Tuesday 10 March 2009

Philosophy and film

One of the ongoing plans to bring ISCRI, our methodologically diverse school, together is an ongoing methods seminar on conceptual issues in social, psycho-social, philosophical and relevant natural science methods. Yesterday, Niall Scott convened a workshop on film as a resource for philosophical analysis. Given that, in the audience, non-philosophers out numbered philosophers, Niall very sensibly restricted himself to opening up the debate rather outlining his own thinking in any detail. Thus I’m in the strange position of knowing what one question in the area is without having more than a hint of how the field has then gone to address it.

That question is: to what extent can film itself philosophise as opposed to merely prompt philosophical reflection in its audience. The latter role is obvious: once when teaching a philosophy course for gifted youth I deployed both episodes of Star Trek and the first Matrix film to tempt the students into philosophy (sci fi seems to have cornered this market). But whether film itself can carry philosophical content is less clear. The question – which was clearly welcomed by Niall as reflecting an aspect of present debate – evolved naturally in early discussion and I’d like, when there’s time, to read that literature (I might manage Stephen Mulhall even if not Deleuze and Guattari). But in the meantime I want rashly to speculate about it.

It hardly needs saying that film cannot philosophise as agents can. If the proper vehicle of philosophy is restricted to, eg., a self-conscious subject then there is no hope for film. Another coordinate for the issue might be a reaction to both Scruton and Wittgenstein. If reality doesn’t simply present philosophical problems – if the apple of philosophy has already to have been eaten to prompt the need for a further dose of philosophy, now as therapy – and if film simply re-presents that reality, it doesn’t look as though it will be philosophical itself. It will not force a philosophical response.

It seems sensible therefore to start with a comparison with what can be philosophical: paradigmatically philosophy texts. But, of course, not any appreciation of such a text will count. I’ve heard the Tractatus in German set to music (a modernist arrangement for strings, I seem to recall) and whilst I had an aesthetic reaction to it (not good), this had nothing to do with its philosophical content. It would have to be something like: such texts are philosophical under a proper understanding. But, I fear that using this inelegant idea as a comparison for film would score a positive answer to the question only for the most clunkily philosophical of films which, like the Dark Knight, simply stage, eg., the prisoners dilemma, or like half a dozen Star Trek episodes track issues of identity explicitly as presented in the philosophy texts the script writers have clearly revised (which is, at least, a good thing when teaching gifted youth).

What’s less clear to me in this my tabula rasa state is whether there’s any mileage in the idea of film without this pedagogic intent requiring, rather than merely prompting, a philosophically informed understanding; nor whether there could be anything about philosophical content that could only be carried by film rather than text.

There: now I should look at what is actually said in the philosophy of film.