"I remember, I am the son of emigrants, I remember, I am an orphan, I remember, I lost paradise, I remember, I was an autodidact, I remember, and I have to remember all this, in order that my failures, my lacks, the source of all my pains become productive." When Edgar Morin took the microphone at the end of a conference held in his honor in 1986, the then sixty-five-year-old sociologist and philosopher, who prefers the title of thinker ("not a profession, but a quality"), used the opportunity to ponder his own history, his status in the French intellectual world, and his "method," which he has so far expanded over the course of six volumes of writings.
The title of Morin's rather colloquial talk, "Messie, mais non" (A Mess? No Way!), suggested at once the criticism and prejudice he has encountered throughout his career as well as his propensity for a self-styled intellectual heroism. A certain unruliness and heterodoxy, framed by mantralike pleas for transdisciplinarism and "transphilosophism" in the name of "complexity," as well as the odd call to "Einsteinize" the "sciences of man," have earned the onetime research director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) a fan base in Brazil and other Latin American countries, but also the reputation of a writer who roams too many disciplines to have anything like the appropriate orientation for the clear-cut epistemic landscape of the university.
Though such accusations of "universality" or encyclopedism could be deemed problematic in themselves, some of the mistrust appears justified. Take for instance the scandal surrounding a 2002 Le Monde article cosigned by Morin comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to a cancer. The article claimed that Jewish people, using the Holocaust as legitimation, were taking satisfaction in humiliating others. Naturally, the article provoked outrage, and not only among Jewish organizations. It led to formal charges of racism and anti-Semitism, closing with a judge's guilty verdict at the court of Versailles in May 2005 (the punishment was set at a fine of one euro—symbolically portentous enough for a restless apologist for the European cause).
Morin didn't step back from what he had written but defended instead his "complex" approach to the conflict. He claimed that he had been trying to take into consideration both sides and had failed to strike the correct balance enabling the article to be read as anything other than a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli pamphlet. But as one rereads the scandalous text, the purported complexity of Morin's argument turns out to be a thin varnish of biological, geological, and physical metaphors crudely applied to its delicate subject—at any rate, there's little evidence of anything that one might qualify as "transdisciplinary."
Though Morin certainly did not enjoy the attention of the scandal or the linking of his name with anti-Semitism—particularly since he is of Jewish heritage—the image of the outsider-rebel is one that he embraced early on and has since strategically cultivated as a trademark. Deploying the terminology he has used in his work since the 1950s, one could speak of the "Morin myth"—solidified by a bibliography that amounts to more than thirty books and countless articles. A crucial element of this myth would be the brand of reflection displayed in the quote from his 1986 talk. Enlisting the enduring features of his biography, Morin emphasized the methodological function of pointing out again and again those tattoos of the self. For the constitutive factors of his own subjectivity are the stuff to be constantly "transformed" into a "tool," in order to surpass subjectivity itself. Some of those factors include: to be born (in 1921) as the child of Vidal and Luna Nahoum, Sephardic Jews who emigrated to France from Salonika earlier in the century; to become an orphan at age nine after the death of his mother; to gain interest in Marxism at fourteen and successively lose any faith in the paradise of nature; to change his name to Morin and enter the French Communist Party during the war while fighting with the Resistance (getting acquainted with François Mitterrand along the way); to start a profession as a writer and researcher without having officially specialized at the accepted academic level; to be expelled from the Party in 1951 after a signed article in the France-Observateur, a magazine the Communists considered to be infiltrated by the CIA; to start a new career as a researcher who, among other things, founded in 1956 the journal Arguments, a forum for nonsectarian, existentialist Marxist debate, choosing Roland Barthes, Kostas Axelos, Jean Duvignaud, Pierre Fougeyrollas, Colette Audry, and others as collaborators ("a little group" with "links of friendship," as Barthes recalled in 1979).
In his bestseller Autocritique, published in 1959, Morin reconstructed his itinerary from the time of the Resistance to the later conviction that there must exist an "au-delà du communisme d'appareil." When the "excess of Stalinist magic started to de-Stalinize" him, Morin was ready to split. Around the time of this alienation from party-line Marxism, he discovered the interdependence of biology, anthropology, and culture in the case of death, an idea he developed in L'Homme et la mort (Man and Death, 1951), and the emergence of a new type of human being: the "consumer." L'homme consommateur should, from Morin's point of view, entail a new concept of politics, one that engages the level of everyday life. As this new man "obscurely searches a new way of life across the dreams and games of mass culture, across the fetishes of ‘standing,'" Morin's self-appointed task was to discover models of subjectivity different from the exhausted types of the "universal petty-bourgeois, the mystic party functionary, or the televisionary man."
Part of this pursuit of new subjectivities was the classic proto–nouvelle vague/ cinéma vérité film Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer), made in 1960 by Morin and the ethnographic documentary maker Jean Rouch. Working with a large crew of cameramen (including Raoul Coutard, Godard's cinematographer, who was between shootings of Breathless and Le Petit Soldat) and using new, lightweight equipment that Rouch had helped to develop, the film was intended, as Morin put it in a text written at the time of Chronicle, to "be a montage of images in which the question ‘How do you live?' is transformed into ‘How can one live?' and ‘What can one do?' which should bounce off the viewer." Morin and Rouch very literally posed these questions, and others, to a group of young people they followed through the streets and apartments of Paris. Two of their subjects were Holocaust survivors; there was an immigrant from Italy; a Renault factory worker; students from the Ivory Coast; and the young, as yet unknown, Régis Debray. Throughout Chronicle, the context of the technical and theoretical setting is invoked, the reflexive gesturing reaching its climax at the end of the film when footage of the movie is screened to the interlocutors in order to trigger a discussion about the past months of shooting and the filmmaker's decisions. Morin had high hopes regarding the effects of the film on all those participating in it. He dreamed of nothing less than a "big final scene where the scales would fall and consciousness would be awakened, where we would take a new ‘oath of the tennis court' to construct a new life."
Published six years before Chronicle's release, The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, now translated for the first time into English by Lorraine Mortimer, doesn't display much of Morin's messianic élan. However, the book plays an important role in the author's theory of the evolution of (Western) humanity in the age of mass-cultural engineerings of the soul. Indeed the work might be read as an attempt to render the subjectivity of l'homme consommateur more comprehensive by withdrawing from the mechanics of Marxist analysis while leaving some of its categories, such as a vague notion of class, intact. The subtitle of the French original, Essai d'anthropologie, incisively points to the totality of the "human phenomenon" that Morin, referring to Marcel Mauss, always aspires to envision. In many ways this "anthropological" approach consisted in the connection of the study of cinema—as an instance of mass culture—to Morin's own experiences as a cinema-going adolescent, immersed in the magical machinations of the movies. In Autocritique, Morin describes how he was initiated by the transferences and identifications induced by films like Chapayev (1934, dir. Sergey and Georgy Vasiliev) to the "possibility, the idea, the hope of salvation in the collective redemption"—a collective experience and an experience of collectivity that materialized in a very different, horrendous way in World War II. For teenagers of the 1930s like himself, the movie theater was "a bit grotto of mysteries, a bit bistro, a bit imaginary bordello," a multiplex site of escapism and transgressive communications with the shadows on the screen, a place where the separation between the real and the imaginary collapsed regularly. It was nothing short of the birthplace of what Morin would later call the "semi-imaginary man," a creature hovering between the real and the imaginary, saturated by projected images and in turn enriching the images by its "personal participation."
Looking back to his own writings, from the socioethnographic studies L'an zéro de l'Allemagne (Germany's Year Zero, 1946), The Red and the White: Report from a French Village (1967, trans. 1970), Mai 1968: la brèche (1968, with Claude Lefort and Jean-Marc Coudray), and Rumour in Orléans (1969, trans. 1971), to his later enterprise, starting in the early '60s, of founding a transdisciplinary science of complexity and metamethodology through the synthesis of cybernetics, sociology, anthropology, biology, and so on, Morin extols everyone that the preliminary problem of his "method" (the "first imperative") is the "preservation of wonder and astonishment." Like many other statements and aphoristic maxims in his writings, this phrase bears a touch of simplicity, naïveté, and sincerity that is often astonishing in itself, leaving the reader time and again with a wisdom of the obvious not always easy to appreciate.
However, the wonder at the face of the workings of "cinéma" (Morin usually avoids the word film in an effort to maintain the complexity of the cultural phenomenon he wants to render) led the then twenty-nine-year-old scholar to choose the anthropology of the movies as his topic of research after having joined the CNRS in 1950, at the invitation of the sociologist Georges Friedmann. Friedmann suggested to his new colleague that he embark on research on the sociology of the machine. Morin, however, still traumatized by his break with the Communist Party, opted for the cinema, "a refuge subject," as he explained in the preface to the 1978 edition of The Cinema, "a subject nevertheless that brought me back to my own life."
From this decision, he projected a two-part study of the cinema, the first "anthropological," the second "historical-sociological." Only the first, The Cinema, was finished and published as planned (the second transmuted into a more general study of mass culture and the culture industry, published as L'esprit du temps in 1961). A smaller volume, The Stars, published
in 1957 (the first English translation, by Richard Howard, now reused for the reedition, dates from 1960), figures as a kind of by-product of this larger enterprise of understanding the movies in terms of magic, myth, identification, immersion, interaction, projection, participation, and so on. The Cinema, The Stars, and L'esprit du temps read less as separable studies than as arbitrarily isolated chapters of a single, meandering text with a limited set of key ideas that Morin tirelessly reworks, rephrases, and recombines. Given a taste for the mannered, the pleasure of this text might be found in its moments of flamboyance and grandiloquence, in the baroque melting of categories and planting of neologisms. Morin eclectically draws on the whole gamut of French and international film theory and philosophy available to him at the time, Jean Epstein's writings probably being the most influential. Philosophically, Sartre's work on imagination and the imaginary was certainly important, though more as subtext than as the object of a philosophical argument. In terms of film sociology, Morin worked with forgotten books like Movieland by Ramón Gómez de la Serna, or, especially regarding the interpretation of the star system and fan culture, Herbert Blumer's Movies and Conduct, Margaret Thorp's America at the Movies, J. P. Mayer's British Cinemas and Their Audiences, and Curt Riess's Die Geburt der Illusion. Obviously most helpful for his meditations on the oneiric quality of film and the conception of the links between cinema, magic, and mythology were The Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies, two cult classics by Parker Tyler, a source Morin acknowledges, if only halfheartedly.
For Morin, cinema is as much a medium of escapism as of the surrealization of Man. Not so much celebrating the phenomenon as trying to find ways to render its vast transformative powers, the uncanny dissolution of psyche and screen that produces galaxies of "coordinated doubles," Morin seems fascinated and appalled, as well as a bit embarrassed, as if watching himself getting lost in the movies. He commences by telling the story of the "metamorphosis of the cinematograph into cinema," from the documentary moving images of Marey and the Lumières to the introduction of the fantastic and fictional with Méliès, followed by the inventions of the close-up and montage, which led to an increasing reciprocity of image and spectator. In one of the various periodizations he proposes for this teleological process, whereby one evolutionary step necessarily leads to the next, Morin dates the change from cinematograph to cinema at around 1925, when the "system of participation"—the technical and economical conventions of the film industry as well as the "star system" of Hollywood and elsewhere—was developed to such an extent that the "dialectic of the imaginary and the real" reached a new level. Not unlike other postwar theorists of mass culture—Marshall McLuhan's and Morin's grand speculations have much in common—in Morin the interrelations of technology, media, society, and psychology are conceived in terms of a reconfiguration, or even rewiring, of humanity. The mental and physical habitat provided by the culture industry is an "immaterial tissue" in which "we drape ourselves naively," as Morin writes in The Stars. In characteristic metaphoric overdrive, Morin mixes vocabularies and frames of references to explain holistically the "polymorphous participation" of any existence "snapped up" into the "anthropo-cosmomorphic and micro-macrocosmic brew" of cinema. The degree of immersive interaction fostered by the medium is rendered in one of the more disturbing passages in The Cinema, in which Morin muses on how the world is "impregnated with soul" and soul "impregnated with world" through what he calls "projection-identification" with the ghostlike, mythic doubles on the screen. Though wrapped in a quasi-objective anthropological discourse, Morin's almost existentialist disgust of "soul" is palpable when he writes: "Our civilization is so smeared with soul that the spectator, blinded by a kind of opaque membrane, has become incapable of seeing the film, capable only of feeling it"; it becomes even more so when considering the rendering of the soul as "isolated, on offer, obscene, so gelatinous, so soft, a Medusa-like jellyfish abandoned on the beach" (of capitalist culture, one is tempted to add); and it peaks with the following outburst of nausea: "Love, passion, emotion, heart: the cinema, like our world, is all slimy and lachrymal with them. So much soul! So much soul!" Projection-identification is the internalization of participation; nothing is active apart from the soul, the microcosm of the self, which places the passive spectator in "a regressive situation": "The disarmed SS officer sobs over his victims or over his canary, the ruffian in prison becomes a poet."
Morin seeks rescue in the depth of anthropology, among "archaic" audiences of the cinematograph and the cinema, Iranian nomads or Africans from the Congo or the Gold Coast, which his friend Rouch and other ethnographers had visited. He remembers being a child, capable of wonder in the presence of the photogénie of the cinematograph. And he understands why Brecht, Eisenstein, Bresson, Welles, and others rebelled against the alienation of "affective participation," the exaltations of "anthropo-cosmomorphism." Interestingly enough, especially considering his friendship with Barthes, there's no trace of semiotics or semiology to be found in Morin's books on mass culture, no discussion of the very different concept of myth developed by Barthes (whose Mythologies were published one year after The Cinema). In 1978, Morin concluded that he thought his project "stops where semiotics begins" and "begins where semiotics stops," with the "double" and "mimesis." Yet, opting for a nonstructural understanding of anthropology and myth, he also decided against a political critique of the mythological operations of contemporary discourses and visualities. Whereas Barthes developed in his short readings of "shock photos," "Garbo's face," or "beef steak and fries" a notion of myth and mythmaking specifically attuned to postwar French media culture and everyday life (and thus not ahistorical at all), Morin harks back to the entire history of mankind, to the transhistorical and translocal functioning of mythology from Greek goddesses to Brigitte Bardot, to a teleology of the history of the imaginary. Metaphors and analogies always seem to come to him rather easily, as was the case with the oncological terminology he deployed for his commentary on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In other words, the wonders of Morin, the prolific wunderkind, are undoubtedly abundant and often inspiring, but they can also be annoyingly close to the pompous and populist. However, the new availability of The Cinema and The Stars could help not only to discover some of the early writings of a highly interesting intellectual figure; they may also be an occasion to update the archaeology of film and media-culture studies with texts in which self-reflection and great prognostic potential meet with glaring rhetoric and disturbing "transdisciplinary" amalgamations.
Tom Holert is a writer based in Berlin.