Reading Cinema II, Part III: Noosigns, Lecto-signs, and the Cinematic Worldcreating for a People Yet to Come
[Final installment of my series on reading Deleuze’s Cinema I & II. I’m planning to hopefully turn many of these posts into part two of my future book project The Networked Image, but first I need to finish the other network books which come first. But I wanted to write these thoughts down between now and then so I don’t forget!]
If Orson Welles is in many ways the hero of the first part of the sections on the powers of the false, Jean Rouch is in many ways the hero of the second part, and with that, of the Cinema books as a whole. The trick is understanding why. Let’s start off where we left off in the preceding post, discussing the powers of the false, picking up with the third power, namely, the cinema of thought.
The Cinema of Categories: From Genre to Noosign
Deleuze begins his analysis of the third power of the false with a discussion of what he calls the cinema of categories in the films of Godard. From his discussion of series of objects in the cinema of gestures (second power of the false), we move to that which connects powers represented in series into categories. Thus, a tree blowing in the breeze (a cinema-body exhibiting a power over time) is recognized as a member of a category of objects, for example, images of nature. But how are cinematic categories, that which helps us recognize objects, characters, actions, etc., produced?
In traditional cinema, we have the issue of genre, and there are genres of many types of things, genres of kisses, guns, entire film types, etc. Thus we have the Hollywood car chase, the Western, the slasher, the vampire, all these are genres, cliches, if you will, which can help us to recognize images as belonging to a category.
Godard is the cine-thinker, however, who plays with categories more than any other. Some of his films are devoted to producing a parody of a given genre, some of his scenes parody those of other films. Some of his films use inter-title cards to announce a category, and then show us a series of images that seem to only vaguely relate to the category just announced. Godard liberates categories from cliche, shows us the process of linkage underneath them, shows us the male ability of cinema-categories.
And in doing so, Godard presents us with a true cinema of thought. Deleuze describes cinema-thought as truly inaugurated by Eisenstein. Eisenstein, for example, in the famous section ‘On God and Country’ in October, shows us how a series of images could link together to produce a visual argument, simply by what was linked together in sequence, to produce a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. For Deleuze, what unites these images in series is ultimately the film-spectator, not shown on screen. But this spectator experiences the shock produced by these images, and must think, is forced to think, about what links them together.
Thus film can force us, as spectators, to think. When this happens, what we think is partly determined by the film (hence the force and shock aspects), yet part of it is also free. This conjunction of freedom and necessity puts us in a state like that of a trance, in which we have freedom (spirituality) and compulsion (automation), converting us into what Deleuze calls a ‘spiritual automaton.’ Film spectators in the process of thinking are precisely this, spiritual automatons. And since cinema is simply, for Deleuze, a special case of what it means to exist in the world, this is what we all are when we think. Each one of us in the world experiences a series of images on any given day, and the shock of the images we encounter forces us to synthesize them. We find ourselves between compulsion and freedom, we are spiritual robots. We think.
For Deleuze, there is a two-way motion here. Images in series are linked together by montage horizontally, yet thought which unites them comes to be on a higher level, vertically, so to speak. Thought can be extracted from a series of images in this manner. However, thought can also come before the images, such as we see when a filmmaker has an idea first, and then decides to try to find images to match them. This creative action shows in the ‘ingression’ of thought in the world. And here we see how it is that Deleuze attempts to recast the sensory-motor schema of perception, affection, and action, yet outside the limitations of the human. Film-thoughts and film-actions. Yet is it possible to think a film-body, namely, that physical entity which does the thinking and acting?
Sometimes a film will not only show us images, but also show us that which thinks a series of images. When this happens, we have a representation, via an image, of a physical body which synthesizes other images as a spiritual automaton, that thinks. A thing that thinks, for Deleuze, is what he calls a brain. Cinema can depict thought in two ways. It can have thought off-screen, in the form of an implied spectator, which presents us with one indirect imaging of thought, or noo-sign. But cinema can also present us with a body that thinks, and image thought as a noo-sign by means of this body. Thus, we have characters in many films that seem to think, that is, to process other images and synthesize them. Traditional film characters are, in this sense, brain-signs, or noo-signs.
But not all direct noo-signs of this sort are human. Deleuze describes how it is that non-human thought can be presented to us in film. In many of Kubrick’s films there are non-human actors that seem to think. For example, in The Shining, it is as if the mountains seem to think, to have an ability to process the world in a non-human manner, such that the architecture of the hotels corridors become like the twisting of the folds of a human brain. The same with the obelisk in 2001, which contains multiplicities of images inside it. These are noo-signs which are brain-signs. And the ultimately brain-sign, of course, is the cinema screen itself. This is why Deleuze says, famously, that “the brain is the screen.” For the screen is an object, a regular object, upon which many images can be projected which are then synthesized by us, this brain’s neurons. We are the neurons of the giant cinema-brain which is the screen, just as the complex of screens in the cinematic apparatus spread across the world are neurons in this larger, global cinema mediascape brain.
Exploring a giant Cine-Brain: One of Kubrick's Noosigns in 'The Shining'
Brains are always topological, for Deleuze, and here we see an engagement with Lacan. Non-orientable figures in the mathematical discipline of topology indicate shapes that contain paradoxes within them, that make sense mathematically, and can even be sometimes physically constructed, and yet, disorient our normal sense of what it means to be a shape in some manner or other. The Moebius strip and Klein bottle are two classic examples, and Lacan uses them both pretty extensively to describe how it feels to experience time, as well as the continual whac-a-mole we play with our unconscious (basically, it is always already wherever our conscious thoughts are not).
Deleuze isn’t one to let Lacan get away with any cool insight without warping it to his own ends, exploding it from within, making it multiple. Thus, for Deleuze, a brain-image is an object which is the obverse, so to speak, of the thought which it performs. It is the container for the process of thought, and when we image it we can image either the images which produce the thought itself (ie: Godard) or the thinking object (ie: the monolith), but it is nearly impossible to image both without some sort of trick, a split screen or something to this effect. For in order to image both the thinker and thought, there would need to be a topological twist, for the two are like two sides of a Moebius strip. Certainly if one wanted to image the brain within a flow of images being synthesized by it, then it could only emerge as a stain or gap, in the manner theorized in Lacanian visual theory. For the brain is what is missing from thought, and yet also what allows it to occur. This means that the brain is closely related to the notion of the unconscious in Lacan. Deleuze works hard to show his models can do everything that Lacan’s can, but then also more.
M.C. Escher's wonderful 'Moebius Swans
How does he do this? In many senses, the brain is an attempt to image the unconscious, that which forces thought to come into being, and in some sense, twist the brain on a Moebius strip, and you get a series of images, twist this, you get unconscious thought, twist this yet again, you get conscious thought. A moebial Moebius strip, perhaps? A four-dimensional moebius strip. Deleuze doesn’t quite systematize things like this, but he implies much. Either way, it seems pretty obvious that in his discussion of topology and the outside of thought, he is aiming at Lacan, trying to imagine how it might be that there could be thought beyond the human, yet without giving up the insights provided by Lacanian theory, when properly exploded and made multiplicitous from within. In the section on the cinema of thought, some of the most complex in the cinema books (and that’s saying a lot!), we see Deleuze’s most intense engagement with Lacan since Anti-Oedipus and The Logic of Sense, even though he fails to mention Lacan by name in these passages.
He does, however, mention films in which characters seem to speak in a voice from beyond, act like zombies or mummies, vessels for a thought beyond the human. And this seems to be Deleuze’s dream. Not to destroy the human. But rather, to go beyond it. Might we be able to imagine a thought from beyond, new types of brains, new types of cine-thought? More on what this would be below . . .
Lecto-Signs, Disjunctive-Synthesis, and the Cinema of Reading
The fourth power of the false is what Deleuze calls the cinema of reading. What does it mean to read an image in a film? We read film images all the time, we see an image in a film and we say, oh, that is a bad guy, that’s a car, that’s an ocean. We carve aspects of the film image into meaningful parts. We do this by means of language, and in the section of the book in which Deleuze discusses lecto-signs (from the ancient Stoic notion of lekta), images of reading in films (images which can be read, are read, or demand to be read), he discusses dialogue, music, and noise. But this should not be interpreted as meaning that he feels one needs sound to read images in film. For in fact, it is an accident of history that we have used sound as the material to anchor our reading of the world of images, as sign-languages have demonstrated beyond doubt. And it is for this reason that Deleuze describes in depth the manner in which we ‘read’ silent films before the advent of sound. For entities still had meaning before the advent of sound. Verbal language was indirectly present in silent film, encoded in the ways actors acted in relation to things.
You can still read this guy quite well without sound: an early lecto-sign, or image which can be read, is read, or demands a reading
What does it mean to read an image, in film or beyond? It means to see it as something, as something other than merely what it is. It is to see a knife and see it not only as shiny, metallic, sharp, but also as a weapon of potential murder. It is to link objects beyond themselves in relational series beyond those presented by the physical world. It is to see object beyond the way they are seen by (most) animals, and see them as more complexly meaningful, as united by a system or complex code which can function in the manner of language.
What Deleuze is getting at here, though it is quite difficult to tell from the way he writes about it in his chapter on the lecto-sign, is that hero of so many of his other books, the concept known as disjunctive-synthesis (also sometimes referred to as double-articulation). For in fact, as one reads the lecto-sign chapter, there are increasingly Hjelmslevian qualities to his statements, even if Deleuze only provides us with hints as to the fact that this is where he’s going with this. For Deleuze, double-articulation, also known as disjunctive-synthesis, is the means whereby layering of entities in a systematic manner can give rise to meaning. Group a bunch of sounds together according to divisions marked by graphic squiggles, and you get letters in the alphabet. Take sets of letters and group them together according to a series of rules, and you produce a new layer, words. Group sets of words together according to sets of rules, and you get meaningful sentences, or language. In each case, carve up the world into sections, use rules to put these together, and you’ll get a second layer that produces meaning from the first. Layer this up enough times, and you get language, or meaning, from matter.
From such a perspective, we can begin to see, how disjunctive synthesis was on Deleuze’s agenda all the way. Link bodies together and you get meaningful series. Link series together and you get genres, or categories, which can give meaning to objects, subjects, etc. And link these categories together (ie: the car chase, the murder weapon, the romantic kiss), and you end up with a master-genre, a master-category, which is able to structure an entire film. Such a meta-category is generally called a film’s plot. Plots give meaning, and derive their meaning, from all the other aspects of a film. They are the category of categories in a film, so to speak.
Film plots, for Deleuze, come in two primary forms. There are films in which the we know how the film will end after seeing just a few scenes, films in which everything is predetermined. Of course, we can’t know for sure, because some films cite genre conventions precisely to subvert them. But when you see a film start with a standard Hollywood style car chase, you can generally tell that at the end of the film, the hero will likely dispense with the bad guy (usually after giving him some sort of last chance to redeem himself), and then get the girl. These are films that proceed as if deducing a theorum. These film-theorums are like solving math equations. Given an equation, there’s only one, at most two, possible answers.
What does this man see? 'It's only stars', a noo-sign which shows us why the brain is the monolith is the screen.
But then there are films which present to us film-problems. These films search for their own structure, create their own plot-genres, as they go. Such films are sui generis, they create problematics, fields upon which new problems, new questions, can be asked of the universe. Such films teach us how to read differently. For they do not employ pre-made film meanings, but create a language of meanings all of their own. A gun may be a murder weapon, but it may also be a message from the gods. No meanings are predetermined before the film starts. Everything can and must be read by the immanent criteria developed in the film itself. A new film-language is necessary to understand such films. Watching such films, one needs to always ask oneself when presented with an image, but what am I really seeing? I know that I am seeing, but what could it mean?
The lecto-sign, for Deleuze, is an image that can be read, is read, or demands to be read. Some lecto-signs present themselves without a premade reading provided, such that we must search the film for the immanent categories whereby to give the image in question meaning. We can perhaps call these fabulatory lecto-signs, signs which demand to be read, but which require the film itself to give birth to new meanings in order for this to occur.
While Deleuze uses films which experiment with sound to discuss these issues, such that he advocates experimentation with various aspects of film-sound and noise in these chapters, it seems to me that he is going after much, much more. For in fact, the production of new film-meanings, new film-language, has been what his goal has been since the start of his discussion of the powers of the false.
Giving Birth to New Film Worlds as a Image-Language for a People Yet to Come
This is why it seems to me that the final power of the false, the production of a cinema of reading, must be tied not only to his reflections on the cinema of reading in his lecto-sign chapter (Chapter 9: The Components of the Image), but Deleuze’s reflections on political cinema and language earlier in Cinema II. Deleuze’s writings on political cinema towards the middle of Cinema II are possibly the most powerful and poetic in both books. They hit me as the climax of these books, and hence, the insights that really belong towards the end. And they are, as I argue here, the end of his conceptual development, in both senses of the word ‘end’, for a new political cinema, it seems to me, is Deleuze’s true goal in writing these books. That is, Deleuze seeks to free cinema from the sensory-motor schema of human action, and even from the time-images that present human types of thought. What he wants is a post-human cinema. But the reason for this is because he wants to unleash the powers of the world, in order to produce, as he calls it, a language for a people yet to come.
In his discussion of minor cinema, and Jean Rouch’s films in particular (above there’s a clip from his collaboratively produced 1967 film, Jaguar), we see all the powers of the false employed. We see characters that go beyond the individual forgers of the late Welles’, and which engage in a form of radical collective storytelling which he calls fabulation. Such collective becoming is like a sort of radical reality-television, in which reality is altered by the collective process of producing new legends in film. The process of making a film puts into action a process of collective becoming, a process which can then model this sort of process for others. Thus this collective becoming can act as a collective myth which can give rise to new ways of looking at the world, new meanings, new actions, new ways to produce meanings. As such, film can act as a new language to articulate new desires, new worlds, and it can do so for a collective audience, beyond those depicted in the original film. For a people yet to come.
In a film such as Jaguar, for example, we see Rouch teach people who had never used a camera before how to document their lives. He helped them tell their story. Together he and the storytellers sat watching the film they had recorded, and developed a collective soundtrack somewhere between narration, fictional storytelling, commentary, and legend-making. Rouch gave the power to world-make to people who didn’t have that power before, and in return, they gave him a new vision of the world. Mutual co-becoming, and with radical implications.
Do I know how to read what I see? The power of a fabulatory disruptive lecto-sign in Cronenberg's 'Existenz'
Thus we see the production of a people yet to come produced in a radical between. Rouch engages in cine-becomings as way to unlearn his western prejudices which he was raised in, to learn new ways of seeing, hearing, thinking, meaning, and collective acting in the world. His co-creators, from West Africa, engage in cine-becomings to produce new ways of seeing, hearing, thinking, meaning, and collective acting in the world which may be able to help them imagine ways out of the domination which Rouch’s culture have imposed upon them. Together, beyond the privilege-disprivileged binary, we see a potential for radical collective becoming. Cinema becomes a practice of which the production of films is simply a byproduct. The goal is collective becoming, and cinema becomes a way of acting which can give rise to new meanings, new language, to a people yet to come. And in fact, it can bring that people about, as subject-object of its own auto-production, its self-imaging into the world. Here we see a proto- yet hyper-radical reality TV, an improvising with reality, between fiction and documentary, in which the camera makes the world itself a laboratory for new ways of living, and in a manner that can be shared with others. The camera is passed around, it becomes difficult to tell who is observer and who observed, roles reverse continually, mutate, the anthropologist becomes the subject of study, jokes, new tall tales, and in the process, everyone learns, and changes. Mutual collective radically democratic multi-transformation becomes the story we watch unfold in Rouch’s deconstruction of the ethnographic film. And in this, we see a potential for a radical political cinema of the future, a reality-TV in which the whole world becomes laboratory for an attempt to imagine a path to a more egalitarian, democratic, and anti-oppressive future.
The cinema of reading as political cinema, the world-making powers of the false, that which is able to reimagine subjects, objects, thoughts, and meanings, is that which is able to create the world anew, and in a more radically democratic way, in a way that unleashes the democracy of the universe. This, it seems to me, is the dream of the cinema books. Now we merely need to go out into the world and do this.
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