Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 56, December 2003



Warwick Mules


The Figural as Interface in Film and the New Media:

D. N. Rodowick's _Reading the Figural_



D. N. Rodowick

_Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media_

Durham: Duke University Press, 2001

ISBN 0-8223-2711-2

276 pp.



In his recently published book _Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media_, D. N. Rodowick introduces the figural into the analysis of film and new media. The book contains revised versions of already published articles written in the 1980s and 1990s, [1] together with new material, and takes us on a journey through film theory and new media technologies to draw out the power of figuration in the coming digital age. Recognizing the 'tectonic shift' (205) currently taking place from an analog to a digital culture, Rodowick convincingly argues that we need a set of new concepts and strategies capable of engaging with new media forms and effects, in order to develop 'creative strategies of resistance' (xvi) as part of a 'critical genealogy that may liberate new concepts for critiquing the permeation of capital into all areas of cultural experience' (xii-xiii).


Rodowick's project is to re-introduce the figural into contemporary analysis, thereby circumventing the reign of the sign in favour of the figural as the virtualisation of the image within various modes of temporal becoming: 'the era of signs is rapidly fading. We have already entered the age of the figural' (46). Drawing on Lyotard's early work on the figural in _Figure, discours_, Deleuze's readings of Foucault and Nietzsche (_Foucault_, _Nietzsche and Philosophy_), and Deleuze's concept of the time-image developed in _Cinema 2_, Rodowick traces a path through various writings in poststructuralist film theory towards an elaboration of the figural as a key concept in the new media age. [2] Rodowick wants us to attend to contemporary media not as sign structures, but as temporally oriented (audio)visual events: 'we need a pedagogy of the image that critically evaluates its relations with time and history' (198). Our task in film and media analysis is not to evaluate the truth of the image as a representation of the (past) event, but to draw out pastness as a configuration of the text's potential futurity.


The figural defines 'a distinct mutation in the character of contemporary forms of representation, information, communication' (49), and emerges in new media as the virtualisation of the real through digital technologies which renders time incommensurable with space:


'when time is rendered as incommensurable with space in the interstice, a vast territory of potentialities opens in every present that passes. Through events, virtuality unfolds as an unlimited reserve of future acts, each of which is equally possible in itself, yet incompossible with all the others' (200).


Taking his cue from Deleuze's time-image concept, which was the subject of his previous book, _Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine_, Rodowick comments on the new virtual regimes of multimedia and the shift to an audiovisual culture where 'the visible and expressible are bound up in a heautonomous relation' (7) that establishes an entirely new order of consumption in capitalist economies [3]. Here, Rodowick goes some way towards elaborating a political economy of the figural, broadening out Deleuze's examination of the time-image in film to audiovisual culture in general [4].


In the new media age, figuration is not simply a textual formation, but potentially a deformation in the discursive regimes that control and direct individual desire within social and cultural environments organised around the process of capital exchange. As an excessive force inhabiting, yet surpassing discourse, figuration involves a virtualisation of the body that resists sign exchange and the formation of social identity. In new media, the virtualised body becomes a site of an illusionary freedom; freedom from the controls and designations of the social, and thus bears the potential for political change: 'the unforseen relations we fashion out of these new relations of force that may augment our bodily and mental powers and enhance our relations with others' (221). However, as Rodowick's analysis indicates, the anticipatory desire of capital (i.e. capital as a Deleuzian abstract machine) captures the new resistive body emerging in multimedia formats, and draws it into a regime of consumption to form a contemporary version of the consumer self based on utopian ideals of synaesthetic experience.


Advertising captures what might otherwise have been a radical aesthesis of the body within emerging virtual communities outside the range of capital, and refashions it in answer to the desire of the individual consuming self in terms of a total experience, where distances in time and space are collapsed, and everything magically appears at the command of the consumer. [5] New media advertising does not sell products, it sells itself in terms of a liberating technology built especially for the consumer, and designed to virtualise her body, to free her from the constraints of time and space, and to place her in control of the resources of capital (easy credit, fluid social arrangements, unlimited opportunities for expansion, compliant technology, in short a world without struggle or travail, a world especially designed just for her). To counteract the power of capital to capture the figural, Rodowick calls for 'a critical philosophy of technology to unlock its historical image and to make legible the strategies of resistance and lines of flight that are created within it' (223).



What then is the historical image of technology that Rodowick calls for, and how can it be seen in terms of a resistive figuration? An answer lies in the way the figural is produced, as the interface between the plastic materiality of signs, and their signifying content. Following Hjelmslev we might say that semiosis involves an interrelation between a plane of expression and a plane of content. [6] Expression and content cannot be resolved into one another, but form an isomorphic relation that actively produces semiosis. In this case, the conventional Saussurean structure of signifier/signified needs to be revised.


In Saussure's model, all semiotic content is resolvable into sign-code through mutual transformations along the signifier/signified axis. While demonstrating how a sign-code functions, the Saussurean model elides the material force that makes the sign-code happen. That is to say, it reduces the event of signification to a matter of signs without materiality, leading to a textualism arranged around the question of discursive authority. Indeed, the first few chapters of Rodowick's book are commentaries on film theory and analysis published in the 1980s by writers such as Thierry Kuntzel and Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, and concerned with the signifier as a destabilising force in film texts. Here the film becomes a 'constellation' (84) of signifiers that override narrational order, constituting a 'phantasmic matrix that gives form and movement to the relations of desire played out in the fiction' (88). In these terms, the figural is a set of signifier-images excessive to the narrative (their presence does not help to move the narrative forward), constituting a matrix or archi-text layered through the film (for instance in Kuntzel's analysis of the film _The Most Dangerous Game_, the vector of images following the appearance of a door knocker). By drawing out the figural matrix of signifier-images 'the self-identity of the text -- the integrity of its body -- must be placed in question' (88). Here the figural is located at the level of the signifier in its uneasy relation with narration. Throughout Rodowick's book there remains a residual commitment to this version of the figural.


However, the figural is not simply the set of signifier-images detectable in a resistive relation to narrational structure, but the force that draws signifiers into proximity with one another, thereby making it possible for them to signify. This force does not unify signs in a formal sense, rather it makes signification happen. The figural is interfaced heautonomically into the sign structure of the film, as the virtualised (dis)connectivity between expression and content, as the torquing of the image into a perpetually opening outside. This new kind of interface is clarified by Foucault in his neglected analysis of the calligrammatic image in Magritte's paintings in _This is Not a Pipe_, [7] which is also discussed at length in Rodowick's book (60-68). In this case, the figural is not to be found in isolated, resistive images spread throughout the film, but as a productive principle of the film itself; as the primary dimension of the (audio)visuality that the film perpetually becomes.


The figural opens film out to 'monstration' [8] or gestural space, as the perpetually deferred 'becoming unified' of a dislocated space/time continuum of visual material (images). An exemplary case of the figural in film can be found in silent films, where the image matrix forms itself around gestural space in the absence of voiced characters. For instance, there is a remarkable scene in D. W. Griffith's _Way Down East_ (1920) where Lillian Gish, who plays Anna, a poor country girl seduced by a city cad, demonstrates 'abandonment' through a series of visual gestures (cradling of arms with an invisible baby, direct look of surprise into the camera, furtive glances around the room). [9] Here the image is full of prescience, providing the film with material to advance the idea of 'abandoned woman'. The transforming images prefigure the sense of what the story tells us through narrative action. In silent film, meaning is written directly onto the film surface through visual gesture without any detour through speech: a machine for writing with film images.


As the interface between expression and content, figurality opens up the space of temporal becoming that the film makes happen, thereby clearing the way for an emergence of an historical image of the film's own formation as a technological and cultural production. This is not simply a matter of placing the self-identity of the film in question, but of producing the filmness that the film is. It's a matter of making the film happen as an audiovisual event. In _Way Down East_ the film 'happens' in the gestural transformations of the images, where ideas emerge directly through the body of the acteur (as opposed to the positionality of the actant). Narrative simply fills out what is constantly produced in the visual gestures that the film is. Although linked back to stage melodrama and the tradition of the tableau vivant in art, the gestures of silent film introduce a new kind of image-making through the film interface. This interface was fatally modified with the introduction of sound in the 1930s, which, from the perspective of the silent image, paralysed the camera in fulfilling its new responsibility to the voice.


The consequence of this re-reading of the figural, away from signifier-effects and towards the torqued image of the plastic material of film, is significant. It overcomes the limitations of a critical analysis always cast in the mode of resistance, where film structure is 'placed in question' by the destabilising force of figurality. As I have shown in the case of silent film, if the figural places structure in question, it also affirms the film in its filmness, thereby paving the way for a positive engagement with the film text, bringing into view new forms of connections and modes of becoming that films, in their specific technological formats, make happen.



As Bill Routt reminds us in his admirable article on the figural in film, figural analysis is a form of hermeneutics involving the historical relation between signs and events, between the text's present condition of meaning and its capacity to draw on and summon forth the past through the power of signs. [10] The figural opens up the historicity of the film text so that the event's past is also its 'coming to presence'. Reading the figural is to read the past in the present; to read with the 'pastness' of the text as a prefiguring of something beyond what the text says in its normative, denotative mode of signification. All texts have figures, since all texts have a past, or at least point to a past as the very materiality of their signification.


The task of figural analysis is not limited to describing figures in film texts. Rather, it concerns the mapping of an abstract machine: a machine for writing in images, composed of various historically defined elements drawn synthetically into particular arrangements and assemblages that make film happen in the way that it does. Here I am not referring to 'context', but to a genealogical tracing of the lineages and interconnectivities between older and more recent image technologies, and their hybrid formations through time. Any given film or media text will exhibit interconnections with pre-existing modes (even if those modes have been pronounced obsolete), which define and control the potential that the film undertakes to make happen. In silent film we might trace the transformation from a theatrical to a film mode of appearance, where the former is prefigured in the latter and vice versa, for instance in the coincidence of stage and film gestures in Lillian Gish's performance in _Way Down East_. Here we see the emergence of a new kind of film sense vibrating in the uneasy conjunction of different techniques.


At stake here is the proliferation of a technological apparatus for the production of images, and the power arrangements that make them appear historically. The technological apparatus is not all of a piece, but is constantly riven with the effects of an outside that produces transformational change. The image machine lives on, not because of any over-riding structure that it possesses, but through the contingent interconnections that are activated in particular image-productions. This is why it is necessary to attend carefully to films themselves, to the detailing of their mode of appearance and its relation to ideational content as a particular moment in the image machine's transformational history. Rodowick's book goes some way to an elaboration of this kind of genealogy.


Central Queensland University

Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia





1. See for instance Rodowick's 'Reading the Figural' and 'Audiovisual Culture and Interdisciplinary Knowledge'.


2. The figural bears a strong resemblance to Deleuze's concept of the time-image. Deleuze's theory of the time-image suffers somewhat from an over-specification of its historical emergence. Deleuze pinpoints the first sighting of the time-image with Italian neorealism just after the Second World War. However, it can be argued that the time-image is implicit in all film, from its early actuality stage to the present. In a curious oversight, Deleuze hardly mentions silent film and does not deal at all with pre-narrative silent film, which, one might have thought, would constitute the first emergence of the time-image before film became waylaid first by narrative structure, and then by voiced sound.


3. A heautonomous relation is characterised by disjunctive synthesis, or the paradoxical conjoining of actively differentiating elements into a transformational synthetic whole. For a full discussion of this important concept see Deleuze, _Difference and Repetition_, especially chapter 2, 'Repetition for Itself'.


4. The figural economy that Rodowick wants to uncover is not textual (as it is with Lyotard in _The Libidinal Economy_), but extends into the processes of commodity exchange within virtualised relations of production and consumption. Possibilities of elaborating such an economy can be found in Deleuze's proposal of a control society: a cybernetic modulation of digital code discontinuously located with respect to rapidly virtualising materials of space-time distantiation (see Deleuze, _Negotiations, 1972-1990_, pp. 177-182)


5. For more on this see my 2000 article, 'Lines, Dots and Pixels'.


6. Here I follow Eco, who employs Hjelmslev to develop a theory of semiosis based on the 'molecular landscape' of signaletic material that forms semiotic codes (see Eco, _A Theory of Semiotics_, p. 49).


7. See Foucault's 1983 book _This is Not a Pipe_.


8. See Brooks, 'Consumed by Cinematic Monstrosity'


9. For a more detailed analysis of _Way Down East_ along these lines see my 2001 text, 'The Visuality of Film as Commodified Excess'.


10. See Routt, 'For Criticism'.





Brooks, Jody, 'Consumed by Cinematic Monstrosity', _Art and Text_, vol. 34, 1989, pp. 79-94


Deleuze, Gilles, _Nietzsche and Philosophy_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (London: Athlone, 1983)

--- _Cinema I: The Movement Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

--- _Foucault_, trans. Sean Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

--- _Cinema 2: The Time Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

--- _Difference and Repetition_, trans. Paul Patton (London: Athlone Press, 1994).

--- _Negotiations, 1972-1990_, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).


Eco, Umberto, _A Theory of Semiotics_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979).


Foucault, Michel, _This is Not a Pipe_, trans. James Harkness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).


Lyotard, Jean-Francois, _Discours, figure_ (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971).


Mules, Warwick, 'Lines, Dots and Pixels: The Making and Remaking of the Printed Image IN Visual Culture', _Continuum_, vol. 14 no. 3, 2000, pp. 303-316.

--- 'The Visuality of Film as Commodified Excess: Beyond Narrative and Text, _Redoubt_, 29, 2001, pp. 119-133.


Rodowick, D. N., _Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine_ (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).

--- 'Reading the Figural', _Camera Obscura_, 24, 1991, pp. 11-44.

--- 'Audiovisual Culture and Interdisciplinary Knowledge', _New Literary History_, Winter, vol. 26 no. 1, 1995.


Routt, William D., 'For Criticism: Nicole Brenez, _De la Figure en general et du corps en particulier: l'invention figurative au cinema_', parts 1 and 2, _Screening the Past_, March 2000 <>.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Warwick Mules, 'The Figural as Interface in Film and the New Media: D. N. Rodowick's _Reading the Figural_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 56, December 2003 <>.



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