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Cinema, the growth of credulity, and time

According to Paul Virilio, illusionists (or television magicians like David Copperfield not long ago) find it increasingly difficult to make their tricks appear convincing as something “magical”, …”not for want of skill, but because the field of public credulity has expanded considerably in recent years, keeping step, indeed, with the progress of the mass media” (in The Information Bomb, p. 86). As a result of the move from popular cinema in theatres, to limited-time television, then to 24-hour cable television on multiple channels (including “real-time” television), and most recently the “cyber-realities” of online games, the old adage, “seeing is believing” has taken on a new kind of life. In fact, Virilio observes, this state of affairs has promoted a phenomenon, especially among young viewers/users, known as “states of delusional conviction”.

If Virilio is right, then what may be called the growth in human credulity over the last century received its decisive impetus from the emergence of cinema towards the end of the 19th century. It therefore seems appropriate that, as he points out, popular cinema originated as a music-hall attraction which was located — “found its place” — between the stalls of the illusionists and the genuine scientists (who attracted people to see them perform their scientific experiments).

Because people have become so accustomed to media of all kinds — from cinema and television to 3G cellphones and the internet — it is easily forgotten that cinema has literally turned the world (as it was known before its advent) upside down. In Virilio’s words: “When it was claimed at the beginning of the twentieth century that cinema represented a new age for humanity, people did not realise how true this was. In cinema, not only does nothing stop but, most important, nothing necessarily has any direction or sense, since on the screen physical laws are reversed. The end can become the beginning, the past can be transformed into the future, the right can be the left, the bottom the top, etc.”

What Virilio says here, has nowhere been theorised more thoroughly regarding its significance than in the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. His two books on the advent and development of cinema — Cinema of the Movement-image and Cinema of the Time-image — describe and explore cinema as an epochal, complex phenomenon in intricate and perspicuous detail. As Virilio also indicates, cinema, like all technology, is nothing innocent or neutral. It marks nothing less than the breakthrough to a mode of perception that frees the world from the anthropocentric perspective of the human eye: in the cinema of the movement-image, the mechanical eye of the cine-camera enables humans, for the first time, to see what the world looks like as recorded by an impersonal “eye” which can subject it (the world) to movements of the kind described above by Virilio. Small wonder that audiences were entertained for decades by the sheer comicality of seeing the likes of Charlie Chaplin move in ways partly determined by the camera.

It took several decades for the cinema of the time-image to arrive, in the work of the New Wave directors of French cinema, for instance. After humanity’s initial fascination with the recording and manipulation of movement, to which time was always subservient, the relationship was gradually reversed in avant-garde cinema, with the time-image subjecting movement to its own priority. This happens in many ways, for example through what Deleuze calls “aberrant movement” — movement which deviates so far from those of ordinary experience that the primacy of time becomes apparent (the fact that movement is, in the final analysis, only possible on the basis of modifications in time-experience).

In a BBC-film by David Attenborough, for example, where the weeks-long changes in a plant’s growth are speeded up into a process that lasts only seconds, or conversely, the frenetic flapping of the wings of a sunbird is slowed down to the point where one can discern every movement of its feathered wings, the time-image asserts itself over that of movement.

Here a brief philosophical digression is called for. The history of the cinema, in developing from cinema of the movement-image to that of the time-image, has replicated the shift in philosophical thinking about the relationship between time and movement over more than 2 000 years, specifically from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant. In his magnificent little book on Kant, Deleuze reminds one that Aristotle set the standard way of thinking about this relationship for centuries in his formula which prioritises movement (and therefore space), that “time is the measure of motion” (so graphically illustrated even today in the “face” of analog watches). It was Kant who, for the first time, subverted this formula by demonstrating, through his conception of human reason, that it is time which is more fundamental than movement. In fact, Kant showed that there is absolutely nothing that a human being can perceive or grasp which is not comprehensible as a modification of time, whether it is subsumed under the category of causality (change over time) or that of substance (temporal duration).

In those films that belong to the class of cinema of the time-image, therefore, viewers can witness, first-hand, what Kant described in excruciating philosophical argument: the way that time is manipulated, played-with, reversed, explored and questioned (especially in science fiction films like Twelve Monkeys) by means of advanced cinema-technology, where art and technology merge.

However, the most profound manifestations of the time-image is encountered in films where time is made “visible”, in images, as the foundation of human existence, for example in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, or more recently, Gavin Hood’s Rendition. This can either help humans to understand themselves better, as beings rooted in time — which is a constant reminder that everything in society had a temporal origin, and can therefore be changed, if necessary — or people can remain blind to it, and allow themselves to be “conditioned”, at their peril, by the hypnotising illusionistic qualities of contemporary media, as described by Virilio.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.