Saturday, February 6, 2010


Deleuzian critique in partnership with new cognitive science may help us achieve a more expansive understanding of what the cinema is about. As Deleuze himself states in his interview, "On Philosophy,"There’s a special relation between philosophy and neurology […] our current inspiration doesn’t come from computers but from the microbiology of the brain.” I therefore will address the cinema as an ontological question, borrowing particular ideas from the philosophy of Deleuze and as a representational one, bringing into focus recent studies in perceptual theory. All kinds of arts, cinema included, can be divided into 3 distinct phases(190)[i]: conception, execution, and appreciation. For the sake of this essay I differentiate between these 3 phases and focus my discussion on the actual viewing of the film, when the viewer is in front of the screen. Let me further explain what I mean by this phenomena of the screen. According to Julian Hochberg there are two categories of events in film: discontinuous shots that don't necessarily have motion in them but create a kind of rhythm via their sequence, and/or ‘motion based information,’ or what I like to call the classic synthetic motion image. Both work in tandem or singularly to make up part of the perceptual experience of the film. At its most basic level movies are comprised of these two kinds of images, no matter how sophisticated a filmmaker’s approach is to the representational material he or she is working with. I will relate back to these elements while talking about cinema in relation to perceptual theory and show how an individual’s experience of the film event is the ultimate expression of the cinematic.

Let us first examine the concept or rather the idea of the ‘cinematic’ by looking at some history. There are two kinds of ideas we encounter; the first centers on the physicality of cinema from the actors to the medium or even the units of space-time upon which our perceptual experience is based. Conversely the second focuses on abstract ideas, such as the narrative structure, genre, type and what kind of movie it is. These two trends make up the bulk of film studies. What they share in common is that they defer looking directly at the cinematic event as its own unique moment, which unfolds in time during the appreciation of a film.

Robert Stam writes, in Film Theory: An Introduction, “Truth is contingent, mediated, collectively forged in the “in-between” of a polyvocal conversation” (xv)[ii]. As long as people dream about, make and watch movies, the process of creating meaning is never complete, a notion that is echoed in Deleuze’s commentary on Nietzsche: “The secret of the word is no more on the side of the one who hears than the secret of the will is on the side of the one who obeys or the secret of force on the side of the one who reacts” (74)[iii]. One discovers many unusual names for the early synthetic motion image before it became cinema: zoopraxiscope, phenakistiscope, stereoscope, and thaumatrope. People forget perhaps the many modes in which the early synthetic motion image made its appearance and the extent to which divergent technological minutiae had considerable impact on its look, feel and affects. Cinema-like arts are often mediums in themselves and deserve their own kind of appreciation. We may conclude that the plurality of cinematic forms and experiences is nothing new; in fact it was present from the start. Once film settled into succinct formats (16 and 35mm celluloid) and industrialized thanks to the pioneering force of Edison and Eastman, much of the dialogue and technological experimentation of this exciting and fruitful period ended. At the same time cinema was laying the foundation for ever-tighter conventions that would emphasize scriptwriting and narrative.

When talking about the experience of cinema it is sometimes better to leave behind certain assumptions, whether we are critics, theorists, fans or makers. Besides, it is often the maker of films that are guilty of imposing an overarching and transcendent narrative structure to their work. Therefore they are not to be trusted. Likewise critics, when they write about a film can only think about what they saw subsequently, rather than online when they are watching the film. The nature of online experience, or what psychologists call the ‘local context’, is ephemeral, transitory and much harder to pin down and summarize. If we are to look specifically at the experience of a film, the appreciatory phase, then cinema does not find its home in one theory or another but rather the total perceptual and psychological field (the relational matrix between time-space, image and brain) or event arising from individual experience. “Essence, being, is a perspectival reality and presupposes plurality” (Deleuze, 77). For every viewer there is a different screen, and therefore a different quality of experience.

While we have yet to see a single comprehensive study of the experience of the viewer we do have many cognitive studies that have tested for specific task based perceptual operations. In the last few decades images have had an increasingly important role in studies on perception (577)[iv]. Cognitive science attempts to examine how it is we can make sense of both primitive and complex visual cues when for example viewing framework-relative paths of induced motion or perhaps more sophisticated relations between overlapping and non-overlapping cuts. How do we intuit for example or make the connection with an eye-line match or connect disparate shots with little or no relation other than their sequential order? According to Hochberg there are two theoretical subsets that examine this problem, mentalist and physicalist or “behaviorist”. When we think of the cool and detached technician in the lab, hunched over figures and statistics we are likely considering the behaviorist. The behaviorist looks at nothing more than the crude information from the real world, the physical stimulus that appears in front of the viewer. “In this class of theory, it may be thought that we as scientists […] need only to know the relevant principles of physics to know what people will perceive” (Hochberg, 381). As is shown by various tests, however, subjects who view an image or a film do a poor job at recalling metric details or exact spatial-temporal dimensions. Working memory constructs mental schemas with gist like and fragmentary material, which is what allows it to be such a powerful and versatile system (S. Rosenbaum)[v]. Working memory is the basis for human ability to remember past experiences and construct future events, and in this manner is essentially the faculty of the active imagination. As Hochberg shows in his reproduction of the Heider and Simmel film test, subjects better respond to and recall emotional and purposeful actions over apparently random or abstract geometric gestures. Besides, the images represented in film can hardly be said to correlate to the physical motion of things in the real world, which is the case that the mentalists make. Again to quote from "On Philosophy," "Cinema doesn't just operate by linking things through rational cuts, but by linking them through irrational cuts too." The mentalists claim that perception is mostly a construction of mental representation. Anyone who has seen Dziga Vertov’s Man With the Movie Camera will remember the inspiring yet highly improbable camera angles that are offered by the filmmaker as a way of destabilizing and refreshing our view of the world. Vertov’s manifesto could have just as easily coined itself the kino-brain. Furthermore, “movements as we remember or anticipate them do not continue to run off in time… or extend in space” (Hochberg, 387) as they do in actuality. The mentalists approach the question of perception from the other side of the eye, sometimes going to the other extreme, yet their conjectures have so far been successful in accounting for the comprehension of higher order visual layouts in film.

The theoretical subsets of perceptual theory are not totally unlike the division we find in philosophy between substance and process ontology, the former privileging transcendent entities and the latter creation (Ishii-Gonzales)[vi]. In this case the behaviorists are like those proponents of Platonic form attempting to discover the properties or laws that form perception as they exist out there in the world. On the other hand the mentalists are interested in how viewers are able to form, fabricate, and create elaborate mental schemas from a limited visual field. The viewer is made the co-creator of the film, for it is through the online viewing of a film that we undergo the cinematic experience, rather than through some idea, a script, a physical law or particular biological organ. The reductive method of the behaviorists, only serves to limit the possibilities made available by cinema. Cinema is the connection we make at the very depth of our emotional and psychological being. The act of watching a film, even recalling a memorable film, is enough to transform the being of the affected individual. It is toward this creative and limitless potential that Deleuzian philosophers set their gaze. God may be dead, but the cinema far from it.

caldwell lever

P.S. more about cinema and the brain on my site kino-brain.

[i] Onians, John. Neuroarthistory From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki. New York: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

[ii] Stam, Robert ‘Film and Theory’ . Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2000.

[iii] Gilles, Deleuze. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Columbia UP, 2006. Print.

[iv] Hochberg, Julian E. In the mind's eye Julian Hochberg on the perception of pictures, films, and the world. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

[v] "Ars Memoræ III." Telephone interview. 18 Nov. 2009.

[vi] Ishii-Gonzales, Sam. "Deleuzian Precursors." The New School. 3 Feb. 2010. Lecture.

1 comment:

  1. Caldwell, you are correct here to intimate that, among other things, Deleuze is challenging us to rethink the nature of spectatorial engagement, and the way this engagement is articulated in criticism or theory. Too often, critics and theorists fall back on transcendent criteria for evaluating or engaging with a work of art. Equally dubious, is the non-reflective way language, the written word, is used as a means of "explaining" the experience of art. Indeed, language itself can be understood – because of its generalizing tendencies; because of its subordination of the singular to the universal – as a mode of transcendence (perhaps, even the most important/insidious one).

    Let's consider film, for example. The insufficiency of written language to account for the complex sensorial experience that is the watching of a film is something that you would think would be foregrounded in both film criticism and theory; in fact, one rarely sees evidence of this. (Cinema's status as a medium of time is a topic almost completely ignored in contemporary film theory, until the appearance of Deleuze's two-volume study of film in the 1980s.) Most contemporary critics and theorists of cinema simply leave unquestioned or unchallenged the adequacy of language to describe the affective complexity of film. In the process, they work to attenuate the power of the film experience.

    An immanent critical practice would not necessarily reject language and metaphor but would try to create new ways of engaging with the work of art – both within language, and without it. Isn’t this precisely what new media allows? Not only for (potentially) new forms of art, but also new ways of understanding, of thinking, art. Now, the “critic” can reflect on the visual arts with their own critical and creative images. This ability is not exactly new (Godard, for one, has been writing visual essays since the late 1960s), but it is certainly more readily available. All it awaits is practitioners.