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.
“I believe that if you look at the writings expressly directed against Wagner, and especially The Case of Wagner, you could readily extrapolate what he [Nietzsche] would have said against Heidegger. And I think if you could actually perform this feat of imagination that I am proposing to you, and envisage such a Nietzschean critique of Heidegger, then for penetrating insight it would surpass anything which I can offer you with my modest powers in these lectures.” (104)
These intriguing remarks, set forth by Theodor W. Adorno in his series of lectures delivered in Frankfurt during the winter semester of 1960/61, can be regarded as the touchstone of Ontology and Dialectics. This lecture course of 1960/61 – and the three Vorlesungen delivered at the Collège de France in March 1961 – first published in 2002 under the title Ontologie und Dialektik, excels in presenting a subtle analogy between Nietzsche’s positions concerning Richard Wagner’s music as a cultural expression of décadence and his remarks on Heidegger’s fundamental ontology as a degenerate movement or tendency against Aufklärung. As presented in Der Fall Wagner (1881), the Nietzschean formulation of Wagner’s music as a “disease” affecting German culture is evoked in order to analyse the philosophical observations on Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno in Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno’s incisive observations, fundamental ontology, as defined by Heidegger, manifests a specifically German posture – considered by Adorno as profoundly deplorable – against Enlightenment ideology. As Adorno asserts, fundamental ontology is a philosophical movement which can be characterized as an abominably vile counter-Enlightenment. The Nietzschean analysis regarding the infamous power of seduction involving Wagner’s music, from Adorno’s point of view, is a “Heideggerian disease” because it profoundly affects the German academic world, which represents a new philosophical movement that is intensely respected and greatly venerated. The bizarreness of this Heideggerian spell, or disease, under which the German intelligentsia seemed to succumb, is often considered by Adorno:
“[…] for in Germany there are now hardly any responsible academic positions or professorial chairs in philosophy that do not feel obliged at least to show that they are somehow worthy of what has been achieved by Heidegger and Jaspers. And even those thinkers who for political and other reasons are extremely critical of both philosophers, but especially of Heidegger, still appear to be captivated – in a way I find really hard to understand since I have never experienced this spell myself – by this kind of thinking and seem unable to sever the umbilical cord entirely in this regard.” (100-101)
According to Adorno, fundamental ontology, Heidegger’s philosophical project, can be regarded as a philosophical tendency which owes its effect and possesses its forces through opposition to idealism in general. It is an anti-subjectivism; in fact, the philosophical question concerning fundamental ontology may be stated in a variety of ways. Adorno puts it thus: fundamental ontology is essentially an anti-subjectivist. Fundamental ontology stands in contrast to a philosophy which remains essentially devoted to a preliminary question, namely the question of how knowledge is possible at all. The coarse obliteration of the philosophical reflection upon the subjective mediation of knowledge and the epistemological relevance of the conceptual thought represents the chief theoretical posture of Heidegger’s ontology as conceived by Adorno.
Fundamental ontology is unequivocally the chief subject matter of Ontology and Dialectics by Theodor W. Adorno. The relevance of such a book – essentially a compilation of 23 Vorlesungen delivered in Frankfurt in 1960/61 and in Paris, at the Collège de France, in March 1961 (we refer to the last three lectures included in the book) – can be described in accordance with the consideration that the positions expressed in Ontology and Dialectics represent as an initial discussion of the Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno. It should be observed that Ontology and Dialectics presents a philosophical anticipation of the incisively penetrating analysis of the Heideggerian ontology which, ultimately, forms the core of The Jargon of Authenticity, published in 1964. According to the “Editor’s Foreword” included in this edition, written by Rolf Tiedemann, the book Ontology and Dialectics, which expresses the philosophical antipathy to the ontological movement emanating from the Black Forest, evokes a project which Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht had already begun to pursue around 1930, not long after the publication of Being and Time. The project they sought to pursue was that of “demolishing Heidegger” [den Heidegger zu zertrümmern]. The intention of “demolishing Heidegger” pervades Adorno’s work and thought, especially after his return from exile to Germany. As Rolf Tiedemann elucidates, within the German philosophical academic circle developed after the end of the Third Reich, during the political and social process of re-establishing democracy in Germany, Adorno was widely regarded as the pre-eminent intellectual opponent to Heidegger – and Adorno accepted this incumbency. To lay emphasis on the fact that Adorno’s Complete Writings comprise almost 600 references to the name of Heidegger (exceeded in number only by those to Walter Benjamin) is not superfluous. Clearly then, “demolishing Heidegger” was an Adornian philosophical project. Nevertheless, the Adornian critique of Heidegger is not an aggressive refutation of the fundamental ontology that is without merit, nor is it intended to chiefly condemn the political positions adopted by Heidegger. The Adornian objections to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology that are most important are those which excel in revealing the dangerous political and social implications of a philosophical tendency – developed in accordance with the refusal of the cognitive sophistication of philosophy – that, in its instauration of odd cults and bizarre interests, promoted the pseudo-ideal of pre-Socratic irrationalism.
The title of the book, Ontology and Dialectics, alludes to Adorno’ intention of presenting a philosophical contrast between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Adorno’s own conception of dialectical thought as negative dialectics. This intention is subtly illustrated in a story involving Gustav Mahler and his literary taste.
“It is well known that Gustav Mahler was passionately interested in Dostoyevsky, who stood for something quite different in the years around 1890 than he does of Moeller van den Bruck. On one occasion, during an excursion with Schoenberg and his pupils, Mahler is said to have advised them to spend less time studying counterpoint and more time reading Dostoyevsky. And Webern is supposed to have responded with heroic timidity: ‘Pardon, Herr Direktor, but we have Strindberg’.” (1)
As Adorno explains, this story is probably apocryphal; nevertheless, this episode involving Gustav Mahler’s literary taste is mentioned by Adorno as a witty elucidation of the relationship between the new fundamental ontology of Heidegger (or, we might say, Dostoyevsky’s new literature) and the tradition of the German dialectic thought (or, we might say, Strindberg’s thought). However, the emphasis upon the philosophical opposition between the new fundamental ontology and the traditional dialectic thought does not form the heart of Ontology and Dialectics. It is pertinent to observe that this series of lectures, published under the title Ontology and Dialectics, precedes the three lecture courses which form the book Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s masterpiece, published in 1966. The thorough theoretical presentation of such a philosophical project – the delineation of the philosophical singularity and distinctiveness of the negative dialectic thought – is indeed the chief subject matter and the central line of thought developed by Adorno in Negative Dialectics, written between 1964 and 1966. It is worth noting that Ontology and Dialectics, which precedes Negative Dialectics, is especially devoted to the philosophical condemnation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.
At any rate, as Adorno conceives it, the concept of Being, in Heideggerian terms, is not actually a concept at all. In fact, according to Adorno’s reading of Heidegger’s ontology, the concept of Being is not supposed to be the highest abstraction, the supra-concept reached by omitting all particular individuation, all particular determination. In approaching such a philosophical account of Being, Adorno intends to lay emphasis upon the fact that the Heideggerian ontological positions should be sharply distinguished from other kinds of ontology – such as the concept of ontology introduced by Husserl, the ontological project developed by Nicolai Hartmann, or the ontological positions advanced by the neo-scholastic tradition. The relentless obliteration of the conceptual dimension of Being defines the decided difference between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and the traditional ontologies. As Adorno clearly explains, Being, in Heideggerian terms, is supposed to be what is utterly prior and primary, that which is highest and most constitutive. The question regarding Being – over against the highest regions, the highest and most universal concepts of all possible classes of beings – is what is decisive here, precisely because it involves the problem of the possibility of ontology as such, namely whether such a pure doctrine of being can be thought as such independently of the doctrine regarding the order of beings. From Heidegger’s point of view, those doctrines devoted to the ontological delineation of the order of beings – those doctrines which totally disregard the benedictory ontological difference between Being and beings, those ontologies of the ontic developed in accordance to systems of blind conceptual categories, fundamental principles and axioms – it is these doctrines imply an ontological questioning in the naïve sense. They do not represent, as Heidegger insists, the essential task of ontology understood in the radical sense – and this is precisely what fundamental ontology is.
The cult of the concept of absolute originality, the cult of the Firstness, is one of the philosophical oddities bound up with the persistent assertion of such an ontological questioning in the radical sense, as advanced by Heidegger. According to fundamental ontology and, especially, according to its chief claim concerning the ontological difference between Being and beings, any approach which does not involve the priority of Being with respect to beings is already rejected ab ovo and defamed as inferior, as a failure, as a betrayal of the real question. As Adorno asserts: “we are constantly presented with the same invocation, variation or repetition of this premise, namely the priority of Being with respect to beings” (22). Consequently, in repudiating the conceptual sophistication of the traditional philosophical thought (and of the philosophical ontologies), Heideggerian ontology fails to consider that the concept of Being itself is not the original question which fundamental ontology would have us believe. As Adorno attempts to explain – this is, unfortunately a very laconic explanation – the concept of Being deserves to be regarded philosophically as a concept of reflection in the sense of those concepts subjected to criticism by Kant in his “Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection” when they are hypostasized – in other words, when they are treated as an expression of true beings as such. On this view of things, the concept of Being is not something very ancient but something rather late and, correlatively, developed in accordance with the conceptual sophistication of critical philosophical thought. It should be observed that, from Adorno’s point of view, the concept of Being is a result, a historical result, attained only through a process, which, in turn, can be characterized as a conceptual and critical philosophical process. The concept of Being, in Adornian terms, is, in fact, understood philosophically as a concept – the highest abstraction, understood in accordance with the development of the conceptual sophistication of philosophical thought. It is not properly a Kantian perspective. This concept of Being as the highest abstraction is already present in Plato and in Aristotle, as Adorno claims, despite the brevity and the laconism of his elucidations.
It is certainly worth noting that Adorno’s reading of Heidegger excels in presenting a collection of problems, ambiguities and contradictions which profoundly involves fundamental ontology. According to Adorno, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology comprises a double refusal: in effect, fundamental ontology is a philosophical tendency developed in accordance with its emphasis upon the rejection of both conceptuality – it is pertinent to mention the delineation of the concept of Being as a non-concept – and reality – and it is convenient to consider the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings. Fundamental ontology can be described, as Adorno suggests, by its attempt to escape both from mere conceptuality and from any reality simply or immediately accepted as such. This double approach, this double front against a philosophy of concepts and against a philosophy of reality, is precisely what characterises the efforts of fundamental ontology. However, as Adorno elucidates, Heidegger incessantly fails to attain these philosophical intentions.
The Heideggerian cult of language, or the fascination with language, has tremendous significance for Heideggerian ontology. Language as a mediation of Being, or language as the possibility of aletheia and the unveiling of Being, is not philosophically compatible with a coarse rejection of conceptual thought. As Adorno proposes, Heidegger continuously disregards the fact that the concept of Being, in terms of its origin and its legitimacy, is directly bound up with the categorial structure of language. Heidegger’s ontology perniciously explores such a quid pro quo involving Being as a concept – Being as an element of language, entity, and even Being as a non-concept – which cannot be expressed through mere meanings insofar as it is not exhausted by conceptual terms nor by subjectively instituted concepts, and is cut off from conceptual thought. Nevertheless, such a remarkable ambiguity between Being as concept and Being as a what-is-beyond-concept is not acknowledged by fundamental ontology as a deficiency at all, as Adorno explains. On the contrary, it is chalked up as a positive and counted as credit. Why? The enigma, or the touchstone, underlying Heidegger’s pernicious ambiguity is taken as a venerable philosophical position that proceeds from a peculiar account of language that is incessantly proposed by Heidegger: the idea that language as a true, pure and absolute entity, or the idea of language as the domain of the unveiling of Being, is that of an immediate medium, organon or ‘complexus’ of truth that is deprived of any conceptual elements or aspects – and, as Adorno elucidates, also deprived of subjectivity and historicity. Hence, the concept of Being – in accordance with such a conception of language – deserves to be inexorably regarded as an entity beyond mere conceptuality.
In presenting this Heideggerian ambiguity, Adorno reflects more closely upon fundamental ontology as an anti-subjectivism by apparently overcoming subjectivism and the spurious claim that philosophy has somehow escaped its imprisonment within subjectivity (and within conceptual and categorial thought) through this new ontological project. This is intimately bound up with the Heideggerian quid pro quo, acknowledged and presented by fundamental ontology as an element of apparently higher dignity, as “one of the strongest seductions of this philosophy” (46), which arises from “that wavering, negative and inarticulate character of this talk of being itself” (46). Regarding the Heideggerian refusal of reality and the abandonment of the empirical dimension – a claim which involves and justifies the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings and, correctively, the hypostatization of the word ‘Being’ (by supressing the dialectic of Being and beings) – Adorno draws attention to a conspicuously Heideggerian philosophical posture: the act of ontologizing the ontic; the repeated ontologising of ontic beings, namely, the human being itself. The anti-subjectivism which involves fundamental ontology is, in effect, the central axis treated by Adorno – that of the ontological conception regarding the human being as Dasein, which permits an elimination of the subjective character, now turned into a determination of Being. As Adorno explains, the ontological interest is profoundly incompatible with the subjective reflection itself. The subjective dimensions of reflection, spontaneity, consciousness and self-consciousness, and, by extension, the subjective dimensions of critical, conceptual and discursive thought, are all totally avoided and obliterated in order to sustain an ontological conception of Dasein as a ‘mode of being’ or, in a developed sense, a “shepherd of being”, where the latter serves as a primitive agrarian metaphor set forth by Heidegger in Letter on Humanism, and serves as an amusing object of Adorno’s attention.
According to Adorno, Heidegger sets out to extirpate subjectivity by transforming it into the scene or arena of ontology. In effect, this ontological kind of thinking, for which Being appears or manifests itself in Dasein, naturally evokes something related to subjectivity; but, at the same time, it loses what was so decisive for this subjective form of thought – in other words, it loses that moment of subjectivity that appears in Kantian philosophy under the name of ‘spontaneity’ and in Hegelian philosophy, under the name of ‘labour’. In fundamental ontology – and this is, as Adorno explains, the phenomenological legacy of the doctrine which Husserl had already developed, namely the idea of the pure intuiting of the thing in question – subjectivity is actually introduced as a kind of pure receptivity; subjectivity becomes that to which Being manifests itself, yet without that moment of activity, or that ‘function’, as Kant also occasionally puts it, properly being acknowledged. Consequently, a philosophical relevant determination of the Heideggerian project consists in “taking up that moment of reflection and subjectivity which is directly opposed to the ontological approach and integrate it into his original project by turning it into a mode of objectivity, turning ‘existence’ into Seinsweise, or ‘mode of being’” (82). It is the absolute precedence of Being over beings, the total precedence of Being over human existence, that concerns us here. This structure – that a particular being is itself ontological – is the defining and distinctive touchstone of the doctrine of Dasein, and it implicitly expresses Heidegger’s intention of avoiding the conflation of his own analysis of Being with the ‘philosophy of existence’ associated with Kierkegaard or Jaspers. Ultimately, as Adorno suggests, this ontologizing of the ontic, this reduction of the ontic being to Being, promotes, in an unexpected and ineluctable way, the superfluity and the dissipation of the celebrated ontological difference, which gives rise to the absolute hypostatization of Being. Indeed, Adorno’s acute reading of the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein deserves an extended treatment, for it excels in considering the anti-subjectivism manifested in fundamental ontology. Nevertheless, we venture to say that Adorno disregards the philosophical relevance of the Heideggerian notion of Befindlichkeit as a singular determination of human being, which cannot be reduced to any subjective or discursive determination developed by critical thought.
The Adornian emphasis upon the anti-subjectivist turn introduced by Heidegger’s fundamental ontology represents a crucial element of Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno, this “pseudo-revolutionary form of thought” (121) – which incisively repudiates the axes of modern critical form of thought, declaring itself to be a pre-critical return to naïve realism – expresses “a reactionary mentality” (121), which can be characterized by its philosophical intention of destructing the subjective mediation of thought, the critical moment of thought, in order to extirpate Enlightenment and rational thought. In Adorno’s words, Heidegger’s ontological project imposes itself as a pernicious philosophical tendency which can be described as irrationalism, counter-Enlightenment and, ultimately, return to myth, return to barbarism. In rejecting the question of the mediation of Being, and in repudiating the critical relevance of the thinking subject and the subjective determination of knowledge, Heidegger’s philosophical project, developed in accordance with the veneration of a truth fallen into oblivion (namely Being), expresses an odd return to myth and to fate that elaborates a philosophical project that denigrates philosophizing in favour of a particular relationship to language – an archaic language – that is totally devoted to what is primordial, original or authentic, and, supposedly, purified of conceptual determinations. The analysis of a collection of poems written by Heidegger – characterized by its “inferior character” (162) and “wretchedness” (162) – is an integrate part of Adorno’s emphasis upon the conspicuously archaic moment of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology: the spuriousness of Heidegger’s philosophy and poetry resides in its veneration of an archaic kind of thinking, which manifests an intention to suppress historical and social determinations inextricable to the act of philosophizing.
Regarding Adorno’s remarks on Heidegger’s poems, it is perhaps not superfluous to draw attention to an important aesthetic essay dedicated to Hölderlin’s late poetry: the essay entitled “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry”, written by Adorno in 1963, which is fundamentally devoted to condemn Heidegger’s approach to art, namely to Hölderlin’s poetry; interestingly, according to Adorno, the Heideggerian commentaries on Hölderlin’s poetry reveal the total absence of aesthetic sensitivity towards the poetic object – the lack of an aesthetic organ (Mangel an ästhetischen Organ), as set forth by Adorno in his essay.
It is convenient to take into account the centrality of the concept of Schicksal in Heidegger’s ontology, for it clearly illustrates the intention of supressing the critical dimension of the act of philosophizing in order to establish a reversion to fate and a revocation of rationality and, ultimately, of freedom. In Adorno’s words,
“the concept of fate or destiny here ascribed to ‘being’ is that of a blindly entangled will – for what is ascribed to ‘being’ in this context bears all the marks of irrationality. In other words, ‘being’ is characterized as something utterly obscure that may somehow be intimated and venerated, but about nothing substantive can ever be said. In the first place, you should clearly observe how this very passage moves directly to the concept of Schicksal or fate, and how this concept of fate, even if it is indeed indexed historically, is furnished with that blind and ineluctable character which belongs to the ancient and traditional notion of fate” (117).
The Heideggerian emphasis upon the concepts of time and historicity is actually designed to deceive: the concept of Schicksal – regarded in its philosophical affinities with the concept of Hörigkeit, or ‘obedient hearkening’, a hearkening to Being which sounds like blind submission – defines and determines Heidegger’s form of thinking. It’s worth noting that Schicksal and Hörigkeit represent Heidegger’s condemnation of the critical thought – the critical labour of the conceptual, as Adorno puts it, according to Hegelian positions – regarded by fundamental ontology as a process of philosophical degeneration. Heidegger annuls critical labour, as if philosophy could assume a historical standpoint beyond history; although, philosophy is enjoined to obey history, which is then, like existence, itself ontologized.
The philosophical purpose of Ontology and Dialectics, as announced by Adorno in the first lectures, consists in throwing light upon the philosophical discrepancies, contrasts and oppositions between fundamental ontology and negative dialectics. We conclude that Adorno leaves untouched a philosophical intention of forming the heart of negative dialectics in Ontology and Dialectics, for Adorno passes in silence the chief lines indicative of such a philosophical intention. In the context of Lecture 23, the last lecture of Ontology and Dialectics, there is a philosophical concept under the name “negative dialectics” that is described theoretically by fundamental determinations, but, interestingly, in order to offer a precise theoretical description of negative dialectics, Adorno proposes to consider the most relevant philosophical condemnations advanced against Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, especially the disapproval concerning Heidegger’s project as a philosophical tendency intended to perpetuate mythical thought. Dialectical thought, in its turn, is described as a philosophical attempt, “by means of cunning, the oldest medium of enlightenment” (240) to dissolve the mythical context of nature, to transcend the immediate context of nature without imposing its own domination, the domination of reason – in other words, dialectical thought “attempts to transcend nature without incurring that sacrifice and rage which would merely perpetuate the same context of nature” (240). As Adorno argues, dialectical thought excels in being the acne of enlightenment – the culminating point of conceptual thought – presented in its critical potential to extirpate the mythical context of nature. In accordance with these observations, it is worth noting that Adorno considers the mythical context of nature under the conception of identity – or, identity principle. Indeed, the idea of such a negative dialectics, as delineated and described by Adorno, implies a critique of identity – a critique of mythical forms of thought. It is the philosophical purpose of negative dialectics to abolish the circle of identity and the correlative identity principle. According to negative dialectics, the philosophical procedure of conceptualization is devoted to the determination of the non-identical; the negative element of thought which cannot be entirely tolerated under the identity principle. Such a principle – the identity principle – does not recognize the prominent prerogative of subjectivity or subjective mediation, which consists in determining the non-identical, the negative element of thought, without extirpating it under the logic of conceptual hypostatization.
In conclusion, it is important to lay emphasis on the logic of conceptual hypostatization. As Adorno argues – and this forms the core of the book Negative Dialectics (1966) – negative dialectics attempt to contradict any positive and unconditionally total dialectic elaborated under the identity principle. To distinguish negative dialectics, Adorno’s own philosophical project, from the Hegelian model of dialectics is, indeed, the theoretical axis of Negative Dialectics: the Hegelian elaboration of the supreme concept of Geist as a philosophical bizarreness which, as Adorno states, implies the pernicious sovereignty of the identity principle and its aspiration for (false) totality. Interestingly, in Negative Dialectics, the Hegelian dialectics – regarded as a model of dialectical thought, and not as the dialectical thought par excellence – there is treated by Adorno a degenerative dialectic, which succumbs to the hegemony of the identity principle and, consequently, to the annihilation of the preponderance of the negative elements of thought. According to Adorno, the hypostatization of the concept of Geist as a superlative entity, developed as an absolutization of the concept of subjectivity, clearly illustrates the process of decline of the Hegelian dialectics – a process of decline due to the assumption of the identity principle. It is not, perhaps, philosophically irrelevant to consider a subtle affinity between Hegel’s Geist and Heidegger’s Sein (advanced by Adorno as against the philosophical intention of elaborating supreme concepts, supreme conceptual entities which subsume the ontic or individual elements or realities under an aspiration for total identity), as an incisive disapproval of both Hegel’s dialectics and Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The chief purpose of Adorno’s negative dialectics consists in presenting the philosophical prerogative of subjectivity: subjective mediation as an act of spontaneity devoted to determine the non-identity and the negative elements of thought in order to destroy – through the critical labour of the concept – the identity principle (a mythical principle) which governs conceptualization itself.
Is it possible to abolish the identity principle through the labour of concept? Is it possible to extirpate the supreme conceptual entities, such as absolute subjectivity, or Geist, through the act of subjective spontaneity? To present and consolidate the fundamental lines of thought of negative dialectics with conviction represents a philosophical tour de force developed by Adorno. But, as with all tours de force, we are confronted with confusion, perplexity and uncertainty: How philosophically convincing is negative dialectics, Adorno’s philosophical project? The response should be found not in Ontology and Dialectics, but in Negative Dialectics.