Film-Philosophy

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Deleuze Special Issue

Vol. 5 No. 40, November 2001

 

 

Amy Herzog

Reassessing the Aesthetic

Cinema, Deleuze, and the Art of Thinking

 

 

 

Barbara M. Kennedy

_Deleuze and Cinema: The Aesthetics of Sensation_

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000

ISBN 0-7486-1134-7

224 pp.

 

Gilles Deleuze's work on cinema occupies an ambiguous and at times contested ground between the fields of film and philosophy. His two volumes on film, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_ and _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, [1] function simultaneously as a crystallization of his broader philosophical writings and as a fundamental reassessment of the cinematic event. Deleuze proposes a 'film-philosophy' that teases out the concepts that arise from cinema, that are unique to it, 'but which can only be formed philosophically'. [2] As such, one cannot 'apply' Deleuzian theory to film works; one must instead think *through* film, seeking within it the images and movements that give rise to the new.

 

This project has proved a difficult one to take up, for film scholars, philosophers, and artists alike. While, on the one hand, the _Cinema_ books cannot be understood outside the larger context of Deleuze's philosophy, on the other, they demand that the thinker (and filmmaker) remain attuned to the specificity of the film image. It is a daunting challenge, one that Deleuze struggles with in his own writing: though the _Cinema_ books contain an abundance of film citations, few of these achieve the subtlety and richness of his philosophical classifications. Deleuze's interest in film, and the arts in general, lies in their contribution to the 'art of living'. [3] The creative potential of film, which for Deleuze rests within its unique temporal capacities, is also a political one, for it bears the promise of chance, difference, and change. Is it possible, however, to bring the dynamism of this theory into a sustained discussion of the film-image in itself, into a consideration of film *aesthetics*? What insights might a Deleuzian approach offer when considering not only the experimental and the avant-garde, but also the commercial or the mainstream? What might be gained, and what might be at stake, in attempting to reconcile such seemingly divergent concerns?

 

Barbara M. Kennedy brings a unique perspective to these questions in her recent study _Deleuze and Cinema: The Aesthetics of Sensation_. Rather than engaging with the _Cinema_ books directly, _Deleuze and Cinema_ focuses upon several concepts central to Deleuze's larger philosophy: sensation, affect, immanence, and 'becoming-woman' being key among them. These concepts are then mobilized in conjunction with aesthetic explorations of individual films, particularly the sensations engendered by each film's images, colors, movements, and rhythms. Kennedy's goals, as she sets them forth, are provocative. The trajectory of the book evolves 'away from the politics of representation, to a concern with how the visual experience of the cinematic encounter impinges upon the materiality of the viewer, and how affect and sensation are part of that material engagement' (16). The execution of the book, however, does not bear out the full complexity of the questions it poses. Kennedy loses sight, at a certain point, of the specificity of the Deleuzian terms that provide the foundation for her experiment. Yet, *as* an experiment, _Deleuze and Cinema_ offers an innovative combination of concepts and approaches, and suggests multiple pathways for future investigation.

 

The book is structured around three major sections. Part One traces the project's (and Kennedy's) movement from the politics of feminist and psychoanalytic theories into those of aesthetics. Definitions of the 'micro-political', the 'post-feminist', and the 'neo-aesthetic' are proposed, along with the book's primary objectives: to forge a new aesthetics of film that breaks free from psychoanalytic paradigms and embraces the vitalism of Deleuzian 'becomings'. This section further outlines the gestures contemporary film theory has made beyond frameworks of semiotics and the primacy of the subject. Part Two delves more explicitly into Deleuzian thought, adopting a methodology that 'takes a line of flight away from the stricter, more rational linearity of the rest of the book' (71). 'Desire and pleasure', 'becoming and affect', and 'sensation' are investigated as a 'triptychal system' of elements that will enable richer articulations of the multiple facets of the film experience.

 

Part Three maps these concepts as they emerge within the contexts of five contemporary films: _Orlando_ (Sally Potter, 1992), _The English Patient_ (Anthony Minghella, 1996), _William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet_ (Baz Luhrmann, 1996), _Strange Days_ (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), and _Leon_ (Luc Besson, 1994). The emphasis here is placed upon the aesthetic, material qualities of the films, utilizing the concepts elaborated on in the earlier chapters to formulate these aesthetics in new, dynamic, and fluid ways. Yet Kennedy also notes the contradictions that occur between a focus on aesthetics and those filmic elements that remain more static and representational. Such tensions arise namely from the restrictions of narrative and characterization, and through the persistence of sexist, racist, or violent imagery. A neo-aesthetics may provide a new means of experiencing these 'molar' elements, Kennedy argues, and lead to alternative accounts of their emotional and sensory impact.

 

In the first chapter of the book, Kennedy notes that the initial impetus for the project was to explain why certain politically problematic images were nevertheless experienced as pleasurable. Traditional film theory, and feminist film theory in particular, had proved limited in this regard. A search for an alternative approach led to Deleuze and to the functions of affects and sensations. Kennedy's project, at this point, took a different trajectory, one that was more concerned with exploring philosophical concepts *through* the medium of film (9-10). The questions that originally provoked her still remain, albeit in a transformed manifestation. Rather than focusing upon the failures of existent theories, Kennedy seeks to discover what the sensations sparked from such imagery actually *produce*. In reference to violent and sexist imagery in _Strange Days_, for example, Kennedy responds to those who would immediately dismiss or condemn such material: 'critiques of the aestheticization of violence fail to consider how the film impacts, vibrates and connects through its aesthetic resonances, as a powerfully moving . . . canvas, and indeed body, outside its representational image' (182).

 

_Deleuze and Cinema_, then, attempts to map the reverberations of the film experience utilizing the processes of thought provided by the work of Deleuze (as well as his collaborative writings with Felix Guattari). Such an undertaking, according to Kennedy, demands the development of a 'neo-aesthetics', one that would require 'reconceiving . . . the aesthetic to explain the cinematic as a 'material capture', not as a text with a meaning, but as a body which performs, as . . . an assemblage, as an abstract machine' (5). For Kennedy, the cinematic body extends into and through the physiological *human* body that receives its impulses, and beyond it, through the collusion of new ideas, forces, and assemblages, always in continual process. To reconceptualize the body in this manner, she argues, would allow for a new understanding of politics, a 'micro-politics' of contingency and pragmatics unfettered by fixed notions of identity and subjectivity. In particular, Kennedy wishes to bring a neo-aesthetics in contact with what she calls 'post-feminism', a feminism that is multiple, shifting, attuned to lived experience, and open to fluid notions of bodies, genders, and subjects. Kennedy's goals here are sweeping: to create an aesthetics of film founded upon material sensations, to conceive of their movements and combinations in ways that explode static understandings of bodies and subjects, and to trace their resonations within bodies of thought that have similar objectives and sensibilities.

 

Some moments in Kennedy's case studies come closer to a productive use of this neo-aesthetics than others. Her analysis of _Romeo and Juliet_, for example, hinges upon the role 'music 'performs' as a fibrous core through the text' (167). Here the force of the song transects the film's multiple layers, swelling within and through characters, and disrupting linearity in a manner integral to this film's particular functionality. Yet many of the sensations Kennedy points to remain overly microscopic and superficial. Multiple references to liquidity and the fluid permeate her discussions, for example, and our potential physiological and emotional responses to them, but they rarely extend beyond descriptions of individual shots. The account of the river sequence in _Orlando_ is compellingly detailed, but it never connects these observations to the film's larger unfoldings. The sensations outlined could, in effect, be found in *any* film that utilizes shot-reverse-shot cutting or depictions of water. _Deleuze and Cinema_ makes a powerful case for the importance of sensation, but notes few distinctions between the *kinds* of sensations that emerge in different filmic contexts, or their varied implications.

 

Kennedy's writing style is personal and playful, and at times even veers into the poetic. While this is very much in keeping with a Deleuzian 'spirit', it does not always maintain the rigor that his concepts require. The goals of _Deleuze and Cinema_ are significantly different from those of Deleuze's _Cinema_ books. This fact is not problematic in itself. The overall intentions of _Deleuze and Cinema_ are in keeping with Deleuze's larger philosophy, and his writings encourage intercessions from alternative modalities. Yet, for a volume that deals exclusively with Deleuze and cinema, the small role that Deleuze's own theory of film plays in this book warrants mention, especially when terminology specific to the _Cinema_ books is invoked.

 

The most surprising omission in this regard is any mention of the distinction between the movement-image and the time-image, the rupture upon which the very structure of the _Cinema_ books is based. For Deleuze, the movement-image is epitomized by the 'classical' Hollywood film in which linear temporality and causal logic propel the movement of the film. An upheaval occurred, however, roughly after World War II, at which point a new kind of image emerged, the time-image. The time-image cannot be directly associated with a particular historical moment, a formal style, or even by its content. Instead, the time-image represents a shift from *action* to a focus on *time-in-itself*. The second volume of the _Cinema_ books is devoted to the time-image, and the power that Deleuze sees within it to open new pathways of perceiving, feeling, and thinking.

 

Kennedy makes little reference to the time-image throughout _Deleuze and Cinema_. Within the film analyses, several sequences are referred to as 'movement-images', but only with regard to the *depiction* of movement or changeability within those images themselves (see page 196). Such slippage obscures Kennedy's argument, for while Deleuze's movement-image remains in the realm of the linear, Kennedy's movement-images are cited for their transformative capabilities. Moreover, little attention is paid to the temporal variances such images contain. The potential impact of an image, for Deleuze (drawing from Bergson), lies in the 'zone of indeterminacy' or 'gap' it creates between perception and action. [4] This pause provides the space from which acts of thinking and creation arise. Kennedy brings her argument in this direction when she states that the goal of the filmic sensation is to affect the brain like a drug that 'displaces any fixed ideas of identity and thus makes room for richer creative tendencies' (175). However, this kind of displacement is not evident in her descriptions of specific film images, in part, I would argue, because she does not adequately account for the role of temporality in the filmic experience. Though the physiological effects of sensation are continually highlighted, they are depicted as automatic and instantaneous, neglecting the critical role such impulses play in the generation of *thought*.

 

By not recognizing the centrality of temporality and thought to a Deleuzian understanding of film, Kennedy inadvertently robs her project of the very tools it requires to succeed. Despite its intentions to the contrary, the book's greatest shortcoming is that it fails to realize the creative and *political* potential of a Deleuzian film-philosophy. The first two sections of the book assert the importance of the micro-political as a corollary of a neo-aesthetics, but these concerns never surface as a critical component of its material analyses. The materiality of film is of great significance to Deleuze, as evidenced by the tremendous taxonomy of images contained within the _Cinema_ books. Yet these images, I would argue, always arise in concert with the conditions of their emergence. Though not reducible to a historical moment, the eruption of the time-image for Deleuze took place to a large degree because the material, historical, and political status of the world was such that we could no longer see, feel, or think in the same way. _Deleuze and Cinema_, however, often figures the aesthetic as distinct from overtly political concerns.

 

The troubled relations between the aesthetic and the political in _Deleuze and Cinema_ coalesce most clearly around the issues of feminism and gender. The book positions itself as 'a synthesis of Deleuzian and post-structuralist feminist philosophy' (5), drawing the two distinct modalities into an 'aparalletic evolution' (24-27) toward the shared goal of deterritorializing the gendered subject. In its attempt to counter the fixity of identity politics, _Deleuze and Cinema_ avoids overt critiques of representations of gender or sexuality, resisting anything that might be interpreted as a 'gendered reading' (129). The alternative is the destabilization of subjectivity and identity offered by the concept of 'becoming', specifically that of 'becoming-woman'.

 

The difficulty here is that 'becoming-woman' is never adequately distinguished from the broader processes of 'becoming' in general. Kennedy poses this question explicitly in her discussion (91-97). Yet her answer, that 'to be concerned with such questions is to maintain *binarily* constructed debates' (93), glosses over the concept's web of implications, and gives no indication what value it might have for feminist objectives -- including those that she identifies as post-feminist. In fact, the phrase 'becoming-woman' comes to stand-in for 'becoming' throughout the remainder of the book in ways that obscure its meaning entirely. ''Becoming-woman' is nothing to do with a *politics*', Kennedy writes (97). It is true that 'becoming-woman' cannot be associated with *a* politics, but neither is it apolitical. And while the 'woman' of 'becoming-woman' is not an actual flesh-and-blood human woman, its particularity must be addressed for it to be of use to feminist (or even post-feminist) scholars.

 

The result of this conflation is that the (post-)feminist component of the synthesis becomes lost entirely, with 'becoming-woman' functioning as an empty sign for its purported objectives. The aparalletic evolution that Kennedy so convincingly proposes, however, might in fact be realizable if her discussion of sensation and affectivity could be reinvigorated with the third component of the *concept*. For feminist *and* Deleuzian objectives, articulated here as contingent, pragmatic, and always in process, function through seeing, feeling, and *thinking* in new, unforeseen ways. An intercession of this sort would not take place through a critique of representations or the affirmation of a unified subject. But at the same time, it would require a rigorous articulation of the ways in which particular images and sensations open the gap that allows us to think new feminist-Deleuzian futures. Sensation, as it is presented in _Deleuze and Cinema_, is not explored in conjunction with these critical, temporal, and creative processes. As such, sensation loses its capacity to enact *change* and slips into the ahistorical, apolitical tendencies of the old aesthetics that Kennedy so forcefully argues against.

 

In the end, _Deleuze and Cinema_ is not able to fully support its principle assertions. But the assertions themselves are challenging and innovative enough to demand our attention. Kennedy insists on the critical importance of the material film experience, and points to its reverberations through a web of associations that destabilize static notions of spectatorship, subjectivity, and the body. She brings these theories to bear upon contemporary, popular films, a move that reconsiders the affective impact of filmic encounters often neglected or denigrated by Deleuzian film-philosophy to date. Though _Deleuze and Cinema_ does not follow through on its proposition that (post-)feminism and Deleuzianism can be brought into a productive 'aparalletic evolution', the suggestion is a powerful one, and will surely open doors for multiple, equally provocative intercessions in the future.

 

University of Rochester, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); and _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

 

2. Gilles Deleuze, _Negotiations, 1972-1990_, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) pp. 57-58.

 

3. Henri Bergson, _The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics_, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Citadel Press, 1992) p. 106.

 

4. See Chapter 3 of _Cinema 2_, pp. 44-67.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Amy Herzog, 'Reassessing the Aesthetic: Cinema, Deleuze, and the Art of Thinking', _Film-Philosophy_, Deleuze Special Issue, vol. 5 no. 40, November 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n40herzog>.

 

 

 

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