Thursday, December 30, 2010

Barfing into the Void

Noah and I discuss the possibility of ineffable transcendent anythingness, based on his article about a philosophy book about film that argues against philosophy about film:

Albert Stabler

From your account, that book sounds like one big steaming pile of dissected cow hearts. Are you sure it's not supposed to be some big joke on his name (heap of mullarkey)? The caveman Tarantino line and the Zizek's nostril line are priceless.

But then again, I'm looking at a review in a journal ( that contains a lot more detail about his actual philosophical orientation (Bergsonian, it would appear). That sort of dynamist vitalist evolutionary becomingness that C.S. Lewis makes fun of and Alfred North Whitehead propounds (as does Deleuze). So really, this guy has a philosophy he's imposing on film-- even if it's yet another in an endless series of examples of what Badiou in that Paul book calls "antiphilosophy."

I don't think you're someone who denies himself a cheap shot or ten, and I support you heartily. But, along with not fleshing out his probably banal point, you don't make much of an argument for your (thoroughly defensible) "nothing is new" view. For example, complaining about Sofia Coppolla's incredibly stupid interview on Fresh Air, where she and Terri talk about the bliss of watching some actor smoke a cigarette with no edits-- a reiteration of the "time-image" motif that has become an avant-garde cliche.

Noah Berlatsky

Oh...he's definitely Bergsonian. I thought about talking about that more, but it didn't really seem all that worthwhile; he ends up just saying that film is ever becoming new, film is a Heraclitan fire, etc. etc. The main point for me was the claim that film is uncontainable in thought, but that philosophy is containable, therefore philosophy contains film and not the other way around. I don't think it was unfair to make fun of him for that without necessarily making fun of him for anything else. He really makes his own philosophy secondary to claiming that philosophy doesn't get film; the second is his main point, the first gets much less attention.

I guess I felt that the fact that there's nothing particularly new under the sun seemed like a fairly obvious point....

Albert Stabler

Yeah, good-- it's basically all about narratives (which definitely distances you from Bergson and Mullarkey, as well as Kristeva and others). I appreciate your examples. I'm a sucker for hard content. Like a Tootsie Pop.

Well, far be it from me to tell you what you think. It's just that you haven't offered your own theory of how film can be theorized, other than as mere illustration of philosophical points, which is apparently what Mullarkey is saying it has been thus far. Like, how is Zizek's viviosn of narrative different than it would have been without cinema as an example?

Maybe one thing I find curious about your approach to philosophy (which is not unlike your approach to theology) is that you are consistently reverent toward historical precedent without positioning yourself as in any way participating in any tradition(s). It's sort of your own kind of pragmatism (Dewey and James et al, a recent American strain of antiphilosophy that, frankly, I imagine you would have mixed feelings about being lumped into), this commonsensical anti-scholasticism that kind of overlaps a bit with the intuitive poetics of Bergson, frankly.

I get the sense that you still think most any philosopher is basically full of horseshit when talking about film-- which, ironically, may be sort of what Mullarkey is saying. It's just that you believe in being more polite and unpretentious about saying so. In your version, film is still just film, philosophy is still just philosophy, but, you know, they represent each other sometimes, and it's all good. Which I'd certaily rather read than some Marshall McLuhan blather about hot and cool running media formats.

Noah Berlatsky

My ideas about the gay utopia are totally built on reading films. If you look through that essay, you can see me saying, "well, kristeva says this, but if you look at this film, it actually seems to say that things work more like this." Or that line about the opposite of love being paranoia; that's a philosophical point (more poetic than rigorous, but still) which comes directly from watching a movie. As does the idea that a big part of the attraction of homosexual panic is that it's pleasurable.

I just think it's an accumulation of particular ideas and details rather than through some all-encompassing traumatic mechanism. Philosophy and film just aren't that different. They're both products of human thought. It just seems bizarre to me to posit this huge rift between them which you have to overcome in order to have them communicate.

Also...not to be too grating...but the whole point of the fecund horror piece was based not so much on the narratives I picked as on the fact that the emotional identification of the narratives were intentionally binary; they read both as themselves and against themselves. So the philosophical point I was making wasn't based on the narrative example, but rather on the the an aesthetics of identification, which is based partly on narrative but also very much on image (and sexual desire, which is pretty important, is also a function of image as much as of narrative — and a lot of the way that the films read against themselves is by contrasting image and narrative, so we're told diagetically that our protagonist doesn't want sex, but the film keeps showing us semi-naked women in fetishized ways, or throwing poop/phalluses at us.)

I think one of the big methodological problems with Mullarkey's book is that in order to claim that philosophers separate out narrative to use it as examples, he forced to himself separate out narrative to use it as an example, implying that one can talk bout narrative without having other things bleed in. He also, as I said, abstracts out philosophy itself, turning it into a series of propositions or a chain of thought and thereby hiding the extent to which aesthetics is important to philosophy too, and the way that metaphor and syntax can't be abstracted from philosophical argument. Those things are what make philosophy like film in the first place, and why there isn't as much of a different between them as all that. Or so I'd argue anyway.

It's something of a traditionalist argument...except that I think many philosophers are a little chary of owning the extent to which metaphor and aesthetics is important to what they're doing. Or perhaps I'm wrong about that, I'm not sure....

I don't actually think philosophers are full of shit when talking about film. I mean, no more than anyone else. I think Zizek is often funny and insightful. Cavell sounds pretty interesting. Mullarkey had some interesting readings, even. It would really be case by case as to whether I thought they were worthwhile or not. I think it's silly to state categorically that film hasn't influenced philosophy because examples don't count as influence, though. I think there's a conversation which can be dumb or can be interesting, but dumb or interesting, it exists.

I think seeing film as unique among the arts is hard for me to sign onto. But philosophy as an art and art as philosophy seems like it's an idea that's been around for a long time, and one with a fair bit of validity.

T'aint all about narrative. The exhilaration/enjoyment of homosexual panic is mostly expressed through special effects. And I talk about the acting and the images and so forth. Narrative is pretty important in narrative film, but I think you can respond to other aspects as well.

Albert Stabler

Of course, ironic subtext is not merely the domain of cinema. Which doesn't invalidate you observing that philosophy has style. It's so content-centric, there's no wonder it keeps ending up barfing into the void. It could do a lot more with itself if it was overall less formalistic, although it then has the problem, as you mentioned, of being recognized as philosophy. But Paul still pulled it off. As did numerous film directors.

Special effects and acting and images are tools of narrative in film, as metaphors and imagery and characterization are tools of narrative in literature. I'm not saying you're saying it's all about plot or dialogue, and I'm certainly not saying your points are anything but sensitive and worthwhile-- but I am saying you might be subsuming everything to the Symbolic (storytelling) element of the experience, rather than the stuff that interrupts the experience. This email, like philosophy in general, can make gestures at describing horror, laughter, and ambiguity, but it arguably can't necessarily convey it in the same way as a virtual reading or viewing experience can.

But then again, the idealist romantic tradition, since Schlegel and Schelling and what not, have maintained that poetry is the highest of all human pursuits, for much the same reason.

Noah Berlatsky

Yeah, that's not entirely unlike what Mullarkey says. He's very interested for example in the way that people desire the iceberg to miss the titanic in way which involves them actually experiencing involuntary bodily motions. And he's fascinated by what's experienced as real or unreal. And in everyday time. And in nervous systems.

I'd say I don't have any problem with people talking about the non-symbolic aspects of film if that's what they want to do. An important aspect of the Lord of the Rings is that the films are so damn long that the need to urinate is a vital part of the experience. Or, less diuretically, the Bible is not just what happens in it or how it is organized but the fact that it's a living religious system, and people believe the word of God is there. Or lego instructions are about building something and it doesn't work and that sucks. All reasonable insights. Your world exists while you are in the world of the film (or in some ways it doesn't, which is worth thinking about as well.)

But. Two points. First, the symbolic immersive aspect of film, just because it is shared by other narratives and is not alone particular to film — that does not mean that it is not part of film. Wrting about that symbolic aspect and philosophizing about it, that's still engaging with the movie. It's not denying its particularity or filmness; it's not reducing film to a philosophical example. The symbolic is part of art; engaging with that part of art is engaging with the art. It's not missing the forest for the trees; it's just looking at these trees rather than some other trees which are no doubt interesting as well.

Second. The specificity of film as an experience separate from its narrative is specific only in the way that different symbolic content is different. That is, the symbolic content of the Bible is different than the symbolic content of lego instructions. Similarly, the specificity of the experience of the Bible is different from the specificity of the experience of the lego instructions. But specificity of experience is itself not specific to film; any aesthetic experience (very broadly defined) is going to have that content which is outside the symbolic.

Mullarkey wants film (not specific films, but film itself) to have something special to teach philosophy. He rejects symbolic content because that ends up just being illustrative. So then he goes to the time experience of film itself; the idea that film's essence is no essence or motion. But there's no reason I can see why any of those concepts is central to film in particular. You could say the same thing about lego instructions, really (I mean, I wish you wouldn't say them because the whole conversation is kind of banal and tedious — it's all like, motion, man. But the point is you could say it if you wanted to.)

So the point is: I think philosophy can (and often does) enter into conversations in which it engages with the symbolic/interpretive content of particular films. I think philosophy can (and does somewhat less often) engage with the way people engage with or experience film in an-extra-symbolic or extra-aesthetic way. I think philosophy can think about the particular formal elements of film in general and what that means and doesn't mean. All of those seem to me to be legitimate ways in which philosophy is influenced by, or is in conversation, with film. (And it can go the other way too, of course— film often picks up ideas and things other than ideas too, perhaps, from philosophy.) But I don't see why any of this has to be particularly fraught, or why one needs to pretend that philosophy is some sort of imperialist conqueror of film when it does the first but is authentically learning from film when it does the second. I'm willing to admit that having to pee while watching LOTR is as much about film as the homoerotic tension between Frodo and Sam, but I don't see why having to pee is *more* about film than the homoerotic tension.

I don't think it's true that philosophy or non-fiction prose can't convey those experiences. I really think we're just talking about different genres. I find Feyerabend more inspiring, funnier, more exciting, more ambiguous, than Gilbert Hernandez. I find much of zizek more moving than many of the films he describes. I don't think that's an especially aberrant or even unusual state of affairs.

If everything I've been discussing is the symbolic, what are you saying are the things that interrupt the experience?

Albert Stabler

Actually, I'm at least somewhat off. Maybe it's more accurate to say that the symbolic aspect of culture, which applies to all narratives equally, does more than just organize and structure reality (the realm of plot and superego), thus reinforcing or revising the order of life. It also shapes the imaginary (the flying poop and phalluses you mention, as well as the character identifications and the ineffable sense of meaning and belonging that go along with it), and generates the death drive, which is sort of the meta-symbolic level of repetition that denies orderly progress and change-- instead manufacturing more desire and lack.

But all this synthesizing and virtuality, which happens inside the experience, is (perhaps) different from the things that take you out of the experience, not necessarily by being unconvincing, but by happening to you in the everyday time of your world rather than the world of the book or movie. So, things that are uncanny, shocking, incorrect, funny, illogical, sublime. Which is tough to describe, but it matters that something separates the Bible and a sitcom and a personal letter and instructions to assemble a propane grill, other than subject matter and/or genre. They all point to things outside the text but in our nervous systems. which then refer back to the texts. Time passes in various ways all at once, and memories and meanings create feedback.

There are some very good reasons not to make film special and unique-- it's a modernist wet dream of ever-becoming. Like-- if it's all about sounds and lights and drives, why not TV or video games?

Of course the reason is that the film director has supreme auteur status to control your experience, more than perhaps any other creator before or since. I think semiotic stuff is important. Things that don't break down hermeneutically are important. But there's something masochistic, as I think you imply, about wanting Hitchcock or whoever to reach out of the screen and spank you as some kind of apotheosis of truth-excess.

Yeah, like I said, the concept of antiphilosophy makes sense to me, but film being super special is lame. So that settles that.

Noah Berlatsky

Television is a big question. Mullarkey discusses some television (a Star Trek episode) but doesn't really deal with the fact that it's got at least some decent claims to being a distinct medium. And video games don't come up.

Auteur theory is auteur theory; it's a philosophical container. Which isn't bad, but is a problematic way to claim film's special status as distinct from philosophy.

Also...I'm a little skeptical about antiphilosophy, because I think philosophy tends to include lots of antiphilosophical elements which aren't really acknowledged as such. In order to create an opposite for philosophy, you have to have a fairly reductive notion of philosophy, which assumes that philosophy has a well-defined purpose/program that doesn't include aesthetics (among other things.)

Albert Stabler

I absolutely don't think antiphilosophy is in any way separable from philosophy, It's kind of central to the project, but just comes out explicitly in some writers more than others.. That was pretty central to my spiel at the MCA-- I talked about Paul, Meister Eckhart, Jacobi, and Whitehead as a tradition of philosophers speaking against philosophy on behalf of transcendence. I personally like thinkers that deal with ineffability as something separate and supremely important, like Paul and Kristeva, rather than something that can be reinscribed into the immanence of reality, like Derrida or James. Thus my sympathy for Mullarkey.

Of course aesthetics exists as a branch of philosophy-- some obscure freaks like Aristotle and Kant wrote quite a bit about it. I think you should decide if you really want to be saying that style is really the part of reality/experience that can't be captured by systematic description. Christopher Hitchens might agree with you, but Terry Eagleton probably wouldn't.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't think I'm saying that style can't be captured by systematic description. I'm just saying that systematic description is not description alone. It has style. I'm saying they can't be separated, not that they can.

I'm not so sure that Mullarkey is claiming that ineffability is transcendent. If anything he's claiming that immanence is ineffable. He's not unDerridean (Derrida being kind of the ultimate antiphilosopher in a lot of ways.)

Albert Stabler

Okay, see, that's the thing. I know we're throwing around the "antiphilosophy" term, but I'm sticking to Badiou's use of it to describe Paul, which is pretty different, for me, than what Derrida is doing. Derrida, despite his latter-day becoming-humanist, was a nihilist. Paul was not. The sophistry Paul (according to Badiou) dismissed under the term "Greek" is precisely where Derrida discovered his Zen insights.

Again, exalting film as the Word of God is distasteful, and I haven't read the book. But if you're seeing style as the great unifier of discourse, that's an idealist move I'm not really willing to commit to. Style is different from semiotics.

Maybe we should talk about music to clarify this thing. Music cannot help but have a style, and largely be defined by it, but style doesn't capture the experience of listening to music.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't know that I think style is the great unifier; I'm not saying it's the essence of discourse. But I don't see how you have a discussion that doesn't have style. (All discussions have content too, I'd say.) Style doesn't capture the experience of listening to music, but so what? Experiences are particular; you can't transfer them from one medium to another anyway, though you can transfer bits of them.

I'm pretty sure Mullarkey is just using antiphilosophy to mean "things that are not philosophy." Especially things that are experiential rather than looking for transcendent insight. From that perspective Derrida fits and Paul probably doesn't. Which just goes to show that the main thing that unifies philosophers is that they don't want to be called philosophers.

Albert Stabler

I keep coming back to the Hegel thing about the perfect State is no State. All philosophy wants to kill philosophy. But that's different from saying that all experiences are ineffable-- like you said, it's just the actual parts of experiences (that basically everyone has) that, arguably, cannot be represented, but merely reproduced. THis has been a big frontier for antiphilosophical philosophy, since before Nietzsche. I bet that's what Mullarkey thinks he's talking about.