Deleuze and Cinema: The Political Significance of Images (Part 1)
I’m a terrible and inconsistent blogger, why not try and try again! Anyway, I’ve been reading through Deleuze’s Cinema volumes (and some commentaries on them) and have had been experiencing another one of those cliche “wow, I can’t believe I’ve not thought about this in this way before” moments. In a way, I feel fortunate to have first read Derrida, then Lacan, and now finally Deleuze. For Derrida, of course, we are usually talking about semiotics, the play of signs, differance, the trace, etc. Lacan extends semiotic logic (of the Sausserian variety) to the unconscious, and hence we can crudely say each gives us a way to think about the world. Deleuze is fascinating to me because he does not so much build on either semiotics or psychoanalysis (though he certainly works through these modes of thought) but returns to a seemingly more obvious and basic way of understanding the world via the image of thought. Deleuze is suspicious of essentialistisms whether they be linguistic or psychoanalytic, and sets out to demonstrate that images themselves carry their own logic that cannot be subsumed into other categories of thought, hence a philosophy of cinema itself. If we are always looking “behind” images we miss the importance of the images themselves.
I’ve already been speaking very crudely, and so I’ll continue to be indefensibly cursory. What I want to talk about is the historical development of what Deleuze calls the “movement image” in pre-war cinema to the so called “time image.” D.W. Griffith, infamous racist and undeniably prolific innovator, for Deleuze, stands as emblematic of the movement image which employs techniques such as montage to an kind of organic unity previously unrepresented in film. One can think of Birth of a Nation and think not only of its propagandizing racism, but the way in which wide shots, close ups, and montage are used to represent the supposed onward march of history, the unity of a people as they confront their enemies in order to restore harmony to their world; the life of individual parts depicted in the film depend on the harmony of the whole. Black people, in this case, are the disturbance that throws of the unity of the United States, and intolerance is posited as organic unity (Marrati 99). A point Deleuze draws out is not that the images derive from a narrative, as we tend to think, but precisely the opposite: narrative forms from the composition and sequence of images. When the filmmaker invokes a montage, as directors like Griffith and Eisenstein often do, they present us with a depiction of an organic, living entity, a people, and from our internalization of the wholeness of that entity, when it is disturbed we naturally want to see the balance restored, almost the way in which gradients function in physics to restore equilibrium. A video I found on YouTube demonstrates how this form of the “movement image” is in no way a bygone method of film making, with the narrator pointing out that Steven Spielberg is perhaps contemporary cinema’s greatest purveyor of these pre-war techniques (though not necessarily toward the same political ends, at least explicitly).
This video points out how we organize ourselves according to images, we use our senses to place ourselves within the images and flow with them. We always try to compare the way in which we see in film to how we see the world, by virtue of our expectations of how images flow from one another in our everyday experience, we want to see our experience reflected within the film, we play out visual narratives. As the narrator here puts it, with film we “see outside of our bodies that which had previously been
confined in our minds.” So with someone like Spielberg and his film Jurassic Park, we can start to see how this is the case. Spielberg presents the viewer with a miraculous discovery of nature, petrified DNA that unlocks wondrous scientific possibility. The first third of the film, both narratively and visually presents us with a beautiful, harmonious world even after dinosaurs have been created. We see them grazing in the fields, moving together peacefully and in diverse packs. From these images, we form a sense of normalcy, of equilibrium, which is only later disturbed. Never mind the fact that we never see images of creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rexs or Velociraptors, even if narratively we know of their existence, before the event that disturbs the balance of the world (this is a nod to how the images, not simply the narrative, are anterior to our understanding of the film). Hence we yearn for the return of the stability of the pre-disturbance world, the harmony that was stolen from our perception. So in Jurassic Park, it is
not just the narrative we are invested in, e.g. we want to see the children survive, we want to see Newman get eaten as punishment for his disruptive actions (like black people in Griffiths’ BOAN) etc, but our consciousness gets caught up in the motion itself and wants to complete the motions that have been presented to us (a harmonious world that reflects our understanding of how things should be) which means deleting whatever is a threat to our visual perception of organic unity. As Deleuze would say in his earlier work Difference and Repetition, we seek the return of the same, rather than the return of difference. We get caught up in bad “habits” of thought, always seeking to represent, categorize, expect one thing must always follow another thing, rather than fully realizing the rich virtuality and possibility of difference containing within immanent reality, without thinking difference. As historian Lewis Namier quips, the problem is that we are always “remembering the future.”
Film is not simply a matter of light projected on a screen, as Clayton Crockett argues, it is a kind of simulation of our brain itself, our brain is also a screen so it is not surprise that film is capable of affecting us in the profound, diverse ways that it does. Just as we said earlier that the key is to look at images themselves and not the hidden linguistic signs (images are signs, just not lingusitic)or psychology behind them, so too the brain itself is a screen because there is nothing behind it. Crockett defines a brain broadly following Deleuze when he says “we need just a little order to protect us from chaos” (WIP 201). A brain thus “names that minimal order… we use to represent the minimal degree of organization required for being (Religion, Politics, and the Earth
121). The complexity and self-organization of reality itself is a brain, following Hegel in a manner of spirit, or thought, returning to itself by “positing itself outside of itself and then affirming the identity in difference between spirit and what it is not, substance becomes subject, becomes conscious of itself” (RPE 118). Crucially, then the “screen,” or consciousness in the form of a brain, is what “distinguishes something from chaos, makes something be” (RPE 122). Accordingly, chaos does not exist without a “screen,” chaos, Crockett explains, is only possibility, determination comes only with a screen, with some kind of ordering principle. Nature then, and its physical laws, is something like a giant “screen.” Recall how the narrator in the youtube clip observes that with film we “see outside our bodies” what was previously confined to the inside of our minds- in this sense, cinema represents a kind of externalized brain, or location of perception and organization, that not only mimics the way we see, but can change the way we see by creating new ways of not only conceiving of movement, but also time.
If this is the case, we can see the importance of creating new kinds of film, and I’ll get to that in my next post regarding what Deleuze calls the “time-image.” With the shift from the movement image to the time image, coinciding with World War 2 and having much to do with it, faith in “history,” or the unimpeded progress of mankind (sic) is disabused. No longer, after such global trauma, is organic unity and decisive action assumed. The way in which the world was assumed to be a the height of modernity becomes unrecognizable, and it is exactly when these recognitions fail (and Deleuze is always troubling recognition) that the structure of the “natural” and social habits of perception break down (Maratti 59). Rather than perception being directly tied to individual or collective action or movement, i.e. faith in history, our illusions of representation and recognition fail us and we are left with a demand for “increased thought, even if thought begins by undoing the system of actions, perceptions, and affections on which the cinema had been fed up to that point” (C1 206). Time begins to present itself, that is to say the diffractive, nonlinear, virtual, preganant nature of time that allows us to reconsider all that is, when faith in history is lost. Old conceptions of history give way to concepts like the “event” and continual becoming and the eternal return of difference. We need new imaginations and new ways of seeing, which will have to do with recognizing (re-cognizing, thinking the same again and again) less so that we can see more, as Deleuze argues. These are concepts that the time image deals with, and I’ll write about soon.