Guide to Reading Deleuze’s The Movement-Image, Part I: The Deleuzian Notion of the Image, or Worldslicing as Cinema Beyond the Human
[This is the first of a series of posts which form a reading guide to Deleuze's Cinema I & II. For the rest of the posts, see the sidebar of this website, where all the posts are listed on their own menu]
What precisely does Deleuze mean by cinema, and with it, the image? And why should a philosopher, or filmmaker, care? It seems to me that his radical notion of the image, straddling both philosophy and film, is so incredibly powerful, if often misunderstood. Many find his cinema books impenetrable, but once one understands precisely what he means by the term ‘image’, these books just open up. It’s like putting on glasses, or at least, for me it was. What does it mean, for Deleuze, to do cinema, to image an aspect of the world?
For the start of the reading guide, skip a few paragraphs down to the section called ‘The Deleuzian Notion of the Image’, but first, a little context.
The Strange Case of the Cinema Books: Some Context as an Introduction
I’m currently teaching Deleuze’s Cinema I & II, once again, to my students. And I think part of the reason I keep teaching these books, aside from the fact that at an art school they are so incredibly relevant, is that they are so incredibly, polymorphously fertile texts.
I find also that I am drawn to texts that are singular, so odd that one wonders how they came to be in the first place, even as these texts are too brilliant to be ignored. Texts like Leibniz’s Monadology, Spinoza’s Ethics, Bataille’s early essays, Bergson’s strange phenomenology, etc. In order to even begin to understand how they came to be, one often has to do arduous work of reconstructing the situation of the philosopher-artist who put them together. And I find this research to be of such a fruitful nature, it forces you to reconstruct the gesture behind a text, and in the process, come to understand what might be at stake to give birth to something singular as well.
Few know exactly what to make of Deleuze’s two volume Cinema I & II. Philosophers often ignore them as being about film, and film-makers are often baffled by their dense, philosophical prose. Straddling genres, Deleuze’s cinema project is truly a queer beast (and I use both terms here lovingly, and with all potential meanings!). And these books are texts I’ve written about before, including here and here, because, well, I’m fascinated.
Despite the fact that they are often overlooked, for being difficult, strange, and ‘between’ familiar genres, in so many ways, it nevertheless seems to me that this two volume monster is the crowning work of Deleuze’s late philosophy. For philosophers to overlook these texts is to overlook the culmination, in many respects, of his life-work.
And for filmmakers to ignore these books because they are forbidding is just sad. Even if one doesn’t understand fully what he is getting at philosophically, Deleuze always argued his books were meant to be used, put into assemblage with other modes of production. It’s not a matter of getting them ‘right’, its a matter of being affected by them. Deleuze wanted his books to spur novel becomings, creativities on multiplie levels of scale, breaking up of psychic and social blockages.
And this is why these texts are so fundamentally in-between. For they ask the question what it might mean to think of philosophy cinematically, and cinema philosophically, and each as one and the same yet also different. Deleuze’s project is a becoming-cinema of philosophy, and becoming-philosophy of cinema.
But even if you don’t get all that, these books can still serve as a source of endless inspiration for philosophers and filmmakers alike. The random insights on each page spill off in every direction, even as the global structure lies under it all in its incredibly slippery brilliance. Whether you come for the surface insights or the deep-structure, these are great books, ones I never tire of spending time with, a source of continual inspiration, continually between the categories in which we traditionally divide our lives, and hence, perfect tools for thinking-outside.
Anyway, what follows is much of the content of what I teach my students to help them with these books. Hope it’s helpful!
The Deleuzian Notion of the Image: From Image to Imaging
So, let’s dive into Cinema I: The Movement-Image. One of the greatest difficulties in understanding Deleuze’s massive text, a difficulty that often makes it difficult to understand even a single sentence or phrase, is that his notion of the image often confuses people. What does he mean by ‘the image’?
Deleuze gets his notion of the image from Bergson’s Matter and Memory, itself a difficult text. In the process of explaining Bergson, however, he radically expands the potential of Bergson’s original idea. He spend several pages describing what he means by this notion (starting on pg. 57 in the Univ. of Minnesota version of the text). And while these pages present us with glimmering, inspiring prose, they are not necessarily clear. Poetic, yet not always accessible.
The entire universe is interconnected, but any individual aspect, any part of it, is an image. My body, a single atom, the planet Earth, the Sun, a dog, these are all images. This may seem like an odd usage of the word, but whenever confused, you can replace this word in your head with its verb form ‘to image’. For each of these individual entities – my body, the Earth, an atom, etc. – these all depict or image the rest of the cosmos. They are refractions of the rest of what is.
This is why whenever I teach these books to my students, I explain to them the translation issues presented by the terms Deleuze uses such as ‘movement-image’, or ‘perception-image’. Due to the ways in which adjectives are used in French, it would be equally as correct to translate these terms as ‘image-OF-movement’, image-OF-time’, ‘image-OF-perception.’ I’ve found that whenever the meaning of what Deleuze is getting at in a passage baffles me, I can simply replace the version in the English translation with this equivalent, and usually it becomes so much clearer. Better yet, I try to remind myself that he means image as a verb, as an imaging. So, replace the word ‘movement-image’ with ‘IMAGING-OF-movement’, and you see what he’s getting at.
Namely, that anything in the world – my body, the Earth, a dog – these are imagings of the movement which is our cosmos. Even that which stands still, like a book on a table, is actually continually moving at the quantum level, as well as hurtling with the rest of us on Earth around the Sun at an incredible pace. Any entity or object is a slice of the movement of the universe. And it is an active slicing, because anything that appears solid to us is actually a verb, a continual action that repeats itself while things stay the same, and modifies when things become different. Deleuze argues elsewhere in his works that we need to think of all nouns as verbs, a green thing as a ‘greening’, a tree as a ‘treeing’. The same goes with the term image, it is an imaging.
A Slice of the World
And so, an image is a slice, a slicing which gives us a slice of the cosmos. And there are many ways to slice up the world. Everything in the world is a slice of it. But there are different ways to slice the world, giving us different types of slice.
Deleuze says that an “IMAGE=FLOWING MATTER,” and since all that is is flowing matter, an image is nothing more than a world-slice, a cosmos-slice, a universe-slice. But some ways of slicing emphasize some aspects of the universe over others.
Some ways of slicing the universe do so in a way which display the moving aspects of the universe, and these are called ‘movement-images’. To make it easier for ourselves, however, let us replace this with ‘imaging-of-movement’, or even better, ‘movement-slice’. Sounds strange, but it can really be helpful in understanding this text. Try it on a passage, I swear it works!
And so, if you emphasize the perceptual side of the world when you slice it, you produce a ‘perception-slice.’ Slice the world so as to emphasize its temporal dimensions, and you have a ‘time-slice.’
World-Cinema, or Cinema-As-World: Or, Cinema=Worldslicing
And here we start to see the sheer power of Deleuze’s concept of cinema. Any time the universe is sliced, we are imaging, and hence, doing cinema. When I grab a handful of dirt from the ground, by separating out a handful from the rest of the Earth, I am framing that handful, cutting it from the background, an hence, imaging. For each aspect of the world is a reflection-refraction of all the rest, for all is ultimately interconnected. The handful of dirt in my hand could not exist were it not for the gravity and other forces exerted upon it by the rest of the cosmos. This handful of dirt IS the rest of the cosmos, or at least, a reflection-refraction of it. And hence, it is a foregrounding of some parts of the universe over others, a framing. Just as one would move a camera to present a slice of the world to viewers, when I grab a handful of Earth from the ground, I am doing cinema, I am slicing the world, imaging the whole cosmos in one part.
A Walk Through my House as Deleuzian Cinema
Cinema=worldslicing. It is framing a part of the flowing matter of the universe, and then connecting that with others. Each of our days, as we go through life, is a film, a slicing, framing, and connecting of aspects of the universe. I leave my computer, walk into my bedroom, and the flowing matter presented to my vision changes. I move from the close-up of staring at my screen, to the medium shot of my bed. I am slicing up the world by means of the framing devices of my eyes, so similar to that of the camera which was abstracted from it.
And then I sit down to watch TV. I watch an image presented to me in another frame, a frame within the frame presented by my eyes. The TV news is on. They present me with a clip of video taken by an eye witness. I realize I am seeing an image seen from the perspective of another. I am viewing an image which is an imaging of perception, a slice of the world which emphasizes, by its relation to other images, its perceptualness. I am viewing a perception-image.
I then find myself wanting a cup of coffee. I put a pot of water on the stove. I begin to see how the fire impacts the water, how the bubbles begin to emerge in the whole pot of water, how parts and wholes begin to interact, negotiating, which will boil off, which will settle down, which patters of bubbles will emerge, all as the fire affects the water, causing it to change amongst itself. I see the agony of decision ripping apart the water, forming new wholes, new parts, distorting, warping it. The perception of the flame by the water creates an attempt at motion, an attempt to flee the pot into a gaseous state, a consideration of an action. But between perception and action, there is affection. The pot of water as it starts to boil presents to my eyes an affection-image.
We must not think that each slice is only one thing, however. For the view of the boiling water presented to my eyes as affection-image is also clearly viewed from my eyes, and hence, represents me, if indirectly, my perspective on the world. It is a perception-image OF an affection-image. And both are movement-images, because they are images of the world which represent a transition, a movement, in the world. Any image, ultimately,. is a movement-image, that is, an image of the movement of the world. Perception, affection, and action images are simply types thereof.
As the water begins to boil, I see wafts of steam rise from the water. Rather than the framing of a perception-image, or the intertwined warping of an affection-image, I see a separation, distinction, as gas separates from liquid, one goes one way, one the other. I now have before me an action image. I pour the boiling water into my coffee cup, I see it mix with my (admittedly patheticly instant coffee) grinds, filling the cup, I see the volume of the cup is now full of dark liquid, all these are images of action in the world.
I mix milk now into my coffee. I see the strands of milk intertwine slowly with the coffee, patches of light and dark. I see before me that some of these strands last longer than others. The relative differences present a slice of the world which images the ways in which some processes of change endure longer than others. I am presented with an image of change, or difference, intertwined with duration, or sameness. I am presented with an image of time, a time-imaging, a slice of the universe which images time. This is a time-image.
This time-image reminds me of a similar scene in a Godard film. I see the image from that film, reconstructed in my mind’s eye. I have a ‘recollection-image’.
And then I am yanked back into my everyday life by the perception-image presented to me by my tongue: the coffee is too hot. I am reminded, not all images are visual! The heat felt by my tongue is a condensation of all the universe into a single sensation, framed from the rest of the universe by the perspective on it provided by my body, the tip of which is my tongue. The tip of my tongue is like the frame provided by my eye or a cinema camera, it slice up the world based on its ‘perspective’ on it, and in doing so, allows certain sensations, certain slices of the world, to be foregrounded over others.
As I am still reeling from the heat of the coffee, I hear a bird chirp out the window. A perception-image provided to me by my ears, based on how they frame the world, slice it, the perspective on the world they provide me. I feel an emotion well up in me in response to that bird-song, I feel the waves of emotion, an affection-image, which calls up to my mind a memory of other birds at other times, a recollection-image.
A Deleuzian Typology, or the Crystal of the Universe
The universe is nothing but a crystal of images, reflecting and refracting each other. Each entity, by slicing the universe up in its own way, produces its own cinema, framing and cutting, slicing and imaging, producing perception-images of movement-images. When these lead to negotiations between multiple potential states, these perception-images lead to affection-images, which can lead to distinctions, or action-images, images of action-distinction. For if a perception image layers images as ‘the same(yet different)’ by virtue of being in the same frame, and affection-images show images colliding, transforming into each other as powers or qualities impacting each other, the same yet different by virtue of negotiating the same part-whole, then action images show differences being actually distinct, becoming distinct, acting up each other distinctly, etc. Difference has now come to the fore. And as Deleuze argues, as we get closer to time-images, we see how difference in the image is precisely what time is, the more difference present directly in an image, the more it captures time, the more it directly images not merely spatial movement, but the radical differing relation of movement to itself that humans have called the passage of time.
Any movement-image has the potential to be any of the other types of images Deleuze describes. Any perspective allows any movement-image to become a perception-image, and from there, all the other are possible, depending on the manner in which they are intertwined.
Deleuze’s cinema of the universe is post-human, he believes the universe is cinema, a continual self-refracting producing radical difference from within it, continually producing new perspectives upon its ever changing self. This does not mean that humans are perhaps not particularly adept cinematics. For we are a particularly complex intertwining of images, our bodies allow us to recognize, say, a given image as similar to another in the past, and by linking them together via our memory, despite the fact that they are radically separated in terms of their contexts, we produce a very abstract form of image, a recollection-image.
And yet, we are hardly the only entities in the universe with images of time. Deleuze makes clear analogies between the ways in which human brains work, and the ways in which the complex of cinema screens in the world are like a giant brain, each screen like a neuron, helping cinema view itself in its world-thinking. And each screen is like a mini-brain, linking together all the cameras and humans that produced it, like its neurons in turn helping it think one larger film-thought.
And yet cinema screens are created by humans. But what about the natural world? View the rings on a tree. Each ring links up all the growth in a tree which happened in a given year. Slice open a tree and you see an image of time presented in the rings. But it takes something as complex as the human mind to associate these rings with the time that produced them. The tree may have a direct image of time, but a relatively simple one. A tree has rings, and yet, isn’t able to use them to link up with different time periods, because it doesn’t know that it has an image of time. Only animals, as far as we know, and potentially some computers, can combine time images like this via recollection-images, and produce complex circuits such as recognition, association, dreaming, etc.
A Relational Image-Cosmos
It should not be thought that any particular image, however, means any particular thing. Take any clip of film, say, the image of my coffee cup on my table. Surround it in a film, before and after, with a shot-reverse-shot of my face, and the image of the coffee-cup on my table becomes a perception-image. Now take the same slice of film, and surround it by a different set of images. Show me asleep, then show the same clip of the coffee cup on the table, then me waking up. And now that clip of the coffee cup on the table, simply by being surrounded by different other images, becomes a dream-image, a variant of a recollection-image.
Images become different, become other than what they are/were, simply by being woven together differently. And this is why, for Deleuze, we must learn to “believe” once again in the world, and cinema can show us how to do this. For Deleuze firmly believes that the universe is not, like Nietzsche argues in some places, like a set of legos, made up of finite parts, and hence with a finite number of combinations. No, for Deleuze, there are infinite potential recombinations of our world, because entities, or images, are not like legos. They can be infinitely divided and redivided. And hence, there are infinite potential combinations and recombinations.
Cinema is the practice of world dividing and redividing. The more intricate the relations, the more variety of ways we can relate and rerelate to our world. Cinema on screen can help us see new ways to view our world. It rearticulates the world, and in doing so, shows us potentially new ways to live life. For life and cinema are two sides of the same. Cinema is life, and life is cinema.
And it can always be done differently, in an infinite potential number of ways.