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Philosophy and the Moving ImageReview - Philosophy and the Moving Image
Refractions of Reality
by John Mullarkey
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Review by Nathan Andersen
May 18th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 20)

Over the past couple decades, the philosophy of film has become a productive arena for wide-ranging philosophical exploration, and not merely a subdiscipline of philosophical aesthetics.  Film raises philosophical questions, both regarding the nature of the medium itself and its relation to reality, and also, in its depictions of life, manages to revitalize and enrich traditional philosophical concerns regarding how to live, how we can know, and what is ultimately real and important.  In Philosophy of the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality, Mullarkey reflects on the range of contributions to the philosophy of film both to show what each approach reveals of cinema, and in order to emphasize that cinema shows itself most fully in its resistance to theoretical attempts to grasp it.  It is, easily, the most learned and illuminating of several recent book-length efforts to sum up the state of the art in philosophizing about film.  At the same time, Mullarkey's efforts to make a positive contribution in the field come more in the form of a promissory note, that threatens to lose sight of cinema "as such" and to define, rather, an approach to (non-)philosophizing about any subject whatsoever. 

The basic thesis of the book is summed up in the introduction, that "nobody knows everything," which is to say there is more to film than any one theory can exhaust.  This assertion regarding the limits of film theory and of philosophical approaches to film is not merely a negative assessment, but suggests a positive ontology of film, that its "nature" is to resist characterization.  "It is this inexhaustibility of film, this more, this élan, that is philosophically interesting and thoughtful, for it is the one absolute that resists relativism" (3).  The method of the book is to provide a sympathetic but critical assessment of a wide range of philosophical approaches to film - including the cognitive theoretical approach of Bordwell and Branigan, the work of range of recent philosophers who use film as illustration and thought experiment, the fresh psychoanalytic perspective of Žižek, the work of Deleuze and Cavell and Badiou and Ranciere and many others - that considers each as offering a refracted (that is, transformed and partial) vision of cinema, that reveal cinema to offer refracted visions (rather than reflections) of reality.  That he doesn't do more than sketch his own, independent, approach to film philosophy is understandable insofar as the basic gist of his critique is that existing approaches to the philosophy of film have attempted to draw out the thinking of film by, in effect, doing the thinking on behalf of film.  His aim is to motivate a pluralistic approach to cinema, that manages not only to show us how to think about cinema's many aspects and impacts, but allows thereby the thinking of cinema itself to make itself manifest.

Two basic concerns regarding existing philosophical approaches to film recur throughout.  On the one hand, each theory succeeds by being highly selective (even, and especially, where they deny this) in its approach to cinema, choosing those dimensions of film and specific works that confirm the approach.  The other recurring challenge is that film philosophies treat as philosophical in film only those contents and questions for which there are precedents within well-established philosophical tradition.  The concern is that film is not then allowed to challenge philosophy, or to teach new ways of doing philosophy, or to open up new domains for philosophical thought, but becomes, rather, at best a tool in the hands of the philosopher, for sharpening intuitions regarding ideas whose proper locus remains within philosophy proper.  The point is important, and Mullarkey shows that even thinkers who raise such concerns explicitly tend still to treat film as dependent upon philosophy to articulate and clarify its thinking.  Still, his emphasis of this point, and his tendency to raise flags where philosophical accounts of film motivate their inquiries by appeal to the relevance of specific films to enduring philosophical questions, means that Mullarkey doesn't tend to emphasize areas in which cinematic and philosophical thinking share basic concerns.  Rather than look for film's own "thinking" in its resistance to philosophical theorizing, perhaps it would be fruitful to consider philosophy and film as "in conversation" regarding a range of shared concerns, which may very well include traditional philosophical questions. 

The sense in which Mullarkey holds that cinema thinks for itself is quite distinct from but more inclusive than that proposed by, say, Deleuze or, more recently, Daniel Frampton.  Deleuze, on the one hand, associates the thinking he finds in film with the auteurs who create it, and, on the other hand, sees the types of images they work into their films to be conceptual.  By creating new types of images, filmmakers create new concepts, and the thinking of film is embedded in these concepts.  He focuses, in particular, on a "conceptual" shift that took place in the course of the history of cinema, in which a new kind of image - the "time-image" - made it possible for film to think or project new realities.  Frampton is more reluctant to identify the thinking in film with anything or anyone outside of the film, and so treats the film itself as a kind of consciousness or mind, a "filmind", whose thinking is manifest in the film's activity of attending to or focusing on this or that subject matter.  For Mullarkey, both accounts are too narrowly selective.  Both aim to place the thinking of the film on the screen itself, but overlook, for example, the socially mediated nature of the encounter with the cinematic encounter, and the temporally mediated nature of the images themselves.  An image that appears initially to its audiences as an instance of temporal rupture, or an affective response to a situation, can later come to appear quite differently.  What a cinematic image is or shows depends on what it has shown before, and on what the audience has seen as point of reference, and there is in principle no limit to what can turn out to be relevant to a reading of what is "on the screen itself."

What Mullarkey advocates is a turn away from the "hierarchy of hermetic discourses" - each claiming the superiority of its own approach - that dominates film studies now, and a turn instead towards a pluralistic proliferation of discourses on film, something akin to the post-war French research program known as "Filmology" that aimed to look at film from (nearly) every possible perspective.  If film's thinking appears in its resistance to any fixed definition of what it can be, then this proliferation would reveal that thinking by manifesting that resistance from the perspective of several distinct aspects of film.  Film thinks for itself, in other words, insofar as filmmakers encounter and overcome the limits of what film has been, how it has been interpreted, how it has solved problems and creatively engendered solutions.  Film, one might say, just is its development of new means of expression, new contents for exploration, new ways of relating to its audience, and this creative responsiveness is revealed as "thinking" by the various discourses that give account of these transformations.   

Mullarkey links his own approach to film with the "non-philosophy" of François Laruelle, by way of contrast with the various philosophies of film that he examines.  "Non-philosophy" does not aim to define or dictate norms towards a subject matter it takes to be perfectly capable of defining itself and of setting up and challenging its own standards on its own terms.  It aims, rather, to "think alongside" its subject matter, tracing its contours by noting the ways in which it resists definition by the various discourses that describe it.  The most promising sketch of the illuminating potential for a "non-philosophy" of film comes in the final chapter of the book, when Mullarkey outlines several dimensions of film that "refuse to stand still and be 'classical'" (191).  The affective dimension of film, for example, whose potential resistance to "theories of cinematic emotions" Mullarkey illustrates by way of an example that appears in varied guises throughout the text.  The experience of waiting, say, for a cube of sugar to dissolve into a cup of coffee, can be both a subject matter depicted on film and can generate the associated affects in the viewer, of anticipation, of impatience.  The capacity of film to curtail or prolong that experience, or to direct the viewer's attention selectively towards movements that transform boredom into fascination, or otherwise reshape the affective experience of time, challenges attempts to characterize film affects independently from the effects of cinema.  Even time, or at least the experience of its duration, is shown thereby to resist characterization by way of the clock (and to thereby challenge the alleged objectivity and clarifying impact of "empirical" descriptions of cinema that rest on temporal measurements, say of the average time between cuts): "we dissolve into the film's duration just as it mixes itself with ours" (192).

One potential drawback to defining the thinking of film in the way that he does is that a similar account would seem to apply to any subject matter whatsoever, insofar as every reality is complex and resists to some degree or other the range of discourses that might aim to characterize it.  In his concluding remarks that urge philosophers to learn from the resistance of film to any and all attempts to circumscribe it, Mullarkey comes close to offering a manifesto for any future (non-)philosophy, that loses sight of what is distinctive to the philosophy (or non-philosophy) of film as such.  Still, along the way he offers exceptionally lucid and penetrating accounts and criticisms of a wide-ranging body of work on film.  While it may be daunting for beginners, Mullarkey's book is an essential contribution to the field for anyone who aims to take the philosophy of film seriously.


© 2011 Nathan Andersen



Nathan Andersen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eckerd College, where he teaches a wide range of courses on the history of philosophy, environmental philosophy, philosophy of film, and philosophy of mind.  He has published articles on Hegel, Aristotle, Collingwood, Environmental Ethics and the Philosophy of Film.  He is also the director of an award-winning Tampa Bay International Cinema series, and the co-director of the "Visions of Nature/Voices of Nature," Environmental Film Festival. 


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