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.