{"'Liebchen, this is the other half of the earth. In Germany you would be yellow and blue.' Mirror-metaphysics." - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow}

Collar Blind, or Des goûts et des cols, on ne discute pas

At the beginning of Eric Rohmer’s 1967 film La collectionneuse one of the protagonists, Daniel, an avant-garde painter, is discussing his art with a friend. Daniel has painted a can and lined it all around with razor blades. When his friend picks up the can he cuts himself and he bleeds. This incites him to comment : « Tu me fait beaucoup penser à l’élégance des gens du fin de la 18ième siècle, qui étaient extrêmement soucieux de leur apparence, de l’effet qu’ils produisaient sur les autres. Cet effet c’était déjà une création, c’était déjà le commencement de la révolution. La distance établie par l’élégance par rapport au gens non-élégants est capitale. Parce qu’elle s’établit une sorte de vide autour de la personne. C’est ce vide autour de la personne que tu crées, que tu crées avec tes objets aussi d’ailleurs.» The sharp edges of the razor blades and the blood lead his train of thought toward the aristocratic absolutist regime that was overthrown by the revolution. The word ‘capitale’ certainly has an extra ring here.

The razor blades demand distance. The elegance, the powdered faces and the sheer size of the robes and wigs that the aristocrats of Versailles wore, the estheticism of the regime, also commanded a material distance. This made it sheer impossible to come close to them physically, thus establishing a zone of emptiness that became ultimately unbridgeable. The emptiness surrounding someone like Marie-Antoinette is excellently conveyed in Sofia Coppola’s movie. The chasm between these ‘elegant’ people and the ‘non-elegant’ population paved the way for the revolution, since this in itself is already a pushing to the extreme of the system, an ‘aller jusqu’au bout’, which calls for the collapse of the regime. What does this say about the artist Daniel? His friend seems to imply that the ‘jusqu’au bout’ of Daniel’s art objects fuels revolution just like the distancing elegance of the Versaillesians. Both are catalysts of revolution, both counterdemand revolt, because the gap they generate forecloses any form of connection.

In La chambre claire Roland Barthes discusses a photograph by Lewis W. Hine of two retarded children to illustrate his well-known theory of the studium and the punctum. The studium represents what is culturally coded, whereas the punctum refers to that which is not reducible to conventions but which draws the attention of the individual viewer regardless. Barthes writes: “[…] des deux enfants débiles d’une institution du New Jersey (photographiés en 1924 par Lewis W. Hine), je ne vois guère les têtes monstrueuses et les profiles pitoyables (cela fait partie du studium) ; ce que je vois, […], c’est le détail décentré, l’immense col Danton du gosse, la poupée au doigt de la fille ; je suis un sauvage, un enfant – ou un maniaque ; je congédie tout savoir, toute culture, je m’abstiens d’hériter d’un autre regard. » Instead of focusing on the giant head of the girl or the dwarflike figure of the boy Barthes claims that he only really notices the minuscule bandage on the finger of the huge headed girl and the oversized collar of the tiny boy.

In his article ‘Notes on the Photographic Image’ (published in Radical Philosophy) and in his book The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière criticizes Roland Barthes’ theory of the studium and the punctum by arguing that the punctum is always already affected by what Barthes calls the studium. It’s interesting to note how Roland Barthes’ mentioning of the Danton collar of the boy goads Rancière onto a similar mode of thought as Rohmer’s character. The Danton collar makes him think of the role that Danton played in the revolution, and hence of death. The Rohmer character moves from razor blades and blood to revolution.

Technically a Danton collar is a high collar that is folded over. And indeed, that seems to be what the little boy is wearing, although I think Rancière is right when he claims that: “The French reader has no idea what a Danton collar might be. However, the name is immediately associated with that of a revolutionary who had his head sliced off by the guillotine. The punctum is nothing other than death foretold.” (in Radical Philosophy) Every collar does in a way separate the head from the body, and this is especially the case with high collars. The association between a high collar (as a partial object), cutting off the head, the revolution, the guillotine, Danton and ultimately death is not that far-fetched. Only, I would argue that his collar bears a closer resemblance to another sort of collar that is more widely known: the Richelieu collar. Richelieu versus Danton: an aristocratic cardinal and architect of the absolute monarchy versus a revolutionary leader. What would it have meant if Roland Barthes would have referred to the boy’s collar as a Richelieu collar?

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