Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is cinema fundamentally conceptual or perceptual?

Looking for different ways in which the human body has been thematised in film makes for interesting research. I was reminded of this recently when acting as examiner for a dissertation written by a master’s student, Martin Rossouw of UFS, in which (among other films) he analysed Charles Chaplin’s 1936 classic, Modern Times. Rossouw demonstrated persuasively that Chaplin’s portrayal of Charlie, the “little tramp”, working in a factory, exemplifies the reductive conception of the “human (body) as a machine” (sometimes hilariously), and further showed how this conception dovetails with a broader one, surpassing factory labour, according to which society is construed as a vast “social machine”.

Rossouw’s work reminded me of several other films in which equally striking, albeit divergent, representations of the human body are found – too many to recount here, but on some of which I would like to dwell briefly, partly do demonstrate the usefulness of Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s work on the arts for this kind of interpretation. What I have in mind is a fruitful distinction that they make in their amazing text, What is Philosophy?

In the latter book, which is nothing less than a sustained exhortation to philosophers to be creative in their thinking, they make a striking distinction between the arts and philosophy (and science, which I shall not concentrate on here). Philosophy, for these two long-time philosophical collaborators, faces the task of creating “new concepts”, instead of simply reshuffling the conceptual deckchairs intermittently. Every time such a novel concept is introduced into the vast fabric of philosophy, it has the effect of reconfiguring this fabric – new angles and perspectives emerge, and familiar insights become productively dislocated and subjected to revision.

There are many such concepts; one that comes to mind immediately is Derrida’s notion of “arché-writing” (the idea that both speech and writing in the literal sense share the same fundamental structure, allowing for meaning-generation, instead of the biased belief, in speech somehow escaping the mediation and delays, or detours built into language). Or think of Wittgenstein’s very useful notion of “language games” – which names every possible, distinct manner in which language can be used, each time (like games) subject to different rules (the naming game, the command game, the love-talk game, the mathematical language-game, and so on).

On the other hand, the arts – including cinema – create new “percepts” and “affects”, which are correlative to perceptions and affective states on the part of readers, viewers and listeners, and belong to the artworks themselves. Ironically, it is as if novelist John Fowles (who died recently) anticipated the French thinkers’ work in his “anti-Bildungsroman”, The Magus, which ends on an exemplary, self-reflective literary-theoretical note, one that bears on the difference between literature as art, on the one hand – where the actions in fictional space occupy a kind of “quasi-eternity” in the sense that they will stay the same, frozen, for all time, and social reality, on the other – where things change irreversibly. What Deleuze and Guattari write in What is Philosophy? (1994), where they discuss the differences between art (including literature), philosophy and science, captures exactly what Fowles claimed as far as literature is concerned (1994: 163):

“The young man will smile on the canvas for as long as the canvas lasts. Blood throbs under the skin of this woman’s face, the wind shakes a branch, a group of men prepare to leave. In a novel or a film, the young man will stop smiling, but he will start to smile again when we turn to this page or that moment. Art preserves, and it is the only thing in the world that is preserved. It preserves and is preserved in itself (quid juris?), although actually it lasts no longer than its support and materials – stone, canvas, chemical color, and so on (quid facti?).”

As they proceed to argue further in this chapter, art differs from philosophy in so far as it creates “percepts” and “affects”, embodied in the characters, shapes, movements, and so on, which are preserved in art and, in turn, preserve it. Philosophy, by contrast, creates (novel) “concepts” through which the world is reconfigured.

What does this mean for film? That it, too distinguishes itself from philosophy through the “percepts” and “affects” embodied in it – specific, distinct modes of sensory appearance, on the one hand, and “feeling-clusters” similarly instantiated, both of which preserve these sensory appearances and their accompanying “affects” for as long as the artworks (film, literature, painting) last. Returning to Rossouw’s analysis of Chaplin’s Modern Times, therefore, one can say that the image of the “little tramp” behaving in an oddly machine-like fashion in the film, constitutes a distinct “percept”, preserved since 1936, remaining accessible to viewers and researchers alike. Correlatively, it marks a distinct “affect”, or feeling-cluster, evoking again and again the feelings – a mixture of distaste and merriment – on the part of viewers who witness his antics parodying the tendency to reduce human beings to “machines” in the modern (industrial) state.

Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on these differences between conceptual philosophical understanding and perceptual artistic presentation of reality is particularly important, given the persisting tendency, on the part of many philosophers and critics, to depict the arts – film, literature, painting – as if these, too, are at bottom just varieties of “conceptual” understanding of the world. To be sure, as soon as one articulates an interpretation of these works of art, one introduces an unavoidable conceptual element, inseparable from language, but the artworks themselves are NOT primarily conceptual; they are perceptual, constituted by “percepts” and “affects”, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words.

Armed with these notions, one can tackle films such as Footloose, where the central percept, around which all the other cinematic images in the film converge, appears to be what could be described as “the teenage dancing body, rebelling against religious oppression”, or – related to this – Dirty Dancing, with its organising percept of “the erotic, dancing body”, which ultimately has the potential to shatter class barriers.

The latter aspect of the film seems to have escaped critics’ attention, and represents something already noted by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1871) about the ancient Greeks at the time of Greek tragedy’s zenith, that the dancing and singing accompanying Dionysian revelry had the effect of dissolving individual separation from others, instead of which individuals would tend to “fuse” with one another in a kind of ecstatic union. (A contemporary, diluted counterpart to this is the phenomenon known as “students’ raves”.) In other words, as also noted by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception, dance brings the dancer and her or his surrounding world (including others) closer together, instead of separating them. Dirty Dancing could be interpreted along these lines.

One might object that there are kinds of dancing that have the opposite function, namely to accentuate individuality at the cost of community, as thematised in all the films set in the world of ballet. And indeed, whether it is The Turning Point, or Mao’s Last Dancer, in each instance one can isolate a fundamental percept around which the perceptible film-narrative circles. In Mao’s Last Dancer it is something like the “disciplined, dancing body”, which individualises the protagonist to the point where his dance performance is truly imponderable, ironically – but understandably – alienating him from his (collectivist) Chinese community. Without such “percepts”, film would be inconceivable, or, more appositely, unperceivable.

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