The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images

The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images
by Peter Szendy; Jan Plug, Translator

Fordham University Press, NY, NY, 2019
160 pp., illus. Trade, $105.00; paper, $30.00
ISBN: 9780823283583; ISBN: 9780823283576.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
October 2019

This is a both very accessible and extremely difficult book on one of the most salient features of modern society: the strange coincidence of its “being” an image (the world is full of images, images are what make the world, it is no longer possible to interact with the world without interacting with images) and its “becoming” an image (the structure of the world and that of the image are becoming more and more the same). To make this claim, which is not very original in itself (an author such as Baudrillard is bizarrely absent from this book), Peter Szendy proposes a decidedly original combination of two approaches that are generally used separately: good old close reading, mainly of classic movies from European art house cinema (L’Herbier, Bresson and Antonioni, for instance), yet with healthy openings to more commercial U.S. cinema (such as King Kong, Godzilla or The Sopranos), and highly sophisticated philosophical reflection, with reference authors coming from quite different sectors of the intellectual arena.

The key reference of Szendy is Gilles Deleuze, and then also Karl Marx and definitely Yves Citton (the coming man on the French intellectual scene), at least at surface level. However, many ideas of The Supermarket of the Visible expand on Szendy’s longtime familiarity with Derridean deconstruction, most importantly the idea that images cannot exist in themselves. All they can do is exist in relationship with other images, while their meaning is permanently deferred by the transition from one image to another. In this book, this Derridean stance, which is not always explicitly theorized, is organically mapped with Deleuze’s theory on the shift from movement-image, where images coalesce in narratively organized chronological strings, to time-image, where the narrative and chrono-logical framework is shattered to give birth to crystal-images, which are at the same time separated from their context and dramatically intertwined with a virtual other. Vital in this regard is the comparison between the circulation of money and that of images, which not only explains the title of the book but helps Szendy make sense of several of Deleuze’s assumptions on the interconnection between the monetary and the visual spheres, at the microlevel of the filmic composition as well as at the level of the macro-economic organization of the film business.

Next to the great quality of the readings, which really accept to play the game of close-reading as radically as possible, and the thought-provoking meditations on sometimes very elliptic and enigmatic fragments from for instance Benjamin or Freud, the most interesting aspect of Szendy’s book is its organic intertwining of objects and theories, that is of filmic images, which in spite of their excellent contextualization tend to be foregrounded as if they were crystal-images, and theoretical statements, equally detached from their original context which makes them more open to new meanings (the plural is really important here, as systematically stressed by the rhetoric of the text, a subtle fort-da balance between digression and drilling). The purpose of The Supermarket of the Visible is clearly not to propose a new synthesis of, for instance, Deleuze and Benjamin, although such a synthesis would be extremely challenging given the almost complete absence of Benjamin’s work in Deleuze’s writings. What the book wants to achieve instead is a deepening of our understanding of some truly basic concepts, such as for instance “exchange” or “gaze”, by the careful gathering of meaningful details and relevant conceptual or material iterations in both films and theories. Although Szendy’s approach may embrace at first sight the logic of montage, the montage principles in question are never those of the “intellectual montage”, based on the production of meaning as the result of a series of calculated shocks or effects. The Supermarket of the Visible, which is after all the outcome of a lecture series (and by the way  the text never dissimulates the oral origin of this spoken and broadcasted performance), has a very didactic way of moving on from one idea, from one fragment, from one concept to another. Once again, this does not mean easy or flashy, on the contrary, for Szendy’s writing is putting a strong pressure on the reader’s attention and willingness to follow the author on a journey in which every sentence, if not every word counts.

The result is a wonderful paradox: on the one hand, the reader is taken by a flow that simulates, if not emulates at textual level the phenomenon of shifting visuality and endless deferral that define the life of images, that is of the modern world; on the other hand, she is also given the tools to stop this whirlpool to take a step back and free herself from this dizzying inflation.