November 17, 2005

Psyche and Cinema: Hume, James, and Bergson

Ronald Schenk
Both film and psychoanalysis can be seen as ritualistic expressions of the central dynamic of the modern psyche - the tension between self and other, conscious and unconscious, projector and screen – each phenomenon taking place in its own darkly private setting. Whereas the movies show images literally projected onto a screen, in psychoanalysis patient and analyst reflect upon images they mutually "project" upon each other as "screens" which, in their mutual desiring, draw the images out. These images then lead to sequences of images remembered from the past, acted out in the present, as they point onward as intention into the future.
Theories of consciousness have approached this tension through metaphors reflecting the technology of vision. In the eighteenth century David Hume anticipated the technology of cinema with his assertion that the mind was "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement."[13] Hume's idea was remarkably accurate both as a description of consciousness and as a prefiguration of how movies work. In 1890 William James emphasized the continuous motion of consciousness, "we must simply say that thought goes on,"[14] and introduced the metaphor of the "stream of consciousness."
Consciousness, then does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…It is nothing jointed; it flows…In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.[15] For James, following Heraclitus, consciousness was a stream which could be never be entered twice. Although there may appear to be several sources or personalities in an individual psyche, they were always the emanation of one self. "As the brain-changes are continuous, so do all these consciousnesses melt into each other like dissolving views."[16] James used the zoetrope as metaphor in addressing the concern regarding the mind's creation of illusion. "Is consciousness really discontinuous…and does it only seem continuous to itself by an illusion analogous to that of the zoetrope?"[17] As the scientist Oliver Sacks observes, had James been writing a few years later, he might have used the analogy of the motion picture camera. "The technical and conceptual devices of cinema - zooming, fading, dissolving, omission, allusion, association and juxtaposition of all sorts – rather closely mimic (and perhaps are designed to mimic) the streamings and veerings of consciousness."[18]
In 1908 Henri Bergson published his book Creative Evolution in which he included a section on "The Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought, and the Mechanistic Illusion." We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality, and…we have only to string these on a becoming,…situated at the back of the apparatus of knowledge, in order to imitate what there is that is characteristic in this becoming itself….We hardly do anything else than set going a kind of cinematograph inside us….The mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind.[19]
The images and analogies of Hume, James, and Bergson were confirmed more recently in the paper, "A Framework for Consciousness" published in Nature Neuroscience, 2/03 by contemporary neuroscientists Francis Crick and Christof Koch. From their studies of perception they conclude "conscious awareness(for vision) is a series of static snapshots, with motion 'painted' on them…(and) that perception occurs in discrete epochs."[20] Crick and Koch understand these discrete epochs to overlap, not in the retina as was thought by 19th century researchers of the persistence of vision, but in coalitions of neurons in the cortex. Ocular perception is like observing the moving frames of cinema.
When we are watching movies, three screenings are actually in play - the product of the filming which is being displayed on the theater screen, the physiological perception of the "flicks," and the meaning being made of the event by the consciousness of the observer. As Sacks writes, Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it, know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making - but we are, equally, its subjects too; every frame, every moment is us, is ours - our forms (as Proust says) are outlined in each one, even if we have no existence, no reality, other than this.[21]
Both cinema and psychoanalysis express James' truth that "experience is remoulding us every moment,"[22] and Vishnu's truth that reality is staged, identity created, both to be discovered and revealed through a matrix of veils of imagination or movie screens.

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