all corners of society, the way it establishes contact with a potato or distances itself from a cold-hearted supermarket manager, the way in which it speaks to how we, as audience members, can have a million ways of relating to the world through images, constitutes a utopian glimpse of another, care-ful way of being in – that is to say, relating to – the world.
(1) The title of the book could be translated as Revolutionary Ways of Relating, although this would not fully articulate the multiplicity of meanings inhabiting the original.
(2) Bini Adamczak, Beziehungsweise Revolution. 1917, 1968 und kommende (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017), 274 (translated by author).
(3) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Fredy Perlman (Detroit: Black & Red, 2010), point 4 in “Chapter I: Separation Perfected” (no page numbers).
(4) Alexandre Astruc, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra Stylo”, in The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 20.
(5) The term “mediating” aims to capture something of the German term “vermitteln”, which encompasses not only teaching but all sorts of acts which frame the film experience.
(6) Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 55.
(7) Heide Schlüpmann, Raumgeben – der Film dem Kino (Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 2020), 85 (translated by author).
(8) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 103.
(9) Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 55.
(10) Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Feminist Film Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn, 1988), 587.
(11) Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 587.
Alejandro Bachmann is a film worker with a focus on mediating and writing about film as well as compiling film programs. He has been a Visiting Professor for Filmhistory and -theory at the Academy for Media Arts, Cologne since 2021 and is currently artistic director of the project Encounter RWF.
More on: www.alejandrobachmann.com