Show Less
Open access

French Ecocriticism

From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century


Edited By Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

This book expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States examine the work of writers and thinkers including Michel de Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Simondon, Michel Serres, Michel Houellebecq, and Éric Chevillard. The diverse approaches in the volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, under the aegis of the environmental humanities.

Show Summary Details
Open access

The Individual as Environment: Watching Jean-Claude Rousseau’s La Vallée close with Lucretius and Simondon (Nikolaj Lübecker)

← 194 | 195 →

Nikolaj Lübecker

The Individual as Environment: Watching Jean-Claude Rousseau’s La Vallée close with Lucretius and Simondon

Abstract: Over a ten-year period, the experimental filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau visited the Fontaine de Vaucluse, a natural spring in southern France. The result of Rousseau’s encounter with these landscapes, La Vallée close (1995), explores three processes of becoming. The first is cosmological: the director films the valley and its spring, bringing to life the landscape with its river, vegetation and grotto. The second is meta-filmic: the film thematises its very singular production process, discreetly showing how images combine without any cuts being made. The third is (auto-)biographical: towards the end of its 143-minute running time we understand that the film is a reflection on Rousseau’s childhood, and a semi-fictional chronicle of the break-up of a relationship. This chapter draws on Henri Bergson’s commentary on Lucretius’ De rerum natura (explicitly featured in the soundtrack to the film), Félix Guattari’s late ecosophical writings, and the process-oriented philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, in order to analyse Rousseau’s exploration of the relations between ontology, perception and subjectivity. From Simondon’s work, the chapter imports the concept of the individu-milieu [the individual as environment]. Simondon’s concept helps to explain how worldmaking and filmmaking connect in an individual, bringing it into being, pulling it apart, eventually renewing it. The chapter concludes that the individu-milieu is a thoroughly ecological concept with a relevance for ecocriticism that far exceeds the particular case of La Vallée close.

In the Vaucluse region of southern France, a peculiar natural phenomenon has fascinated locals and visitors for centuries. If you walk along the river Sorgue, all the way to the end of the valley, you arrive at the Fontaine de Vaucluse. For most of the year, a small stream runs from this grotto into the river. But every spring, a violent gush of water bursts forth, emptying millions of cubic metres into the river. The amount of water and the specific moment of its release do not correlate in any obvious way with the downpour seen throughout winter. Not surprisingly, a rich tradition of folklore has arisen around the fountain. Holy rituals have been performed, dragons and fairies have been spotted, artists and poets have painted and written (Petrarch; Frédéric Mistral), and scientists have attempted to dispel the myths – sometimes with near-fatal consequences (Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his team). ← 195 | 196 →

When the French experimental filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau visited the Vaucluse in the mid-1980s, he immediately experienced the pull of the valley, in particular the power of the mysterious fountain.1 Over the subsequent ten years he often returned, bringing along a small Super-8 camera that his parents had given to him during his childhood. He would walk into the valley, find a spot, and try to meet the landscape through filming. For a long time, he had no intention of making a film; rather, it was a question of falling into vision. Eventually, he wanted to offer this experience – le saisissement, the intense emotion of being grasped – to viewers.2 The result is La Vallée close [The Closed Valley] (1995), a title that brings out the Latin root of ‘Vau-cluse’.

This chapter will focus on the sharing between world and filmmaker that takes place in the saisissement, with attention to several key intertexts that help to conceptualise the sharing. Some of these intertexts feature explicitly in the film (Lucretius’s De rerum natura), while others do not (the writings of Gilbert Simondon and Félix Guattari). My argument will be that Rousseau’s film offers a particularly rich example of how art can make us realise that we are (and always have been) what Simondon calls individus-milieux, individuals as environments. This chapter further aims to demonstrate that the notion of the individu-milieu can operate as a strong eco-theoretical alternative to more dialectical analyses of the relation between man and environment. In order to establish and unpack this argument, we must begin with Rousseau’s cinematic method – his praxis.

Rousseau’s praxis

La Vallée close shows the beautiful landscape of the Vaucluse, the life of the locals, and the tourists that come to visit the fountain. These tourists walk up the valley, ← 196 | 197 → and stare into the mysterious black grotto. Occasionally, a man – Rousseau – appears: we mainly see him in a small hotel room, and we come to understand that he is a filmmaker based on calls that he makes to someone whom we assume to be his partner, Alain. There are images from the village: cafés, streets, an empty and decrepit building (a school?). Towards the end of the film, it transpires that La Vallée close might also be a film (halfway between fiction and documentary) about the end of a love affair – and, possibly, the beginning of a new adventure.

The film is discreet and enigmatic. Its tone is far from the mythic register that many of the folkloric texts about the fountain exploit. The images, beautiful and painterly, are often devoid of human figures. Slowly the various elements begin to crystallise; a world takes form. Just before the end of the film, the voice-over announces: ‘ce pourrait être l’histoire de Paul, Guy et Laure [this could be the story of Paul, Guy and Laure]’. The suggestion seems to be that now, only now – after 2 hours and 20 minutes – a story is possible, but then a surprise ending throws us in a new direction: clearly Rousseau’s interests lie with the forms of life that precede narrative organisation.

In many scenes, Rousseau stays in the same place for a long time, sometimes for the entire 2½ minutes of the 8mm reel. For other scenes, he shoots, turns off the camera, moves, and shoots again. Only once, towards the end of the film, does the camera move: Rousseau shoots from the interior of a car. He explains that his preference for the static shot relates to perspective: inspired by certain paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), he searches for geometrical compositions that allow the filmmaker and the spectator to travel along the various axes in the image.

Rousseau’s camera did not record sound, so he went through the recording process again with a microphone and tape recorder once he had enough images. He did not systematically revisit the locations in which he had filmed, so the sounds and images of the finished work often come from different places. On the whole, the soundtrack is more quotidian and urban than the images: it consists largely of telephone conversations, sounds from the valley, and traffic noise from Paris. These different sounds tend to de-romanticise the landscape. Rousseau describes how certain sound recordings gravitated towards certain images, while other recordings fell away. After his combining of sounds and images, the 2½-minute sequences were put together – again some reels fell away – and the whole film emerged through what could be called a process of coagulation.

Rousseau’s method justifies the detailed presentation given here because it is key to understanding the film. Occasionally, the film draws attention to its own compositional principles: the voice-over – Rousseau’s voice – speaks about the process of recording and adding sound; Rousseau lets the camera roll to the point ← 197 | 198 → that we watch the film run out, with the codes at the end of the reel made visible. These different elements remind us that we are watching and hearing a filmmaker at work. The key point about Rousseau’s method is that he does not make cuts. Quite radically, he argues that montage ruins a film. For him, filming is a question of responding to landscapes and to the world. It is not a question of making the world conform to the filmmaker’s preconceived ideas (which is why he does not work with a script or a storyboard, either).3

In one of his interviews, Rousseau describes the recordings as ‘bricks’. This comparison brings to mind the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon’s analysis of brick-making,4 not least because the comparison between recordings and bricks emphasises the material and practical dimension of the filmmaking process.5 Simondon uses the example of bricks to demonstrate that the relation between form and matter is much more complex than we usually care to think – indeed, that any distinction between the two ultimately collapses. It is easy for Simondon to show that the process of taking form begins long before the clay is poured into the mould. The clay is extracted from an area in which it has been pre-formed by the interplay between earth, water, stones, etc.; it is subsequently purged of air pockets, plants, and other impurities. On the other hand, the mould is not just a form; it is matter. In Simondon’s example, it is made of wood. This form/matter is coated in order to release the brick more easily. Simondon includes a third player in this exchange: the brick-maker. He may have assembled the form, in which case he had to take the quality of the wood into consideration (he is likely to have carefully perused the wood before cutting it). He then poured clay into the form – each brick-maker does this in his own way (depending, moreover, on whether he is beginning his day, or is tired from having worked all day). Simondon’s complication ← 198 | 199 → of this form-versus-matter dichotomy contains other details, but the conclusion is clear: rather than thinking of form versus matter, we should consider the relation between clay, wood, brick-maker, time of day, and so on, as the interplay of forces. A brick is not the result of matter going into a form; it is, rather, something like a ‘theatre’ of the relation between forces.6 This theatre begins long before the brick is shaped, and it continues long after the brick has been moulded (we could take into account the ‘afterlife’ of the brick: how it eventually cracks, disintegrates, etc.). A brick is an activity (in a temporary equilibrium), not a product.

Simondon is not only offering an argument about bricks; his analysis concerns what he calls human and non-human processes of individuation. We shall shortly see how this analysis connects to a conception of subjectivity and ontology. The brick-analysis (and Simondon’s philosophy more generally) resonates with La Vallée close, insofar as Rousseau presents a form-taking theatre of relations – he gives us the joint emergence of a film, a human figure and a landscape. As with Simondon, Rousseau suggests that the performance of these forces continues long after the film ends. We thus have a kind of reciprocal moulding that affects character/filmmaker, images and environment simultaneously and to such an extent that it becomes impossible (and misguided) to separate the forces. Rousseau undoubtedly aims to present – and to engage the viewer in the co-creation of – this kind of form-taking theatre. This becomes clear if we consider some of the intertexts that the film brings into its process of becoming.

Rousseau’s ecologies

Rousseau was inspired by Giorgione’s famous Renaissance painting Tempesta [Tempest] (1506). A reproduction of the painting features in the film, and the footage from Vaucluse ends with a tempest. What fascinates Rousseau in this enigmatic painting is not only the mysterious subject matter (a woman quietly breastfeeding her baby as a storm approaches), but also the complex geometrical composition which – like the Vermeer paintings that he mentions – allows spectators to lose themselves along various axes in the image. In interviews, Rousseau refers to Marcelin Pleynet, who in an article for Tel Quel emphasised the vaginal nature of this geometry.7 Landscape and female body combine in a manner that fascinates Rousseau and links back to the mysterious fountain.8 ← 199 | 200 →

A second intertext – more frequently cited in the film – is an old geography book for primary-school pupils: Jean Brunhes’s Leçons de géographie.9 We listen to passages from this book, and thereby learn about the weather, the formation of landscapes, the passing of seasons, and time. The book also explains how to read maps, and it considers the ways in which humans construct a society. In short, the book offers a cosmology and a cartography, putting the world together step by step, and helping children to read it. Rousseau divides his film into chapters that borrow their names from the headings in the schoolbook (‘Le Jour et la nuit [Day and Night]’; ‘Les Saisons [The Seasons]’; ‘Les Voies de communication [Transportation Routes]’), and we are shown the beautiful watercolours that illustrate the book. The director clearly shares the cosmological ambition of the school book (less so, the belief in making the world fully readable). He dedicates his film to ‘ma mère qui fut institutrice [my mother who was a primary school teacher]’, thereby linking the cosmological schoolbook to the autobiographical dimension, and recalling the breastfeeding mother in Giorgione’s painting. In addition, Rousseau includes two 8mm reels showing a mother and child from what appears to be a different setting and time. We are invited to think that this pair could be Rousseau and his mother (in reality, the woman is a cousin living close to the village where Rousseau’s mother was born).10 In one scene, the woman is hanging out the washing, visually responding to a reading from the geography book that explains why the sun and wind can dry our clothes. In these complex and poetic ways, the cosmological, the biographical and the autofictional combine. This kind of interweaving becomes even more apparent if we turn to the richest of Rousseau’s intertexts.

In 1884, 24-year-old Henri Bergson published a pedagogical book introducing and paraphrasing Lucretius’s De rerum natura. One of Bergson’s paraphrases is recited on several occasions in Rousseau’s film; it functions as a ritournelle (Guattari) around which other elements find their place. This text is double-authored (by Lucretius and Bergson) before Rousseau embraces it:11

Le mouvement des atomes est éternel. Lancés à travers le vide, soit par leur propre poids, soit par le choc des autres atomes, ils errent, jusqu’à ce que le hasard les rapproche. Il y en a qui arrivent à se cramponner fortement les uns aux autres; ils forment les corps les ← 200 | 201 → plus durs. D’autres, plus mobiles, laissant entre eux de plus grands intervalles, constituent les corps moins denses, l’air et la lumière. Enfin il en est qui n’ont pu se faire admettre dans aucun assemblage: ceux-là s’agitent inutilement dans l’espace, comme ces grains de poussière qu’éclaire sur sa route un rayon de soleil pénétrant dans une chambre obscure.12

[The movement of atoms is eternal. Thrown through the void, either by their own weight or by the impact of other atoms they wander until chance brings them together. Some of them manage to cling tightly together; they form the most solid bodies. Others, more mobile, are separated by a greater distance, they form the less dense bodies, air and light. Finally, some have not been able to gain admission to any group: they move around uselessly in space like dust motes lit up by rays of light in a dark room.]

It is a beautiful and poetic text insisting on the eternal movement of atoms (or primordia) in the unending process of world-formation. In the context of the film, the passage works on at least four levels.

First, we should read this passage metafilmically, in that it provides a description of Rousseau’s creative method. Every image, every sound is an atom. They come to Rousseau without having been called, and he gives himself over to them. In the next phase, the recordings coagulate to form the film, and some of them are pushed towards the margins. Rousseau downplays his own role in this process, suggesting that filming and combining happen independently of him (happen to him). In this manner, assembling a film (there is no montage) is about having the courage and the discipline to partake in the experience that Simondon described as a form-taking theatre. Expanding on this metafilmic reading, Bergson-Lucretius’s description also refers to the viewing experience. During the film’s 2½ hours, viewers find that some scenes crystallise into bigger unities, whereas others move towards the periphery. It is true that spectators always see films differently, but the length of La Vallée close, the high number of still shots, and Rousseau’s preference for long-takes (allowing spectators to drift more freely in the field of vision) intensify this tendency. At this metafilmic level, Rousseau must have been delighted to find a darkroom in Bergson-Lucretius’s text.

Second, we should read the passage anthropomorphically. It seems to explain how humans come to be – and how they come together – in the film. It describes the process of individuation that brings forth our central character that becomes a point around which things begin to crystallise. This anthropomorphic reading is stimulated by Bergson’s vocabulary; his verb choice, in particular, ascribes ← 201 | 202 → human intentionality and agency to the atoms. We thus feel sad for those atoms ‘qui n’ont pu se faire admettre dans aucun assemblage [who have not been able to gain admission to any group]’, and we are touched and immediately relate to those that strive to ‘se cramponner fortement les uns aux autres [manage to cling tightly together]’. Similarly, we feel sad for Rousseau’s human figure as he seems to lose his lover (this loss, we come to understand, explains the significance of the recurrent shots of the empty bed). Despite the rigorous refusal of montage, and despite the interest in nature and empty landscapes, the film does not seek to move beyond the human; rather, it presents the process of becoming-human in such a way that we understand that we are always already inseparable from the world. La Vallée close thus offers an alternative to conventional narrative films that generally invite us to think of the world as a stage on which human dramas play out.

Third, we should read the passage as it wishes to be read: as an ontology about eternal movements in infinite space, the composition and decomposition of bodies. Here, the universe is a process of formation and transformation, an infinite play between void and matter that brings about densities and textures (until – according to Lucretius – everything necessarily ends). In the context of the film, the quotation refers to everything that we see: the many ancient rock formations, the tourist bars, the beautiful trees, the abandoned building, the water springing forth from another ‘darkroom’ – the grotto of the fountain. Like many other cosmologies (such as Brunhes’s geography book and Lucretius’s poem), the film unfolds in deep time and in the present – it blends personal and geological history. We see the natural elements in shifting light; in different seasons; in grainy, dusty images. Staring into the dark grotto, we seem to move beyond the temporal as the image disappears. Towards the end, the film becomes explicitly cosmic: after the tempest, Rousseau overlays his images from the Vaucluse with the soundtrack of a televisual programme about space travel. The astronauts are sleeping, the voiceover recites the names of the places that they would have seen if awake, and a romantic orchestral piece plays underneath the solemn voice of the televisual presenter. For the first (and the only) time, the images move: Rousseau shoots from the front seat of a car as he drives through a small town at dawn. The scene links the town, the sky, and the cosmos, before culminating in a shot of the rising sun that coincides with the mention of a sunrise on the soundtrack.

It should be underlined that Rousseau’s adaptation of Bergson-Lucretius serves to blur the relation between the metafilmic, the anthropomorphic, and the ontological. La Vallée close explores filmmaking, lovemaking, worldmaking – and the many different ways in which these processes connect in an individual, bringing it into being, pulling it apart, possibly renewing it, and producing a film in the process. It is a melancholic film, but the spectatorial experience of being pulled ← 202 | 203 → into this process of coagulation softens the melancholy: although the film never closes on itself, it comes together in beautiful, dynamic and satisfying patterns.

The individual as environment

My fourth observation about the quotation from Bergson-Lucretius relates to perception. Watching the grainy Super-8 images while listening to Bergson’s poetic paraphrase, the spectator forgets that the dancing dust motes in the sunlight are a simile (‘comme ces grains de poussière [like dust motes]’). In many shots, we almost seem to watch atoms. In this manner, the linguistic image and the grain of the Super-8 help us to ‘see’ (i.e. imagine) an invisible world; they produce reality for the spectator. This link between image (verbal, visual and mental) and ontology not only recalls the aforementioned metafilmic and ontological readings, but also speaks more generally about our perceptual engagement with the world and about how perception leads to our entanglement in this world. In a key passage from one of his interviews, Rousseau insists on this point, explaining that ‘le cinéma […] peut donner à voir (et à entendre) les éléments et nous saisir dans la perception de leurs correspondances [cinema […] can make us see (and hear) the elements, and it can seize us as we perceive their correspondences]’.13 By seeing and filming – by imagining – we become entangled in the texture of this world, and thereby reinvent both ourselves and the world. Or more precisely: we discover that we were always already caught up in the texture of the world.

Rousseau’s conception of the image strikingly resembles that of Simondon. In his lectures on ‘Imagination et invention’, Simondon emphasises that ‘images’ (a term that also refers to mental images) are representations and actors: they make us see the world, and they help us to realise that we are caught in the world through this perception. For Simondon and Rousseau, the image is an active player in a process of subjectification and world-production that is always ongoing.

It should be acknowledged that bringing Rousseau, Lucretius (as filtered through Bergson), and Simondon together is somewhat problematic. In some passages – most obviously at the beginning of L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information14 – Simondon associates Lucretius with precisely the kind of ‘matérialisme atomistique strict [strict atomic materialism]’ ← 203 | 204 → from which he wants to move away.15 To put it simply, Simondon argues that Lucretius begins with atoms that are subsequently animated by various processes, whereas he begins with processes that can subsequently take form as temporary assemblages. For Simondon, Lucretius is too mechanistic; his assemblages are insufficiently fluid. In a complex – but crucial – passage, Simondon presents his alternative philosophy of individuation:

Nous voudrions montrer qu’il faut opérer un retournement dans la recherche du principe d’individuation, en considérant comme primordiale l’opération d’individuation à partir de laquelle l’individu vient à exister et dont il reflète le déroulement, le régime, et enfin les modalités, dans ses caractères. L’individu serait alors saisi comme réalité relative, une certaine phase de l’être qui suppose avant elle une réalité préindividuelle, et qui, même après l’individuation, n’existe pas toute seule, car l’individuation n’épuise pas d’un seul coup les potentiels de la réalité préindividuelle, et d’autre part, ce que l’individuation fait apparaître n’est pas seulement l’individu mais le couple individu-milieu. L’individu est ainsi relatif en deux sens: parce qu’il n’est pas tout l’être, et parce qu’il résulte d’un état de l’être en lequel il n’existait ni comme individu ni comme principe d’individuation.16

[It is my intention to demonstrate the need for a complete change in the general approach to the principle governing individuation. The process of individuation must be considered primordial, for it is this process that at once brings the individual into being and determines all the distinguishing characteristics of its development, organisation and modalities. Thus, the individual is to be understood as having a relative reality, occupying only a certain phase of the whole being in question – a phase that therefore carries the implication of a preceding preindividual state, and that, even after individuation, does not exist in isolation, since individuation does not exhaust in the single act of its appearance all the potentials embedded in the preindividual state. Individuation, moreover, not only brings the individual to light but also the individual-milieu dyad. In this way, the individual possesses only a relative existence in two senses: because it does not represent the totality of the being, and because it is merely the result of a phase in the being’s development during which it existed neither in the form of an individual nor as the principle of individuation.]

In Anne Sauvagnargues’s terms, Simondon suggests that we must replace an ontology of being (like the one that can be found in Lucretius’s De rerum natura) with an ontology of becoming.17 We must begin not with individuals, but with ← 204 | 205 → the ‘preindividual reality’ that can bring into existence that ‘relative reality’ that the ‘individual’ is. This leads to the introduction of the central category of the ‘individu-milieu’. This notion is commonly translated as the ‘individual-milieu’, but we can also think of it as the ‘individual as environment’. Simondon’s ‘individual’ is never really an individual, but always the temporary effect of multiple ongoing processes of individuation. It is worth mentioning that Simondon adds a footnote to the sentence introducing the ‘individu-milieu’, which stipulates that the latter part of this hyphenated concept should not be conceived as homogenous:

Le milieu peut d’ailleurs ne pas être simple, homogène, uniforme, mais être originellement traversé par une tension entre deux ordres extrêmes de grandeur que médiatise l’individu quand il vient à être.18

[Moreover, it is quite possible that the milieu is not to be thought of as a simple, homogeneous and uniform phenomenon, but something that, from its very inception, is characterised by a tension in force between two extreme orders of magnitude that mediatise the individual when it comes into being.]

In other words, we find a radical insistence on relationality (everything is relation) and process (everything is movement). Simondon pushes these points so far that a gap towards Lucretius and atomism is opened.

The size of this gap, however, remains debatable. Michel Serres has offered a reading that brings Lucretius closer to Simondon, insisting on the fact that we must not read De rerum natura as a poem about the mechanics of solid bodies, but as a poem about fluid bodies. Serres argues that this change of perspective allows us to make sense of the famous passage on the clinamen [unpredictable movement of atoms], and links the work more logically to ancient physics. Serres’s reading of Lucretius is thus more process-oriented than atomistic.

Another way to reduce the distance between Simondon and Lucretius is to recall Lucretius’s famous understanding of perceptual and mental images. According to this understanding, the atoms on the surface of objects quiver, and some of them are cast off, thereby forming what Lucretius (in Martin Ferguson Smith’s translation) describes as ‘extraordinarily fine films shaped like the object from which they emanate’.19 These ‘filmy images’ (in Greek, εἴδωλα/eidola; in Latin, simulacra) enter our minds through the eyes: the simulacra press on the air, and ‘this air then glides through our eyeballs, brushes through our pupils, and passes ← 205 | 206 → on’.20 The im-pression formed in our minds (the image) results from the pressure that the particles of the filmy images exert on the mind.

Lucretius’s universe is remarkable for its multi-layered thickness. Lucretius explains that ‘from all objects emanations flow away and are discharged in all directions on every side’.21 These emanations are not only visual, but also olfactory and acoustic, and they manifest themselves as heat. Here we are, as in the aforementioned quotation from David Yon’s interview with Rousseau, caught up in the world through our perception of the elements. The world appears as a thick multisensory ecosystem that constantly washes over (and through) our bodies. In his theory of communication, Michel Serres explains:

Le monde n’est plus à distance, il est à proximité, comme tangible […]. Savoir n’est pas voir, c’est prendre contact, directement, avec les choses: et d’ailleurs elles viennent à nous.22

[The world is no longer in the distance; it is nearby, tangible […]. Knowledge is not seeing, it is entering into contact, directly, with things; and besides, they come to us.]

Similarly, Jane Bennett describes Lucretian perception as ‘the crash-mixing of (1) bits of free-floating primordia and (2) the primordia (temporarily) congealing as our body’.23 With such accounts of Lucretian perception, the distance to Simondon is not insurmountable.

Watching La Vallée close is a processual experience, rather than an atomistic one. When Rousseau refuses montage, he seeks to escape the subject-object dichotomies that make the film director an origin; instead, he attempts to adjust to the role as an ‘individu-milieu’. We might say that William James, one of the key influences on Simondon’s work, brings together this processual experience and the refusal of montage. He explains that ‘whatever we distinguish and isolate conceptually is found perceptually to telescope and compenetrate and diffuse into its neighbours. The cuts we make are purely ideal’.24 In this sense, montage – the cut (a term that James uses without reference to film) – belies the ecological nature of existence. Cuts are not only an aesthetic mistake, but also an ontological mistake, and it is this mistake that Rousseau seeks to avoid. He seems to work, instead, from ← 206 | 207 → the principle that ‘matter is a form-taking activity’ (as Brian Massumi writes about Simondon’s ontology),25 and that the filmmaker’s role is to carry this activity to spectators until they experience the form-taking of le saisissement.

Beauty and mental ecology

Having presented the major strands in the film (the metafilmic, the autobiographical, the cosmological, and the perceptual), and having insisted on the ways in which these strands combine to produce an ‘individual as environment’ (bringing it together, letting it disperse, including the spectator in the process), it is clear that Rousseau’s film moves in a territory that recalls Félix Guattari’s theorisations of interconnected ecological spheres. Guattari names three of these: the mental (including artistic and technological invention), the environmental, and the sociopolitical. The various ‘ecologies’ mentioned earlier in this chapter do not need to be excluded from Guattari’s systematisations. Thinking Rousseau in relation to Guattari brings out two important points about La Vallée close.

The first is a point of contrast: Rousseau is much less concerned with politics than Guattari. La Vallée close explores intimate relations between Alain and the filmmaker, and it uses the geographical textbook to reflect laconically on the building of societies, but there is no mention of politics in the more conventional sense of the word. While it can be said that the film presents a vision of the non-separability of individuals and the world, and that such a vision necessarily has a political dimension, the political is subsumed within the ‘poetic’ in the sense of poiesis, creation.

The second is a point of similarity: Rousseau and Guattari share a strong attentiveness to the ways in which subjectivity is produced, and to the role that art plays in this ongoing production. In La Vallée close, this interest connects to the semi-autobiographical: we often see and hear the director, we see the woman whom we presume to be his mother, and we get the sense of a love story. Guattari similarly focusses on art and the production of subjectivity, describing art as ‘un foyer de production ontologique [a hub of ontological production]’.26 At the end of Chaosmose, he explains: ← 207 | 208 →

L’ œuvre d’art, pour ceux qui en ont l’usage, est une entreprise de décadrage, de rupture de sens, de prolifération baroque ou d’appauvrissement extrême, qui entraîne le sujet vers une recréation et une réinvention de lui-même.27

[The work of art, for those who use it, is an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense, of baroque proliferation or extreme impoverishment which leads to a recreation and a reinvention of the subjects itself.]

But against which criteria do we measure this creative process, this production of subjectivity?

How do we ensure that the artistic process leads to a reinvention rather than a reification of subjectivity? Putting this question to Rousseau’s film, two ideals emerge. The first is the commitment to what Lucretius, Bergson and Simondon present as incessant movement. This movement is intensified in the potentially misleading term saisissement, a moment that crystallises and overflows the individual human, thereby keeping the processes of subjectification open. The second ideal that governs the production of subjectivity sounds more romantic: Rousseau promotes beauty. Like Elaine Scarry, he suggests that beauty can help to reorganise the world in less anthropocentric ways.28 He explains that ‘la beauté ne se voit que dans la contemplation, jamais dans l’observation. Elle ne s’observe pas. Elle ne se détaille pas [beauty can only be contemplated, never observed. It cannot be kept in check. It cannot be broken into distinct parts’].29 This means that beauty is non-objectifiable insofar as it is never the object of a gaze – it works on us: ‘la beauté […], l’art […], c’est plutôt quelque chose qui se subit [beauty […], art […], is, rather, something that is undergone]’.30 The beautiful images that seize the filmmaker (and the spectator) are presented as a rupture, and ‘cette rupture, c’est être transporté dans le vide [this rupture is to be transported into empty space]’.31 One could therefore argue that Rousseau’s two ideals – process and beauty – are one and the same: beauty is propulsive, throwing us through empty space until we come together in new constellations. With this understanding of ← 208 | 209 → beauty, we are invited to conclude that for Rousseau an artistic experience – an encounter with beauty – is almost by necessity an ecological experience. It is a chance to experience what it means to be an individu-milieu. It is a chance to sense, in a saisissement which is simultaneously embodied and disembodying, that we are always already individus-milieux.

Conclusions: art as ecology

The present discussion of Jean-Claude Rousseau’s La Vallée close has attempted to make two general points. On the one hand, it has argued for the ecocritical potential of Simondon’s concept of the individu-milieu. One way to present this concept is to stress how Simondon invites us to avoid the connector and (as in ‘man and environment’), and to prefer the connector as; how the prefix inter- (between) is marginalised by the prefix trans- (through); how Simondon, through such shifts of balance, steers us away from dialectic investigations of the relationship between man and environment, suggesting that man – and other environments – might best be understood as une certaine phase de l’être [a certain phase of being]. Although Simondon’s notion of the individu-milieu is part of a theory of individuation (rather than an eco-theory in a narrow sense of the term), it is obvious that – with this emphasis on the non-separability of man and environment – the individu-milieu anticipates forms of thinking that crystallise around the notion of the Anthropocene.

Inspired by Guattari, the present chapter furthermore sought to address the question of how art (La Vallée close) can be situated in relation to ideas about the individu-milieu. My argument was that Rousseau’s art (but not only his) is a fundamentally ecological experience. As explained in the latter stages of the chapter, Rousseau’s film is concerned with beauty. Beauty allows the experience of the saisissement, and the saisissement is coextensive with the realisation of being an individu-milieu. Beauty, then, is not about harmonious landscapes; rather, it is – as Scarry suggested – associated with the experience of being removed from the centre of our own world. But Rousseau’s art is not only about the saisissement. It is equally important to remember that filmmaking – and art in general – is a hands-on activity. The way in which Rousseau shoots, records and assembles the images and sounds for his film – that is to say, Rousseau’s praxis – complicates all form-versus-matter and subject-versus-object dichotomies. Putting the film together step by step – whether this happens through the process of recording and assembling the footage, or through the activity of viewing the film – allows us to experience how we are caught up in the world. This is not an argument about media specificity – filmic, linguistic ← 209 | 210 → and mental images invite us to conclude (as the passages from Bergson/Lucretius, Simondon and Guattari suggested) that the world is a thick, multilayered universe from which no disentanglement is possible. Images and artworks – perception and imagination – bring us right into the hyphenation of Simondon’s individu-milieu.


Bennett, Jane, ‘De Rerum Natura’, Strategies 13.1 (2000), 9–22

Bergson, Henri, Extraits de Lucrèce, avec un commentaire, des notes et une étude sur la poésie, la philosophie, la physique, le texte et la langue de Lucrèce (Paris: Delagrave, 1884)

Brunhes, Jean, Leçons de géographie: cours élémentaire (Tours: Mame, 1924)

Guattari, Félix, Chaosmose (Paris: Galilée, 1992)

—, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. by P. Bains and J. Pefanis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995)

—, Qu’est-ce que l’écosophie?, ed. by S. Nadaud (Paris: Lignes, 2013)

James, William, Essays in Radical Empiricism, ed. by E. K. Suckiel (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

Lucretius Carus, Titus, On the Nature of Things, trans. by M. F. Smith (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001)

Massumi, Brian, Arne De Boever, Alex Murray, and Jon Roffe, ‘“Technical Mentality” Revisited’, in Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology, ed. by A. De Boever, A. Murray, J. Roffe and A. Woodward (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 19–36

Neyrat, Cyril, and Jean-Claude Rousseau, ‘Entretien avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, in Lancés à travers le vide…: ‘La Vallée close’, ed. by C. Neyrat (Nantes: Capricci, 2009), 18–38

Pleynet, Marcelin, ‘Poésie oui’, Tel Quel 75 (1978), 73–86

Rousseau, Jean-Claude, La Vallée close (Nantes: Capricci, 2009)

—, personal email to the author (29 October 2016)

Sauvagnargues, Anne, ‘Crystals and Membranes: Individuation and Temporality’, trans. by J. Roffe, in Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology, ed. by A. De Boever, A. Murray, J. Roffe and A. Woodward (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 57–70

Scarry, Elaine, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Serres, Michel, La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: fleuves et turbulences (Paris: Minuit, 1977) ← 210 | 211 →

—, The Birth of Physics, trans. by J. Hawkes (Manchester: Clinamen, 2000)

Simondon, Gilbert, Imagination et invention (1965–66), ed. by N. Simondon (Chatou: La Transparence, 2008)

—, L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, ed. by J. Garelli (Grenoble: Millon, 2013)

—, ‘The Genesis of the Individual’, trans. by M. Cohen and S. Kwinter, in Incorporations, ed. by J. Crary and S. Kwinter (New York, NY: Zone, 1992), 297–319

Yon, David, and Jean-Claude Rousseau, ‘Entretiens avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, Dérives 1 (2007), 23–44 ← 211 | 212 →

1 Today, La Fontaine de Vaucluse is less mysterious. Geologists have discovered that the fountain is the only exit point for a huge underground lake measuring some 1100km2. It is the fourth biggest underground water reservoir in the world, and the biggest in Europe. It goes 308m into the mountainous ground, and every year about 700,000,000 m3 of water flow from the spring. It is the sheer size of this underground system that explains why measurements of the annual downpour do not straightforwardly lead to an accurate forecast about when the gush of water will emerge. Even though modern technological instruments have allowed scientists to map a substantial portion of the underground area, no human has reached the bottom of the grotto.

2 On Rousseau’s method, see Cyril Neyrat and Jean-Claude Rousseau, ‘Entretien avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, in Lancés à travers le vide…: ‘La Vallée close’, ed. by C. Neyrat (Nantes: Capricci, 2009), 18–38.

3 The soundtrack, on the other hand, partly results from manipulations (such as the overlaying of two tracks). Rousseau distinguishes sharply between images and sounds: ‘il n’y a pas de saisissement au niveau du son. C’est bizarre à dire mais ce saisissement est d’ordre géométrique et donc relève de la vue… le son ne se trouve justifié que par sa rencontre avec l’image [there is no saisissement at the level of sound. It may sound odd, but this saisissement is of a geometrical kind and therefore happens through vision… The sound is justified only when encountering the image]’. Neyrat and Rousseau, ‘Entretien avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, 24 [unreferenced translations are mine].

4 Gilbert Simondon, L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, ed. by J. Garelli (Grenoble: Millon, 2013), 39–45.

5 Rousseau belongs to what is often called a materialist and formalist tradition of filmmaking that includes directors such as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. La Vallée close is dedicated to Straub and Huillet, and the film was made possible because Straub helped to secure funding.

6 Simondon, L’Individuation, 65.

7 Marcelin Pleynet, ‘Poésie oui’, Tel Quel 75 (1978), 73–86.

8 Rousseau and Pleynet are not the only (male) writers and artists to link vaginas and grottos: Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866) was – Rousseau explains – inspired by the artist’s paintings of La Grotte de la Loue in Franche-Comté. On this point, see Jonathan Krell’s contribution to the present volume.

9 Jean Brunhes, Leçons de géographie: cours élémentaire (Tours: Mame, 1924).

10 Jean-Claude Rousseau, personal email to the author (29 October 2016).

11 Lucretius’s cosmological poem does not claim to offer an original worldview; rather, it aims for an accurate and poetic exposition of Epicurus’s ontology. The quotation could thus be seen as ‘triple-authored’ before Rousseau becomes involved.

12 Henri Bergson, Extraits de Lucrèce, avec un commentaire, des notes et une étude sur la poésie, la philosophie, la physique, le texte et la langue de Lucrèce (Paris: Delagrave, 1884), 27; translation transcribed from subtitles of Jean-Claude Rousseau, La Vallée close (Nantes: Capricci, 2009).

13 David Yon and Jean-Claude Rousseau, ‘Entretiens avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, Dérives 1 (2007), 23–44 (44) [my emphasis].

14 Simondon, L’Individuation, 23.

15 Gilbert Simondon, Imagination et invention (1965–66), ed. by N. Simondon (Chatou: La Transparence, 2008), 47.

16 Simondon, L’Individuation, 24–5; ‘The Genesis of the Individual’, trans. by M. Cohen and S. Kwinter, in Incorporations, ed. by J. Crary and S. Kwinter (New York, NY: Zone, 1992), 297–319 (300).

17 Anne Sauvagnargues, ‘Crystals and Membranes: Individuation and Temporality’, trans. by J. Roffe, in Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology, ed. by A. De Boever, A. Murray, J. Roffe and A. Woodward (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 57–70 (58).

18 Simondon, L’Individuation, 25; ‘The Genesis of the Individual’, 300n1.

19 Titus Lucretius Carus, On the Nature of Things, trans. by M. F. Smith (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001), xxvii.

20 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 107.

21 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 106.

22 Michel Serres, La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: fleuves et turbulences (Paris: Minuit, 1977), 134; The Birth of Physics, trans. by J. Hawkes (Manchester: Clinamen, 2000), 107.

23 Jane Bennett, ‘De Rerum Natura’, Strategies 13.1 (2000), 9–22 (16).

24 William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, ed. by E. K. Suckiel (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 49–50.

25 Brian Massumi, Arne De Boever, Alex Murray, and Jon Roffe, ‘“Technical Mentality” Revisited’, in Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology, ed. by A. De Boever, A. Murray, J. Roffe and A. Woodward (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 19–36 (31).

26 Félix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que l’écosophie?, ed. by S. Nadaud (Paris: Lignes, 2013), 169–70; 294.

27 Félix Guattari, Chaosmose (Paris: Galilée, 1992), 181; Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. by P. Bains and J. Pefanis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), 131.

28 ‘When we come upon beautiful things […] it is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us’. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 110–12.

29 Yon and Rousseau, ‘Entretiens avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, 24.

30 Yon and Rousseau, ‘Entretiens avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, 24.

31 Yon and Rousseau, ‘Entretiens avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, 29.