Philosophy as Cinema: Beyond Picture-Thinking in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’
What would it mean to do philosophy cinematically, that is, to make it move? Entire generations of process theorists have attempted to describe just this, and while some have pointed to Hegel as a pale precursor, I’m of the opinion that Hegel is a full-on process theorist, and that his concept of ‘the Concept’ is cinematic to its core.And I think the easiest way to get a grasp of why is to get a sense of why he thinks we need to move beyond what he calls ‘picture-thinking.’ That is, Hegel wants us to move beyond snap-shot consciousness, to stop looking at the world as a spool of still frames one after the other, but as motion.
Moving beyond ‘picture-thinking’ is in many ways the most important final transition in The Phenomenology of Spirit, and in some ways, perhaps the key to the whole. What would it mean to not only be in motion, or to think motion, but to think motion motion-ly? Cinematic philosophy or philosophy as cinema . . .
Unfortunately, to get why its so important for Hegel that we move beyond picture-thinking, we need to deal with some translation issues. As with much of the confusion surrounding Hegel, going back to the German can be enormously helpful, even though Hegel does often use his German a bit strangely. The nearly universally read Miller translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit is dodgy at best. Miller translates vorstellen with the word ‘picture-thinking,’ and without so-much of an explanation of why. I think, along with quite a few other translators, that translating ths word as ‘representation’ also has a lot going for it (mostly because while more descriptive of Hegel’s meaning, no-one uses the term ‘picture-thinking’ in everyday English speech). Either way, my general advice is that if you ever decide to use a translation like Miller’s that has no glossary of Hegel’s key terms, definitely check out Inwood’s excellent Hegel Dictionary (which has been of enormous help to me in relation to much of what follows), otherwise it’ll be almost impossible to figure out why Hegel’s doing some of the strange things with words it seems like he does (at least in English translation, though sometimes in German as well).
But what’s Hegel getting at with the notion of ‘representation/picture-thinking’? Firstly, in German, the word vorstellen derives from the distancing particle vor and the verb stellen, which is to put, place, stand, etc. (ie: as in, “put that thing over there”). So, its possible to translate this word literally as to ‘place away from,’ like you’d hang a painting on a wall so you could get a good look at it. Vor literally means ‘in front of’ (it’s related to the English word ‘before’), so vorstellen, the verb translated as ‘representation/picture-thinking’, could literally be translated as ‘to place something in front of you’. It’s often used in German, however, reflexively, as the standard verb for ‘to imagine’. So if you wanted to say, in everyday, colloquial speech, ‘I imagine a tree (ie: in my dream)’, you’d say “Ich stelle mich vor” literally, I re-present to myself, I stand it before myself. The implication here is that what you set before you is a picture in your mind’s eye, so to speak. Now the word for picture or image in German is Bild, which is why the word Einbildung is also used for imagination (with ein being a prefix for unity or internalization or selfness, a bit tricky). But this term is often more closely linked with the creative aspects, what we’d call ‘the imaginary’, fantasy, etc.
For Hegel, representation is literally to be understood as re-presentation, that is, we present to ourselves something that we had previously experienced via our senses. I see a tree, then hold an image or picture (Bild) of this in my memory. This process of internalization (Erinnerung, literally ‘inner-izing’) is done by my faculty of memory (Gedaechtnis, literally ‘past-thinking’), which then re-presents this image to my mind when I think of it. This is the most basic form of representation, or picture-thinking (vorstellen).
That said, not all picture-thinking is this concrete, because from these memory pictures you have, it’s possible to then develop abstractions, notions like ‘five’ or ‘yellow’ or ‘pretty.’ These abstractions are then used to take apart the pictures in the world, and yet, this is still an example of picture-thinking, because as soon as I say ‘yellow’, it’s something that you can still picture in your head, either by a splotch of color, something that is yellow, etc. While there are some pretty abstract Vorstellungen out there (ie: ‘five’, ‘Being’, ‘God’), these are still all picture-thoughts.
For Hegel, before humans had language, we had picture-thoughts. Language allowed us to fix these thoughts to exterior objects, which stabilized them. This also allowed us to share representations of these representations, words which represent our picture thoughts. Of course, if everyone has different words this won’t work, so society negotiates language. While we can never be sure that our picture-thoughts really the same as anyone else’s, language allows us to at least have exchangeable tokens which can help us to at least coordinate the exterior aspects whereby we organize picture-thoughts in the public domain. Whether or not your notion of ‘yellow’ lines up with mine is up for grabs, but at least we can agree on the fact that when I point to a canary, we both say that we think it’s ‘yellow.’
That said, most people would agree that there’s a big difference between the verbal, narrated, ‘interior monologue’ that goes on in our heads, and the play of images, some defined, other hazy and non-specific, the famed ‘stream of consciousness’ of which the verbal, our ‘inner speech’, is just one aspect.
This is why Lacan famously differentiated ‘the Imaginary’ from ‘the Symbolic’, and the distinction between picture-thinking and language (as socially agreed upon, conventional use of matter, ie: sound or squiggles on a page) basically lines up with Lacan’s distinction. Much of this is likely due to the fact that Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel were such a huge impact on Lacan. And in fact, as Zizek has shown, reading Hegel is like rediscovering Lacan from within. So many of Lacan’s crucial ideas are reworkings of aspects of The Phenomenology of Spirit, and it’s hard today if you know Lacan to read this text
without seeing retroactive echoes of Lacan all around it.
Going back to Hegel, its worth keeping in mind that in and beyond language, we are still in the realm of picture-thinking, of representation. Because even linguistically mediated forms of picture-thinking, no matter how abstract (let’s say we agree on the same definition of a term like ‘Being’), are still grounded and dominated by the logic of images, even if now routed through and to some extent reworked by language from without. So if language simply modifies picture-thinking, what’s beyond both images and words?
Going Beyond Picture-Thinking
Perhaps the best way to start thinking what’s beyond picture-thinking, linguistic and otherwise, is to try to picture to ourselves precisely what picture-thinking has trouble doing. Picture-thinking has a lot of difficulty thinking of something AND its opposite at the same time.
Try to picture yellowness. Now picture non-yellowness. A much more difficult proposition, because ultimately this means you need to picture all the other colors at once, as well as all the other things in the world that aren’t colors, and mash them all together. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to picture this at all. Nor can you really describe it easily, except for by saying something like, ‘the negation of yellow.’ Which makes use of words and image, but against their grain, in a sense, to describe something which it’s hard to capture in words and images.
And this is what’s beyond picture thinking, namely, those aspects of the world that are hard to capture in words and images. What are these? Well, negation is a start, as we’ve seen, but as anyone who knows some Hegel knows, negation isn’t so much a thing as an action or process. You negate something. Words and images nicely capture the thing, but not so much this act of negation. And from an action, we get to movement, which is really the crux of things. Images and words have trouble capturing movement.
But wait, you say, there’s cinema! Well, not in Hegel’s day there wasn’t. The only thing that could reproduce ‘moving images’ was (aside from the obscure device known as a camera obscura’) the mind. And this is precisely what, for Hegel, mind IS, namely, movement in matter.
So how do you capture movement in matter with words or images, and with the type of thought they give birth to? Well, for good or for otherwise, it seems our brain makes use of semi-discreet packages to make sense of the world, these Bild that we carry around in memory, and which language reifies even further. All of which is in fact incredibly useful for navigating the world, because we have to do things like pick up discrete objects, eat some things rather than others, run away from predators, etc. Even though on a sub-atomic level there may just be waves of flux, on a very practical level, dividing the world up into discrete objects has many practical benefits if you want to survive. It makes sense that evolution would reward those organisms that can carve up the flow of experience into things.
In the process of reifying the world into bits, via the process of picture-thinking with language laid on top of it, we distort it enormously. Of course, just by having a body and centering the world as one of experience, we do that as well, and picture-thinking and language perhaps simply reflect the manner in which having a single perceiving center to our experience, namely, a body, warps things. Perhaps this is the foundation of the distortion we need to overcome, and this is a notion that Hegel would be widely sympathatic to, despite the fact that he wrote before Darwin (though Darwin was
massively influenced by Hegel).
Point is, picture-thinking has enormous difficulty with describing change and process. That is, at least, when you take any particular image or word. But if you string them together in sentences, make them move, then you get closer to resonating with the form of the world. But any individual word, like a single term, will distort things enormously.
Which is why Hegel’s works are all about using language to describe what language and its images have trouble describing. All of which Hegel calls das Begriff, translated as either ‘The Notion’ (Miller), but more commonly as ‘The Concept’.
What is Hegel’s Crazy concept of ‘The Concept’, really?
Hegel’s term ‘the Concept’ is perhaps one of the slipperiest in the history of philosophy. Get rid of any ideas you have from the English use of this word. And even the German doesn’t fully help here. Das Begriff is derived from the verb greifen, which means to grasp, and that’s why I think it may be better to translate this term as ‘the Grasping’. But even this doesn’t really do it justice. How can we start to come to grips with this most slippery of terms?
Perhaps it’s easiest when we understand what it’s not. ‘The Concept’ is not picture-thinking. And we can only begin to start thinking conceptually by moving beyond picture thinking. How do we do this?
Let’s take the example of a particular dance, say, the Foxtrot. How does one ‘learn’ the foxtrot? Certainly at first one analyzes it, breaks it down artificially into component steps, and yet, to truly master the dance, it needs to exceed the simple aggregate of its steps, it needs to flow in and beyond them. There’s a swing to the thing that is in yet beyond the particular moves, and as anyone knows, until you to some extent forget the individual steps that helped you learn a dance, you’ll overthink it and never truly get the feel of it.
So is the Foxtrot the steps, or the swinging unity between them? Its obviously both, though we’d never be able to learn the dance unless we broke down its complexity into simple, manageable parts, interiorized them in memory, and then put them back together in a way that allowed us to trace, in a manner that resembles and resonates with it, the dance we see a dance master do in front of us.
Only by learning the unity in difference of an entity do we start to get a sense of its concept. With static entities this is relatively simple, we realize that to get the concept of a mug on a table, we don’t just examine one determinate side, but we walk around it, synthesizing its sides. But even static entities like this are ultimately abstractions from process, for every entity will eventually decompose, and was originally formed. And this is why to truly understand an object as the complex, processural unity of its particulars, you need to get a sense of the unity-in-difference of its moments.
How then does the concept of a dance differ from the dance itself? The concept is the mental aspect, the thought aspect, rather than the dance itself. Thus, there is someone dancing the foxtrot, and then ‘the foxtrot’ as concept. This concept fills itself out with actuality when someone actually does a particular performance of the foxtrot, and the mental aspect of this performance is called by Hegel ‘the Idea’ (das Idee), or the mental side of a concept which is actualized in a particular instance of it.
This is where we can begin to see Hegel as a theorist of cinema, because cinema is adept at capturing so well the manner in which something both remains itself and yet changes over time (ie: a person grows from child to adult and yet remains themselves in and within all these changes). The changing sameness and same-changingness, this is what the concept is, in and beyond the time involved. Cinema captures this, but it does this by copying, cinema doesn’t comprehend the way humans do. They have consciousness, perhaps, in that they have objects which are ‘for’ them, present in them as content, but they have know way to be conscious of this consciousness the way humans and animals can.
And it worth noting here just how similar Hegel’s concept of concepts are then to Deleuze’s notion that they are singularities that ingress into matter by means of a process of different(c)iation, as described in Difference and Repetition.
Deleuze in fact has made this the central project of his philosophy: his famous tome Difference and Repetition is an attempt to describe how both the notions of sameness (repetition) and difference are sides of his key philosophical concept, the virtual, which is the potential for difference within anything which propels it to change. And desipite all of Deleuze’s protests to the contrary, the Hegel within him is strong, even if it’s not the Hegel he was taught by his teachers (Hyppolite) or rivals (Kojeve, Lacan) that he so came to despise, and which as I’ve argued elsewhere, is really a caricature.
The Concept and Time
All of which, however, brings up a tricky question: what is the relationship of concepts to time? That is, if a dance is a process, is the concept a process as well? It seems that, for Hegel, the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, every performance of the foxtrot takes place in time, and it is the temporal and spatial extension (a word Hegel actually uses towards the end of the Phenomenology) which requires that we go beyond picture-thinking, because pictures only show us one spatial perspective at a time. Only moving-picture-thinking gets us beyond this, and this is closer to what Hegel calls cognition. Cognition is a translation from the German word erkennen, which is really recognition, to know by knowing again.
So it seems we cognize a concept when we understand it as unity in difference in time. That said, concepts are in and above any particular spatio-temporal actualization of something. Going back to the foxtrot, its impossible to get a real sense of this without the notion of time, but ‘the foxtrot’ as a concept which unifies all these moments while exceeding them is also beyond them, for they are the mental aspects of any and all particularizations of themselves. In this sense, we could say that while concepts are only knowable by means of temporal processes, they are also outside of these, before and after these, and in this lies their excess to temporal instantiation. We return here to what can be thought of as a sort of second-level picture thinking, or a thinking which is both inside spacetime and outside of it, at the same time.
This helps us understand much of what Hegel says in the final pages of the Phenomenology when he talks about being, space, and time in relation to the Concept. Das Begriff, as such, is the concept of concepts, it is the meta-concept, in a sense, of all concepts. For Hegel, it is what precedes time, founds time, completes time, ends time, is in all time, is the essence of time, is beyond time, and what penetrates time in every pore. The Concept is in some senses the concept of Time itself, if we add to this the impulsion within it to overcome itself which is the self-exceeding nature of thought as ubergriefen, or over-grasping. Thought is that which overgrasps itself by grasping itself through nature. The Concept is the movement of itself into nature which gives rise to Spirit which is the cognition of the concept of the Concept by itself in the actual world.
A Deleuzian concept of ‘the Concept’? From Repetition to Difference
And yet, it still seems that despite all we’ve said about the Concept, that our concept of it is still in so many ways reliant on picture-thinking. For in fact, we are using a very abstract form of picture-thinking (as we saw at work in a notion like ‘yellowness’) to grasp that which is inherently only graspable in its ability to exceed grasping via pictures, no matter how abstract. And this is where I think Hegel truly performs a reversal at which point we realize that the very concept of the Concept is in a way self-contradictory.
That is, simply by using a single term for das Begriff, Hegel contradicts himself, because he’s trying to represent with a single term/image that which is at its core the opposite of represnting things with single terms/images. It’s like the concept of zero or infinity in math, or master-signjifiers in Lacan, the concept of ‘the Concept’ is in fact a place-holder for what is outside the whole system, and in this case, the system of words/images. It’s motion, movement, emergence, process, change. Not any particular instance of these, but these AS SUCH.
One possible way to conceive of the Concept would then be to think of it as pure difference, as that which differs from itself, and which then ingresses in all concepts as the core of their self-differing, as different(c)iation in the Deleuzian sense. Of course, that which differs from itself would have to be the same as itself, so it could then differ from this, and we’d end up going in a circle, so long as we stay abstract, once we get particular, an entity could continue to differ from itself by continually becoming different particular forms of difference, constantly mutating between these. Could we conceptualize, grasp in pictures or images or with words, such a thing? Well, we’d end up in a contradictory situation, precisely because it’s not a thing. Any attempt to thingify it would simply be like trying to grasp water with your hands, just to watch it slip through your fingers.
And this is perhaps precisely why Hegel uses the term das Begriff, because that’s all we can ever do, grasp at motion, at difference, at change, and any particular thing is simply that, a grasping of the movement of the all that is, differentiating itself in it, moving within it, for any particularity in what is is simply a part of the great big changing differencing that is the whole of what is.
How then can we ever come to even get a grip on das Begriff? We can trace its motion, and get the sense of it. To really get a sense of a particular aspect of the world, you need todance with it, make your motion resonate with some aspect of it. This is what is beyond picture-thinking, and this is what it means to think in the mode of the Concept. And this is why one needs the entire Phenomenology, because the true lesson it imparts isn’t in any particular notion, even one as slippery as das Begriff. It’s in the motion, that which exceeds its concept even as it points to it as much as a circle points to its interiorly absent center (one of Derrida’s highly useful metaphors in this instance!).
A concept is a motion that has moments, and it is thus inside this movement/moments and beyond it. Hegel sometimes refers to our self as a concept, because it is a movement between thoughts, images, and experiences which is in yet beyond these, unifying these, but yet also nothing but these and the movement between them.
And here we see how it is that Hegel’s concept of the Concept is so similar to Deleuze’s notion of ‘the virtual’, the power and potential for difference within what is, as well as Bergson’s notion of duree and elan vital. All these are attempts to conceptualize that which is inherently beyond conceptualization, to picture that which picture thinking necessarily lacks, but to do this by the only means we have, namely, re-presentation in pictures, yet in this case, pictures in motion, philosophy as cinema.