Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 28, September 2001

 

 

Dorian Stuber

Art Objects

 

 

 

_Film and Philosophy_

Volume 4, 1997

ISSN 1073-0427

116 pp.

 

Friedrich Schlegel tells us, in an oft-cited aphorism, that the 'philosophy of art usually lacks one of two things: either the philosophy or the art'. [1] Must we submit to the pessimism of this claim? Might not the rigour and speculative power typically granted to philosophy illuminate rather than obscure the singularity and irreducible presence typically granted to art? The editors of _Film and Philosophy_, a journal published at Hanover College, Indiana, would likely uphold just such a possibility. But what would it mean to exhort the overcoming of Schlegel's antimony? For the marriage of speculation with object, theory with practice, is inescapable rather than laudable. Since the late 19th century, beginning with Nietzsche, it has often enough been observed that an a-theoretical position, however stridently avowed, is untenable. That is, even the most formal reading of an artwork hews to certain theoretical assumptions, if only (speciously) to denigrate all such assumptions as extraneous to the work in question.

 

It does not follow, however, that art and philosophy, even if as intimately connected as bacon and eggs or bread and butter, always taste good together. Put differently, it is not necessarily interesting to combine the two, especially if we consider that adjective etymologically rather than normatively, as Heidegger, for one, does in drawing our attention to its roots in the relationship between essences or beings (inter-esse). To return to the journal under review, we might ask, not unreasonably in view of its title, what sort of relationship is proposed in its conjunction of terms. For us to speak of film and philosophy requires that we interrogate the foundations of both, in order to question their presumed difference. Ultimately, if the ampersand in _Film and Philosophy_ is to serve as more than shorthand, it must designate an 'and' that is a hyphen rather than a plus sign. Alas, a handful of exceptions aside, the journal fails to interrogate its titular concepts in this or, indeed, in any way. Its pages regrettably add little to our understanding of either film or philosophy.

 

Rather than the thematic, reflexive, 'meta' investigation into the relationship between film and philosophy that the journal's title leads us to expect, we find instead a series of essays which read various films through various philosophical lenses. There is a careless, even contingent air to these endeavours, for it is rarely obvious why the choice has been made to read, say, _Rob Roy_ in terms of, say, the relationship between speech and community as proposed in _The Republic_. Haphazard approaches of this sort lead to an eventuality not broached by Schlegel's aphorism: namely, an argument in which both philosophy and art are invoked, but to little effect, since no justification is provided for the comparison being offered. What precisely is the link between Plato's arguments and Michael Caton-Jones's film? Without such theoretical grounding, we are unlikely to learn much about either the film or the philosophy in question, and certainly nothing about the relation between them.

 

Although the collection's most compelling essays fail to provide justifications for their theoretical comparisons, they do succeed in terms of the skill with which they are composed. Both David Goldblatt, in his reading of _Barton Fink_ (1991), and Harvey Roy Greenberg, in his reading of _Crash_ (1996), acknowledge the theoretical questions raised by the films rather than reducing them through a reading guided by a particular philosophical leaning. Moreover, these questions are grounded in the particulars of the films they interrogate, as, for example, in Goldblatt's investigation, informed by Emmanuel Levinas, into the Old Testament resonances of the Coen Brothers' story, which tells of a Jewish playwright who arrives in Hollywood to write scripts about 'the common man'.

 

I would add, however, that this quixotic undertaking is never thoroughly registered as such by Goldblatt, in that Levinas's misgivings about aesthetics, and the possible applicability of ethics to art, are in his essay never addressed. To be fair, Goldblatt's intention is ultimately rather different; he describes two sorts of Jewishness in the film, 'the Jew of the Page and the Jew of the Picture' (95). Levinas is thus conscripted only in a secondary element of his argument, yet I would argue that to conscript Levinas at all betrays a fundamental failing in reading him. Nonetheless, in his refusal to insist upon a 'Levinasian' reading of the film, Goldblatt provokes debate rather than shutting it down through a dogmatically asserted premise.

 

Similarly, Greenberg's essay on David Cronenberg's _Crash_ is the most compelling in the collection precisely because it is the least insistent on overtly reading artworks through philosophic discourse. His well-written piece nonetheless acknowledges the film's complexities, for example in the way it confounds the tedious, yet all too typical dichotomy offered by theories of technology (that we must fear it or adore it), and places the film in the context of other twentieth-century representations of man and machine. It would still be possible to level various objections to Greenberg's piece -- for example, I would have liked to see him address the film's obviation of trauma, and the way this both furthers and complicates its refusal of psychology and, seemingly, an entire lineage of subjecthood -- but, as with Goldblatt's essay, such objections pertain more to the specifics of the argument rather than to its premises. Greenberg especially, but Goldblatt too, deserve further credit for remaining mindful that they are writing about *film*, that is, of a particular artistic medium with particular formal components. It is often difficult, when reading the other essays in the collection, to recall that film is a visual and aural medium that makes its claim on our attention and affection in different ways than, for example, written texts do.

 

In the end, the disappointments of _Film and Philosophy_ lie neither in the instances it compares (indeed, an appealingly wide array of films and philosophies is here represented, from Pagnol's _The Baker's Wife_ to Beckett's _Film_, from communitarianism to post-structuralism; in this regard, if there is any room to cavail it is in the complete absence of cinema from the so-called Third World), nor in its guiding impulse to compare. Indeed, in a time of ever-greater academic specialization, the latter is an especially laudable goal. Ultimately, however, when presented in so unselfconscious a manner, that noble impulse only betrays itself. If philosophy and art are not incommensurable, a supposition with which the editors of _Film and Philosophy_ would appear to agree, then it remains imperative to theorize that relationship rather than to posit it. It comes as no surprise that the films most interestingly -- though by no means exhaustively -- dealt with here, _Barton Fink_ and _Crash_, are those most aware of their own status as art objects, and thus those most invested in their own theorization. As such, they are art objects that refuse the dichotomy between practice and theory; they are art that objects to its sequestration from and ostensible subordination to something called philosophy.

 

Self-conscious artworks are thus interstitial works, spanning the gulf between theory and practice, and as such are interesting in the full sense of the term. The same, alas, cannot be said for the majority of the essays under review. While _Film and Philosophy_ rightly abjures the dichotomy that offers, on the one hand, an empirical description of artworks devoid of all theoretical grounding and, on the other, a reduction of individual artworks to the demonstration of a grand theory, it is an abjuration that too often fails. The work presented here is rigid and yet not rigorous: rigid in that its attempts to yoke film to philosophy are often clumsy and tendentious; not rigorous in that its failure to theorize comparison hobbles its ostensible goal of combining theory and practice. On the evidence of this journal, at least, Schlegel's admonition regarding the perils of philosophical aesthetics remains to be taken into account.

 

Cornell University

Ithaca, New York, USA

 

 

Footnote

 

1. Friedrich Schlegel, _Kritische Schriften_, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1964), p. 6.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Dorian Stuber, 'Art Objects', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 28, September 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n28stuber>.

 

 

 

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