Bright Lights Film Journal

Books: The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory

The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory, by Patricia Pisters. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. Cloth $60.00, Paper $26.95, 307pp. ISBN: 0-8047-4028-3.

In contemporary film theory, the Deleuzean trajectory represents more than a “line of flight.” It is a “line of flight” that ushers in a radically different conception of cinematic images, even as it effectively cuts at the Lacanian and Freudian moorings of psychoanalytical film theory. In no small measure, Patricia Pisters’ The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory too represents a “line of flight” in Deleuzean film scholarship insofar as it relies on what Deleuze disliked, dialectical reasoning. Pisters’ work is quintessentially different because it seeks to enthrone Deleuze’s film philosophy on the ruins of psychoanalytical film theory. Pisters does not embrace the Deleuzean approach in a straightforward fashion, but on its strengths as the rationally attractive counter-response to what preceded it. Only after a countless number of cautious steps back and forth does she draw us closer to her object of desire, Deleuze’s film philosophy.

Calling her attempt to work with Deleuze “experimental and explorative” (8), Pisters sounds too modest despite her aim to break new ground in her chosen field of study:

I do not attempt to persuade the reader that Deleuze’s ideas are “truer” than, for instance, psychoanalytic concepts or that my reading of Deleuze is the “right” interpretation. I simply try to demonstrate how some of his ideas can work: What new thoughts become possible? What new emotions can I feel? What new sensations and perceptions can be opened in my body? (9)

She is right when she contrasts the essential difference between her project and that of David Rodowick in his book Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. Rodowick,1 like Deleuze and unlike Pisters, took for examination only a homogenous sample of films from non-mainstream cinema. Pisters’ work seeks to go beyond the sample of Rodowick by choosing a fairly heterogeneous sample of mainstream and lesser-known films. This is just one example to show how Pisters wants to prove that working with Deleuze in film analysis requires breaking with the past.

Even though Deleuze’s Cinema I and Cinema II saw print in their original versions during the mid 1980s, the Deleuzean wave in film studies began to gather momentum only in the past decade. Thanks to the work of Rodowick, Deleuze’s cinema philosophy has come to permeate and influence a growing body of post-psychoanalytical film studies. In particular, the Deleuzean spell is having a profound impact in the area of feminist film scholarship, despite the obvious antithetical positions of film feminism that roots for the essentialism of sexual difference-oriented film spectatorship and Deleuze’s conception of the BwO (Body without Organ), which calls into question the relevance of sexual difference in the age of “becoming woman.”

To the uninitiated, the core of Deleuzean cinema philosophy may seem as magical and perplexing as the core of the Harry Potter series. To avid fans of Deleuze, the core may seem equally magical and perplexing, but for entirely different reasons. To them it appeals as an expanding universe of meta philosophy — a philosophy that seeks to influence our notions of not only cinema but also fields not remotely connected to Deleuze’s cinema projects, such as urban architecture. Moreover, Deleuzean cinema philosophy seems magical because it straddles the present in the glory of its past and what it is becoming, the future. It is magical because it provides a postmodernist plane that envelops the logic of the “Spinozan body,” even as it embraces the “matter” of Bergson, while grappling with the challenge of locating the “subject-less subject,” the BwO; amidst the hopes raised by Haraway’s “Cyborg girl.”

As anyone familiar with Deleuze’s philosophical journeys knows, working with Deleuze’s concepts can be as arduous and demanding as it is engaging. What is required is a rhizomatic framework of analysis, as his concepts challenge the traditional conception of concepts. In their introductory remarks to Cinema I, Tomlinson and Habberjam2 state: “For Deleuze, philosophy cannot be a reflection on something else, It is, as we have said, a creation of concepts. But concepts, for Deleuze, are thought of in a new way. They are no longer ‘concepts of,’ understood by their reference to their external object. . . . Concepts are the images of thought” (xv). To Deleuze, “What we call cinematographic concepts are the types of images and the signs which correspond to each type” (xi). It is evident from reading Pisters’ work that she understands this only too well and expects her readers to appreciate Deleuze’s film philosophy on the strength of its remarkably different conceptualisation of concepts of cinema.

In the first chapter of the book, “The Universe as Metacinema,” Pisters takes a dialectical approach, through the words of Slavoj Zizek and Deleuze, in examining the locations of images, subjects and the world. This chapter provides a close analysis of two meta films, Strange Days and Peeping Tom (right), in delineating the different trajectories of the cinematic apparatus revealed by the application of Deleuzean and psychoanalytical film theory. According to Pisters,

Peeping Tom, because it displays the cinematic apparatus, demonstrates how the representation model conceives the world and by extension art: the image that we eventually see is a representation, a copy of the original reality. . . . In Strange Days, we do not find the same kind of apparatus: we find ourselves drawn into a frantic world of images and sounds where there is no boundary between self and other. . . . The cinematographic apparatus that is displayed in Strange Days is a Bergsonian one, where matter, body, and brain are the image. . . . It is a cinematographic apparatus in which the brain is the screen and in which “subjects” are formed by acting and reacting to various images on a plane of immanence. (25-27)

Using Hitchcock’s universe as a context and Zizek’s and Deleuze’s words as guiding posts, Pisters brings out well the transformation of the transcendental cinematic apparatus to an immanent cinematic apparatus. This chapter, along with the chapters entitled “Material Aspects of Subjectivity” and “Cinema’s Politics of Violence,” forms the backbone of the first of the two broad sections in Pisters book. In discussing the “Material Aspects of Subjectivity,” Pisters draws our attention to the central location of the body on the “plane of immanence,” even as she nudges us closer to an understanding of the “body philosophies” of Spinoza, and Deleuze and Guattari. Before embarking on her analysis of films such as Coma, The Fourth Man, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Touki Bouki, with a view to delineate the material aspects of subjectivities in different image types (action, affection, relation, and time), Pisters provides in a nutshell a clear schema of rhizomatic assemblages. While discussing Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, Pisters seeks to introduce us to one of the difficult notions of Deleuze, the BwO, through her reading of the film’s lead character, Elvira and her transformations. This chapter is noteworthy for its effort to lay a foundation for her attempts in the second section of the book in applying the notions of Deleuze and Guattari on “becomings.” From “Material Aspects of Subjectivity,” Pisters moves on to her inspiration for the third chapter, Deleuze’s rationale for distinguishing the political cinemas of the classical and modern kinds. Here Pisters invokes the centrality of violence through her reading of the action images of modern political cinema in the contexts of what Deleuze and Guattari said in A Thousand Plateaus.3 She also invokes the Nietzschean and Spinozan notions of ethics in her examination of “Violence and Cinema of the Body.” As before, Pisters subjects a good range of films to scrutiny (I Can’t Sleep, Nathalie Granger, Brothers, Fight Club, and Pulp Fiction) to bring out the usefulness of the application of the notions of Deleuze on modern political cinema and Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “war machine.”

Pisters’ work becomes theoretically dense and analytically vibrant because of the different locations of the two broad divides one notices in the construction of the book. While the first section covers a largely non-feminist trajectory in its dealings with Deleuze and Guattari, the second section is emphatic about its feminist moorings in discussing the rhizomatic politics of “becoming-woman,” “becoming-animal,” and “becoming-music.” According to Deleuze,4 “the paradox of this pure becoming, with its capacity to elude the present, is the paradox of infinite identity (the infinite identity of both directions or senses at the same time — of future and past, of the day before and the day after, of more and less, of too much, and not enough, of active and passive, and of cause and effect) . . . ” (2-3).

The “becomings” of Alices in their literary, cinematic, and cyborg domains in the contexts of the notion of BwO are well mapped out by Pisters, even as she charts the profiles of Deleuzean feminism and its detractors. Pisters’ analysis of Marguerite Duras’ Aurelia Steiner series, Sally Potter’s Orlando and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark compels her to conclude that “modern Alices” are “all paradoxic figures in various ways. They are all the effects and affects of becoming woman. They share the paradoxic fact that they all initiate a process of becoming by entering a zone of proximity of the historically defined subject position of women, with the effect of precisely criticizing and breaking away from traditionally defined segments and molar systems” (140). What follows Pisters’ take on “becoming-woman” is her attempt to locate another kind of becoming, “becoming animal.” Here Pisters invokes Braidotti’s5 advocacy of Deleuze for dealing with the “teratologic imaginary” of our audiovisual culture. Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (above), Korda’s Jungle Book, Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, and Cronenberg’s The Fly provide Pisters with adequate planes of analyses to conclude that ”becoming-animal is one of the many possible becomings that open the subject to the invisible forces that can cause powerful effects and affects of change. Becoming-animal and other forms of (techno)mutations seen as a ‘philosophical teratology’ then no longer need be regarded as a threat to humanity but as new ways of increasing powers and affects” (174).

In the last chapter, Pisters takes up another kind of “becoming,” “becoming-music.” Her examination of Disney’s Little Mermaid and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is enriched by her takes on the psychoanalytical conceptions of the location of sound in film theory. Here Pisters employs extensively Kaja Silverman’s notions of the female voice as the “acoustic mirror.” Pisters concludes this chapter with a sweeping statement: “In any case, all images and sounds are virtual in this world. Every image contains the virtuality of a thousand sounds, and every sound evokes many images. Which ones are actualized depends on our creative will to power. It also depends on our will to ‘desubjectify’ and enter into all kinds of becomings” (215).

The Matrix of Visual Culture, still the only work providing a comprehensive application of Deleuze’s cinema philosophy, is eminently useful for working with the concepts of Deleuze and Guattari in our attempts to embrace the rhizomatic approach to film theory. Students of film studies who wish to explore Deleuzean film philosophy would find an indispensable companion in this work. The only downside to the book is the author’s rather convoluted approach in linking her ideas, a problem exacerbated by her frequent attempts to jump across chapters and paragraphs in a nonlinear fashion. However, this does not significantly undermine the book’s value and importance.

  1. Rodowick, David. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. Durham, NC: Duke University Press,1997). []
  2. Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema I: The Movement-Image. Trans. H. Tomlinson and B.Habberjam. (London: Athlone Press. Continuum 2005 South Asian Edition, 1986). []
  3. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari. F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. B. Massumi. (London: Athlone Press, 1988). []
  4. Deleuze, Cinema I. []
  5. Braidotti, Rosi. “Teratologies,” in Deleuze and Feminist Theory. Ed. I. Buchanan and C. Colebrook. (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2000). []