Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Image Beyond Futility

In a small etymological essay called “The Origins of Cognitive Thought,” B.F. Skinner points out that “seeing is only part of behaving; it is behaving up to the point of action.” “Behaving” includes “seeing” for Skinner because seeing is directing and directed, mobile and responsive. The eye is neither just autonomous nor just reactive, and for Skinner the rapport between these qualities is the very definition of "behaving." In a discussion of “thinking” later in the same essay, he deploys visual language that goes beyond figure to register how, as behaving, seeing may contribute to thinking:

when no effective stimulus is available, we sometimes expose one
. . . when we cannot uncover a stimulus, we sometimes keep an accessible one in view until a response occurs.
Observe and regard both come from words that meant to hold or keep in view, the latter from the French garder. Consider once meant to look steadily at the stars until something could be made of them. (“The Origins of Cognitive Thought,” American Psychologist, January 1989, 13-18, pp. 14, 16)

In Cinema One and Two, Deleuze argues that the formerly movement- and montage-oriented cinema develops a “certain motor helplessness” (C2 3) in the postwar period. Intention and cause and effect, he writes, lose credibility and fall out of favor along with the kinds of cinematic sequences that staged them. Time in the postwar no longer depends on actions and montage for its apparent actualization. Rather, it dominates the shot as “objectively emptied” characters, suffering “less from the absence of one another than from their absence from themselves” (C2 9), “experience and act out obscure events which are as poorly linked as the portion of the any-space-whatever which they traverse” (C1 213). In the space created by the loosening of “sensory-motor connections,” optical and sonic phenomena come into the foreground. Unable to act, the protagonist is “all the more capable of seeing and hearing”: “the character has become a kind of viewer” (C2 3).

The Cinema books remain elliptical about the function of the time-image—the kind of response it constitutes to the crisis it indexes. The time-image reflects an attitude about a “global situation,” Deleuze asserts: “we hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it—no more than we believe that an action can force a situation to disclose itself, even partially” (C1 206). Locating the crisis more or less at the close of the war (while also pointing out latent and recurrent aspects of it), Deleuze goes on to explain that the time-image blossoms in Italian neorealism because, among other reasons, French postwar cinema is too invested in making French life “appear as a contribution to victory” (C1 211). Similarly, he speculates that U.S. cinema had been too given over to action to produce something other than degraded versions of action during the same period, while the German “cinematographic institution” had been devoted to fascism. The implication is that the time-image is a reflection on the ambiguity of postwar victory and defeat--the contamination of victory by defeat and vice versa--so that those who wanted to imagine themselves simply victorious or defeated did not develop the time-image. Some scholars understand the Italian position at the war’s endgame to be ambiguous in his way--an awkward position in which “the future of Italy, whatever side a person identified with, no longer depended at all on the Italians” (Mario Vivarelli, “Winners and Losers in Italy at the End of the Second World War,” October 128, Spring 2009, pp. 6–22). Neither Italian Fascists nor anti-Fascists controlled the way the war ended for Italy; there was a "certain motor helplessness," an irrelevance of actions in relation to the situation.

So how exactly does Deleuze’s derivation of the time-image from postwar attitudes mesh with his thesis that the time-image suits the inability of action to “disclose” a “global situation”? The latter observation, which comes first in the order of his prose, emerges from Deleuze’s own time of writing, the early 1980’s. Deleuze is about to describe in the European theater of the recent past the very kinds of modifications of situations by actions—the victories and defeats of nations in WWII, shifting perspectives afterwards—that he claims have since become impossible. The word “global” introduces a change. It implies a historical situation greater than any of the modifications—large as they are—that Deleuze is about to name. Deleuze suggests that the time-image arises somehow to deal with this new global situation that it cannot disclose or modify, even as globalization hasn’t quite come about yet in the contexts he describes and which he believes gave rise to the time-image (!). Maybe we can translate Deleuze like this: Italian-style ambiguity--the inability to have much to do with the outcome of the action--is by the 1980’s almost everywhere, a generalized helplessness under globalization. Rather than suggesting possibilities for acting upon this shift in turn, the time image continues to open its lens upon it although the possibility for acting through disclosure does not exist. That would mean that the time-image is not engaged in exposing anything in Skinner’s terms, in which we scan the visual field in order to find something to grasp. What is film that is not exposing anything doing? If this cinema is “look[ing] steadily at the stars until something could be made of them,” it will have become a messianic cinema of infinite hope or one that knows how to live without hope--one for whom futility is no longer a reason for not looking.

(Image: Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade, 1999)


wsxwhx73000 said...

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Cuff Link said...

This part:

"'If this cinema is “look[ing] steadily at the stars until something could be made of them,' it will have become a messianic cinema of infinite hope or one that knows how to live without hope--one for whom futility is no longer a reason for not looking."

reminded me of a Russian folk animation that my friend sent me, I think you both end with the same image. If you wanted to check it out its at:

Also, and this could just be because I am reading Freud's essay(s) on Moses and monotheism, I can't help but think that at least the attempted connection to traumata, the act of gazing, might somehow be linked to the time spent between movement from preconscious to conscious. That the lost time could be accounted for by an inability to connect to event. Time spent in a latency period. But this sounds quite pessimistic and too clinical for me to accept as a truth. I'm glad I read your essay.

RT said...

I love the animation and will share it further... I wonder about the period of that folk tale.

Thanks for the Freud ref. I was thinking about something that would be the equivalent of an objective trauma--one where lack of connection wouldn't be an inability, but an impossibility. I'll look it up. THANKS.