April 9, 2007

Pontecorvo's Idiom


Pontecorvo’s Idiom:
Losing the Subaltern in Translation

A system can be as exhaustively provided as possible with information, with memory, with anticipatory and defensive mechanisms, even with openness toward events [and yet]there is something within that system that it cannot, in principle, deal with [traiter]. Something that a system must, by virtue of its nature, overlook. Jean-François Lyotard, Political Writings

The tendency is to view western anti-colonial revolutionary movements as necessarily in line with the colonized they are seemingly trying to defend. Yet this may not be the case. Jean-François Lyotard made such an observation when, in 1989, he felt compelled to frame his war time writings on Algeria via his later work. In his collected Political Writings Lyotard writes of those pieces and their expedience:
It was my lot, as it was many others, to lend practical “support? to the militants of the FLN in France at the very same time that I was making theoretical criticisms of the organization in the journal. It was just, we told ourselves, for the Algerians to enforce the proclamation of their name upon the world; it was indispensable to criticize the class nature of the independent society that their struggle was preparing to bring about. (168)
Writing from the distance of both time and a methodological change, Lyotard recognizes, however implicitly, the conflict within his support of Algerian independence movement. He recognizes, that is – and this is the thesis of this paper - that revolutionary movements are themselves ideologically suspect and in need of investigation no less than those projects they are seeking to overturn. This recognition is the différend and it occupies the position of both result of and an explanation for his earlier work on Algeria. Lyotard defines his work in Socialisme ou Barbarisme in terms of the later work of Le différend .
The specific différend Lyotard notes above marks not just the instance of ideological conflict, but of a différend within Enlightenment thought more generally. It is at bottom, a conflict between universalism and particularity. For this paper, the site of the différend is Algeria, but such a conflict is apparent in (post)colonial spaces at large.
Lyotard defines the différend as “a case of conflict between (at least) two parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule applicable to both parties? (Différend 1). The “parties? here are not two differentiated parties, but two aspects within the system of Enlightenment thought. These conflicting aspects of western thought are at the heart of the problem when dealing with (or following Lyotard, traiter [1993 166]) Algeria or any other colonial space.
It is my contention that it is ultimately unimportant whether the ideology is anti- or pro-colonial. What is important is to see that within the revolutionary, anti-colonial movement — no less than in those that worked for the colonial project — that there were and are forces at work other than those directly (insofar as directness is here possible ) concerned with the well-being or independence of the colonized. Though we would not balk at supposing that there was a différend between France and Algeria, what I am primarily interested in is the différend within the French (or western) anti-colonial movement(s). That is, the two parties of the différend are here aspects of the revolutionary movement, neither of which are satisfied if the other one is.
We can see this at work in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The film, while lauded for its ‘fair’ treatment of French and Algerian alike, is nevertheless bluntly reductive. And this reduction is a direct result of the différend within Marxist revolutionary thought. When Pontecorvo, on stage with Edward Said, claims that “in dealing with such a dramatic history, you must show how difficult the situation is for both sides? (Said 1999 1), he is parroting the praise he has received since the film’s release. But he is already (or still) altering the representation of Algeria.
This “both sides? argument, coupled with the debt the film has to cinéma verité, soviet realism, and the news reels of World War II-era and post-war France , make the film semiotically rich, but politically meager . Pontecorvo displays the film’s lack of political acumen while on-stage with Said, but it’s only a gloss of what the film already declares to be a straight-forward (read, verifiable) war of aggression by colonizer against colon.
Of course, had it been a war of aggression between two easily definable and opposed parties, Pontecorvo’s desire to represent “both sides? might make some sense . There are a number of problems with Pontecorvo’s statement that bear on the problem of French representation of the Arab and Arabic culture in general, and post-colonial representations of Algeria in particular, but starting here we can see how Pontecorvo’s representation leads to a much reduced image of Algeria. And we can begin to see how that much reduced image is in the service of something other than Algeria.
Primarily my concern is the way in which Pontecorvo manufactures an Algerian war for independence that, though countenancing “both sides? (and one assumes he means “French? and “Algerian? here ), fails to acknowledge that two is the least number of sides that could be represented. The glad-handing of Said does not help Pontecorvo to realize that, though he produced a more politically neutral film than it could have conceivably been, the acclaim that Pontecorvo receives (from Said and others) itself always seems to miss that any study of the Algerian war is and has been populated by a plurality, not two sides .
Pontecorvo’s lamentable, but by no means original, sin of generality is emblematic of the more or less continuous problem of universalism and Western thought since the Enlightenment, but it is here a definite problem of that same distinction within Marxism. Pontecorvo makes universal what needs to be particular. Note that just before he declaims his “both sides? argument he claims that he was “mainly interested in showing this unstoppable process of liberation, not only in Algeria, but throughout the entire world? (Said 1999 1).
Pontecorvo’s is a goal at once admirable and specious - especially for a film titled The Battle of Algiers . Couple that with fact that the film occurs entirely in Algiers and already you are seeing the universalizing power of metaphor . Of course, the film is full of the overly-general.
The exemplar of Pontecorvo’s universalizing is the famous scene, almost exactly half-way through the film, in which three Arab women disguise themselves as Westerners and infiltrate the European district of Algiers in order to set bombs. What is stunning here is that the elements for which the film is lauded (colonial and particularly woman’s agency) are the same elements that refute or frustrate a particularity of representation.
Pontecorvo submerges in this scene the complexity of the Algerian struggle and presents it as between the French republic and a naturally occurring, monovocal Algerian nationalism. Except Algerian nationalism is not, was not, ever so simple. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was indeed a major player in the Algerian revolution, and certainly opposed to French rule, but there were also the Harkis, a group of Muslim Arab Algerians who wanted nothing to do with independence, and who were loyal to the French republic (fighting alongside the French against groups like the FLN). Notably too, the MNA are missing. Unlike the FLN, the MNA were supported by both the Communist parties of Algeria and France, and importantly were the primary targets of the so-called café wars on which Pontecorvo bases this scene (Algeria Country Data). But Pontecorvo wants none of this complexity. What is/was a contestation between various positions — native, non-native, pied-noir, nationalists, pan-Arabists, pan-Islamists, etc. — becomes a contestation between “France? and “Algeria.? And not just “France? and “Algeria,? but those names as indicative of something even more universal. Pontecorvo buries the French under the title ‘bourgeoisie’ and the Algerians under ‘proletariat’ in order to make a dialectical opposition between the French as bourgeoisie and the Algerians as proletariat, where no such clear opposition existed.
The women’s ‘disguise’ — a change of clothes, the application of make-up, and the lightening of their hair — expresses culture and identity as both patent and mutable. The disguise immediately transforms (translates) the women from Algerian to French, from colonized to colonizer. The women bear no lasting identity. What is lost is not just the particularity of the Algerian, but the principle of particularity itself. The women can remove their Algerianness simply by changing their clothes .
When the women move to their targets we see immediately that Pontecorvo’s struggle is not a national struggle, but a class one. This scene is a kind of Marxist fantasy, the Algerian revolution painted in a Marxist color. Here the Algerian revolution is directly antipathetic to the colonizer, who is prototypically bourgeois. The colonized and colonizer are class-associated, not nation-associated. The colonial structure moves to economic exploitation — which is certainly a part of colonial rule — but does so at the expense of a national one. The movement of the women highlights the distinction between the Algerian neighborhood as it becomes the ghetto and the European district as it becomes the cosmopolitan city. When the women arrive at the targets the locations are bourgeois topoi. The colonizer is not attacked at work, nor at home, but at leisure: at cafeterias, at milk bars, at airport kiosks. Pontecorvo here changes the conflict between nationalist identities into one of class identities.
Where the Algerian becomes a proto-proletariat, Pontecorvo makes the Algerian revolution into a universal revolution, and in particular, a universal Marxist revolution. Pontecorvo’s film is exemplary perhaps because of its Marxist reduction of the Algerian revolution.
But it would be a mistake to assert that this is a necessarily pejorative or intended construction. Pontecorvo isn’t only registering a Marxist element in a specious way to promote the cause of Marxism. He is also translating the conflict into terms that a western audience would understand. For the sake of solving the différend (the thing it “cannot in principle, deal with?) within the Marxist movement — between lending support and furthering the Marxist project — Pontecorvo must alter the language of Algeria so that it is a Marxist language. By the end of the scene Pontecorvo has obliterated the distinction between lending practical support to the FLN and criticizing the independence that they achieve by lending practical support to a newly minted, and largely fantastical Marxist movement. Of course to have done so is to have removed from the scenario any sign of Algeria. It is, as is often the case, in translation that the subaltern is lost.

***

French arabesques: that is the problem. All arabesque is French or at least it is not Arab. Translation is a necessarily adequative process and the arabesque, like Algeria, does not necessarily refer to what we would like it to. The arabesque is an apt metaphor for the problem of transmission and knowledge of cultures for the arabesque is, at its core, a translation.
The problem when dealing with the arabesque (and here we are dealing with Algeria) is semiotic. The arabesque refers only through a series of deferrals (and perhaps not at all) to a ‘real’ Algeria. When Paul de Man says that "language acquires dignity only to the extent that it can be said to resemble or to partake of the entity to which it refers? or when it (language) is imagined as “the sign of a presumably nonlinguistic ‘content’ or ‘reality’? he is referring to the humanist conception of "dependence" (in signification) of the signifier upon the signified (de Man 180).
De Man's (and Barthes’) assertions to the contrary — that the signifier has been wrenched free or never was adequative of its signified — only complicates how the West deals with the necessarily translated image of Algeria. No longer is it possible to imagine a common referent positioned between two parties whose nominal schemes merely attach differently to it. No longer then is it possible to imagine an ‘object’ that is somehow extralinguistic, an Algerian, a subaltern, that isn’t somehow lost in translation. Indeed, if now some thirty years after the arrival of institutional post-colonial study we know anything it is that a common signifié and its referent, a ‘real’ Algeria, is entirely confused.
This, of course, has not stopped those same post- and anti-colonialists both inside and outside the academy from asserting that the ‘real’ Algeria is present and presentable in their work. Gillo Pontecorvo seems to have wanted to represent the ‘real’ Algeria and its war for independence when he told Edward Said (who was and wasn’t in search of the ‘real’ Orient ) that he wanted to represent “both sides.? But, he also wanted to represent what he saw as the viable alternative and so wanted to represent the “entire world.?
In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard offers Marxism as the last “alternative? of modernity. The “alternative? is in “Christianity, Enlightenment, Marxism? the belief that “another voice has been stifled in the discourse? and its task (the alternative’s) is to put the “hero […] back the in his position as subject? (Lyotard Political Writings 169). This idea is counter-posed in the Postmodern Condition to the theory that “society forms an organic whole, in the absence of which it ceases to be a society? (Lyotard 11). Critical Marxism then at the time of The Battle of Algiers was the idiom of revolution, and therefore the relevant aspect of the différend within Enlightenment thought. Regardless of what Pontecorvo (or anyone else) was able to actually do with critical Marxism — and Lyotard’s continuous critique after leaving Socialisme ou Barbarisme in 1968 was that it failed to do enough — it was, nevertheless, the language in which he and the putatively western audience spoke.
If the reading of the bombing scene in The Battle of Algiers was meant to articulate how Marxism contained within it a différend — a thing it could not “deal with? — that would always undermine either its project’s advancement or the population it was seeking to defend, then it is an exemplar of the larger différend with western thought more generally since the Enlightenment.
The problem that arrives at each post-colonial turn is the one represented above: how does one honor both particularity and universalism? How does one honor both the particular status of Algerians (say) and the universal right to free determination? How does one countenance both sovereignty and human rights? It is the same fundamental incongruity that lead Toqueville to condemn slavery and to promote colonialism. It is to greater of lesser extents, with greater or lesser emphases on the particular or the general in all of the texts that have made up this class. How does one honor both the person and the people?
In “A Memorial for Marxism? Lyotard, memorializing a friendship and a methodology, wonders what would happen if “history and thought did not need synthesis; what if the paradoxes had to remain paradoxes, and if the equivocacy of these universals, which are also particulars, must not be sublated?? (50). The question has no answer. Or rather the answer is the différend. It is to forgo translation.

Notes