A couple of recent posts by Chris Vitale and Tim Morton have rekindled my thinking about Deleuze’s crystal-image. Chris’s interesting post is about the power of crowdsourcing and video detournement in delivering a more democratic form of media politics. Tim’s brief posts share music videos and reflections on dark ecology and the timbral.
Chris describes the video detournements as “crystal-images,” where “one image acts as a germ or seed, and it crystalizes the medium its in, just like a string when you make rock candy. The result is a proliferation of possible paths the image can take, but they all echo each other.” My understanding of the crystal-image is a little different from this, but I think it’s fruitful to pursue Chris’s trajectory while combining it with the more ambient trajectory of Tim’s and Deleuze’s own thought. The crystal-image is fundamentally about time, which, for Deleuze (following Bergson), is the flow in which we find ourselves, looking back and forward at one and the same moment. Deleuze writes:
“What the crystal reveals or makes visible is the hidden ground of time, that is, its differentiation into two flows, that of presents which pass and that of pasts which are preserved.” (Cinema 2, p. 98)
“What constitutes the crystal-image is the most fundamental operation of time,” its splitting “in two at each moment as present and past,” a splitting of “the present into two heterogeneous directions, one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past. […] Time consists of this split, and it is this, it is time, that we see in the crystal. […] This is the powerful, non-organic Life which grips the world.” (p. 81)
Deleuze illustrates crystalline imagery with reference to a range of films by Ophuls, Renoir, Welles, Resnais, Tarkovsky, and others, but I think the main point can come across even in something as simple as this juxtaposition, set to music by one of the sparklecore bands Tim mentions (Slowdive):
The image layer has its own feel here, a rhythm and affective shape given to it by the implied narrativity of the movie it’s taken from (which I don’t recognize) and by the conventions, character types and gestures that we recognize and (probably) smile at. But this has been overlaid, hybridized, fused with a very different, much more spacious and contemplative affective texture, so that it becomes a moment where we see ourselves (or the characters), look in on our/their lives, affectively touching ourselves/them in the midst of the things (the activities, the movements of body and thought and feeling) that make us up. We find ourselves both in the moment, the present as objective given (by virtue of our capacity to neurally mirror the characters) and we gently stand next to it, hovering aside the characters like the angels in Wings of Desire, as it they were a memory of ourselves, a possibility and virtuality representing all of our lives.
This whole life is all of us. . . . She helps plant tomatoes. The warm sun shines. He is all of us.
The crystal-image, or at least the time-image (Deleuze’s more general category), is in this sense not an innovative development within the history of cinema, but the very essence of cinema as a medium of sound-image-movement montage — where the “montage” is not just the combination of images in time, spread over time, but the layered bringing together of time. Music videos like these (set to Sufjan Stevens songs) are obvious examples of time-imagery, cinema as time, where there are stories being told, fragments of temporality given shape through possible lines of organic development — life-stories we recognize as possibilities for ourselves — but instead of us being immersed in these, identifying with them, we stand next to them, rub up against them affectively, feelingly, bringing whatever interest, curiosity, wonder, and compassion they may evoke in us to our (re-)experience of them. The images are of the past, the present, the possible future, and we are located at the moment of thought intersecting between these strands.
This is what cinema is, at its best: the meeting point between fragments of life, time, being, becoming, in feelingful juxtaposition and encounter with each other. This crystalline cinematicism can be powerful. The detournements Chris refers to, I suspect, are just the tip of the iceberg of what an open public sphere can conjure up in the creative rearticulation of political possibilities. In this sense I completely agree with Chris that “We have yet to really tap the power of these media,” and that Dziga Vertov’s dream of “visual democracy” still lies ahead. But glimpses of it can be found all over YouTube, in the political commentary Chris refers to, but also in the timbral juxtapositions that give us pause from the political stream and allow us to reconfigure our own responses to things as they happen. Here I’m with Tim’s desire to find a soundtrack to the oozing grief of oil gushing into the waters of the Gulf. Lots of room for experimentation there. (And for grief. But let’s turn it into something more as well.)