March 12, 2005

Noise against visual imagination, and the refrain (or how Leibniz would like cinema)

Against noise

Faced with white noise, a void, extreme intensity or excessive speed of modulation, a refrain offers some relief. It is an expression, but one that operates in a tightly closed loop. In the case of a typical human refrain, a song, the singer sings the refrain back to themself. Its content is the human organic form, deterritorialized into the simple, familiar and predictable form of the song. It may continue at great length with little effect on either the singer or the song, until exhaustion sends them to sleep. It is in this way a closing-down, a retreat into simplicity and predictability, away from the world (into the baroque house, for which the harmony and melody of the song build the impenetrable facade): an expression yes, but only just. Almost zero.

The refrain is a desperate defence, a second-level immune response to the failure of the visual imagination. A defence against the penetrating incursion of the sonorous plane, passing through the blockade of the visual imagination. To understand this, first consider how that sonorous plane penetrates and defeats visual defences, how it passes through the image (Bacon's screaming pope).

The defensive imagination

The image, which can be re-presented instantly and switched at will, provides an effective and impenetrable barrier to the exterior, as with the portrait, the image of the ascending head, or the church steeple in Kafka. Deleuze and Guattari argue that these images act not as simple memories, reactivating the past, but rather as means for handling the encounter with uncertainty or the future, finding strength in a certain relation to at least ine object that may be assimilated (the end of the desire):

…it acts as a childhood block, and not as a childhood memory, strengthening desire instead of cramping it, displacing it in time, deterritorializing it, proliferating its connections, linking it to other intensities.

The image acts as a block in both senses: a block as an element or screen that can be placed upon a new territory and onto which connections can be territorialized or projected, carrying away desire into a concentratory dispositif; a block to the chaotic and disruptive effects of that proliferation of connections, a delay, a spacing-out. Its power as such lies in four aspects:

  1. the speed with which the image can be conjured, with all of its points present almost imediately – how all that is needed is a few suggestive points, lines and colours;
  2. how it is constantly rescanned and reconfirmed in perception;
  3. how an image can appear solid and enclosing, blocking out and constituting an exterior;
  4. how the image creates an expansive but delimited territory of co-ordinates, in which expression or a procedure of desire (deterritorialization and reterritorialization) may play (the baroque house).
The scream cuts across and penetrates the image

In Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari say of the image (portrait or figuration):

But that's not important. What's important is the light music, or, more precisely, the pure and intense sound emanating from the steeple and the castle tower: "a bell began to ring merilly up there, a bell that for at least a second made his heart palpitate for its tone was menacing, too, as if it threatened him with the fulfillment of his vague desire. This great bell soon died away, however, and its place was taken by a feeble, monotonous little twinkle." Kafka D&G p.4

Whereas the image acts to concentrate, focus and strengthen the desire within a delimited space, sound is said to interfere with order, connecting with 'vague' or minor expressions that are not oriented towards the reconstitution of the territory of the image. Unlike vision, sound leaks through spatial structures, resonates throughout the body, and concentrates into the ears. Its passage through the meat and chambers of the bodily organs overrides their functions: the stomach now is equivalent to a double bass in terms of resonation – suddenly the voice, the location of human sound, is displaced by a more animal sonic body (think whales):

It's curios how the intrusion of sound often occurs in Kafka…Music always seems caught up in an indivisible becoming-child or becoming-animal, a sonorous block that opposes the visual memory. Kafka D&G p.4–5

The cinema is the place for experiencing this effect. (It is the baroque house of The Fold.) The cinema is constructed as a radical interplay of the sonorous and visual planes. Visual imagination is territorialized upon the screen or perceptual block, both cutting out the exterior, offering a concentration of light and colour, whilst spatializing and slowing down (into the narrative of the film, which is spatial not temporal). But at the same time, sound penetrates the body in deep surround-sound rumbles and piercing dolby screams.


Of course any sensible movie director knows not to leave the audience immersed for too long at the point of this schizophrenic collision of visual and audio fields. As the scream fades away into the night, a more familiar pattern of notes rises from low down in the auditorium, as if from the galloping hooves that carry us safely from the scene of brutality. Sing the refrain back to the world, which doesn't expect it, doesn't ask for it. But the refrain sure makes us feel more easy sleeping at night. Sing yourself to sleep.

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