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Montage Obligatory
The War, the Gulf and the Small Screen

Serge Daney

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1. SIRPA: French Army Information Office.


Information is Once Again the Business of Chiefs

The conclusion, even provisionally, of this huge police operation known as ‘the Gulf War’ is a call to order. On one hand, public opinion in the West has progressively aligned itself behind its governments. On the other, the same public opinion (at least in France) has continued (as usual) complaining about television. It was enough to read letters to the editor of Libération (that’s my job) to feel that the only rock-solid certainty while everything else shook was the useless obscenity of television, comparable to a cheap drug (live broadcasting), badly cut and left that way. As if, because of their incessant rejoicing in the void, the talking heads of televised news really deserved to become the scapegoats of the moment.

Fearing the escalation of the logic of war and the piling-up of every error, many (myself included) criticised television in advance for merely reading out aloud the CNN soap opera or the briefings from SIRPA. (1) They were following – too quickly – the ‘hypothesis of the worst’, that things can only get worse – but the worst, once again, was not certain. Arguably, this war had to degenerate for everyone to see to what extent our ‘right to information’ was in the wrong hands. But more numerous (albeit less vocal) were those who, on the contrary – proudly impervious to the divine surprise of a new world order and the justification for this war – were happy to see it won ‘surgically’ and without pictures, rather than ‘dirtily’ and exposed to everyone’s eyes.


2. Raymond Germanos: the French General from the Ministry of Defence responsible for news briefings during the Gulf War.

3. Cf. Jean-François Lyotard (trans. George Van Den Abbeele), The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988); first published 1983.






4. Patrick Poivre D’Arvor: star journalist and foreign correspondent on French television.





Result: partisans of the war refrained from attacking the media too much – an attack which, this time, went against their convictions. Which meant uniting behind the national interest and obeying one’s leaders (who are, by their own admission, Good itself), as well as directly granting the smiling Raymond Germanos the right to manage the news as he pleases. (2) Result: it was those who refused the principle of this war who attacked television the most, reproaching it for intentionally fabricating a spectacle, or being so incompetent as to be unable to deliver at all. As Lyotard says so well in The Differend: ‘Reality is always the burden of the plaintiff (...) The defence is nihilist, the accused pleads its case. That is why it is up to the victims of the extermination camps to prove the existence of those camps.’ (3) The Iraqi death toll will thus be left to those amused by this type of accounting, or to the care of History, whose ‘immediacy’ should never be over-emphasised.

Once it was confirmed that the war had been cleanly won by the coalition, and that the American policeman had not blundered too much, suspicion of television took another face: as two-faced as Janus. Either television fulfils its role (which is all about democracy) or it listens to its master’s voice (which is all about the success of the police operation). It is the conjunction (or the succession) of these two attitudes (sometimes in the same people) which has created this feeling of ‘soft core’ obscenity, and of the irreality of live broadcasting. And if Poivre D’Arvor, trying to strike a pose next to Saddam, or a scud missile, or some absurd Captain Karim, will likely remain the guy whose head you’d like to slap and the all-round Zelig of this war, that is precisely because he popped up everywhere, mimicking all possible attitudes at the same time – from outraged professional to velvet-voiced answering machine. (4)

Great Satan, Small Saddam

By precipitating this archaic war, Saddam Hussein has probably allowed Westerners to somehow reconcile themselves with their own archaisms. By voluntarily renouncing a certain share of information (that famous ‘fourth estate’ which suddenly did not weigh so heavily in the balance, and which nobody talks about anymore), the citizen/news-consumer from the affluent countries has ‘won’ something. He, too, has won the right to regress. Just look at the patriotic hysteria and re-tribalising of the Americans, the praying leaders and the flag-waving populace. For its part, preferring once again phantasm to information, the ‘Arab way’ has endured another defeat – which, of course, it saw as another victory.




One of the things we learn from this war is that, despite his secret service, Saddam Hussein was quite incapable of using the information at his disposal, and that he played all his cards – even the most symbolic ones (hostages, religion, Third-Worldism) – with terrible timing. Have we entered an era when the leaders of the South, as dangerous, crazy and suicidal as they may be, have become incapable of turning their armoury – physical and conceptual – against those who sold it to them? Saddam – not a very bright killer – lost the modern information war, while Bush won the first postmodern police operation.

What does ‘postmodern’ mean here? That, before it is due to the citizen, information belongs to power, to all powers: political, economic and (it had slipped our minds) military. OK – but wasn’t that always the case? We must therefore add that, for the first time in ages, the average citizen has more or less agreed to wash his hands of this ‘in vitro’ war. In fact, the event is not the war but the in vitro part, and it can only function with our active complicity. The proof? A CNN reporter, invited onto a post-war studio discussion, spoke of her sadness at the idea that the majority of Americans thought there had been too many images of the war. Nobody consoled her.

In truth, we could have guessed all this ever since the summer, when Bush announced the cost of the operation and made the beneficiaries/spectators pay in advance. This is the principle of pay-per-view, which we know is probably the only future television has. Bush first obtained from his people the right not to share information with them, and the agreement to trade the free and universal spectacle of War for the domestic spectacle of mere Victory parades. Is the entire neighbourhood invited to the annual Policeman’s Ball? No. It is enough to make them visit the police station’s weapon arsenal, while dissuading them from verifying too closely how order is actually maintained. This is doubtless the new ‘world order’, and honesty obliges us to recognise that there were few (I wasn’t among them) who realised that the lesson of the Vietnam War (a certain ‘never again’) had been so radically learned. Fewer still were those who understood how much America, in its willingness to use cinema to tell itself its own history, is not the rule, but the exception.

Sole remaining super-power, America has transformed itself into a professional mercenary ‘at the service’ of the United Nations, and has crushed a local mercenary who was finally too stupid and rather unreliable. But, in return, the war has revealed what has already changed here, there and almost everywhere. In France, for example. If the idea of a counter-power has all but evaporated, if the word ‘democracy’ has become an empty cipher and an easy slogan, and if the ‘right to information’ sounds like an old chorus and a cause for born losers, that is because, in France too, we are witnessing a nervy re-territorialisation (the word ‘pacification’ is back, the Boudarel affair came out of the blue, and the debate on the rehabilitation of the ‘colonial epic’ seems to be up next).

Hence everyone’s silent reconciliation (the generation of great communicators who came from leftism often being the least dignified) with the idea of power, and this modus vivendi that draws to a close the ‘thirty glorious years’ of the post-war period, which was so in need of emancipations and ‘liberations’ of every kind. Hence, in cinema, the ‘80s – marked by the return, and the success, of ‘official’ art. Hence the encounter between students hankering for discipline (Dead Poets Society) and their parents hankering for masterpieces (Merci la vie). And so, finally, the endless liquefaction of that impossible object: television. It is indeed possible that we criticise this object less for its willingness to obey than for its hypocritical pretension of existing ‘to the side’ of power, confronting it, or even opposing it. Television irritates when it still mimics independence, and appals when it caves in.

Television is Indeed Very Realist

Why, then, is television watched by everybody, but respected so little? The answer may be simple. Television is watched because it is indeed very realist. It tells the truth and informs absolutely. It is the true pollution of our mental oxygen. One cannot rebel against TV any more than one can stop breathing because of ecological convictions. Except for one thing: the only world of which television never ceases giving us news (news as precise and overheated as stock market rates or the Top 40) is the world seen from the viewpoint of power (just as we say ‘the earth seen from the moon’). That is its only reality. Without TV, how would we know who has power and who doesn’t? Who’s worth something and who’s worth nothing? If the power that men wield over each other is always to be found at the intersection of the economic and the sacred, then television is a generalised stock-market quotation turned into a liturgy (which is itself quoted). This is really why we watch it, because, about all that, at least, it keeps us informed. About all that, yes – but nothing else. Yes, about the stock market, but not about life. That is why, for all that, we do not respect it.

This is also why we should stop talking so much about ‘images’. There was never so much talk about the ‘power of the image’ until it ceased having any. The overwhelming majority of ‘images’ which have free reign on television today are less images with any intrinsic force, than images which represent power, and which ‘work’ for power just like ‘brand images’ work for corporations. It is strange that it took us a war to rediscover that the image has also, always, been a lure (Lacan took an interest in animal mimetism, in the eyelet in a peacock’s tail and the grotesque way it ‘eyes’ us). A lure destined to be a decoy, to distract attention and gain time. Advertising, for instance, is less about instilling the reflex to buy, than about demonstrating the power to be able to purchase (at great cost) a space, solely so that nobody else can occupy it.

Real estate speculation, ‘space buying’, robot-imagery, and surveillance-imagery are all the same thing. To be convinced of this, we needed only to look at the behaviour of advertisers during this war. Once it was over, the arms manufacturer Aérospatiale bought up entire pages in newspapers when, one month earlier, clean-cut advertisers were expressing sincere regrets that their technical jargon (from ‘target’ to ‘campaign’) had been entirely militarised. It is not that Aérospatiale would like to sell Exocet missiles to readers; but that it was keen on buying some victory bulletins. At Libération, there were apparently some angry readers and (some say) a few complaints. Gallantly, the society of editors only let it be known that what was shocking in this advertising was the pointless humiliation of an enemy already on the ground.

It is in this sense that the Gulf War has been quite well covered (and, simultaneously, ‘recovered’) since, for better or worse, television could show only images which, as it is clear today, were already part of the victory. The American reserve and the sudden laconic attitude of the soldiers, the electronic spectacle succeeding the logistical exhibition, the calculated overestimation of the ‘fourth army in the world’ – all this formed, from August onwards, a globally realist image, not of war (it takes two for that) but of victory (only the stronger will tell the story, if it so wishes). And besides, this is one of the lessons of the war: everywhere it strengthened what was strong and weakened what was weak. In a talk show on 11 March (‘Le point sur la table’), Mougeotte, a big cheese on TF1, was reporting on a recent poll where ‘the French’ had answered ‘yes’. The question asked: ‘In your opinion, has television come out of the war stronger?’ Q.E.D.

‘A War Without Images’?

I remember that, during the Falklands War, I suddenly realised that this unexpected conflict was taking place without opposition and, moreover, without images. Images whose absence went entirely unremarked, because the idée fixe of the time, its lamentable doxa, was that the Vietnam War marked the beginning of an era of pure transparency - dedicated to the obscenity of a constant stream of tragedies and a compelling image-sewer. Later, I remember publishing in Libération two almost identical pictures side by side: one of Verdun, and the other of the Iran-Iraq War. The idea was simple: since this latter war interested no one, let’s find something which, through the vague memory of the trenches and soldiers of the First World War, could (re)arouse a minimum of empathy. But it was already late in the day, and one could feel that the era of ‘wars without images’ had been announced.

When the Gulf was set ablaze and everyone spent a couple of sleepless nights watching CNN, the expression ‘war without images’ suddenly became popular, quickly followed by ‘video game’. Many were surprised, because this war was no longer the kind we made others wage (Iran-Iraq) or left sub-others (Liberia) to wage; it touched us directly. Nevertheless, after a few cries of disappointment, we accepted it. Why so fast? Wasn’t there some suspicion that those images (of cinema and photography) no longer generated faith, proof and spectacle with as much efficacy as in the past? I verified, then, what some of us (Godard being the most famous) had been saying for years (but no one ever believed us): television, generally, did not run on images. This time, people believed us a little, and it was almost a scoop.

For it was clear, conversely, that all the other types of ‘visualisation’ gave better information, or at least ‘dressed’ the American victory more respectably. Electronic simulations, cartoons or comics, synthesised jingles, geographical maps, charts, logos (some oil-drenched cormorant) or radio sound-images were more suited to illustrate the ‘war’ from one side only. In exactly the same way, cartoons are a thousand times superior to cinema when it is a matter of telling the story of Tom’s absolute defeat and Jerry’s absolute triumph - those two small beasts as indestructible as Good and Evil. In so far as they elicit the optic nerve and are on television, one can call all these modes of visualisation, viewing and verification ‘images’. But it’s not obligatory.

The Zapper Goes Back to Work

I was (already) thinking about all this when the war broke out. On one hand, the idea of starting a new column in Libération seemed the obvious thing to do. On the other hand, picking up again the pilgrim’s staff as ‘Mr Images’ no longer appealed to me. To make life simpler, I decided to make a clear distinction between ‘the image’ and ‘the visual’. The visual would be the optical verification of a purely technical operation. The visual is without reverse shot, it lacks nothing, it is closed, looped, a little like the image of pornographic spectacle, which is only the ecstatic verification of the working of organs (and nothing more). As for the image – this image we loved in cinema to the point of obscenity – the situation would be rather the contrary. The image always takes place at the border of two force fields, it is meant to bear witness to a certain otherness; and although it always has a hard core, it always lacks something. The image is always more and less than itself.

This was not an earth-shattering discovery (it is essentially what Cahiers gravitated and tramped around for forty years), but it helped me not to coin the word ‘image’ into too much of an expert shrink’s pension, and prolong the funeral oration of that disappearing thing which is Cinema. Where there is also the other (small or large, it depends but doesn’t really matter), that’s the cinema image. And where there is only One (neither small nor large but swiftly ‘gross’, swollen, full of itself), that’s the ‘visual’ of television. And if the visual is taking over today, that is because the more or less well-negotiated return of identity phantasms has happened everywhere. So not only is the image becoming rare; it is also becoming a form of stubborn resistance, or a touching memory, within a universe of pure ‘signalisation’. What resists in the image, is that old and dignified humanism (let’s say, our current reasons for crying during a John Ford movie), which is always under the threat of becoming a bourgeois humanitarianism (let’s say, charity business). For if the image informed as well, it was never from the sole viewpoint of the stronger, but from an in-between where what was being drawn, sometimes in extremis, was the face of the weaker (in the sense that atomic physics speaks of the ‘weak force’).

Living With Images is Doing Two Things at Once

To adopt, in the face of images and sounds, a critical stance has always been a strange undertaking. A flirtation with the impossible. To look at this Gulf War was an exhausting gymnastic. On one hand, we had to understand the information that was available. On the other hand, we had to exercise over this material a suspicious vigilance, a principle of mistrust, a ‘sidelong’ glance. ‘Head in the sand’, to be seen without seeing, is the motto of the ostrich, i.e., the idiot: it is annoying and not really recommended. That is why many left the game, convinced that they would always be lied to anyway. The annoying thing is that it is no longer with a happy heart that we today renounce being accurately informed. Or that we leave to our elected representatives (even if we still like them) the monopoly over managing this. We stopped reading Pékin Information [Peking News] a long time ago: we know that nowhere in the world does democracy get by on a lack of information.

But then we discover that, like democracy, information is not a debt but a practice, not a dream but a passion. It is one thing to be angry at those ‘whose job it is’ for doing it badly; and another to understand that it depends on us, too. If the visual prevents us from seeing (because it prefers that we decode, decrypt, in short ‘read’), the image always challenges us to edit it with another, with the other. Because in the image, as in democracy, there is something at stake, something incomplete, a first incision or gap. But the game which quickly transforms us into bitter moralists or preachers is too serious. There would need to be many more of us playing this game for it to be worth more than the candle, and for the candle not to become merely the meagre flame of an angry, noble soul. Meanwhile, it was strange to see some journalists who believed that this game was possible. Guillaume Durand, for example. He seemed surprised to have understood that there was something which could not be reduced to his ’profession-nalism’.

Management of Lack and Surplus

If the visual is a loop, the image is both a lack and a surplus. To live democratically with images, to get some information out of them, is like living with domestic pets. Sometimes we only see what they lack (speech, for example), at other times we only see the surplus in them (love, for example). It is a pendulum, a shuttle, not really a comfortable ‘place’. If cinema knew a great deal about the ‘place of the spectator’, if it could play with the fact of my immobility in the theatre, then my television set, by contrast, knows nothing of my lack or my surplus. And there’s always something lacking or in surplus.

Let’s take the lack. And, along the way, let’s salute the minor progress (all things being relative) which can be observed. The things once lacking from television news are now forever written on the image itself: sources, dates, archives, names, the journalist’s or the cameraman’s face, notes on local censorship – everything related to the question of ‘who’s speaking’. The image is now as decorated as a Soviet General’s chest. One of the most ‘beautiful’ images (sent to me by Christian Caujolle) is a picture taken by TF1 and sold as an AFP [Agence France Presse] document: one can see an (archival) image of Saddam Hussein with two captions, ‘Radio Baghdad live’ and ‘Radio message from Saddam Hussein’. A photo taken from TV, with a caption stating that it is from radio: it is the lack that creates the gag. But other lacks are less funny – wilful, deliberate lacks, like propaganda. Questions without answers, shots without reverse shots, winners without losers: the one without the other.




5. The piece’s title is both a response to André Bazin’s ‘Montage interdit’ (translated as ‘Forbidden Montage’) and a message like a road sign direction, hence ‘Montage Obligatory’.


It seems to me that, all throughout this war, there has been one lacking image: Baghdad beneath the bombs. An image whose absence has even forced us all to ‘imagine’ something, based on our opinions, our phantasms, or our memories of war movies. This mental image slowly became ‘truer’ than the others, and I suppose some may have even wanted to see Baghdad in ruins – if only to invalidate the thesis of ‘smart bombing’. The furious energy used to imagine what neither Bush nor Saddam wanted to show anymore, was one of the primary effects of this ‘war without images’ on the guinea pigs that we were. The more the video game was forced upon us, the more we were filled with dread over the growing abstraction of its targets. Was this out of compassion for the Iraqi people, or because cinema has bequeathed those reflexes to us? And what if that amounts to the same thing?

Montage Obligatory

Absorbed in writing this column, I had the feeling – euphoric at the beginning and heavy at the end – that I had become an editor in my head. The story of how I built up enough imaginary to fight a genuine threat of irrealisation. I edited what I was seeing with the lacking images, with all the ‘off-screen’, chaotically, like a mad man. I found these images everywhere, depending on the moment or the mood, like a hysteric who never ceases to demand precisely what he has not been given. And it is very easy to manipulate a hysteric, because simply forbidding him some trifle makes him believe it is important. I suspected everybody; I fired up my brain to re-establish continuity where there was only a cut in the flow, so as not to forget to remember, where amnesia was the rule. Why weren’t we seeing the Emir Jaber? Why suddenly were there no more reports about the Indian or Philippine workers? Why did the Russian image of the oil slick come so late? Why this feeling of doing a job that shouldn’t be mine?




Maybe for the first time in the history of television, the rarefaction of images in favour of the pure visual had created an imagination deficit that was harder and harder to compensate for. Indeed, it is no longer sufficient to know a little bit more than the average spectator about editing, shot and reverse-shot, tricks of phrasing or the liturgies of live broadcasting, to automatically have at one’s disposal images (or the linkages of images) – images about which we no longer know whether they were accidentally lacking, or outrightly banned. In that respect, it was as if our usual perception of the world came out shrunken from this world-vision war, rendered as a floating abstraction streaked with phantom ‘events’, almost confirming what Baudrillard said when he announced, calmly, that the Gulf War ‘did not take place’.

Sometimes, rarely, an image passed by – a real image. But whether it was the pilots probably beaten up, Isaac Stern and his audience of gas masks, Saddam stroking the head of a child or the CNN guy making radio on TV, it was always people who, willingly or under duress, were ‘making an image’, and knew it. There can be an image only when there is enough other for a quid pro quo to still be possible. Thus, I saw a Kuwaiti complaining about his broken fridge and his escaped slaves: he was so convinced that ‘we’ would appreciate the image he was giving of himself, that I stopped being upset by his bad behaviour: after all, wasn’t this one of the rare pieces of information about the Kuwaiti ‘people’ that reached me?

These gymnastics are as exhausting as the fear of a passing shot on a tennis court. You must never be where television expects you to be – and, if necessary, you must embrace all of the Devil’s viewpoints. For, alongside the abundance of lacks, there is also the poverty of surpluses. There are times when we feel we must edit what we see with what we don’t see, and other times when it is the opposite: we must watch in spite of the little there is to see. That is why the rare reports made ‘under Iraqi control’ in the streets of Baghdad must have been largely overlooked, on the obvious pretext that the comments of the ‘man in the street’ of Baghdad sounded too much like waffle. But there aren’t only those who speak to the camera; there are also the passers-by who look at the camera from the background of the image, with a stunned and distracted air. Which is what told me that this air and this look are the hard core without which there would only be signs to ‘read’, and no more humans to ‘see’. I admit that, in this particular case, the information is minimal (something like: ‘the Iraqis exist’), but it is only minimal from the point of view of the visual, not of the image.

There is, in the ‘critique of TV images’ as in all media critique, a strange satisfaction. A faith in images that has turned bad, a ‘bad faith’ which translates into the sad passion of always having the last word. The rarefaction of the image begins when the twin acts, seeing and showing, are no longer natural, and have become like acts of resistance. Then it’s up to us to imagine what we no longer see. Imagination is the ghost of the image. It is our bitter victory.

This text, from Libération April 1991, appeared in Serge Daney’s Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, cinéma, television, information (1991, reprinted 1997), and appears here with the permission of the publisher, Aléas ( Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Rouge, with thanks to Cyril Béghin, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bill Krohn. Special thanks to Maurice Glaymann.


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© Aléas 1997, English translation © Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission.
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