Images of difference

Originally uploaded by razorsmile.

On Wednesday this week (24th Jan) in the MA Seminar I spoke about the role of images within ‘Difference and Repetition’ (DR). They are important because the thought of difference that Deleuze is developing within DR is a ‘difference before identity’ and our thought patterns and culture are so imbued with ‘identity’ thinking that it can be strange to try and think of a primary ontological difference. The beginning of Chapter 1 of DR (Difference in itself) is ripe with a series of images, from the lightning flash, the black indeterminacy as against the white indeterminacy, as well as Goya and Odilon Redon in reference to ‘chiaroscuro’. The image here is from Odilon Redon and is called ‘The origin of vision’. In it I find something of this dark chaotic difference that is the primary ontological category and the ‘individuation’ (coming to be) of an object or organ before it’s integration into any sort of system of organisation that might constitute a ‘full identity’. The single eye and the feathered surroundings that appear like the eyelashes catch a sense of an almost fetishistic vision, one in which we catch sight of things not through a simple appearance but precisely because the thing, our interests and the relations between them constitute an individuation from out of a chaotic set of forces that is difference in itself.

What role can these images play? Firstly, a note of caution. In Chapter 3 of DR Deleuze will explicitly argue against an ‘image of thought’ in favour of something we might want to call an ‘imageless thought’. Such an argument might suggest that the use of images to aid our thinking of difference is liable to fall into error or at least be inconsistent in terms of an exposition of DR. There is something of importance here but it is not the use of images ‘per se’ but the fixed image that becomes a problem. The ‘image of thought’ Deleuze is referring to is a specific dogma or set of presuppositions that form the culture of thought that dominates us as a culture in which we live. It is therefore not simply any use of images that needs to be rejected, according to Deleuze, but a specific image or dogma of what thought is. Having said that, any new set of images, if allowed to become fixed, will eventually reconstruct an image of thought and it is not a ‘new image of thought’ that is needed but the capacity to think without a culturally dogmatic model that lies at the heart of Deleuze’s argument. Given this note of caution then my suggestion is that it is extremely useful to try and find images that aid in thinking difference in that they can form examples or aids to articulating the operation of difference. All we need to remember, as a kind of principle of activity, is that the images are not the thought of difference but are a case in which we might find something to articulate about difference itself. As such we should try to keep moving, keep finding images, and in this process of ‘keep moving’ we will both allow difference itself to begin to show itself for us in the series of images we are attracted to.

Secondly, images offer us a challenge not to understand them (‘it’s a tree’) but to respond to them (‘it’s strange, beautiful, disturbing’) and in this they offer themselves precisely as difference itself. It is the image that does not challenge us which is like the form of representational thought. We come across the unchallenging image and nothing resists our eyes, we assimilate it easily but we can assimilate it precisely because it is part of the culture in which we live and it is this culture that is being challenged by Deleuze’s attempt to think difference. The challenging image, then, offers us an encounter with difference itself. We should perhaps only be cautious of rejecting out of hand imagery that is representational because any imagery can offer us a challenge, as we find when representation is taking to a limit in the trompe l’oeuil and reality is disturbed through the simulacrum of reality created in the skillful use of techniques of perspective. Representational images can also challenge us simply by their sheer beauty, by something about the represented face or figure that is so intensely alive that we find it challenging to consider as nothing more than an artifact or object. I recently saw some images from the classical Greek period that were nothing more than classical representational portraits and yet the simple focus on a face that was recorded so ‘accurately’ (in terms of identity, ie; it ‘looked like the person’, or at least was clearly intended to) brought to life a historical period more commonly come across in bust and figure sculpture.

Images, then, can be aids in our articulation of difference since in beginning to talk about the challenge of an image we begin, albeit hesitantly, to talk about difference itself. In this sense the construction of a concept of difference that is not simply a conceptual difference (Deleuze’s goal in DR after all) is helped by finding these small pieces of intuitive ground from which we can begin to take our first steps.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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