New Each Day
by Jack Belloli
A review of Philosophy's Artful Conversation by D.N. Rodowick (Harvard University Press, 2015)
Those of us who admit publicly to being fans of Terrence Malick’s films eventually find themselves having to defend that scene from The Tree of Life. Early in the film, Malick cuts away from the burgeoning family narrative to show images from the early history of the universe. One (unimpressively computer-generated) dinosaur notices another lying in a riverbed. It advances, almost strikes twice — but then relents, gives a strangely affectionate pat instead, and runs off. The film’s opening narration had announced a fundamental debate between ‘the way of nature and the way of grace’, soon to be represented by a family caught between an authoritarian father and an angelic mother: here, it seems, is the point of divergence. It is hard to imagine a directorial decision more conspicuously announcing itself as meaningful.
I come not to bury this moment as much as to contrast it with one from an earlier Malick film. Towards the end of Days of Heaven, as the plot’s love triangle reaches its tragic climax, a swarm of locusts blights the wheat farm where the four central characters had developed their apparently idyllic life. Controlled close-up shots of (startlingly real) individual insects, caught in pulsing acts of digestion, are intercut with shots of them swarming over the fields, in arrangements that we know that Malick could never have precisely orchestrated. The changing gestures of the camera are paralleled by those of the characters: where locusts were previously picked out of inspected wheat, or flicked unconsciously off vegetables in the kitchen, they now have to be navigated around with difficulty. I want this Biblical plague to be a fulfilment of the film’s earlier references to the Apocalypse, perhaps a punishment for Abby’s decision, coerced by her lover Bill, to marry the dying farmer for his wealth. I want this crisis in the act of touching to mirror that faced by the characters: who gets to touch whom within this strange, prelapsarian family has only become an issue now that the farmer has become conscious of Abby’s intimacy with Bill, whom he had assumed was her brother. I want to say something about how the film’s attention to touch heightens my experience of touch as I watch it — my hand on my cheek, my skin on my clothes on the seat — knowing that this will never count as an experience of the film, but might add to my understanding of film, untouchable on a screen before me. None of these is quite expressible as ‘true’, or counts as ‘meaning’, but they might constitute a kind of thinking.
It is a truism to call Malick a philosophical film-maker, but also a truism to refute it: to insist that his films are a kind of expression of his unfinished doctoral work on Heidegger is to deny all of their other gifts. But watching, and trying to talk about, the locusts is so much more fascinating than the dinosaurs precisely because it feels more like doing philosophy. In his essay ‘What Photography Calls Thinking’, Malick’s undergraduate mentor Stanley Cavell argues that ‘a critical reader’, be it of film or any other ‘aesthetic power’, ‘cannot leave it to others to derive the philosophy he/she invokes, because that philosophy is either derived by such a critic in each act of criticism, new each day, or else it is intellectually unanimated, dead, at the disposal of fashion’. To attempt to talk about this film moves me to talk about causation, the expressibility of love, the knowledge of other selves or other species — and to do so always in a slightly different way than I did before.
This is the kind of work that I like to think of myself as doing, as a humanities scholar: my objects of inquiry are only valuable insofar as they engage my critical attention; the conclusions that I express are only valid if they can be traced back to such acts of attention, and inform how I and others will execute new ones. Sadly, this is not always the case. Often the business of expressing an idea reduces it to a convenient form that is as ‘intellectually unanimated, dead’ as the dinosaurs. I can feel this not only because of the increasing cultural pressure to turn my free play of ideas into specific nexus points for interdisciplinary investigation, or ‘impact’-generating output — but also, more insidiously, because my critical skill can always ossify into habit, because it is just easier for my renewed engagement to take yesterday’s too-too-solid attitudes for granted. David Rodowick’s Philosophy’s Artful Conversation makes for refreshing reading, because it expands upon Cavell’s rousing vision of criticism and philosophy as sustained, ethical practices ‘new each day’, while fully acknowledging the anxieties that attend upon these practices — and by identifying how, without these anxieties, such practice would never be possible. This book, dedicated to Cavell, is the conclusion of a trilogy which began with 2007’s The Virtual Life of Film, in which Rodowick argues against the grain of ‘What Philosophy Calls Thinking’: ‘that every discipline sustains itself “in theory” — a discipline’s coherence derives not from the objects it examines but rather from the concepts and methods it mobilizes to generate critical thought’. This was followed last year by Elegy for Theory, which developed this argument by surveying the startling variety of things that being ‘in theory’ has meant since the ancient Greeks: if theory grants coherence, it is a coherence that is ever-shifting and bound to historical circumstances. Now, Rodowick makes it explicit that it is specifically ‘a life in philosophy’ that ‘requires an elegy for theory’.
This may suggest an attempt to end, once and for all, the hegemony of ‘critical theory’ in the humanities, but Rodowick’s approach is both more general and more generous. He always speaks of an elegy, without referring to a death, of theory. He would prefer to use the French éloge, with its senses of ‘both praise song and funeral chant, panegyric and chanson d’adieu’, as well as of positive legal testimony. Philosophy and theory are not just mutually vivifying, but mutually necessary. If one thinks of one’s self as coming to bury theory, it has a habit of not staying dead. In his lengthy second chapter, Rodowick argues that both of the major attempts to abandon post-1968 critical theory within his own discipline, film studies, have fallen into the very dogmatism that their instigators associate with theory. David Bordwell’s call for a historical poetics of cinema, focused on identifying the aesthetic a priori which distinguishes film from other media, relies on ‘a certain functionalism’, a comfort with what Bordwell describes as ‘knowledge that is reliable and approximately true’, which opens a space for corrigible errors of judgement but no truly productive crises in understanding. This positivism is intensified in Bordwell’s subsequent investment, alongside Noël Carroll, in cognitive theory: the task of film studies becomes to work out why brains respond to the specific ‘patterns of information’ that cinema produces, a task which relies on generalising audience experience, and covertly surrenders to a homunculus fallacy of supposedly rational agents who are reliant on an infinite regress of internal machines. Both of these approaches are ultimately still theory in Rodowick’s terms, which he defines as any kind of ‘secure knowledge’ that is developed by moving from experience, including experiences of art, to general thought: the kind of development that Malick’s dinosaurs might encourage unchecked.
Only philosophy, and specifically a philosophy inspired by the late Wittgenstein, can identify the value of theory without letting it hypertrophy. The inspiration is controversial, with Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey having used Wittgenstein as an advocate against academic theory, on the basis particularly of his repudiation of ‘any kind of theory’ in Philosophical Investigations §109. Rodowick, however, shows that Wittgenstein’s work does allow a space for something like his vision of theory: ‘an assembling of reminders’ which ‘mak[es] manifest and accounts for the implicit or explicit criteria underwriting reasons and interpretations’. Without such theory, philosophy would remain always in the act of ‘asking about itself’, focusing only on the terms of its own self-expression. The best acts of interpretation combine both, and, once this priority is established, all kinds of theory — including the scientific approaches about which Wittgenstein, Allen and Turvey are most nervous — can find their place. Rodowick frames his study as a plea for a unique ‘philosophy of the humanities’, motivated in no small part by a growing tendency to expect these disciplines to make the same kind of empirical truth-claims as the sciences: perhaps the most sinister (though unmentioned by him) is the neurological approaches to economics that have begun to underpin the orthodoxy of neoliberal economics. A philosophy that co-operates with theory can ‘adjudicate a border-dispute between the natural and human sciences, where frequently friendly visits may even be welcome’ — as, indeed, has been shown by the increasing interest within the sciences in how their truth-claims are managed and built by human consensus. To develop this thesis, Rodowick offers detailed studies of Cavell and Gilles Deleuze, an odd couple united by writing multiple volumes on film, despite being more generally recognised as philosophers. Rodowick initially leaves it open whether these books are ‘works of film theory, film philosophy, or even just philosophy’ — but eventually locates them (and, indeed, his own) towards the latter end of that spectrum. This is because each writer, on his own terms, identifies the capacity of cinema as a medium to conduct the philosophical task of always ‘asking about itself’ as much as the world. For philosophy to respond to this quality, without either itself becoming theory or making film its object of theoretical enquiry, it must figure art as a gift or conversation piece.
In the case of Deleuze, Rodowick justifies this by connecting his cinema books to his and Guattari’s late work What is Philosophy? Indeed, he finds in that work ‘one of the best and most thought-provoking accounts’ of the distinction between the time-image and the movement-image, the two coinages which Deleuze uses as titles for the two volumes of Cinema. A film can be understood as a movement-image in the same way that ‘any measurable succession in a state of affairs can be expressed as a suite of instants, like measured steps following one from the other’ — but just as between each step in a process there is always an ‘entre-temps’, ‘that no process of actualization can completely absorb’, so can a film also be understood as a time-image. Time-images emerge whenever sequences of predictable moment-to-moment action, in which time is ultimately no more than its spatial expression, are interrupted by sensations that inspire the ‘virtual’ worlds of recognition, memory or fantasy: in films, this is associated most often with moments that appear like flashbacks and dream sequences but are not telegraphed as such, as well as with uncanny coincidences or doublings that test the credible coherence of a film’s world. The capacity of philosophy and film to register both time and movement at once, in a way that the functionalism and formula-generation of science cannot, allows them to acknowledge our inability to access a ‘pure form of time’ other than fleetingly, and the fact that we find ourselves ‘homeless’ when faced with the entirely immanent view of the universe that Deleuze’s Spinozan philosophy demands. When this capacity shifts within the history of ideas, ‘like an underground river that swells and recedes unpredictably’, it simultaneously shifts within film. For Deleuze, the cultural trauma generated by the events of the Second World War saw a division of the self from the world that it sees and thinks about — a division which finds its partner in the increasing prevalence of the time-image in a cinematic culture previously dominated by the movement-image. Deleuze’s most important example of the new style is the ‘wandering forms’ of neo-realist cinema: rather than always chasing a narrative trajectory, Rossellini’s camera lingers on the ruined buildings of post-war Italy, allowing non-diegetic memories to flood in. What is lost includes Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary belief in ‘a direct relation between image and thought’ or the ‘lyrical abstraction’ of French impressionists such as Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson. (It is the latter style, and particularly its interest in organic growth as an analogy for cinema, that haunts Malick’s images most prominently.)
For Cavell, philosophy and film are also both driven by this drama of brokenness and recuperation, although he locates the breaking earlier, with the emergence of modern Cartesian philosophy. Having made ‘perception the guarantor of knowledge about the world’, Descartes founded ‘the experience of modernity in its doubled aspect: presenting the self as divided from the world by its capacities for perception and thought, and thus wishing for the self to master both itself and the world, and all the objects in it’. This mastery could only be achieved through establishing ‘criteria of certain knowledge’: criteria that were most immediately acquired through Baconian experimental science, and subsequently in Kant’s insistence that rational claims demand universal assent. All of these would come under Rodowick’s broad heading of ‘theory’; Cavell insists that these attempts at mastery are ‘death-dealing’ — the demands of proof made by Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is what guarantees their demise — and sets about establishing an alternative philosophy, which will neither refute nor deny this scepticism. His innovative reading of Descartes emphasises that the subject’s identity as a thinking being is a performative condition, which needs to be renewed continuously in conditions akin to a Wittgensteinian language game; he sees the aesthetic paradox that faces Kant not as an impasse but as ‘expressive of another power of great human value’, that aesthetic judgements are ‘arguable’ and ‘discussable’, capable of generating disagreement and doubt. These governing early concerns, gathered in Must We Mean What We Say? and The Claim of Reason, are not only illustrated but fulfilled in The World Viewed, Cavell’s first book on film and photography. Film is the medium which most movingly (and Rodowick emphasises the pun) expresses the simultaneous sustaining and renouncing of the fantasy that humans are detached individual perceivers who can shape their experience of the world. The cinema depends formally on a physical distance that separates me from the projected image, but it also has a ‘nextness or proximity’ that earlier forms of visual representation lack. The camera bestows an ‘active power’ to a capable director, to generate conscious expressions of significance, but this is always contrasted with its ‘passive power’, the fact that it never stops recording whatever is going on in the expressive field, creating patterns (like Malick’s locusts) that the director does not intend. This is, for Rodowick, ‘a diagnosis of illness and suggestion of therapy’, a claim most powerfully felt in the final paragraph of The World Viewed. Film represents a world that does not contain me, ‘the world of my immortality’: I wish to deny the onscreen world coherence in order ‘to deny that the world is complete without me’ there to interpret it, but I also demand its internal coherence to reassure myself that it will survive without me.
Phrases like this help Rodowick to insist that Cavell’s philosophy only makes sense if it is recognised as an ethics — in the broadest sense of ‘a way of living’ — as well as an epistemology. A Cavellian reading of both Days of Heavens’s locust swarm and The Tree of Life’s dinosaurs would stress the demand that they make on us to recognise touch not merely as a way of signifying a conscious, pre-existing affect, but as an experience in and of itself, through which affects, relationships and communities can be made and destroyed. The ethical dimension becomes more explicit in Pursuits of Happiness and Contesting Tears, Cavell’s later studies of specific genres from ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood, to which Rodowick dedicates a long chapter each. In ‘comedies of remarriage’, a subgenre of screwball comedies where divorced couples are tricked into coming together again, marriage is imbued with the same contingent, experiential quality as touch, in that the institution is imagined as an ongoing (and deeply fragile) process of mutual discovery, rather than the lifelong consequence of a one-off decision. Melodramas such as Stella Dallas take this ‘moral perfectionism’ further: their female protagonists reject marriage and associated institutions entirely, in the radical belief that this rejection will constitute ‘another world’ and an ethical programme of its own. Not only does Rodowick emphasise that the seeds of these ideas are already embedded in The World Viewed, but also that they find an analogue in Deleuze’s — and, indeed, that the Cinema books are Deleuze’s unsung contribution to ethics. The increasing significance of the time-image is felt primarily as ‘a shift in the concept of belief’: earlier cinematic traditions had been committed to ‘a will to truth’, to the possibility that the world was transcendentally knowable; with the totalising power of cinema lost, viewers are thrown back — like Stella Dallas or, in Deleuze’s key example, Ingrid Bergmann’s character in Europa 51 — on ‘this life or this world and its powers of self-transformation’. In her analogous and roughly contemporary appeal to the ethical value of the novel, Martha Nussbaum makes a telling slip: she quotes a line from Dickens about David Copperfield surviving poverty by ‘reading as if for life’, in a chapter entitled ‘Reading For Life’. In their own medium, Cavell and Deleuze keep open the ‘as if’ as Nussbaum does not. Film can no longer, provide us didactically with a fixed source of saving value — but it is one of the resources which we can continue to explore imaginatively, challenging our powers of belief, insofar as we acknowledge its emergence from life, not for a new one.
Although Rodowick argues that ‘ethics precedes politics’, his decision to marry Gilles and Stanley so carefully under the former means that he occludes important differences between them in terms of the latter. It is an acknowledged occlusion, certainly: he admits that he lacks space to discuss Cavell’s engagement with Rawls’s theory of justice, and sees the Cinema books and What is Philosophy? as an inquiry distinct from the Capitalism and Schizophrenia project. Yet his discussion of Deleuze begins with an appeal to art and philosophy as examples of relative deterritorialisation, processes by which the chaos of pure Being is shaped tentatively into theories, subjects and objects, people and nations — and this gesture both invokes and denies the more committed, anti-capitalist deterritorialisation of the other work. Rodowick also acknowledges it when he incorporates a quotation from What is Philosophy?, in which ‘the victory of a revolution’ is said to be apparent in ‘the new bonds it installs between people, even if these bonds last no longer than the revolution’s fused material and quickly give way to division and betrayal’ — but this makes Deleuze’s pessimism, even traumatism, at revolutionary failure sound an ever-further cry from Cavell, whose analyses are framed around securing faith in the possibility of American democracy even when imperilled at every turn. The idea that philosophy performs a ‘pragmatic’ rearrangement of theory gains increasing prominence late in the book, and it is easier to imagine Rodowick and Cavell than Deleuze forgiving the quasi-liturgical absolute sincerity of their fellow American in The Tree of Life, appreciating its over-determined symbols as a necessary compromise of community-building. And, while I would largely side with them too, there are recent models which grant to theory the kind of hesitancy and strong weakness that Rodowick associates with philosophy: Kathleen Stewart, in dialogue with Lauren Berlant, has attempted to outline an ideologically-inflected affect theory that takes its cue from a diaristic rendering of ordinary life; Rodowick’s Deleuzean commitment to philosophy’s reliance upon friendship, and with it a relationship of equals rather than sage and disciples, might meet its match in Jacques Rancière’s to embody the ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ who knows less than his pupils.
Still, there is enough implicit politics within Rodowick’s attitude to the humanities to be provocative and, from a certain perspective, heartening. In an era in which an official branding document can frame the University of Warwick as a ‘place that rejects the notion of obstacles’, it is exhilarating to read an academic text which takes lines like Wittgenstein’s ‘This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless’ and Leibniz’s ‘I thought I had come home to harbour, but was thrown out again to open sea’ as its guiding principles. The strenuous moral perfectionism that Rodowick calls for requires a recognition of the original sense of the Latin adjective perfectus, meaning not so much ‘supremely good’ as ‘finished’, ‘executed’ — perhaps, at a push, ‘exhausted’. Perfectionism involves attending not only to the limitlessness of our aims and desires, but to the limitedness of our capacity to carry them out, and the fact that we will be finished off by them. Perfectionism allows us to attend to the ‘inattentiveness, contemptuousness, brutality’ that seem unlikely to go away no matter how much progress we make on ‘headline moral issues’. The obstacle-smashing model of perfectionism can seem everywhere apparent: in attempts to manage as much as to seize the earth’s resources, in revolutionary zeal as much as market fundamentalism. Rodowick is quick (perhaps, I’ve suggested, too quick) to note its presence in those forms of left politics that theory has traditionally inflected: they focus so exclusively on undoing power’s ‘negation of voice’ that they ignore ‘the relation of authority to morality or ethical standing’ and create situations in which ‘judgement of your position occurs without any critical questioning of my authority’. Twice, he makes a connection between Deleuze’s post-human thinking and ‘something like a philosophical environmentalism’. Rodowick’s philosophy of the humanities, carried out through a pedagogy not of the oppressed so much as of radical friendship, offers the other side of perfectionism: it dares us to admit that we are finite inhabitants of a threatening and threatened ecosystem, one in which we will have to accept having and living less than we imagine — but, perhaps, caring more.
[Originally published in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 10, pp. 15-18.]