I’m on my way this week to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in LA, where I’ll be presenting, in miniature, the ecocritical/ecophilosophical model of cinema that I’m developing in my book-in-progress. This “process-relational” model draws on Peirce, Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, Heidegger, and others, with inspirational nods to psychoanalysis, cognitive film theory (which, to be honest, is a little less inspirational, but to some extent inevitable), and individual theorists like Sean Cubitt, John Mullarkey, and Daniel Frampton. Its ecophilosophical basis is that it is primarily concerned with the relationship between cinema — as a technical medium, a thing in the world, and a form of human experience — and the ecologies within which humans are implicated and enmeshed.

Here’s one articulation of that model.

The starting point: Films, or moving images, move us. They take us on journeys (metaphorical or real) into film-worlds. In this sense, films, like all art forms, produce or “disclose” worlds. These worlds are different (according to medium-specific regularities) from the profilmic or extra-filmic world. They are, for one thing, more dynamic (visually-audially) and more synthetic, insofar as they enable a complex array of fragmentations, juxtapositions, and recombinations of elements, and thus for a condensation and multiplication of meanings.

One part of my analysis is of those film-worlds themselves; a second is of our experience of being drawn into those film-worlds; and a third is of the relationship between the film-worlds (as we experience them) and the extra-filmic world.


(Note: This triadic structure mirrors Charles Sanders Peirce’s triadic phenomenology of forms of experience, which serves as a recurring structural device within my model, in part because Peirce’s semiotics offers a way to connect meanings with materiality in a way that Saussure’s linguistic semiology does not. Briefly, for Peirce, there are “firsts,” which are things as they appear in their immediacy; “seconds,” which are existential-relational, a thing generated through the impact of another; and “thirds,” which are mediations and interpretations of the first two. So there is the color red; there is the redness that appears on a face after it has been struck by a hand; and there is the angry exchange between lovers involving something said, a slap in the face, and the unresolved situation between them. All things in the universe, which, as Peirce put it, is “perfused with signs,” can be described according to these three categories: they cover all phenomena, interactions/relations, and significations/meanings. Incidentally, my use of Peirce is different from both the way Deleuze uses him in his Cinema books and the way Sean Cubitt does that in The Cinema Effect, though there are parallels and convergences with both.)

1. The film-world

A process-relational perspective understands the world to consist of events, dynamic relational processes which involve the simultaneous emergence of objectivity and subjectivity, that is, of something that is perceived and responded to and of the experienced ‘feeling’ emerging as that response.

As with all worlds, and as with all moments of experience, the cinematic world comes into being, it becomes, moment by moment, within an interactive and interperceptual/semiotic milieu that opens up and stretches between these two poles: at one end, the material objectscape, a world of things that are given, and at the other end the social subjectscape, a world of capacities, possibilities to act and to become.

So at one end cinema is geomorphic: it produces a world that is spaced and layered into forms as seemingly stable as the geological, and these things take on meanings for us by virtue of what actions are allowed to occur in those spaces as opposed to others, the relations between them, our capacities to move within and around them, and so on. In this geomorphic or object-making dimension (which is different from the geomorphism of the embodied extra-filmic world), cinema is about the meaning of the layout of the world, the objectscape of things that we encounter, and the way in which that objectscape is presented to us.

At the other end, for humans at least, cinema is anthropomorphic: it produces relations between those subjects who are perceived to experience the world more or less like we do. (For dogs, the subject-pole of world-production is canomorphic; for birds, avimorphic; and so on. There’s no argument here that other animals are “poor in world,” as Heidegger puts it; worlds are just different.) In this anthropomorphic or subject-making dimension, cinema is about the capacity to act and to become — a capacity that is in principle available to us, but that is in practice distributed in various ways across the subject-world of others ‘like us.’ And this distribution is very much an issue for us. It is, for instance, the tension between what we believe is possible for a person (such as a character in a film) and the reality of how those possibilities get foreclosed in conditions that beset that person, that gives tragedy and melodrama their force.

In between the geomorphic and the anthropomorphic, the object-laying-out and the subject-making, is cinema’s animamorphism (or biomorphism), which is the dynamic, interperceptual space where the difference between the subjective and the objective gets negotiated, moment by moment.

In a process-relational perspective, then, subjects and objects are not pre-given by nature: they co-emerge moment by moment as two poles of the structure of experience. And what they emerge out of, or through, is this intermediary space of interanimate, interperceptual relationality. It is the creativity of matter (firstness) that sets the world in motion, bubbling up ceaselessly; it is the dynamism of interperception (secondness), events and responses following each other in temporal sequence, that propels the forward movement; and it is the possibility of meaningful becoming (thirdness) that is the lure that draws it all forward.

Films are a powerful medium because, as subjectomorphic, they can expand our capacity for becoming, for empathy, for “feeling-with” others; and as objectomorphic, they can expand our capacity for beholding, that is, for seeing and experiencing the world (and therefore our capacity to take in beauty, among other things). The first is pretty obvious: seeing A Single Man, Precious, or Brokeback Mountain, we, if we follow the lures provided for us, will probably, at least momentarily, expand, or at least exercise, our capacities to identify with characters who face certain situations that are not ours, but that we come to understand and “relate to” while watching. The second expansion, that of our capacities to behold, is exercised when we come to enjoy and appreciate ways of seeing the world that had not been ours: as, for instance, when we feel the joy of running through bioluminescent jungles with Jake Sully in Avatar. Most of film’s capacity for creativity, for beauty, for resonance and meaning, and so on, takes place within these two (or three) realms: cinema’s ability to disclose, in new and creative ways, the world of materiality/objectivation and to provide it with meaning; its ability to delve into and open up the world of sociality/subjectivation for us (as subjects ourselves alongside other subjects); and its capacity for addressing the interperceptual milieu within and out of which these two poles arise.

2. Our experience of the film-world

Film draws us in to its world in three distinct ways.

First, there is the way in which we experience it in its immediate “objectness” and “presentness”: this is its texture, its thickness or viscosity, the felt, “spectacular” quality of the film experience. It results in an unreflectively felt, tangible visceral orientation of one kind or another toward what is seen/heard/felt. It is the dimension of a film to which our response is, and can be, little more than a vague sense of “wow…” or “ugh!” (though upon reflection it might become “cool,” “I’m enjoying this,” “isn’t this great!” or “how horrible!”). This “texturality”, however, contains a wide range of possibilities; so at its broadest this category includes all those things that allow us in to the “vertical” experience of a film moment (images, music, sound, movement, etc.). This is where much of our enjoyment of musicals, blockbuster spectacles, chase and action scenes, and so on, comes from.

Second, there is the way we are drawn into the seriality of events presented to us by the film. This is film’s narrativity, its horizontality. Our experience of it is a “getting caught up” in the story of the film. It elicits the response of “So what will happen next? What will he or she do? Who committed the murder?” Retrospectively, it takes the form of “And then…, and then…” It is the way in which things that are shown sequentially are taken to be connected, and in which the connections need to be made by us, since, in the temporal-sequential world of the moving image medium, we aren’t shown everything all at once. In its most simple and typical form this tends toward a linearity, but only because of the fact that while many virtual roads might be taken by a narrative trajectory, in most films only one of these is ultimately taken: the hero vanquishes the villain (or gets killed by him), the killer is found out (or escapes), the mystery is unraveled, and so on. This is what gives murder mysteries and melodramas their momentum. In principle, of course, this horizontality can be multiple, complex, open-ended, and lacking in resolution; and some of the best films play with these possibilities in creative ways.

Finally, there is film’s exo-referentiality, which is the signness of the film’s images and sounds insofar as these represent or point to things in the world outside the film. This is what elicits in us responses like “that’s what this is about…”, “this reminds me of X,” “I don’t think this is a good characterization of Y,” and “what do you think the filmmaker means by this?” It is what documentaries are most obviously “about,” but without it no film would sustain our interest. It is what emerges as the film is opened to the world of our lives, the profilmic and post-filmic world into which we incorporate the things we see and feel (film’s texturality, its Peircian firstness) and follow (film’s narrativity, its Peircian secondness) both during and after our viewing of a film. For a film to generate meaning in a viewer, it must connect with what is already meaningful for that viewer. In this sense, however, a film affords various possibilities for interpretation, but its exo-referentiality is never fully predestined. Once it begins to generate this “thirdness,” this production of meanings takes place in the interaction between film and a dynamic world, which renders the film always open to further interpretation and reinterpretation.

Putting these three registers together, what we have in film is a sequential presentation of sound-image events, (1) which we perceive directly (bodily, un/pre/consciously, etc.) in their immediacy and “verticality,” (2) which we follow, in order to close the gaps of the horizontal fabric created by their sequentiality, and (3) which we make meaning out of by connecting them with things we already know. The “things” that make up a film (1) are there in front of us (as we fuse with them), (2) unfold over time, taking us along with them, and (3) generate meanings according to what we bring to them. In the process, we are drawn into a film-world. We are drawn along certain vectors that the film opens up for us (which are the ways in which a film’s narrative is structured according to certain binary oppositions, laid out one over another, etc., as structuralist and poststructuralist critics have been good at pointing out), and we negotiate our own responses to the vectors, phase-spaces, and attractors they make available. (Okay, that’s getting into nonlinear dynamics, which is going too far, so I’ll stop here.)

3. Film and the world

Each of film’s three morphisms — subjects, objects, percepts; subjectivation, objectivation, perception — reflects the “three ecologies,” or systems of relations, that constitute the world: its material (or interobjective) ecologies, its social (intersubjective) ecologies, and its perceptual (interperceptive) ecologies.

Cinema affects each of these ecologies materially, perceptually, and socially, making for a total of nine terms. So there is the materiality of matter (physical ecologies, actual material relations), the materiality of perception (the perceptual apparatus, both bodily and technological), and the materiality of the social (relations of cinematic production/distribution/consumption, ritual interactions surrounding movie-watching, etc.); there is the perception of matter (cinema’s geomorphism), the perception of perception (its bio- or animamorphism), and the perception of sociality (its anthropomorphism); and there’s the sociality of matter (the subjectivity of matter, the real potential for ‘vitalizing’ the object-world), the sociality of perception (the subjectivity of the vital, inter-perceptual world), and the sociality of the social (the way in which the sociality of cinema embodies, conveys, and instigates certain socialities). (Let’s call these 1a, b, and c, 2a, b, and c, and 3a, b, and c, respectively. And keep in mind that I’m using the term “materiality” as more or less coexistensive with “objectness” or “interobjectivity”, and “sociality” as more or less coextensive with “subjectness” or “intersubjectivity”).

Cinema’s “effects” (to make a long set of potential stories very short) can be followed in each of these: one can, for instance, focus on the material effects of the film’s production/distribution/consumption process (1a), or on the perceptual effects of the way in which a film presents animate non-human life (2b), or on the social/intersubjective effects of the conversations and interactions of its viewers in the wake of seeing and interpreting the film (3c); or one of the six other possibilities.

What this means is that a film is always more than what we see; it is what it does. And what it does works on these multiple layers of the world (material, perceptual, social) in multiple ways (material, perceptual, social).

In its barebones version, that’s the model. How it applies and what it implies for specific films, genres, styles, etc., is something I spend a book working out. Some examples will follow here, over time. Comments are most welcome (especially from those who know Peirce better than I do; it’s been a steep learning curve with him, and there’s plenty of room for further learning).

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