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Issue 18. Thinking Pictures

Deleuze and Cinema: Moving Images and Movements of Thought

Author: Ils Huygens
Published: September 2007

Abstract (E): Early film theorists like Epstein, Canudo or Balazs were already fascinated by the idea of cinema as automatic thought-machine, producing purely mental images. The relation of cinema and thinking is the object of study of Deleuze's cinema-books. In the foreword to the Movement-Image Deleuze writes that great movie directors can not only be compared to painters, architects or musicians but also to thinkers and philosophers, only they do not think in concepts but in 'affects' and 'percepts'. Like Nietzsche and Foucault Deleuze thinks of artists and philosophers as doctors that keep society healthy and cinema takes up a special place since our contemporary lives have become more and more dominated by the moving image. Cinema for Deleuze is what poetry represented for Heidegger: a medium wherein new forms of thought manifest itself for the first time.

Abstract (F): Des théoriciens du cinéma des premiers temps comme Epstein, Canudo ou Balazs étaient fascinés par l'idée du cinéma comme machine à penser automatique, productrice d'images purement mentales. Le rapport entre cinéma et pensée est au coeur des livres de Deleuze sur le cinéma. Dans la préface à L'image-mouvement , Deleuze écrit que les grands cinéastes ne doivent pas seulement être comparés aux peintres, architectes ou musiciens, mais qu'il faut les comparer aussi aux penser et aux philosophes, à cette différence près qu'ils ne pensent pas en concepts mais en " affects " et " percepts ". A l'instar de Nietzsche et Foucault, Deleuze pense les artistes et les philosophes comme des médecins qui aident à maintenir la santé de la société. Le cinéma occupe une place spéciale dans cette perception du rôle de l'art, vu le rôle de plus en plus important de l'image mobile dans la vie contemporaine. Pour Deleuze, le cinéma est ce que la poésie était pour Heidegger : un média dans lequel de nouvelles formes de pensée se manifestent pour la première fois.

keywords: Image of thought, auto-movement, percept, affect, nooshock


To cite this article:

Huygens, I. Deleuze and Cinema: Moving Images and Movements of Thought. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 18 (2007).


The cinematic thought-machine


Already in the early days of cinema, theorists were fascinated by the link between cinema and thinking. This relation was conceptualized in many different ways, from seeing cinema as analogous to the human mind (Hugo Münsterberg), to the idea of cinema as a medium capable of visualizing (unconscious) thought processes (Edward Small, Germain Dulac, Ricciotto Canudo). However as Daniel Frampton argues in his recent book Filmosophy (2006) most of these early theories were not just simply naïve, but also reductive in theorizing filmic thought as an analogy or mirror of human thought. Cinema can offer much more and if we follow Deleuze's claims that cinema holds the capacity to transform thought, this implies cinema has to be able to produce its own specific filmic ways of thinking.


However there were some early film theorists, especially those interested in the technological materiality of the medium, who conceptualized filmic thought in terms of a nonhuman form of thought. These theorists were fascinated by the machinic modality of perception and vision cinema created. Human perception is grounded in the subject, and in his body. According to our interests we select and organise the flow of perceptions into distinct objects in space. But cinematic vision does not have such an anchoring centre, or organising viewpoint, its perception is completely fragmented and decentred and produces a purely cinematic and autonomous reality where movement is not stopped in thought but proliferates. Secondly they were fascinated by cinema's capacity to present us with aspects of reality that lie beyond the reach of the human eye. For Walter Benjamin, the technology of the camera '.with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions' bring us into contact with a whole new 'unconscious optics' (Benjamin 237).


Benjamin and others took the mechanism of the camera, and the machinic vision it produces as the starting element for a theory of cinema as a machine for producing thought. For instance in the kino-eye theory of Dziga Vertov, or Jean Epstein's idea of film as 'subjectivité automatique', which both refer to the fact that the camera produces thinking autonomously and independently from a human subject. Béla Balazs believed film, since it is capable of cutting the image loose from all outside referents, shows us how reality is reflected in our mind and creates a purely mental image. However, according to Frampton, these early theorists are still too much biased by the 'the very rhetoric of the camera' and the 'artistry of the lens' (Frampton 50). For Deleuze it is not so much a technological or optical matter but the fact that the machinic vision of cinema produces images automatically and autonomously. The machinic production of images corresponds directly with the machinic nature and production of thought itself.



Automatic thinking


Before looking deeper into the relation between cinema and thinking it is important to understand the way Deleuze conceptualizes thinking as machinic, the machinic being defined by its autonomous and automatic nature. On its most primary level thought is automatic because it is formed out of psychological and physiological automatisms that lie at the basis of conscious thought. And as recent neurobiology (Daniel Libet, Joseph Ledoux) has proven, these molecular automatisms can process information and perform thinking autonomously, without interaction of conscious thought or cognition. It is only in second instance that the conscious mind and rational thought step in to act as an ordering principle that linearizes and hierarchizes the unformed mass of information that is produced by these automatic sub- and unconscious thought-processes.


Secondly, thought is also automatic and autonomous on a higher level. The ideal of a concept for Deleuze is not a representation (which is static) but an act of becoming, an auto-movement of thought. Thinking for Deleuze is autonomous, since it is not something that is performed by a subject, it is not something we do, but something that happens to us from the outside. 'Something in the world forces us to think.' (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition 139) This refers to the concept of the spiritual automaton of thought, which will be elaborated further later.


Thirdly there is 'an image of thought' that underlies all of our thinking, and acts as a kind of presupposition to it. This image of thought is also constantly moving and varying in time. The image of thought is constantly challenged precisely by what lies outside of it, by what is yet to be thought, the unthought. Thought for Deleuze is thus always correlated with something outside thought, the 'unthought in thought', pure difference that cannot be assimilated into something we know. It is the confrontation with this unthought which forces us to think and re-think our own thinking, bringing about a new image of thought. This encounter with the outside of thought can take place when philosophy confronts itself with art, which also produces thinking, not by formulating concepts by creating 'affects' and 'percepts'.


In his cinemabooks Deleuze wants to see whether and how an encounter takes place between the image of thought and the cinematographic image, and what this encounter might be. In our contemporary lives, cinema holds a special interest for philosophy since it has had such a wide influence on the way we think and live. For Deleuze it is crucial that philosophy understands cinema and the concepts it has produced since it has led to a transformation of the image of thought, not only for cinema and visual arts, but for the whole of thinking and for philosophy. In the following we will look at the connections Deleuze makes between thought, image of thought and thinking image.




1/ Automovement - psychological automatism


In the history of film theory the early theories on the link between cinema and thought were soon abandoned by psychoanalytic and linguistic approaches to film, which reduced the cinematic image to its representative, signifying elements, a sign working through recognition and analogy. Deleuze's cinemabooks can be read as a critique on these textual approaches to film.


For Deleuze, the sheer materiality of the medium, in first instance produces moving audiovisual images and not narrative utterances. It is the automatic image of movement, and not narrative what distinguishes cinema from other visual arts like painting and photography, where movement can be suggested but is not really present in the image. Cinema also distinguishes itself from theatre or dance where movement is anchored in and dependent of the body of the actor or dancer. The cinematic image is the first image capable of producing automatic and autonomous movement, which is not anchored in a subject, or seen from a fixed point that functions as viewpoint. The cinematic image does not represent movement but moves itself: 'cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image' (Deleuze, Movement-Image 2) This auto-mobilization of the image creates a direct link from cinema to the movements of thought..


"The brain is unity. The brain is the screen. I don't believe that linguistics and psychoanalysis offer a great deal to the cinema. On the contrary, the biology of the brain - molecular biology - does. Thought is molecular. Molecular speeds make up the slow beings that we are. (.) Cinema, precisely because it puts the image in motion, or rather endows the image with self-motion, never stops tracing the circuits of the brain" (Deleuze, The Brain is the Screen 366 ).


The automatism of cinematic images correlates with the automatisms of our thinking, the pure material organical-psychic mechanisms that perform our thinking without consciousness. The continuous flow of images speeding by does not leave us the time for critical distance and contemplation, like when looking at a painting or photograph, but acts immediately on a pre-reflexive, pre-linguistic level of thought. The automatic movement is capable of 'producing a shock to thought, communicating vibrations to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral system directly' (Deleuze, Image-Temps 156).



2/ Automatic image - spiritual automaton


This second correlation of the automatism of the cinematic image and of thinking, concerns not a sub- but rather a supra-conscious level: the spiritual automaton. The spiritual automaton is a formal order, it refers to the esthetical form of cinema, the way cinematic images are perceived and thought.


The concept of the spiritual automaton originally comes from Spinoza and refers to the auto-movement of thought; it is what links one idea to an other, independently from an object. This Spinozan idea suggests a reversal between the idea that thought is dependent on conscious thought, on the contrary, it is our consciousness that is dependent on the way thoughts are linked with other thoughts.


'Automatic movement gives rise to a spiritual automaton in us, which reacts in turn on movement.' (156) The spiritual automaton cinema produces does not refer to a form of thinking that lies at the basis of a film, nor is it a certain illustration of an image of thought. It is the circuit thinking enters into with the film, a circuit that is activated by a shock in our brains ('noochoc').


The cinema as machinic apparatus of automatic images thus gives rise to automatic responses in the viewer which touches both a subconscious and a supra-conscious level, involving both an affective and intellectual shock, which feed into each other and force the viewer into thinking. 'It is as if cinema were telling us: with me, with the movement-image, you can't escape the shock which arouses the thinker in you.' (156)





Cinema however not only produces an auto-mobilization of the image but also an auto-temporalization, meaning that it creates its own specific sense of time. The way time is represented is crucial to understand the difference between the regime of the movement image and the time image. The movement image is based on classic continuity montage and linear narrative, which tries to overcome the cuts and gaps inherent to montage by creating a fluid movement from one image to the other. The movement-image shows us an image of time in its empirical form, time derived from the succession of shots, as a linear progression towards the ending. Time is represented indirectly and quantitatively through movement.


However in post war cinema like Italian Neorealism and the Nouvelle Vague Deleuze notices a breakdown of the classic action scheme. The new crystalline image that emerges presents us with a direct image of time, for instance by putting different time-levels in one image (Antonioni) or by confusing the limits between images from the past, present and future (Alain Resnais). In the films of Godard, montage is no longer a rational association of images but becomes instead a violent de-association. Images are no longer dominated by their functionality to the narrative, but become purely autonomous 'optical-sound images'. Spaces are disconnected, characters are no longer defined by their actions but by their visions and narration becomes essentially falsifying rather than trying to tell us a 'true' story.


However the breakdown of logical and senso-motorical (action-reaction) connections between images does not mean that there aren't any connections any more but give rise to new kinds of connections, 'which bring the emancipated senses into direct relation with time and thought' (17-18). The autonomy of the image also means it loses dependency on its referent, it does no longer claim to show us a true and actual world (cinema as window), like in the regime of the movement image but gives rise to 'a seeing function' that can 'replace, obliterate and re-create the object itself' (12; 19). Film then develops its own specific autonomic thoughts: '.a camera-consciousness which would no longer be defined by the movements it is able to follow or make, but by the mental connections it is able to enter into.' (23)



The nooshock: the whole versus the gap


In the seventh chapter of the Time-Image, 'Thought and Cinema' Deleuze looks more closely at the transformations the relation between thinking and the cinematic image has undergone from the classic movement-image to the regime of the time-image. For Deleuze the two regimes of the image each produce a different spiritual automaton. Both produce thinking in the viewer through an experience of shock, but the nature of the 'nooshock' is different in the two image-regimes. He uses the writings of Eisenstein and of Artaud on cinema to illustrate the distinction he wants to make. Simply put, whereas Eisenstein's shock is an intellectual shock which believes in the powers of rational and logical thought, for Artaud cinema confronts us with exactly the opposite: the impossibility to think, the powerlessness of thought, which, in Deleuze's philosophy, lies at the heart of thought.


Eisenstein's shock to thought comes from the conflict between two shots, which forces us to think its synthesis (in Strike for instance images of a bull being slaughtered are contrasted by images of a Cossack killing a child). It is the confrontation with the contrast between these two images that forces us to think the Whole, which is a unity, a truth. A dialectical truth in the case of Eisenstein, but classic continuity montage moves in a similar way from image to thought, producing a clear-cut concept or idea in the mind of the viewer about the image, but also about the relation of this particular image to the Whole of the film. The viewer himself simply has to receive the ideas that are given to him. But, this unidirectional idea of the shock to thought makes cinema a highly manipulative medium; and as history has learned us, is all too easily put to use for propaganda; 'Hitler as filmmaker' ( 266).


Antonin Artaud saw a link between the spiritual automaton of cinema and automatic writing, 'a higher control which brings together critical and conscious thought and the unconscious in thought' (165). For Artaud cinema is not the association of clear-cut ideas through intellectual montage, but on the contrary a radical de-assocation, an ambiguous linking of unclear ideas, a decentred conflation of multiple voices and viewpoints, that cannot be assimilated into a unified whole. The nooshock for Artaud is a purely 'neuro-physiological vibration' brought about by the movement and speed of the images passing through the projector. Cinema makes it impossible to think, because before we can interpret one image it is already replaced by another. Before we can grasp an image it is already passed, the process of association is constantly interrupted, deconstructed, dislocated.


So although a similar movement takes place from image to thought, Artaud's violent nooshock rather than leading us into thinking a unified whole, confronts us with a fundamental gap in our thinking, the inability of thought to think the whole. Cinema reveals our own powerlessness, the fact that we are not yet thinking, and it is precisely the confrontation with this 'impower' ('impuissance') of thought that can produce a new image of thought.



Thought beyond representation: the time-image


In these passages on the link between image and thought, Deleuze's distinction between movement-image and time-image becomes almost prescriptive. Cinema has to free us from what he calls 'the representative image of thought'. This comprises metaphysical, metaphoric and dialectical forms of thinking. The representational image of thought functions by means of representation and recognition. For Deleuze this image of thought is dogmatic because it can only re-present us what we already know. It does not allow to think the unthinkable, what has not been thought, what falls outside what we already know. Simply put the representational image of thought cannot think qualitative change or real difference. These processes of representation and recognition, Deleuze also sees at work in the regime of the movement-image. Classic cinema works through metaphor, using particular images to refer to a larger idea; montage associates the distinct units into a unified whole.


So film even in the classic age produces thinking but it is only when cinema, produces its own auto-temporalization that it realizes its full capacities for thinking and shows us a logic of thought beyond representation. The cinema of the time image with its bifurcations, false movements, disconnected spaces and autonomous images and sounds does not claim to show us a true world or a true idea, but in stead recreates the object in a purely cinematic logic, which is defined by ambiguities, irrationalities and uncertainties. The impossibility of giving the film a single and unitary interpretation makes us think and rethink the image in an endless chain of possible interpretations, in a continuous exchange between image and viewer, between brain and screen.



Thought beyond representation part two: affective thinking


So the time-image is part of this movement towards the realm of the unthought, which leads to a new image of thought. But there is another side to this 'unthought in thought', which concerns the whole of cinema. And this is the idea Daniel Frampton's philosophy of film wants to bring us: 'A movement in the film is not by definition metaphorical, it is immediately affective, bringing the filmgoer to a knowledge about its subjects without having us think or refer to ideas outside the film. Film-thinking is there in film .' (Frampton 93).

This brings us back to our first point, the immediate and neuro-physiological shock that the brain/screen connection produces. The linkages between film and the viewer's thoughts 'is the shock wave or the nervous vibration which means we can no longer say 'I see, I hear", but I FEEL'. (Deleuze, Image-Temps 158)


Even for Eisenstein intellectual montage always has a correlate of 'sensorial thought' and 'emotional plenitude' which doubles the first intellectual shock. For Eisenstein, there is an organic relation between the logical and the prelogical (emotional and sensible) level of filmic thought. "To be effective, a film must balance between logical and prelogical forms of thought - between what the film makes you understand (plots, places, people) and what it makes you feel (danger, love, empathy)." (Frampton 54)


However in the cinema of the time image, the level of feeling and affect is not simply there to reinforce the level of interpretation, but becomes autonomous. In the radical de-association of autonomous images, purely emotive and affective intensities break through the level of logical expectations causing a sudden disruption, a suspension of the narrative progression. When the cinematic produces a direct image of time, an image of time in its quality of duration, the purely affective micro-processes which normally stay in the realm of the non-conscious become pure intensities which can linger and grow into a virtual counterpoint to the actual image. Confronting us like the direct image of time, with the reverse side of thought, with 'something too powerful, too beautiful or too intolerable for our mind to grasp'.



Works Cited


Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Gardner, Colin. "Thinking the unthinkable: time, cinema and the brain." The journal of neuro-aesthetic theory, nr. 3, viewed, 20th april 2007

Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition (1968). Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Colombia University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983). Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Athlone, 1985.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985). Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Londen: Athlone, 1989.

Deleuze, Gilles. "The Brain is the Screen: An Interview with Gilles Deleuze." (1986). The Brian is the Screen. Deleuze and the Philosophy of the Cinema. Ed. Gregory Flaxman, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Frampton, Daniel. Filmosophy. London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.


Ils Huygens was connected to the theory department of the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, where she developed her current research on affect and emotion in film studies. Apart from her theoretical research she also works as an editor and writer for a Belgian online film magazine,



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