Walter Benjamin’s Poetics of Cinematic Experience: Materialist Darstellung as a philosophical language
Taking on Walter Benjamin’s idea that cinema can be ‘an excellent means of materialistic representation’, I wish to analyse the relationship between the philosophical and the cinematic as language forms. Thinking of cinema calls for a questioning not only of the cogito-centric vision of thought itself, but to open up an array of distinctive means of representation or Darstellung. In a Hegelian sense, it provides shapes of thinking – not merely of visual representation, but also opens up forms of expression unknown and incommunicable in philosophical language.
Cinematic language, through its playing with the material presence, reveals an element of the subjective which cannot be conceived in the form of Begriff or concept. Benjamin’s aim was therefore to represent his inadequacy by creating a shock provoked by the montage of philosophical language. The play of the material on the subjective consciousness is characterised by the idea of mitspielen. This idea is central to the surrealist image that montage desires to create at the level of human psyche. Thus, as Adorno claims, philosophical writing itself becomes surrealism and the linguistic experiment it produces is akin to film as language. Indeed, much later, Pasolini would call cinema the ‘written language of reality’. So, in that case, what is still in store in philosophical writing after the coming into being of cinema? Can cinematic language offer a procedure that philosophy can appreciate and what can the latter be in the face of cinema? I will examine some of these vexing problems in the intertwining between cinematic language and philosophical language by analysing the the writings and films of early Soviet filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Pudovkin – the cinema on which Benjamin himself wrote and engaged with regularly.