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Dead Oneiric Monsters

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We go to the cinema in order to suspend for a moment our usual modes of communication.
-Felix Guattari
A political battle has unfolded and continues to unfold around cinema for control of the effects of subjectivation and desubjectivation that the “non-human” semiotics of the cinematographic image produce on the individuated subject. The three preverbal senses of self, the sense of a verbal self, and semiotics (at once asignifying, symbolic, and signifying) are mobilized by cinematographic machinism which by deterritorializing the image and perception (the “film-eye”) risks undoing, in its way, the unity of the subject.
With the cinema, we have a textbook case of how the signifying machine comes to neutralize, order, and normalize the action of symbolic and asignifying semiotics which exceed dominant significations. By hierarchizing the latter through signifying semiotics, the film industry functions like group psychoanalysis, powerfully aiding in the con- struction of the roles and functions and, especially, in the fabrication of the individuated subject and his unconscious.
Guattari lists precisely the semiotics at work in the cinema:
—the phonic fabric of expression that refers to spoken language (signifying semiology);
—the sonorous but non-phonic fabric that refers to instrumental music (asignifying semiotics);
—the visual fabric that refers to painting (both symbolic and asignifying semiotics);
—the gestures and movements of the human body, etc. (symbolic semiologies);
—the duration, movements, breaks in space and time, gaps, sequences, etc., that make up asignifying “intensities.”1
The cinema, whose effects derive above all from its use of asignifying symbolic semiotics (“linkages, internal movements of visual images, colors, sounds, rhythms, gestures, speech, etc.”2) represented for a brief moment the possibility of moving beyond signifying semiologies, of bypassing personological individuations, and opening up possibilities that were not already inscribed in dominant subjectivations.
Film images cannot be directly encoded, marked out, and framed by the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes that ensure the relative stability and invariance of meanings as in language. With cinema, it becomes possible to rediscover the features of pre-signifying semiotics in a post-signifying world. The cinema does not put two components of expression (signifier/signified) into play, but rather, as in primitive societies, “n”: the images, sounds, and words spoken and written (texts), movements, positions, colors, rhythms, and so on. Depending on the component that prevails, there are different modalities of reading and seeing a film. “It can be seen through its colors or rhythms, through its images, through the chain of affects it creates, and there is absolutely no univocal, necessary, or unmotivated relationship between a signifying chain and the contents signified.”3
As in primitive societies, images (symbolic semiotics) and intensities, movements, intervals, temporalities, and velocities (asignifying semiotics) reintroduce ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability into denotation and signification. Expression once again becomes polyvocal, multidimensional, and multireferential. “The semiotic components of film glide by each other without ever fixing or stabilizing themselves in a deep syntax of latent contents or in transformational systems that would lead, superficially, to manifest contents.”4
The same impossibility of formalizing filmic language is analyzed by Pasolini. For the Italian poet, the cinema as well as an important part of human reality and of things themselves are expressed through systems of signs, in other words, by nonverbal (images or “im-signs”) and non-human “languages.” Images from memory and dream all have the features of film sequences, they are “almost prehuman events, or on the border of what is human. In any case, they are pregrammatical and even premorphological (dreams take place on the level of the unconscious, as do mnemonic processes).”5
The cinema is at once “fundamentally oneiric” and a “hypnotic monstrum.” The “irrational” elements of the language of film, “barbarous, irregular, aggressive, visionary,” cannot be eliminated; thus the difficulty in establishing an “institutional film language.”6 Indeed, these features, which Pasolini terms “irrational,” make up the modalities of expression of affects, intensities, velocities, etc., whose functioning depends on a logic other than that of the individuated subject’s rationality.
The cinema is thus capable, if for only an instant, of making us “orphans: single, amnesiac, unconscious, and eternal,” and removing us from the social divisions of labor that assign us a role, a function, and a meaning.7
The intensities, movements, and duration of film images can produce effects of desubjectivation and disindividuation in the same way that childhood, drugs, dreams, passion, creation, or madness can strip the subject of his identity and social functions. Cinema suspends perception and the habitual coordinates of vision, making the sensorimotor system malfunction. Images and movements no longer depend on the movement of the object nor on the brain; instead, they are the automatic products of a machinic apparatus. In turn, montage disrupts the links between ordinary situations, images, and movements by compelling us to enter into different space-time blocs.
But instead of eluding dominant subjectivations, film images can, conversely, chain us to them. They are only focal points of subjectivation. As vectors of subjectivation, they can only trigger, initiate, or open processes of heterogenesis (both the production of heterogeneity and processual genesis). The consistency of subjective heterogeneity depends on the interplay of a multiplicity of forces, apparatuses, and techniques. It depends, in the final analysis, on a politics and an aesthetics. The ethico-political battle, which the American cultural industry has resoundingly won, has been fought over this focal point of heterogeneity. The industry has worked to neutralize and stifle heterogeneity by exploiting, like psychoanalysis, personological and familialist signifiers.
The shift of cinema’s multireferential and polysemic semiotics toward dominant values and the domestication of the “oneiric monster” and its “irrational elements” have occurred through the reduction of symbolic semiologies and asignifying semiotics to the models of capitalist subjectivity.
The commercial cinema is “undeniably familialist, Oedipian, and reactionary. [...] Its ‘mission is to adapt people to the models required by mass consumption.”8 If it is incapable of establishing as invariable and stable significations as language, it can still produce models of subjectivity that have the force of examples, the obviousness of physical presence. Cinema acts on the depths of subjectivity because it provides subjectivity with identities and models of behavior by exploiting asignifying and symbolic semiotics. In this way, it functions like “group psychoanalysis,” normalizing intensities, hierarchizing semiotics, and confining them within the individuated subject.
Commercial cinema’s effect on the unconscious is even more powerful than that of psychoanalysis, since its unconscious, “populated by cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers” (in other words, a non-Oedipal consciousness, an unconscious equal to the world around us), and the range of semiotic mechanisms it mobilizes “directly connect with the spectator’s processes of semiotization.”9
The effect produced by commercial cinema and in turn by television has nothing to do with ideology, for it does not involve reflexive consciousness and representation.
“All its irrational, elementary, oneiric, and barbaric elements were forced below the level of consciousness; that is, they were exploited as subconscious instruments of shock and persuasion”10 by the cultural industry and industry in general.
Consciousness-raising is not a sufficient response because images affect us and organize themselves in direct relation with the three “selves” preceding the linguistic self. Asignifying, symbolic semiotics do not act on consciousness but rather directly on “the continuous variation and force of existing and potential action.
Here, subjectivity has nothing to do with Althusser’s ideological apparatuses, because it, and especially its components, are produced as a whole, bringing to bear what I call asignifying elements, which provide the basis for relations to time, rhythms, space, the body, colors, and sexuality.11
end notes:
1
Félix Guattari
Chaosophy (2009)
Semiotext(e) p. 243
2
Ibid., p. 242
3
Félix Guattari
Agencements. Transistances. Persistances
(Seminar of December 8th 1981)
4
Félix Guattari
Chaosmosis (1995)
Indiana University Press. pp. 263-264
5
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Hermetic Empiricism (1998)
Indiana University Press. p. 169
6
Ibid., p. 172
7
Félix Guattari
Chaosmosis p. 266
8
Ibid., p. 267
9
Ibid., pp. 265, 267
10
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Hermetic Empiricism
p. 172
11
Félix Guattari
Les Annees d’hiver: 1980-1985
(Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2009), p. 129