The Battle of Algiers (Italy/Algeria, 1966): Between ‘Acting-out’ and ‘Working-through’?

This short piece is an outtake from my book on The Battle of Algiers. It was originally part of a chapter on the theme of temporalities and followed a section that considered the film in terms of reenactment, meaning the physical re-performance of historical events, with particular reference to the reenactment of the December 1960 protests in the coda to the film. That section finished by citing Carlo Celli’s description of Battle as a carnivalesque text. In other words, the mode in which the film presents the historical events and circumstances it portrays is essentially playful. Many commentators take a rather po-faced attitude to the film, however, and miss this aspect of play. One manifestation of this solemn or disapproving tone is found in what is, nonetheless, a fine article on Battle by Emily Tomlinson, in which she discusses the film in terms of trauma theory and ‘working-through’. My purpose in this material was to argue against Tomlinson’s take, and to insist on the political utility of taking the film seriously… as playful. However, the material became a digression that took me too far from the core chapter themes, and so I have made it into a free-standing piece to be made available here, on the Italian film and history project website, and on academia.edu.

Alan O’Leary, 20 November 2018

Photo courtesy Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Between ‘Acting-out’ and ‘Working-through”?

In the individual, ‘acting-out’ refers to the unconscious and destructive reproduction of painful experience in behaviour, while ‘working-through’ refers to deliberate acts of memory and elaboration which confront and process that painful experience. These Freudian terms have been repurposed by Dominick LaCapra (amongst others) in writingsconcerned with ‘the applicability of psychoanalytic categories to social and cultural phenomena’ (LaCapra 1994: 169), often in the context of discussions of cultural responses to the Holocaust; this context should be borne in mind when considering the tone of the discussion of The Battle of Algiersand its invocation of the past. The two terms ‘acting-out’ and ‘working-through’ have been adopted to describe opposed processes of dealing with the past in groups or societies that have suffered trauma, where trauma might be defined as the experience of sudden or catastrophic events, extreme poverty, war or genocide, or simply ‘the silenced aftermath of violence’ (Schick 2011: 1837, 1840). Acting-out occurs where a society is unable to move beyond traumatic experience whileworking-through refers to ‘a process of mourning, in which past atrocities are acknowledged, reflected on, and more fully understood in all their historically situated complexity’ (ibid.: 1837).

Schick (2011: 1842) identifies the mechanism of acting-out in the choice of stories that a society chooses to tell itself in the aftermath of trauma. These ‘meaning-making narratives’ explain the violent past and compensate for it, but in reductive ways. They can take many forms, but the presence of two at least might be identified in Battle. These are the ‘heroic-soldier’ narrative, which, for Schick (ibid.1842-3) ‘allows only a truncated form of mourning that shuts down the questioning of self and other’; and the ‘good versus evil’ narrative, which demonizes the other. In Battle, the heroic-soldier narrative is Ali La Pointe’s, while the good versus evil narrative is the battle tale itself, even if each of these two (acting-out) narratives has been challenged as it unfolds: Ali’s individual heroism is supplanted by that of the choral protagonist even before his death (Smith 2005); and many have noted (sometimes with regret) the refusal to demonize the French even as they practice torture and murder. Arguably, both narratives are in any case ‘overcome’, in that they are succeeded by a coda that projects the traumatic into a triumphant dimension.It is as if the film is stagingthe acting-out, only then, or only in order to access a different register. As I will describe below, however, Tomlinson (2004) sees this ‘triumphalism’ as itself a form of acting-out, and one moreover with tangible negative consequences in the real world—in the form of violent response to the film by those who objected to its portrayal of the liberation struggle.

To what extent can Battlebe described, then, in terms of working-through? For Schick (2011: 1848-53), working-through would entail three broad tasks.

  • The first task is the expression of grief. Battle at once shows and performssuch an expression of grief. It shows the keening of the bereaved after the Casbah bombing and contains several images of tearful faces that regard the torture and violence to which their fellow Algerians are subjected. It uses sombre music to hymn the dead of both ‘sides’, and the film’s coda may itself be read as a memorial to the dead of the war of liberation and to those who suffered over the course of French occupation. (This is something I argue in my book.)
  • The second task is the reconstruction of events and history in narrative form, a task which Battle acquits within the constraints of the feature film. What the film can only symbolize or indicate metonymically within such constraints—for example via the humiliation of Ali at the beginning of the film—are the broader economic and socio-cultural conditions underlying the battle tale.
  • The third task is critical judgment involving self-examination. This task is hardly absent from Battle, but there are only hints in the film (as in Ali’s killing of the pimp and in the scene of the attack on the drunk) of those other violences that, while they might be generated by or symptomatic of colonial oppression and the pragmatics of revolutionary war, were perpetrated by Algerian on Algerian in internecine conflicts, anti-Semitic attacks, or reprisals against Muslims associated with the French regime.

I have asked if Battle can be described in terms of working-through (and left unasked for the moment the question of whether it shouldbe a working-through and, if so, a working-through for whom), but of course it would be absurd to expect a single text, or even artistic production as such, to fulfil the gamut of tasks necessary to the social elaboration of a traumatic past. As ‘a form of mourning that is inherently political’ (Schick 2011: 1848), working-through must be undertaken by a whole group or society and should ideally be underwritten by the state—in the form of a truth and reconciliation commission, for example. Cinema and other arts can play a meaningful part in this process: they can point to legacies that need to be elaborated, and to instances of negative acting-out behaviour in the social sphere; they can model the expression of grief and the practice of self-reflection; and they can offer the occasion for commemoration and can reconstruct events and history in a narrative form that can reach an audience (the trauma tale needs to be heard).

In addition, and because working-through is an iterative process, individual texts might be taken to register stages in the social ‘talking cure’. Interesting in this respect to compare Battle to earlier texts, including the first film made in post-independence Algeria, Une si jeune paix(Jacques Charby, 1965). Dealing with the actuality and aftermath of the war of independence, the film tells of a young Algerian boy whose parents are killed by hard-line colonsin the final months of French rule and who later joins in violent games in which he and fellow orphaned children take the part of the FLN or European extremists. Here the acting-out by the children of the conflict they have witnessed registers and stands for the cost to Algerian society and the difficulty in overcoming the traumatic experience of occupation and war.Une si jeune paixcan be paired in this respect with the 1956 novel Nedjmaby Kateb Yacine, briefly discussed by Tomlinson (2004: 366), in which ‘the [Algerian] subjects of colonialism find themselves “possessed” by the trauma of its imposition, sentenced to replay the abjection of their own pasts as well as those of others, numbed by the incursion of violence into time and reason’.[1] In registering the effects of war on the young and on independent Algeria (that is, in acknowledging the acting-out), Une si jeune paixwas performing a labour of working-through. Prior in time, Nedjmaalso represents an earlier stage: it declared the experience of oppression in a context where French rule was still insisting itself to be of universal benefit. Arguably, in showing a transition from the pedagogic national-martyr story to the performative enactment of the nation by the people, Battleenacts a step beyond the abjection of the colonial past registered in Nedjma. Still, it would be reductive to talk of ‘progress’. The idea of working-through a traumatic past figures a forward movement that might always be illusory and which might suffer reversal: it is ‘a process that may never entirely transcend acting-out and that even in the best of circumstances is never achieved once and for all’ (LaCapra in Schick 2011: 1848). At the level of a society, the mechanism of working-through always operates somewhere ‘in between’ and therefore prior to its complete achievement.

In my book on Battle, I suggest that ‘reenactment’ offers itself as a third term to describe how the abjection of a traumatic past is elaborated in a way at once between and overlapping with acting-out and working-through. Reenactment in this sense can capture the aspect of consciousacting-out performed in and byBattle, when any martyr or Manichean register in the main story is transformed in the euphoric tone of the coda. Tomlinson (2004: 368) comes close to suggesting something similar, and even uses the term itself (the italics are hers in the following), when she finds in the film a Fanonian ‘suggestion that the reenactmentof violence may allow the colonized a share, at least, in the architecture of his [sic] own history’. Quoting LaCapra, Tomlinson locates the film in a ‘post-traumatic context in which agencycannot […] be assumed but must be reconstituted’ (ibid.: 369). Notably, though, Tomlinson is suspicious of the reconstitution of such agency to the extent that it is shown to be achieved through violence. As other critics before her, Tomlinson finds the coda to the film guilty of a mystification (the italics and scare quotes are hers): ‘In a final “expression of the will to freedom”, an uprising “dont on ne connaît pas le motif”, La Bataille[…] arbitrarily or mysticallyundercuts its earlier, harrowing, explorations of what it might “mean” (and not “mean”) to exist without a sense of collective human agency’(ibid.: 369).

Another comparison between Battleand Une si jeune paix might seem to confirm Tomlinson’s criticism. The earlier film shows an acting-out of the violence of the war of independence, but presents it (literally) as child’s play, only to demonstrate the deadly serious character of such play at the close of the film when one of the orphans is executed by another during a mock trial. As such, the film may be said to predict and to allegorize the intra-national (and intra-FLN) violence that came to be characteristic of independent Algeria, as exemplified by the coup d’état of 1965 and the dreadful civil war of the 1990s. In Battle, the reenactment in the coda isa form of play: a carnivalesque performance of the recent past that may be said to gloss over the costs of violent struggle and of its long-term consequences.[2] Still, one can ask if Tomlinson is right to suggest that it would somehow have been more authentic (ethicaleven?), to have shown the Algerians still abject and defeated in the film. The dialogue she quotes from the coda is revealing in this respect: the phrase about the eruption of the protests, ‘on ne connaît pas le motif’, is derived from the journalist’s voiceover; in other words, it represents the perspective of colonizer or outsider, certainly not of the colonized. One might presume that their own motives were perfectly well known to the Algerian protestors themselves, but the critic is aligning herself, as the film itself encourages her to do, with a metropolitan gaze. The celebration of the Algerians’ taking of agency, first through terrorist violence and then through the carnivalesque refusal of French dominion (with a link implied between the two), is seen by Tomlinson to be a failed act of working-through, or one undertaken in bad faith, and so doomed to conjure the return of the repressed. For Tomlinson, the film is therefore a form of acting-out that will, in its turn, cause violence to erupt, and her evidence for this is the Frenchreception of the film: the protests by ‘pied-noirs rapatriés’ (as she dubs them) against the projection of the film when it finally gets a release in France in 1970, and the bombing of a Parisian cinema when the film was shown as part of a festival in 1981 (Tomlinson 2004: 370).

It seems a revealing move for Tomlinson to doubt the sincerity and success of the labour of working-through in Battle in terms of the violence of the reaction against the film by those who regretted the French loss of Algeria — the critic is, in effect if not intention, identifying with the latter. But her comments do require us to ask the question of on whose behalf the film performs its reenactmentand labour of working-through. I have been writing as if I take for granted that this labour is performed on behalf of the Algerians themselves, but what of Battle’s other addressees, especially those in the old colonizing North? Representatives of thatconstituency (the tourists and others playing the colons, police and soldiers in the film) were, after all, themselves part of the literal reenactment staged in the film, and I argue in my book that Battle is an end-of-empire film at the same time it is a birth-of-a-nation film. Might the film be said to be working through the European senseof dispossession? There may be no sensible comparison to be made between the colonized’s long experience of oppression and victimization and the dent to the metropolitan European’s sense of superiority caused by the loss of empire;[3] but, as I argue I my book, it is part of the strategy of Battle to flatter the bruised vanity of a North raced white and gendered male. Still, the answer is no: the film is notworking through the experience of dispossession for the European; it is celebrating that dispossession. The Algerians’ taking of agency is also a displacement of the agency of a white male North.

Another way to say this, is that the white male North finds itself marginalized even as it continues to be addressed by the film. The perspective in the coda is signalled to be that of the journalists,and the press corps in Battle represents (I argue) the perspective of the old colonizer and of the United States. This is why the camera in the coda regards the crowd; it is not of them. The Casbah is seen only from outside and above, while the protesting crowds are seen from below; we look up at the protestors descending the massive set of steps by the 200 Columns building of the Climat De France (see above) and up at the protestors descending the steep street in Belcourt (see below), as in the famous photo reproduced towards the top of this page; in neither case are we with them looking down at the soldiers and police opposing their movement.

The function of the press in the body of the film had been to interrogate both ‘sides’ on their actions and motives. In the coda, however, the journalists no longer ‘understand’; they can only witness. It is important in this respect that the film’s famous mimicry of newsreel is most thoroughgoing in the coda scenes: it is here that the use of the long lens and hand-held camera, as well as the rough-edged sound of massed voices, for which the film is famous is most pronounced. The effect is to impart to the perceiver a sense, not only of verisimilitude, but of what has been described as ‘impotent witness’, John Ellis’ term for the sense of simultaneous involvement and distance that one experiences when confronted with news reports of disturbing circumstances beyond one’s ability to influence.The addressee from the North is not being jeered at (note that the civilian colons, shown sometimes in grotesque terms earlier in the film, are absent from the coda), but ‘he’ is impotent in relation to the events depicted, which are indifferent to ‘him’: the taking of agency by the people portrayed is the displacement of hisagency.

‘His’ agency: that is, the agency of the French paratrooper Colonel Mathieu who leads the repressive operation against the FLN in Algiers — at least in the sense in which Battlemight be imagined to be addressed to Mathieu as the textual emissary and flattering avatar of a White Male North (I suggest this earlier in the book). The elliptical transition, bemoaned as mystifying by Tomlinson and so many other critics (Oshima 1992, Sainsbury 1971, Wayne 2001), from the body of the film and defeat of the FLN in Algiers to the eruption of popular protests in the coda isindeed,and perfectly appropriately, a ‘mystification’. It is perfectly apt that the displacement of the agency represented by Mathieu immediately follows his moment of accomplishment, the victory over the FLNthat closes the film’s main battle tale. The film stagesa formal refusal of the ruthless logic with which Mathieu performs his duty of counter-insurgency. Where Mathieu must account for the methods and personnel of the FLN and must calibrate his response accordingly (he is shown to do so in discourse, diagram and action in the scenes devoted to him), the film refuses to explicate the mechanism of the popular protests. This refusal to explain is at once a refusal of a colonial-Enlightenment will to knowledge and a recognition that agency may be spontaneous and performative. Against Mathieu’s instrumental rationality, the film proffers carnival.

In other words, Battlerefuses the labour of working-through, at last to the extent that such labour is assumed to be undertaken in tragic or sombre mode. And the risk with discussing the film in terms of acting-out and working-through is that of imposing a prescriptive or Eurocentric model of dealing with the past. Perhaps part of this is the result of the over-generalization or too-liberal application of models derived from the study of Holocaust, though we can learn a lesson from LaCapra’s own identification of a pessimistic trope in discussions of the Holocaust:

One may agree with the view that the Holocaust is […] ‘a communal wound that cannot heal’. But does this view entail that countervailing tendencies in the lives of victims — and by implication in modernity in general — are merely constitutive of a surface life or murmur that is somehow less authentic that what is argued to lie beneath? (LaCapra 1994: 195)

To apply this thought to the colonial context: is to insist on abjection as the truth of the oppressed to risk denying historical agency to the same people? Certainly, I would see the tone of Emily Tomlinson’s analysis, where abjection must be emphasised to the detriment of achievement, to reflect a critical tradition that grants symbolic capital to the critic in proportion to her focus on victimhood rather than victory. One must be seen to dwell on the abjection to the detriment of the achievement. But achievement is what Battle celebrates, and rather than dwell on the incomplete labour of working-through that the film then does not adequately carry out, we should understand it as couched in a different register.

This point, which I put in the clumsy writing above some time ago, was clarified for me by a wonderful talk I was lucky to hear in November 2018 at Aarhus University. Ann Rigney of Utrecht University presented an EU-funded project on hope and activism, which she has also set out in a recent article (Rigney 2018). The abstract from that article talks of ‘the need for memory studies to go beyond its present focus on traumatic memories and to develop analytical tools for capturing the cultural transmission of positivity’.Rigney talks of how activism can and does recuperate a radical hope from moments that may even end in defeat—the Paris Commune of 1871 is her prime example, and she gives a great 1962 quote from the Situationists:

Theoreticians who examine the history of [the Commune] from a divinely omniscient viewpoint […] can easily demonstrate that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the consummation was already there. (Quoted Rigney 2018: 375)

The point is that outcomes, endings and suffering are less important in the political practice of hope than the recognition and memory of the experience of festive becoming in the moment of freedom. Trauma theory is ill equipped to account for this, but it is precisely the experience of festive becoming in the moment of freedom that is reenacted in the coda to The Battle of Algiers. ‘Acting-out’, ‘working-through’: these terms are not the right ones to describe a reenactment that is concerned not with the past (trauma) but with the future (hope).

 

Notes

[1] The novel concerns the love of four male protagonists for the woman named in the title, often read as a symbol of Algeria. While a student in Sétif, Kateb Yacine had been involved in the nationalist demonstrations of May 1945, which culminated in the massacre of many thousands of Algerians by the French and led to his imprisonment and torture.

[2] Carlo Celli (2005) has argued, unpersuasively in my opinion, that Battleoffers an ‘unwitting’ celebration of violence and is damnable in retrospect precisely because of the extent that it encourages, and fails to anticipate, the presence of violence in Algerian society.

[3] That said, I would not wish to submerge a very concrete experience—that of those same ‘pied-noirs rapatriés’ mentioned by Tomlinsonwho felt themselves forced from their homes in Algeria—in the murky waters of post-imperial melancholy.

 

References

  • Celli, Carlo (2005). Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press)
  • LaCapra, Dominick (1994). Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press)
  • Oshima, Nagisa (1992 [1967]). ‘On the Attitude of Film Theorists’, in Annette Michelson (ed.), Cinema, censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978 (Cambridge: MIT Press/October Books), 133-143
  • Rigney, Ann (2018). ‘Remembering Hope: Transnational Activism Beyond the Traumatic’, Memory studies 11:3, 368–380
  • Sainsbury, Peter (1971). ‘The Battle of Algiers’,Afterimage 3, 5-7
  • Schick, Kate (2011). ‘Acting Out and Working Through: Trauma and (In)security’, Review of International Studies 37, 1837-1855
  • Smith, Murray (2005). ‘“The Battle of Algiers”: Colonial Struggle and Collective Allegiance’, in J. David Slocum (ed.), Terrorism, Media, Liberation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press), 94-110
  • Tomlinson, Emily (2004). ‘“Rebirth in Sorrow”: La bataille d’Alger’, French Studies 58: 3, 357–37
  • Wayne, Mike (2001). Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (London: Pluto Press)