Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Deleuze Special Issue

Vol. 5 No. 38, November 2001

 

 

Andrew Murphie

Is Philosophy Ever Enough?

 

 

 

_The Brain Is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema_

Edited by Gregory Flaxman

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000

ISBN 0-8166-3447-5

395 pp.

 

'The encounter between two disciplines doesn't take place when one begins to reflect on the other, but when one discipline realizes that it has to resolve, for itself and by its own means, a problem similar to one confronted by another.' Gilles Deleuze (367)

 

1. Moving Targets

 

Film and philosophy, unlike many other disciplines, share a similar problem: that of the world as a whole. It is this problem that is central to all of Deleuze's work. It is therefore no surprise that he should have brought film and philosophy together in the _Cinema_ books. In these, as elsewhere, he suggests that we no longer believe in the world, despite centuries of heavy-going materialism. One could sum the _Cinema_ books up as a prolonged and detailed meditation upon the conditions that could once again lead us to believe in the world.

 

At the same time, film and philosophy have different approaches to believing in the world and, of course, the world has different uses for them. Is there really any point to bringing them together? Even the _Cinema_ books -- and Deleuze himself -- seem nagged by this question. I will suggest, as my own answer to it, that the reverse also applies.

 

Could we have either the cinema or the philosophy we have today without the other? They may not be absolutely compatible but, on the other hand, would it be possible to absolutely separate them? Could the cinema ever be said *not* to think or to create concepts (if at times badly)? Would philosophy ever be enough by itself in a world in which the search for transcendental truths is under erasure and we have come to acknowledge the pivotal role of the sign? After the century we have just been through, could philosophy ever realistically attempt to disengage from other forms of cultural expression again? Surely the short answer to all these questions is no, and there is a sense in which I believe this was Deleuze's answer. Unless we consider the cinematic act to think, unless philosophy enacts forms of encounter with the world, both are lost to the world. Already this changes what it might be to think and nothing marks the beginning of the new millennium more than the emergence of such new concepts of thought across the board.

 

Let us then move the question on a little. What do we mean by philosophy's encounter with cinema? In short, will philosophy ever be able to account for the cinema with any finality? Again the answer seems to be no. This is not to denigrate the power of analyses of the cinema based on such disciplines as linguistics or psychoanalysis (although Deleuze of course rejects the application of linguistic or psychoanalytic models). It is, however, a matter of rejecting their finality. There will be no framework that will ever account for the cinema if it will not allow itself to be changed by the cinema in turn. This is a well-known point, but it is worth repeating in this day and age, not just in relation to the cinema but in relation to the emergent media forms beyond the cinema. This is also the point many essays in this volume make. It is not that frameworks are without use; it is just that they are dealing with moving targets and should begin by acknowledging this.

 

Much of film studies has not really acknowledged this. Instead, especially over the last thirty years or so, film studies has often, somewhat perversely, dealt with the problem of a moving target by changing framework every decade or so. Today, it is well-known that this frenzy for renovation seems to have run its course. Some alternatives to this renovation have arisen, although some of these have not been much more satisfying. One alternative to this periodic renovation of the house of film studies, especially during the last decade, has been the claim to reject theory. Yet films do create concepts, and it is indeed impossible to imagine a film that, at some level in some way, does not think in concepts.

 

To sum this all up, the problem for me is not one of whether film and philosophy are compatible, but of keeping pace with their somewhat hectic relations without boxing them in. This was, I think the task Deleuze set himself in the _Cinema_ books.

 

2. Love and Dismissal

 

There has indeed been a lot written about cinema inspired by Deleuze. Perhaps the best of it (Shaviro, Griggers, for example) has used Deleuze's books as a launching pad for other ideas. Yet a lot has also not been written. There is something about Deleuze that seems to inspire either love or dismissal, and film studies is strange in its oftentimes wilful ignorance of Deleuze's two key books on the cinema. In her 2000, second edition, _Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts_, for example, Susan Hayward makes no mention of Deleuze at all (despite extended discussions of Foucault and Derrida). Claire Perkins notes, more remarkably, that the 1995 _Philosophy and Film_ collection does not have Deleuze in the index.

 

There are perhaps many reasons for this mixed response to the _Cinema_ books, but here I will focus on two. The first is the oddness of the books themselves. They are poised somewhere between a fairly standard, if extremely detailed and well informed, account of the greatest hits of French cinephilia on the one hand, and a total reconsideration of the very nature of film on the other. This makes them simultaneously easy to read and difficult to understand. The second reason for the mixed response is the nature of film studies itself. Not to put too fine a point on it, today film studies sometimes still looks a little saturated by theory, and a little exhausted by the theory wars. Caught up in what we might call the judgement and recriminations of postmodernism and after, as opposed to the judgement of God, it sometimes seems that film studies simply has not wanted to know about Deleuze.

 

To be fair, the feeling has perhaps been somewhat mutual. On the one hand, Deleuze's work in general (despite it being ascribed to and produced within the period) seemed to hop over the period of postmodernism, the linguistic turn, the detailed analyses of the phallus as signifier, and so on. It did not ignore them but to my mind moved on beyond them before they had even really begun. Yet that which Deleuze hopped over has formed the basic essentials for many in film studies for many years. On the other hand, Deleuze's work is perhaps more traditional than it is sometimes portrayed as being. Much of his writing, including that in the _Cinema_ books, seems to me to be resolutely modernist (or one might say hypermodernist). He attacks psychoanalysis but invents a new variation upon it (and seems quite Freudian at times). He claims to have remained a Marxist. He wants to reinstate belief in the world. Perhaps it is not enough to have done with the judgement of God to approach his work, perhaps one needs also to have done with the judgement of Postmodernism (and its critics).

 

What this all adds up to is that, despite the excellence of much writing on Deleuze's _Cinema_ books (Rodowick in particular), it has long seemed to me that another kind of book was needed, one which would give the books a context and a launching pad within film studies.

 

3. Read This Book

 

For me, Flaxman's book is it. In the end, this is such a good book -- it is so clear on so many difficult concepts, leaving neither philosophy nor cinema behind -- that it forces me to ask whether Deleuze's concepts can go further. And that is how it should be. The reason Flaxman's book is so good -- and in some ways so radical -- is precisely that it does not *strive* to be a radical departure. Neither the history of philosophy nor film studies in general are 'abandoned'. In fact, they are even nurtured at times, though they are pushed on, and it is this that is exciting.

 

Flaxman's fifty page introduction to the collection is in itself a major contribution to clarity in the area. It is quite simply one of the best summaries of Deleuze's philosophy as a whole that I have read. At the same time it provides the most navigable of pathways into the _Cinema_ books' relation to cinema and to cinema studies. I think this is in part because Flaxman is so clear on the relation between thought and what it is that makes us think. He gives this a Kantian framework: the genesis of thought is to be found in a 'disorder of the senses' (12) and in a ''vibration' between faculties' in which 'the concept is the expression of sensations because sensations mobilize the differential forces that make thinking possible' (13). Immediately one thinks with Flaxman of the whole problem of outside thought -- meaning the encounter with the outside that is thought, as much as the question of how much a sense of inside and outside is formed through this encounter. The problem of outside thought was crucial to Deleuze (following Foucault who in turn followed Blanchot) and in this Deleuze's philosophy differed from Derrida's. While Derrida is famous for proclaiming that there is no outside (or no outside-text at least), Deleuze was concerned with the extent to which notions such as internal and external broke down when thought confronted its interaction with the world. Much of the book is in one sense or another dedicated to this problem as it has many obvious echoes in the cinema (not least in the very notion of the frame).

 

Flaxman gives a somewhat political perspective on this problem. This is that of 'deterritorializing the cogito' (2). In the return to the outside, to vibrations, to sensation as the genesis of thought -- and the move away from the cogito -- Flaxman shares much with many of the major developments in cognitive science (see for example Tor Norretranders account of the weakness of the cogito according to cognitive science, information theory, and neurobiology). Sense comes first, thought after. Judgement misses this because it attempts to put conscious thought first. All this is well known but in this book these ideas are developed, not just rehearsed.

 

Predominant also is the problem of time. As Flaxman points out, quoting from Deleuze, 'time has always put the notion of truth into crisis' (4), a notion that instead becomes one of perspective. Lucid accounts of Bergson, Foucault, and Kant follow which all put the problem of perspective into perspective. For Flaxman, the cinema can deal with all these problems because the cinema can disrupt habits of thought, the whole ''common sense' of the sensory-motor schema' that is 'underwritten (though unsigned) by a whole moral-normal regimen' (36) which is often based upon a domination of the 'seeable' by the 'sayable'. If it seems that either Deleuze or Flaxman is attempting to overthrow either philosophy or film studies, however, nothing could be more mistaken.

 

Indeed, one strength of Flaxman's book is that few of the chapters disregard Deleuze's strong relation to film studies and to the history of philosophy. Flaxman himself is strong on Deleuze and Kant, and in particular on the way that Deleuze uses the Kantian distinction between determining and reflective judgement to reintroduce a more useful sense of judgement into film philosophy (38). He then goes on the give a satisfying and conventional structuring of the book into three main sections, with an appendix, 'After-Image', containing an interview with Deleuze. The three sections, 'Approaching Images', 'Mapping Images', and 'Thinking Images', correspond for Flaxman to ontology, epistemology, and ethics. I will not take these in order, but instead group the essays according to my own whim.

 

4. Key Philosophical Concepts

 

Firstly, there are excellent articles which seem primarily to focus on the history of philosophy as it is relevant to the _Cinema_ books, and here I would include the philosophy of filmmakers such as Eisenstein. Gregg Lambert's 'Cinema and the Outside' develops what is probably the central theme to the collection. Quoting Eisenstein on Kabuki and following his own description of a goal in soccer (!) Lambert gives a wonderful definition of the event as the 'total provocation of the brain' (256). It creates an interval in the easy habit of the sensory-motor circuit. The aim of cinematic shock is this provocation, thought which breaks the regime of 'preestablished forms of visibility' (257). This regime would maintain thought as straight habit and diminish the interval in the sensory-motor circuits. Cinematic shock, on the other hand, returns thought to the body to the world at large, and to 'emotional intelligence' (257). The senses, and the thought that follows, can interact with the world as unknown, not as known.

 

At the same time, Lambert points to the failure of Eisenstein's more revolutionary ideas in the very success of his technical, cinematic innovations. It was not long before some of Eisenstein's technical innovations in his deployment of montage were to become standard fare, enhancing the smooth flow of mainstream culture rather than 'shocking' it or disrupting it. Rather than putting an enhanced interval into the sensory-motor schema, the cinema was able to create and reinforce, through the movement-image, a superior working of this schema. The circuits of this schema are those finally of Capital, which assumes 'the force of the whole' (271). The only limit to this representation is that of money. Again this calls for a total provocation to the brain, only now in a move towards a different image of thought. This is not that of thought as 'a power that would be placed in a circuit' (273) in order to effect change in what appears to be an automatic world. Rather it is an image of thought without this power, and 'haunted by' the 'automatic character' of that which has given rise to it within the sensory-motor schema (273). This all implies a philosophical ethics of the interval (278) in which creating gaps in the smooth ongoing running of thought is crucial to re-establishing contact with the world again, if such a thing is ever possible. Lambert finished with the question, 'if the brain was invented to surpass a closed plane of nature, does the human in turn invent cinema in order to surpass the closed duration of man?' (288).

 

If there is an opening, what kind of opening is it? Of course, for Deleuze this would be an opening to the virtual, but what is the virtual? There are many answers given in the collection but perhaps the best is to be found in Jean-Clet Martin's 'Of Images and Worlds', which deals with Deleuze, Leibniz, and Bergson. In a wonderfully enchanting exposition, Martin gives an architectural perspective on the virtual. Beginning from the 'profound kinship between image and thought' (61) that he draws from Bergson, Martin next distinguishes between a point of view on matter, and the form of matter. In a sense, a city, for example, has one form, if complex and constantly changing. Yet it contains any number of points of view, perspectives, 'way[s] of being' (64). In fact, there are an infinite number of points of view of and within a city, and this infinity is that city's virtuality. It is these points of view, which, though real, are spiritual, because they can interact, vibrate with one another, in the mind, in thought or memory. In this way the world is immanent. As Martin puts it quite beautifully, 'the world bathes in the brain in the form of mental landscapes' (75).

 

This leads us to the very close reading of Deleuze and Bergson by Flaxman is his own essay 'Cinema Year Zero', that gets to the heart of the central problem in the _Cinema_ books. This is the tension between Bergson's rejection of the cinema and Deleuze's use of Bergson to approach the cinema. For if the cinema enhances this bathing of the brain in a mental landscape, then there is perhaps a price to pay. This is, as Flaxman puts it, 'anxiety before the image' (90). Deleuze tries to save Bergson's retreat from the implication of the first chapter of _Matter and Memory_, Bergson's anxiety before the image. Flaxman does not try to save the later Bergson, and argues that there was in Bergson's philosophy a retreat towards the sensory-motor power, and away from the ethics in the interval, as Bergson reached the work of _Creative Evolution_. Of course, there are parallels to much of the history of film studies, and Flaxman is particularly interesting when he takes on the cognitivists. He points out that the cognitivist assumption that cinema systems fit our systems of meaning is firstly, just that, an assumption, and secondly, an assumption that reinforces itself by assuming both our own meaning making and the cinema's as 'natural' (96). Opposed to this is Deleuze's assumption of a cinema that precisely unsettles these assumptions, giving a 'nonhuman perspective' and a return to 'acentered perception' (96).

 

In a tribute to Flaxman's courage and strength as an editor there are essays that take Deleuze to task from positions that he himself rejects. Martin Schwab's 'neostructuralist' 'Escape from the Image' challenges Deleuze's use of the Peircean semiotic by reinterpreting a crucial film to Deleuze, Beckett's _Film_. Schwab argues that Deleuze can be 'insensitive to the specificities of cinema' (109). I think this is sometimes true, though I wonder if one can generalise to the extent that Schwab does from this basis. At the same time, Schwab presents such an elegant and nuanced argument that I found it interesting to disagree with it. In the end, I think he is operating with different assumptions to Deleuze, arguing that 'subjects conceive of a world and of themselves . . . in semiotic terms -- terms that are not adequately conceptualized by incurving and indetermination' (132). Perhaps, but what if incurving and indetermination are already at the heart of the semiotic relation to the world?

 

There are other articles in the collection, like Schwab's, that are interesting because they re-deploy systems of thought that Deleuze himself specifically rejects at the beginning of the _Cinema_ books -- such as psychoanalysis. Angelo Restivo's 'Into the Breach' seems to me to begin to usefully reintroduce a Lacanian approach to trauma and the signifier. This trauma occurs in the history of media production in the disruption of the easy relations between sound and vision which Restivo analyses in 1950s Hollywood cinema. In the new configurations of these relations there is no longer and easy opposition between 'information and 'noise'' (189). A new aesthetics of the sublime is at work in _Cinema_, one of 'information and its overcoming' (190).

 

5. Information and its Overcoming

 

Flaxman's book also contains much for those concerned with the contemporary evaluation of film studies. Laura U. Marks 'Signs of the Time', one of the strongest essays in a strong collection, discusses Deleuze and Peirce, Bergson and Foucault, but within the context of documentary, taking as her examples documentaries made in Beirut. As these documentaries simultaneously seem to seek 'the organic embrace' of the movement-image and, with the power of the time-image, to 'deterritorialize memory', they raise the question of 'what is the real' -- not only in 'Deleuze's philosophy of the cinema' but in the relation between sign and world (194). Schwab wrote that Deleuze's semiotic is more Bergsonian than Peircean but Marks implicitly disagrees, giving along the way a wonderful summary of Peircean semiotics in general, and of their relation to the movement-image and the time-image in particular. Here, at the core of disagreements at the heart of poststructuralism over the sign (and over the signifier of De Saussure versus the sign of Peirce) Marks points out that for Peirce (and Deleuze) it is never the intention that the sign should *represent* the real. How could it if the sign was not something separate from the world? The sign 'rather . . . enfolds or implies' the real (194). For documentary this means that the assumption that one is trying to represent the real somehow -- or even that 'there is a real to be re-represented -- is mistaken and will only 'impoverish the image' (195). This is, however, the assumption at the core of the movement-image approach to documentary making. An approach based upon the time-image, on the other hand, is one that understands the way in which an image is only the form of something implicit, something folded into the image. In the case of the documentary one major part of this is the infolding of the past in to the present in a manner which makes the difference between them 'indiscernable'. This again leads to an ethics which Marks specifically relates to 'inconceivable events' (205). The ethic of this time-image approach is one which again raises the powerlessness of thought within the habitual schema, no matter how grand this schema may be. This ethic 'allows inconceivable events to remain inconceivable, while insisting that they must be conceived of' (205). It is not, as it is for many documentaries, a question of judging the truth of images, but rather producing images that call for a new form of thought outside of the habitual modes (outside thought). The further implication of this for a documentary maker is that this may allow the future genesis of an 'unknown body' (210), as Deleuze puts it, a not insignificant consideration for those involved in political documentary film making.

 

Of course, all this implies that the specific circumstances of production will always produce what it is that they need to generate in those specific circumstances. In 'The Film History of Thought' Andras Balint Kovacs applies this to the whole notion of film history through Deleuze and vice versa. He provides a glancing blow on the way through by pointing to that which many try to avoid in reading the _Cinema_ books. This is that the books could be viewed as profoundly teleological works in which the 'time-image' and the emergence of a cinema of the brain, of the interval, is the 'goal' (156) of the process. This means that the _Cinema_ books '*are by definition written from the point of view of the modern*' (156). The positive side of this evolutionary approach is that it makes the specific historical nature of the cinematic signs and forms of production obvious. Put simply, the movement of history is specific and the cinematic production of signs changes with a change generated at least in part internally by the cinema itself. Put even more simply, if you are going to be specific about film history, there is probably no generalisation possible about the nature of cinematic signs. Deleuze, despite the possible teleological nature of the _Cinema_ books, is constantly careful to point out that he is not presenting an exhaustive analysis that will stand for all time. Kovacs goes on to give an analysis of the modern's relation to the new and the break, and points to the way in which 'the digital culture of the 1990s has blown up and popularized [this] to incredible proportions' (169).

 

In another essay, Francois Zourabichvili's 'The Eye of Montage' gives detailed consideration to the relation between cinema and the notion of the machine with regard to Vertov and Bergson. To my mind it also answers many of the problems Schwab finds within the _Cinema_ books.

 

In one of the clearest answers yet to those who question the use of Deleuze's _Cinema_ books beyond the films they themselves analyse, there is Dudley Andrew's quite wonderful analysis of West African cinema in 'The Roots of the Nomadic'. For a start, Andrew has a much clearer notion of the nomadic than one finds in many Deleuzian discussions of the same. This involves a much more complex (and one might say 'desiring') relation to cultural and geographical roots than the term is often burdened with. Andrew also gives a lovely account of what he calls, following Deleuze's 'the people who are missing', the 'movies-that-are-missing' (245). This occurs in the emergence in Nigeria and Ghana of a video market where films are shot cheaply and distributed direct to video. Andrew's discussion should be compulsory reading on all new media courses.

 

6. Ethics and the Evil of Morality

 

The final section of the book, 'Thinking Images', deals extensively with ethics. If thought is 'outside thought' (whatever that may be) how do we then deal with thought's relation to the world. What do we do with it? Lambert's essay, discussed above, clarifies the issues. This is followed by Eric Alliez's 'Midday, Midnight: The Emergence of Cine-Thinking'. This asserts that the consequence of a differential ontology is not just any ethics of heterogeneity, so popular these days with some sections of what remains of the left and right of politics, but an ethics of heterogeneity that makes us 'believe in this world, in this image here, in the identity of thinking and life' (299). Tom Conley's 'The Film Event' is a fine if unadventurous analysis of the nature of the event which begins with Montaigne (and somewhat inexplicably insists, in distinction to the rest of the book, on both French and English translation for quotes). It is perhaps the only slight disappointment in the collection, if only because personally I did not feel carried forward by it. Peter Canning's 'The Imagination of Immanence', however, I did enjoy. It is a clear and incisive analysis of the difference between morality and ethics. Nothing is clearer on what Canning unhesitatingly calls the 'evil' of morality. Nothing could be clearer on the political dimensions of this, in particular on the way in which morality invents evil in order to police and coerce, by 'campaigning for and practicing its [evil's] eradication' (331). Nothing could be clearer on the point of a Deleuzian ethical philosophy, and Canning ends with a call for a 'new social link based upon hospitality and cooperation' and 'nonrelation' (357).

 

Finally, just when one thought the feast was over, Flaxman has incorporated a translation of one of the lesser known interviews Deleuze gave on his relation to the cinema, 'The Brain Is the Screen'.

 

Obviously I recommend this book as a wonderful point of engagement with the _Cinema_ books, whether one has read them or not. Moreover, I recommend it as one of the more interesting assessments of where film studies is at the moment, as well as where it could be going.

 

University of New South Wales

Sydney, Australia

 

 

Bibliography

 

Bergson, Henri, _Matter and Memory_, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

--- _Creative Evolution_, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911).

 

Deleuze, Gilles, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

--- _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

 

Freeland, Cynthia A., and Thomas E. Wartenberg, eds, _Philosophy and Film_ (New York: Routledge, 1995).

 

Griggers, Camilla, _Becoming-Woman_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

 

Hayward, Susan, _Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts_, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 2000).

 

Norretranders, Tor, _The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size_ (Middlesex: Penguin, 1998).

 

Perkins, Claire, 'Cinephilia and Monstrosity: The Problem of Cinema in Deleuze's _Cinema_ Books', _Senses of Cinema_, no. 8, July-August 2000 <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/8/deleuze.html>; accessed 15th July 2001.

 

Shaviro, Steven, _The Cinematic Body_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Andrew Murphie, 'Is Philosophy Ever Enough?', _Film-Philosophy_, Deleuze Special Issue, vol. 5 no. 38, November 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n38murphie>.

 

  

 

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