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© Christine Reeh


On the Epistemological Qualities of the Moving Image


Deutsche Version

I am not a specialist in video essays. I am more used to reflecting on film and the way film thinks, because my focus lies at the intersection of film practice and philosophical theory in the context of artistic research. This text builds on a short talk given at the symposium «Videography: Art and Academia» and aims to explore the following question: How are we to grasp the epistemological qualities of video essays? In what follows, I will share some of my thoughts on film thinking and on the epistemology of moving images as these questions relate to discourses in film-philosophy.     

Over the past decades, the field of film-philosophy has burgeoned. It offers a context to reflect on film not simply as an object of analysis, but also as a medium of cognition, thought and the production of knowledge. I refer to film-philosophy in this context because video essays engage with moving images not simply for the purpose of theoretical analysis, but themselves constitute moving images and sound, that is, film. My brief remarks are intended to prompt further developments in a more advanced film-philosophical approach to the epistemological stakes of videographic essays.

To begin with, I think there is a general tendency for art to become theoretical and theory to become art, so that the boundaries between art and theory become blurred.1 This current tendency is symptomatic of the video essay in a particular way: many video essays consist of pre-existing moving images and a spoken commentary (sometimes assembled from the quotation of other sources) that are combined to further a theoretical argument, very often in an academic or essayistic style. They often analyze specific topics or themes related to film theory, and they do so at a meta-level of reflection, in their own audiovisual language, which is complex to describe and contemplate. Video essays do not only advance their analyses through theoretical arguments; they make direct use of the content, structure, and language of film. The (audio)visual stream and its attendant commentary amount to a carefully edited, aesthetic construct of excerpts from existing films. It directly evokes the levels and dimensions of thought inherent in the archival material it employs. The epistemological content in video essays thus derives from the meta-connection between these two realms: film clips and commentary, or the synthesis of theoretical and aesthetical knowledge in multilayered and polyvalent form.

In traditional film studies, film sequences or scenes are usually marshalled as evidence for theoretical theses; in video essays, however, the scenes represent a constitutive element of the essay, and act as the basis for the voice-over commentary that lends shapes to the essay in equal part. This inevitably changes the theoretical stakes of the work, since the meaning of the sequence of moving images changes according to the annotation and novel context. There is an obvious reason for this: there is no such thing as ‹the scene› itself. The interpretation of any given sequence of moving images and sounds changes according to its given context. How we understand it depends on the sequences that precede and follow it. In addition, the moving image opens up the possibility of its own aesthetic knowledge and thought processes. We are faced with what can be called agency of cognition when we try to define the epistemological qualities of the video essay. Since video essays are usually composed of existing film sequences, our reflections on the epistemological stakes of video essays can benefit from a film-philosophical perspective on the epistemology of the moving image and its agency to think.

Film-philosophy is often described as a particular form of thinking with or through audiovisual means, and a philosophical praxis based on cinematic exploration and inquiry.2 At its outset, in the 1970s, Stanley Cavell recognized that film «shifts or puts different light on whatever philosophy has said about appearance and reality.»3 And in the 1980s, Gilles Deleuze followed up with the claim that «the essence of cinema (...) has thought as its higher purpose.»4 Film-philosophy ascribes to film the ability to produce its own epistemic insight of philosophical significance. The claim «philosophy in action – film as philosophizing»5 has therefore become representative for film-philosophy and given rise to a lively discussion that considers film in a broader context than evidence for theory.

In the context of philosophical theory, epistemology – a term that stems from the Greek ‹episteme› meaning ‹knowledge› – designates an individual branch of philosophy – ‹Erkenntnistheorie› in German – dedicated to the understanding of the conditions of knowledge. In German, there are two distinct concepts for knowledge, each with their own meaning: ‹Wissen› and ‹Erkenntnis.› ‹Wissen› is that kind of knowledge related to scientific facts, such as we find in the sense of ‹Wissenschaft›, while ‹Erkenntnis› is a broader term for knowledge and is process-based. The kind of knowledge implied by the first term, ‹Wissen›, does not denote the process of coming to know or understand something, while ‹Erkenntnis› does:  the compound noun ‹Erkenntnisvermögen› describes a cognitive faculty that implies the process of its own formation, namely the dynamic process of thinking. In what follows, I shall reflect on the process-based cognition denoted by the term ‹Erkenntnis› and relate it to process of thinking in video essays.

For the theorist Gilles Deleuze, thinking is a creative act; Deleuze stresses that thought is the common denominator among science, philosophy and art, with each of the three practicing thinking in a different way.6 I associate the video essay with artistic practice, although it is not necessarily only this. Video essays can also be understood as examples of scientific or theoretical thought. This hybrid zone of creative thought is intriguing in that it blurs the boundaries between theory and art which I mentioned at the beginning of this text. What is more, the fact that most video essays build on pre-existing film excerpts gives them a meta-level of cognition.

Deleuze explored the intrinsic relationship between film and thinking in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, two volumes highly regarded and discussed in the context of film-philosophy. In Cinema 2, Deleuze makes the aforementioned claim that «the essence of cinema» has «thought as its higher purpose.»7 Along with others like Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida, Deleuze is commonly understood as a proponent of a philosophical school of thought that proposes that art function as a «change in thinking»8 with consequences for philosophy. This often ignored transformation of philosophy by the concepts of cinema challenges academic methods: How can philosophy be renewed by something that lies outside of it? «Staying in philosophy also means to get out of philosophy. But getting out of philosophy doesn’t mean doing something else. One has to get out while remaining within…»9 Here, Deleuze establishes a key principle for his philosophical interest in cinema: by going to the cinema, he intends to develop new concepts of thought. But why do these concepts matter to Deleuze as philosophical knowledge? In what follows, I will give an example of how Deleuze attributes epistemic cognition to the moving image in the context of cinema, and what this might mean for the moving image in the context of the video-essay.

Firstly, Deleuze is intrigued by the way cinema relies on time. Thinking about time, according to Deleuze, is particularly challenging for philosophy: «If we take the history of thought, we see that time has always put the notion of truth into crisis.»10 For Deleuze, time and the cinematic image are entangled: «The image itself is an ensemble of time relations.»11 Such a notion of complex time composed by the interactions between different layers alludes to an understanding of the image as a force-field. The film image is not a medium for Deleuze. The image is a multiplicity (multiplicité) of mechanical forces in movement and part of a metacinematic universe of movement-images.12

This brings us to his second crucial point: For Deleuze, these mechanical forces in movement are automatic. The image in cinema achieves its multi-layeredness through an automatic self-movement that «no longer depends on a moving body or an object which realizes it, nor on a spirit which reconstitutes it. It is the image which itself moves in itself.»13 Through this automatic movement, according to Deleuze, «the artistic essence of the image is realized: producing a shock to thought, communicating vibrations to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral system directly.»14

Moreover, this «nooshock»15, a neologism combining the words ‹shock› and the ancient Greek νοῦς, nous or ‹mind›, gives rise to a «spiritual automaton,»16 which combines «the shared power of what forces thinking and what thinks under the shock»17 through cinematic movement. The nooshock, in other words, «arouses the thinker in you.»18 David Rodowick emphasizes that, for Deleuze, «the cinema is ‹artificial intelligence,›»19 a hypothesis first formulated by Jean Epstein at a time when the cinematograph was both a recording and a projection machine and was therefore compared to a «robot brain.»20

What I have outlined above is just a brief, canonic example of how film-philosophy engages with film as a medium of thought.21 If we now apply this Deleuzian example of the thinking cinematic image to the video essay, we see that everything that Deleuze says about the image holds here as well. Since video essays are composed of moving images, and indeed excerpts of pre-existing films, they rely on time and treat the image as a force-field of time relations. However, a striking difference becomes apparent when we look at Deleuze’s concept of the nooshock. The way that the moving image reaches the cerebral system adds a different level: in the video essay, the added commentary alters the content and quality of the image flow, theorizing on itself and creating loops of constantly processing self-reflexivity in dialogue with an automaton or robot brain. This constant and multilayered movement of thought describes the kind of processing agency of thought and automatic cognition of the video essay and its epistemological qualities. The way the nooshock creates thought is intensified in the video essay. Nonetheless, the video essay is a post-cinematic genre made possible by the digital accessibility of preexisting film material, so that spectator and filmmaker become fused: the spectator directly adds cognition to the preexisting automaton.

To finish, let me resume my main arguments as a proposal for further discussion. Reflection on the epistemological qualities of the video essay could profit from the discussion that has been developed during the last decades in film-philosophy on the epistemic qualities of the moving image. In video essays, we are confronted with the aesthetic agency of cognition of these images, thinking in their own filmic way, yet blending with the theoretical stream of reflection presented alongside them. This makes the video essay a meta-multimodal kind of thought and especially apt for a self-reflective analysis of film. By the same token, since we are dealing with a new and post-cinematic kind of moving image, reflection on the epistemological qualities of the video essay has the potential to enrich the future of film-philosophy.

  • 1 Kathrin Busch: Wissen anders denken, in: Kathrin Busch (ed.), Anderes Wissen, Paderborn 2016, 12.
  • 2Cf. Robert Sinnerbrink: Philosophy of Film and Film-Philosophy, in: Robert Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film, London and Sydney Bloomsbury Academics 2022 [2011] .
  • 3Stanley Cavell: Reflections on a Life of Philosophy: An Interview with Stanley Cavell, in: The Harvard Review of Philosophy, No. VII, 1999, 19.
  • 4Gilles Deleuze: Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Minneapolis 1997 [1985], 168.
  • 5Stephen Mulhall: On Film (Thinking in Action), New York 2008 [2001], 4.
  • 6Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: What is Philosophy?, New York 1994 [1991].
  • 7Deleuze: Cinema 2, 168.
  • 8Busch: Wissen anders denken, 12.
  • 9Gilles Deleuze: The ABC primer / Recording 1 – A to F, 1988, C; Transcription: available online (19/08/2022): https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/seminars/gilles-deleuze-abc-primer/lecture-recording-1-f
  • 10Deleuze: Cinema 2, 130.
  • 11Gilles Deleuze interviewed by Gregory Flaxman: The Brain is the Screen. An Interview with Gilles Deleuze, in: Gregory Flaxman (Ed.), The Brain Is the Screen. Minneapolis 2000 [1986], 371.
  • 12Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Minneapolis 1997 [1983], 59.
  • 13Deleuze: Cinema 2, 156.
  • 14Ibid., 156.
  • 15Ibid., 156.
  • 16Ibid., 156.
  • 17Ibid., 156.
  • 18Ibid., 156.
  • 19David N. Rodowick: Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine, Durham 1997, 6.
  • 20Jean Epstein: The Intelligence of a Machine, Minneapolis 2014 [1946], xi.
  • 21Some parts of the presented arguments on film and thought in Deleuze are published in my following article: Christine Reeh-Peters: Film as Artificial Intelligence: Jean Epstein, Film-Thinking and the Speculative-Materialist Turn in Contemporary Philosophy, in: Film-Philosophy No. 27.2, 2023, 151–172, doi.org/10.3366/film.2023.0224.

Bevorzugte Zitationsweise

Reeh-Peters, Christine: On the Epistemological Qualities of the Moving Image. In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, , https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/en/online/videography-blog/epistemological-qualities-moving-image.

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