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Film as Philosophy

Fiona Jenkins and Robert Sinnerbrink


This issue of Scan presents an interdisciplinary exploration of recent approaches to the idea of film as philosophy. These approaches differ from much established work on the relationship between philosophy and film, which has tended to focus on how film and film studies might be relevant to understanding various philosophical issues and arguments. For some philosophers, this has taken the form of an aesthetic inquiry into the nature of cinematic art; others have taken a more pedagogical approach to how films might “illustrate” key philosophical problems. A fruitful alternative perspective has been to examine how the composition and experience of film parallels consciousness and thought itself. From this point of view, film can be understood as a form of virtual reality; a film-world with its own temporality, affective states, memories, and intensities of thought, which we inhabit for the two hours or so we sit in front of the screen (see Daniel Frampton’s path-breaking work, 2006). This perspective on ‘film as philosophy’ takes the film and philosophy relationship to involve mutual reflection, an intersecting dialogue where film teaches philosophy as much as philosophy reflects on film. This contrasts with the still dominant (Platonic) approach in the philosophy of film, wherein philosophy assumes a position of epistemic superiority in attempting to explain to an otherwise ignorant artform what its essence or aesthetic meaning might be.

The essays in this issue of Scan consider how film itself engages in different kinds of thinking using sound, image, time, memory, and narrative. Some of the essays examine individual films—Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), von Trier’s Dogville (2003), but also reality TV shows such as Big Brother—exploring various philosophical questions that these films depict and elaborate in distinctly cinematic terms. Other essays focus more specifically on recent ‘continental’ philosophical approaches, which theorise the ways in which technology, subjectivity, philosophy, and politics are intertwined in film and new media culture. All of the essays draw on interdisciplinary approaches including film studies, media theory, film aesthetics, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and technology studies. They also approach the film-philosophy relationship in a spirit of dialogue, mutual reflection, and creative exploration. We hope that they contribute to the growing interdisciplinary exchange between film studies, media/cultural theory, and philosophy that any thoughtful exploration of film naturally invites.

In a subtle reading of how illness is figured in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Havi Carel argues that the film works to undo the assumption that monstrosity is an anomalous state. Rather than making a horror flick based in such a premise, Cronenberg’s interest lies in locating the monstrous disease we all have of ‘being finite’ at the centre of human being. Carel shows through a richly textured reading of the film how The Fly explores one man’s undergoing of terminal illness in the mode of tragedy, challenging its viewers, just like those who encounter this terrifying mutation in the film, to learn to relinquish a conception of humanity from which death and physical decay are ideally excluded. If horror is typically predicated of what is deemed to belong to the monstrous, Carel shows that what is felt to be monstrous here is what a human being is undergoing through his bizarre metamorphosis, suffering changes that invite pity. Pity, however, is potentially foreclosed by disgust, protecting the observer of the other’s disease from acknowledging the profound vulnerability of each of us to the body’s decay. Carel argues that Cronenberg’s film forces us to occupy the complex affective terrain of being between pity and fear as witnesses to mortality. 

From a different point of view, Fiona Jenkins continues exploring the themes of mourning and loss in her reflections on Pedro Almodóvar’s extraordinary All About My Mother. Jenkins highlights the film’s exploration of the desire to know, foregrounding the limits of knowing and difficulty of telling, particularly in situations of intimate disclosure involving death or loss. The difficulty of the mother’s predicament—her inability to tell her son, before his tragic death, the painful truth about his absent, now gender-transformed, father—points to a series of questions concerning the precariousness of identity and the difficulties involved in any ‘giving an account of oneself’. She also engages in a critical dialogue with the important reading of the film proposed by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit (2004). Their interpretation of the film’s exploration of the unstable exchange between the imaginary and the real in art and in life, Jenkins argues, needs to be supplemented by a consideration of the importance of the performative aspects of intimate disclosure as well as the unbearable testimony of grief and loss.  

The theme of exchange between the real and imaginary is also critical in the next discussion. Catherine Summerhayes reads Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil as an essay film, one whose dream-like narration and extreme travel in space and time defies boundaries in the search for a truth marked by memory. Taking as a cue for reading the film Gadamer’s remark that “the work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it”, Summerhayes makes explicit the fascinating provocation of this film to ask of memories to whom they might belong. How do processes of filming generate as well as record memories, as what we have witnessed via film becomes part of our experienced world? Film’s “playing” in its multiple senses (the play that for Gadamer specifies the transformative character of art; the play that challenges the boundaries between the real and the imaginary; the “playing” that is a screening of a film) is set in relation to a theme of recognition, as the strange becomes familiar. Summerhayes’ essay thus poses and explores a question she shows to be crucial to Marker’s film: What is it to come to recognise something one did not know before through the experience of viewing images?

The way in which film might put into play the question of its own aesthetic status continues as a central issue for Robert Sinnerbrink’s reading of Lars von Trier’s controversial Dogville.  Pointing out that a range of recent critical condemnations of the film’s apparent willingness to present extreme violence against women, its hostility to the American dream or its naïve concern for an ‘ethics of the other’ all fail to note the film’s Brechtian aesthetic, Sinnerbrink suggests that von Trier uses this aesthetic less for consciousness-raising purposes than to open up “the affective experience of an impasse, an aporia, a tragic irreconcilability”.  As such, it at once stages its dissent from a Hollywood genre, releases an affective moment forbidden by Brechtian didactics, and performs a political allegory that presents the unstable conjunction of affective, political, and moral-religious elements as fissures constituting the sites of liberal democracy’s multiple modes of violence. The intense critical responses this film has evoked thus testify to the force with which von Trier’s film exposes the economies of desire sustaining the social and ideological formations of democracy and reveals our own uneasy and ambivalent relation to it.
The recent return of interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis—once a dominant current in film theory—as a way of theorising subjectivity and ideology is largely due to the work of Slavoj Žižek. This Žižekian approach to analysing popular culture as revealing forms of social fantasy is ably represented in Matthew Sharpe’s essay on sadism and reality TV, which combines Lacanian theory with critical theory perspectives. Sharpe examines the seemingly simple question of why such shows are so popular, arguing that the fascination with “hyperreality” such shows elicit must be understood in terms of the sadistic—rather than paranoid—scenario that they stage. Drawing on Lacan’s theorisation of sadism—the attempt by one subject to forcibly reveal the real desire of an other, what he or she cannot bear to be without—Sharpe argues that reality television shows such as Big Brother display precisely the kind of triadic arrangement of subject-positions (contestants, host/rules, audience) that Lacan claims is characteristic of sadism.

Patrick Crogan takes up the question of the relationship between film and philosophy from the perspective of Bernard Stiegler’s recent work on the philosophy of technology. Stiegler’s work draws on many sources—including Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida—in order to develop an original contribution to thinking the relationship between film and philosophy. Film, Stiegler argues, should be conceptualised along with new digital media as “industrial temporal objects” that play a decisive role in the constitution of individual and collective experience. Following Stiegler’s extension of Husserlian phenomenology, Crogan argues that all thought is cinematic: perception, understanding, and so forth all involve selection from a “tertiary” form of memory, deposited in the mnemotechnical archive of audiovisual culture. Crogan’s essay provides a succinct overview of Stiegler’s challenging project, which provides new ways of thinking about the essential role of contemporary technoculture in the process of forming—and deforming—individual and collective experience.    

Daniel Ross continues this Stieglerian perspective on film and philosophy, turning to the political sense of this relationship. Situating Stiegler’s work in relation to Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the industrialisation of experience and Heidegger’s reflections on the question of technology, Ross argues that the futures of philosophy and film are intertwined with the question of politics and its future. To this end, Ross shows how Stiegler develops an original account of the role of technics in the formation of “tertiary memory”—memory of that which I have not lived—which plays an essential role in the processes of psychic and collective individuation. Both philosophy and film are practices involving time not dedicated to work; ‘leisure time’ is increasingly occupied by “industrial temporal objects” (films, TV, internet, new media) that capture attentive consciousness, generally in order to direct desire towards calculated ends (such as consumer behaviour). For Ross, drawing on Stiegler, the challenge we face is to confront the dangers posed by the “industrialisation of perception,” principally by finding aesthetic means to promote the adoption of the past and the reinvention of the future.

The editors would like to thank a number of people for their help and generosity. For their assistance with the “Film as Philosophy” symposium at the Australian National University (where a number of these papers were first presented) we would like to thank the College of Arts and Social Sciences and the Philosophy postgraduates at ANU for their support. For their time and effort in making possible this issue of Scan we would like to thank John Potts, Alex Munt, and our anonymous and very helpful reviewers.


Bersani, L. & Dutoit, U. (2004) Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity, London: BFI

Frampton, D. (2006) Filmosophy, London: Wallflower Press