click to buy 'The Matrix of Visual Culture - Working with Deleuze in Film Theory' at Amazon.com(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003)

The premise of this book positions it within a disturbing paradigm shift in current academic and philosophical texts. Pisters orients her work around its usefulness, the ways in which one can make the cinematic theories of Gilles Deleuze “work” within film analysis and, particularly, taught film courses. Although this is not the fault of the author, it emphasises the aversion publishers currently have to works that are philosophically experimental or purely theoretical. Current trends in theory resonate around the almost vocational role of the text. Deleuze himself may well be turning in his grave to think his work is being valued for its application and not invocation of experimentation.

The early part of the book juxtaposes traditional psychoanalytic film theory with an introduction to Deleuze’s cinema texts. Pisters uses Hitchcock’s work as the primary tableau to exhibit that thinking cinema not purely through psychoanalysis is available, even within films that seem to lend themselves particularly to psychoanalytic interpretation. Thus she points out reading cinema through Deleuze requires a shift, not in the kinds of images analysed, but by renegotiating the network of image, thought, concepts and flesh through which cinema is experienced. Here Pisters challenges the traditional cinematic dialectic of the image as either reflecting or re-presenting the real. This system sees the image as accessing already-established concepts within the viewer’s index of possibilities of meaning and hence understanding. Images thus refer to their conformance or complicity with the “real” or familiar world. Should a film challenge these orders, it does so by jarring the reified familiar/unfamiliar structure of re-cognition, rather than questioning the infinite possible interpretations of images and the material role images play in culture. Image as material is a key concept in Deleuze’s cinema work. Put briefly, Deleuze refigures the real/represented dialectic with the virtual/actual. The virtual/actual disjuncture acknowledges all perception as a material orientation of the world, and the discrepancy between the virtual (i.e. cinematic) and the actual is primarily one of differing intensities and affects, rather than of authentic versus inauthentic or material versus synthetic. Pisters posits Deleuze’s use of the model of the brain “according to which the brain is literally the screen [and images] not representations of something else but that exist within themselves” (p. 15). However here Pisters risks falling into the same bind as Deleuze in his cinema books, which he resolves in his books with Guattari, particularly A Thousand Plateaus. The brain is privileged as the point of dissipation of the spatial and temporal aspects of an image, which become actualised in the brain of the viewer rather than reflected in the retina. Bypassing the screen as a surface of comprehension, the image directed toward the brain accesses the viewer’s capability to experience cinema rhizomatically – that is, as a sensoro-dural creative perception rather than re-cognition or reflection. Although the model of the brain is a version of the model of the thousand plateaus, focusing on the brain risks restratifying the flesh of the viewer as a full corporeal series of forces which interact in various assemblages with different aspects and intensities of screen (constellations of light, colour and sound as well as negotiations with possibilities of meaning). The viscera of the viewing body, if we take it as a re-organised body, or Deleuze and Guattari’s “body without organs” is as capable of receiving images materially as the brain, and the two are not necessarily separable. Inevitably I ask “can the whole body be taken as a brain” (and then the world of images as part of the involuted knot of flesh/image/world)? Deleuze’s work on Leibniz would have certainly been as important here as his work on Bergson, only the latter of which Pisters discusses.

Key to Deleuze’s cinema work is the importance of time. Deleuze’s time-image and movement-image, simplified, refer to the image as metaphoric and metonymic based on the causality of the images temporally. Time challenges images as forms. Forms become trajectories and immobile signifiers flee in the face of the mobilised gaze. Pisters effectively critiques Zizek’s suggestion that Hitchcock’s work refers the gaze of the viewer as demarcating forms within a narrative as positioning them at the “eye of god”. Thinking form as duration, Pisters points out, reorients this identificatory/voyeuristic gaze as a relational network which asks not what is being represented (hence what can I “know”) but what is being created (what is the “force” of the screen in time and space). Characters and narratives are thus seen around various trajectories of force, differential relationships of speed and slowness with themselves, with other characters, with the viewer. The force of image also includes intensities, saturations and sounds that access simultaneously various parts of the brain/body. Pisters work on the essential importance of time within the viewer is effective here. Reading images spatially where time is limited to causal movement imagines a transcendent world of the signified against which the cinematic form is compared. This assures the safety of the viewer’s role as reader, not maker, of thought. Immanence thinks the immediacy of the cinematic moment, which takes into account the constant temporal flux which defines the viewer as well as the image. This knot of viewer and viewed in space as well as time shows meaning, affect and reading film is a three dimensional grid which transforms entirely with every alteration at any one point. Thus the experiencing of the cinematic moment offers an infinite possibility of involutions of flesh, meaning and image. Pisters then attempts to think the implications of gender in spectatorial immanence but this seems tacked on rather than apparent within the larger context of the argument, which should have taken the haeccity of the viewer as itself involved in the notion of immanence.

The following chapters deal with various incarnations of cinema which Pisters sees as particularly appropriate for Deleuzian readings. She shifts her focus here from Deleuze’s cinema texts to, primarily, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, despite the fact she frequently insists on calling the ideas found therein Deleuze’s ideas alone. (Corporeal) violence, feminism and becoming-Woman, becoming-animal and affect and finally becoming-sound constitute Pisters’ four applications of Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of becoming-otherwise. In “Material Aspects of Subjectivity” and “Cinema’s Politics of Violence” Pisters, using films resonant around themes of extreme corporeality, offers a thorough and easy to comprehend summation of why the stratification of the spatial body is the first casualty of becoming. She appropriately goes through the contextualisation of becomings through Spinoza, Nietzsche and affect. This is a very good introduction to these theories and the role they play in the genesis of Deleuze and Guattari’s theories, however this has been done many times before, by theorists such as Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, Gail Weiss and purely within film theory Steven Shaviro and D. N. Rodowick. Although Pisters’ power is in the accessibility of her discussion, the writing often verges on inane: “Spinoza gives a new model to philosophy, namely the model of the body” (p. 86). These quirks come from the fact this manuscript was Pister’s PhD dissertation, and the text retains evidence of this. The two complementary chapters seem bifurcated into oscillating sections on Spinozan affectivity, embodiment through Spinoza and Nietzsche and a more traditional summary of the Barbara Creed, Carol Clover and psychoanalytic feminism specifically through Kristevan abjection, power and horror. The feminism here is far from cutting edge. Ironically, however, Pisters’ work on masculinity is very strong indeed, analogising Hollywood’s current schizophrenia with the deterritorialising of masculinity, genre and audience desire. This offers a new and refreshing take on the rapture current audiences have with the likes of Fincher and Tarantino and enfleshes masculinity in a way usually reserved for the female body. Pisters interpretation of what constitutes a “fleshy” film, and what counts as “violence” is lateral and interesting. She traverses canonical, popular and art cinema, creating a model which reflects the brain grid and the way viewers alight on various points within multiple trajectories of film genres. This refusal to stick to one genre or quality of film is one of the more powerful elements of the book. It is a palpable metaphor of the immanence of cinephilia as a constellation of cinememory and immediacy of the viewed image. Pisters also shows that new Deleuzian and Deleuzio-Guattarian readings of film are as easily applicable to popular and commercial films as to art films (which Deleuze and Guattari bear out themselves by opening their chapter in A Thousand Plateaus “Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Imperceptible” with an analysis of the rat-horror films Ben and Willard, which they mistake as one film). This is essential for marketing the book and enticing undergraduates to theory but mourns the loss of theory as seductive for its own sake.

The issues of violence and gender introduce politics to the discussion, ethically orienting the importance of the viewer as both acting and being acted upon (although strangely no mention of Foucault. Also, the absence of Irigaray in the section on Alice in Wonderland is astonishing). The question “why Deleuze?” is here resoundingly addressed as a renegotiation of the striated body and striated culture, and the ways in which images concretise or radicalise these strata. Time becomes the memory of subjects and fabulation an opportunity to rethink images as forming unified histories, hence ablating certain minority experiences. Images are neither true nor false, realisation nor representation, singular nor plural. They are appropriate in their use and the ways they affect the viewer. Pisters here offers a complex and nuanced examination of the act of reading images investing them with their political importance, rather than images being essentially ethical or political. She does tread on risky ground, however, in her fetishisation of “third world” cinema. After violence and becoming-woman, Pisters explores “becoming-animal”. Pisters’ insistence on analysing jungle-children in The Jungle Book threatens to unravel this powerful politicisation. That she chooses Cronenberg’s The Fly as another example of becoming-animal is predictable and disappointing. This chapter seems to lack the complex creativity of the earlier chapters.

Throughout the book Pisters and the reader find themselves within one of the difficult conundrums of using Deleuze and Guattari in film theory. Primarily Deleuze and Guattari are revolutionary in suggesting the material cinematic experience offers the libidinal band of viewer and viewed as a becoming. However because becomings are unpredictable, infinite possibility, non-linear and non-narrative it is impossible to offer a sketch of what cinematic becoming might look like. So Pisters orients her discussions of becomings throughout the text within the films. Her examples are characters’ becomings, or different readings of images based on their duration, affect and challenge to a monodirectional film experience. No matter how radical the re-reading of the text, though, by reading at all Pisters still retains the reified sanctity of the viewer/viewed dialectic. This reorients the purpose of the book as a reading of film rather than a renegotiation of cinematic experience, and risks all the criticisms Pisters, Deleuze and Guattari level at psychoanalytic film interpretation. I have no suggestions as to how this problem could be addressed; it is one which haunts many theorists working with Deleuze, Guattari and film. It would have been effective if Pisters teased out the impossibility of the bind, rather than simply ignoring it. The revolutionary readings should concern the act of reading itself rather than reading a film differently. It is not what is on the screen, but between screen and viewer that needs to be thought differently.

Pisters seems to talk a lot about Deleuze, including many references to what others say about Deleuze, but there does not seem to be an enormous amount of actual Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari used. Essentially however, Pisters offers a more accessible and popular discussion of Deleuze into film than Rodowick or Flaxman’s compilation, hence it is potentially compelling for undergraduates. It covers a variety of interpretations of Deleuze’s work with Guattari and on film. It ranges across violence, politics, gender, becoming and the role of the flesh in cinema. It is a broad book which makes its applications potentially wider than a specialised Deleuzio-Guattarian monograph. But the difficulty of books like Rodowick’s and Flaxman’s is part of their (and Deleuze’s) appeal, and one wonders if the effectiveness of Pisters’ work, although thorough and competent, comes as a mourning song for abstraction in the face of pragmatic “useful” theory.

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