Deleuze reading

There is, first of all, something very Deleuze-Guattarian about the world of The Silence of The Lambs: what is striking is the outrageously indecorous mingling of bodies and minds between the three central characters, the seeping, bleeding, and conflating of their discrete and otherwise contrasting psychic profiles. The way their particular somatic selves, kinetic traits, and peculiar intensities are taken apart, mixed up, and reassigned is a good example of what Deleuze and Guattari mean by 'de-territorializing', the movement away from established limits and boundaries, towards new or even archaic forms of psychic, as well as bodily organization.

Thus, a Deleuzian anti-psychoanalytic reading might start with one feature of Hannibal Lecter not yet commented upon here but crucial to the fascination emanating from this figure: his cannibalism, the fact that he eats his victims. His is a taboo-breaking figure of a special kind, in one sense disrespectful of the most fundamental and basic boundaries between bodies and within bodies, but in another sense an 'incorporator', whose strength and perspicacity comes precisely from his ability to redraw these boundaries between inside and outside. Quite clearly, the totemic behaviour of Buffalo Bill (dressing himself in his victims' skins like a suit of armour) and the atavistic-tribal power politics of Hannibal Lecter (eating people's livers, biting off their faces, or otherwise ingesting their body parts) are symmetrically related: their most fundamental body schemata are different from those of other mortals, and could be described more accurately in Deleuzian terms of the 'body-without-organs', as 'matter that occupies space ... to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced'. Especially Hannibal Lecter would probably have appealed to Deleuze's gnomic sense of humour, in that he pastiches by literalizing the 'body-without-organs', seeking radically to deform in order to transform the power relations that make up the social bond, by exposing it to quite different yet no less 'actual' intensities and desires than those which normally regulates how people interact. Here the 'devouring eye' is no mere metaphor of love or covetous possessiveness, and the fundamental body schemata of container and contained are 'flattened' into sheets of skin, with only a recto and a verso, but no volume or depth.

The psychic violence and erotic desires usually domesticated in the family unit of 'Oedipus' and the incest prohibition are in these characters translated into a micro-schizo-politics of body and skin, and a materialist-immanent commerce of brain, thought, and flesh. Taken together with Clarice and the haunting image of the bleating lambs, the three protagonists come together under the primitive but sacred rituals of sacrifice and slaughter, emphasizing the fact that, in many respects, the film works with icons, with images readable only at the threshold where actions trace out emblematic designs and where -in Foucault's terms - the preclassical unity of word and image resurfaces with traumatic force.

From the 'body-without-organs' and the deterritorializations practised by Hannibal, it is easy to see how consistently the film is presenting us with partial objects and multiply articulated levels of existence, with 'altered states' and their successive stages. They can best be gathered together under the denominator 'metamorphosis', a process graphically represented in Buffalo Bill's trade mark of an exotic moth which he lodges in his victims' throats.

This motif (which, as we shall see, is much more pervasive than the term indicates) is perhaps the most directly Deleuzian aspect of the film, because it refers us to his concept of'becoming', briefly described above, and extensively treated in Deleuze and Guattari's book on Franz Kafka, not only because Kafka's most famous story is called Metamorphosis, but because here was an individual whose many forms of marginalization made him take action. In his case, he developed a style of writing that was as physical, literal, referential as any mode of action can be, because it 'creates through the real without representing it': this would be the meaning of 'becoming' in Kafka, whose 'becoming-animal' or 'becoming-insect' was the most authentic encounter with the world.

Translating the Deleuzian paradigm into the character constellation of The Silence of the Lambs, the figure of Buffalo Bill would again not be identified with his mirror-image - as in the feminist-Lacanian reading - but with the moth, the cocoon, which he painstakingly feeds with honey. As one of the entomologists at the Smithsonian remarks: 'Somebody loved him.' He feeds the moth in order to help the butterfly/moth out of the cocoon, while at the same time he starves the women to 'help' them out of their skins. Feeding honey to a death's-head moth, fasting 'size 14' women, or feasting on human liver - with these bodily features the film introduces us (and initiates Clarice) to a different lifecycle, that of insects, perhaps, rather than humans. For Buffalo Bill's behaviour is only the most obvious example of what is going on in all the main characters, namely their perpetual transformation, depicted as an unfolding, a divesting and attiring, a transmutation and metamorphosis.

This, as indicated, Deleuze would call 'becoming ... animal, insect, woman'. It is signalled by repeated movements towards breaking out: of a skin, a carapace, a phantasm, or a cage. It has to do with flight and liberation: the moth as James Gumb's totem animal, but also Hannibal, crucifying and eviscerating the policeman, as if to graphically depict his own escape as an act of voiding a body and shedding a carapace at the same time, while Clarice tries to leave behind the phantasm of the lambs to clothe herself in the insignia of office, uniform and badge, investiture and diploma.

In order thus to reinterpret Hannibal Lecter, and indicate to what extent he is at the heart of the passive-active network that the film weaves around the trope of metamorphosis, we might quote Deleuze on a key distinction made in his cinema books, namely the shift from the movement image (or action image) to the time image (or crystal image):

The cinema of action depicts sensory-motor situations: there are characters, in a certain situation, who act, perhaps very violently, according to how they perceive the situation. Actions are linked to perceptions and perceptions develop into actions. Now, suppose a character finds himself in a situation, however ordinary or extraordinary, that's beyond any possible action, or to which he can't react. It's too powerful, or too painful, too beautiful. The sensory-motor link is broken. He is no longer in a sensory-motor situation, but in a purely optical and aural situation.

(Deleuze 1997: 51)

In this sense Hannibal Lecter, too, is a Deleuzian figure, now not so much in relation to 'becoming other' as insofar as he is 'brain' and 'screen', while his incarceration cuts the link with the sensorimotor scheme. We never quite see him eliminate Midge, nor learn exactly how he manages to escape his cage, hoist one policeman, and skin the other's face to put it on as a mask: crucial parts of the action are always missing, the film cuts from one temporal event to another, without the intermediary steps. The fact that he cannot move is the locus of his power and it is the power of making mental constructions, inferences - he elicits from Clarice her past and colonizes her future. While he seems to encourage the linear investigative drive, he actually deflects it, turns it inward, makes it mental. One could think of the immobility of a character from the 'classical cinema', such as Jeffries (James Stewart) in Hitchcock's Rear Window, who is normally read in Lacanian terms as the epitome of voyeurism, and contrast his confinement with that of Hannibal Lecter. The difference is striking, even though Lecter, too, expresses his desire for a 'view' ('Belvedere'). But his voyeurism is of an entirely different nature: once we see him as a brain, it is Lecter's cannibalism that becomes crucial, because it is in some sense proof of his ability to ingest a mental world, his facility to be 'inside' someone's mind in no time at all.

Early on in the film, just after he has explained to Clarice the nature of her assignment, Crawford says to her: 'Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.' This remark can be understood in a Foucaultian sense as warning her of the insinuating cannibalism of psychoanalysis and other technologies of discursive penetration. But since he only warns of what he knows will come to pass, Crawford's advice can also be seen as laying out the topology of the two characters' engagement with each other, also captured in a sentence of Deleuze, cited by ┬┐izek: 'If you are caught up in another person's dream, you are lost' (┬┐izek 1994: 212). At the same time, Deleuze might well have agreed with Alphonse Bertillon, the founding father of criminology, when he said: 'One only sees that which one observes, and one observes only things which are in the mind' - a sentence that Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, used as his epigraph in Red Dragon, the first of the Hannibal Lecter novels.

But in another sense, this feeling of being inside someone else's head, dream, or fantasy is perhaps the most striking feature of contemporary mainstream cinema. Hollywood goes to enormous lengths to blur the distinction between 'subjective' and 'objective', often telling its stories as if they were taking place in a world diegetically independent from the characters within it, only then to reveal that - either wholly or in crucial respects - this world is one which depends on being seen, observed, sensed, or imagined by someone, or - more complicated still - only exists in the spaces of overlap between two characters' mutually intersecting fantasy or memory spaces (The Truman Show, Nurse Betty, American Beauty, eXistenZ, The Matrix, Memento). It brings us back to the nature of Deleuze's (and Guattari's) mode of thinking, which earlier on I called 'immersive'. One could also describe it -more polemically - as hermetically sealed against the 'outside', sustaining itself only by virtue of its own self-defined concepts and modes of thinking, which mutually refine but also confine each other in a seemingly seamless web or cloth or skin/skein that knows only extension and inversion, an enveloping undulation apparently without beginning or end.

This mise-en-abime of mental worlds in the service of sustaining the impression of/immersion in a diegetic world which is also a mental universe is called by Deleuze 'the fold', and he connects it to seriality and series, to the manifold in Leibniz's thinking, and to the involuted successiveness of vistas without prospect known from the Baroque. For Deleuze, the fact that the characters seems to be constantly in each others' minds or trying to encase them in their worlds is a consequence of the 'sheets of time' into which human beings are always already enfolded.

'The fold' thus defines the nature of Deleuze's argumentative strategy which - with reference to the cinema - might be called a mimetic embrace of his subject, describing in what sense Deleuze does indeed think with the cinema rather than about it. For 'the fold' serves to redefine the nature of the cinematic fascination, or at least, that exerted by the contemporary (though not exclusively) Hollywood cinema - now examined and explained not through the psychoanalytic paradigm of absence, fetishism, and disavowal, nor through the cinematic apparatus and it structure of interpellation and suture, but rather, by trying to make Deleuze's notion of the fold productive in conjunction with his definition of the 'event', as described by Foucault in the quotation above, and allowing us to re-situate the problem with which we began: how to redefine and reinterpret the cinematic experience.

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