The Philosophical Underpinning of Cinema Studies

A review of Gilles Deleuze′s Time Machine, David Rodowick, Duke University Press, 1997.

Rodowick.jpgThe Duke Reader doesn’t usually review philosophy books. Duke University Press doesn’t publish a philosophy series, and only addresses the work of philosophers in conjunction to other disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, or loosely defined “theory”. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine stands at the intersection between philosophy and cinema studies. It provides a companion reader to the two books Deleuze devoted to cinema, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, and can be read along with them. Deleuze’s philosophy is notoriously hard to grasp. Readers who have fully mastered his thought and are able to discuss it intelligently can mostly be found in philosophy departments of universities, and even there their numbers may be scarce. At the same time, Deleuze provides easy snipets and ready-made concepts that can be mobilized by other disciplines, with little consideration for philosophical rigor and accuracy. Books by Deleuze and Guattari have coined concepts and metaphors that were used in avant-garde cultural productions, from the film Matrix to the techno music label Mille Plateaux. Deleuze himself encouraged these derivative uses of his thought, and allowed for different levels of reading. His famous video series of interviews, The Abécédaire, was designed for a wide audience and was appropriated as such by many persons who had only little exposure to philosophy. Does Rodowick’s book make Deleuze easier to read and more user-friendly? Is it redundant with Deleuze’s twin books on cinema, or does it provide added value for the non-specialist? And more broadly, does Deleuze’s philosophy offer something meaningful to our understanding of films?

A philosopher is a person who creates concepts

My answer to these questions is a qualified yes. As a reader unfamiliar both with Deleuze’s philosophy and with film theory, I was sometimes put off by the difficult jargon and abstract reasoning that may be more familiar to scholars well versed in both disciplines. Here I must confess that the cinema terms, such as the frame, the shot, the montage, the close-up, or the out-of-field, were no more easy to assimilate than the philosophical concepts. In our society saturated by media images and screen pictures, a basic understanding of how movies are shot and produced should be a requisite part of a general education; but film and media training often fall outside the formal curriculum of the school system. On the other hand, philosophy is part of secondary education in my native France, and I have always enjoyed playing with abstract ideas and concepts. I may therefore conform with Deleuze’s definition of a philosopher as a person dealing with concepts. Here I have to confess that most of Rodowick’s Time Machine fell way beyond my reach, and that I skipped through entire paragraphs without being able to retain a single clear idea. But I nonetheless found the book useful in providing a running commentary of Deleuze’s cinema essays, and it helped me work through these French theory texts as I read them along with this volume. I also was able to get a better understanding of film critiques that use Deleuze as a standard reference. Below are the notes that I took in the course of my reading, the points that I found most clear, and the parts that remained obscure or unaccessible. Of course, the limitations I found in Rodowick’s book may be largely my own, and other readers may get a more substantive intake of food for thought.

Deleuze’s purported goal in Cinema I and II is not to produce a history of the cinema but to isolate certain cinematographic concepts. Concepts, for Deleuze, are not ‘concepts of’, understood by reference to their external objects. They are things to think with, images and signs that can be combined in complex figures and assemblages. This is the meaning of the “time machine” evoked in Rodowick’s book title. Time as a concept is a machine, a device or apparatus that produces certain effects onto other categories of thought.  For Deleuze, thought is inseparable from its object. In this sense, thinking about cinema is inseparable from making it. Filmmakers and artists can be philosophers, just as philosophers must become artists. Great directors and film-makers propose a new cutting or découpage of reality in the same way that thinkers attempt to delineate the world through new concepts and ideas. Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein, or Alain Resnais are philosophers in their own right. Engaging their work requires the same intellectual rigor and attention to detail that one would devote to the commentary of a great philosophy book. Conversely, philosophers who engage cinema think with notions that are the tools and trade of movie-makers. They don’t write from a position of exteriority, but inhabit the universe they are mapping. Indeed, one of the virtue of Deleuze’s books on cinema is to acknowledge philosophy’s debt to film and to film theory. Thinking with the sensory power of sound and image, Deleuze also broaches deeply philosophical themes such as time and space, movement and stillness, desire and imagination. Cinema, he confesses, helps him to think.

Our debt to cinema goes deep and wide

This indebtedness to cinema is not limited to philosophers. Our culture has become a predominantly audiovisual culture. Even in our daily life, we think and understand ourselves and the world with categories we have inherited from cinema’s history. Deleuze allows us to explore what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like a movie. This colonization of everyday life affects our inner selves and changes our most intimate beliefs. In Deleuze’s parlance, our bodies become bodies-without-organs; the crowd becomes the multitude and accedes to the status of true political agent; and people are unmoored from their ascribed position and become nomadic subjects. Even the categories of time and space are affected by our film culture. In a paradigm shift first hinted by Bergson and fully developed through film history, movement can no longer be imagined as physical movement in space; it must be reconsidered as the form of change through time. The fate of the concept—and therefore the fate of philosophy—is linked to that of the image and the history of its transformations. Through the recorded picture, one sees better and farther than one reacts or feels. We often think and reason like a camera. And the camera itself is animated with a life of its own. After the director has commanded “Action!”, the film reel runs without control or interference from the operator. It is a kind of spiritual automaton, a thinking-machine or a machine désirante: it thinks and desires by itself, without the help of a conscious intervention. Life as movie, thought as camera: by taking cinema as the source of his exploration, Deleuze is only repaying our debt back, and returning the letter to the sender.

The main author Deleuze engages in his essays on cinema is Henri Bergson. In his book Matter and Memory, written in 1896, Bergson had the intuition of the changes that cinema would bring to our conceptions of time and space. He argued that thought is quintessentially temporal, a product of movement and change. In Bergson’s view, thought always moves in two directions at once: while it unfolds along a horizontal axis of association, it also expands across a vertical axis of differentiation and integration into open sets and ensembles. Through integration, related images are internalized into a conceptual whole whose movement expresses a qualitative change: the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Deleuze argued that the classical cinema, the cinema of the movement-image, provides a concrete representation of this process. By reducing the interval between photograms—the twenty-four images per second that are perceived by our brain as continuous—, between shots and between sequences—integrated through montage—, cinema introduces a new possibility for the image: the representation of movement, or the movement-image. This is similar to the concept of la durée that Bergson introduced in his early work. But in Creative Evolution, written ten years after, Bergson denied the revolutionary potential of the invention of the “moving pictures” and presented the “cinematographic illusion” as an example of false movement. In fact, said Bergson, when the cinema reconstitutes movement with mobile sections, it is merely doing what was already being done by the most ancient thought (Zeno’s paradox) or what natural perception does. Deleuze’s purpose is to reenact Bergson’s fundamental intuition of the representation of thought and movement by reading him through the lenses of film theory and in conjunction with other philosophers, such as Peirce, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz.

There are different levels of reading

This makes The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, as well as Rodowick’s Time Machine, difficult books to read. But books can be read at different levels. Non-specialists can read a philosophy book and get as much insights and inspiration for their own thinking as patented philosophers. The same goes with painting, music, and other art forms: one doesn’t need to ‘understand’ art or ‘know’ art history to be deeply moved at an existential level by an artwork. This even holds true for science: Deleuze confessed he was very poor at reading math and understanding formal models, but he nonetheless gained a lot from his conversations with mathematicians and scientists. Indeed, some pages of his essay on cinema seem to come straight out of a discussion on set theory. No wonder many scientific readers of Deleuze’s texts told him his philosophy “made sense” to them. But they are not the only public that could be reached by philosophy: Deleuze also confided that the most insightful testimonies of readers of his study on Leibniz, The Fold, came from surfers and from origami (folded paper) fans, who told him they could relate to his writing. Similarly, he found the most potent metaphor of his own thought process in the kneading operation that bakers apply to dough, folding and stacking the dough repeatedly so that points located on opposite sides in the original plane can come into close contact with each other. In Deleuze’s words, one needs to stand always at the tip of one’s ignorance. The autodidact can be as insightful as the academic. One just needs to know enough to work through the text and let one’s imagination run loose, in order to generate thought associations and create new meanings. Deleuze’s advice to his readers is: don’t let your ignorance inhibit you. Don’t pretend to know when you don’t know, but get as much as you can from existing knowledge.

Paradoxically for a book that is supposed to help readers interpret Deleuze, I found Rodowick’s text harder to read than Deleuze’s Cinema I and II. Part of it may be due to a language issue. I read Deleuze in the original French, whereas Time Machine uses Deleuze’s English version, with abstruse discussions on the proper way to translate certain concepts and expressions. Part of the message conveyed in the original text may be lost in translation. Deleuze is generally considered as a hard-to-read philosopher, but he also paid a great deal of attention to issues of style and aesthetic rendering. He used colorful images and metaphors to convey meaning, and he had a talent for drawing connections and making shortcuts between very different realms. By contrast, David Rodowick uses a bland and emotionless prose, and proceeds analytically to interpret Deleuze’s thought. He keeps references to movies commented by Deleuze to the minimum, and concentrates on his conceptual work as opposed to his style. The reproductions of film stills are sparse, following Deleuze’s opinion that an excessive reliance on using frame enlargements in a print medium in the name of “cinematic specificity” would be entirely oxymoronic. Rodowick operates through classifications and orderings, decomposing an idea into several components that are addressed successively. Whereas Deleuze uses digressions and often deviates from his plot line, Rodowick proceeds orderly and step-by-step,

Making sense of Deleuze’s Cinema books

Another source of difficulty is that David Rodowick considers that Deleuze’s twin books on cinema cannot be properly understood without making reference to his whole work, including books published before (such as Difference and Repetition, A Thousand Plateaus, Foucault, and What Is Philosophy?) and afterwards (The Fold). Interpreting Deleuze, in turn, cannot be made without a solid understanding of the history of philosophy, and in particular an in-depth knowledge of Bergson, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz. To compound the difficulty, he adds that Deleuze should also be read in the context of the history of French film theory, with references to André Basin, Christian Metz, and Jean-Louis Schefer, most of whom remain untranslated in English. Of course, this is only a methodological postulate: one should always feel free to skim through Deleuze’s work, to delve deeply in limited passages and pages while skipping others, and to pick up only the themes and ideas that one can relate to. This is, in essence, the invitation that I would like to make: if you are not theoretically inclined, skip the commentary and go straight to the text.

There Is More to Philosophy for Anthropologists Than Just Foucault

A review of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, Edited by Veena Das, Michael D. Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, Bhrigupati Singh. Duke University Press, 2014.

The Ground Between.jpgMy strong belief is that this book will prove as important as the volume Writing Culture, published in 1986, which marked a turning point in the orientation of anthropological writing. This is not to say that anthropologists didn’t engage philosophy before Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, or that they will with renewed strength thereafter. Many classical anthropologists were trained as philosophers, especially in the French tradition where disciplinary borders are more porous. Pierre Bourdieu described his work in anthropology and sociology as “fieldwork in philosophy.” Nowadays “theory”, which samples a limited set of authors from contemporary philosophy, is part of the toolbox that every graduate student learns to master, and that they often repeat devotedly as a shibboleth that will grant them their PhD. What is striking in The Ground Between is the variety of authors that the contributors discuss, as well as the depth of their engagement, which goes beyond scholarly debates and is often set out in existential terms. For many anthropologists, philosophers are a life’s companion, helping them to navigate through the pitfalls of scholarship and the vicissitudes of life.

After having been killed by Writing Culture, Clifford Geertz is back in favor

If Writing Culture was a gesture aimed at dismissing Clifford Geertz, killing the father as it were, several authors from The Ground Between move back to him as a revered father figure, or maybe as a grumpy uncle who may provide an unending collection of quips and aphorisms. Geertz indeed offers wonderful quotes as to how anthropology and philosophy stand in relation to each other, to the world, and to the self. He observed that anthropology and philosophy share “an ambition to connect just about everything with everything else,” and remarked that “one of the advantages of anthropology as a scholarly enterprise is that no one, including its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is.” Asked by João Biehl what was his main contribution to theory, Geertz replied succinctly: “substraction”. While being generous and open to dialogue, Geertz could also strike back viciously at personal attacks such as the ones perpetrated by the authors of Writing Culture. “There is very little in what the partisans of an anthropology in which fieldwork plays a much reduced or transformed role… have so far done that would suggest they represent the way of the future,” he wrote, somewhat presciently.

Another move that many contributors enact is, although with much caution and the remains of a certain reverence, a distancing from Foucault. At the very least, they demonstrate that there is more to philosophy for anthropologists than just Foucault. Reproducing poorly rehashed quotes and concepts from Foucault will not automatically grant you access to graduate school. Didier Fassin exposes a research proposal submitted by a prospective student that reads as complete gobbledygook. Simply borrowing the lexicon of Foucault (biopolitics, power/knowledge, governmentality) or of his direct heir Agamben (the state of exception, bare life, thanatopolitics) will not get you very far. Similarly, Arthur Kleinman points out that scholars often engage in the “cultivation of the recondite, the otiose, the irresponsibly transgressive, and the merely clever,” with the effect of estranging the learned public from their discipline and turning scholarly debates into irrelevant wordplays. For João Biehl as well, “insular academic language and debates and impenetrable prose should not be allowed to strip people’s lives, knowledge, and struggles of their vitality–analytical, political, and ethical.”

Keeping Foucault at a distance

Didier Fassin writes his essay “in abusive fidelity to Foucault”, and prefers “a free translation rather than mere importation” of his concepts. Although he recognizes the heuristic fecundity of the master, he points out that many formulas borrowed by his heirs and epigones are just that: formulaic. As he soon realized in his research on humanitarian interventions, “I was indeed exploring something that Foucault had paradoxically ignored in spite of what the etymology of his concept of biopolitics seems to imply–life.” This led him to substitute the term “biopolitics” with the expression “the politics of life”, and to pay attention to the tension between the affirmation of the sacredness of life (as defined by Canguilhem) and the disparities in the treatment of particular lives (exemplified by Hannah Arendt’s work). Life is indeed a theme and even a word that is alien to Foucault’s writing. Attending to life as it is lived features prominently in several essays in the volume: “taking life back in” could be an apt description of the whole enterprise. Another common move is to go back to the source of Foucault’s inspiration, by rereading the scholars who had the most formative influence on his thinking: Georges Canguilhem in the case of Didier Fassin, and Georges Dumezil for Bhigupati Singh (who hints at a homosexual relationship between the master and the student). If Foucault is spared by those authors, they find in Agamben an avatar of “a negative dialectical lineage” (Singh) and reject his “apocalyptic take on the contemporary human condition” (Biehl).

While keeping Foucault at a distance, most authors remain firmly committed to French theory, and engage in a productive dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari, Bourdieu, as well as older figures such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre or Bergson. Deleuze in particular is mobilized by many authors, to the point one could speak of a “deleuzian moment” in anthropology. Bhigupati Singh finds in Deleuze “an opening, a way into non-dialectical thought” that he uses in his analysis of life in a destitute Indian community. João Biehl read Deleuze while documenting the fate of Catarina, a poignant character in a place of abandonment, until his editor commented: “I don’t care what Deleuze thinks. I want to know what Catarina thinks!” Ghassan Hage wrote the “auto-ethnography” of his deafness and capacity to hear again in close dialogue with Bourdieu, seeing exemplifications of his key concepts but also the limits in the way Bourdieu conceived of being in a world characterized by inequalities in the “accumulation of homeliness”. To be deprived of raisons d’être is not to be deprived of being: as João Biehl puts it, “language and desire continue meaningfully even in circumstances of profound abjection.” “If Sartre became for me a “natural” conversation partner in my anthropological work,” confesses Michael Jackson, “it was because his focus on the conditions under which a human life becomes viable and enjoyable implied a critique of metaphysical and systematizing philosophies.” As Geertz put it succinctly: “I don’t do systems.”

A return to the American liberal tradition

A cadre of young French philosophers such as Jocelyn Benoist, Sandra Laugier and Claude Imbert also find their way into the bibliography. But other philosophical voices are also making themselves heard. For some, it is a return to the American tradition, with prominent contemporary figures such as Stanley Cavell or Nelson Goodman and older ones such as Henry James and John Austin or Hannah Arendt. Arthur Kleinman finds in Henri James the life lessons that accompany him while giving care to his wife suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, making him “feel less alone”. He considers James’s Varieties of Religious Experience the best source for teaching a course on “Religion and Medicine”. Reading Hannah Arendt in Teheran, Michael Fischer notes that Iranian intellectuals were “no longer interested in revolutionary political philosophy but rather in liberalism. Habermas, Rorty, Rawls, and Arendt were all objects of much interest.” Veena Das finds in Cavell’s philosophy the kind of attention to “the low, the ordinary, and the humble” that helps her answer to the pressures from her ethnography by “making the everyday count”.

The anthropologists are careful to point out what philosophers owe to anthropology. João Biehl underscores that Deleuze and Guattari owe their notion of “plateau” to Gregory Bateson’s work on Bali, and that their key insights on nomadism, the encoding of fluxes, the war machine, or indeed schizophrenia, all come from Pierre Clastres’s attempt to theorize “primitive society” as a social form constantly at war against the emergence of the state. The habit of “writing against” that defines a large strand of contemporary philosophy is also central in the conceptual schemes of the founding fathers of anthropology, from Bronislav Malinowski to Margaret Mead. Bhigupati Singh reminds us that “Deleuze deeply admired Levi-Strauss” and may have found in his brand of structuralism a few nondialectic terms that he finds “helpful for thinking about power, ethics, and life.” Following his provocative advice to “take an author from behind,” he imagines the offsprings that may have been produced by an anthropologically-oriented Deleuze. Michael Puett invites us to use indigenous theories to break down our own assumptions about how theory operates: “the goal should not be just to deconstruct twentieth-century theoretical categories but to utilize indigenous visions to rethink our categories and the nature of categories altogether.”

Who’s in and who’s out in the philosophical market

But this book is not a popular chart of “who is in and who is out”, whose ratings go down and whose go up in the philosophical market where anthropologists do their shopping. The authors are careful to distance themselves from “anthropologists who look to philosophy as providing the theory and to anthropology to give evidence from empirical work to say how things really are.” Ethnography is not just proto-philosophy, and anthropologists do not need authorization or patronage in their pronouncements. The idea is to “work from ethnography to theory, not the other way around.” If philosophy can be defined as “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts,” then perhaps anthropology constitutes “a mode of heightened attentiveness to life” that builds on “experience-near concepts” in order to show “how ordinary life itself gives rise to puzzles we might call philosophical.” The Ground Between therefore doesn’t herald an “ontological turn” or a “philosophical moment” in modern anthropology, in the way that Writing Culture was perceived as a turning point affixed with various labels (“postmodern”, “reflexive”, “deconstructionist”). But it is an attempt to step back, take stock, and reflect on what anthropologists are doing, in order to make their contribution to social science, to knowledge, and to human life more meaningful.