The Neglect of the Aesthetic in Film Theory's Phenomenological Turn
Related to the main themes of a forthcoming monograph (Film Worlds: A New Conception of Cinema as Art, Columbia University Press) this paper argues that despite its salutary emphasis on film viewing in its experiential concreteness, some contemporary phenomenological approaches to cinema - rooted in existential phenomenology and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of embodied perception, in particular – tend to neglect artistic/aesthetic dimensions of film form as these are distinct from what may be seen as properties and effects of the film medium (and/or ‘apparatus’) . Ironically, this stems in part from a de-emphasis or neglect of a rich tradition of phenomenological aesthetics, the importance and value of which has been acknowledged outside of continental thought by Anglo-American philosophers, including Monroe Beardsley, and film scholars such as Dudley Andrew. This tradition includes key writings and statements on art and film by both Merleau-Ponty (“Eye and Mind, “ “Cézanne’s Doubt,” the lectures collected in The World of Perception) and fellow French philosopher Mikel Dufrenne (the voluminous The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience). I will show that further applying the distinctly aesthetic insights of Merleau-Ponty - and, especially, Dufrenne - to narrative cinema provides for a better understanding of the perceptual, affective, and symbolic multivalence of narrative films as art works (i.e. beyond films as lived, perceptual experiences alone). Such an engagement with the aesthetic, still in keeping with the spirit of phenomenological inquiry, may allow for a more productive dialog between the contemporary phenomenology of film and the philosophy of art in both the analytic and continental traditions.