There’s something about our time that is very Bergsonian, in the sense that there’s a kind of simultaneous opening up of the past and the future, the former feeding the possibilities of the latter. At the same time as new technological tools propel us ever forward on trajectories of embodied interactivity (the internet, iPod-iPhone-iPad, YouTube, Facebook-Twitter, etc.), recording technologies (those that preserve something of the present for the future) combine with technologies of retrieval (those that unlock the past, from historical and archaeological tools to sampling technologies, about which see Copyright Criminals) to enable an ever deeper digging into and opening up of the past. In the process, the past becomes fuel for the reinvention of ourselves toward the future, this reinvention always taking the form of images — which, for Bergson, are central, the shimmering half-way point between mind and matter.
Let me explain. I get that feeling of simultaneously backward and forward glancing, pastwardness and futurity, when, browsing around on YouTube, I find things I never would have thought I’d be coming back to. It’s as if the past were an image archive that is being gradually dredged up, and its fossilized pieces are being liquefied and turned into blood flows that will revive and strengthen certain affective molecular currents, currents still in circulation in the collective social body of the present.
Here, for instance, is Magma, whose potent mix of late John Coltrane-style free-jazz intensity, Steve Reichian symphonic minimalism, Carl Orffian operaticism, and hard, driving rock, sent (mostly French) audiences into spells of ecstasy in the early 1970s. While that performance is from 2006 (old guys getting it together again), it would hardly have happened were it not for the redistribution of their records, archival recordings, and films as DVDs, MP3s, YouTube videos, and the like. Here’s the guitar solo from Kohntarkosz. And then there’s this bizarre film outtake from 1972, with Catholic priests grooving to the Kobaian rhythms. (Kobaia is the planet Magma presumably ‘channeled’ in a series of albums in the 1970s.)
Meanwhile, new films are made from the images of the past. This documentary on “Krautrock,” the German progressive, avant and space rock movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, is quite good:
The music had its fans at the time (more in the UK than in North America), but the documentary does a great job putting it into the much broader context of post-war Germany, the 1960s, the psychedelic revolution, and all that. And yet somehow it doesn’t feel dated to me; on the contrary, it feels as fresh as tomorrow’s news, because I know there are fans out there, Radiohead generation kids and remixers and whoever else listening to these things and reviving them in ways I wouldn’t have imagined possible back in the days when the music industry seemed like one stifling oligopoly. (You can watch all of it on Coilhouse. Thanks to Mutate for the tip.)
None of these are standard History Channel fare. All are products of the internet and MP3-era explosion of musical tastes, one of the cultural victories of our day — the losers being the big music corporations, or at least what they stood for. The corporations themselves are still around, of course, doing the same thing corporations do, and even if they weren’t, they would simply have been replaced by others, made from the same movable parts of the corporate machine. But technology moves forward despite them.
What are the limits to this dredging and setting into motion of the past? The most obvious answer is that the past is divisible into the era of reproducible images and the era that preceded it: BP (before photography) and AP (after), or something like that. Perhaps one day we’ll count backwards to (what we now call the year) 1825, which will be the new Year Zero, when the first permanent photograph was produced by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. Sound technologies came later, and touch and smell reproduction is still, presumably, in its infancy.
But even these demarcations in time seem artificial. Re-creations of the past, stillings of moments intended for preservation as teaching tools, sacred objects, memory emblems, political symbols, personal mementos — all have been with us for as long as there has been something like what we call art. The past, as Bergson (and Deleuze) have argued, is present as memory, and, as such, always remains open to reinterpretation, indeed reconstruction, in the future. It’s always accompanied by virtual possibilities that come to us as feelings, affects, images that flow through us and remake who we are as we open ourselves to them. And as the technologies of historical and archaeological reconstruction allow us to open to them further, deeper (for instance, unlocking the secrets of ancient Greek music; click below), we can reinvent ourselves based on a selection of what we take from the past.
I’m hazarding a guess that Matter and Memory will increasingly be seen as a signpost on the way to a new understanding of time, memory, and the image, an understanding appropriate to a world that is simultaneously image, archive (memory), and movement forward. Something along the lines suggested by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil — which is viewable in its complete form, in French with Spanish subtitles, here.
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. (Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema does a similar kind of archival image-retrieval-remix thing, but spread out over several hours; and, so far, without English subtitles.)
A quick afterthought: I should just make clear that by “image” I don’t mean an exclusively “visual image”; I mean the entirety of the perceivable object — image, sound, and whatever else our sensory apparatus lets us take in of it. For Bergson, the universe is an “aggregate of images,” as, for Peirce, it is an aggregate of signs, semiosis all the way down. The two perspectives are compatible, since semiosis refers to the referentiality of signs, or images, the way they indicate other things, other objects, other signs, in an endless Derridean-like network, but with the perceiver, the meaning-beholder, as part of that network. For Bergson it is our material bodies (which seen from the outside are images too) that emplace us within that network and provide the hinge from which we act and affect it. Images are imbued with affects, so the “universal image machine” that I refer to in the title of this post is, in a sense, just another name for the machinic ecology of the universe (in Deleuze & Guattari’s terms) as it is being reworked and amplified in our image technologies (film/”moving image,” image production, retrieval, and synthesis technologies, etc.). All of which are moving more and more quickly around us…