On Hyalo-Signs and Crystals: Reply to Adrian

(crossposted at Orbis Mediologicus)

[This post started off as a reply to another blog, but as you’ll see, it ends up explaining Deleuze’s concepts of the Hyalo-Sign and Crystal-Image along the way . . . ]

Just a quick reply to Adrian’s over at Immanence’s comments on my post on visual democracy and the crystal-image in Deleuze’s Cinema II, along with some more comments on crystal-images, direct time-images, and hyalo-signs in Deleuze’s Cinema books.

I think Adrian is right to point out that I’m using the notion of the crystal-image in a somewhat novel sense in my post when discussing the myriad of responses to the Hilary Clinton 3am campaign ad, or other such formations of what I was calling a type of ‘visual democracy’.

But I still think we are dealing with a crystal-image, and here’s why. Adrian rightly describes the crystal-image, in an earlier post on Cinema II and Tarkovsky, as follows:

Deleuze’s crystal-image is a moment that simultaneously looks forward to the not-yet and back to a past that set the conditions for it. It is a forking bifurcation point pregnant with possibilities and at the same time caught in the momentum of time’s flow(s), a “point of indiscernibility” between the actual of perception and the virtual of recollection, an image that “makes visible” the “hidden ground of time, that is, its differentiation” or “splitting” into “two flows, that of presents which pass and that of pasts which are preserved” (see Cinema 2, esp. pp. 78-83, 98).

According to Deleuze, any shard of a crystal is a hyalo-sign (literally, a ‘glass-sign’), which can either go opaque or clear, that is, it can act as transparent glass or as a mirror.

Perhaps the film that best illustrates the relation between these is Fellini’s classic, 8 1/2, in which the main character, Guido, finds that anything he sees can give rise to a memory or fantasy, all of which is played out for us in front of the camera. We see what Guido sees, and each image he sees bursts forth with the virtual potential to give rise to past and present. This is why Deleuze says that hyalo-signs are sites of indiscernability between virtual and actual, for we don’t know at any given moment what aspect of a given image that Guido sees could give rise to a whole new sequence, or even whether it will or not.

In the famous scene of the mesemerist from 8 1/2 below, notice how we move from the present back to Guido’s childhood past by means of the magic words cited in the present. Its also worth noting the free-indirect discourse and camera at work in this clip, in which Fellini is engaging in a wide variety of meta-cinematic devices and commentary:

However, Deleuze is careful to argue that the virtual image is present in kernel form even when we see a simple virtual image in a mirror, for it is often difficult to tell whether or not an image in a mirror is actual or virtual until we reach out our hands to see. Of course, there is some slippage here in how Deleuze is using the term virtual, but that is part of Deleuze’s complex deployment of this term throughout his works.

We can see what he means further when he describes how these mirrors come together to give us the hall of mirrors effects displayed in some films (Deleuze’s point of reference here is the closing sequence of Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai). This becomes literalized in relation to time in a film that serves as one of Deleuze’s primary examples of a crystal-image, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. This film has no flashbacks or fantasies, and yet the characters mirror each other in a play of mimicry that extends throughout the whole film. In this sense, we see an action by one character acting to hold both past and future in an indiscernible state, in which it is usually an echo of a previous act, and will be echoed by further actions.

All of which brings us back to the crystal I was describing in relation to the production of multiple reworkings of campaign ads on YouTube. When we first see a campaign ad, our first thought might not be that there is virtuality lurking within the images before us, but of course, for Deleuze, there is virtuality lurking within everything, the trick is to find ways to unveil and release it. But as each reworked rif on an ad is produced, each new version expands virtual potentials present within the original, just as each of these new versions can serve as potential fodder for new reworkings. Many of these reworkings are incompossible with each other, but they are all fundamentally mirrorings of the original ad, which is its germ, with YouTube as the medium which then crystalizes into the new ads themselves as so many mirrors. Its in this sense that we see time ‘gush forth’ from these images in multiple directions.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of Adrian’s reading of the Slowdive video he links to in his post, because while its certainly a set of direct time-images, I think its relation to crystal-images is a bit more indirect. While Adrian doesn’t call these crystal images, he does shift here, so let’s follow.

The juxtaposition of sound and image which are not directly linked in any diegetic or even thematic sense does seem to call most directly to mind the sections of Cinema II in which Deleuze talks about more experimental juxtapositions of sound and image in the films of Jean Rouch and Straub and Huillet. Adrian doesn’t claim this video gives us crystal-images, and I would say this video doesn’t, simply because crystal-images require mirrorings which, even if quite distant from an original, still relate to it somehow.

Of course, this concept does go to its breaking point when Deleuze starts to talk about bringing time in its ‘pure state’ into the image, pure difference-in-image, so to speak, when he talks of direct time-images. Montage invades the image, Deleuze argues, the interval the previously only existed between images as montage now shows up between the seems of an image right before our eyes. A direct time-image gives us pure difference in the image before us. An example of this might be Tarkovsky’s famous scene in Solaris in which he uses an extremely extended scene of driving on a highway in Japan to depict space travel.

Of course, Tarkovsky was working on a limited budget, and the solution he comes up with for representing space travel indirectly is technically ingenious. But it is also profound, much more than a nice trick.  What is similar to space travel in the scene may be the lines on the asphalt moving past us, but most likely, the sense of duration involved. Either way, the mirroring is tenuous at best, for what Tarkovsky is doing is forcing us to connect this image to something radically different from it by means of its context in the film, both before and after the scene in question. For in fact, if this same scene were placed in a different film, it might not in fact be a direct time-image, it might just be, say, a shot of traffic for a safety video. But placed within Tarkovky’s film on memory, fantasy, desire, and space travel, it becomes other than what it was, something which in fact it always was, but the film reveals that to us in a specific way by relating this scene to those around it.

Its in this sense that I agree the Slowdive video is in fact a set of direct time-images, for here we see the reworking of a classic film (which I don’t recognize either!) by placing it as the video accompaniment for Slowdive’s song. In doing so, each image becomes radically different than it originally was, not due to its relation to what comes before an after it, but simultaneously in the form of music. As a result, we need to reread each image, see what mirrorings might show up between audio and video track. Difference emerges within the image in previously unexpected ways, producing new potential pasts and futures of the film images, hence, a giving us direct time-images. Either way, my sense is that me and Adrian are on the same page with all this, but still, figured a little clarification made sense.

~ by chris on May 26, 2010.

2 Responses to “On Hyalo-Signs and Crystals: Reply to Adrian”

  1. Hi Chris – I appreciate the thought you’ve give this. Juxtaposing the Fellini and Tarkovsky scenes with the Slowdive video raises the latter into a higher echelon than it probably deserves to be taken… I’ve written a bit more here.

    The Solaris scene is so odd, and oddly beautiful, because it seems to have so little to do with the film as I remember it — it stands out in so many ways. And the Fellini scene is remarkable.

    I’ve been struggling with Deleuze’s cinema books because I find them quirky in their applications of Peirce. It’s as if Deleuze wants to find Peirce’s categories (his firstness, secondness, and thirdness) in the images themselves (affection-, action-, and mental-images), while I’m trying to read Peirce into the relationship between viewer and image and the way we as viewers are affected and ‘taken’ by the images. AS a result, my understanding of the crystal-image tends to focus on our (viewerly) relationship to what we see and hear in the image (while recognizing that there is no generic ‘us’). So I see the crystallization as occurring in what is received from the image rather than in the image itself. I’m sure that needs more explaining, but it may be enough to provide a quick indication of why my reading of Deleuze may be slightly different from anyone else’s reading or even what is actually ‘in the text.’ Once I get enough distance on the difference (between my Peircian/Deleuzian take on cinema and Deleuze’s own), I’ll probably be able to articulate it better.


  2. […] Few know exactly what to make of Deleuze’s two volume Cinema I & II. Philosophers orten ignore it as being about film, and film-makers are often baffled by its dense, philosophical prose. Straddling genres, its a queer beast (and I use both terms here lovingly, and with all potential meanings!). It’s a text I’ve written about before, including here and here. […]

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