Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature, by Adrian J. Ivakhiv, Waterloo, ON: WLU Press, 2013, 435 pp, ISBN978-1-55458-905-0

In his meditations on thought and cinema in Cinema 2: The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze noted that the cinematographic image showed us an essential link between man and the world that developed either in the direction of a transformation of the world by man or the discovery of an internal and higher world that man himself encapsulated. The problem for Deleuze was that modern mankind no longer believed in this world, that we perceive life-changing events such as love and death as if they only half concerned us: “It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film” (1989: 171). Jean-Luc Godard put it best when defending the three marginales in his 1964 film Bande à part, arguing that, “These are people who are real and it’s the world that is a breakaway group. It is the world that is making cinema for itself. It is the world that is out of synch; they are right, they are true, they represent life. They live a simple story; it is the world around them which is living a bad script” (1989: 171). With the link between man and world broken, its restoration becomes a necessary object of belief – whereby the impossible is restored via a faith in film which places mankind within a world of pure optics and sound.

It is the imaginary, fantastical and creative impetus provided by cinematic movement that Adrian J. Ivakhiv takes as his starting point for a radical reinvestigation of how our engagement with images helps us to constantly reconstitute the world we live in as a series of social and perceptual effects through a unique symbiosis of objective worlds, human subjectivities and the multiplicitous becomings that move between them. In other words, because images move, they “take us places,” they create a “to-ing” and “fro-ing” across and between subjectivities and objectivities, a sense of “hereness” and “thereness” that produce new inter-perceptual relations, affects and incitements to action. Brilliantly combining eco-philosophy, geography, anthropology, film and digital media studies, Ivakhiv shows “how moving images have changed the ways we grasp and attend to the world in general – a world of social and ecological relations – and about how we might learn to make them do that better” (viii). In other words, Ivakhiv’s project explores a cinema of ecology, as well as cinema as ecology, more concerned with “What does a film do?” or “How’s it going?” (comment ça va?) than with “What does it mean?” In this sense his project is innately Spinozan: pragmatic, empirical, speculative, but above all an ethics insofar as he creatively explores this mutual “worlding” of nature and subject as a practical mode of living, a joyful auto-affection involving an enquiry into what a body (and therefore thought) can do in terms of its ability to affect and be affected in turn. Put simply, cinema mirrors and represents reality but also reshapes and transforms it.

In his attempt to show how different films accomplish this in different ways, Ivakhiv employs a highly systematic model of intersecting triads. This eschewal of dialectical binary oppositions owes a considerable debt to the American semiotician, Charles Sanders Peirce (a key influence on Deleuze’s taxonomy of the cinema), who divided the world into Firstness – the thing’s purely qualitative potency; Secondness – its actual causal and existential relation with another thing; and Thirdness – 1 & 2 mediated by a third to form an observation or logical and relational pattern. More importantly, Ivakhiv expands this breakdown into a Process-Relational Model. Derived largely from Alfred North Whitehead, Peirce and Deleuze, it allows for a combination of socio-semiotic-material events, encounters and interactions that produce and reproduce the world anew in every moment (viii). As Ivakhiv explains, “It is a model that understands the world, and cinema, to be made up not primarily of objects, substances, structures, or representations, but rather of relational processes, encounters, or events. As we watch a movie, we are drawn into a certain experience, a relational experience involving us with the world of film. In turn, the film-viewing experience changes, however slightly, our own experience of the world outside the film. Both of these unfold over time in the midst of other, broader sets of relational processes, which I will describe in terms of ‘three ecologies’: the material, the social and the perceptual” (12). 

The latter derive from Félix Guattari’s seminal work, The Three Ecologies which allows Ivakhiv to transform the ecological into a machinic, decentered paradigm that completely befits the role of cinema as a spiritual automaton (in Artaud’s words). This in turn owes a considerable debt to the works of the English anthropologist/cyberneticist, Gregory Bateson, who was the first to break down ecology into a series of three: the material (ecology, biophysical); the social (cultural and human); and most importantly, for Ivakhiv’s purposes, the perceptual, which treats the mind as an interactive system characterized by an exchange of information – images, sounds, looks and listenings – which are transmitted within an extra-filmic world that is communicative by its very nature: a case of  “difference that makes a difference.” 

The next step is to discover what cinema does explicitly to these three ecologies: it turns them into a triad of film worlds or morphologies. “This is cinema’s cosmomorphism,” notes Ivakhiv, “its geomorphism, anthropomorphism, and biomorphism – through which it gives us worlds that are material, social, and perceptual in the ways they appear to us. These are, of course, cinematic worlds, film-worlds, and their effect is primarily on viewers’ perceptions” (32). These in turn create three vectors of cinematic experience for the individual spectator: spectacle, narrative, and “signness” or “exoreferentiality.” The latter is particularly important because it expands a given film’s “worlding” capabilities to an arena outside the cinema or home theater to a broader engagement through individual and community blogs, chat rooms and activist groups that may extend film ecologies – e.g. James Cameron’s Avatar – into a broader-based eco-activism.

Ivakhiv’s key trope for this convergence of triadic connections is the spectator’s journey into “The Zone” of cinema. As he puts it, “The Zone […] can be taken to refer to the meeting ground of images and sounds, as they are organized for us by cinema, with the dense texture of perceptual response, bodily affect, and the multiple layers of memory, desire, and the interpretive capacity that we bring to viewing a film or artwork” (17). The premise is taken specifically from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which “…represents a journey from the everyday world into a Zone that may be the zone of cinema, or of dreams, of hope and imagination, or of an affective connection with the Earth that subtends both cinema and dreams” (17). Playing the role of both stalker and stalked, the title character produces an imagined geography that interpenetrates the actual world of a journey or passage with the liminal, abject world of pure matter, whereby Henri Bergson’s definition of perception as a subtraction from an infinite aggregate of images is both affirmed (after all, we share the characters’ plight as filmic spectators) but also denied: we never find our true ontological bearings. For Ivakhiv “The Zone” is not dissimilar to Heidegger’s definition of “earth” – “a materiality that gives itself to us as territory, as land, as nature, as resource, and that simultaneously takes away from us as time, as death, and as mystery.” Indeed, Ivakhiv confirms that “The relationship between this earth and the filmic world is central to the ecocritical agenda of this book” (25).

Ivakhiv plays out this fascinating ecosophical dynamic by neatly organizing his book into three morphisms. He starts with the two fixed extremes. Firstly, Geomorphism – the filmic geomorphology of the visible world that pre-exists us, images that “shape the world into one that extends outward in all directions, from things that are visible and immediately present to those that are distant in time and in space” (72). Starting with an insightful look into the Hudson River and Luminist school of painters, he then branches out into the role of landscape as encompasser in John Ford’s use of Monument Valley before turning to more pantheistic and sublime paradigms in films such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1990) and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Secondly Ivakhiv explores Anthropomorphism through a series of encounters and becomings between different cultures. This encompasses the ethnographic and imperialist “gazes” of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1992) and Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) respectively, before moving on to more ambivalent modes of cultural representation manifested by the holistic (Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, 1991); the self-reflexive and deconstructive (Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, 1983); and finally the deeply reflexive film such as Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (1975), with its post-May ’68 look at politics, hope and the active possibility for social and cultural change.

As one might expect, it is the middle register between the two – the Biomorphic – through which cinema achieves its greatest world-making capacity: “The two ends of the shuttle are those of action and conditionality, figure and ground, the anthropomorphic and the geomorphic, and it is between them that our experience of a film-world unfolds” (195). Ivakhiv illustrates this point via two specific vectors: 1. The morphological capabilities of digital media and 2. The latter’s harnessing to a new sense of “worlding” built on the devastating affective response to ecological trauma. The former suits Ivakhiv’s process-relational agenda to a tee as it literally creates new becomings: “‘Movement,’ in our conventional way of thinking it, suggests that there is something that moves, that goes from point A to point B but remains unchanged in its essence. In contrast, ‘morphing,’ or form taking, more clearly indicates the immanent nature of movement that a process-relational perspective insists on. Something takes form and that form is what it is; its new form is what it has become” (334). Thus, as live-action footage is digitized into pixels, the ecological landscape becomes just another graphic, itself raw material for further morphing.

However, it is in his sensitive discussion of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) that Ivakhiv discloses the greatest manifestation of eco-geography as pure ontology (ecosophy), for “Traumatic moments are as close as our experience gets us to the shock of pure firstness” (258). It is here where new subjects, new peoples to come are brought into being through what Fredric Jameson calls the “geopolitical unconscious,” whereby all thinking is also an attempt to think the world system as such, even in its destruction. As Guattari puts it, “The only acceptable finality of human activity is the production of a subjectivity that is auto-enriching its relation to the world in a continuous fashion” (1995: 21), which is exactly what the best films – and Ivakhiv’s remarkable book – give us in the form of the deepest “stalker” experience.

REFERENCES

Gilles Deleuze (1989), Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Roberta Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Guattari, Félix (1995) Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).

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Book

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Colin Gardner