Monday, April 24, 2006

Brenez and the Cinematic Image

Nicole Brenez, "The Ultimate Journey":

"Theoreticians, like cineastes, base a part of their meditation (written or filmed) on two common premises which [Vachel] Lindsay argued at the edge of cinema theory: the idea that film, because it does not imitate a referent but allows it to come forth from the real, can eventually provide the world; and the corollary that an image is not a plastic phantom but a dynamic principle endowed with the powers that demand to be deployed and reflected. From that spring the three axes of theorisation which seem to me to have been of major significance through this decade: work on the powers of the image, on the figurability of the subject, and on the thinkable relations between the cinematograph and history."

Trying to fully understand Brenez at her most abstract can be a real challenge, and only after years of reading her am I starting to feel comfortable appropriating a few of her ideas for myself. This paragraph I've read several times before, however, about what has moved her during a certain period of contemporary film theory (and its historical precendents), this time seemed like a real gold mine of an 'entry point' for a reader of her work. I'd like to unpack a few of the things she says as I understand them and explain why I find them productive.

TWO COMMON PREMISES

1) 'Film does not imitate a referent but allows it to come forth from the real and can eventually provide the world'
Many people talk about images as though they are fundamentally likenesses. (In his Iconology, this is how WJT Mitchell writes about it...) I would suggest that the image is its own clear 'action,' 'event,' 'happening,' 'being,' 'becoming,' whatever. The referents to which (some) images bear likenesses are "allowed to come forth" from the real by association with the imagistic enunciation, and it is this imaginative-psychic faculty (not simply representational correlation) that allows reality's profound connection to images. (The presentation of an image, perhaps, is not to create a noun but to perform a verb?) Images are the constant reverberant echo of their first moment of enunciation. To me, Brenez's call is one that recognizes that even utter non-likenesses are 'images,' which isn't to say that this is the one true denotation or connotation for the word, but that it is perhaps the most productive. Insofar as I am personally interested in the possibilities and properties of images, Rothko also gives us images. Ornamental tile mosaic: image. A letter or a pictogram: images. Furthermore, this conception might get us into a territory where the photographic possibilities of the cinema are not reproduced as essential properties of the cinema.

2) 'An image is not a plastic phantom but a dynamic principle endowed with powers that demand to be deployed and reflected'
The 'corollary' to the above--that images are not simply representations of the real (a 'plastic phantom' of it painted onto canvas, projected onto screen, printed onto page, digitally presented on a monitor...) but that they are actions ('dynamic principle') that call forth a complex set of individual and social effects in their real, material, historical presence ('powers that demand to be deployed and reflected').

THREE AXES OF THEORIZATION

a) powers of the image: what can an image do (to one or many viewers), what are the limits of what it is able to represent, what can it express, what can it embody and be? What are beauty and/or sublimity in an image? What are the effects, the consequences, of an image?

b) figurability of the subject: how does the subject manifest itself on-screen, in images? What is its philosophical genealogy? How does cinema 'configure' a subject--one who acts (Deleuzian classicism) or watches (Deleuzian modernism), a subject who represents a quality or quest (the conventionalized narrative character), a subject which edxists only in a social totality of individual-fragments (Renoir's Rules of the Game and Godard's Prénom: Carmen, pace Fredric Jameson), a subject without fictions but existent in the space between the plastic-projected film and a seat in the cinema (much avant-garde work; a component of Brechtian or otherwise direct forms of cinematic address: the Straubs, Rouch).

c) relations between the cinematograph and history: what are the material practices which make the cinematograph (as that generic instrument-name for moving image-making) what it is, what it has been? How do specific technologies and/or physical properties inhibit or encourage various practices (e.g., how might portability--thus mobility--affect what and how we film)? How do people see these images (not just 'movies,' but all manner of cinematic or semi-cinematic appearances)? How are people made to see some of these images? What roles do the images have in relating the past (and their own past) to the audiences of a present?

What is the ultimate significance of all this? Well for me, the idea that an image (and an image in time) is not simply a thing but very much an event, an action, opens up a whole new space to think about the films and videos I watch. One of the things I actually agreed with in David Bordwell's recently blog-discussed "Against Insight" article in Cinema-Scope is that there is indeed a severe limitation on the widespread idea that "there is a Zeitgeist, and films reflect it." Films also help produce the Zeitgeist, they act out minute strands of its flow through history, the image of (for example) a civilian war casualty isn't only a window onto real horror, a record, but a propulsion into some visual-informational sphere or another a piece of rhetoric--perhaps sometimes a very complex rhetoric. The same characteristics that can give images great, enjoyable freedoms are what can allow them be employed in a number of devious ways as propaganda, as lies. Images don't just "sit around," as soon as they exist they are pushed into employment in social reality. I'm feeling more and more strongly that to deal with images--and to deal with cinema--means dealing with its uses, effects, and consequences not because these things have "meaning" or that "content" is somehow more important than "form," but because no images exist without some kind of material entrenchment.

What I'm seeking--what I'm still striving to cultivate in myself--is a dynamic and balanced integration of various 'modes' of analysis , so that if I watch a DVD of a film, I can discuss the work as a rich text with an exegetical potential (a treatise), the film's historical place upon its time of release (its social function: an argument), my real-time engagement with the work (experience), and also the fact that I am watching this film on a digital reproduction (which is both argument & experience). Readers who find these issues interesting may want to read a previous entry I wrote on these issues at Argument, Treatise, Experience.

10 comments:

Mark Brandon said...

1) Many filmmakers have already proven that "photographic possibilities" are not essential to cinema. Though I think it would be vastly effete to disregard the photographic qualities of say, a film by Renoir. These cinema images obviously (?) operate on non-photographic levels. Your sentence addressing this I imagine won't sound nearly as revelatory tomorrow morning. I'm not meaning this as any kind of attack - I cherish your writing.

Zach Campbell said...

Believe me when I say I'm well aware of this fact of filmmakers' non-photographic work, Mark--and also when I say I really don't find my own statement to be "revelatory." But film theory, which is what I was talking about, has lagged behind the cinema itself on this front, and many intelligent people still talk about images as foremost & fundamentally 'representations,' and cinema as foremost & fundamentally a photographic medium. Thanks for reading & commenting.

HarryTuttle said...

Please excuse my ignorance, this abstract theory is hard to grasp without the help of illustrative examples. I have read your post several times.
Could you explain what you mean by "image = action"?

Zach Campbell said...

Harry, I suspect you're giving me more credit for abstract theory than I deserve. I'm only dealing with basics here. The concept of an image being an action is literal--what I'm referring to is the fact that an image is created (by individuals, by committees...) and then in some way or another disseminated to the world or some segment of it. An image is created and put out into the world, or as I think I wrote above, a constant reverberation of its first enunciation. What I want to flesh out is the possibilities of not only an image as a thing that is created (which is what most 'image theories' seem to boil down to--and which I don't deny) but also as the performance of an action (creation, dissemination) in the real world. An image is an enunciation that does what it is (maybe like a performative utterance?--but I haven't thought much about that comparison so don't ask for a full consideration yet).

I have to say that I'm disappointed with myself because here and elsewhere I've encountered confusion as to my meanings in this post, and I can only conclude that I haven't explained things as clearly and simply as they should be explained ... so I'll try to refine these ideas so that they express more clearly to readers.

HarryTuttle said...

Your post is very clear, but I'd need dozen footnotes to understand each concept. Your ideas are very interesting, it's just that I'm not familiar with Brenez and I obviously miss some background knowledge to follow your train of thoughts.

I especially like the historical aspect ("constant reverberant echo of their first moment of enunciation").
So the dissemination of the original enunciation, corresponds to each time the film is projected again (reiteration within a new context, and to a new audience)? What I'm unsure about is whether this theory implies the meaning/function of the image evolves/changes with time (history) or is it the (new)beholder who alter this image? What is the logic connection between image=object / image=action? Does Brenez say OR or AND or "ONLY action"?
I like the idea of a "plastic phantom" it's not necessarily a bad thing, although I agree thet "dynamic principle" is richer.

Zach Campbell said...

Harry--yes, I would say that, as you put it, "the dissemination fo the original enunciation corresponds to each time the film is projected again." But it may also refer to the way a film (or partial components of it) "exists" in the memories of its viewers even after it's been projected--or scanned on DVD. As to these questions:

What I'm unsure about is whether this theory implies the meaning/function of the image evolves/changes with time (history) or is it the (new)beholder who alter this image? What is the logic connection between image=object / image=action? Does Brenez say OR or AND or "ONLY action"?

I can't speak for Brenez obviously, but I would say that all things that images can possibly be or do (do they change "with time" or "with viewers"? are they things or do they do things?) are probably true in some form or another. What Brenez offers, and what I'm mimicking, is a way of leaning on "the other foot," so to speak--historically, we've exerted so much weight on the leg of image theory that examines images as things that represent something else. Again: I do not believe that an image is "real," and has real presence, because what it represents is "real"--or hyperreal. (This would essentially ensure that I'm still operating under the image-as-thing paradigm.) An image is truly real not in the sense that it is a representation (though many images are representations), but in the sense that it's an action, not a representation of anything, but it's own pure happening in reality--created in reality, seen by other people in reality, disseminated on material or through data in reality, and having some kind of an impact (negligible or enormous) in reality.

I'll try to come back to this issue soon to explain myself better, and maybe to explain Brenez (or what I think she's trying to say) to those who haven't spent as much time poring over her admittedly dense words as I have.

Matt said...

This is such a wonderful post, Zach, and just goes to show (as if nothing else had already) how in synch we are with one another despite distance and everything else. I haven't been reading Brenez recently (though you've got me excited about re-reading 'The Ultimate Journey', if nothing else), but I'm also trying to embrace a kind of multi-modal analysis or criticism myself, central to which is this idea of the image as having a material history, of being a physical event in the world (object, action, enunciation, whatever), is the effect of something (produced and distributed) and the cause of something else (without lapsing into teleolgy, obviously). I think there's a reason you and I are both trying (though not on our blogs yet, curiously) to think through where we're at now by going back to the pre-history of cinema to some extent.

Anyways, I was going to write you a letter saying how much enjoyed the post, and then a post that would have latched onto this sentence:

"I'm feeling more and more strongly that to deal with images--and to deal with cinema--means dealing with its uses, effects, and consequences not because these things have 'meaning' or that 'content' is somehow more important than 'form,' but because no images exist without some kind of material entrenchment."

All I was going to add was that, in actual fact, form becomes even more important in light of this. Or rather that an image's form and content, not to mention its history (the fact that it is an effect) and its future (the fact that it at least can be a cause), all become as important as one another.

And then I decided not to write a post, but a comment. Which is this one.

HarryTuttle said...

Wasn't symbolism, psychology, semiology or politics already a way to go beyond the immediate representation of images to interpretate its activity in the viewer or in a context?
I wouldn't say "form" was overdone yet, most of the theory on form is very academic and conventional by now... the cutting edge interpretations of forms are only explored by few scholars and experimental filmmakers. I still believe much can be studied in forms.

Meanwhile I can't grasp really how "action" distinguishes itself from "form". Isn't one always studied in parallel with the other?

Contrary to form, the identification of action is highly subjective. The image-form is an invariable "thing". The image-action only exists in the mind of a viewer, once and if it is projected onto a retina. So all the cultural prejudices will transform the "content" of the this action, whether it is perceived and understood or not. It's much more difficult to theorize a versatile concept, so I wonder where this leads to... but the questions you list in the second half of your post are really interesting.
I like the "image as verb instead of noun" idea too, I hope you will develop it.

Theo said...

Again: I do not believe that an image is "real," and has real presence, because what it represents is "real"--or hyperreal. [...] An image is truly real [...] in the sense that it's an action, not a representation of anything, but its own pure happening in reality--created in reality, seen by other people in reality, disseminated on material or through data in reality, and having some kind of an impact (negligible or enormous) in reality.

I feel I'm missing a nuance here. How ELSE could an image exist, except in reality?

Zach Campbell said...

Meanwhile I can't grasp really how "action" distinguishes itself from "form". Isn't one always studied in parallel with the other?

Harry, I'm not trying to distinguish action from form! I'm trying to distinguish 'action' from 'thing,' at least insofar as they can be distinguished.

I feel I'm missing a nuance here. How ELSE could an image exist, except in reality?

Theo: EXACTLY. And yet if you read something that can wholly or partly be labelled a theory of images, you will find that discussion overwhelmingly hinges upon the status of an image as a representational object, something that imitates or suggests or appropriates reality, but no more ...