David P. Nichols (Ed.): Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real

Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real Book Cover Transcendence and Film: Cinematic Encounters with the Real
David P. Nichols (Ed.)
Lexington Books
Hardback $90.00

Reviewed by: Antony Fredriksson (Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value, University of Pardubice)

One starting point for a new approach within philosophical film-studies during the past decades can be found in Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film (2002). In contrast to the traditional approach within aesthetics, Mulhall regards cinema as an art form that carries a philosophical task by itself. Films are, in this sense, not considered as examples or raw material for philosophical scrutiny, rather they are understood as works of philosophy in the medium of the moving image. The book provoked a long debate concerning this question (can films be considered as philosophy by themselves) that ran, among other forums, on the pages of the journal Film Philosophy during the year 2003.

David P. Nichols’ (ed.) anthology Transcendence and Film continues with this approach. It is a book that deals with philosophical issues through a discussion between philosophers and works within cinema. Dylan Trigg exemplifies this by describing his relation to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001): “Lynch is not a director who makes films in lieu of a philosophical voice; rather, his philosophical voice is indistinguishable from that of his films, such that the task falls to philosophers to meet Lynch on his terms rather than vice versa” (16). This approach, in which a clear hierarchy between philosophers and theorists in relation to artists and their works of art is dissolved into a reciprocal dialogue, offers a vital perspective. At its best, Transcendence and Film brings out how pressing philosophical questions concerning subjectivity, the limits of experience, and the status of representation of reality in art can be dealt with in the audio-visual language of cinema.

The ten essays by John B. Brough, Allan Casebier, Herbert Golder, David P. Nichols, K. Malcolm Richards, Frédéric Seyler, Kevin L. Stoehr, Dylan Trigg, Joseph Westfall, and Jason M. Wirth, permit the films to do the philosophical work regarding some key-questions with phenomenology and aesthetics. Some of the key theoretical underpinnings for the book come from Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology of liminal experiences and questions concerning the role of transcendence. With cinema, transcendence can refer to several different phenomena. The strict emphasis of this book lies, however, in the way the aesthetics of film can allude to the ineffable, i.e., how a certain work can open up vistas that change our ways of relating to the everyday perceptual world; how film permits us to rediscover the world of perception which we are immersed in. The phenomenological approach stands out as a strength in the theoretical literature on film, since cinema is considered, at its best, to be a reflection of the dynamics of the structures of our consciousness. Then mentioned films are not required to provide rational philosophical arguments. Instead, the emphasis is on how this language that uses the building blocks of our perceptual world can reveal some ephemeral aspects of our cognitive and affective processes.

Regarding the ethos of “film as philosophy”, Dylan Trigg’s essay The Dream of Anxiety in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, stands out in this collection. Trigg shows how Mulholland Drive articulates sophisticated questions concerning the ontology of self. Lynch’s film portrays a particular borderline state between dreaming, sleeping and waking. The characters Diana and Camilla experience traumatic events that infiltrate their everyday waking life, blend into it and distort it. In this sense, their subjectivity becomes apparent as singularity. It is the projections of the own self that blend into perceived reality and thus, the nightmarish and unfamiliar experiences are also necessarily a part of the self (19). Trigg shows how the horror of Lynch’s film consists of the realization within the main character that “the very concept of personhood is itself a sad illusion” (18). Lynch’s film language reflects a philosophy of the dynamics of our consciousness that also stems from his own practice of transcendental meditation. The forte of film as a medium is that it is a visual language and is thus able to portray how dreams and memories break into and influence our direct perception. Trigg shows how Lynch is a master of this kind of portrayal of the dynamics of our psychology of perception. In the context of the essay, transcendence denotes a passageway between different levels of consciousness. Lynch investigates both in his meditational practice and in his films, these limits between dreaming and waking, bringing them into sight for the viewers and helping us to observe the processes that at times can entail both anxiety and bliss.

A completely different kind of aesthetics that, however, carry similar goals of disclosing a specific liminal territory within our perception is present in the cinema of Yasujirō Ozu. In his essay, Transcendence in Phenomenology and Film: Ozu’s Still Lives, Allan Casebier, who is considered by many as a predominant scholar for introducing the tradition of phenomenology to Anglo-American philosophy of film, scrutinizes the connection between the phenomenology of Karl Jaspers and the Zen Buddhist aesthetics of film director Yasujirō Ozu. According to Casebier, the cinema of Ozu strives to disclose the ineffable. Here we are already dealing with a particular philosophical tension, since; if something is ineffable, how can it then be expressed? The aesthetics of Ozu are designed to work around this tension by using the concept of shibui. Casebier writes: “Shibui’s ever hidden aspect creates a lingering attraction for more since the object is so fashioned that it reveals only enough of itself to impel one to seek additional qualities of what has been found pleasing but which are not readily perceivable” (93). In this way, transcendence in the films of Ozu is achieved through allusion and through the dialectics of the seen and the hidden. It is up to the viewer’s imagination to initiate the movement towards the transcendental. In contrast, Ozu’s role is merely to invite this imagination through his minimal and still language of film.

Casebier relates this ineffability to Jaspers’ concept of “cypher”, something that hints at a beyond without ever disclosing it. The transcendent cannot, in this sense, become an object for our knowledge. For Jaspers, it resides at the boarders of the knowable. The ineffable has an impact on our experience, but it can never be fully delineated. In this way, transcendent films guide us to the borders of our normal, habitual perception. It alludes to a beyond that is never fully grasped. Transcendental cinema is, in Paul Shrader’s words, like a catholic mass; a ritual that prepares us for experiences that are contradictory to the conventional (93).

Although Casebier is able to point out a philosophically interesting aspect in the aesthetics of Ozu, the essay still feels like it falls short. Casebier writes in quite general terms, without referring to specific films of the director. For me, it is evident that there is a more mundane explanation for the minimalism and emptiness in Ozu’s images. The subject matter that was central to Ozu is a certain alienation. The challenging predicament of modern life, in which social relations become problematic due to the fast pace of urbanization and the breaking up of traditional social structures is often portrayed as tensions and challenging encounters between generations. The emptiness in his films is not purely aesthetic, but also descriptive of the loss of connection between generations and within family life. In this sense, the emptiness is a reflection of the loss of the social connectedness of the characters. Ozu’s minimalism caters to an existential undertone that alludes to, not only aesthetics of shibui, but furthermore to moral shortcomings and the challenges of alienation between the characters in his films. Perhaps this moral theme would have required a separate essay on the cinema of Ozu. To simply make his empty and minimal images into an aesthetical matter is somewhat a limited interpretation of these devices.

One constant shortcoming in philosophical texts on film is that philosophers tend to fail at describing storylines, narratives and the aesthetics of a specific film in a manner that helps the reader grasp the viewing experience. David P. Nichols is one exception. In his rendition of Martin Scorsese´s Silence (2016) Nichols’ beautiful portrayal is engaging and perceptive in its analysis. Nichols reads Scorsese´s aesthetics through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the silence that enables us to grasp the flesh of the world. This is a continuation of the theme of the ineffable in the book. According to Nichols film is not a mirror that shows us how we appear to be, instead it is “like a mirror that reverses our ordinary sensibilities about who we are and what surrounds us” (134). When film succeeds in transcendence, it is able to point beyond “our ordinary linguistic abilities” (121). Like Trigg, Nichols points at the sedimentation in human perception, silence is something that is hard to grasp in linguistics, but at the same time, it is a prerequisite for language. Silence provides our language with rhythm. This is immensely important for the language of film. Through editing, sound and camera work film contains its temporality and rhythm. Through Scorsese´s mastery of pacing and rhythm, the film becomes a reality of its own that carries a certain mood (stimmung in Heideggerian terms) that alludes to monastic experience. Through rhythm, something invisible (mood, quality of experience) can be portrayed in a visual language.

Kevin L, Stoehr’s essay Ciphers of Transcendence in 2001: A Space Odyssey brings forth the question concerning post-humanism. Kubrick’s film starts with the event of the invention of primitive technology as the ape in the opening scene starts to use a bone as a tool. The quick jump to space technology and interstellar travel alludes to an immense transformation within a lifeform. The question then becomes what the next stage in this evolution might entail. Will humanity, in relation to technology, transcend some of the very fundaments of what we call being human? The aspects that we take for granted – like our corporeal embodied orientation in the world and our sense perception – will they always be essential facts of our lived life? Stoehr refers to Hubert Dreyfus’ concept of “disembodied presence” which describes a form of life spent mostly in cyber space in which the embodied sensory experience is tied to a technologically created interface, and thus the natural orientation of our body in a corporeal world is exchanged for a world of representations.

Kubrick’s film describes this kind of displacement. The main character Bowman is completely dependent on the spaceship and the computer HAL that controls Bowman’s living environment. This sense of disconnection and alienation enables the film to pose philosophical questions. The rational design of technology has transcended the belief in a universe with a natural order created by God. In addition, as human life becomes more immersed in the technological design, the coordinates given by our natural embodied lifeform possibly lose, or change, their significance. Stoehr writes: “But the director also summons us to consider the possibilities of an experience in which the natural body – as the active filter of one’s individualized experiences and as the fixed point of orientation for one’s material existence – is no longer primary. This is especially the case when our technology has increasingly gained the capacity of delivering a more indirect world, one in which our five senses play a minimized and mostly passive role” (157-158).

The reading of Kubrick’s 2001 as a meditation on transcendence in the history of the meaning of the concept of the human brings nicely together film and existential philosophy. Kubrick is portrayed as posing open-ended questions concerning the future of our lifeform. He does this by using aesthetics that deliberately dislocate the viewer’s sense of time and space. Bowman travels in our solar system but also goes beyond our understanding of space-time into other dimensions. He encounters forms of higher intelligence whose intentions are not decipherable for our understanding. Stoehr uses Jaspers’ concept of “cipher” (one of the key concepts of the whole book) that alludes to the ineffable, in order to describe Kubrick’s allegories of a future that is still indescribable.

Among the more traditional themes of film-theory represented in the book are Frédéric Seyler’s essay Pointing toward Transcendence: When Film Becomes Art and Joseph Westfalls’ ASA NISI MASA: Kierkegaardian Repetition in Fellini’s 8 ½. Both authors address what can be called the first questions of film-theory: Is film a proper art form, and does it add a unique form of expression in comparison with the other arts? That is, can cinema help us grow as subjects – do films challenge us to reflect upon our relationship with the world or are they simply objects for our consumption that caters to our escapism? Leaning on Jaspers, Bergson, and the radical phenomenology of Michel Henry, Seyler pushes the point that certain films, like, for example, Louis Malle’s  My Dinner with André (1981), can break free from the predominant mode of escapism of television and film. Film as art can help us grasp that which “escapes our ordinary attention” (83) and thus help us reach beyond our prejudices and even our desire for escapism.

Westfall drives the same point in his reading of Fellini’s 8 ½. He emphasizes the temporality that is essential for the performing arts, film, and music. The viewing experience unfolds in the present, but film also enables a play with temporalities of a future and a past. Thus, the world in film is not like the temporality of our lived life experience, as it in Cavell’s terms, uses the past recording of a scene, as material for the present viewing situation (110). This play with the building blocks of our consciousness enables the art form to tap into our perception and cognition. According to Westfall, this deliberate reorganization of temporality enables cinema to go beyond mere escapism and guide us in the processes of our consciousness.

In the essays mentioned above, there is a common thread regarding transcendence and film. By establishing, not a mirror image, but a counter-world to our common perceptual experience, cinema can help us attend to subtleties that we easily look past due to our ingrained conventions of perception. Similar claims have been made before, for example, by Malcolm Turvey in his book Doubting Vision (2008) in which he re-interprets the classical tradition of film-theory and work by Jean Epstein, Dziga Vertov, Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer. All these attempts aim at liberating film-theory from the realist-idealist dialectics in order to show that film can be an art form and that it is able to refrain from falling into escapism.

Although the volume has its highlights – at their best, the essays demonstrate the transformational power that film can have on the subject – there are some shortcomings. The book reads more like a conference catalogue than a thoroughly edited anthology with an overarching aim. Even the better pieces are quite short, and as they introduce important philosophical themes, they still, in many cases, leave too much unsaid. Some of the less thorough work in the volume falls short due to extensive descriptions. K. Malcolm Richards essay on Cronenberg’s eXisntenZ (1999) poses the same kinds of questions as Stoehr’s piece on Kubrick, but the text is, to a large extent, just a rendition of the narrative in the film. The current and pressing question concerning how immersive technologies change our quality of experience deserves a more thorough and definitive treatment, and Cronenberg’s film has more to offer in this discussion than Richards’s essay can disclose. John B. Brough’s essay on Karl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and Jason M. Wirth’s piece on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) are weighed down by the same disproportion between extensive description of the film and brief analysis. Herbert Golder’s essay related to his collaborative work with Werner Herzog stands out for different reasons. It is in an anomaly in the collection since its focus is wide-ranging, stretching from classicist interpretation of Greek philosophy to biblical mythology to Karl Jaspers’ phenomenology. It is hard to find a focus in the text that would enable the reader to relate it to the general themes of the book.

These texts give further evidence to the interpretation that the book primarily is a collection of conference papers. Extensive editorial work and requirements of in-depth analysis would have made this book a more substantial companion to the discussion concerning the intrinsic philosophical qualities of cinema.


Mulhall, Stephen. 2002. On Film. London: Routledge.

Turvey, Malcolm. 2008. Doubting Vision – Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cleo Hanaway-Oakley: James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film

James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film Book Cover James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film
Oxford English Monographs
Cleo Hanaway-Oakley
Oxford University Press
Hardback £60.00

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

Whether in early phenomenology, film, or #metoo, we are still today reeling from the fantasy or reality of the gaze, that is, the relationship of self to other. How does one define the other by means of the gaze? Is it in terms of a subject/object distinction? A hundred years after the end of The Great War (what may be called ‘the suicide of Europe’), film, philosophy and modernist literature have attempted to overcome the war between man and man, or man and woman, as much as nation and nation. But it has failed. The gaze, as Cleo Hanaway-Oakley envisions it, wishes to colonize and totalize the other, committing an act of violence just through looking. There is no way out of this fixation, but by redefining the cemented schemes of looking.

To revision film studies and its philosophical inheritance is to reinvent a way of looking or feeling, to find by re-watching or re-learning what it means to view film as a renewed and renewing enterprise. And this act in turn may revise the way of perceiving the other. This revision begins at the origin of film as a production of an aesthetic artistic avant-garde act. To view film phenomenologically would mean to take it out (epoché) of its well-trodden narratives. In one predominant scheme, there is a sense in which to use the words of Walter Benjamin, “an unknown woman comes into the poet’s field of vision…the delight of the urban poet is love…[but it] is not the rapture of a man whose every fiber is suffused with eros; it is, rather, like the kind of sexual shock that can beset a lonely man” (“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” quoted by Daniel Shea, “’Do they Snapshot Those Girls or Is It All a Fake?” mentioned by Hanaway-Oakley). The names known to film studies, Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey, represent a Freudian/Lacanian voyeuristic and scopophilic way of viewing film. If a spectator is passive, then the Cartesian subject/object distinction remains at the basis of this act of seeing. Behind Metz and Mulvey’s way of viewing film lies the following question: Does the ‘male gaze’ define patriarchy and inhuman, if not dehumanizing, male subject/female object totalizing? In other words, just by looking the male is already in a bind – there is no intersubjective or non-totalizing gaze. For this enterprise, watching a film is already non-reciprocal and disembodied, in a word, objectivizing. If voyeurism and the objectifying gaze are hegemonic (to use Gramsci’s term) in film theory, according to Cleo Hanaway-Oakley, then how might we escape or avoid this problem?

Each chapter in the book introduces a different aim. First, ‘Reciprocal Seeing and Embodied Subjectivity’ begins with the gaze of Bloom on Gerty McDowell (‘Nausicaa’) and provides a revisioning of this gaze from psychoanalysis to phenomenology and particularly Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of film. Her use of sources focus a great deal on the film studies and Joyce literature here rather than the psychoanalytical literature or phenomenology beyond Merleau-Ponty, but since her aim concerns reversibility and to move beyond the fixed understanding of this as “Gerty is a voyeur just as Bloom is” (9), part of her interesting revision takes this as “each character fails to see the other as a fellow subject, even though the reader is shown that both practice subjective looking—so the seer/seen binary remains intact” (10). How does Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility overcome the Freudian/ Lacanian fixation to “true intersubjectivity and reciprocity”? Following scholars such as Vivian Sobchack (The Address of the Eye and Carnal Thoughts), Spencer Shaw (Film Consciousness), and Jennifer Barker (The Tactile Eye), Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of film is no longer seen as impersonal but rather “the seer and the seen and the subject and the object remain as separate, distinct beings…intermingling occurs at a deeper level: the body-subject ‘simultaneously sees and is seen’.” (29)

Second, ‘Modern Thought and the Phenomenology of Film’ looks precisely at Bergson and his role in the development of film, but also the difference between him and phenomenology. To clarify, Hanaway-Oakley writes, “the main divergences in Bergsonian and Merleau-Pontian philosophy revolve around the role of the body in perception and the body’s relationship to its environment. For media philosopher Mark Hansen, the difference between Bergson and Merleau-Ponty too easily mask the similarities.” (43) Similarly, the overlap between ‘Gestalt Vision’ (such as in Hugo Münsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim) with Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of Wertheimer point to a comparability of scientific and psychological theories with aesthetic or creative organizing processes such that film-making and film-watching can mirror each other. This means that theory produces a truly empathic relationship “rather than separation and detachment,” challenging the very basis of subject/object dualism. This is continued by Sergei Eisenstein and Siegfried Kracauer (who himself, according to Hanaway-Oakley, was influenced by Gabriel Marcel) in which the notion of being an “incarnate being immersed in and interacting with a world” has a way of “acting-out or bodying forth.” (51)

While making the claim that James Joyce was interested in film is not controversial, his being a proto-phenomenologist is. What Hanaway-Oakley does in chapter 3 (‘Machine-Humans and Body-Subjects’) most deftly is to bring together Charlie Chaplin films with Joyce and Merleau-Ponty. As a prime example, Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916) includes a scene with a prosthetic leg in which “[the prosthetic leg] is not replacing a lost or damaged body part or signalling any utopian possibilities of extending human ability into superpowers. The leg plays only a minor role in the film—a ‘bit part’, if you will. Chaplin picks up the leg and looks at it quizzically then, in a rather quick, somewhat ambiguous gesture, he lifts his cane up towards the shop assistant.” (73) This gesture, rather like Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the blind man’s stick in Phenomenology of Perception (taking up an example from Descartes’s Optics), and Vivian Sobchack’s in ‘A Leg to Stand on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality’ (2004), incorporates the stick or Chaplin’s cane or a prosthesis in such a way that the body and the world are not entirely separate. What Joyce does in ‘Circe’ analyzed in several places in Hanaway-Oakley’s book is to further this connection with the body and the world. One example of this is when a nymph from a painting comes to life and Bloom’s desire is unhinged and that the nun and the slut are combined in this erotic life-giving painting. The tie of Phenomenology of Perception (‘The Body in its Sexual Being’) to Ulysses is complete.

The Final Chapter of the book (‘Tactile Vision and Enworlded Being’) begins by analyzing both Stephen’s thoughts in the ‘Proteus’ chapter of Ulysses alongside George Berkeley’s A New Theory of Vision (1709), Descartes’s Optics (1637), and Merleau-Ponty. How does the stereoscope or mutoscope, for example, enable tactile vision? One can touch something through the eyes even when neither sense have a ‘language’ in common. “Like Bloom, Descartes concludes that blind people must ‘see with their hands’.” (89) Whereas Descartes positions perception in an immaterial mind, Bloom and Berkeley materialize it, and “the blind man’s stick is not, for Merleau-Ponty, an intermediary between a physical object and a mental image.” (90) The tactile and the erotic are further interconnected, especially when stereoscopic images from 1904 (when Ulysses is set) are forms of early erotica or pornography, something Hanaway-Oakley connects to the Mutoscope-viewer as a haptic interposition of the crotch like the blind man’s stick. She further “dizzingly” describes parallactic proprioception and seeing ourselves as others see us.

Hanaway-Oakley constructs a term, ‘living pictures’, to try to overcome the voyeuristic gaze, working from both phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and writer James Joyce. Her book thus attempts to defend a reciprocal gaze or embodied form of viewing film, to see others as they see you (including on screen). In three distinct contexts, then, early cinema, Ulysses, and phenomenology, “the phrase [I see myself as others see me] offers a reciprocal way of seeing, self-reflection, and the chance to contemplate the relationship of self and other, subject and object.” (13) An absorptive approach regards cinema as objective, impersonal and neutral as opposed to the phenomenological living approach in which cinema is subjective, engaged and ‘authentic’. Hanaway-Oakley proposes three avenues for ‘intervention’: first, phenomenological reflection is unlike introspection or mimetic copying in which there is some ‘objective’ reality in the image unrelated to the perceiver – an experience of cinema is living in so far as the perceiver takes part and contributes to the image by means of her experience. Second, the film-maker interacts with the spectator insofar as an ‘imprint’ or ‘trace’ (rather than a mimetic copy) of time is really imprinted on the viewer – this intervention challenges some traditional readings of Bazinian realism. Third, film is embodied and this intervention requires us to expand and enlarge our notion of embodiedness – we do not necessarily see things ‘out there’ as on a screen but rather the image becomes part of our bodily existence.

As an exemplar of these three interventions, Merleau-Ponty explored film phenomenologically in one short essay from 1945, ‘The Film and the New Psychology’ (included in the collection, Sense and Non-sense), the same year that Phenomenology of Perception was published. How much one can do with this is the question that Hanaway-Oakley leaves open. Her book begins and ends with an analysis of an episode of Ulysses, ‘Nausicaa’, where Bloom is gazing at a young crippled girl on the beach. This scene exemplifies a twentieth-century formulation of the gaze since the Great War. As Hanaway-Oakley writes,

In ‘Nausicaa’, as Bloom touches himself, he simultaneously touches Gerty across the distance: ‘his hands and face were working and a tremor went over her’. Bloom and Gerty’s feelings are reciprocal; neither is reduced to an object—they are both simultaneously object–subjects for each other. They experience a reversible relationship. Gerty recognizes an ‘answering flash of admiration in [Bloom’s] eyes’, and Bloom notes that there is a ‘kind of language’ between them. He learns to ‘see [himself] as others see [him]’ and to ‘look at [things] other way round’. (110)

This book brings together worlds not typically brought together, and is a joy to read. The length of it left me wanting more, and the seventeen- page bibliography gives one plenty to go on for reading further. While James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film is not a work of film studies, as an intervention between philosophy, literature, and film, her analysis is extremely worthwhile and her deft use of film examples plus the widespread interdisciplinary world of literary criticism and modernism as well as film is exemplary. Where she is perhaps weakest is in the French side of Merleau-Ponty and wider phenomenology, but its breadth across the Merleau-Ponty oeuvre is illuminating and enjoyable. While by itself Hanaway-Oakley’s revision of the problem of the gaze and its violence is not entirely overcome, we are one step closer to seeing others as they see us.

Cleo Hanaway-Oakley: James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film, Oxford University Press, 2017

James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film Book Cover James Joyce and the Phenomenology of Film
Oxford English Monographs
Cleo Hanaway-Oakley
Oxford University Press
Hardback £60.00