Sketches on a Train: Thinking Thinking in The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist begins with a self-reflexive gesture that calls attention to both its genre as well as its status as a film. That is, its status as a film is pushed upon the viewer by placing the actors behind the screen, and placing the camera behind the audience in order to highlight the fact of one’s viewing of the film. Its genre moves to the foreground as our protagonist appears in a role in which he’s tortured brutally as a means of information extraction. Cleverly, he will “not speak”. In fact, in the face of brutal physical torture, foreshadowing the later developments, he refuses to speak. In addition, later in the film, he refuses in the face of marital threats to speak with his wife about their lackluster relationship. The film constantly calls attention to the fact of construction. Perry realizes her own construction as a pawn of new film medium after recalling the advice and mark granted her by George with he claims, “Find something no one else has”. George also realizes his own construction after encountering his belongings outside their normal environment, being pushed from his habitual engagement with the world in which he’d achieved remarkable financial and social success. The end of the film portrays both Perry and George “dancing in their chains” and the camera pans to reveal yet another meta-shot of the filming of the dancing.

Two important sequences in the film interest me. First, a dream sequence in which George is thrown into a world in which everything “speak” but him. This is an interesting dream-sequence in terms of Descartes skeptical dream experiment. That is, on what grounds can we prove that everything we experience as real and structured according to the memory-narrative according to which we live our lives is not a well-constructed dream. Furthermore, the dream-weaver has constructed a mechanism that triggers an awareness of the dream-weaver. Our meta-relation to the dream-world as a dream-world is part of the dream. That is, we also can’t prove that the reflexive realization of the dream is not itself programmed into the dream itself.  Dream-arguments generally function as a skeptical gesture to call attention to the lack of grounds for our beliefs in an external world. The question then is the following: How does the dream sequence in the Artist initiate a skeptical moment in which the dream’s argument foregrounds the fallibility of George’s real-world beliefs? What does George believe? He believes, prima facie, that talkies are temporary fashions, a mere fad, soon to pass. He represents pure filmmaking at its best, as he says, “I’m an artist”. Here, there’s an interesting moment of ontological skepticism. OS, understood as the claim that our first-order discourse necessarily fails to refer propositionally to its possibility-condition, the possession of an ontology. Ontology, here, refers to the position of a network of presuppositions that ground and make possible truth-apt claims about the external world. Here, Carnap’s distinction between external and internal questions is important. For, there’s an multiplicity of worlds, a multiverse, if it’s the case that one can adopt more than one ontology, again understood as a possession of fundamental, grounding, or world-forming presuppositions, jointly necessary and sufficient for one to make truth-apt assertions about the internal questions that may arise within a first-order discourse. To destroy one’s axiomatic set of presuppositions is to destroy one’s world. Hence, upon such destruction, it is necessary to engage in world-construction…”ways of world-making”. Why is George an artist? Or, why does he believe himself to be an artist? It may help to call attention to Wittgenstein’s claim regarding philosophy that one can only perform philosophy poetically. That is, philosophy as performance art. Philosophy as a performance art calls attention to our world-constructions, or theories of totality, as contingent. How does The Artist call attention to itself as a contingent construction, or always already capable of being otherwise? I’ve already hinted at the performative nature of ontological skepticism when I claimed that one cannot propositionally refer to or know the World. Instead, one must perform the World. We can know our world only through non-knowledge. Second-order knowledge that one can’t successfully refer to or know one’s world without ipso facto generating a new world and thus leading to an infinite grounding regress leads to the knowledge that in this very attempt to refer to and know the World we are performing the essence of human nature. This dance between transcendence and immanence defines the fundamental nature of human beings. Hence, Wittgenstein’s quietism isn’t a retirement from philosophy; on the contrary, his move toward quietism, instead, affirms philosophy’s negative moment of non-knowledge. The intrusion of language designates the moment of naming the absolute, naming the World. What precisely does he say? Let’s address that in the next section.
Second is the important moment late in the film when George decides to speak. Does the move toward language for George initiate an optimism in which he takes on the task of making explicit our merely implicit world-forming axiomatic presuppositions? That is, does he overcome his performative ontology and move into a Spielraum in which, while engaged in a drunken dance, he again attempt so name the absolute? (It’s also interesting to note that, in Germany, films of a certain genre are called Spielfilm.) One can compare George’s optimism to Hegel in the Phänomenologie des Geistes when he writes, “It is not difficult to see that ours is a time of birth and transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and stands prepared to submerge it in the past and in the labor of its own transformation”. The claim that the upon the solipsist’s death we therefore lose the world is true. Doubtless, the individual things comprising the world will continue to evolve and persist without concept-mongering creatures like ourselves. However, the World will not. With the extinction of the human, comes the extinction of the World and fate along with it. Contingency reigns in a non-human world.

The common-sense interpretation of George’s stubbornness in relation to talkies is to invoke some kind of conservatism and resentment regarding the intrusion and shock of the new. However, is it possible to read this differently? Can we look on askew to his behavior? We do have a stock-market crash in which the comforts of capitalism have been erased.

An essential interest of Hegel’s is the emergence of freedom within the modern world. Something about the modern world welcomed or, even, initiated the emergence of autonomous freedom into the world. However, Hegel claims that one can’t have a theory of freedom without a proper metaphysics. It is therefore crucial to grasp the precise nature of Hegelian metaphysics in order that one doesn’t make the interpretive mistake, too often the case, of rendering Hegelian metaphysics as a return to a pre-critical extravagance of metaphysical bacchanalian orgy. Metaphysics, according to Hegel, consists in a “clarification of our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves and of our world” (Houlgate 27). Ontology, then, as Anton Friedrich Koch says in the Preface to his magisterial Versuch über Wahrheit und Zeit ontology is “Tiefphilosophie”, an investigation into the axiomatic presuppositions comprising our theories of the world. Our microscopic truth-apt claims gesture in the space enlightened by the possession of a world. Ontology functions then as an ontology of worlds. The engagement with ontology, or the second-order reflection on our world as a world is the essence of human freedom. The reflexive gesture that examines our first-order gestures and makes explicit the contradictory nature of human behavior: the dance of contingency and fate. That is, our freedom to make explicit the contingent structure of our world must overcome the equally all-too-human drive to impose fate upon the world, that is, to behave as though fate governs the world.
Thus, there’s a clear connection between metaphysics, ontology and freedom. (Here, it would be important to determine the precise nature of Spinoza’s interest in both freedom and metaphysics and to what extent he sees a positive connection between them.) Houlgate makes the following claim, “What is needed therefore is not an outright rejection of metaphysics in the name of “practice”, but the transformation of metaphysics from an enquiry into elusive “entities”, such as an independent soul, into a modern discipline concerned to articulate the essential nature of free, self-determining spirit”…”a reformed metaphysics of freedom”…in order to provide the contemporary world with a clear self-understanding it requires if it’s to believe itself capable of engaging in free actions. Abstract thought, then, is the proper vehicle of human freedom.  The power of abstract thought is rendered thus in Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic,

“In earlier times people saw no harm in thinking and happily used their own heads. But, because they pushed on with thinking in this way, it turned out that the highest relationships in life were compromised by it. Thinking deprived what was positive of its power. Political constitutions fell victim to thought; religion was attacked by thought; firm religious notions that counted as totally genuine revelations were undermined, and in many minds the old faith was overthrown. In this way thinking asserted its validity in the actual world and exerted the most tremendous influence.”

It’s difficult to articulate the precise degree to which Hegel’s ideas are influence by Kant’s. However, Hegel’s ideas are also profoundly influence by Descartes insofar as Hegel pilfers the idea that, as Houlgate writes, “philosophy may take nothing for granted in its search for truth and that thought is the principle of doubt or criticism that frees us from the authority of habitual but unwarranted belief”. Hence, here we see the important connection, perhaps more implicit that explicit in the work of Descartes, between abstract thought and freedom. This merely implicit connection in rendered more explicit in the practical philosophy of Kant. Houlgate claims correctly, “What Hegel learns from Descartes and Kant is that human thought frees us from arbitrary authority by subjecting everything to the scrutiny of self-determining reason”.

Given this account of metaphysics and ontology, when can we say that thought is free? That is, when is the concept-mongering biped free? One must resist the intuitive pull of negative freedom as its conceived and articulated within utilitarian political thought and “negative freedom” perhaps best expounded by Isaiah Berlin. If freedom does consist in the mere abstraction from one’s inhabitance within a theoretico-socio-political world, in what then does it consist? Is freedom merely the making explicit of and realization of those axiomatic presuppositions comprising our possession of a world? The becoming-conscious of the Lichtung that is the possibility condition for our truth-apt claims? How does such a concept of freedom apply to socio-political freedom? Is theoretical freedom compatible or useful to practical thought? Today’s freedom has little use for thought. On the contrary, it consists merely in the intuitive knee-jerk reaction against intrusion into one’s illusory private space. To Americans, incorrectly regarded as bastions of human freedom in the civilized world, any and all intrusions into a subjectively defined sphere of privatization is regarded as fascism and socialism. However, little thought comprises these conservative gestures. To itch one’s nose upon the immediate realization of intrusion doesn’t constitute a wise criterion of thought. Here, then, is the real Ticklish Subject. The spontaneous but equally as thoughtless swatting of intrusions into privatized space. Here, we see Socrates’ actions as worth of radicality; that is, regarded as a gadfly, he tickled those human-islands of thoughtlessness until they laughed themselves to death. Our Republic has ostracized thought; thought functions today as Plato’s Poets, and the Poets have been excommunicated.
In some sense, then, this transcendental ontology functions analogously to Kant’s metaphysical deduction insofar as one locates traces of our axiomatic presuppositions within the analysis of our truth-apt judgments. Furthermore, it resembles Kant’s transcendental deduction insofar as the possession of a World, or the possession of an axiomatic network of axiomatic presuppositions, is the condition for the possibility of a synthetic world. Hegel’s criticism of Kant occurs precisely here. While Hegel praises Kant’s act of placing the categories within their proper coordinates, that is within thought, he equally criticizes Kant’s refusal to take modernity to its end and allow thought itself to determine its categories. Instead, Kant merely deduces the categories of thought from Aristotle’s subject-predicate judgments. Therefore, the nature of thought itself is veiled by the imposition of an alien criterion, namely forms of judgments. Thought is rendered explicit according to the conditions of language and the forms of judgment.

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Some scattered thoughts on film

I’d like to post quickly some thoughts regarding our relationship to the nature of film.  The content of these thought  calls attention to film’s parallel to a skeptical ontology that I’ve been developing for the past three or four months. To ask What is film? is to ask a metaphysical question the answer to which implicitly assumes an ontologische Weltstheorie. To prefer, say, Michael Haneke’s Siebente Kontinent to James Cameron’s Titanic is to engage implicitly in an ontological act which includes something, namely MH’s film, within a realm of “real film” and excludes Titanic as, to some degree, non-existent. (Suppose, however, one argued that Titanic presents an argument for the death of god (Cal’s “God himself could not sink this ship”) and the metaphorical depiction revolutionary upheaval via Freud’s” iceberg” metaphor which ultimately crushes the latest installment of secular humanism, a humanly instituted, hierarchical society. Furthermore, the return of the repressed emerges in the end, contrary to Zizek’s poor reading of the film’s end, when Jack gives his life for Rose, representing the christological metaphor, the true “heart of the ocean”? Does one’s theory allow the film to evolve into something the academic community takes seriously?) Here, any proposition of the form, Film is X, merely interjects a preferred film theory and a methodological attempt to make sense of or short-circuit our common-sense renderings of film for some theoretical or pragmatic end. One could ask, instead, an interesting Hegelian question regarding film: suppose we proceed presuppositionlessly and let film reveal its nature. As Hegel sought to avoid presupposing that thought IS such and so (say judgment or language, as in Kant), suppose we instead employ a skeptical suspension, an epoche, in order to let film reveal itself to us, bare its inner essence. To presume that film is capable of thought, then to posit a priori a philosophical definition of thought, is to define film in terms of philosophy. Instead, can we investigate film’s essence sans philosophy? An anti-philosophical account of film’s philosophy? (Or Badiou’s inclusion of film into art…the latter of which is one of the four conditions of philosophy. Thus, philosophy serves film contrary to those who seek to make film think philosophically) This is where I find a surprising overlap between Hegel and Heidegger. Heidegger’s later essays on language seek to enact a skeptical Gelassenheit in which we refrain from actively imposing a nature upon thought in effort to let thought/language/film be. This also picks up some themes from Cavell’s World Viewed insofar as he seeks to determine the nature of film via our common, everyday descriptions of film. This, too, is why Cavell is ultimately a Heideggerian in terms of methodology…just minus the annoying forays into fictitious etymologies.
To be actively passive is the task of the philosopher. To let film reveal itself…bare itself sans our theories. In this sense, film would be pornographic, striping its imposed presuppositional dress to expose its true inner nature. To utilize a skeptical method concerning the nature of film also highlights a comment made by veteran screenwriter William Golding when he claimed, regarding the success-conditions for a particular film, “Nobody knows anything”. Golding’s box-office skepticism can be transfered into an epistemological register in the following way: Nobody knows what film is. Or, perhaps more precisely (and generally), Nobody knows everything. Instead of offering a boring postmodern relativism, this instead offers the positive thesis that film always exceeds a ontic monism the purpose of which is the monistic reduction of film to a particular discourse. “Real” film isn’t reducible to one’s preferred-theorist’s set of philosophical films simply because these films explore and illustrate the same themes in which the theorist maintains a contingent interest. Perhaps one can apply Putnam’s excellent comment in Ethics without Ontology regarding the existential quantifier: “…the expressions “there are”, “there exist”, and “there exists a” do not have a single absolutely precise use but a whole family of uses.” In this sense the absolute of film, film’s truth, is its multiplicity and elusiveness with regard to our monistic-mongerings. The true, then, is the whole.

To give an Hegelian gloss, one could say that film’s essence involves its coming-to-be something or other. That is, its essence, its Sein, is Schein. Miller misleadingly translates this as “being is illusory being”…instead, I would argue for the following translation: “Being is manifestation”. To become manifest is to appear as such and so and, therefore, to be taken as something or other and, ipso facto, not as that or the other. To say that film is (really just) a cognitivist medium which represents reality is to say implicitly that film is “really not” a metaphysical “time image” or a socio-economic ideological symptom of the culture. Most theories of film presuppose a filmic thing-in-itself about which we formulate theories to discover its nature and given (privledged) example which supposedly function as examples. We should instead understand film in an Hegelian register: film becomes manifest. It becomes something or other…it is manifest as x rather than y or y rather than x. Its Sein is its Schein. In addition, a materialist view of film nicely illustrates the inability of this theory to account for itself…that is, part of film is the theory of what film is. To say that film is really just a projection of desire fails to include itself into the nature of film. We could say then that film doesn’t reflect our philosophy; rather it refracts it. Film is an example of thought insofar as it prompts thought…in its absence, its central void, its prompts theories…it prompts us to discover/determine its nature.