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Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine
By D. N. Rodowick
Duke University Press Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
A SHORT HISTORY OF CINEMA
1924. The classic cinema has perfected its geometry of forms, its logic of spatiotemporal exposition, and its "laws" for the linking of actions through montage. In Sherlock, Jr., Buster Keaton plays a young projectionist who divides from himself in lap dissolve, entering the rectangle of the screen as the space of his own dream. The action following is exemplary of the logic of (paradoxical) sense informing the classical Hollywood cinema in its silent phase. In this series of shots, Keaton's moving figure provides a stable foreground against a shifting background of increasingly unlikely and dangerous locations: a garden, a busy street, a cliff side, a jungle with lions, train tracks in a desert. When Keaton finds himself on a rock by the ocean, he dives, only to land headfirst in a snowbank. Keaton's movements from one shot to the next link incommensurable spaces through what modern mathematics terms a "rational" division. The interval dividing any two spatial sections serves simultaneously as the end of the first and the beginning of the second. In Keaton's film, every division, no matter how unlikely and nonsensical, is mastered by this figure of rationality where the identification of movement with action assures the continuous unfolding of adjacent spaces. The consequence of this identification is the subordination of time to movement. Time is measured only dynamically, as a process of action and reaction rebounding across contiguous spaces through match-cutting.
This geometry of action and movement expands by levels as well as by linear development. The moving whole of the film is assured by the continuous linking of one shot to the next, as well as by the embedding of photograms into the shot, shots into sequences, sequences into parts, and parts into the moving whole of the film as one great clockwork mechanism. The dynamics of the classical film function like a Newtonian universe where laws of motion function independently of time. This subordination of time to movement has philosophical consequences.
1962. The modern European cinema, as well as the New American cinema, has displaced the Newtonian conception of space that characterizes the classical period. Chris Marker's La jetée depicts a not-so-distant future where a prisoner of war is subjected to a series of painful experiments that enable him to "travel" in time. Whether this passage is actual and physical, or mental and spiritual, is ambiguous. Movement, drained from the image and divorced from the representation of action, has relinquished its role as the measure of time. In La jetée, the image of time is no longer reduced to the thread of chronology where present, past, and future are aligned on a continuum. The painful binding of the subject–physically stilled no less than movement is frozen in the image–liberates him briefly in time, just as the imaging of time is released from its subordination to movements linked with physical actions. Once chronology is pulverized, time is fragmented like so many facets of a shattered crystal. The chronological continuum is flayed, shaving past, present, and future into distinct series, discontinuous and incommensurable. The 'narrative sections of the film are disconnected spaces, divided into blocks of time linked in a probabilistic manner: the park, the museum, the quay at Orly. The spectator's apprehension of what comes next is equivalent to a dice throw. Time no longer derives from movement; "aberrant" or eccentric movement derives from time.
With both action and movement absented from the image, there is now only linking through "irrational" divisions. According to the mathematical definition, the interval dividing segmentations of space is now autonomous and irreducible; it no longer forms a part of any segment as the ending of one and the beginning of another. Image and soundtrack are also relatively autonomous. While referring to each other, they nonetheless resist being reconciled into an organic whole. As a result, there is no totalization of space in an organic image of the whole and no subordination of time to movement. Inside and outside, mind and body, mental and physical, imaginary and real are no longer decidable qualities. This is another theory of mind and another logic of sense, defined by a decisive break with the earlier model.
My two examples illustrate how Gilles Deleuze conceives the history of cinematic signs in his volumes, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image. Deleuze himself would demur from characterizing his books as historical works. Still, I would argue that they are informed by a historical idea adapted from the German art historian Heinrich Wöfflin. In his Principles of Art History, Wöfflin argues for classifications of style based on historical modes of "imaginative beholding" (vi). The task of the history of aesthetic forms is to understand the specific set of formal possibilities–modes of envisioning and representing, of seeing and saying–historically available to different cultures in different times.
Equally important for Deleuze is the work of Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers in the history and philosophy of science. In their book, Order out of Chaos, Prigogine and Stengers characterize the evolution of science and philosophy as one of "open" systems that incessantly exchange information with their cultural environment and never cease altering that culture as they themselves change. Strategies of observation, representation, and conceptualization–of modeling nature–are no less historically based than Wöfflin's modes of imaginative beholding. These two references are important. For Deleuze's larger objective is not to produce another theory of film, but to understand how aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific modes of understanding converge in producing cultural strategies for imagining and imaging the world.
Reduced to its simplest form, the question informing Deleuze's cinema books is this: How does a sustained meditation on film and film theory illuminate the relation between image and thought? With respect to our recent history, Deleuze argues, the development of cinema provides a privileged site for comprehending a decisive shift in strategies of signification, understanding, and belief that is no less true for aesthetic thinking than it is for philosophical and scientific thinking. This shift concerns the question of time. For example, Prigogine and Stengers argue that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, the study of thermodynamic systems, and then probability physics, reintroduces time to science's image of the physical world. This is an image of irreversible Becoming in contrast with the static and eternal image of Being depicted by Newton's universal laws of motion. At about the same time, Henri Bergson produces his Image of thought as internal movement and of Memory as complex duration. Among aesthetic practices, Deleuze argues, cinema concretely produces a corresponding image of thought, a visual and acoustic rendering of thought in relation to time and movement. At the outset, time is the focus of both of Deleuze's cinema books.
This emphasis on categories of movement and temporality, in relation to visualization or imaging, is meant as a critique of theories of signification in both contemporary philosophy and film theory. The history of philosophy is often conceived as a teleological and progressive refinement of logic in its relation to thought. Thought is considered here to have an (ideally) unchanging identity to which logical representations can progressively adequate themselves. Alternatively, for Deleuze, one might say that there is no thinking other than thinking-through. "Through" what? Images, signs, and concepts. In this respect, Deleuze follows V. N. Voloinov's argument in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language that "consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs.... The individual consciousness is nurtured on signs; it derives its growth from them; it reflects their logic and laws" (11, 13). Deleuze similarly appropriates Bergson to argue that thought is quintessentially temporal, a product of movement and change. And, rereading Peirce, Deleuze argues that the image must be considered not as a unified or closed whole, but rather as an ensemble or set of logical relations that are in a state of continual transformation. This is why, in my examples from Sherlock, Jr. and La jetée, what was "in" the shots was less important than understanding how they were linked, grouped, and interconnected, and what these connections implied for a theory of sense. To refer to the movement-image or time-image, then, is to refer to a fluid ordering of representational elements. This ordering in turn produces different types of signs, a logic based on division and regrouping.
Such an emphasis clarifies Deleuze's preference for Peirce's semiotic as opposed to a film semiology derived from Saussure. Metz's notion of the filmic énoncé and his theory of narrative derived from the grande syntagmatique are both criticized by Deleuze for assuming that meaning is only linguistic meaning and for reducing the image by subtracting its most visible characteristic: movement. For Deleuze, the image components of cinema comprise instead a moving "signaletic material which includes all kinds of modulation features, sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written). Eisenstein compared them first to ideograms, then, more profoundly, to the Internal monologue as proto-language or primitive language system. But even with its verbal elements, this is neither a language system nor a language. It is a plastic mass, an a-signifying and a-syntaxic material, a material not formed linguistically" (Time-Image 29). Since Peirce's theory is a logic and not a linguistics, and since it understands signification as a process, Deleuze finds it more applicable for understanding the generation and linking of signs in movement. Where semiology wants to define the cinematic sign by imposing a linguistic model from the outside, Deleuze applies Peirce's logic to deduce a theory of signs from material the cinema has itself historically produced.
The idea of the image also serves as a periodizing figure in the two books, marking the borders of relatively distinct cinematic logics and practices. (In fact, Deleuze defines two "pure semiotics," one of movement and one of time.) In this manner, Deleuze examines how mutations in the history of cinematic signification have produced our contemporary "audiovisual culture." If for Deleuze postwar cinema is different from what preceded it, thus indicating a gradual yet distinct transition from the regime of the movement-image to that of the time-image, this difference marks equally a transformation in the nature of signs and images, and how the cultural image of thought evolves. Deleuze depicts image practices as social and technological automata where each era thinks itself by producing its particular image of thought. In turn philosophy can map this image in mental cartographies whose coordinates are given as "noo-signs." This is an implied image of the brain with its internal wirings, connections, associations, and functionings. In its largest sense, then, the image describes historically specific cinematic practices as "spiritual automata" or "thought machines." In this respect, an era's image of thought is "the image thought gives itself of what it means to think, to make use of thought, to find one's bearings in thought" (Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy? 37). The cinema is considered here as an "artificial intelligence," a Cartesian diver, or a machine for the fabrication of concepts. For Deleuze this is the most compelling gambit of writing a history of "cinematic" philosophy: to take an era's strategies of thinking-through, represented aesthetically in the nature of its images and signs, and render them in the form of philosophical concepts. But also for philosophy to understand how the possibilities of thought are renewed in aesthetic practices.
As a philosopher, Deleuze claims an interest in film because it provides a complex moving picture of Duration. And what divides the movement-image from the time-image is their respective spatial rendering of time in this sense. Deleuze rejects the idea that the film image is always "in" the present, whether with respect to itself or its spectator. The image is instead a grouping of temporal relations. "The image itself," writes Deleuze, "is the system of the relationships between its elements, that is, a set of relationships of time from which the variable present only flows.... What is specific to the image ... is to make perceptible, to make visible, relationships of time which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present" (Time-Image xii). These temporal relations are rarely apparent to quotidian Perception; rather, they are rendered as visible and legible in the images that create signs from them. Because of its constitutive factors of movement and time, the cinematic image can never be reduced to a simple unity, nor can the relation between image and thought be reduced to a simple, punctual present.
Nevertheless, the movement-image and the time-image each manage this relation differently: the former gives us an indirect image of time; the latter, a direct image of time. The gist of this unusual idea derives from Deleuze's rethinking of "the interval"–the space or division between photograms, shots, sequences–and how the organization of intervals informs the spatial representation of time in cinema. While he borrows this concept from Dziga Vertov, Deleuze gives it much wider scope. Understanding how the organization of intervals serves the spatial imaging of time makes clearer Deleuze's attempts to formalize the logic of enchainment as a kind of geometry of cinema.
In his "Short History of Photography," Walter Benjamin focuses on how the problem of time characterized the evolution of early photography. Neither the indexical quality of the photograph nor its iconic characteristics fascinated him as much as the interval of time marked by exposure. In the technological transition from an exposure time requiring several hours to only fractions of a second, Benjamin marked the gradual evaporation of aura from the image. The idea of aura invoked here is clearly related to Bergson's durée. For Benjamin, the longer the interval of exposure, the greater the chance that the aura of an environment–the complex temporal relations woven through its represented figures–would seep into the image, etching itself on the photographic plate. More concretely, the temporal value of the interval determines a qualitative ratio between time and space in the photograph. In the evolution from slow to fast exposure times, segmentations of time yielded qualitative changes in space: sensitivity to light, clearer focus, more extensive depth of field, and, significantly, the fixing of movement. Paradoxically, for Benjamin, as the iconic and spatial characteristics of photography became more accurate by decreasing the interval of exposure, the image lost its temporal anchoring in the experience of duration, as well as the fascinating ambiguity of its "aura."
Benjamin's commentary on the long-exposure photograph portrays it as a "primitive" time-image, a kind of open window on accumulating duration. Alternatively, the reduction of the time interval in "instantaneous" photography introduced a new possibility for the image: the representation of movement. Not only the freezing of movement, as in the extraordinary photographs of the young Jacques-Henri Lartigue; but also its serial decomposition, as in the motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge. The seed of the movement-image's indirect representation of time is already here. The developing technology has a specific goal. It equates movement with physical action and dissects movement by dividing it into rational segments–here, the action of a man doing forward handstands in twelve contiguous images. Even in these early motion studies, the management of time is a central problem for the so-called scientific perception and analysis of movement. Action cannot be clearly represented without reducing the interval of exposure to a fraction of a second; the action itself must be carefully "timed" in relation to the relay of cameras to assure that movement is recorded as successive and contiguous segments. Thus time is subordinated to movement and represented only indirectly through the agency of movement in two ways. First it is reduced to a constant (in Muybridge's case, of a second), repeated as equidistantly spaced intervals. Second, it is restricted to a line of action; it flows only through rationally segmented, contiguous movements. Time serves here as the measure of space and movement; it can only be "seen" through the intermediaries of space and movement.
Excerpted from Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine by D. N. Rodowick. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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