Jesús R. Velasco | Poetics of the Cell

By Jesús R. Velasco

Nota Bene: The following reflections are related to the projection of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). While we were watching the movie, the main actress Anne Wiazemsky passed away in her sleep.

How does insurrection work? There cannot be one single answer to this question. Only, perhaps, experiments that have tried to answer this question. One of the answers was what we can call the poetics of the cell.

The poetics of the cell means that insurrection works at a specific aesthetic level that is auto poetic (it reproduces itself internally and externally), and is self contained. During the sixties and the seventies, the cell constituted the smallest living being of the revolutionary and insurgent movements, and it interacted anonymously with other cells of which it did not know its actual way of functioning. It is well known that marxist-leninist, maoist, and even (in Spain) socialist cells were composed by persons who had adopted a pseudonym or a heteronym that allowed them to remain unconspicous within the cell (they could not be denounced by other members in the cell, thanks to the pseudonym) and lead a multilayered life across other cells thanks to the heteronyms (a single person had different names in different cells).

In a certain way, the cell worksed as a form of emulation of the family, from a critical point of view. On the one hand, it was defined by the household, the common space, and the personal relationships established therein. On the other hand, it also emulated all the tragedies that anonymously happened within the household, and in particular trauma (even suicide) and exclusion.

This is in fact how the insurgent cell can be considered a form of epic theater, in the sense used by Piscator, Maiakovsky, or Brecht —or, as Brecht used to call it afterwards, dialectical theater.

In fact, one could argue that the idea of dialectical theater or epic theater is fundamental to understand the poetics of the cell. This is where Godard’s movie, La Chinoise, becomes all the more interesting, as an epic or dialectical cinematography addressing a theory on the poetics of the cell.

The film foregrounds some of the crucial elements of the epic theater: the movie is in the making. The texts that come from the theoretical sources, and that frequently appear superimposed on the screen (for periods of time that sometimes make them unreadable), are also in the making, they are in a constant process of perfection. This process of perfection and dissolution of the texts and their temporality are closely related to the household-schooling going on in the cell, to the processes of self-education based, as well, on a script that is always present —the portable archive of maoism constituted by the Little Red Book (in Claude Channes song for the soundtrack, a childish voice sings “C’est le petit livre rouge / Qui fait que tout enfin bouge). The script, the portable and fragmentary text of “maoism” regulates everything, it is the thing that constitutes auto poetic dynamics in the cell, even when those dynamics are to be decided at random —someone opens the book to read a text that, according to its sequencing and rhythm, will decide who is in charge of something. What is more important, the dynamics of the cell do not end in themselves, they replicate elsewhere, or they need to be replicated elsewhere, by means of the transparency of the theatrical / filmic art: the audience, the fourth wall is constantly interpolated, because they are the ultimate agents of insurrections, those who can, at their turn, reproduce the functioning of the cell, and continue the biological life of revolution.

Godard’s perspective on the maoist cell may be critical. But leaves us with questions on insurrection. Not on historical insurrection, perhaps, but with the present and future of insurrection from the perspective of the poetics of the cell, the constitution of a community, the replication of the familiar bonds, and, in particular, the replication of the processes of self-education that take place inside the cell. Questions that we see in the epic and dialectical movements of uprising in the contemporary world, but that have replaced the poetics of the cell with other poetics of community.