Henri Bergson on the Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought

Henri Bergson on the Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought

"In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside." Henri Bergson. Creative Evolution

Henri Bergson (1859 –  1941) was a French philosopher writing at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. While he was famous during his lifetime, he has lost some notoriety in our contemporary moment. He is sometimes associated with cinema because he was one of the first philosophers to incorporate metaphors related to this emerging technology into his writing. One of his more interesting contributions in this area is the cinematographic mechanism of thought.

Henri Bergson

 William James, the American Psychologist associated with pragmatism, greatly admire Bergson’s intellect. It is no surprise that these two thinkers developed similar concepts of consciousness at the end of the 19th century. Bergson rubbed elbows with several prominent minds, including Albert Einstein, whom he debated in the spring of 1922.

Marcel Proust even stood beside Bergson as the best man when he married Louise. This friendship was immortalized in the pages of In Search of Lost Time through the character Bergotte, a writer whom the narrator dearly admired early on.

In Search of Lost Time - Marcel Proust and Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927 for his theories on memory, time, intuition, affection, and perception. This award was given to him just five short years after his famous debate with Albert Einstein that centered on the topic of duration and simultaneity. Bergson later published a book by this same name. 

One of his most well-known contributions is the term elan vitala vital force or impulse that accounts for intuitive perception and the experience of time. Bergson uses this moving metaphor to describe the delicate balance between intuition and cognition, a contribution that continues to offer new insights in our contemporary moment. The rapid succession of the association of ideas is illustrated in the medium of cinema. This medium both creates and reflects reality, offering a kind of rhetorical invention that renews the image of thought in the same way technological advances in cinema increase the clarity of communication. 

Henri Bergson’s Cultural Influence

John Mullarkey Bergson and Philosophy

John Mullarkey of Kingston University calls Bergson a blindspot in continental philosophy, despite the attempts of Gilles Deleuze to rehabilitate him with his 1966 work, Bergsonism. Mullarkey questions whether the lack of celebration is because of the indefinite and undefinable nature of his thought and work. Mullarkey articulates Bergson’s thought and contribution to the field of philosophy as follows:

“Bergson’s complex theoretical positions make him resistant to assimilation within other movements: he has phenomenological aspects to his thought, and yet was not a phenomenologist; he was a naturalistic philosopher, but his was far from standard naturalism; his work valorizes difference, but not through the structures of language.”

Mullarkey points out that long before poststructuralists celebrate the use of metaphor, Bergson argues for a new language of thought through the constant invention of metaphor, simile, and adjective, “in order to provide the thick descriptions that will restore to the Real the novelty and concrete specificity extracted by the immobilizing concept.”

This convergence of the abstract and concrete is precisely the process at work in apprehending the motion picture. Philosophers have sought to understand the image of thought from creation, but Bergson is one of the first philosophers to illustrate cognition and intuition with the cinematograph.

Streamers of Consciousness

When Virginia Woolf writes “The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder,” she has William James articulation of cognition in mind. The flow of thoughts – the stream of consciousness that is rocked by the ebb and flow of an oscillating mind – anticipates Henri Bergson’s vital force of consciousness.

Stream of Consciousness Virginia Woolf William James

It is through the illustration of film that we see Bergson’s theories of time and memory manifested. While the modality of thought is more complex than cinema, film does help refine Bergson’s argument. With the advent of photography, thinkers began to think about the image of thought using the photographic apparatus.

Sarah Kofman Camera Obscura of Ideology

In describing Freud’s orientation to the photographic apparatus, Sarah Kofman explains that Freud understood psychic phenomena as first passing through an unconscious dark room before developing in the light that we call conscious awareness. What Bergson considers is not the movement between unconscious and conscious thought but the convergence of external phenomena with the internal process of cognition.

Whereas a photograph represents the regiment of a fixed attitude, the cinematograph’s rapid movement celebrates a mobility congruent with the way we acquire knowledge. Bergson accounts for this difference in Creative Evolution:

“Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality, and, as these are characteristic of the reality, we have only to string them on a becoming, abstract, uniform and invisible, situated at the back of the apparatus of knowledge, in order to imitate what there is that is characteristic in this becoming itself. Perception, intellection, language so proceed in general. Whether we would think becoming, or express it, or even perceive it, we hardly do anything else that set going a kind of cinematograph inside us.”

Bergson clarifies his preceding illustration with a final declaration: “the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind.”

The Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought

Henri Bergson Creative Evolution

This notion of becoming — again, a kind of movement, is illustrated in the transition from the still photograph to the cinematograph – a word that translates to “writing in movement.” Bergson parallels this transition to thought in Creative Evolution:

“The process then consists in extracting from all the movements peculiar to all the figures an impersonal movement abstract and simple, movement in general, so to speak: we put this into the apparatus, and we reconstitute the individuality of each particular movement by combining this nameless movement with the personal attitudes. Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially.”

With this in mind, we can approach Bergson’s orientation toward cinema as a metaphor for the image of thought, recognizing how it will continue to evolve, creatively. Paul Ricoeur offers a view of metaphor that leaves room for this kind of rhetorical refinement: “metaphor is the rhetorical process by which discourse unleashes the power certain fictions have to redescribe reality.” Ricoeur inherits his understanding of metaphor from Aristotle’s Poetics, which teaches “the poiesis of language arises out of the connection between mythos and mimesis.”

Henri Bergson The Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought

While metaphor is celebrated in Bergson’s work, he is arguing for an experience of time that avoids spatial metaphors that emphasize objective measurement and claims of exactitude. It is often said Bergson focuses on the quality of a memory or an experience rather than the quantity of it. Reading Bergson provides an important foundation for memory, time, intuition, and perception that anticipates advances in the way we think about cinema as a metaphor for the image of thought.

The Harmonizing Function of Cognition

In Matter and Memory, Bergson responds to Rene Descartes’ conception of spirit and body by affirming the dualistic nature of spirit and matter. Bergson sees memory as a way in which these meet: “…memory—we shall try to prove it in the course of this work—is just the intersection of mind and matter.” The relationship between soul and body is the backdrop of the entire work, specifically in the way this relationship is affected by our experience of time, which he calls duration.

Henri Bergson’s thoughts on intuition, the harmonizing function of cognition, crystallize when he expands his notion of time as duration, which is the idea that time has a kind of subjective component to it. Ten seconds of clock time can feel differently for two different people. He categorizes movement into three concepts: qualitative, evolutionary, and extensive. He says it is a trick of the mind to conflate these into one grand notion of becoming. His emphasis on “the cinematographic mechanism of thought” in Creative Evolution shows how crucial the parts are to the whole, even if measuring these parts proves impossible.

Suzanne Guerlac in her 2006 work, Thinking in Time, articulates Bergson’s concept of duration as “an inner mode of time that has nothing to do with space.” She gleans this insight from Bergson’s doctoral thesis that was written before Matter and Memory and published under the title, Time and Free Will.

In this earlier work, Bergson demonstrates that “immediate intuition shows us motion within duration.” If motion is the cornerstone of duration, what exactly is moving? The answer becomes clear two short years later: matter.

Matter and Memory

Bergson describes matter early in his work and adds layers of complexity throughout:

“Matter, in our view, is an aggregate of ‘images.’ And by ‘image’ we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing; an existence placed half-way between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation.’”

Bergson Sensation PerceptionBergson offers this diagram to illustrate the concepts he defines and reminds the reader that these experiences of memory are not linear but characterized by a continuity – or process – of becoming.

In a clarifying moment, he articulates the crux of his argument: “Psychical life, then, is entirely summed up in these two elements: sensation and image.” Rather than isolate images or refer to mere associations, Bergson is suggesting that memory is a sensory experience and not only a matter of recollecting or aggregating images. Central to this profound sensory experience is a counter cultural view of space and time.

Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein

Bergson’s understanding of space and time was in direct opposition to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity that solidified the time/space continuum in the popular mind. Einstein’s theory of relativity was published just two years before Henri Bergson’s 1907 book, Creative Evolution. Bergson’s criticism concerns the composite nature of space and time in Einstein’s model. Space is an important component of duration, but it functions differently for each thinker. As mentioned before, time feels different from person to person. His argument against space, however, had more to do with his desire to constitute space apart from time.

Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson debate space and time

In the context of explaining the differences between Bergson’s and Einstein’s approach to time, Jimena Canales summarizes Bergson’s argument on the relationship between mind and matter, a distinction that is crucial to his articulation of space and time. In the process, Canales explains some of the ongoing conversations that Bergson’s work responds to:

“Bergson knew fully well that the Cartesian metaphysics, which he saw underlining Einstein’s work, was extremely attractive, yet he believed it led to a number of paradoxes and contradictions both technical and ethical. He was hardly the first (Bergson compared his work to the seventeenth-century criticisms by the theologian Henry More) or the last to point out its deficiencies. Descartes had inspired many to adopt a seductive mechanistic philosophy that considered our bodies to be just like machines. His own philosophy, centering on the connection between material and immaterial realms and detailing how differences between body and spirit were not absolutely fixed but rather shifted throughout time and history, solved some of its problems. He had been widely celebrated for advancing a new solution. Was Einstein oblivious of Bergson’s successes? Was he even aware of them?

You might think, argued the man who would confront Einstein, that the words written on this page are simple material stimuli that set off ideas in your mind. Well, you are wrong: if we change or omit most of the letters here, you will most likely still be able to read the text. Readers typically recognize only eight or ten letters from about thirty or forty of them, filling in the rest from memory, he explained. Reading this very sentence would not be possible without an “exteriorization” of your memories, which arguably mix in with the letters on this page. Mind and matter, he explained, join right here and now on this page, on every page. They join every time we read a clock or recognize an image, no matter how simple. But if matter could not be separated from mind, on what grounds could scientists distinguish their work from those of humanists?”

In Bergson’s model, space and time defy measurement, which is precisely what made it problematic for scientists. Gilles Deleuze explains this daring defiance in the following way:

“At each moment, everything tends to be spread out into an instantaneous, indefinitely divisible continuum, which will not prolong itself into the next instant, but will pass away, only to be reborn in the following instant, in a flicker or shiver that constantly begins again.”

Deleuze emphasizes the way space is a kind of metaphysical edge that might be illustrated by an envelope. This envelope functions as the harmonizing principle bringing Bergson’s thoughts into a potential whole – but this harmony is never actualized, and the whole is only a possibility.

Complicating the Image of Thought

The way Bergson demonstrates this directly influences the way we perceive cinema – moving images. He draws out a thought experiment in which he describes the process of eliminating consciousness:

“I will try, however, to do away even with this consciousness itself. I will reduce more and more the sensations my body sends in to me: now there are almost gone; now they are gone, they have disappeared in the night where all things else have already died away. But no! At the very instant that my consciousness is extinguished, another consciousness lights up — or rather, it was already alight: it had arisen the instant before, in order to witness the extinction of the first; for the first could disappear only for another and in the presence of another.”

The Image of Thought in Henri Bergson's Philosophy

This poetic description of the way one thought sparks another shows duration but it problematizes simultaneity. In other words, these thoughts are intimately connected, indivisible even, but they are not happening simultaneously. Anticipating the neuroscientific evidence that calls multitasking a myth, Bergson explains that we are incapable of perceiving two images of thought at the same time.

“My imagination, it is true, can go from one to the other, I can by turns imagine a nought of external perception or a nought of internal perception, but not both at once, for the absence of one consists, at bottom, in the exclusive presence of the other.”   

Following this distinction, Bergson explains how the image is never formed by thought. Imagining is an attempt at simulating reality; there is a kind of mimetic component to it. What happens when we think, however, is not necessarily representing an image of the external world, but the idea of it. These ideas – these concepts – are made up of the parts of the idea that make up the whole. The whole is what we call memory.

Difference and Repetition

Challenging the idea that memories are collections of images, Bergson writes:

“To picture is not to remember. No doubt a recollection, as it becomes actual, tends to live in an image; but the converse is not true, and the image, pure and simple, will not be referred to the past unless, indeed, it was in the past that I sought it, thus following the continuous progress which brought it from darkness into light. This is what psychologists too often forget when they conclude, from the fact that a remembered sensation becomes more actual the more we dwell upon it, that the memory of the sensation is the sensation itself beginning to be. The fact which they allege is undoubtedly true: the more I strive to recall a past pain, the nearer I come to feeling it in reality. But this is easy to understand, since the progress of a memory precisely consists, as we have said, in its becoming materialized. The question is was the memory of a pain, when it began, really pain?”

The present moment is when sensation happens. In repeating memories, we are not reliving the past, but writing the present. Deleuze clarifies this: “Memory is essentially difference and matter essentially repetition.” This anticipates Roland Barthes’ articulation of the punctum in Camera Lucida, a work that comments on the material nature of the unconscious contained in the photograph. Bergson refines the complexity of his argument about pain, and then time, followed by movement and then action.

“This is to say that my present consists in the consciousness that I have of my body. Having extension in space, my body experiences sensations and at the same time executes movements. Sensations and movements being localized at determined points of this extended body, there can only be, at a given moment, a single system of movements and sensations. That is why my present appears to me to be a thing absolutely determined, and contrasting with my past. Situated between the matter which influences it and that on which it has influence, my body is a centre of action, the place where the impressions received choose intelligently the path they will follow to transform themselves into movements accomplished. Thus it indeed represents the actual state of my becoming, that part of my duration which is in process of growth. More generally, in that continuity of becoming which is reality itself, the present moment is constituted by the quasiinstantaneous section effected by our perception in the flowing mass; and this section is precisely that which we call the material world. Our body occupies its centre; it is, in this material world, that part of which we directly feel the flux; in its actual state the actuality of our present lies. If matter, so far as extended in space, is to be defined (as we believe it must) as a present which is always beginning again, inversely, our present is the very materiality of our existence, that is to say, a system of sensations and movements, and nothing else. And this system is determined, unique for each moment of duration, just because sensations and movements occupy space, and because there cannot be in the same place several things at the same time.”

In this passage, Bergson articulates a kind of materiality of consciousness, which he then follows shortly after with an articulation of a material unconscious, which culminates in a kind of understanding in the passage that is widely quoted:

“Your perception, however instantaneous, consists then in an incalculable multitude of remembered elements; and in truth every perception is already memory. Practically we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future.”

He spends the rest of the chapter revisiting the notion of action in different ways and illustrates our experience with the following diagram:Henri Bergson Cone

“If I represent by a cone SAB the totality of the recollections accumulated in my memory, the base AB, situated in the past, remains motionless, while the summit S, which indicates at all times my present, moves forward unceasingly, and unceasingly also touches the moving plane P of my actual representation of the universe. At S the image of the body is concentrated; and, since it belongs to the plane P, this image does but receive and restore actions emanating from all the images of which the plane is composed.”

In Bergson’s model, the images are contained in the cone and meet the surface of consciousness represented by plane P. To understand the way the mind apprehends cinema using this illustration, consider a sequence of images presented rapidly on the surface of plane P. The eye takes what is external and makes it internal. The addition of movement to the still image that makes up cinematography advances earlier conceptions of memory through emphasizing the external nature of moving matter. In other words, cinema illustrates the process of intellectual becoming. 

Cinema as Photoplay

1907 Ben Hur

 
Sidney Olcott and Frank Oakes Rose adapted the 1889 play, Ben Hur, to the screen in 1907, the same year Henri Bergson saw Creative Evolution meet his readers. In that short film, what we now refer to as a motion picture was called “immortal photoplay.” Bergson’s point in Matter and Memory is to show how habits are formed and actions are prompted when we experience emotions which propel us to action. They play with movement to affect the viewer internally – to propel the viewer to action. With the advent of photoplay, the viewer begins to take part in the action in an entirely new way.

Like technology, the image of thought is always evolving. This is a reality that Bergson recognizes as well. In his last work, The Creative Mind, he realizes even the rapid succession of still images creating movement does not adequately represent what is called thinking. Bergson considers the process of the mind apprehending matter and draws the following conclusion:

“The slightest movement on the part of the object or the eye and there would be not one image but ten, a hundred, a thousand images, as many and more than on a cinematographic film.”

Despite later attempts to articulate what is called thinking, we continue to renew the image of thought in ways that resonate with contemporary technological trends in cinema. Between the advancements of IMAX, 3D, and Virtual Reality, our metaphors of moving images of thoughts and the atmosphere created for sensory experience continues to grow increasingly more complex. 

Henri Bergson on the Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought