Suspended Meaning: On Bergson and Cinema Perception
This essay will explore the theme of “distance” via the theories of perception, time and memory developed by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, particularly in his work Matter and Memory (first published in 1896). It is part of a larger project that considers the problems first raised or explicated in modern cinema, inaugurated by Italian neo-realism in the forties, and the continued relevance of these problems for contemporary filmmakers working outside the channels of mainstream narrative. I’m interested in how contemporary practitioners—such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pedro Costa, Abbas Kiarostami—engage with these problems (thus, demonstrating their continued relevance and their status as genuine philosophical problems, in need not of ready-made answers but substantive engagement and exploration) and also the way they necessarily modify these problems in relation to inevitably changing historical and social contexts. My main focus here will be on Bergson but I will, in the final section of the essay, turn to a consideration of the viability of his arguments for understanding certain aspects or formal strategies of modern cinema, and this will then lead me to a brief discussion of the work of the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
So let me start here with Bergson and Matter and Memory. In this work, Bergson develops, with great skill and audacity, an entire metaphysical system. Moreover, a system that provides us with an explanation for the world while remaining wholly immanent to it. There is no transcendent source (no God, no intelligible realm of pure Ideas or Forms) that can serve to explain the world from some point outside of it. More directly, Bergson saw his work as engaged with, but also correcting, a number of dominant trends in modern Western philosophy inaugurated by Descartes in the seventeenth century. In particular, the Cartesian split between mind and body, a split that privileges or prioritizes mind over body—placing mind (or consciousness) above or beyond the body and its material constraints. Bergson will argue, to the contrary, that the ideas he puts forth in Matter and Memory allow us to re-conceive the relation between mind and body, allow us to reconnect the mind to the body and, in doing so, reconnect consciousness to world, reconnect subject to world. For Bergson, there is no split then between mind and body but only unity and accord. They function in unison, in concert, in response to external stimuli. The brain, in this model, is neither the seat of consciousness nor the generator of images or representations of the world (another philosophical convention that Bergson challenges). The brain serves merely as a relay system that processes information and determines a response. As Bergson (in)famously described it, the brain is like a “central telephonic exchange … its office is limited to the transmission and division of movement.”1
The term movement is key for Bergson. For Bergson, the world consists entirely of movement images, acting and reacting upon one another “in all their elementary parts.”2 Every living organism is in constant movement, contracting and expanding, in relation to the images it encounters throughout its existence. The living organism doesn’t preexist these encounters but is constituted by them. The question will thus become how the organism comes to develop ways of both reacting to external stimuli and responding to it: the movements it takes from, and gives back to, the world. The stimulus-response mechanism is found in all organisms, in which we find a difference of degree and not kind. Bergson proposes a continuum of being with amoebas and protozoa on one end, and more complex organisms, such as man, on the other.
All organisms are linked because each has perceptual and affective capabilities, which is to say each organism encounters/experiences the world externally (through perception) and internally (through affection). As Bergson says, perception “measures the reflecting power of the body,” and affection “measures its power to absorb.”3 So all organisms act and react to external stimuli. The difference is that the more complex the organism, the more varied its potential response. In an amoeba or protozoa these perceptual and affective organs are rudimentary and interchangeable. In such organisms, to see is to touch or feel. A protozoon “sees” another organism only when it comes into physical contact with it. What will happen though, in more complex organisms, is a differentiation between the perceptual and affective zones of the body. As our perceptual and affective apparatuses become more refined, more complex, so too do they proliferate the possibilities of how we will respond to the external stimuli, the exterior images, which solicit a response from us. The wider the gap, the larger the interval, between an excitation from without and a response from within, the more potential there is for an unexpected, or non-reified, response.
It is in this gap or interval—what Bergson calls the “zone of indetermination”—that we find the possibility for genuine novelty or change. The more complex the organism’s modes of perception, the more increased will be the distance “at which the animal is sensible of the action of that which interests it.” This distance, Bergson says, “allows more room for suspense.”
By sight, by hearing, it enters into relation with an ever greater number of things, and is subject to more and more distant influences; and, whether these objects promise an advantage or threaten a danger, both promises and threats defer the date of their fulfillment. The degree of independence of which a living being is master, or, as we shall say, the zone of indetermination which surrounds its activity, allows, then, of an a priori estimate of the number and the distance of the things with which it is in relation. Whatever this relation may be, whatever be the inner nature of perception, we can affirm that its amplitude gives the exact measure of the indetermination of the act which is to follow.4
The organism’s relation to the world thus changes or expands as it is able to engage with wider or vaster circuits of stimuli. The interval between my body and another body (or between one image and another image, since Bergson uses the terms body and image interchangeably) allows action to remain virtual until contact occurs. The more complex the organism the greater the “latitude to the activity of the living being, the faculty of waiting before reacting, and of putting the excitation received into relation with an ever richer variety of motor mechanisms,”5 allowing the body to develop “new dispositions toward actions.”6 It is here, as well, in this gap or interval, that Bergson inserts both memory and duration, or memory as duration. Put another way, we could say that it is in memory and duration that Bergson locates the possibility for novelty or change—the possibility of “creative evolution.”
I will return to this point momentarily. But first I wish to stress here a basic point for Bergson that we should always keep in mind. Bergson recognizes two contrary tendencies or movements in all living organisms. One tendency is lived “according to the degree of our attention to life” and the other in relative indifference to it.7 Although the latter (inattention, indifference) is necessary for conservation and survival, Bergson will valorize the former (attentiveness) that he equates with expansion rather than contraction. So all organisms have tendencies to both contract and expand, to turn in on themselves and to open out onto the world. It is expansion that Bergson valorizes. It occurs when we spread ourselves “over a wider and wider surface … expanding with the unscrewing of a vice.” This “greater dilation of the whole personality,” this opening onto the world, is presented as the highest value.8 This opening must have a limit, of course; otherwise the organism would no longer exist as such, but nevertheless life is lived to its full capacity when it expands outwards rather than turned inwards. This is what fundamentally interests Bergson and it is what will lead him from Matter and Memory to his next book Creative Evolution (1907). Bergson wants to understand how organisms evolve and change; he wants to understand and render explicable the advent of the new, the emergence of the new. Bergson’s philosophy can thus be understood to be in dialogue not only with Darwin, but also Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, he is interested in the possibility that each organism has to overcome its own limits.
But if Man, as the most complex organism, holds the greatest potential for such a creative evolution—expanding rather than contracting—so too are there tendencies in this organism that can be considered regressive. Most of the human organism’s responses to the world are, in fact, utilitarian in nature, grounded in convention and habit. And to the extent that we respond automatically to external stimuli (which is to say, unthinkingly as in motor reflex), we regress to the status of protozoa or amoebas. This point is important to keep in mind, and it is why we can only distinguish simple organisms from complex ones by degree, and not kind. I would also stress that while Bergson places man at the pinnacle, in terms of complex organisms, he doesn’t suggest that man is the culmination or end point of evolution. Man is simply a stage of creative evolution.
Where does memory and duration come into this? For Bergson, there are two primary kinds of memory, habit-memory, on one end, and pure (or unconscious) memory, on the other. Habit memory is the result of the organism becoming habituated to its environment, learning how to receive and respond to stimuli in a deterministic fashion. There is a kind of memory at work here but it is entirely practical in nature and, in an important sense, can be said to be housed in the body, which automatically responds to events, people and things. But the zone of indetermination that results from the development of more complex perceptual systems also allows for the possibility of a non-habituated response, and this is precisely because the zone of indetermination is a temporal gap or interval through which the organism is able to come into contact with ever more unconscious levels of time and memory. As we ascend the cone of memory [see figure below], from summit to base, we have more and more access to unconscious or non-actualized memories. And the more access to these non-actualized memories, the more possibility that our response to a present perception, to a present stimuli, will not be simply habituated or automatic.
Here we move from what Bergson calls “automatic recognition” to “attentive recognition.” In either case, the organism encounters the same object. But whereas in automatic recognition, “our movements prolong our perceptions in order to draw out from it useful effects and thus take us away from the object perceived,” in attentive recognition we are brought back “to the object, to dwell upon its outlines.” In attentive recognition, memory strengthens and enriches perception, which becomes, in turn, “wider, draws into itself a growing number of complementary recollections.”9 As Bergson writes, attentive perception “truly involves a reflection, in the etymological sense of the word, that is to say the projection, outside ourselves, of an actively created image, identical with, or similar to, the object on which it comes to mold itself.”10 If automatic attention encourages us to generalize and abstract, subsuming difference to sameness, the similarity of the present object or event to a past object or event, attentive recognition affirms pure difference and absolute singularity. Instead of being satisfied that object x resembles an object a that we’ve encounter in the past, we are led through an ever widening series of comparisons and contrasts; the result of which never exhausts the richness of the object itself. We thus have the ability to discover in one and the same object “a growing number of things,” but this only occurs when we are able to counter “the rhythm of necessity” which habit and utility require.11 As Bergson says, primary qualities might be known “from within and not from without” if only we are able to “disengage … from the particular rhythm of duration which characterizes our consciousness.”12 (Cinema as an “optical media” —as Friedrich Kittler calls it—is precisely one of the mediums that allows for the capture and transmission of an alternative rhythm or duration, one that exists within the frequency of human experience without being reducible to it.13)
Despite his critique of both idealism and realism, Bergson’s ontology can thus be understood in realist terms since he places complexity on the side of the world, not the side of man and his cerebral functions. This is the case even when Bergson speaks of pure memory since it is memory of the world that is being affirmed here and not the subject’s ability to generate the world via representations. Memory is the preservation of the world in images. It is subjective or personal in the sense that each of us has a different encounter with the world, but it is not subjective or personal in the sense of being a property of the subject’s imagination. Bergson claims, near the end of Matter and Memory, that it is possible “to seek experience at its source, or rather above the decisive turn where, taking a bias in the direction of our utility, it becomes properly human experience.”14 “The relativity of knowledge may not, then, be definitive,” he adds. “By unmaking that which these needs have made, we may restore to intuition its original purity and so recover contact with the real.”15 To seek experience at its source (true knowledge rather than “customary or useful knowledge”) is to follow a “real curve, the curve itself stretching out into the darkness behind them.”16 In the process we can liberate perception from the force of habit. This, Bergson says, is the role of philosophy (and art): to free perception “from the contraction that it is accustomed to by the demands of life.” Indeed, he adds, “This conversion of the attention would be philosophy itself.”17
It should be clear to us—when we take ourselves as an example—that the majority of the time we utilize automatic, not attentive, recognition; that the majority of time we are only in touch with habit-memory and not pure memory. As we walk down the street of our neighborhood, there is a necessity, to some degree, that we contract rather than expand. It is our preservative instinct that allows us to unthinkingly respond to joggers, bicyclists and deranged motorists, and the quicker the external stimuli approaches the more automatic the response. But what about art? It seems to me (and to Bergson as well) that it is the experience of art that allows us to cultivate attentive, rather than automatic, recognition, to tap into pure or unconscious memories, and the qualitative, not quantitative, experience of time. And cinema is particularly interesting in this regard because the images with which it works are not merely symbolic or iconic but indexical, as Peirce would say. In other words, the images that a filmmaker utilizes are drawn from the world itself. Unlike a novelist who works with language, or a painter who works with color and line, the filmmaker works directly with the things of the world: with objects, bodies, and material or natural forces. Moreover, these indexical signs are in time; cinematographic images are themselves indices of time. A cinematographic image is an extraction or subtraction from the world (in fact, a representation in the strictly Bergsonian sense)18 as well as the preservation of this extracted portion of the world as a permanent memory-image, retaining within itself the potential to be actualized otherwise.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that most films don’t work to create habituated responses. This doesn’t mean that most films don’t work to exploit automatic, rather than attentive, recognition. Most films don’t ask us to dwell on the outlines of an object, or to activate ever more deep regions or strata of memory or time, as a way to respond to this external stimuli, this external image. But, I would suggest, it is precisely what we call “modern cinema” or modernist cinema that begins to systematically explore the cinema’s potential for instilling attentive recognition and provoking pure memory, and precisely through the use of a number of formal techniques including, not coincidentally, the long take. In the long take cinema of Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Warhol, and others, the duration of the shot is not filled in with narrative action, but depleted, evacuated, so that the viewer must interact with, must perceive, the image differently. The image is not simple transformed into an object to be critically analyzed or consumed, reducing the image to a narrative unit or semiotic sign. Rather, the image must be experienced in all its complexity and depth, and with the possibility of a non-habituated response. (Consider, in this context, the way that Warhol presents the human face in his various early silent works, projected at 18 fps. These long takes require us to study the face with a renewed sense of interest and wonder; to discover each human being in its singularity and solitude. To surmise that one gets the point simply by reading about the film—as opposed to experiencing it—is precisely to miss the point.19) But what makes such affects possible is not only the way the filmmaker fuses the image with duration or instills a sense of patience and responsiveness in the viewer; it also has to do with the space of reception: the fact that these works were made to be seen in a cinema, which is to say in a space that allows for attentiveness, absorption, and receptivity.20
What interests me about the work of contemporary filmmakers like Kiarostami and Apichatpong is their willingness not only to affirm the formal strategies of the aforementioned practitioners of modern cinema but also to explore new avenues for the exhibition of moving images, including the use of gallery spaces and, in Apichatpong’s case, experimenting with the possibilities of multi-screen installation. What his multi-installation piece Primitive, which I saw this past spring at the New Museum in NYC, made clear is the artist’s desire to continue his film project by other means, using the possibilities afforded by this particular venue to allow the viewer to participate or interact in a number of different ways with the moving images that make up this work; some of the screens were laid directly side by side, some of them were spaced out across a room or played in different media formats, projected or televised. In a couple of cases, the addition of headphones also allowed one to watch the images with sound or in partial silence.21 In each case, what was taking into consideration were the movements of the spectator, their inhabitation of a common space shared with the image, but also their willingness to become attentive, absorbed; to give themselves over to the images and sounds that constitutes Primitives. And although the format also meant that the visitor could alter the durational experience of the work by exiting the room or turning one’s back on this-or-that screen, it was also clear that the various images and sounds encouraged a mode of contemplation that is temporal in nature; a mode of contemplation that necessitates an encounter with time.22 Indeed, one could say that the installation only succeeded to the extent that the spectator’s sensory-motor instincts gave way to something else; only succeeded to the extent that the function of automatic recognition gave way to an attentive one.
I find unconvincing, in this regard, Mark Hansen’s recent attempt to “save” Bergson from Deleuze and from cinema.23 Hansen argues that it is only an active spectator, such as the one we find in a gallery or installation space and in relation to an interactive media environment, who has the ability to respond to the images they encounter in a Bergsonian sense. Hansen never satisfactorily addresses the question of where, in his examples, the zone of indetermination occurs that allows for attentive recognition and pure memory. For example, even though he discusses the relevance of duration to the work of such gallery artists as Douglas Gordon or Bill Viola, what he never properly addresses is what conditions need to be in place for this temporality to be affectively experienced by the gallery spectator. How long, in other words, does it take for the viewer to “get” a work by Gordon or Viola? And to what extent is the experience undermined if the spectator is immobile, passive (negative terms for Hansen)? My answer would be that even Gordon and Viola require the gallery viewer to become attentive, absorbed, and receptive, and in a way that is akin to the cinema spectator. The viewer who wanders through the rooms where the works are being projected, chatting with friends, or text messaging their spouse, has no experience of Gordon or Viola, or, more precisely, they have a habituated response; their body responds to these images in an automatic, reified way. Recognition is automatic. In this object placed in front of them, they see nothing different or extraordinary, they see nothing in particular. So while I agree with Hansen that multi-media installation art has the potential to productively disturb and disorient the spectator (creating, in the process, new ways of engaging with one’s social environment), I reject his claim that this comes down to some banal opposition of activity versus passivity.
Indeed we might recall too, in this context, the observations made by Serge Daney in the late 1980s in an article entitled “From Movies to Moving.” Daney points out that, while it’s true to say that cinema consists of images in movement, what needs to be stressed is that this movement, in all its aesthetic complexity, could only be perceived as such because the spectator was “immobile” before them. The profound implications of this movement would have been diluted—if not lost—if the spectator were himself in movement. (This is true not only of the movements generated by the camera and by the actors placed in front of the camera but also those stimulated via montage.) It was this physical, not mental, immobility that allowed the spectator, Daney says, to become “sensitive to the mobility of the world, to all types of mobility … bodily mobility … [as well as] material and mental movements.”24 In the late decades of the twentieth century, a reversal has taken place. Now we “consume” audio-visual presentations in a different way: “we have learned how to pass by images the way people must have learned to pass by lighted window displays in the nineteenth century.”25 We glance at images in the way we glance at other consumer objects, as objects for sale and for exchange. We have mastered these images and incorporated them into our bodily and mental habits. What thus becomes increasingly more difficult to imagine, let alone create, in our day and age, is an image that resists or impedes this thoughtless transformation of world into representation. For Bergson, this is the necessary task of both art and philosophy, each working against our natural inclination to preserve ourselves, to fortify ourselves, against the solicitations of world.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul was born in Bangkok in 1970. He was raised in Khon Kaen in the northeastern region of Thailand. He completed a degree in architecture at a local university before traveling to America to do an MFA in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1990s. It was there that he was first exposed to the work of experimental filmmakers like Bruch Baillie and Andy Warhol. But while this exposure was important to his development as an artist it is also clear to anyone who has seen his film and video work over the past decade and a half that he has developed his own idiosyncratic approach to the medium, finding a way to fuse aspects of art/experimental film with autobiographical elements as well as the popular music, melodramas and horror movies that, as James Quandt says, “he imbibed as a child in the Thai provinces.”26 The recognition that he has received at such places as the Cannes Film Festival (Blissfully Yours won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2002; Tropical Malady the Prix de Jury in 2004; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives the Palme d’Or in 2010) has allowed him to continue on in his own direction, able to pursue his own particular brand of cinema without the usual obstacles that impede the development of most young filmmakers. Along with his features and videos, he has begun to develop a number of gallery-based pieces, including Primitives.
In interviews, Apichatpong speaks of Primitive in terms very similar to his shorts and feature films. Indeed, Primitive can be understood as part of a larger project that includes both the short A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and his most recent feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Each is suffused, like his earlier works, with memory and time.27 But whereas films like Tropical Malady and Syndrome and a Century fuse personal memory with “various other sources,” Primitive and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee are primarily concerned with someone else’s memory. In particular, the repressed or forgotten memory of the inhabitants of Nabua, near the Mekong River.
In the Sixties, Nabua became the staging ground for a battle between the Thai army and communist-sympathizing farmers. For twenty years, it was occupied by the military in an attempt to curb communist insurgents and the result of this occupation was whole-scale violence and depletion of much of the male population of the village. As the artist explains, “Primitive became a project of the teenage male descendents of the farmer communists,” most of whom had died in the sixties and seventies.28 “Primitive”—he says—“is a departure from my previous work in that it is no longer based upon a memory of my lovers, my family. It is a memory of those who live far away. It is also a memory of those who are no longer alive, channeling their gestures through their offspring. I feel that, despite its casual surface, it is the most political work I have allowed myself to do.”29
This is perhaps even clearer in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, a sketch for his feature film, in which the project of Uncle Boonmee (about a man who can recall his multiple lives, human or otherwise) becomes fused, for Apichatpong, with his discovery of Nabua, its inhabitants and its past. This 18-minute work consists primarily of a series of slow, dolly shots through empty spaces; the interiors of various homes in Nabua in which the “people are missing” or only exist as memory, sometime in the form of photographs hanging on walls and which return the gaze of the camera. As the camera executes its movements—in an attempt not simply to discover the past, but also to engender a memory—we hear, in voiceover, a series of male voices other than the director’s own speak of the project of Uncle Boonmee. By doing so, he attempts to make the project more-than-his-own. He wishes to make it a shared memory between himself and the people of Nabua, between himself and his crew, between himself and his spectator—able to rediscover the world via cinema: the world in all its mystery, beauty and depth. This world, our world, is not denied by cinema, at least not in Apichatpong’s cinema. To the contrary, cinema becomes one of its privileged modes of access.
Needless to say, my essay has only begun to sketch out the relevance of Bergson’s arguments on automatic and attentive recognition (and the need to continuously refine and extend the boundaries of perception) for a filmmaker like Apichatpong, interested in pursing an alternative route through cinema. It will have to suffice for now. I will end here with an observation made by the director himself in regards the cinema as an archive of memory and time: “The moving images on the screen are camera records of events that have already taken place; they are remains of the past, strung together and called a film.”30
Sam Ishii-Gonzales is Assistant Professor of Film in the School of Media Studies at The New School, New York City, where he teaches courses on aesthetics, media theory and film production. He is the co-editor of two books on Hitchcock and has published essays on a variety of artists and philosophers, including Francis Bacon, Luis Buñuel, Claire Denis, and Gilles Deleuze. His work has been translated into Hungarian and Italian. His current book project is entitled Being and Immanence, or Non-Acting for the Cinema. It considers the different uses of the non-actor throughout cinema history (by such filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Bresson, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Peter Watkins, among others) and the relevance of this figure for understanding the ontology of film.