Is cinematography a biological technology? Probably not.

Here’s a thing – if you run Deleuze through a piece of cloth and strain out all the poo, you end up with some reasonable, if fairly simple ideas. (Of course that ‘does violence to his concepts’ but I can live with that).

So here’s one. Technology is a mechanism by which we make our actions easier and more potent. A telescope enables us to see further, a microscope allows us to see smaller and if you’re Dziga Vertov, a camera enables us to see things more clearly. Deleuze is even more enthusiastic – cinema is a technology which entwines with our own innate technology of seeing. Unlike a microscope or a telescope, cinema is a means by which our perceptive apparatus and therefore mind processes can be analyzed and re-synthesized. Cinematic language is an exercise of attention that leads to new modes of thought.

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His argument is more visible now than when he was writing. When you see a child fascinated by an iPad, to the extent of being oblivious to nature around them, you may feel the sense of unease that he mentions – it’s hard to say whether the child is accelerated, sensing the game world at immense speed, or senile in being unable to sense anything else. It can be both.

Where I disagree is that I do NOT see cinema as privileged in this way. When I recently bought some prescription glasses and walked home I was appalled to find that everything was now taller (and so my feet found it difficult to hit the ground) and that people far away had faces, which was extremely disturbing. That’s not equivalent to the entirety of cinema – it doesn’t have to be. I think that any technology does what he describes to some extent.

Now, a related factoid is about episodic memory, which is stored as sensory impressions with duration, or at least sequence. If you blast the right part of the temporal lobe with electricity you can bring up auras which include sensory impressions before they have been organised into a narrative (e.g. one stimulation brought ‘being at a wedding, throwing a bouquet’, another ‘the theme from Star Wars’ source). For a short while it was thought that we record everything like a video camera. But then it was noticed that memories are cinematically assembled, to the extent that you may see yourself ‘filmed’ in the third person. There’s further evidence that recall is drawn from a storyline – {me}{the beach}{ball}{hit} = embarrassing – and turned into visuals. You will note the comparison between episodic memory and film, which at first blush leads one to think that narrative film is a technical realisation of episodic memory.

But it’s always good to be sceptical. By which I mean we’ve only buzzed people since there was film. If you buzzed someone from several hundred years ago would they see through the media of a painted triptych? If you went back far enough, would Julian Jaynes be right and you get the Voice of Gods explaining what happened in your past? Did perspective arrive in the mind when it arrived in art? Because as much as we may be inspired by our bodies and minds to extend them, we may also train our minds and bodies to emulate mechanical systems. It could be a cycle, and Deleuze was right to be worried that we have cut off the variety of existence that we could otherwise have.

The sensory impressions found in the temporal lobes are not organised in the way we store files on a hard drive. There are related items spread all over the place to the extent that if you snip out a relevant bit of flesh, the memory is still retrievable, but more blurry. So how this material is ‘scored’, or even manifested is (I guess) a matter of the installed biological software. That software could have evolved over time – in fact I would be amazed if it hadn’t. The manner in which the episodic impressions are realised, and how their causal chains are linked cannot have been the same for all human history.

A quick reality check is dreams, which at best guess involves random excitation of these impressions and attempts by the hippocampus to stitch them into a causal chain. Blind dreamers do not dream visually. But their dreams still involve narrative structure. The camerawork of the sighted dreamer doesn’t occur naturally – it’s more likely that camera work in film has responded to the mental mechanism, which in turn has noticed patterns in camera work and responded in kind. I am pretty sure that yes, Deleuze is right about film now, but I also think that the use of fire was once just as important, perhaps the start of animistic religion. And god knows how these images once served human thought:

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