Becoming Stupid, Becoming Strange, Becoming Image: An Introduction to Joyful Seeing

“Carry on
Until the scene becomes improbable
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements….” Georges Perec

As the image goes, so go we. If the image is an aggregate of elements always on the go—concept, affect, emotion all awhirl—our engagements with images are aggregates on the go, moving between theory, personal impression, philosophy, even the occasional ethical demand. What we offer—perhaps too quickly, too densely, too obliquely—is an ontology and an ethics: this is the world of moving image and how to reckon it, how to see it: how to become image. A techne, then, of seeing difference.

Look at Perec. He sits down at a cafe, enjoys his coffee, a beer, a cigarette. And from this perspective, with such unabashed pleasure, begins to see differently. He does not stand apart from the world; he does not distance himself. On the contrary, he consumes the world with all his senses—watching, sipping, listening. He stands amidst the world’s great teeming and, shaking off the blinders that obscure, carries on until he begins to see the unfamiliar. What is this vision? What is this algorithm of the look that sees the unfamiliar, the strange, the different? What is this vision that sees what’s happening and not what’s already happened?

At first glance, we find the world glossed over, so thoroughly enmeshed in familiarity that it in fact eludes perception. And so Perec commands us to “carry on,” to keep looking, to look again. And again. And again. Our vision must be active, persistent, repetitive. If we’re to see the world, we must dispense with the grid of the familiar, the geometry of categories. We must not plug what we see into the matrix of the known; we must not interpret, say A=B. If we’re to see the world, our gaze must move with the world, see and sense where it takes us—and where we take it. Seeing becomes an encounter.

Why this active, persistent, repetitive looking? Because this act of looking puts vision in motion and thereby enacts the movement of the world. Entangled in this active gaze, the world itself gets taken up, comes to move, and begins to forge itself anew. And vice-versa: by looking again and again our vision is taken up by the world, succumbs to its movement, to its relentless inauguration of itself. By looking again and again, both the world and the viewer free themselves from the system of signs that point to the familiar, to the known. And the world becomes a creative venture. As Steve Zissou, negotiator of the life aquatic, declares, “This is an adventure.”

This moving-vision reckons a world that is always in motion, always morphing. This is the world of Henri Bergson, a world in which change is not exterior to matter. On the contrary, change is immanent to matter. Taking his cue from Bergson, Deleuze tells us that matter is the movement-image, the image in a perpetual state of modulation, even if that modulation is imperceptible, microcosmic. The temporal thoroughly infuses the spatial, relentlessly shifting the make-up of this and that, recasting its borders, its possibilities. Marc Lafia’s algorithmic films, Permutations, teach us that the image does not need to be run through a projector in order to move: the image is always already moving precisely because the world is always already moving. The image is a site of becoming; to see, we have to become as well.

To see, then, is not to penetrate but to move with. These eyes do not burrow beneath the surface of things to discover what lurks within or behind the world; they do not discover the essence of things. Perec’s command is not look deeply but keep looking. He remains joyfully at the surface of things. “See more flatly,” he writes, see without hierarchy, without categories that predetermine. For Perec, the world happens right there. Where? There. This look does not seek the idea behind the attribute, the truth behind the accident, the cause behind the effect. These eyes trace how things go, seeing discrete events and emerging networks, flux and flow, harmony, disharmony, synergy, chiasm, indifference.

These eyes do not penetrate; they entwine. They lead and are led, a creative surrender, at once active and passive, neither active nor passive. Neither here nor there, neither being one with the image nor standing at a remove: to see the new entails this in-between posture, an in-between that is not liminal per se but capable, ready: poised. "Time passes. Drink your beer. Wait." Poise allows us to see what’s happening, to be ready for what may come, for what might move us in strange directions, into uncharted territory. Poise: this is what allows us to trace the movements of the image and not the story, to move neither ahead of the image nor trail behind it: to move with the image without becoming one with the image.

To see the new is a matter of inserting oneself amidst the hustle of life and letting it take one’s eyes just as one’s eyes take the hustle: a mutual, if disproportionate, assumption—a becoming image. The image does not solely determine the looking. To see well means being a keen origamist able to fold, turn, spin the image this way and that; to see well means putting all of one’s senses out there, not just one’s eyes and ears. To see well, one must be ready to smell the image, to feel across one’s body, with knee and intuition and dreams and blood, to sense mood, ambience, speed, density. But of course the viewer does not solely determine this look, this folding. The image makes demands. It has a speed, a density, a distribution of affect; the image is an entire percept machine. It takes up the viewer just as the viewer takes up the image, what Deleuze calls a nuptial. To see—to see without the blinders of familiarity, without the structures of symbols and bathos—is a cooperative act as viewer and viewed find themselves led astray, led into new territory, a mutual looking that sets the world a go.

In this mutual becoming, artist and viewer do not discover each other in a seamless détente. There may be a hermeneutic circle but there are so many other shapes, so many other trajectories of this event, so many other distributions of force, affect, concept: the circle of understanding between artist, viewer, and image is one possibility amongst infinite possibilities. Sometimes, we don't understand the image at all but find ourselves weeping, laughing, reflecting, thinking. There are times the image is downright confounding; other times, the image just sits there, inert, and we have to pick it up, extend it, aggressively fold it into something spectacular. Which is all to say, the viewing event is a site of aparallel inflection of all the parties involved—image, artist, viewer. To see the new is not solely to seek recognition or even understanding. Here, artist and viewer seek the wonder of the image, however it may go.

This poised seeing, then, is not a natural vision: we must discipline ourselves to see what’s happening and not what’s already happened. There is of course a great history of artists employing techniques and tools to bring on the strange, the new, engaging modes of dispensing with habit and seeing anew: avoiding “e” one day, seeing nothing but “e” the next; seeing only blue, every impossible shade of blue and nothing else: all of a sudden, the world is organized by blue, Yves Klein as god; playing exquisite cadaver with friends, family, and strangers just to introduce the network into creation, to see what we couldn’t have alone; cutting up the written word only to put it back together in the a new order, to see what comes; leaving the director’s chair, handing the camera to the grip, the actor, to whomever is so inspired.

What we seek here is a bit different than a technology per se—it is a techne, an art of reckoning the image, a posture of standing towards this filmic life. There is no doubt a great book or series of books to be written on these diverse technologies of seeing: Foucault's rupture, event, dispersion; Lucretius' shape, speed, clinamen; Bergson's intuition. In these pages, however, we do not as much flush out a technology as engage diverse ruses as we try to shake off the old technology of narrative and identification and, holding ourselves differently, engage new modes of reading, or rather, modes of reading the new, of seeing the emergent and the different rather than the familiar. We don’t want to recognize; we want to see anew.

And so we stand towards the image differently, we look for different things, we ask different questions of the image. We put on a deadpan gaze that is nonetheless engaged, an indifference that remains passionate, a non-sentimental pathos. It is that look on Perec’s face—a smile at once stupid and clever, a vague sadness, readiness and composure impossibly intertwined. Perec is always ready to take leave of himself; his eyes and words scan the field for what’s different, for what might take him somewhere, move him. And all the while that smile, that smile from the prick of the new, the exhilaration of the world taking shape, the joy—the unabashed joy—of life affirming itself before our eyes. This is a techne of joy.

This poised looking entails an odd posture, at once a recline and a reach. It is that lean forward towards the screen without falling in. Which is to say, this is not about collapsing the line between the real and the image, even if such a collapse has always already happened; this is not Baudrillard’s hyperreal but something else entirely. It is a posture of productive consumption, a collapse into the chair to digest more fully, a slump of satiation not emotional confirmation or sublimity: a coup d’image, if you will. It is not a matter of feeling happiness or resolve, of identifying with the character, of discovering what we already know: the becoming-image is not a mnemonic. We don’t want to say, “Hey, I know just how he feels.” Rather, we want to say, “Wow! I didn’t know that was even a possibility; I didn’t know I could do that.” We do not become the image, as if there were a destination; nor can we do anything we’d like with this image. We move with the image and the image moves with us as image and viewer meet in a new territory, a territory made in this very act of seeing.

This looking, “carrying on,” is creative. It does not tear at the world. It does not break with how things go. On the contrary, this techne of vision joins the world in its flux of folds and pleats and cuts. In this active gaze, both world and viewer stop being recognized: they begin to emerge, shapes taking form, territories distinguishing themselves even as they intermingle, rhythms diverging and coalescing in impossible harmonies.

And nor is this joy-seeking vision an invocation of natural seeing over and against an encultured seeing, as if beckoning return to a vision bereft of culture and history. Perec does not disdain the categories of knowledge; in fact, he enjoys categories, playing with them, creating new ones. He doesn’t put aside the human to get in touch with his natural vision. Categories and knowledge don’t go away; they just don’t determine the looking beforehand. To see is to know: an active knowing, a gay science, a knowing that is not the mnemonics of Socrates but a knowing that happens in the very act of seeing. It is a knowing that is as sensual as it is conceptual, as speculative as it is experiential, as categorical as it is particular. We do not disdain the concept in search of a primitive vision but, on the contrary, we seek the concept amidst the fray. This strategy of looking, then, does not distinguish between the natural and the human, between the conceptual and the somatic. It distinguishes between the static look and the active look, a look that fixes and a look that cuts and folds, is cut and folded. This look is not a return but a relentless surging forward.

Poised at the juncture of the world's emergence, this strange techne of becoming image is not premised on knowing what this or that is but on introducing the unknown, on not knowing what something is. This not-knowing, however, is not a breaking down of the known world; it is not a tearing asunder. Nor is it a discovery of what really is. On the contrary, it is the inauguration of the new within the heart of the old, the perpetual birth of the uncanny.

As a kid, I was confounded by zucchini: Who could enjoy such things? And so I’d lie in bed at night and say the word zucchini to myself over and over until it was devoid of meaning, until it became this kind of monster in my mouth, a sense-event without concept, without signification. And I’d shutter with equal parts horror and delight, laughing with the best possible laugh, the laugh of the world making itself in all its absurd, gorgeous splendor, making itself new in my mouth: zucchini, zucchini, zucchinizucchinizucchini. Zucchini. Zucchini. I put the word in motion, quite literally, and kept it moving until it shed its referent and emerged anew, until I emerged anew. But do not misunderstand: this movement is not from sense to nonsense, from concept to body, from sign to pure mark. For just as uttering zucchini stripped it of its referent, the tender green squash returned, forever changed, its vertical trajectory turned 90 degrees, a phallus sprawling sideways in the stutter of my palate. This was my way of coming to know zucchini, coming to know different tastes, different possibilities of enjoyment. The uncanny is this movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar without shedding the familiar once and for all. The uncanny takes up the domestic and sends it on its way. But it is not an exile: it is the birth of the nomad, always home and never home. Zucchini and I, becoming together, partners in world making.

This moving world does not offer referential or mnemonic signs. The world does not point to its meaning; the accident does not signify its ontology. We must come to the world differently, without semiotics and its signifiers, its symbols; we must put aside these old techniques of recognition. The world is not already known precisely because it keeps happening, making itself on the fly, birthing itself before our very eyes. This moving world becomes a flux of bodies and light and force, a lava lamp life, the most kaleidoscopic film you’ve ever seen. In this teeming flow of images, bodies of every sort—human, animal, conceptual, inanimate—dissolve, resolve, and cohere in a relentless play. There is no familiar plot line, no characters with whom for sure we can identity, no reliable borders distinguishing the human from anything else. This is the life aquatic, punch-drunk driving down Mulholland Dr. What we begin to see are shapes in motion, a calculus of life, trajectories that morph and twist and pleat, that bend and distend and prehend, forces and rhythms and consistencies that create as much as they rupture and tear. Rather than knowing, understanding, identifying, we see and are seen. We don’t decode symbols; we engage the image and become the matter we are.

We do not abandon concepts to the ineffability of the singular and the somatic. We work with different concepts, strategies, and tactics, asking different questions and always expecting to be surprised. First, perhaps, we understand that when the concepts of unity are put aside, chaos does not ensue. Rather, unities form within, a unity that is immanent to this or that, a unity that may very well be a multiplicity. The world makes itself, a relentless and infinitely multifarious autopoetic territorialization. An image—and it’s all images, nothing but images—construes itself, gathering force here, stealing memes and possibilities and shapes there. Each image is an entire metabolic propensity, a mode of gathering the world’s forces and matters, its limits and ruptures. The image is a sense-event, an aggregate of percepts, concepts, affects. This aggregating is an action, a movement, that traverses space and time and in so doing forges a space and time, a trajectory of becoming, a curved limit that extends to infinity. Every image is a metabolic engine, digesting concepts and affects until it becomes its own site of concept and affect. Every image is an entire way of going. Images—forms—do not turn on concepts but on operations of assemblage.

This initiates a fundamentally different project, or rather, a project of difference, of differentiation: “One is lead therefore to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it.” Rather than look for what something means, one looks for how something distributes itself, a description and not an explanation or interpretation. This mode of engagement demands that we see, not explain; that we follow, not decode; that we trace the flux not unify the differences.

We stand towards the image with a different posture and ask different questions. It is not a matter of discovering what school or movement the image inhabits but what school or movement the image creates, inaugurates. We have to allow the image to extend us just as we must extend the image. Deleuze discovers Bacon’s image in the haptic territory of the Egyptians, moving between eyes and hands. It is not matter of fixing the image in place but of propelling it into new territory, discovering its networks, how its tendrils reach across time, place, discipline. William Burroughs does not break the laws of literature as if there the laws pre-existed; he invents the laws, an entire grammar of undulation, a most surprising ethics. As we look at the image, it looks back and asks: What will we become? By abandoning signifiers, we are not abandoning concepts, sense, and language. We are introducing new modes of making sense of things, new technologies of reading; these are modes of becoming image.

This becoming is a job for the amateur, not the expert. The expert operates within a staid environment of firm borders. The expert judges, condemns, polices, determining what can get in and what can’t: this is philosophy, this is philosophy, this is not. How can the expert make sense of an emerging world when he spends all his time plugging everything back into the system, when he’s so busy judging? Even if he’s open to the system shifting, these changes are so stultifying they come only with the death of the event. “We must be rigorous,” declares the expert, “we must know everything, test it again and again until we confirm the same result every time. Then, we can amend the law.” The expert seeks the same in order to create laws that legislate this sameness. How, then, can the expert ever become with the world? How can the expert see what’s happening?

The amateur, on the other hand, can become precisely because she doesn’t know how it all fits together. Oedipus is not the only familial possibility, difference can sometimes differentiate itself, the subject is not always hailed, power may very well come from the bottom, the narrative may not be a narrative at all. There may not even be a concept or idea. It may be a wash of mood and affect, a play of light, of color and shape and speed. Only the amateur can operate in the network where associations traverse discipline, time, and geography. We tend to have no problem thinking that a film talks with politics but then why can’t a film talk with literature or philosophy or physics? The Battle of Algiers, with a detour through Foucault, proffers an entire thermodynamics of power, a physics of flows and forces.

To be an amateur, however, takes enormous discipline. In Philip Rieff’s great lectures devoted to the art of reading (the title of his course is worth repeating here: "The Aesthetics of Authority"), we were shown movies we were to read. As the lights dimmed and the warmth of the projector shone forth, it was tempting to slouch down, kick one’s legs up and let the film do its thing. This would be a mistake: such trespassers would be singled out with a pointed beam of light and asked, with a tone of undeniable authority, to sit at attention. For that is what reading involves: keen attention. The image-world is a relentless proliferation of affects, forces, limits emerging and rupturing, the world taking shape and taking shape again. To sit as Perec does in the café and see the strange does not happen automatically, even if it seems to happen casually. It is a matter of paying keen attention to what’s happening while happening oneself, a collideo-scopic encounter that sees more than just the presumed significant:

Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you?
Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see.
You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.

To force oneself to see is exhausting. It means looking at the world differently, stupidly, without already knowing what everything is. This is what Bergson asks of us in the opening of Matter and Memory: forget what you “know” and see. Suddenly, the world explodes, multiplies itself towards infinity: Look out! There is no longer the significant and then the banality of everything else. All there is is the banal. We can no longer ignore the stream of images that surround us in order to focus solely on what’s important, on what really matters. The usual suspects don’t apply. Without the hierarchical grid of categorical knowledge, the world becomes splayed along varied planes as order emerges, morphs, dissipates, re-orders itself. Ever poised, and risking her own cohesions, the amateur participates in the acrobatic becoming-sense of the world. The image may not offer the hidden mystery of arcane cyphers but it does demand creative eyes to find shapes amidst the great teeming. The world is unmoored, the image is set loose: we must now be even more attentive as we’ve surrendered our clichés in favor of the strange. This technology of becoming may democratize as it announces the ascendancy of the amateur. But this does evacuate us of the admittedly trying demands of seeing what’s happening.

Keep your eyes on Perec, that keen amateur, as he keeps his eyes on the world. His deadpan gaze may entail a certain kind of distancing from the world and yet it is precisely this deadpan gaze that allows him to take up the world, to touch it, to see it. His gaze gropes the world feelingly, as it is drenched in memory, the moment, imagination, possibility, the swirl of events:

Outside there's a bit of sunlight
the café is nearly empty
two renovators' men are having rum at the bar, the owner is
dozing behind his till. the waitress is cleaning the coffee machine

I am thinking of you
you are walking in your street, it's wintertime, you've turned up
your foxfur collar, you're smiling, and remote

Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls this the palpation of vision. Vision is only possible precisely because the eyes that see the world are part of that very same world: “The look…envelops, palpates, espouses visible things…[and] since vision is a palpation with the look, it must also be inscribed in the order of being that it discloses to us; he who looks must not himself be foreign to the world he looks at.” This feeling look does not meld one with the world. On the contrary, it is precisely this habitation, this worldly citizenship, that makes one a foreigner in one’s own land. It is precisely this odd proximity that allows the look to take up the world without already knowing it.

There is a friction in this vision, a heat that comes from closely following the contours of this or that. The chiasm sizzles. To Perec and Merleau-Ponty, one can only be intimate when one is rid of the familiar, when one allows the strange to speak, when one throws away the ready-mades and reaches for the world with a certain poise, with a dead-pan passion, with a surge that awaits and creates in the same gaze. It is a friction born of the question: How does this go? What does this do? Where can I take it? Where can it take me? It is a friction of becoming.

This viewing inaugurates the becoming of viewer and viewed alike as both take off, as both become images. Here, there is no anchored human presence that functions as a centered vanishing point. As McLuhan states, this is no longer the Renaissance where man is the measure of all things. The viewer and her human being is taken up by the image, is thrown into the flux, a force and shape among forces and shapes: an image amongst images (even if locally privileged). But this is not to evacuate the world of its pathos. On the contrary, the image is quite literally moving. Just look at the films of Wong Kar Wai—Chunking Express, 2046—or Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Marc Lafia’s Exploding Oedipus, John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence. They move us precisely because they never let us identify; they transport us, take us somewhere, lead us astray of ourselves. These images extend us towards the infinite limit we are always becoming.

The essays in this book do not identify with the artist or the characters or the story; they do not look for signs or culture or history, for anything that might preexist and determine what we see. What we seek is modes of world making, an array of concepts and affects, possibilities of life. Just as Cézanne would stand in the field, eyes wide, allowing the landscape to germinate within him, we try to let the various images germinate within these lines and words and gestures. More or less together, we create the world with the image, although not necessarily in synch or seamless harmony: they don’t form a march. Rather, each essay moves according to its own rhythm, its own immanent pace and punctuation of becoming. As we take up different kinds of images—cinema, photographs, words, design, drawing—these essays mark possibilities of the image, of how it can go, its modes of behavior. The result is that while each essay reckons a particular moment or work, this collection forges a constellation of the image. Call it a performative onto-ethology of the world-as-image.

These essays are amateur readings of the image, encounters. They do not seek to be definitive but to be exploratory. There are, for instance, three essays entitled, “This is Cinema.” They do not erase each other; they do not supersede each other; they do not conspire to form one master theory of film. Each sees from its perspective; each proffers its own world, its own logics. The essays in this collection therefore tend to be fast, often dense. They are spins, takes, perspectives that embrace their perspective. But that’s all there are—spins, takes, perspectives. These views inaugurate the becoming of world. They may be localized perspectives but they seek nothing less than the very making of this world. And the making of the world is inevitably strange precisely because it forges itself and its logic at the same time. There is no pre-existing structure: what we see is what we get.

There are as many ways to see the new as there are events. Perec sits in the café and with an allatonce focus attentively drinks the world. Nietzsche philosophizes with a hammer, at once demolishing ideals and tuning the world. Bergson discerns the flash of an image, the intuition of how a thing creatively evolves. Clarice Lispector splays herself along the unpredictable flows of an agua viva. William Burroughs cuts the world up and puts it back together, inventing new grammars along the way. Carlos Castaneda apprentices himself to an imaginary warrior, takes mushrooms and flies off the cliff along the winds of the nagual. Guattari follows the schizophrenic on a stroll through uncharted territory, beyond the pale of subjectivity. Deleuze crawls inside the skin of others only to perform impossible acrobatics. Every artist in this collection engages some tactic of the strange; they are all agents of the image.

Our goal is to become with these images. And in so doing to become more intimate with the world, more intimate with ourselves. This is our pleasure, this is our demand, this is our delight: to become with the world.


Anonymous said...


Daniel Coffeen said...

What a welcome comment! Yes, pretentious! Pretending to be what, I'm not sure, but I'll take it, and gladly!

Anonymous said...

After those scathing comments I left on your ugly, misogynistic blog ("Burroughs was right: women are vampires" remember?), you make it private. Dammit! I was gonna post that on Ratemyprofessor and report you!

Figures. I suppose you knew that sooner or later a female student would have rightfully reported your stupid ass.

I know you'll delete this comment, but I'm watching you. Put that shit up again and I will report you.

Unfortunately in the world of today, where "uppity" women don't have to fuck you or put up with nonsense from men like you, you have to keep your misogynistic insecurities behind a blanket of privacy.

Suffer, asshole. Seethe silently.

I hope your anger towards women burns a big hole in your stomach.

kumar ineproc said...

that comment should be on the back of your book.

Daniel Coffeen said...

it is priceless fodder, better than I even could have imagined.