Pedagogy of perception

In the ‘Cinemas’ section from his book Negotiations (1990), Gilles Deleuze describes a break between ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ cinema that occurred around the time after the Second World War.

It’s not enough just to say that modern cinema breaks with narrative. That’s only an effect whose cause lies elsewhere. The cinema of action depicts sensory-motor situations: there are characters, in a certain situation, who act, perhaps very violently, according to how they perceive the situation. Actions are linked to perceptions and percetions develop into actions. Now, suppose a character finds himself in a situation, however ordinary or extraordinary, that’s beyond any possible action, or to which he can’t react. It’s too powerful, or too painful, too beautiful. The sensory-motor link’s broken. He’s no longer in a sensory-motor situation, but in a purely optical and aural situation. There’s a new type of image. (51)

The new type of image in this “visionary cinema” is, at least partly, a pedagogical one:

the image bears a new relation to its optical and aural elements: you might say that in its visionary aspect it becomes more “legible” than visible. So a whole pedagogy of the image, like Godard’s, becomes possible. Finally, image becomes thought, is able to catch the mechanisms of thought, while the camera takes on various functions strictly comparable to propositional functions. (52)

After the war, then, a second function of the image was expressed by an altogether new question: What is there to see on the surface of the image? “No longer what there is to see behind it, but whether I can bring myself to look at what I can’t help seeing – which unfolds on a single plane.” (69)

this new stage of cinema, this new function of the image, was a pedagogy of perception, taking the place of an encylopedia of the world that had fallen apart […] How can we wonder what there is to see behind an image (or following on from it…), when we can’t even see what’s in it or on the surface until we look with our mind’s eye? (70)

This pedagogy of perception is one which plays a heuristic type of role by bringing the easily glossed surface qualities of the image back to the fore, and in doing so, helping to train the mind’s eye on the traceable, thought-forming qualities which they can carry. There is for Deleuze a “hidden image of thought” which this particular brand of cinema aims to portray. Here he is at length describing the relationship that the external image has with perception:

There are images, things are themselves images, because images aren’t in our head, in our brain. The brain’s just one image among others. Images are constantly acting and reacting on each other, producing and consuming. […] But images also have an inside or certain images have an inside and are experienced from inside. They’re subjects […] And there’s a gap between actions upon these images and the reactions they produce. It’s this gap that enables them to store up other images, that is to perceive. But what they store is only what interests them in other images: perceiving is subtracting from an image what doesn’t interest us, there’s always less in our perception. We’re so full of images we no longer see those outside us for what they are. […] There’s always a central “rubber stamp” normalizing images, subtracting what we’re not supposed to see. So, given the earlier gap, we can trace out as it were two converse currents: one going from external images to perceptions, the other going from prevailing ideas to perceptions. […] So we’re caught in a chain of images, each of us in our particular place, each ourself an image, and also in a network of ideas acting as precepts. And so what Godard’s doing with his “words and images” goes in two directions at once. On the one hand he’s restoring their fullness to external images, so we don’t perceive something less, making perception equal to the image, giving back to images all that belongs to them – which is in itself a way of challenging this or that power and its rubber stamps. On the other hand, he’s undoing the way language takes power, he’s making it stammer in sound wave, taking apart any set of ideas purporting to be just ones and extracting from it just some ideas. (42-3)

Some of the high points in the work of a film maker like Godard or Tarkovsky are those shots in which just this kind of a gap of delay between the action of and reaction to an image is opened up, initiating a simultaneous cognitive dissonance and resonance, each shifting in two directions at once. We are treated to lingering shots that force, or rather allow, the viewer’s thoughts to focus and expand within the spaces that such cognitive gaps/shifts create. Spaces whose duration often take on an “uncontrollable slowness that preserves things” (79). It is in these delicate moments that we can sense just such a pedagogy of perception, a teetering blend of balanced imbalance (not unlike Wiley Coyote – temporarily suspended over the canyon and finally able to, if only for a brief moment, acquaint himself with the legible geography of his psychological abyss), in which the power and mystery that lies at the very surface of images and thought passes so readily into and out of focus.

(coffee scene from Jean-Luc Godard – 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle)


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