Broken images: the aesthetics and ethics of cinematic iconoclasm
This thesis explores the issue of iconoclasm in Western European cinema after World War II. While little attention has been given to this topic in the specific field of film studies, history, philosophy and religious studies have investigated it thoroughly, so much so that it is possible to apply some of the work carried out in these disciplines to the analysis of iconoclasm in the cinema. Iconoclasm refers to the wilful destruction of images that can be either literal or metaphorical, and which depends on the interpretation of the nature of the image and of the copy-prototype relationship. Scholars in history and philosophy (Besançon 2009; Bettetini 2006; Ladner 1953; Mondzain 2003, 2005; Wunenburger 1999) have examined the issue of iconoclasm, outlining its route from Plato’s dialogues in the fourth century BCE to the Byzantine controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries, up to the present day. The issue of iconoclasm in the cinema has only been partially investigated, primarily in a few articles (Groys 2002; Perniola 2013), and more recently in Poirson- Dechonne’s (2016) work on iconoclastic tendencies in cinema. This thesis examines cinematic iconoclasm with particular attention to two types of images – the Greek eikôn and eidôlon. The eikôn, which eventually became the icon during the religious controversy over sacred representations, stands for an image that establishes a connection between both the sensible and the intelligible realms. Conversely, the eidôlon, which came to signify the idol, is an image grounded exclusively in the visible sphere and which hides its nature as a copy. In the thesis I demonstrate that the cinema embodies the same dichotomy that has inhabited Western thought about images since ancient times. This division occurs between the image as a faithful reproduction of reality, and the image as a false and deceitful copy. The thesis is divided into three sections. The first section consists in the theoretical framework for the research and delineates the genealogy of the Western image and the development of an iconoclastic thought from Plato to cinema. The second and the third sections are dedicated to the discussion of theoretical and practical forms of cinematic iconoclasm. Specifically, the second section focuses on the critique of the cinematic image as eidôlon, namely as an illusory and deceptive representation of reality, drawing examples from some exponents of Marxist film theory and filmmakers such as Isidore Isou, Guy Debord and Jean-Luc Godard. The third section examines the production of what I term the iconoclastic eikôn in the cinema. By this I mean a type of image that aims at representing an intelligible model, thus establishing a link between what is visible on the screen and an invisible prototype – the peculiarity of the eikôn – without resorting to mimetic reproduction. To this end I primarily engage with Ingmar Bergman’s and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s work. My overall contention is that iconoclasm in the arts, and specifically in the cinema, consists in a questioning of our modes of producing and consuming what is visible. Furthermore, cinematic iconoclasm can produce an ethics of (in)visibility. That is, the negation of a figurative image (the destruction of the eidôlon) has the potential to stimulate a critical reflection on what and how we see, and on the responsibility of one’s look, thereby investigating the limits of our right to see and show everything on a screen.