Final Thoughts on the Cinema Books: Rereading the World (and Film) as a Layered Network of Images and Signs

Deleuze on Film, literally! A still from 'L'Abecedaire de Gilles Deleuze'

A Network of Images and Signs: Bringing it All Together in an Imaginary Film

So much complexity, so many layers. But can we bring it all together? What might it be like to watch a film through Deleuzian eyes?

Imagine a scene in a film in which we see a man walking down the street in medium shot. What we see are movement-images, for in fact, all that exists in the world is a movement-image (an imaging-of-movement), and some special ones exist on screens. This particular image on screen is in fact a perception-image, an imaging of the perception of the camera. However, now we see a shot-reverse-shot, we realize our man walking down the street is being watched by another person peering at the street, hidden, from a window. Suddenly the perception-image of the camera is also the percpetion-image of the woman, for the perception of both the camera and the woman are encoded, if by their structuring absence of their point-of-view, in the scene, the fact that we only see the scene from a particular angle, etc.

How do we know how to read all this from the flickering light on the screen? My dog just sees flickering light, but I read patterns in this light to indicate a man, a street, a woman, etc. These images are all lecto-signs, because I read them, they call out to me to be read, and I read them with my pre-made significations. A more avant-garde film might require me to develop my own readings, but not this film so far.

When I see the shot-reverse-shot, and see the face of the woman, I realize she is a stand-in for me. She processes the scene, her face takes in the images and synthesizes them, just like I do. Her face is therefore not only a representation of a face, but also of an off-screen process of thought, one which is both inside the film and beyond it. Her face is thus a noo-sign, an imaging of thought, what we have called (ever so-slightly modifying Deleuze’s terms for purposes of clarity) a brain-sign.

Her face ripples in fear at seeing this man on the street – is he coming to kill her?! The ripples of fear are affection-images, for they show us qualities and shifting of qualities which indicate powers which ripple across this face. We see the woman pick up the phone to call the cops. Such movement, just like that of the man walking across the street, these are all action-images, convulsions of the filmic space around particular sections thereof, shifts in the balance of forces between the environment and focal objects in our view.

Suddenly, we see the woman’s head on a pillow, and a confused look on her face. All that we have just seen has been recast as a dream. We realize that all the images above were not only complexes of intertwined and layered perception, affection, action, and movement-images, yet they were also more than that. They existed in a particular relationship to other images which indicate that they are shot through with memory, fantasy, time. Thus, these images were signs of dreaming, oneiro-signs, as well as all the other types of images and signs they are.

Our female protagonist now leaves her bedroom, and goes to the bathroom, splashes water on her face in the mirror. She sees her reflection in the mirror, and in the mirror, we see a man that we can read (another lecto-sign!) by his body language to be a husband or lover, move in behind her, and kiss her neck. And we realize that this man is the same one she feared as he walked down the street in her dream!

The image the woman sees in the mirror and her face itself are mirror images of each other, and hence, are forms of hyalo-signs, just as the image of the husband’s face outside the dream and inside the dream are mirror-images of each other. These similarities short-circuit the linearity of the time of the film, create new circuits of resemblance that thwart the dominance of linear time in the film, of the resemblance of one moment with the next so pressed upon our brains by the strange mirroring devices we call clocks.

Let us leave our imaginary film here. Were this film more avant-garde, it may involve some of Deleuze’s more abstract signs from the end of the cinema books, such as peaks and sheets, but here we see how even the simplest of traditional Hollywood films can be re-read in Deleuzian terms as a complex of images, some of which mean more than themselves and hence function as signs. Ultimately, all images are signs, but Deleuze calls those images signs which demonstrate this most radically by having a relation to memory/fantasy, past/future, disjunctive-synethesis, that is, time.

It’s important to keep in mind that an image presented in a film may be many images and signs, all at once. Thus, a man walking down the street is a movement-image because it images movement, yet it is also a perception-image because it is captured by a camera, and an action-image because we see defined bodies shift their relation to each other and their environment. As we watch the film, we realize that this image is a layered perception-image (because we learn that the man is watched by the camera and the woman), yet also a dream-image. We don’t have evidence that the man is synthesizing images, so we can’t say he represents an imaging of thought, but since all humans have the potential to think, we can say that his body implies thought, and hence, is also a noosign, if a weak and indirect one. And the fact that we can read any and all of this proves that these are also, all, lecto-signs, images that are legible as meaningful, related to the world of words, meanings, concepts, discourse, etc.

Being any one of these types of images or sign does not make it any less of the other. And many signs are always included in others – there are no affection-images which are not also perception-images, also movement-images. What Deleuze gives us is a way to see any slicing of the world, whether on screen or in everyday life, as a networked layering of filters and lensings. These lenses each carve the sensible into chunks that we then use to orient ourselves in the world. And each chunk is then carved in turn by other lenses, layered on top of other chunks. What we actually perceive is always already carved and layered this way. Were it otherwise, swift action in the world would be impossible.

Deleuze works to separate out as much as is possible the differing layers of carving, lensing, warping, and recompositions which makes our everyday existence in the world cinematic, and which makes cinema such a powerful tool for world-imagining.

By showing us how we humans do this (mostly in Book I) in our everyday lives, he shows us precisely how closely linked cinema and our everyday lives actually are. In the first half of Book II, he then shows us how our inner experience and cinema are closely linked as well. And in the second half of Book II, he shows us how cinema can exceed the limitations of our current forms of perception, affection, action, memory, dream, fantasy, thought, and meaning. Cinema can therefore act as a radical tool for going beyond our current limitations. Cinema can act as a radically powerful prosthetic device for imagining new worlds. And as we saw with Rouch, cinema can act to also begin to create new worlds, create cine-becomings, in which the production of the film creates a set of actions which happen to be captured on film, but which would never have happened without the process of making a film to bring them about. Cinema can therefore be a way of changing the world directly and indirectly.

Post-script on C.S. Peirce

It may seem odd to some readers of the cinema books that I’ve gone this far, and not mentioned C.S. Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’). Along with Bergson, Peirce is Deleuze’s second guiding light in these books. And I certainly don’t want to downplay the importance of Peirce as an influence on these books. However, it is completely possible to read these books and largely understand them without having to understand Peirce first. The same cannot be said with Bergson, for getting Bergson’s critique of clock time is essential to understand at all what Deleuze means by a time-image. However, it’s worth saying a few words on Peirce before the end.

Peirce believes that the world is composed of intertwined layers of signs, and he spends much of his mature work delineating a complex hierarchy of signs of various sorts, nearly all structured as threes within threes. For Peirce, there is no distinction between the world and signs, and the world is an evolving and dynamic interplay of signs whose logical relations give structure to the universe.

Much of the internal structure of the cinema books can be seen as directly inspired by Peirce’s typologies. In particular, the distinction between a pure quality, binary duel, and tertiary abstract relation (which Peirce calls firstness, secondness, and thirdness) provide structure for the Deleuzian transition between affection, action, and relation-images. There are many more ways in which Peirce provides inspiration for Deleuze, and there is one particular chapter in Cinema II where Deleuze lays all this all out.

I haven’t concentrated on Peirce, however, because while Deleuze couldn’t have written the books without him as inspiration, it is not necessary to know Peirce to begin reading the books. Peirce is a powerful philosopher, and tragically overlooked. I don’t like contributing to this, but a more thorough discussion of the links between Peirce and the cinema books will have to wait for another time.

Final Thoughts

In summation, let us catalogue, now, what Deleuze has accomplished with these books. He provides us with a new way of viewing cinematic images, and the images which comprise our world. He shows us how cinema can become a tool for moving beyond the current limitations of our relations to our worlds and others, both by showing us precisely how cinema can imagine new worlds, but also create actions that directly bring them into being.

Philosophically, Deleuze also provides a running critique of traditional forms of human subjectivity, and thus, indirectly, the Cartesian legacy in philosophy, as represented by Descartes, Kant, and the subjectivist side of Lacan. He also reworks aspects of Hegelian dialectic and psychoanalysis so as to make their attempt to blast apart the Cartesian subject via history and the unconscious truly multiplicitous. Aspects of Deleuze’s cinema books take on, if often indirectly, Hegel’s Logic, as well as Lacan’s notion of the unconscious. In the process, Deleuze gives us a post-dialectical, post-subjective, post-human version of the world.

What’s more, Deleuze provides us with a pedagogy. Deleuze’s cinema books have been my textbook for teaching myself the history of film. While they stop in the mid-1980’s, and are slightly stronger with French film than other traditions, and have a few curious oversights, Deleuze’s history of film is pretty damn comprehensive. Supplemented a bit, it is an amazing introduction to the history of film. It also shows us what it means to put philosophy into practice, to bring philosophy out of itself into the world, to make philosophy and some other area of the world truly come into contact so that neither is fully the same afterwards. We also see how Deleuze takes on previous thinkers and concepts from the history of philosophy, explodes them from within, reworks them to fit the multiplicitous model which not only fits the times, but perhaps provides a radical way out of the impasses that continue to oppress us.

Deleuze’s cinema books are some of the most important works of philosophy, and film, and ethico-politics, of the second half of the twentieth century. What they are not, however, is easily accessible. My hope is that after reading these posts, readers will feel empowered to take on these books themselves. There is so much more there than I could ever explain in such a short space, each page is bursting with insights.

But now, they will hopefully be easier to grasp for a first time reader.


~ by chris on May 1, 2011.

One Response to “Final Thoughts on the Cinema Books: Rereading the World (and Film) as a Layered Network of Images and Signs”

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