Adam Lovasz: Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present

Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present Book Cover Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present
Lexington Books
Lexington Books
2021
Hardback 49,00 €
332

Reviewed by: Giorgi Vachnadze (KU Leuven)

Henri Bergson paints a fascinating, slightly fear-provoking and highly counter-intuitive yet incredibly beautiful picture of the world greatly reminiscent of the Heraclitean universe. A world where one cannot step into the same river twice, where repetition is but an illusion, a temporary shell for the human mind surrounded by the eternal flux of becoming and a place where intuition reigns supreme over both reason and instinct. Adam Lovasz pays great homage to Bergson by reconstructing his thought, adding his own particular flavor to the style and defending the Bergsonian world from the most unrelenting critical attacks. Philosophy, if it is to approach the demiurgic vibration of the real, must resist the temptation to build cathedrals” writes Lovasz (16). Defending the continental tradition against vicious assaults from both the analytical camp as well as from those who seek answers exclusively from fact-minded scientists is no easy task. Despite being slightly repetitive at times Upgrading Bergson is a wonderful read, executed in the most beautiful literary style and showing incredible depth of comprehension in fields as seemingly distant as Einsteinian relativity theory and modern evolutionary biology. Not to mention the philosophical legacies of Bergson and Gilles Deleuze alike.

The book is made up of 5 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2: Completing Relativity should pose the most difficult challenge to most readers, as it gets into the nuts and bolts of relativity theory. Lovasz however goes much further, attempting to reconcile two diametrically opposed worldviews of Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, shedding a new light on the famous Bergson-Einstein debate and attempting a thorough renaissance of the Bergsonian position concerning the philosophical interpretation of time according to, as well as against – Einstein’s theory of relativity. As far as alternative narratives are concerned, Bergson via Lovasz offers us one of the most profound counter-ontologies.

Instability is a semantic attractor-state for Bergsonian philosophy. Chapter one of Adam Lovasz’ work is dedicated to Bergson’s La Penseé et le mouvement, often translated as Thought and Instability. A treatise on time and the flux of human experience. How does mind make sense of temporality in a real and material sense? Material patterns invoke new modes of thought, without presenting us with any general image or form(Lovasz 2021, 15) writes Lovasz. The absence of an ideal image is precisely what points to instability. The fact that entities persist in time is understood by Bergson as a variety of the miraculous. We have here the deconstruction of universals par excellence. Even scientific theories, according Bergson (via Lovasz), are subject to the constant change in virtue of their underlying methodologies. Behind the apparent unity; the stability of a scientific theory, there lies an ever-present, turbulent and hybrid-form of the method, it’s concrete manifestation in practical performance.

Reality does not offer itself up to mind, there is no one-to-one correspondence between mind and matter. Lovasz shows that Bergsonian cosmology has no room for the idea of progress or a meaningful teleology. History and human activity in the aggregate, have no finality nor a determined goal. Instead, the idea of a purpose-driven universe is only a useful fiction constructed for the purpose of avoiding collective despair and pessimism. Moreover, the deluded thinking which renders the past a servant to the present (or the present to the future) is the direct symptom of universalizing speculative thinking that Bergson aimed to challenge.

Such retrograde thinking serves a distinct political function of means-ends justification. It is often referred to as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or the retrospective movement of truth.” The essence of such wishful thinking and ideological manipulation is once again, the failure to admit the underlying instability of reality, an unmanageable substratum of contingency and chaos. This is a profound connection with serious epistemological and political implications. Bergson wants to underscore the importance of contingency simultaneously at both levels of immediate human experience and history. One might venture as far as to say that the very idea of progress itself is a form of ideology.

There is an internal excess within every object of immediate experience which can never be understood or analyzed completely. The TFP, which stands for the True-First Perception, refers to the uniqueness of an image generated by consciousness during every act of perception, each irreducible to the former and the next. Reality is in essence a perturbation. This way, Bergson is swimming against the current of traditional western philosophy, side-stepping or dissenting from, an enormous corpus of philosophical knowledge, the aim of which is to uncover the essence and the underlying foundation of reality. This leads us closer to the central argument. Bergsonian epistemology unpacks a phenomenological interpretation of time. Time as a duration is contrasted with time as displayed by the clock or time as seen through the eyes of a physicist. Bergson has little interest for the spatialized time of discrete units where every moment is identical to the next. Bergsonian duration is non-quantifiable.

The translation of the flow of time into discrete units instantiates a suppression of duration. It cannot be the case that the time of the clock measures real temporality (Lovasz 2021, 19-20).

The Bergsonian variety of essentialism is quite paradoxical. And understandably so, given Lovasz’ insightful and accurate reflections on the subject. For Bergson, change itself is the underlying structure; the substance of reality. Duration, in all of its heterogeneity, remains nonetheless a given throughout and for all reality. Higher levels of complexity are introduced in Bergsonian ontology, where the reader is confronted with multiple forms of differential durations, which nonetheless exhibit a certain level of invariance. A Bergsonian take on the theory of evolution arranges beings according to the kind of duration they belong to. Material duration refers to inanimate matter, organic duration to the realm of animal species and conscious duration to human temporal interiority.

The deconstruction of the atomistic, abstracted interpretation of time and the universe is followed by a positive theory of human intuition.

We are enjoined to return to a condition of immediacy before the colonization of thinking by ready-made concepts and fixed, static ideas. Intuition is a passive, reverent posture concerning the complexity of being/s that is nevertheless resolutely creative (Lovasz 2021, 27).

Intuition is a spiritual form of comprehension, which reaches into a pre-conceptual mode of understanding. For Bergson via Lovasz, concepts operate as distancing mechanisms, they obstruct the mind’s capacity to relate to the object directly without mediation.

Another element of Bergson’s process philosophy extends his epistemology, his ontology and his theory of time to a very unique account of free will. Without a doubt, one could see its potential emergence and attempt to reconstruct Bergson’s thought along the lines of an indeterminist position concerning freedom. A Bergsonian account of freedom and the conditions for its realization would most likely involve, first and foremost, the recognition of one’s ignorance by acknowledging the occlusion of reality by an invented conceptual framework. The deconstruction of universals and retrograde thinking would then be followed by more positive and active techniques for uncovering the hidden durations and temporalities of the universe thereby fostering one’s intuitive faculty for creative reasoning. One could therefore potentially identify both negative (critique of rigid conceptual systems and the illusion of stability) and positive (developing the intuitive forms of comprehension) forms of freedom in Bergson.

Completing the circle of the first chapter and returning to the question of thought and instability, we can see now how a Lovaszian reading of Bergson advocates for a destabilization of thought, with the purpose of uncovering a more spiritual, but also a finer and more accurate form of intuitive reflection. Bergson’s True Empiricism is a mystical anthropomorphism of inanimate matter and the environment. A mystical form of apprehension which listens to entities in a way that classical empiricism would find childish and pseudo-scientific. An intensified form of listening, as opposed to the indifferent gaze of an impartial bystander.  

The debate between Einstein and Bergson concerning the theory of relativity and the interpretation of time has been strangely neglected by history. At least as far as the Bergsonian view is concerned. The physicist’s conception of time has come to dominate the modern scientific paradigm. Time as duration on the other hand, has been entirely relegated to the realm of the subjective, artistic and the emotional. Lovasz believes that Bergson’s book Duration and Simultaneity, where Bergson offers a critique of specific metaphysical interpretations of Einsteinian relativity, despite all the accusations levelled against it; as being “unscientific” – deserves a second look. A much needed and overdue renaissance for the continental tradition. The purpose of the second chapter is to seek out a reconciliation, if any, for Bergsonian metaphysics and the theory of relativity.

Lovasz offers a shockingly original interpretation of relativity theory, perhaps much to the detriment of many superficial “post-modernists”. The view, which according to Lovasz was shared by Einstein, is that modern science, far from tackling universal truths and eternal verities, is only a useful convention used to solve particular human, all too human, problems. The position is largely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s view of mathematics. Wittgenstein describes mathematics as a collection of various techniques of calculation – language games, in essence – the purpose of which is to solve particular mathematical problems. There is no overarching Truth or even a stable continuity of calculating practices across either the history of mathematics or within the internal development of any particular axiomatic system. Radical conventionalism has been around as an epistemological theory for a while now, but Lovasz seems to be one of the few people who ascribes this position to a famous revolutionary scientist.

No longer may we talk of absolute movement, mobility having no independent existence in the Einsteinian view. It is always a particular, relative development we talk of when we speak of change (Lovasz 2021, 83).

The larger point is that conventionalist methodological approaches imply the suppression of passions, emotions or other personal investments during the construction of scientific systems and this is what tends to draw a line between Bergsonism and relativity. However, the existence of multiple heterogeneous timelines and the constant discrepancy between clocks travelling at different speeds within different inertial frames of reference seems to hint at a universe that isn’t that different from Bergson’s!

Time itself is a heterogeneous multiplicity of temporal interrelations and mutual causalities. Does this not in itself resemble the Bergsonian affirmation of multiple durations? Real simultaneity is distorted by gravitational effects. Time has no relevance outside of a particular body of reference (Lovasz 2021, 83).

Lovasz’s project is little short of ambitious as he seeks to reconcile two enormous and radically divergent metaphysical systems.

Not only time, but extension itself becomes something relative with Einstein; as objects accelerate they change their shape and become elongated, mass and energy become interchangeable magnitudes, and reality itself becomes akin to a mathematical equation where objects morph and transform into one another according to fixed proportions and measurable quantities.

Momentously, relativity constitutes an upheaval that liquifies all constants by paradoxically utilizing a constant value—the speed of light—to decompose a previous cosmology (Lovasz 2021, 85).

The dissolution of object-identity in Einstein via Lovasz is absolutely fascinating. We spoke of an object-excess, with Bergson, where we can never conceptually grasp reality, but only describe its surface appearances. There seems to be a very similar situation with Einstein where things are not what they are per se; instead, things are what they do i.e. how fast and in which direction they travel, at what speed, how other things are behaving in their vicinity and so forth.

Lovasz takes things further. Much less than attempting to “excuse” Bergson’s critique of relativity theory, he levels his own criticism against Einstein, who, Lovasz claims, remained a crypto-absolutist by utilizing the concept of the speed of light as a constant invariant across space and time. But the weakest link in Einstein’s theory remains for us the famous Twin Paradox. The dissolution of objects qua objects, their mathematical intersubstitutability can be restated as an equivalence between space and time. In an Einsteinian universe time exhibits the properties of space, that is, time is entirely spatialized. The faster one travels the more time one “gathers”. One can monopolize on temporality by increasing the level of acceleration. “Aging is a matter of movement” (Lovasz 2021, 99). If a man is launched into space, traveling fast enough for an (un)certain amount of time, while his twin remains on earth, once he returns to earth, the second twin will have aged considerably more than the first. The problem arises when we decide to choose between the two (seemingly arbitrary) frames of reference. Whichever twin remains “motionless” ends up aging more than the other. What lies, to my mind, at the core of the insurmountable problem is the irreducible difference between Biology and Physics. As Lovasz clearly explains, the world of the physicist is a world of reversible processes, whereas the world of the Biologist, and to a certain extent the Bergsonian subject, both inhabit an irreversible timeline, where the same path cannot be taken twice nor travelled backwards. The essence of the problem then, in very blunt and oversimplified terms, is the artificial imposition of a quantitative universe of interchangeable magnitudes upon the lived and the real experience of time that Bergson aims to bring to our attention. Lovasz dedicates an entire section to the problem, one that is satirically and most adequately termed: The Tyranny of the Clock.

Physics is overwhelmingly concerned with an objective definition of time. Ironically, such a striving to get a handle on the physical reality of time drives Einsteinian relativity into a forgetfulness of time’s indivisible, enduring being. The accelerations and transformations of real processes cannot remain characterized by their relationships with clocks. Measurement invariably tends to decompose duration into a set of spatialized instances (Lovasz 2021, 106).

The main takeaway here is that time cannot be measured. And the obsessive compulsive intuition of the physicist is what lies at the root of the twin paradox. Duration is not, nor can it be made to be discrete. Time dilation which results in the desynchronization of clocks is precisely the result of the spatialized interpretation of time. Space becomes “parasitic” upon time and quite literally steals duration. Bergson via Lovasz argues that this is nothing but pure fiction: “Time dilation is an abstraction that does not correspond to physical reality. It is not unlike mistaking the distancing of a person from us with a real reduction in stature” (Lovasz 2021, 110).  The problem lies in the fact that choosing different inertial frames places us into different kinds of universes, where it is no longer a trivial matter which of the two twins’ position we adopt, as it will decide which one of them is accelerating. In a way, the chosen frame will also add more reality to one of the twins, leaving the other to suffer the consequences of Einstein’s abstractions.

Chapter 3 contains the core argument of the book and an abridged presentation of the entire Bergsonian corpus: Being is becoming. The point was already made earlier in different terms, when we spoke of change being substance, and of reality as essentially impermanent and unstable. Any kind of stability or order encountered in the world is the result of the activity of the mind and is therefore, entirely a construct. Our construct. Lovasz refers to Bergsonian ontology as organic temporality (Lovasz 2021, 121). The chapter also aims at investigating the question of whether Bergson was a monist or a dualist. That is, whether life and matter are in effect the same thing, or if there is a significant distinction that makes living beings stand out ontologically from the background of inorganic matter. Bergson’s book Creative Evolution offers a beautiful literary combination of evolutionary biology and abstract metaphysics, often referred to as philosophy of life.

The phenomenology of Bergsonian becoming is repeatedly compared to a mounting snowball, an analogy used by Bergson himself. The snowball, as it becomes larger tends to get increasingly impure and polluted with assimilated matter. Our experience of duration resembles this process. At any given moment the entire memory of our journey is reflected in our present moment, the path is present as a miniature map within the physiognomy of the actual.

According to Lovasz, process philosophy does not automatically entail holism. The statement concerning either the substantiality of change or the conceiving of reality as a series of hybrid durations, does not necessarily entail a holist-reductionist metaphysics. However, other difficulties come to light. For instance, the reality of individual objects and living beings becomes undermined. To take the theory of evolution as an example:

Movement alone is real, but if this is the case, then the individuation of species represents a halt and hence, an unreality” (Lovasz 2021, 128). And further on: “the privileging of processes and relations involves a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the negation of individual objects. Without individual substance, the very basis of individuation is supposedly endangered (Lovasz 2021, 128).

Bergsonian process ontology privileges change, immobility and movement, which results in a horrifying view of reality where all entities, including human or animal species have neither essence nor reality. What seems most beneficial to the species in the classical Darwinian axiology: their individuation, seems to be the beginning of the end, from the vantage point of process metaphysics.

Lovasz does not offer us a teleological Bergson, but he does aim to rescue him from the accusations of pessimism and holistic reductionism. One of the most common notions in Bergsonian philosophy used to argue in favour of an holistic interpretation is the vital impetus, or vital force. The elan vital was supposed to capture the essence of living beings; exhibiting a mysterious property that constantly eludes proper empirical investigation.

Lovasz argues one should not even speak of the vital force in the singular, but rather see it as a multiplicity of vitalisms, each with its own particular ontology. The functionalist-vitalist account of life relies only on identifying a particular form of arrangement, regularity or a set of relations that are found throughout nature indicating the presence of organic life-forms. There is no singular chemical reaction that would account for the emergence of life. Such indeterminist positions concerning the nature of living organisms has been widely confirmed throughout the sciences. More so, the irreducible complexity of living entities is used by Bergson as an epistemic contribution to his account of free will. Life as indeterminacy is also the very condition for the freedom of living beings. Duration is not a blanket term with Bergson, there is no overarching form of duration that could subsume all the others.

Returning to the question concerning science and its tendency to exclude time as duration in order make sense of reality. The scientific method proceeds in a way that is similar to the human cognitive process: It abstracts a significant portion of reality in order “discover” a handful of variables and identify a set of relations among them. In order to do so, it must operate through fixed concepts. Science, by spatializing time, in fact constructs an artificial edifice; a theory, the purpose of which is in effect to exorcise change and instability. If scientists operated through Bergsonian ontology and the epistemic “commitments” of process philosophy, then science would be in a permanent Kuhnian paradigm shift, an ongoing and ceaseless revolution in methodology. It would be the end of science as we know it.

Only fictional extracts, as molded by scientific or practical activity, have a relative immunity to the bite of time’s fangs, and even these are affected by longer term historical transformations of knowledge and society. Time is not a quantity but a quality (Lovasz 2021, 134).

And nonetheless, reality is not some insane muddle of pure difference, at least not unless we undergo a kind of traumatic limit-experience, which one could argue to be a form of revelation or direct insight into the mystery of substance as pure change. The reason we at least experience reality as relatively stable at moments is due to the variable, but nonetheless patterned distribution of durations. It is indeed the case, as we mentioned before, that the Bergsonian universe is essentially a collection of actions and processes, but there are similarities among them. Reminiscing once more, another Wittgensteinian notion; that of family-resemblances, we could say, despite the fact that no two durations are identical, that there are similarities which tend to crisscross and overlap without pointing to any comprehensive unity or universality. “An object exists to the extent that it endures, but this persistence is qualitative and not quantitative” (Lovasz 2021, 134).

An interesting hierarchy is present in Bergson via Lovasz. Scientific-analytical constructs borrow from, and are built upon the primal level of durations; not the other way around. For a classical philosopher of science, it would be very counter-intuitive to speak of foundation as something less fixed and more turbulent then the construction; more fluid then the facts themselves. Bergson is not exclusively concerned with the world of the scientists. His aim is to reconcile the everyday with the analytical. Bergson is not, properly speaking; a philosopher of science, despite the fact that he was always very careful to square his views with the latest developments in the natural sciences. Instead, Bergson brings the conceptual edifice down to the level of perturbations, demonstrating that theories, concepts and paradigms are subject to the same flux and constant change as the very objects they try to fix.

Bergson’s book Creative evolution is incompatible with either a mechanistic or a teleological world-view due to its insistent emphasis on the role of novelty in all becoming. It is entirely opposed to an unfolding of a pre-determined structure of being. Nothing is set in stone, nothing follows a plan (neither material nor divine) and there is no final end to the striving of turbulent durations. Whatever limited finality an organism might have, it is only an attempt to cling to a false and invented individuality, only to disperse once again into a whirlwind of pure change either in the act of reproduction or its own final termination. Let us conclude this part by quoting Bergson via Bergson this time:

That is why again they [scientists] agree in doing away with time. Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth. If everything is in time, everything changes inwardly, and the same concrete reality never recurs. Repetition is therefore possible only in the abstract: what is repeated is some aspect that our senses, and especially our intellect, have singled out from reality, just because our action, upon which all the effort of our intellect is directed, can move only among repetitions (Bergson 1998, 52).

In chapter 4 Lovasz discusses another famous work by Bergson: Matter and Memory displaces the mind-body problem entirely and offers its own deconstructive version of the unnecessary dualism. The key to uncovering Bergson’s position lies in his theory of perception. The image is contraposed to representation, with the former exhibiting emergent and novel features irreducible to the latter, which in turn is always incomplete. In addition to the mind-body problem and in relation to it, Bergson via Lovasz simultaneously aims at dismantling the debate concerning the opposition between materialism and idealism.

Matter cannot be represented. Nor is it in any other way separate from the way it is uniquely, that is discontinuously perceived. Matter just is a multiplicity of images. There is neither a pure materiality; objective and inert, nor an ideal point of perception that could unite all individual durations into a whole. Neither subjectivism nor objectivism can dominate the Bergsonian metaphysic. Analogously, consciousness with Bergson is an emergent and highly dependent property of the brain, while simultaneously being irreducible to mere neurochemical processes. Memory, according to Bergson, is the meeting ground for mind and matter, the point of reconciliation and the central point of departure for his theory of subjectivity.

Movement is primary, while individual perception is but a sampling of images. What Bergsonism allows for is the introduction of pure, undomesticated mobility into philosophy. Nothing exists apart from images or movements (Lovasz 2021, 186).

We might add that the aforementioned ontology of mobility is further used to occupy a peripheral space between ideality and materiality, a space, it seems, where memory, intuition and images – present central oscillating points for the rest of the Bergsonian philosophy of the process.  

The closing chapter returns to the question of agency and free will in Bergson tending to the famous essay on Time and Free Will. The work aims at a similar project of rescuing duration from quantification, except; instead of challenging leading breakthroughs in modern physics, its purpose is to resist the temptations of psychophysics, neuroscience and other (what today we would term) cognitive sciences to reduce human subjectivity to a set of calculable problems and chemical processes. The project is similar to what is often encountered in classical phenomenology, where the reader is called on to return to “the things themselves”; her immediate given data of consciousness, in order discover a primordial presuppositionless way of seeing that has been covered up by the “natural attitude”. Such a return to immediacy would be consonant with the injunction to think differently, to train one’s intuitive faculty and thereby see through the veil of stability and structure.

Bergson does not, however offer a clear, distinct and positive definition of freedom. It is very difficult to apply his ideas to practical conduct and determine whether this or that course of action was self-determined. If duration is pure heterogeneity and each moment is intertwined with the next, there is no clear way of separating off the stimulus from the agent, the action from the reaction. Where in the chain of interpenetrating images could one separate oneself off and state without hesitation the moment she began to act, as opposed to the moment she was affected by something else? In many ways, Bergson plays on our ignorance, on human ignorance in general, equating freedom with contingency and pure spontaneity. Freedom is the irreconcilable eruption of agency amidst overdetermined necessity; an epistemic break in the series of concepts that bind us to an artificially assembled reality. Concepts, which just like everything else, are vulnerable to the tides of fluctuating perturbations. Our blind spots are effectively the source of our autonomy.

Adam Lovasz’s Upgrading Bergson is an exciting and difficult journey through a cosmology that is both beautiful and terrifying. It presents a real challenge to reassess our worldviews in a radical, almost pathological manner. A world where becoming determines being and order gives way to chaos. A thoroughly anti-Platonic vision, which dares to undermine our most cherished belief in the indisputable authority of modern science and Einsteinian relativity in particular. A turbulent universe of scaled difference, multiple durations and heterogeneous temporalities. And finally, an outstanding contribution to the much neglected field of Bergsonian scholarship. Upgrading Bergson deserves its own shelf-space in every continental philosopher’s personal library.

 

References & Bibliography:

Bergson, Henri. 1998 (1911). Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Dupré, John, and Stephan Guttinger. 2016. „Viruses as Living Processes.“ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 59: 109-116.

Kuhn, Thomas. 2021. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Princeton University Press.

Lovasz, Adam. 2021. Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present. Lexington Books.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2010. Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2013. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Routledge.

Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.): Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader

Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader Book Cover Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader
Christopher Kul-Want (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $35.00 £28.00
368

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

The Impenetrable Gaze

Images and stories provoke desire. To use an example from chapter 13 by Jean-Luc Nancy of this book under review, a group of refugees after an earthquake install a television antenna in order to watch the World Cup in their tents. “The filmmaker (character) asks him: ‘Do you find it appropriate to watch television these days?’ The man answers: ‘Truthfully, I myself am in mourning. I lost my sister and three cousins. But what can we do? The Cup takes place every four years. Can’t miss it. Life goes on.’” The Soccer Cup is for him, for them, pure image: television screens, as well as soccer imagery for all those who around bad balls on terrains of fortune, while dreaming vaguely of distant fame, of the kind achieved by Maradonna.” (246) This connection between images, stories, and desire are constitutive of what it means to think about film. When desire is invoked in viewing or making a film, eros pervades the gaze (see this earlier review for discussion of the gaze). The gaze can be impenetrable—is it of the camera, the viewer, the director, or culture at large? Is it one of acceptance or critique, analyzing or to accepting the images that come into being through the eye (I)? As seen in this book, feminists Irigaray and Kristeva describe films that toe the line between different gazes, surveying through male or female enjoyment, treading on each form of impenetrability. Yet each of these chapters attempt to penetrate the gaze. The same follows for other forms of intersectionality, whether it be orientalism, class, regionalism, etc. Exemplifying impenetrability, the theory or philosophy does not easily allow the viewer (or the film-maker) their own power/ agency in viewing or understanding film. Here is where several authors, names which include Bergson, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin, Lyotard, Agamben, Deleuze and others, can help or deter us. This collection, edited by Christopher Kul-Want, includes the history of film philosophy in 18 chapters, and exemplifies the impenetrable gaze—all that one could desire from 20th century philosophy and cinema.

Bergson uses the term image to relate a “dynamic, interrelated, and mutually affective relations…memory, as we have tried to prove, is not a faculty of putting away recollections in a drawer, or of inscribing them in a register. There is no register, no drawer…it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.” (37) Memories are “messages from the unconscious” – our character contains the “condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth” (38) – images, poems, music. This time period can tell us something about our reality now. What Adorno shows is the absolute force culture has on our consciousness. Did this not exist in the same way in previous centuries? Certainly advertising and media did not have the same power it has now. Adorno and Horkheimer continue, “When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure.” (88) When each art form becomes precisely that, a form of manipulation or device – that is a sellable, buyable, transferable thing – then the work of art is no longer a magical or transcendent object. Film is one powerful example of this. “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.” There is no room for imagination or reflection, they write. We are transfixed, brought into a world for which there is no escape. “[T]he film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.” Eager to find the next fix in any film, it doesn’t matter which one, the viewer empties himself of subjectivity. Not a single artist escapes censure. Orson Welles alongside Schönberg and Picasso, Wagner alongside Mozart. These are all of a piece, to express a sound, a picture, an image that sells, is consumed, and bought and sold for a few to gain thereby. And the sad fact of the matter is that most people who consume the art are not aware that they are being manipulated so. “[T]he workers and employees, the farmers and lower middle class” are the consumers, Adorno and Horkheimer point out (91). Film may capture this better than any other medium. But film also manipulates, curves desires towards it, leaving the perceiver dumb-founded (or shocked) by the tactile. “Such an experience of shock, Benjamin says, interrupts cognition, and leads the spectator to conclude, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” (8)

For Merleau-Ponty, his film work is rather brief, one essay from 1945, the same year he published Phenomenology of Perception. When he discusses Descartes’s famous passage in the Meditations in which “hats and coats” pass by me on the street, Merleau-Ponty differentiates himself from the 17th-century philosopher and classical psychology by defending gestalt theory. “By resolutely rejecting the notion of sensation it teaches us to stop distinguishing between signs and their significance, between what is sensed and what is judged,” he writes (104). While many current psychologists might not recognize this thought as their own, Merleau-Ponty held a chair of child psychology at the Sorbonne and is often misread in philosophy circles. Reading this essay helps repair his view of how film as perceptual object follows a “temporal gestalt.” He finds much meaning in cinematographic rhythm: “Since a film consists not only of montage (the selection of shots or views, their order and length) but also of cutting (the selection of scenes or sequences, and their order and length), it seems to be an extremely complex form inside of which a very great number of actions and reactions are taking place at every moment.” (107) The rhythm exists as much for images as sounds, Merleau-Ponty thinks, and what both of these contains is “expressive force.” If Bergson seems as much a biologist as philosopher and Adorno bends his analysis towards sociology, Benjamin toward literary theory (as we now call it), then Merleau-Ponty is the psychologist of the group. The sight and sound together bring a “new whole” just as reading each of these thinkers separately allows us to think about the film in discrete but overlapping ways. Cinematography gains true allies if it is to be both critiqued and appreciated, and it requires the film maker(s) as much as the audience to recognize this. These first four chapters set the stage for the whole, encompassing 1907-1945, and alongside Kul-Want’s introduction (see 108) provide us enough context to see where the rest of 20th century film analysis will go.

The next five chapters, encompassing 1970-1985, take a leap since nothing from the period of Krakauer among others is included here. Jean Baudrillard’s “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil” (1970) contains a detailed discussion of the film, The Student of Prague (1913, 1926). When teaching this chapter in a philosophy of film class, most students really resonated with this film and analysis. The plot is a recognizable one: a student sells his image to the Devil in order to be accepted and to have pleasure. How one sees oneself in the mirror by means of commodity culture shapes one’s identity and the more we buy an image of ourselves the more we are alienated from ourselves. Baudrillard writes, “The mirror image here symbolically represents the meaning of our acts. These build up around us a world that is in our image. The transparency of our relation to the world is expressed rather well by the individual’s unimpaired relation to his image in a mirror: the faithfulness of that reflection bears witness, to some degree, to a real reciprocity between the world and ourselves.” (117) Since marketing has become so powerful, even Baudrillard thinks this modern Faustian story is outdated since there is no originary subject from which we are alienated. The bargain with the devil is so complete that there is no going back to some authentic self free of the market. “For Baudrillard, the devil in these fables can be read as the capitalist system of commodification, while the loss of the protagonists’ likenesses (in other words, their very souls) to the devil represents the alienation and objectivization of labor power in the market place, ‘the image is not lost or abolished by chance: it is sold.’” (114) The more one buys, the more one is alienated. The dramatic demonstration of this alienated human being “is a being turned inside out, changed into something evil, into its own enemy, set against itself. This is, on another level, the process Freud describes in repression.” (119) This is what drives a human or a culture to its death or to madness. But it is still possible, says Baudrillard to save one’s soul. We have dominated nature so completely, our sexual drives and human relations, “including even fantasies…is taken over by that logic…in which everything is spectacularized…there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense.” (120-1) We are purely and entirely haunted by this ancestral fable, the Devil being just a filmic memory of what used to be, “there is only a shop window—the site of consumption, in which the individual no longer produces his own reflection, but is absorbed into the order of signifiers of social status, etc.” (121)

Luce Irigaray, in “The Looking Glass, From the Other Side,” achieves a new language in speaking of film, exemplifying l’écriture feminine through what Kul-Want calls “performative writing.” This chapter, originally published in 1973, becomes the first in her This Sex Which Is Not One and provides a fine-grained and profound analysis of the film The Surveyors (Les Arpenteurs, 1972). A review such as this cannot do justice to her style. Irigaray’s lyrical form, displaying women’s libidinal desire and gaze, cannot be that of the surveyor in Soutter’s film and “is rooted in a critique of patriarchy and its conception of identity as formed by means of a metaphysical, structural opposition between the One and its lack.” (124) Such thinking needs to be dissolved, says Irigaray, “conceiv[ing] of the notion of woman as a radical absence of identity—zero rather than One—for which there is no definition.” (ibid.) The point of a woman discovering herself without seeing herself through the man’s gaze:

So at four o’clock sharp, the surveyor goes into her house. And since a surveyor needs a pretext to go into someone’s house, especially a lady’s, he’s carrying a basket of vegetables. From Lucien. Penetrating into ‘her’ place under cover of somebody else’s name, clothes, love. For the time being, that doesn’t seem to bother him. He opens the door, she’s making a phone call. To her fiancé. Once again he slips in between them, the two of them. […] Does his intervention succeed? Or does he begin to harbor a vague suspicion that she is not simply herself? He looks for a light. To hide his confusion, fill in the ambiguity. Distract her by smoking. She doesn’t see the lighter, even though it’s right in front of her… (127)

The analysis of this scene of The Surveyors points to missed and captured attention, unfettered desire, and the subtleties of consent and patriarchy brought into the light. The play of characters, male and female, stand in for mirrors, front and back. Here is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the other side. As Kul-Want perceives,“[W]oman puts into question all prevailing economies and their calculations since ‘she’ does not possess an identity and nor does ‘she’ lack one.” (17)

Jean-François Lyotard claims that the importance of movement in cinema has two forms, a static and an excessive, and that even the gaze is not simple voyeurism. As in “gaps, jolts, postponements, losses, and confusions,” the pyrotechnics of film ensure that the “entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum be promoted, raised, displayed, and burned in vain.” (145, 143) The static movement, however, is not only immobilizing since the image “give[s] rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis.” (149) Crucial to his line of analysis is the point of view of the director, how the director sees the thing which we wishes to represent in terms of these varied movements. Cinematography, then, captures e-motion in the way that Agamben in a later chapter will describe gesture. They are each in their own way expanding upon Merleau-Ponty’s “understanding of the genealogy of the Kantian philosophy of subsumption beyond Descartes, proposing that it underlies the very notion of identity in the West as this pertains to all aspects of subjective experience and thought.” (14) As in Žižek’s analysis below, and following Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the “unfettered libidinal drives” and “unconscious investments—formless movements of jouissance—are denied by the culture industries in their relentless interpellation of the consumer.” (16) For the sake of space, I will not discuss the two chapters on Deleuze here, but Kul-Want’s selections and introductory material are really valuable for the student trying to approach these themes for the first time.

Philosopher, literary critic, and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva may help with some of this frustration of understanding impenetrable thoughts in her chapter, “The Malady of Grief: Duras,” taken from her book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987). Along with Cixous and Irigaray, Kristeva has done more regarding the term jouissance than almost anyone, barring possibly Lacan. “Such jouissance in these contexts is violent and painful and yet, part of the violence of this experience, its excess, is that it is also joyful and ecstatic.” (200) Grief encompasses the experience of watching a film and the “despoliation of nature” (202). Kristeva is interested in interrogating the existence of states largely overlooked: “Psychosis, depression, manic-depressive states, borderline states, false selves.” Among others, Dostoyevsky and Hans Holbein are inspirations for her work. Another person she believes to have looked into grief is Marguerite Duras, whose script for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), allows one to think about postwar melancholy and the future of our emptiness as a national and global community.

Slavoj Žižek looks at Hitchcock through a Lacanian lens. He doesn’t repeat here his analysis in the documentaries, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and Ideology, but supplements them. Hitchcock’s storytelling pervades what Žižek calls the “continuous filmic gaze” (226), that is, referring to the title of this chapter which originates in Racine’s Phèdre, “In his bold gaze my ruin is writ large.” While much of this chapter is an analysis of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s earlier film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), is also discussed. What Žižek tries to show, in Kul-Want’s words, is how in the latter film “the window function as a symbolic screen lining ‘diegetic reality’ and thwarting the Real, while the writing upon the screen are signifiers […] —that is, symptoms— of a subjective void that cannot be framed and represented but around which signification revolves: in this instance the vanished lady. […] As Lacan says, language speaks (ça parle, it speaks) of an absence within itself.” (220) The narrative of desire is that we are always already driven and will be forever by different objects, different stories. Curiosity for the new and the hidden accentuate this desire. When we want to see more than we are allowed to see by the gaze that is all powerful, our ruin is writ large. The reality of what we are looking at destroys us. “In the guise of the Other’s gaze,” he concludes,

Hitchcock’s entire universe is founded upon this complicity between ‘absolute Otherness,’ epitomized by the Other’s gaze into the camera, and the viewers look—the ultimate Hegelian lesson of Hitchcock is that the place of absolute transcendence, of the Unrepresentable which eludes diegetic space, coincides with the absolute immanence of the viewer reduced to pure gaze. (234)

Norman of Psycho is “the quintessence of the disembodied drive” (22), but the filmic gaze points beyond to the space between the symbolic and the Real. The themes of desire, otherness, and ideology are brought together and yet hidden from our view.

The sheer amount of analysis of film can become overwhelming. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s chapter, “And Life Goes On,” the emphasis is on “ideas of withdrawal, spacing, and separation.” (241) The film Nancy uses to show this is by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Life and Nothing More (1992). Following the earthquake and the men who watch football mentioned in the first paragraph above, the film reveals how the flow of life continues after mourning and catastrophe. The automobile is a major character in the film (“it moves by itself, it moves ahead, outside of itself, it carries what presents itself, toilet seat or stove, occasional passengers…” (248), as is the landscape and the rubble. In addition to human interaction, the villages have been broken by faults, both inside and between. Nevertheless, “the film remains a film, and never lets us forget it—precisely by means of its contrasts and its insistence on the framing—always the car, its windows, its doors, and the sides of the road, always on the verge of being out of focus; but also and just as well the patient arrangement of everything…[as] a document about ‘fiction’: not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images.” (249) This film between documentary and fiction does not Orientalize or Romanticize. Rather, “[i]t is their simultaneous continuation and the continuation of each other: the road, the automobile, the image, the gaze” that goes on like “the vast, permanent expanse of the countryside and its people.”

The right to tell one’s story and the search for story is behind much of 20th century film and philosophy. In Contesting Tears, Stanley Cavell analyses American films from the 1930s and 1940s that concern themselves with “the female protagonists [who] desire recognition from their partners, not just in the private, domestic sphere of their lives, but in the public realm too.” (18) Unlike Laura Mulvey’s famous “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975) Cavell defends the gaze as when the protagonist of Stella Dallas (1937) “watches her daughter through a window that is framed like the proverbial cinematic silver screen.”  How marriage, divorce, and finding one’s father or mother can be both Freudian and reconciling in a peaceful rather than conflictual way allows one to mirror filmic selves by recognizing aspects of characters (for example, Greta Garbo in Camille, 1936) who find themselves in the film story that reinvents “love [as] mysterious, in its crossing of torture and bliss.” (268) A definition of marriage as a “meet and happy conversation” defended by Cavell through two genres of film where the distinction between desire and law in relation to the past and memory becomes elemental in understanding power relations. In one of the best passages if Contesting Tears, Cavell writes, “the struggle between the sexes can play itself out without interruption (for example, by children, or by economic need), on the sublime level of difference mutually desired and comically overcome. In the melodramas the education of the woman is still at issue, but within their mood of heavy irony, since her (superior, exterior) knowledge becomes the object-as prize or as victim-of the man’s fantasy, who seeks to share its secrets (Now, Voyager), to be ratified by it (Letter from an Unknown Woman), to escape it (Stella Dallas), or to destroy it (Gaslight), where each objective is (generically) reflected in the others…” (265) There are very few American authors on film who can measure up to many of the philosophers in this book, but Cavell can.

In the last four chapters, we are brought from the 20th into the 21st century. Jacques Rancière analyses one film in detail, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1955). The film is a fable of “the bodily movements and exchange of glances that cast these schemers into always unstable relationships of inferiority or superiority.” (276) Each of the characters produces a mask to hide their own power. The way in which film is capable of reproducing this fable contrasts Deleuze’s account since for Rancière, “[film] is composed of a constant tension between classical narrative construction, ultimately derived from Aristotle’s idea of a ‘story well told’ (muthos), and its visual and sensate affects that have the potential to exceed signification (opsis).” (26) This means that cinema not only reproduces ideology, but potentially arrests it such as when “the murderer stands like a parent beside a young girl in front of a shopwindow…for a few moments, these scenes in front of shopwindow displays are not simply pauses or moments of rest in the narrative but an ‘empty time, the lost time of a stroll or the suspended time of an epiphany’ that changes the very meaning of the notion of an ‘episode.’” (272) The notion of mimesis as in any way linear is put into question. Lang inverts Aristotle. The notion of the gaze becomes a point of dissension and yet a “change from ignorance to knowledge” (in the Aristotelian sense of recognition) requires a comprehension of Oedipus Rex: “here’s the man that was the child.” (277) The lost time of the stroll and the time of projects or the time of narrative are put into opposition. The way in which “speech,” “gaze,” and “hands” operate between the camera and the living room, the murderer and the lover, the projection and maturity all come into focus, as when Rancière describes the scene: “Mobley faces the murderer as he would face his kid brother who never left the stage of intellectual and manual masturbation and of papa and mama stories, and is still wondering whether it was for wanting him that a man and a woman performed the series of movements known as making love.” (285-6) As a German emigrant to America, the scene is one of recognition and disillusionment, knowledge and loss by means of the “new apparatus of the visible that cinema as such has to confront.”

Alain Badiou, in his Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation, also believes that cinema thinks. It can challenge and prod us to move beyond – but it is also a product of capitalism and thus can equally captivate and numb. It is a question of image, time, painting, music, and novelty. All of these are equally political and ethical, since “cinema deals with courage, with justice, with passion, with betrayal.” (297) As examples of this thinking and this challenge, Badiou discusses Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Rebecca, Rosellini’s Journey to Italy, and others. He speaks here of the ‘event’ meaning radical political events such as 1968 and changes within epistemology. “Truth-event” is his word for Plato’s Idea of absolute truth, as Kul-Want points out, and yet for Badiou, “the event is true in an absolute sense because it is radically multiple, irreducible to its causes and conditions.” (292) Like many of the authors in this collection, Badiou believes cinema to have the power and the capacity to transform our fantasies. Cinema as philosophy means the love and the truth contained in its origins, and films such as Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai or Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers exemplify a difference between cinema and philosophy, learning from each other through “rupture.” Cinema is a transformative ‘event’ (as Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer thought) “that both reinforces and reproduces the fantasies of the social imaginary.” (27) By engaging the audience in a struggle against oppression, “something almost miraculous happens when cinema manages to extract a little bit of purity from all that is worst in the world.” (306)

In Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, extracted here, Bernard Stiegler, who passed away tragically while writing this review in 2020, begins by taking up the desire for stories, which he thinks is an ancient desire. Modern society is “animated by the most complex, and most secret, of social movements.” This is precisely what Adorno and Horkheimer mean by culture industry, which now “constitute the very heart of economic development, whose most intimate power is clearly always the most ancient desire of all stories.” All of cinema and media then, for Stiegler, with their “technics of image and sound—now including informatics and telecommunications—re-invent our belief in stories that are now told with remarkable, unparalleled power.” (311) The important point here, which I cannot emphasise enough, is how Stiegler takes up the history of philosophy, including Plato, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and others alongside Simondon and Leroi-Gourhan, and reads the history of technology, that is, the relationship of techne and episteme, and considers how it affects our consciousness, including and perhaps especially children (see his Taking Care of the Youth). He writes, “Consciousness is affected in general by phenomena presented to it, but this affect occurs in a special way with temporal objects. This is important to us in the current investigation because cinema, like melody, is a temporal object. Understanding the singular way in which temporal objects affect consciousness means beginning to understand what gives cinema its specificity, its force, and its means of transforming life leading, for example, to the global adoption of ‘the American way of life.’” (318) Consciousness, and thus the gaze, is already cinematographic, Stiegler claims, combining a form of montage through a unified flux. Stiegler’s use of films like Fellini’s Intervista, Kazan’s America, America, or Resnais’s My American Uncle are cases in point “in which memory is a dense fabric of cinematographic citations.” (324-5) Kul-Want describes this process in the following way: “for Stiegler, the flow of temporality involved in listening to music or watching a film is always a matter of ‘imaginative’ and selective recombinations of experience through what Stiegler refers to as a tertiary form of retention, that is, in actual fact, constitutive of primary and secondary forms of retention. Such shifts in consciousness depend on the important fact that memory is a process of forgetting.” (310) Our notions of consciousness are not only impacted by what we watch and take in technologically in our everyday lives, but also by what we have forgotten as when we watch a film we’ve seen before and do not remember what happens. New stories then emerge such that the “American mythmaking” or Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Gone with the Wind (1939) become more real than reality, a “symbol of freedom and hope…by virtue of being a land of emigrants who do not have a mythical shared oriding upon which a regulated, common future can be founded.” (311) This essay by Stiegler can be compared to that of Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture”, which Kul-Want points out “is also informed by the reproducible as a singular event involving forgetting and loss.” (20) For Agamben, then, we can even unlearn gestures and bodily postures or movements due to this forgetting. A decomposition of film, as in Marey, Muybridge, or the Lumière brothers, in which 24 frames per second define movement, intersects with experimental psychology and Nietzsche’s “ballet of a humankind” (213) The image is both broken off from and includes the whole. “And when the age realized this, it then began (but it was too late!) the precipitous attempt to recover the lost gestures in extremis. The dance of Isadora Duncan and Sergei Diaghilev, the novel of Proust, the great Jugendstil poetry from Pascoli to Rilke, and finally and most exemplarily, the silent movie trace the magic circle in which humanity tried for the last time to evoke what was slipping through its fingers forever.” (213) Cinema, says Agamben, is gesture and not image, thus belonging to ethics and politics.

The final essay, by Kaja Silverman, brings us back to where we began in Bergson. When Bergson wrotes, “What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions…from this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice,” (38) the same can be said for the gaze. In Silverman’s analysis, using Proust alongside Sartre and Merleau-Ponty as well as the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, the gaze (le regard) is transformed into ‘the miracle of analogy’. Merleau-Ponty’s word for this is chiasmus, which Silverman says is the “name for the ontological thread stitching the seer to what is seen, the toucher to what is touched, and sight and visibility to touch and tactility.” (331) This intertwining at the heart of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible means that there is not an “I” cut off from another: we are touched when looking and art allows us, says Proust, “to emerge from ourselves.” (332) The entire history of film (and of philosophy) can be contained in this imagined image of the gaze, to be able to see oneself through another lens transforms the self and the other. Silverman’s use of Ackerman’s The Captive (2000), a take on Proust’s À la recherche, vol. 5, explores “non-invasive” sexual pleasure and the meaning loving a lot, or loving well. In place of possessive grasping or obsessive jealousy, the camera “relies heavily upon the shot/reverse shot formation.” (336) While this technique is typically used to construct sexual difference, concealing the presence of the camera, Ackerman uses it to reveal the fourth wall: “Ariane and Andrée are separated from Simon by the fourth wall, so they shouldn’t be able to return his look, but they miraculously do. After he acknowledges the interdependence of his desire for Ariane, and hers for Andrée, and affirms the girls’ right to say ‘je vous aime bien’ to each other, they respond by smiling first at each other, and then at him.” Ever since Ackerman’s La chambre (1972), she has proven herself as a filmmaker of extraordinary innovation and a living incarnation of the miracle of analogy; though Ackerman passed away in 2015 we may still “see” her work. “Acgkerman shows these two looks meeting at the site of Ariane’s body, like the landscape invoked by Proust, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. If we were to translate this meeting into language, it would read: ‘je…vous…je vous.’” (337)

All of the themes of 20th century film and philosophy are contained brilliantly within Kul-Want’s collection. I cannot speak highly enough of its range and depth. Beginning with Bergson’s 1907 Creative Evolution and ending with Silverman’s 2015 The Miracle of Analogy, with Christopher Kul-Want’s aid all along, we can follow a trajectory of thinking and viewing without losing ourselves in the mindlessly numbing, not to mention impenetrable, weeds of the gaze.

Adam Lovasz: Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present, Lexington Books, 2021

Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present Book Cover Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present
Adam Lovasz
Lexington Books
2021
Hardback $120.00 • £92.00
332