Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 49, December 2002

 

 

Roger Dawkins

 

An Infrared Vision of the World

Deleuze, the Sign, and _In the Mood for Love_

 

 

'The cinema does not just present images, it surrounds them with a world.' Gilles Deleuze [1]

 

I often imagine how good it would be to have a pair of those infrared binoculars -- the ones always used by the hero in movies to see what's ordinarily hidden by darkness. Similar is the alien's vision of warmth in _Predator_. In this film the commandos, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, cannot escape the prying eyes that see the warmth of their bodies (no matter how much guerrilla is in their warfare).

 

My binoculars would be more like glasses though, and could be adjusted to various settings depending on my mood. But I'd still use them as a way of seeing what ordinarily wasn't there -- in other words, what is there but perhaps invisible. Like someone's thoughts for example, or their emotions. Perhaps I could set my glasses to see the oxygen being sucked up by a mass of dancers in a nightclub; the heat from the sun in the shade; the light reflecting off the ocean while I surf; and the ideas before they're formed in my head.

 

It is with this sense that I watch Wong Kar-Wei's 2001 film _In the Mood for Love_. Yet particular about this film is that I don't need special glasses, because everything's in plain view already. _In the Mood for Love_ is like a melting pot of 1960s life in Hong Kong.

 

It presents to us the hustle and bustle of life as we usually see it, but it also shows certain things that are ordinarily invisible -- no less real, simply less visible. For instance, it shows all the relations, like a harlequin's cape, which surround everything and from which every character chooses a course of action. It shows the emotions that circulate prior to the protagonists' feelings. It shows the virtual thoughts from which every thought is a meaningful expression.

 

For me, Wong Kar-Wei's film is an infrared perspective on the world, and in this paper I want to consider how this is the case. How does this film open onto a virtual dimension of what is given, onto the affections, actions, and thoughts from which every object and body is a meaningful expression? How does _In the Mood for Love_ let us see what is real but ordinarily invisible?

 

To answer these questions I will approach film as a language. To begin with I will discuss language as a perspective on the world, and how, since this is the case, the visions of my infrared glasses are (in principle) the potential of all languages (spoken, written, artistic, filmic). This is the subject of part one. Then, in part two, I will address some of the ways the universe is realised in a language and its signs. My focus here will be on the kinds of signs Gilles Deleuze interprets from Marcel Proust, each of these referring to a different perspective on the world. Finally, in part three, I will consider Wong Kar-Wei's film as language, the essence of which is the same virtual world. Important in this section though is how _In the Mood for Love_ makes the most out of its signs, giving us an infrared vision of the world.

 

 

Part One: *Plane of Immanence*

 

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe my infrared vision in ontological terms. To see what is real but hidden is to tap into a primary state of reality, where all is given and all is visible. They call this primary state the *plane of immanence*.

 

The plane of immanence is the ontological beginning of life, and so it is like a tangled skein of all the 'categories' that make life. As such, the plane is a plan of infinite action and reaction; a crucible of qualities; a shimmering of light: a primeval soup with neither 'centre, nor left, nor right, nor high, nor low'. [2] It is 'a host of facts, occurrences, implications, thoughts, emotions and associations past and present'. [3]

 

The plane of immanence also takes into account something else, something principal to its nature as 'cosmological birth of the world'. [4] Without centre, the plane of immanence has no reference point to which a past, present, and future are relative. Instead, time swells in all directions and is a product of the plane's movement and flow. The plane's relations and flux are not subordinate to time (for there is no concept of time separate from the plane's existence), and so all relations take place in time. Therefore, to think of a past and present is to think only of a moment constantly split into a present which passes and a past which is present.

 

To help us understand the plane of immanence better, we might trace its inception into Deleuze's philosophy back to Benedict de Spinoza's anti-theologism and, more specifically, Deleuze's interpretation of Spinoza's doctrine of univocal substance. Deleuze's monograph, _Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza_, reveals a relationship between the plane of immanence as a kind of primeval soup, and Spinoza's conception of God. In the _Ethics_ Spinoza suggests that God cannot be personified (like the kind of figure portrayed by George Burns in the _Oh God_ films), but is something more abstract: 'a being absolutely infinite'. [5] Spinoza describes God as a 'substance', and in terms of how God gives life (if he is not a figure that performs miracles), Spinoza refers us to what he calls the 'infinity of attributes' implicated in the existence of substance. For instance, the attribute of thought and the attribute of extension are two examples, and, for Spinoza, it is from attributes like this that every mode of life is a product.

 

Perhaps a similar way of understanding the plane of immanence is to jump forward to the late 19th century and think in terms of Charles Peirce's phenomenology. For instance Laura U. Marks, writing in 2000, explicates a Peircian ontocosmology based on what she interprets as a 'pure materiality of the word', a 'zeroness' of life, in which 'the whole universe is involved or foreshadowed'. [6] Furthermore, Peirce seems to come close to Spinoza's conception of the attributes when he describes three related Categories of being which, according to Marks, refer to three notions of reality essential to the primordial state of zeroness. They are: Firstness as the category of qualitative possibility; Secondness as the category of actual existence; and Thirdness as the category of the relation or event. Thus we can claim this tangled skein of the universe to be univocal in so far as all life partakes in some way of these three Categories of being.

 

The above ideas, from Deleuze, Spinoza, and Peirce, give us an idea of an ontology of the universe, yet there is one more principle we must consider. This is what Deleuze calls, from Spinoza's thesis, the principle of expression. *Expression* refers us to the process involved in the relation between God and existing things, and so with this principle in mind we would say that substance (or God) expresses itself in attributes (like thought and extension), and these attributes, in turn, are *expressed* in bodies, plants, rocks, and other existing things.

 

But what is so significant about couching the evolution of the universe in terms of expression? If we consider a definition of expression, we will see

that the French infinitive *expliquer*, from the Latin *plicare*, means '*deplier*, *derouler* or to unfold in different series'. [7] In line with this definition we can suggest expression as a kind of *extension* or *development*, and, returning to Spinoza, this means we would claim the modes as a *development* of the attributes, and the attributes as a *development* of substance. Yet there is something else more important here: it is the fact that this development is described as an unfolding *in different series*. Therefore we must clarify things and say that, on the one hand, my body is a development of the attributes, making it an extension of substance; and on the other hand, my body is an *expression* of the attribute of extension -- or, in other words, an expression of difference. In short, expression tells us that: 1, although an extension of substance, there is no *resemblance* between my body and the attributes of substance; and therefore: 2, the nature of the substance-attribute-mode 'link' is what Deleuze calls *essential* only.

 

I want to retain this idea of expression from a Spinozistic context for a more general discussion of the universe. As a concept it suggests an evolutionary ontology whereby all life is a product of something universal and essential, but most importantly, as an *expressive* ontology, it suggests that life is not the *reflection* of something transcendental. Life therefore is a growth and evolution of immanence.

 

For Spinoza, this has important implications for the individual. Expression means that a true and adequate knowledge of things, life, the universe etc., lies not within the limits of one's imagination, or through reference to some transcendental ideology. Instead, the highest kind of knowledge can be gained by looking inwards and realizing that all life is an explication of what is immanent and absolute in the universe. Moreover, this power of understanding is the potential of all thinking things in the universe.

 

 

*Assemblage*

 

For Deleuze and Guattari, language follows the path of life's immanent expression.

 

For instance we might consider Pier Paolo Pasolini's _Heretical Empiricism_ and say that reality is a language. In this case the objects and bodies of the extended world are a language, in so far as they are expressions of matter and, more generally, the plane of immanence. Yet we would have to emphasize that, for Pasolini, this expression is not the reflection of anything external to the expressions: instead it is an articulation of what is already there. This is the differentiation of something that is formed, but undifferentiated.

 

In the same way then we can follow Deleuze and say that natural language has as its principle an immanent relation of phonemes. In this case the essence of language is a heterogeneous plane of phonemes, of vowel sounds, gutturals, and non-sense. Each word therefore is less the reflection of a language system and more the differential threshold of immanence. [8]

 

Similar is his thesis in _The Movement-Image_ and _The Time-Image_. For Deleuze cinema is an expression of material intensity, and in this case he calls the virtual dimension of language the movement-image's *plane of consistency*. Comprising this plane, and homologous to the ontology of the universe, are the undifferentiated categories of life. Deleuze claims the cinematic sign to be an expression of the categories flowing beneath the surface of the image, and in this case, and borrowing from Charles S. Peirce's phenomenology, he labels these categories: affection, action, and relation.

 

A language therefore is an assemblage of relations at a particular moment in time. It has no fixed centre, and is not organised according to anything outside its terms. It is an amalgamation of terms, but not an organisation. An assemblage therefore is like a map of the universe, and in terms of its principle of differential expression, it is a non-Euclidean map of gaseous proportions (the very space of which is constituted by the movement of its vectors).

 

 

Part Two: 'Apprenticeship'

 

In _Proust and Signs_ Deleuze focuses on this sense of immanence in language. He suggests that language, in its various forms, is an 'apprenticeship'. Deleuze uses the idea of the apprenticeship to suggest that an aim of language is the *progression* through certain different types of sign. In this respect, the task of the apprenticeship is to arrive at 'Artistic Signs' that celebrate what he calls (in a rather Spinozistic manner), 'essence'. I want to suggest that when a sign is expressive of essence in this way, it shows the differential categories of being in the universe.

 

Language is an *apprenticeship* though because not all signs realise essence. Although all signs have essence as their principle, some are conventional and are maintained within the rules of an oppositional *structure*. Therefore a sign might have a quality as its object, or even a memory, but if these are construed in relation to something external to their terms, then they are not expressive of essence. A quality, for it to be a sign of essence, must refract the universe of quality; a memory, for it to be a sign of essence, can't be my memory or your memory, but must be expressive of a *world memory*: what Deleuze describes in the cinema books as a 'pure recollection'. [9] The task of language then is to find *disruptions* in conventional representations, 'accident zones' in the everyday order of things, *alcoholism* in the day to day of things. [10]

 

From Proust's text Deleuze writes that the apprenticeship is based

first of all on a negotiation of what he calls 'Worldly Signs'. Worldly Signs reflect an experience of the world steeped in tradition and convention, meaning that signs of this type are born of 'involuntary intelligence'. [11] Therefore these signs are conventional in nature, and, as an example, consider the *hardness* of the object in relation to the *idea* of 'hardness', and the opposition of this concept from other principles like 'malleability', 'brittleness', etc. Obviously then, Worldly Signs do not take difference into account, and are not constitutive of essence.

 

Next he describes another type of sign in our experience of the world: the 'Signs of Love'. For Deleuze these signs are based on a similarly fixed perspective on the universe. This time difference is subordinate to the lover's feelings of anxiety and jealousy in relation to what Deleuze describes as the secret world of the beloved. He writes that everywhere the lover turns, s/he is confronted with what he interprets as signs of the beloved's deception and lies. Objectivity, therefore, is subordinate to love.

 

Still following from Proust, 'Sensuous Signs' are formed when one interprets an object or thing according to the recollections of their involuntary memory. An example might be the memories I associate with watching certain films, the same memories that, if they disappear, might take a moment of my childhood with them. Again, these signs anchor our interpretation of the world, yet this time the anchorage is temporal.

 

Finally, the 'Signs of Art' are signs of essence and transcend all ideological underpinning and moments of subjective construal. In this respect they celebrate the differential relations of the universe. Involved, for example, might be an interpretation of an object's possible existence, and this interpretation need not be limited to the object's actual existence in a state of things. An artistic sign may relate the degrees of whiteness possible within the purest of whites, like a field of snow or a sheet of paper. An interpretation of essence may take into account all the potential actions of a body: its vectors of movement. It may also take into account all the discourses surrounding a judgement. In this example a particular judgement is like a throw of the dice, each throw being a singularity, and furthermore, throwing is the only rule. [12]

 

 

Part Three: _In the Mood for Love_

 

Wong Kar-Wei's film is interesting because it charts the sign's expression of the universe. It presents what I'm calling an *infrared vision*, and in doing so grapples with the problem of the sign's expression of essence.

 

Set in the early 1960s in Hong Kong, this film is about the affair of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), a newspaper editor, and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a secretary working for an adulterous travel agent. Initially, theirs is a chance encounter: typical of Hong Kong life in the 60s, Mo-wan and Li-zhen (and their spouses) move in with two separate families (although next door to each other), in a busy down-town block . . . Maybe because of their close proximity, Mo-wan's wife and Li-zhen's husband begin having an affair, and the two protagonists are inadvertently thrown into their own complicated relationship.

 

Primarily, _In the Mood for Love_ is about the chaos of chance encounters. In this respect we can say that it maps the plane of immanence. For instance, we first meet Mo-wan after he misses out on renting the room Li-zhen just took. However, Li-zhen's new landlord is nice enough to suggest the household next door, where Mo-wan soon takes up residence. What ensues is a sequence where we see the two protagonists moving in, coincidentally, on the same day. Erratic hand held camera actions complement the yells and conversations of the removalists and the general hustle and bustle, while Mo-wan and Li-zhen move their stuff (spouses not included), constantly tripping over each other, accidentally putting things in the other's apartment, noticing each other . . .

 

At the same time though, both the protagonists are involved in their own individual worlds. Deleuze would say these are the worlds enveloped by their beloved. That is to say, both Mo-wan and Li-zhen are married and in love (we assume), and according to Deleuze's description of the 'Signs of Love', we could say that both are teetering on the edge of the world of their beloved -- trying to understand them, trying to please them, trying to decipher the inevitable lies and secrets that come with being in love. Deleuze writes that the world of the loved one is 'a world that excludes us . . . that the beloved will not and cannot make us know'. [13] From Deleuze's explication of Proust, the experience of love is always one of interpretation, jealously, and anxiety. Love's signs are thus 'deceptive signs that always conceal what they express: the origin of unknown worlds, of unknown actions and thoughts that give them a meaning'. [14] Such is a process of 'avowal' through which meaning is constantly sought in the beloved. [15]

 

With this idea of the beloved is a notion of experience riddled with subjectivity. The lover is constantly looking for signs and using their intelligence in an attempt to 'work out' the beloved. Also, Deleuze writes that the process of loving is itself the repetition and application of a *law*. Such is a serial repetition of a primordial notion of 'love' that is manifest in the opposing and contrasting relations of a succession of loved ones: 'each love contributes its difference, which was already included in the preceding love, and all the differences are contained in a primordial image that we unceasingly reproduce at different levels and repeat as the intelligible law of all our loves'. [16]

 

However when the protagonists begin their affair the film becomes even more interesting.

 

For example, there's a scene in a restaurant where we can see the worlds of the beloved being opened up. In this particular moment of the film, Mo-wan and Li-zhen get together to talk, and each is suspicious of the other's spouse, but neither is initially sure enough to say anything. After a while though, the signs are revealed: Mo-wan mentions a handbag of Li-zhen's; a style of handbag that his wife has also, and that turns out to be a gift to both women from Li-zhen's husband. Similarly Li-zhen mentions the tie Mo-wan is wearing, claiming that her husband has the exact one: 'He wears it every day' she says. As this revelation happens, the slow cross-cutting between characters, as they sit at a seedy dinner table, is all of a sudden disrupted by a swift and sudden backwards and forwards pan between Mo-wan and Li-zhen. While the horizontal movement of the camera unites them through their mutual revelation, something else is happening also. Not only is the intersection of the character's worlds based on the betrayal of their spouses, the camera movement also seems to suggest the kindling of a new relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen. The camera marks the beginning of their affair, and as such, marks the creation of new worlds, of a new beloved for each of the protagonists.

 

As this relationship develops throughout the rest of the film, what is most interesting are the stakes of the affair for the protagonists. On the one hand, the affair suggests and depends on the typical 'other world' of each character's new beloved. In this sense, the characters always meet *between* places, in this *other world* that is different from everyday life: in alley ways, in the rain, in hotel rooms, on the phone. Like all affairs, rarely do Mo-wan and Li-zhen meet in their 'real' or actual worlds. They constantly meet in hidden zones, creating hidden worlds of their desire and secrecy. The affair, then, is based on the law of the secret.

 

On the other hand though, the protagonists constantly say that they do not want to be 'like them', like their sneaky and deceitful spouses. In a lot of ways their affair is reactionary, but not reactionary in the nature of opposition or revenge. They seem to use each other as a way of attempting to neutralise their participation in the world of their cheating spouses. For instance, they practice mock confrontations, and in one particular scene Li-zhen pretends that Mo-wan is her husband and accuses him of infidelity. In so doing she tries to negotiate his lies and maintain her feelings. These scenes often appear as moments of falsification in the narrative, and usually the viewer does not realise until after that it is a mock confrontation.

 

Why is this interesting though?

 

Quite simply, the characters' self-consciousness can be seen as an attempt to map Deleuze's world of essence. _In the Mood for Love_ is a story about the characters' attempts to maintain a certain objectivity and clarity in their relationship, and so it is really a story that attempts to chart Deleuze's apprenticeship. It has the virtual world of complication as its principle, and this is evident with the assemblage of actions, feelings, and relations from which the affair(s) spring, but also it has essence as the experience Mo-wan and Li-zhen are attempting to steer their relationship towards.

 

For example, at one moment they even rehearse their own break up. With this they try and maintain their feelings and prevent the uncertainty and anxiety that inevitable leads to the lies and deceit of love. Yet these scenes do not appear from the outset as moments of falsification in the narrative, and so the fact that they are so indeterminately false testifies to how close to essence the lovers get in their apprenticeship.

 

It is with these rehearsals and falsifications that the film celebrates essence -- in other words, peeling back the actual to show what's hidden at its depths. Deleuze describes early Soviet cinema in the same sort of way, writing that montage is constitutive of a kind of kaleidoscopic vision of the world: like the thousand faceted eyes of the insect. Yet whereas the kind of accelerated montage particular to films like Dziga Vertov's _Man With A Movie Camera_ exposes an infinite continuum of matter, objects, bodies, and people in relation, we can say that _In the Mood For Love_ is more an *infrared vision* of the world. The characters reveal the signs of love to each other and make themselves aware of love's consequences. In doing this they expose themselves to the universe of feelings and affections; they try to grasp these feelings and understand them by removing them from the vector of jealousy and betrayal so typical of the beloved. They rehearse the signs resonating from their bodies: their actions, the relations of these actions, and their gestures. Each time the characters meet, with each rehearsal and each feigned smile, it's as if the plane of immanence, ordinarily so imperceptible, is rendered visible.

 

*In the end however, they are doomed*

 

In the end, they simply fall in love. The signs that they try to create with their mock confrontations and rehearsals are inextricable tied to the lover. As Deleuze writes in _Proust and Signs_, these signs are too bound to their material of expression, and therefore can never transcend the constraints of their identity. The protagonists become embroiled in their own affair, in the interpretation of the other's 'Signs of Love'. At various moments we see the strain involved in Li-zhen's attempt to penetrate Mo-wan's world, a particular example being when she goes to rendezvous with him in a hotel room. Quick edits, jump cuts, and repetition show her anxiety as she rushes up and down the stairs of the foyer, completely indecisive, her interpretative faculties working over time as she asks herself: 'Should I or Shouldn't I?'

 

On the one hand, the apprenticeship fails. If we return to my analogy at the beginning of this paper, we could say that both Mo-wan and Li-zhen had access to the infrared glasses, and they had instructions (they were both, after all, suffering the fall-out of adulterous partners). Yet they failed to 'see' the differential relations of the universe and create signs of essence because they were in love. Accompanying these feelings is a loss of subjectivity, and with a loss of subjectivity, the anguish of the beloved.

 

On the other hand though the film ends with the lovers breaking it off, and in this sense their apprenticeship succeeds. It's rather sad to suggest that the apprenticeship depends on destruction in this way, but it's not sad when we remember what the lovers were setting out to achieve. They wanted objectivity. They wanted to understand the actions of their partners, and although this understanding had to be a product of Mo-wan's and Li-zhen's relationship, what was always primary was the mastery of feelings. This is like the cliché perpetuated often in most romantic comedies, whereby the beloved claims, 'I just don't want to get involved, I've been hurt too often. . .'. In Mo-wan and Li-zhen's case though, they put this principle into practice by attempting to master the conditions of their relationship. The film makes clear Deleuze's argument that the grasping of essence is impossible within the tangled web of the lovers' discourse.

 

For me though this film isn't so much about whether the lovers fail or succeed. It's about the path traced by the lovers' relationship. It's about the territory created by their encounter, and in my eyes this territory is the essence of language: an infrared territory.

 

University of New South Wales

Sydney, Australia

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 68.

 

2. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 58.

 

3. John Cournos, 'Introduction', in Andrey Biely, _St Petersburg_, trans. John Cournos (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. xi.

 

4. This phrase is from Jean Louis Schefer's _L'Homme ordinaire du cinema_ (Paris: Gallimard, 1981). See Deleuze, _Cinema 2_, p. 37.

 

5. Gilles Deleuze, _Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza_, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Zone Books, 1992), p. 13.

 

6. Laura U. Marks, 'Signs of the Time: Deleuze, Peirce and the Documentary Image', in Gregory Flaxman, ed., _The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of the Cinema_ (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 196.

 

7. Andre Pierre Colombat, 'Deleuze and Signs', in Ian Buchanan and John Marks, eds, _Deleuze and Literature_ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 14.

 

8. For the idea of *the differential threshold of immanence*, see Deleuze's _Difference and Repetition_, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 205.

 

9. Deleuze, _Cinema 2_, p. 98.

 

10. For the idea of alcoholism as a window on difference, see Deleuze's writing on F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'Twenty-Second Series: Porcelain and Volcano', trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, in Constantin V. Boundas, ed., _The Logic of Sense_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

 

11. Deleuze, _Proust and Signs_, p. 98.

 

12. Deleuze borrows the idea of the dice-throw from Nietzsche, and it appears throughout _Difference and Repetition_.

 

13. Deleuze, _Proust and Signs_, p. 9.

 

14. Ibid.

 

15. Ibid., p. 84.

 

16. Ibid., p. 68.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2002

 

Roger Dawkins, 'An Infrared Vision of the World: Deleuze, the Sign, and _In the Mood for Love_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 49, December 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n49dawkins>.

 

 

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