FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 17, April 1999

 


 

Jan Simons

Image and Mind: But Where's the Body?

 


 

 

 

 

 

Gregory Currie

_Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

ISBN 0-521-45356-9 (hbk)

xxiv + 301 pp.

 

With his book, _Image and Mind_, the Australian philosopher Gregory Currie aims at correcting a series of serious misunderstandings of the film medium and its effects on the viewer. He partly explains these misunderstandings by the fact that film has not been taken seriously by most philosophers such as himself and as a consequence film is left to 'those who take their inspiration from other schools: semiotics, psychoanalysis and Marxism' (xiii). Currie offers an alternative approach that is 'generalising, systematising, argumentative and conceptual' (xi) and 'owes much, in spirit at least, to the linguistics of Chomsky, and nothing to Saussure; much to contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and very little to Freud and his followers' (xxiii-xxiv). It owes most to 'that almost obsessional concern with realism so distinctive of the best in Australian philosophy' (xxiv). Within film theory, Currie takes sides with theorists like David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, to whose book, _Post-Theory_, he has contributed a chapter. [1]

 

Before presenting his own 'general theory of pictorial representation', and a general theory of narration and interpretation in pictorial as well as linguistic media, Currie sets out to criticise three doctrines that have shaped much of the thinking and theorising about cinema. All three of the theories have been labelled as 'realism', although they are, according to Currie, quite distinct from each other.

 

The first theory is the doctrine of 'Transparency'. This doctrine claims that 'film, where it uses the photographic method, reproduces rather than merely represents the real world, because photographs capture objects themselves rather than likenesses or representations of them' (19-20). The second doctrine, which Currie calls 'Likeness', claims that 'the experience of film watching approximates the normal experience of perceiving the real world' (20). The third doctrine, 'Illusionism', claims that film is capable of engendering in the viewer 'an illusion of reality and presentness of fictional characters and events portrayed' (20). Currie rejects the first and third of these doctrines, but is prepared to accept a revised version of the Likeness doctrine (21).

 

The doctrines of Transparency and Illusionism have certainly been popular amongst Marxist and psychoanalytic film theorists, and the view of film as a language has served as the justification for using the semiotic approaches to language. One should notice, however, that other theorists from other schools have also defended these views. In his book _Projecting Illusion_, Richard Allen, for example, proposed a theory of 'projective illusion' in which he claims that film encourages 'a perception of the image as a fully realised world through 'identification' with the perceptual point of view of the camera'. [2] Allen defends the theses of Transparency and Illusionism that Currie rejects, but he nevertheless situates his account of the film experience within the same context of 'an analytical criticism of contemporary film theory' as does Currie. This shows that one needs not be a Marxist or a Freudian to embrace these doctrines.

 

A criticism of the doctrines of Transparency and Illusionism is therefore not dependent upon a critique of Marxism and Freudianism, and Currie does not waist much time beating these dead horses. He simply stipulates in his Preface that he rejects psychoanalysis in favor of cognitive science, and does not even bother to dismiss Marxist social theory explicitly.

 

Besides, and relatively independent from these three doctrines, and sometimes even openly hostile to them, there is yet another widespread view that Currie strongly argues against. He is critical of the view that 'images in general, and cinematic images in particular, operate by means of codes or conventions that are like the semantic and syntactic rules of a language' (113). Probably because film semioticians and other advocates of linguistic approaches to the cinema have also always rejected transparency and illusionism as ideological 'effects' of underlying cinematic codes, Currie spends the entire fourth chapter of his book on demonstrating the non-linguistic nature of film. This to demonstrate the inappropriateness of linguistic methodologies for the study of cinema.

 

In this same chapter Currie's criticism of linguistic approaches to cinema seems unnecessary for two reasons. First, Currie had already defined cinema as an essentially visual and pictorial medium, that distinguishes from non-pictorial media like language because it requires a visual capacity to recognize objects, whereas verbal descriptions require knowledge of the language in which the objects are described. After having cinema firmly defined as a non-linguistic medium, Currie's critique of linguistic approaches to film seems to be a bit superfluous because his own general theory of pictorial representation does not depend on it.

 

Second, the pervasiveness of linguistic and semiotic jargon in film studies must not be mistaken for an pervasiveness of linguistic and semiotic *theory*. Since Christian Metz came to the paradoxical -- and rather nonsensical -- conclusion that cinema is 'a language without a grammar' (*langage sans langue*), only a very few scholars have made serious attempts to develop a linguistics of cinema. All of them have failed. [3] How little genuine interest the rest of the community of film scholars had (and has) in linguistics is evidenced by the fact that it has hardly been noticed that, after Saussure, some things have changed in linguistics. The 'Chomskyan revolution' (that took place more than a decade before Metz's _Langage et Cinema_ was published) was particularly lost on film theory. The use of linguistic jargon and the reference to semiotics in film studies was -- and still is -- ideologically rather than theoretically motivated by a desire for 'scientificity' and methodological soundness. In the 60s and 70s linguistics and semiotics seemed to guarantee both. [4] Most of the time, linguistic and semiotic jargon serves to signal to readers that the author is invoking canonical authorities like Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and others, none of whom are linguists. [5]

 

Currie himself does not seem to be aware of recent developments in linguistics after the Chomskyan revolution. When he argues against the linguistic nature of cinema, he essentially repeats the differences between film and natural language that Metz had already listed in the sixties. Although, of course, Currie draws the only obvious conclusion that Metz was not prepared to assert, i.e. that there is no such thing as a film language. [6]

 

Currie falls into the same trap as Metz by not distinguishing the theoretical claim that film is a language from the methodological option of treating film as if it were a language. As a result, Currie exercises the same sort of 'negative linguistics' as Metz did, and he arrives at the same rather trivial conclusion that film is in significant aspects not like a language. From this, Currie concludes that there is insufficient similarity between this 'language' and any natural language for us to expect progress in understanding the cinema by applying to it linguistics or any other theory that adopts the principles and techniques of linguistics' (119). This does not necessarily follow. For the sake of argument one could just take film as a language without necessarily holding the belief that film is in fact a language, [7] apply linguistic methodology, and then asses its success as an analytical tool for cinema.

 

Admittedly, the few attempts that have been made to take this methodological option have not much to recommend them. It is, however, important to keep in mind that Metz and his followers borrowed their 'principles and techniques' from linguistics of the structuralist-Saussurean and the generative-Chomskyan kind, of which the basic assumptions about 'the shape of language', which Currie explicitly shares, have become heavily contested within linguistics itself. The generative linguist Ray Jackendoff has questioned the view of language as a self-enclosed and molecular system. [8] Cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff, Gilles Fauconnier, Ronald Langacker, and Eve Sweetser, have challenged the arbitrariness of linguistic meaning, the independence of syntax from semantics, and the independence of linguistic competence from other cognitive faculties. [9]

 

In the light of Currie's general theory of pictorial representation this linguistic debate does not seem to be very relevant, since Currie's theory is independent from any view of language. Just as it is not dependent upon his adherence to a modular view of mind which resembles Minsky's model of the 'society of mind' -- although Minsky does not figure in Currie's bibliography. [10]

 

Currie's discussion of the 'languages of film' is, however, instructive because it throws some light on what sort of theoretical approach Currie has to offer, and how this approach differs from other, cognitive theories. Currie's rejection of the idea that film is a language betrays a concern with an ontological question of the essence of cinema, on which he advances his own definition in the first chapter of his book. This is why he makes the claim that 'film is a language' literally, and why he confronts the constitutive features of a natural language with the constitutive features of cinema.

 

A cognitivist approach to film, on the other hand, would not be primarily interested in ontological questions about the essence of cinema, but rather in how film is understood. A cognitive approach to film, that is, would be interested in uncovering and explaining the concepts, models, and theories through which human beings try to understand the world rather than in checking whether or not these concepts, models, and theories adequately and objectively represent the world. As far as film is concerned, one cognitive model used to make sense of cinema is the idea that film is a language. Another one is the idea that film as a medium functions (or should function) like a window on the world. In spite of the elaborate and sophisticated ways in which both models have been presented and defended by many a film theorist, both models represent a deeply entrenched folk theoretical understanding of film. The attractiveness of linguistic as well as realist film theories is precisely that they mesh with this folk theoretical understanding and seem commonsensical.

 

Within the theoretical and methodological framework of cognitive linguistics, the whole discussion about whether film is, or is not, a language, or whether linguistic methodology can or cannot be fruitfully applied to film, would look quite futile. Within such a framework the theorist would not focus his or her attention on a presumed linguistic dimension of cinema, but rather on the 'is like' part of the phrase 'film is like a language'. Cognitive linguistics would focus on what Metz and his few followers, but also Currie, failed to recognise: the metaphorical nature of the widespread idea that film is, or is like, a language. Currie does not take the folk theoretical idea that film is a language or, for that matter, that film is a window on the world, as ways of thinking and speaking about cinema rather than theoretical definitions of the essence of cinema. He therefore confuses what could have been a conceptual analysis of film with an ontological theory of cinema.

 

Currie also takes the doctrines of Transparency, Likeness, and Illusionism literally and sets out to show why the doctrines of Transparency and Illusionism are wrong beyond redemption, and how the thesis of Likeness can be saved. Currie argues that the main arguments for the Transparency thesis -- natural dependence and the preservation of 'real similarity' -- do not provide the necessary or sufficient conditions for the claim that photographic images give perceptual access to the objects they represent.

 

Currie's arguments against Transparency are of the 'brain-in-the-vat' and 'how-does-it-feel-to-be-a-bat' type. In order to show that neither natural dependence or light are necessary conditions for perceptual access he quotes from Kendall Walton's example of blind Helen, who 'sees' through a computer that is wired to her brain and operated by a neurosurgeon (61). Since Helen's visual experiences are dependent upon the neurosurgeon's manipulations, Helen's seeing is a case of 'intentional dependence' and not of direct or 'natural counterfactual dependence'. Less odd examples of naturally dependent representations, like the length of the mercury column in a thermometer or graphics produced by a thermometer, show that natural dependence is not a sufficient condition for perceptual access either. Since the mercury column cannot make us see something inherently invisible like heat.

 

These are certainly powerful arguments against theorists such as Roland Barthes, who claimed that seeing a photograph actually means seeing the photographed object. [11] However, just as Currie's comparison of language and film leads to the rather trivial conclusion that film is not a language, his conclusion that seeing a photograph or a film image is not the same as seeing the photographed or filmed scenes themselves seems rather trivial and obvious as well.

 

This is seen with the simple observation that film spectators do not flee from the auditorium when they see a threatening monster or an axe murderer on the screen. Currie concludes from such observations that normal film spectators clearly are not under the illusion that they see really present monsters or murderers but only pictorial representations of them. If film spectators do not behave in ways they would normally behave when confronted with murderers and monsters, they certainly do not foster the illusion that they are in the presence of and seeing real monsters and murderers instead of photographic and filmic representations of them. [12] In their most literal and most well known versions, Illusionism and Transparency are obviously not part of the normal film spectator's beliefs.

 

It is certainly useful to spell out once more the fundamental flaws of the theses of Transparency and Illusionism. Many a film theorist has been led astray by taking the folk theoretical notion that 'Film is a Window on the World' literally, just as many film theorists were lost in the wilderness of semiotics by taking the metaphor 'Film is a Language' literally. Whereas the latter metaphor inspired film theorists, for instance, to hopelessly search for cinematographic equivalents for linguistic deictics, the former metaphor resulted in rather odd figures like the 'invisible observer', or in claims that the film spectator identifies with the camera. As Currie rightly notes, only a little bit of introspection shows that these notions are not part of the experience of the usual film spectator.

 

There are, nevertheless, a number of structural analogies between normal human vision and photographic recording techniques that allow for a metaphorical mapping from the domain of human vision to the domains of film and photography. This explains why commonsense understanding conceives photography partially metaphorically *in terms of* normal human vision, which is not the same as saying that photography and film are literally understood as being *identical with* human vision. [13] Rather than dismissing Transparency and Illusionism on logical grounds, a cognitive approach to film should try to describe and explain their role in a largely metaphorical understanding of film.

 

Film and photography are partially metaphorically understood in terms of other domains as well: the perceived similarities between film as a meaning conveying artefact most frequently used to represent stories and language have allowed for a folk theoretical understanding of film in terms of language. From the beginning of film history, expressions like 'the language of film', 'the poetics of cinema', 'the grammar of film', 'the rhetorics of film', etc., have been widely used by filmmakers, film critics, and film theorists. Grammars of film were written long before Christian Metz set out the foundations of what he hoped would be a theoretically sound semiotics of cinema. [14] Again, for many, semiotic and realist film theories owe a great deal of their attractiveness to the fact that they mesh so well with widespread commonsensical and metaphorical understandings of film.

 

It is one thing to show that a literal interpretation of fundamentally metaphorical ways of understanding film leads to misconceived theories of cinema. It is quite another thing, however, to explain the role of metaphors like 'Film is a Language' and 'Film is a Window on the World' via a normal, commonsense understanding of film. This is exactly what a cognitive film theory should be interested in. As a philosopher, however, Currie is not interested in what people have in mind when they think and talk about film and photography along the lines of these metaphors, but in what theories based on these metaphors literally mean. As a philosopher, that is, he sets himself the task of demonstrating that the theses of Transparency, Illusionism and linguistic approaches do not adequately capture the 'essence of cinema'. Yet his own definition of the 'essence of cinema' is seriously flawed by the confusion of a conceptual analysis of ways of understanding film, with an attempt to offer an empirical description of film.

 

Currie characterizes movies as artefacts that 'are produced by photographic means and delivered onto a surface so as to produce, or be capable of producing, an apparently moving image' (4). As the example of poor blind Helen demonstrates, the surface does not need to be a screen, nor is it necessary that the images are projected by a beam of light rays. Currie seemingly allows for some freedom in the interpretation of the noun 'cinema'. He writes that this noun 'will be applicable in some degree to the plug-in, sonic, and other nonstandard forms, as well as to real-life relatives of film like television' (4).

 

Maybe this conceptual liberalism also applies to the adjective 'photographic'. What sets photographic images apart from other pictorial representations is, according to Currie, 'natural counterfactual dependence' (55). By this he means that under normal conditions 'we can expect a photograph of X to display the visible properties of X in such a way that if X's visible properties were different, the photographic image would be correspondingly different' (53). This 'natural counterfactual dependence', or 'natural dependence', can, of course, also be achieved by other than strictly photographic devices, such as electronic and digital cameras. From this we may assume that for Currie the expression 'photographic' refers to a means of production that results in naturally dependent images, rather than to the particular techniques through which these are achieved.

 

If moving, visual, and pictorial representations must have the property of 'natural dependence' in order to count as cinematic images, a number of genres like animation, music videos, experimental movies and even mainstream Hollywood movies with digitally produced special effects will be excluded from membership of the category 'cinema'. [15] One may of course argue that animated movies, digital imagery, special effects, etc., are part of the graphic arts rather than of cinema proper. In that case, however, one must also accept that a definition of cinema as proposed by Currie only applies to a particular and historically confined form of pictorial representation. [16] This may be exactly what Currie wants, although he doesn't say so. It seems wiser, however, to conceive 'cinema' as a radical category of which the photographically recorded narrative film certainly represents the core, as the category's 'best example', and where the animation film and avant-garde film are more peripheral. Such a conception would surely do more justice to a normal, commonsense understanding of film and to the historically changing nature of the medium. At best, Currie's definition of the 'essence of cinema' describes the central member of the category 'cinema' as it is normally conceived. As a definition of film as an empirical phenomenon, however, it falls hopelessly short.

 

To be sure, Currie does not claim that 'natural dependence' means that films can only represent actually existing states of affairs. A crucial distinction he makes is that between 'photographic' and 'fictional' representational functions that can be found in film images (13). Both documentary and fiction film are records of what happened in front of the camera at the time the film was exposed, but with the fiction film the record of the real 'is intended for the further purpose of presenting a fictional story' (13). According to Currie, films cannot represent fictional states of affairs because filmic representations are causally connected to the reality in front of the camera at the time of the recording, and fictional states of affairs do not exist in reality. Fiction films offer photographic or documentary representations of real actors, props, and settings. It is only due to an intended imagining on the part of the spectator that films and photographs can represent things other than they photographically depict.

 

The crucial term here is 'intention'. Whatever a film 'really' represents is, according to Currie, 'determined by the causal processes which result in the exposure of cinematic film, and not by intention' (13). A fiction film is necessarily intentional, because, as Currie writes, it is 'fictional . . . only if it was intended to be fictional' (13). This does not mean that documentary films are not intentional, since Currie acknowledges that there are documentary films in which events that have really happened are restaged 'by the artful manipulation of actors, extras and settings' (14). In this case, just as with the fiction film, the events are arrived at by intention. The film represents the events because 'the filming of actors and sets was intended to provide a representation of [these events]' (15). This sort of non fiction film, however, is not a documentary film in Currie's sense, because its images are not causally connected to the events themselves.

 

Currie thus proposes three categories of filmic representations: the first is fictional and the second is non-fictional film. They both intend to make the spectators imagine states of affairs that are different from the states of affairs that are 'really' represented by the film images (fictional states of affairs in the former case, and real, historical events in the latter). The third category is non-fictional documentary films that contain film images that are causally connected to the events they represent and that do not intend to make the spectator imagine other states of affairs than those they represent. Currie, then, sets the documentary film as a non-intentional mode of representation apart from fiction and re-enacted non-fiction films.

 

One can certainly argue that in a commonsense understanding of film, as well as in realist film aesthetics, the documentary film represents the best example of the sort of films that are understood in terms of the 'Film is a Window on the World' metaphor. The evidentiary status of documentary film, and the realist vocation of film as a medium, are commonly grounded in the mechanical and, hence, objective nature of the recording of filmic and photographic images. And documentary films and photographs obviously can provide evidence of events their makers had no intention of representing (this is a major theme of Antonioni's movie _Blow Up_). Currie, however, does not intend to offer an analysis of a folk theoretical concept of documentary and other kinds of film, but rather a definition of nothing less than 'the essence of cinema'. As far as this 'essence of cinema' is meant to describe, not only a concept of cinema, but cinema itself, it raises a number of serious empirical, as well as theoretical problems.

 

First of all, Currie's definition of the essence of cinema focuses entirely on the process of recording film images. It completely ignores other, no less essential processes in the so-called post-production phase of photography and filmmaking, such as development of exposed films, editing, and printing. In this process documentary film images get contextualized in ways that are decidedly determined by how the filmmaker intends the spectator to imagine, and to understand, the represented events.

 

Moreover, although photographic, electronic, or digital recording methods can all produce naturally counterfactually dependent representations, they can also be easily manipulated during the post-production process in order to contrive events. Electronically and digitally produced images in particular can be undetectably altered, and it becomes impossible to determine whether a photograph or a film image is a documentary representation or not. As W. J. T. Mitchell writes: 'Digital manipulation of photographs . . . blurs the boundary between two kinds of depiction -- one of which has seemed to have special claims to veracity'. [17]

 

But even before the massive use of electronic and digital techniques in filmmaking, documentary filmmakers did not refrain from staging or re-staging the events they wanted to represent, very often using the real human subjects of their films as 'actors' who re-enacted events of their own lives. For many contemporary documentaries, filmmakers have even asked the subjects of their films to enact events or situations that never actually took place or did not take place exactly the way the filmmaker staged them. Nor did filmmakers wait for postmodernism to blur the boundaries between fictional and actual representations. One only has to recall Joris Iven's film footage of the fascist bombing of Barcelona, or Robert Flaherty's directing of _Nanook of the North_.

 

From a philosophical point of view, digital, electronic, and, of course, good old fashioned manual manipulation of photographic images and the practices of staging and restaging of events, may be irrelevant for Currie's analytical distinction between documentary and other kinds of film images. But in the light of increasingly accepted and actually performed practices of filmmaking, Currie's definition of cinema seems to refer to a kind of Platonic universe of ideal essences out of touch with the messy reality of contemporary cinematographic practice. It is one thing to say, from a philosophical point of view, that film images of (re-)enacted events are not causally connected to the events themselves, but it is quite another thing to determine, in practice, what kinds of images a documentary presents us. And it is yet another thing to assess whether this really makes a difference.

 

Currie's distinction may be analytically correct, but in practice it is often very hard to make, and in many cases not very relevant anyway. For although theoretically a documentary filmmaker has the option to represent his subject matter photographically (in Currie's sense), in practice he or she has to select and re-arrange his or her footage, even when this is causally connected to the events themselves. In postproduction the filmmaker cannot escape the task of 'transforming reality into a discourse' -- to use another famous phrase of Christian Metz. In this sense, there is no principled distinction between the veridicality of a documentary film and that of, say, a written newspaper report. Both eventually depend on the professional skills and ethics (that is, the intentions) of the reporter.

 

Moreover, if the documentary and the fictional are both options available to the filmmaker, then it becomes a matter of choice on the latter's part whether he or she prefers either to present the documentary's subject matter in a documentary mode or to represent them 'fictionally'. The extent to which the documentary mode has become a stylistic option is best evidenced by carefully controlled star-vehicles like the pseudo-documentary _In Bed with Madonna_.

 

Intention and belief, aesthetic as well moral and political considerations surely must also play a major role in the documentary representing functions of cinema and photography. Isn't the very first question a spectator is likely to ask, when confronted with purely documentary images, 'why did the filmmaker bother to make this film and show it to us in the first place?'.

 

Cinematic images, whether fulfilling documentary or fictional representing functions, do not simply depict the events the filmmaker intends the spectator to imagine. They represent these events in a certain manner, focusing on one part of the scene rather than another, highlighting some details and obscuring others, etc. Through the use of the stylistic devices available, the filmmaker may choose to film in one way rather than another, thus encouraging one 'way of seeing', or one sort of interpretation, rather than another. Framing, distance, angle, focus, lightning, mise-en-scene, etc., are all informed by the rhetorical or narrative intentions of the filmmaker to such an extent that it is hard to draw the boundary between the non-intentional documentary representing functions of a film, and its intentional, rhetorical, or narrative functions. [18] On the role of style, however, Currie has very little to say.

 

Now Currie is not unaware of these problems, since he downplays the role of the photographic ('literal') meaning in the interpretation of filmic images. In Currie's view, fiction films do not invite the spectators to see the real actors, sets, and props that they photographically represent, nor do they prompt their spectators to hold even temporarily the false belief that the dinosaurs or hurricanes shown were actually in front of the camera. They only invite their spectators to imagine that it is fictional about the world of the story that it contains the creatures, locations, events, etc. This imagining bases itself not on the film's photographic meaning, but on its appearance meaning. This is the meaning that a viewer would ascribe to a film image 'who (i) had no knowledge of the rest of the film, and (ii) could not identify the actors in the film and generally knew nothing about its construction' (256).

 

The possibility of finding such a viewer is not as outlandish as Currie suggests, since in the viewing of many a documentary film or reality-tv most of us find ourselves in exactly that position. Very often we are not able to tell whether the film images get us at the events themselves or at re-enactments of them. All we can settle for is appearance meaning. Appearance meaning, however, must be something more than the documentary content of the film image stripped off of the knowledge that the figures we see are actors. For even if we cannot identify the actors, know nothing about the film's construction, and have no knowledge of the rest of the movie, we are usually still capable of identifying a scene as part of a fiction film through its techniques of mise-en-scene, lighting, editing, etc. To my knowledge, nobody ever took Italian neo-realist films for documentary records of the living conditions of the Italian working class immediately after the Second World War, although these films featured unknown actors and were usually shot on location.

 

It seems more likely that appearance meaning is strongly informed by the spectator's assumptions concerning the fictional or non-fictional status of the images (which may be wrong, of course). The appearance meaning is not the basis upon which interpretative guesses about the filmmaker's intentions are built, but is itself already the result of initial tentative hypotheses about the fictional or 'documentary' intentions of the filmmaker. Apart from stylistic cues, these hypotheses may also be informed by the contextual and institutional conditions under which the film is viewed.

 

Currie's neglect of stylistic devices and film techniques, and their role in the interpretation of film images, also crops up in his claim that seeing a cinematic fiction involves impersonal seeing. Whereas Currie rejects the theses of Transparency and Illusionism, he accepts the thesis of Likeness. According to Currie, film spectators use the same visual capacity to recognize objects in film as we deploy in normal seeing. (To put it less philosophically, we know a horse when we see one.) There must, however, be a crucial difference between seeing a photograph or film image of an object and seeing the object itself, as Currie argued in his rejection of the doctrines of Transparency and Illusionism. This difference is, according to Currie, that normal visual perception is always egocentric, because 'we get information about the spatial and temporal relations between the object seen and ourselves' (66).

 

From this Currie derives the claims that images do not make us believe that we see objects and events because what we actually see are cinematic depictions of these events, and that we are not encouraged to imagine that we see these events from the camera's vantage point because we don't believe that we are somehow within the fictional world or that we occupy the camera's position. Currie rejects this Imagined Observer Hypothesis, and proposes the following alternative thesis: 'What I imagine while watching a movie concerns the events of the fiction it presents, not any perceptual relations between myself and those events. My imagining is not that I see the characters and the events of the movie; it is simply that there are these characters and that these events *occur* the same sort of impersonal imagining I engage in when I read a novel.' (179)

 

Here, again, Currie ignores how camera angle, framing, focus, etc., may come into play in imagining. Of course, Currie acknowledges that perceptual imagining is 'essentially perspectival' because 'a specification of the content of what we imagine must make reference to a certain perspective' (188). Therefore, if I form a certain belief about the appearance of an object on the basis of a pictorial representation of that object, that belief is that the object 'appears so and so from a certain perspective' (188). But this does not entail that I imagine that I see that object from that particular vantage point, because what I actually see is a pictorial representation and not the object itself.

 

In its literal form this claim cannot be refuted, but it is not very helpful when it comes to explaining the role of film techniques in imagining and interpretation. If, for example, we see a film image of a shadow of a man cast on a wall, but not the man himself, we certainly do more than imagining that in the world of the story a shadow of that particular shape was cast on a wall. We are very likely to imagine, too, that the owner of the shadow finds himself on a place just off-screen, and we will wonder why the filmmaker chose not to include the man himself in the shot. We do not only imagine, then, that this scene has this appearance from this particular vantage point. Rather we use our real world knowledge of shadows to imagine a more complete scene than the film actually offers, and we then ask ourselves why the filmmaker has chosen to show us the scene from this particular vantage point. Raising such a question does not presuppose that I imagine that I see the shadow from a certain vantage point within the fictional world. It does show, however, that the particular vantage point from which the shadow is filmed plays an important role in the imagining and interpretation of the scene.

 

Here again Currie is so zealous about dismissing the literal interpretations of the 'Film is a Window on the World' metaphor that he tries to stay away from any reference to film techniques that may encourage the comprehension of film images as (in major respects) analogous with normal visual perception. He therefore overstates the differences between normal visual perception and pictorial depictions. Although it is true that normal, everyday visual perception always presupposes a certain vantage point from which a scene is seen, it is not true that this vantage point is always necessarily part of the conceptualization of the scene. The cognitive linguist Ronald Langacker has argued that our perceptual interactions with other entities has given rise to an archetypal conception that he calls 'the stage model'. In this model, the viewer observes an event from a vantage point external to its setting and 'is so absorbed in the perceptual experience that he loses all awareness of self, and . . . the object perceived is well-delimited, wholly distinct from the perceiver, and located in a region of high perceptual acuity'. [19] In this so-called 'optimal viewing arrangement', the scene is 'construed objectively', and the perceiving subject remains offstage. Impersonal imagining is not unique to the conceptualizations of fictional representations but also plays a role in the conceptualizations of normal, everyday visual perceptions. The stage model and the optimal viewing arrangement are, however, not the only ways available for conceptualizing visual perceptions. At the opposite site of the optimal viewing arrangement Langacker locates the 'egocentric viewing arrangement', in which the viewing subject and the conditions under which the perceived object is seen enter the conceptualization of the perception, which then becomes more 'subjectively construed'. [20]

 

As in normal, everyday visual perception, the conditions under which and the vantage from where a scene is observed surely can influence the way in which a film image or a photograph is 'imagined' by a spectator. Not all perceptual imagining is that 'impersonal', as Currie suggests. Nor is the opposite of 'impersonal imagining' necessarily 'personal' or egocentric imagining. To imagine the particular conditions under which the represented events are observed entails becoming aware of the fact that the same event could have been observed under other circumstances and from a different vantage point as well. And, only if one is aware that the scene could have been observed otherwise, can one ask why the filmmaker has chosen to 'observe' the events under these conditions and from this particular vantage point. These sort of questions are, in turn, only possible because perceptual imaginings on the basis of pictorial depictions are construed as analogous to normal human vision, both personal and impersonal.

 

Now Currie might argue that 'impersonal imagining' only means that the spectator is not imagining that there is a specific spatial (and temporal) relationship between the depicted events and him. He might also point out that impersonal imagining is not the result, but the starting point of the process of interpretation, and that this process of interpretation is not that impersonal. As artefacts, films are 'traces left on the world by an intending agent', and interpreting a film is, according to Currie, explaining that film in causal and intentional terms (239). More specifically, the interpretation of fiction films is 'explanation by reference to causally efficacious, story-telling intentions' (240). Interpretation is closely related to imagining, or 'simulation' since the best way to find out the author's story-telling intentions is 'to do some simulating; I put myself in the author's position, thinking of myself as the person who produced the text, and ask myself, 'What story-telling intentions would have led me to write that text?'' -- in the case of literary fiction (242).

 

Interpretation in Currie's sense is a special case of the application of what the linguists Sperber and Wilson called 'the principle of relevance' that guides human beings in normal 'ostensive-inferential communication'. In interpreting a perceived signal the perceiver will assume that a communicator has the intention to make manifest a set of assumptions, and that the assumptions that the communicator intends to communicate are those that are most relevant in the context in which the stimulus has been produced. [21]

 

Films, obviously, are intentionally produced artefacts, and interpreting a film certainly involves finding out which 'set of assumptions' the maker of the film intended to convey. Since it is often impossible to trace the 'real author's' intentions (and the real author's intentions may be irrelevant anyway), Currie follows the narratologist Seymour Chatman [22] and proposes to replace the intentions of the real author with what he calls 'Implied Author Intentionalism' (245). But this means that perceptual imagining and interpretation cannot be completely 'impersonal' because imagining and interpretation are eventually oriented towards an explanation of the film's images in terms of the communicative intentions of the agent the spectator holds responsible for the film. In this respect Currie explicitly distantiates himself from David Bordwell, who rejects notions like implied and other sorts of authors and narrators as irrelevant for film comprehension and proposes to replace them with the abstract process of 'narration'.

 

Currie is not the only one to have pointed out that most of the activities Bordwell ascribes to this process of narration, such as 'surpressing' of information, 'restricting our knowledge', 'generating our curiosity', etc. logically presuppose an intentional agent who does all these things (248). Seymour Chatman raised similar objections against Bordwell's treatment of filmic narration in terms of an abstract process. [23] But maybe Currie and Chatman may be misled by grammar here. The noun 'narration' is indeed derived from the verb 'to narrate', and this verb requires, at least in its finite forms, a subject, just as the activity of narrating semantically requires an agent.

 

However, the act of communication and its underlying intentions do not always necessarily enter the conceptualization of the 'set of assumptions' the perceiver assumes the communicator intends to make manifest. Most of the time, simple declarative sentences in natural language are interpreted as describing some state of affairs in a real or fictional world without reference to the specific conditions under which (or the particular vantage point from which, or even by whom) the relevant state of affairs has been reported. Although simple declarative sentences logically presuppose a speaking subject, this speaking subject herself need not be a salient part of the conceptualization of the meaning of those sentences by the perceiver, who may keep the speaker 'offstage'. This sort of objective conceptualization seems to be the unmarked case with the interpretation of film images, which as a form of 'impersonal imagining' does not require reference to entities like 'implied authors'. Only when the conditions under which (and the vantage from where) the events are reported are foregrounded and become a salient part of the perceiver's conceptualization, do story-telling and other communicative intentions enter 'into the picture'. Whether these intentions are ascribed to something like an implied author or to some sort of counterfactual substitute of the spectator herself in the world of the diegesis (as Branigan suggests [24]) is a matter of empirical investigation rather than philosophical speculation.

 

Moreover, interpretation need not always be explanation in intentional terms. Sherlock Holmes might explain a foot print as a trace of the murderer's intention to kill the victim, but he could certainly not interpret this foot print in terms of a communicative intention on the part of the murderer to make manifest that he is about to kill someone. If we apply the same cognitive capacities to identify objects and events in pictorial representations as we apply in 'real life' we are more likely to interpret the behavior of filmic characters in ways similar to Sherlock Holmes's interpretation of the murderer's traces rather than in terms of communicative intentions. This does not preclude us from bringing to bear our knowledge of narrative and other patterns on our understanding of this behavior, because we also use this sort of knowledge in our everyday world to make sense of the behavior of other people. At other levels, when we feel that we have to account for the specific way in which events are pictorially represented or when we have to account for the overall organization of the film, the communicative intentions of the agent surely will come into play. But Bordwell is certainly right when he claims that we do not always appeal to implied authors or narrators of some sort to make sense of film images.

 

In the end, Currie leaves us with a curious mixture of approaches to film. As far as he tries to define an 'essence of cinema' he offers a philosophy of film, but his philosophical concept is at great distance from empirical practices of filmmaking. In as far as he tries to account for film comprehension, he ignores the specific stylistic devices and film techniques through which the imagining and interpretation of filmic representations are shaped. And as an ontological theory of film, his contribution is not a cognitive theory. At best, his book offers a philosophical therapy against those film theories that take our largely metaphorical conceptualizations of cinema literally. But in dismissing these literal interpretations, Currie overlooks their metaphorical nature, and therefore provides a therapy that is not much better than the disease it was meant to cure.

 

University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Gregory Currie, 'Film, Reality, and Illusion', in David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds., _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), pp. 325-344.

 

2. Richard Allen, _Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 114. For a review of Allen's book, see Karen Bardsley, 'The 'I' of the Beholder', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 7, March 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n7bardsley>.

 

3. See, John M. Carroll, _Toward a Structural Psychology of Cinema_ (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1980); Dominique Chateau, _Le Cinema comme langage_ (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1986); Michel Colin, _Langue, film, discours: Prolegomenes à une semiologie generative du film_ (Paris: Klincksieck, 1985); Karl-Dietmar Moller-Nass, _Filmsprache: Eine kritische theoriegeschichte_ (Munster: Maks Publikationen, 1986).

 

4. See o.a. Francesco Casetti, _Teorie del cinema 1945-1990_ (Milan: Bompiani, 1993).

 

5. In his article 'The Storm over the University', John Searle quotes an account of a speech by Professor Barbara Johnson, who claimed that it was 'a fact' that 'gynophobia is structured like a language' and, conversely, that 'language is structured like gynophobia'. As Searle observes, whatever this may mean, 'the audience at such a session will recognise Johnson's theses, at least in the sense that they know what ideas and authors she is invoking' (_New York Review of Books_, vol. xxxvii no. 19, December 6, 1990, p. 37). The same applies to much of the use of linguistic and semiotic terms in film studies.

 

6. Christian Metz, 'Problemes de denotaton dans le film de fiction', in _Essais sur la signification au cinema_ [1968] (Paris: Klincksiek, 1983), pp. 111-146.

 

7. 'In _Film Language_, Metz confuses his methodological principles, his orienting assumptions, with theoretical claims. This is why his argument tends to become somewhat convoluted and why his ultimate conclusion that film is a sort of *langage* but not *langue* is unsatisfying. Indeed, one might well ask how *langage*, the observable aspects of the system, can exist without *langue*, an abstract underlying form.' John M. Carroll, _Toward a Structural Psychology of Cinema_, p. 34.

 

8. Ray Jackendoff, _Semantics and Cognition_ (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983); _Consciousness and the Computational Mind_ (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987).

 

9. See: George Lakoff, _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Mark Johnson, _The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Ronald Langacker, _Concept, Image, and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar_ (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991); Gilles Fauconnier, _Mental Spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Gilles Fauconnier, _Mappings in Thought and Language_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Gilles Fauconier and Eve Sweetser, eds., _Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

 

10. Marvin Minsky, _The Society of Mind_ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

 

11. Roland Barthes writes for instance: 'Telle photo, en effet, ne se distingue jamais de son referent (de ce qu'elle represente), ou du moins elle ne s'en distingue pas tout de suite ou pour tout le monde . . . : percevoir le signifiant photographique n'est pas impossible (des professionels le font), mais cela demande un acte second de savoir ou de reflection'. And: 'Quoi qu'elle donne à voir et quelle que soit sa maniere, une photo est toujours invisible: ce n'est pas elle qu'on voit.' Roland Barthes, _La Chambre claire: Notes sur la photographie_ (Paris: Cahiers du Cinema, Gallimard, Seuil, 1980), p. 16-18.

 

12. Noel Carroll has argued in a similar way against what he called 'the illusion theory of fiction' in his book _The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart_ (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 63.

 

13. To demonstrate this difference, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss the metaphor 'Argument is War': 'This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things -- verbal discourse and armed conflict -- and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, language is metaphorically structured.' George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, _Metaphors We Live By_ (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 5.

 

14. That both these metaphors do not only together structure a folk theoretical understanding of film, but also more sophisticated and even academic film theories is evident in the writings of the semiotician Christian Metz and the realist film critic Andre Bazin. Metz's notion of the 'impression or reality' owes much to Bazin, while Bazin concluded his famous essay 'Ontology de l'Image Photographique' with the sentence: 'D'autre part le cinema est un langage'. Andre Bazin, _Qu'est-ce que le cinema?_, Edition definitive (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1975), p. 17.

 

15. The French film theorist Roger Odin raised similar objections against Metz's definition of cinema in terms of features of its expressive means (*matiere de l'expression*). Odin proposed to speak of a 'cinematographic field' instead of 'the object cinema'; 'ce n'est qu'en prenant en compte les *usages* du cinema et donc en tenant compte de ce qui passe dans l'espace social que l'on a pu parvenir à des definitions quelque peu precises des objets cinema qui constituent le champ cinematographique'. Roger Odin, _Cinema et production de sens_ (Paris: Armand Colin, 1990), p. 57.

 

16. This position is taken by for instance Lev Manovich in his article 'Towards an Archaeology of the Computer Screen', in: T. Elsaesser and K. Hoffmann, eds., _Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable. The Screen Arts in the Digital Age_ (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998), pp. 27-44. A number of essays by Lev Manovich can be found at: <http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~manovich>

 

17. W. J. T. Mitchell, _The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era_ Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), p. 17.

 

18. There seems to be a remainder of the Invisible Observer Hypothesis in Currie's conception of the documentary cinematic image. First of all, because it is in its pure form not dependent on the intentions and beliefs of the filmmaker, but naturally dependent on the recorded events, and second because it does not seem to be informed by stylistic choices of the filmmaker. As David Bordwell writes in the context of narration in fiction films, 'The invisible observer model, being wholly concerned with space, cannot explain how action develops to prolong maximum visibility . . . In the fiction film, not only the camera position but the mise-en-scene, as it unfolds in space and time, is addressed to the spectator. It is not that the camera chooses the best spot from which to capture an independently existing event; figures, lighting, setting, and costume are constructed so as to make sense only from certain vantage points. From this we can draw a conclusion to which we will often return. All film techniques, even those involving the 'profilmic event,' function narrationally, constructing the story world for specific effects.' David Bordwell, _Narration in the Fiction Film_ (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 11-12.

 

19. Ronald Langacker, _Concept, Image, and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar_ (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991), p. 210.

 

20. Ibid., pp. 316-317.

 

21. Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson, _Relevance: Communication and Cognition_ (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 58-61.

 

22. Seymour Chatman, _Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film_ (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

 

23. Ibid.

 

24. Branigan suggests that the '(implied) diegetic narrator' is conceptualized in the form of a hypothetical counterfactual: 'If a bystander *had been* present, he or she *would have seen* Manny emerge from the club . . . and *would have heard*'. Edward Branigan, _Narrative Comprehension and Film_ (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 111.

 

 

 

Jan Simons, 'Image and Mind: But Where's the Body?',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 17, April 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n17simons>.

 

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