6 Apr 2011

Figure and Phenomena: Deleuze’s Anti-Gestaltist Perceptions

by Corry Shores
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[May I thank the sources of the images:
Joy A
all about Weybridge / Rachael Talibart
youtube clip / Komond
layersmagazine.com / Jacob Cass
Dark Roasted Blend
Brain Den
Credits given below the image and at the end.]

The following is from my presentation at the First Annual Graduate Conference at the Institute of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven, April 2011.

Figure and Phenomena:
Deleuze’s Anti-Gestaltist Perceptions

Deleuze is often considered an anti-phenomenologist. Yet even so, he generated an original theory of phenomena. So rather than determining whether he was a phenomenologist or an anti-phenomenologist, we might instead attempt to formulate what a Deleuzean phenomenology would be. To do so, we will place it in contrast with Merleau-Ponty’s accounts. A phenomenon, for Deleuze, appears as the shock we feel when incompatible parts of our awareness are given together simultaneously and instantaneously. Merleau-Ponty's phenomena, however, are based more on continuities and organic integrations. Often he articulates his notions of phenomenal holism and integration by making use of Gestalt illustrations.

Müller-Lyer Illusion

Müller-Lyer optical illusion animation
(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

Let us consider for example a familiar illusion, to demonstrate how our perceptions cannot be reduced to their particular components. One part of our perception are the parallel lines of equal length; the other part are the angled lines on the ends. But when these parts are together, we no longer see these same individual elements. Instead, the parallel lines appear now with different lengths, on account of their integrated relations with the angled pieces. Our perceptions, then, are wholes that are greater than the mere sums of their component parts.

(Joy A's flickr. Thanks Joy A)

For Merleau-Ponty, our phenomenal parts integrate by means of our horizonal awareness. Consider if we view a red carpet. Each part of our perception looks its particular way on account of the other qualities and objects expressing themselves in that appearance, for example, the overlaying shadow that tinges the color or the illuminated portions that lighten its tone. We are not surprised when looking up to see the source of light and the objects that block it. The red’s particular shaded or lighted look refers our mind to things not explicit in what we directly perceive.

Or consider how a stream’s surface might reflect the brownish hue of an overlying bridge. When looking at the water, we are not directly aware of the bridge, but it is being implicitly spoken or announced by the stream’s color. The stream would appear differently to us were it not for its integrated relation with the bridge above it. And likewise, when looking up at the bridge, we see in its appearance the motion of the water, reflecting up upon it. Our minds have an awareness of these related phenomena, but they are not in the forefront of our attention. As implicit phenomena, they hover at the edges of our awareness.

This also applies to phenomena on our temporal horizon. Merleau-Ponty refers us to an early film experiment. See if you notice the subtle variations that a man’s face undergoes as he reacts to very different things appearing before him.

Seconds from Kuleshov Effect footage

(From youtube clip, thanks Komond)

Perhaps we saw hunger on his face after the soup, grieving after the dead child, and longing following the woman.

But in fact, the film footage for the face is the same each time. While the face is in our focus, the preceding image has not completely disappeared from our awareness and instead remains looming at the margin.


Our awareness retains the prior image, which speaks itself in the current one, by modifying how we perceive it. In this way, all our temporal horizons interlace to produce phenomena not reducible to any one moment of our awareness. They all must be taken together as making up a whole which is greater than the addition of the parts.

Rubin's Vase

Yet sometimes we will be surprised by what we notice, as if it were not implied in the horizon of our awareness. He points us to an optical illusion that is much like the figure-ground vase.

(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze; with use of the image from
layersmagazine.com / Jacob Cass)

When the vase is the figure standing-out in the foreground, then the spaces on the side become a mere void. But when the faces jump into our awareness, the vase then becomes the blank background. Merleau-Ponty says that in cases like this, the changes can be so drastic that we might find ourselves perceiving another world. Yet, this does not mean one moment of our awareness becomes completely incoherent with the rest.

He depicts a scene to illustrate. We happen upon a ship run aground on the beach. Behind it is a forest, and the ship’s mast blends-in with the trees, preventing us from initially noticing it as belonging to the ship. But there will come a moment when something does not seem right about one of the trees. Before even seeing the mast as distinct from the forest, we felt some sort of tension in the appearance, like how “a storm is imminent in storm clouds,” as he puts it. Even from the beginning we had a ‘vague expectation’ that there was something more to be understood in the appearance of the forest.

Surprises in our perceptual world, then, are not contradictions between horizons; rather, they result from us further investigating ambiguous details already given in the margins of our awareness.

We will now draw a sharp distinction with Deleuze. As we noted, phenomena for Deleuze are shocks or flashes produced by irreconcilable differences that are forced together in our perceptual experiences. An illustration can be seen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The hero believes that his female inspiration is someone who could only exhibit pure goodness. But without his knowing, she is captured by a mad scientist, who then renders her likeness upon a deviant robot. When the hero sees her replica, it is conspiring with his own father, a heartless tyrant. The woman whom the hero recognizes is drastically different from the woman he is actually viewing in that same moment, even though he cannot help but equate the two.

Seconds from Fritz Lang's Metropolis,
showing the Deleuzean phenomenon

So two completely incompatible images are presented together simultaneously. The phenomenon here is neither the woman he recognizes nor the woman he now sees, but is rather the shock he feels from their impossible combination.

(Above uses image from
layersmagazine.com / Jacob Cass)

So in the vase illusion, we might first see the black space as a void background. But at some moment, our minds will tend toward seeing this emptiness also as a vase. Our experience is similar to the Metropolis hero’s disorientation: we will recognize what we see as a vase while seeing it also as a void, all within a split-second. The phenomena, then, would be neither the faces nor the vase, but rather the shocks we feel when the two are paradoxically given simultaneously.

So the integration of phenomenal horizons would not be of interest for a Deleuzean phenomenology. In fact, the less our horizons integrate, the more phenomenal our experience will be.

Another way Deleuze has us understand perceptions as being pure differences is by considering Leibniz’ micro-perceptions.

(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

They are the differential relations between perceptions that have diminished to the infinitely small. They have vanished, but the relation between them remains. To help us visualize this, Leibniz describes a geometrical figure with two triangles, constructed with the same line. As this line moves to the right, one triangle increases while the other decreases. Yet the sides of both triangles remain proportional, so the ratio of the larger one always indicates the ratio of the smaller one. This holds even as the smaller triangle’s sides diminish to the infinitely small. They have vanished, but their differential relation remains, still discernible in the larger triangle.

Our micro-perceptions are also like these differential relations between vanished terms.
For example, when we perceive green, we are really noticing the differential relations between infinitely small perceptions of blue and yellow. At their basis, all our perceptions are primarily these undetectable micro-perceptions.

So the perception of green is not merely the addition of yellow and blue, like when we mix paint. Green results not from their assimilation and bleeding into one another, but rather from their jarring up against each other. And neither the micro-perceptions of yellow nor those of blue have green on their horizon. The whole is not at all implied in the parts. And the whole field of green we see is not even just a sum of its differential parts, nor is it a whole greater than these parts. For, the green is not even a whole to begin with. It has its particular green appearance also due to its own differential relations with other perceptions.

Deleuze microperceptions yellow blue green differential perception animation
(Animation above is my own, made with Open Office Draw and Unfreeze.)

Consider this illusion. We seem to see four colors: two shades of green and two of red. But really there is just one red and one green.

(Thanks Brain Den)

They appear differently according to which neighboring color they are differentially relating to. So the appearance of the green in any given square is not just the sum of its yellow and blue differentials; the green is itself a differential as well.

In the parallel line illusion, then, it is not the integration of the parts which leads to the apparent disproportional size of the lines; rather, the phenomenon results from the differential relations in our eye movements. Perhaps, for example, the angles on the top-line make our eyes try to draw outward, all while those on the bottom cause our eyes to tend inward. The phenomena are not so much the resulting modified sizes as much as they are the shocks of difference between opposing tendencies in our eye-motions.
So a Deleuzean phenomenology would not make use of principles of integration and holism to explain our phenomenal experiences, not even the ones we have when seeing these Gestalt examples. Our question is: what is more phenomenologically interesting? Is it the way our perceptual parts all fall together nicely and blend with one another, or would it be the forces which arrest and hold our attention, and which make things stand-out and appear in the first place?

I would like to close by giving a better demonstration of Deleuzean phenomena, and for this I suggest the works of filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Deleuze refers to him when discussing the infinites of variation in our fields of perception. One thing Brakhage says he likes about film are its “sharp hard clarities of snapping individual frames.” In many later works, he hand-painted every frame individually. Each one could be a work of art on its own. But, is it only the pictures that we notice when watching his films? Or is there phenomenal content to the differences between the images, which are responsible for making each new frame stand-out in the first place?

First consider this simpler example from an earlier work. Moving one frame to the next, we change from black to red then return to black, all between other shifting imagery.

We will repeat this rapid transition here a few times, because it is easy to miss.

A couple seconds from Stan Brakhage's Meditations

(Thanks Stan Brakhage)

Is the phenomenon the red or the black, or is it not the shock we feel between the two? We might now consider how Brakhage uses this technique more subtly in his later painted films. Here perhaps he keeps us in a state of sustained phenomenal awareness, by means of the rapid succession of differences. So let’s close by viewing it in his Persian Series number 3.

Seconds from Stan Brakhage's Persian Series 3

(Thanks Stan Brakhage)

Red Carpet:
(Joy A's flickr. Thanks Joy A)

(Thanks all about Weybridge. Thanks Rachael Talibart.)

(Thanks Dark Roasted Blend)

Four color illusion:
(Thanks Brain Den)

Rubin's Vase
Thanks Jacob Cass

Kuleshov Effect footage
(Thanks Komond)

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