The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture

The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture

by Patricia Pisters

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Arguing that today's viewers move through a character's brain instead of looking through his or her eyes or mental landscape, this book approaches twenty-first-century globalized cinema through the concept of the "neuro-image." Pisters explains why this concept has emerged now, and she elaborates its threefold nature through research from three


Arguing that today's viewers move through a character's brain instead of looking through his or her eyes or mental landscape, this book approaches twenty-first-century globalized cinema through the concept of the "neuro-image." Pisters explains why this concept has emerged now, and she elaborates its threefold nature through research from three domains—Deleuzian (schizoanalytic) philosophy, digital networked screen culture, and neuroscientific research. These domains return in the book's tripartite structure. Part One, on the brain as "neuroscreen," suggests rich connections between film theory, mental illness, and cognitive neuroscience. Part Two explores neuro-images from a philosophical perspective, paying close attention to their ontological, epistemological, and aesthetic dimensions. Political and ethical aspects of the neuro-image are discussed in Part Three. Topics covered along the way include the omnipresence of surveillance, the blurring of the false and the real and the affective powers of the neo-baroque, and the use of neuro-images in politics, historical memory, and war.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Drawing on recent research in neurobiology and cognitive psychology as well as her own thinking about currently prevalent topics in cinema studies and film-philosophy, [Pisters] builds a case for the neuro-image that is usually persuasive and sometimes dazzling . . . I recommend The Neuro-Image to everyone interested in Deleuzian film theory . . . I commend her intellectual derring-do in expanding the Deleuzian dyad of movement-image and time-image with an innovative new meta-image paradigm. Its grounding in the particularities of twenty-first-century screen practice makes it a timely intervention, and I suspect that Deleuze would have welcomed it."—David Sterritt, New Review of Film and Television Studies

"[A] magisterial work . . . Like all books worth reading, Pisters's work on the neuro-image raises more questions than it answers."—Claire Colebrook, Deleuze Studies

"This outstanding work of scholarship makes a major contribution to the field of film studies and to the understanding of the work of Gilles Deleuze. The Neuro-Image extends Deleuze's questions and concerns by thinking through recent developments in film and moving-images culture and succeeds magnificently in mobilizing Deleuze's ideas in order to discover something new."—Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture
By Patricia Pisters


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8135-0

Chapter One

Schizoid Minds, Delirium Cinema, and Powers of the Machines of the Invisible

If the cerebral model is an important reference to assess images, and all images are fundamentally related to the brain in the sense that brains are screens and screens operate like brains, then changes in the image are also connected to changed conceptions of the brain. In The Time-Image Deleuze frequently refers to modern neuroscience to suggest a strong link between the ambiguous and unresolved narratives of the time-image (exemplified by Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard) and the discovery of synapses and electronic or discontinuous chemical communication between neurons. This discovery, he argues, was "enough in itself to shatter the idea of a continuous cerebral system" and "to introduce half-uncertainty in the neural transmission." In his references to neuroscience Deleuze emphasizes the intimate connections between experience, scientific knowledge, and artistic expression:

Scientific knowledge of the brain has evolved, and carried out a general rearrangement. The situation is so complicated that we should not speak of a break, but rather of new orientations.... The process of association increasingly came up against cuts in the continuous network of the brain; everywhere there were micro-fissures which were not simply voids to be crossed, but random mechanisms introducing themselves at each moment between the sending and receiving of an associate message: this was the discovery of a probabilistic or semi-fortuitous cerebral space, "an uncertain system." ... It is obviously not through the influence of science that our relationship with the brain changed: perhaps it was the opposite, our relationship with the brain having changed first, obscurely guiding science.... Our lived relationship with the brain becomes increasingly fragile, less and less "Euclidean" and goes through little cerebral deaths. The brain becomes our problem or our illness, our passion, rather than our mastery, our solution or decision. We are not copying Artaud, but Artaud lived and said something about the brain that concerns all of us: that "its antennae turned towards the invisible," that it has a capacity to "resume a resurrection from the death."

In this chapter I want to present an investigation of "the brain as our illness and passion" by referring explicitly to schizophrenia as a contemporary brain disease. Coined as a disease a hundred years ago by Eugene Bleuler, schizophrenia seems increasingly connected to the modern world and contemporary globalized screen culture. As a neurological disease, schizophrenia differs from neurosis, which is the mental disorder emphasized in psychoanalysis. As Freud defined it, neurosis is based on a repression complex related to a reality principle that remains intact. In schizophrenic psychosis the reality principle no longer holds and is replaced by the internal reality of the brain (the reality of illusions, the reality of the "invisible"). Deleuze argues that neurosis is not an adequate model to understand the contemporary world, as opposed to the (schizophrenic) brain, which is significantly related to electronic (digital) images:

Neurosis is thus not the consequence of the modern world, but rather of our separation from this world, of our lack of adaptation to this world. The brain, in contrast, is adequate to the modern world, including its possibilities of the expansion of electronic or chemical brains: an encounter occurs between the brain and color, not that it is enough to paint the world, but because the treatment of color is an important element in the awareness of the "new world" (the color-corrector, the electronic image ...).

By posing the brain in opposition to neurosis, Deleuze implies that all brains are potentially schizophrenic or, in any case, that madness has become its default value. Here it is important to note that the encounter between a brain and a color (and color-corrector) implies a fundamental link between the brain and the screen. In the twenty-first century both our knowledge of the brain and the situation of the audiovisually mediated world seem to invite new thoughts about "schizoid minds" and "schizoid screens."

We should bear in mind that Deleuze and Guattari use the term schizophrenia in a particular way. As Eugene Holland has explained, schizophrenia indicates a

specific mode of psychic and social functioning that is characteristically both produced and repressed by capitalist economy. In the worst case—when capitalism is unable to countenance the process of schizophrenia it has itself produced—the result is "madness": schizophrenia as a process succumbs to a repression that generates "the schizophrenic" as entity and the miseries of the psychiatric patient. But in the best cases the processes of schizophrenia take the form of viable social practices and the joys of unbridled, free-form human interaction.

In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari describe schizophrenia as the immanent system of production and antiproduction, related to "capitalism's awesome schizophrenic production of energy and charge, against which it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear, but which nonetheless continues to act as capitalism's limit." The fundamental problem that defines the borderline between schizophrenia as a process and schizophrenia as a disease, Deleuze and Guattari argue, is how to negotiate the fact that an empowering and liberating breakthrough turns just as easily into a disempowering or deadly breakdown. To understand these powers and dangers of schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari propose a schizoanalysis of the modern world.

Schizoanalysis was first developed by Guattari in his work with patients in the innovative psychiatric clinic La Borde. He proposed schizoanalysis as a mode of thinking with or alongside schizophrenia, responding and connecting to patients' specific assemblages of desires. Schizoanalysis "brings forth solutions—modifying behaviours, opening vistas, renewing fields of reference, building confidence: respond(s) to the event [e.g., a patient mentions in passing 'I feel like learning word processing'] as the potential bearer of new constellations of universes of reference." So, in contrast to psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis does not so much return to the past, even if "understanding how it is that you got where you are" and according to which (non)functional model you got there is a fundamental part of the method. Rather, it is directed toward the future, to experimenting with producing new models, new subjectivities, with uncertain outcomes not based on preestablished diagnoses. In principle, therefore, schizoanalysis as an analytic practice is related to schizophrenia as a disease. But from this psychiatric practice schizoanalysis proposes a much more general method to evaluate the contemporary world, a method that Deleuze and Guattari have developed extensively in A Thousand Plateaus and Guattari has developed in his own writings even further. As noted by Gary Genosko in his insightful introduction to the work of Guattari, Guattari constructs schizoanalysis as "a complex semiotic assemblage," consisting of a new type or system of signs, a "squared sign with four equal parts":

On the bottom left side one finds material-energetic fluxes and on the top left side, the machinic phyla and their diverse technological strands, on the bottom right side, there are the existential territories of subjectivities (human and inhuman and inorganic) and on the top right side, incorporeal universes containing values, points of reference, relations with others, aesthetic experiences, utopias, imaginings, etc. On the left hand side of the square (flux and phylum) are techno-materialist functions expressed discursively, whereas on the right hand side (territories and universes) are ethico-aesthetic concerns and a myriad of qualitative issues organized non-discursively.

I will stay close to the clinical conditions of schizophrenia and the psychiatric basis of schizoanalysis by looking at the technomaterialist and ethicoaesthetic sides of the neuro-image in its explicitly pathological dimensions in contemporary delirium cinema. Guattari was particularly interested in the cinema of madness, such as Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket (1965), Peter Robinson's Asylum (1972), and David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), that gave artistic expression to the conditions of schizophrenia as a disease. In outlining the schizoid aspects of contemporary neuro-images, I will approach the technomaterialist dimension by way of recent neuroscientific definitions of schizophrenia. Contemporary delirium cinema will provide indications for the ethicoaesthetic dimension. The underlying assumption is that these pathological aspects tell us something about more general, salient characteristics of the neuro-image and that the schizoid mind enables the sharpest focus on contemporary culture. The final part of this chapter will make an argument for a schizoanalysis of contemporary media culture at large and discuss the different dimensions and limits of the neuro-image within this media culture.

Clinical Schizophrenia: The Disconnection Hypothesis, Neuroplasticity, Split Brains

A clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia is based on behavioral observations and self-reported abnormal mental experiences. Symptoms of schizophrenia are conventionally divided into "positive" and "negative" types. Positive symptoms include (paranoid) delusions, hallucinations (often auditory), thought disorder and incoherent verbal expression, and bizarre behavior (all related to a feeling of experiencing "too much" of everything, seeming hyperenergetic, and frantic). Negative symptoms include emotional flattening, social withdrawal, apathy, impaired judgment, difficulties in problem solving and abstract reasoning, poor initiative and motivation, difficulty in planning, and self-neglect (all related to a lack of energy, to the point of catatonic collapse). Most forms of schizophrenia show a combination (in various degrees) of several of these symptoms. Furthermore, it should be noted that the borders of clinical schizophrenia are not fixed: "Schizophrenia shares a familial predisposition with several clinical syndromes, including schizoaffective disorder, schizotypical personality disorder, and probably psychotic affective illness. This suggests the possibility of clinical and perhaps genetic overlap between certain forms of affective illness and schizophrenia."

When referring to schizophrenia throughout this book, I will propose an inclusive definition of mental illnesses as "delusional or affective illnesses" that are defined as brain disorders by contemporary neuroscience, including neurological diseases such as epilepsy, autism, and (manic) depression. Some other clinical facts about schizophrenia are important as well. Research has shown that schizophrenia is generally more common in urban populations, which, considering the increasing urbanization of the contemporary world, makes it all the more a symptom of today's culture of capitalist oversaturation of people, goods, and (screen) technology. Schizophrenia affects both genders in equal measures, but there are also noticeable gender differences, such as generally a later onset in women (probably due to hormonal differences) and a different balance between negative and positive symptoms (men tend to suffer more negative symptoms, women relatively more positive ones). I will investigate this in the films I will discuss. In addition, although schizophrenia is part of all cultures, there are cultural differences (for instance in the content of the delirium that can be culturally determined, or the way the disorder is conceived—as illness, as sorcery, as spiritual medium) and differences related to specific cultural conditions, such as the effects of migration. In the Netherlands, for instance, scientific research has indicated that male adolescents or young adults of Moroccan descent are seven times more likely to develop schizophrenia than their indigenous Dutch peers. This is explained in terms of Batesonian "double binds" between the demands of two different societies and as an effect of long-term frustrations that lead to changes in the brain. Environmental factors thus seem to be important as potential triggers of schizophrenia, which is confirmed by recent neuroscientific findings.

Modern neuro-imaging techniques have given us new insights into what happens in a schizophrenic brain. Of course, the interpretations of these visualizations of (now) observable cerebral structures and processes are not undisputed. An important hypothesis is that the problem of schizophrenia has to do with the workings of neurotransmitters and the failure of certain specific areas of the brain to fully connect. Rather than delineating regional anatomical abnormalities of specialized areas of the brain ("impaired functional specialization"), the key assumption in this "disconnection hypothesis," proposed by Karl Friston, among others, is that the pathophysiology of schizophrenia is expressed as involving abnormal connections or dysfunctional integration of cortical areas. The problem, in other words, is in the synaptic connections more than in the brain areas themselves (in any case the latter seem secondary). That synaptic connections are in a continual state of flux further implies time-dependent changes in connectivity or abnormal plasticity. Changes in brain circuits that occur in the development of schizophrenia can be either due to specific "patterns of connectivity and neural activity intrinsic to the developing nervous system" (schizophrenia usually manifests itself in early adulthood) or are related to "use-dependent changes in synaptic efficacy that are elicited by interactions with the environment." The latter form of schizophrenic connections, as experience-dependent plasticity, seems to be more important. The fact that the brain is a dynamic plastic system that can change and modulate long-term and short-term synaptic connections is a strong indication for the neurological disconnection hypothesis. Friston refers to different types of neurological findings that provide arguments for his hypothesis, such as the identification of neurochemical disconnections and functional disconnections in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, which suggest "that schizophrenics have an abnormal pattern of functional connectivity involving both an absence of correlations between prefrontal and superior temporal regions and the presence of abnormal positive correlations between prefrontal and more posterior middle temporal cortex." In sum, modern neuroscientific studies consider schizophrenia a brain disorder that can be related to abnormal synaptic connections and plasticity.

Another hypothesis in neuroscientific discourse that is important in connection to schizophrenia is the research conducted with split-brain patients, which suggests the potential of different balances of left and right hemisphere functions in schizophrenic brains. I will return to this area of neuroscience more specifically in the next chapter. Here I want to refer to a 2008 lecture by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who presented her personal experience of a stroke in her left hemisphere to TED-TV. At the beginning of her talk Bolte Taylor explains that her professional interest in neuroscience developed because she has a schizophrenic brother and wanted to understand why he was not able to connect to reality in the way neurotypical persons can. Her stroke made it very clear that the two brain halves process information in very different ways, which seems to give them different "personalities":

Our right hemisphere is about right here, right now. It thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. Then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like, and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere.


Excerpted from THE NEURO-IMAGE by Patricia Pisters Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Patricia Pisters is Professor of Media Culture and Film Studies and Chair of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her publications include The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory (Stanford, 2003).

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