Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A (belated?) review of Anna Powell's Deleuze and Horror Film

Anna Powell. Deleuze and Horror Film. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

The notion that consumers of horror fiction and film are subject to a pathological condition akin to drug addiction has a venerable pedigree; it was an idea that S. T. Coleridge (whose opinion was of course informed by personal knowledge of such a condition) helped to popularize with his influential criticism of horror fictions as “powerful stimulants” in a 1797 review of M. G. Lewis’ infamous novel, The Monk. This analogy remains a stereotype of both popular and academic discourse on horror cinema; consumers and critics devoted to horror film continue to be represented as suffering from a sort of visceral, visual addiction. It is appropriate, then, that the autobiographical tone of Anna Powell’s introduction to her Deleuze and Horror Film comes close to taking on the confessional quality of a recovery narrative.

The intellectual addiction from which Powell admits to recovering is not, however, a crippling “horror film habit”. Rather, Powell’s therapeutic application of Deleuzian theory to horror cinema has allowed her to emerge from the nefarious influence of (in Deleuze and Guattari’s words) “the strange death-cult of psychoanalysis.” No newcomer to critical and philosophical work with horror films, Powell explains that much of her earlier work was preoccupied with Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic issues. Deleuze and Horror Film represents her radical departure from this paradigm.

The predominance of psychoanalytic assumptions in theoretical approaches to horror film, as Powell recognizes, verges on the hegemonic. Yet, as she persuasively insists, psychoanalysis is often “an inadequate key to unlock either the multiple levels of horror film, or [our] responses to them” (1), since, like theoretical approaches that privilege “representation and narrative structure,” it “neglect[s] the primacy of corporeal affect” which is so foundational for many horror films, and downplays “the affective dynamic of the films” (2). Deleuzian thought, on the other hand, features a receptivity to the cognitive possibilities of horrific affect, rooted in Deleuze’s development of Hume’s realization that “reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation”, and is thus a promising method of returning horror to its affective roots, which psychoanalytic, narratological, historical and ideological approaches tend to lose, or at least obscure.

The Freudian model of “Mommy, Daddy, Me” has also helped perpetuate the logic of disease which informed Coleridge’s criticism of Gothic fiction over two centuries ago, since, as Powell explains, “[p]sychoanalysis pathologizes horror and psychoanalytic film criticism uses either the text or the viewer as an analysand. It impels viewers to strengthen their ego defenses against the disruptive undermining of the id or the repressive pressure of the super-ego. From a Deleuzian perspective, however, madness in horror may be read in a more positive light. Anomalous states of consciousness in film are celebrated in Deleuze, both for their stylistic innovations and their effect on the audience who participates in the madness by affective contagion” (23).

The book’s first section, “From Psychoanalysis to Schizoanalysis,” opens with a strategic consideration of Hitchcock’s Psycho. In response to the extant preponderance of psychoanalytic readings of this film, Powell contends that such readings reveal “nothing about the film as an aesthetic or visceral experience” (23). In contrast, noting that Psycho is “permeated thematically by schizophrenia and aesthetically by schizoid lines of flight” (24), Powell produces a reading that attends to the numerous aesthetic transformations that the film involves the audience in, including Norman’s (simultaneously pathological and vital) becoming-Animal and becoming-Woman. This brings me to the first of two major problems with this otherwise electrifying book. Powell’s reading of the film, while insightful and provocative, moves so rapidly from point to point in its “rhizomatic” style of connective disjunctions, that her exploration comes to seem frenetic, and at times even perfunctory. Thus, while it usefully opens a line of flight that evades the psychoanalytic dogma that now scaffolds the film, it lacks the sustained development that made Slavoj Zizek’s study of Psycho so incisive and influential.

This rapid pace perhaps results from the fact that Powell’s intentions with Deleuze and Horror Film are so ambitious, since the book is meant to serve as both an intervention in discursive appropriations of horror films, and an attempt to extend Deleuzian thought by widening the range of cinematic works involved in its production of new concepts. Acknowledging that Deleuze himself only rarely engaged directly with “horror films” in the generic sense, Powell explains, “I want to extend the scope of that writing which keeps rigorously to those films actually used as examples by Deleuze himself. I test the use-value of Deleuzian theory to popular formulaic films as well as art-house approved works” (2). Powell therefore applies Deleuze’s conception of cinema as an embodied form of thought both to and through a wide range of horrific cinema. She avoids the notoriously problematic task of attempting or accepting a generic definition of horror, choosing to focus instead on horror as an affective element of the cinematic experience, explaining that “not all my texts fall into a strict generic category, but all contain horrifying material of an uncanny nature” (7).

This approach, while generally productive, evokes the second complaint I have about the book, in that it is often impossible to see Powell’s selection of films as anything other than tendentious. While she aptly links more “canonical” films like Wiene’s Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Lewton’s Cat People with both auteurist favorites like Argento’s Suspiria and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and more generic fare like Cammell’s Demon Seed and Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, she too often relies on films, and elements of these films, which are obvious exempla of Deleuzian hybridity.

This occasionally results in readings that verge on the redundant, doing little to either illuminate a viewing of the film, or to advance the potential of Deleuzian thought. Perhaps the most notable example of this tendency is Powell’s frequent recourse to the films of David Cronenberg. Throw a theoretical rock in the general direction of Cronenberg’s corpus, and you are sure to hit an always-already-made example of a Body Without Organs, or a slimily desiring-machinic assemblage ripe for reterritorialization (a fact explainable to a large extent by the tremendous shared investment of French philosopher and Canadian filmmaker in the seminal writings of American author, William S. Burroughs).

Nevertheless, given Deleuze’s not infrequent reliance on “perversely literal embodiments of his own concepts,” that Powell’s project “takes twisted literalization much further” (7) is consistent with this method. In addition, Powell’s vital recognition that “[t]he horror film experience offers a particular quality of thought,” and her diverse and often novel celebration of “the dynamic, material congress of spectator and screen image” (204) in the viewing experience informs a stimulating conceptual-cinematic engagement. With its openness to a diversity of horrific films, its attention to the experiential aesthetics of horror, and its emphasis on thinking as an embodied process, Deleuze and Horror Film represents a welcome departure from the re-circulated Psycho-analyses and incessant generic re-situations which continue to dominate theoretical approaches to horror film. This makes it recommended reading for both critics and aficionados of horror cinema, and students and scholars of Deleuzian philosophy.

1 comment:

Devin Zane Shaw said...

One of the more common critiques of Deleuze (stemming, I believe, from Badiou) is how repetitive his thought matter the reading, Deleuze manages to make it conform to his concepts.

I don't know if this holds for all his texts, but I do know that I felt that with the Kafka book.