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Challenging Plato’s Prejudice Against Imitative Art

An excerpt from ‘Plato and the Moving Image’

Philosophical engagement with film has intensified greatly in especially the past two decades, especially in the Anglo phone world.1 In a trilogy of recent works, D.N. Rodowick (2007, 2014, 2015) engages critically with this conversation, contextualizing it by placing cinema studies within the development of theory as a whole, beginning with the earliest days of cinema and theory in its modern sense at the turn of the 20th century. Taken as a whole, these works suggest, as Rushton (2015: 239) puts it, that “a gesture towards philosophy might be one way to carve out a destiny for theory after theory.” The work of Carroll (1988, 1996, 2008) and others who call for a “post-theory” cinema studies that resisted the then-dominant “film theory” approach built on methods and concepts from (especially French) psychoanalytic and Marxist thought thus comes to be situated as, on the one hand, raising important questions about the commitments and presuppositions with which discursive thought turns to cinematic experience, but also perhaps being overly skeptical about the possibilities of theorizing (or “doing theory”), or overly confident about the possibility of accessing what happens in films and in the sensorial response to films, with or without such theorizing.

For all that remains contested concerning the relationship of philosophy and film, and the status of the term “theory” in that regard, one principal result of this is the wide acceptance of a way of thinking about cinematic experience and philosophical practice as much more related than previous thought, such that a veritable school of thought has developed that has gone by various names but seems to coalesce around the moniker “film-philosophy.” Many questions remain open both within this school of thought and between its adherents and their critics, not the least of which is what precisely cinema is and what is the understanding of philosophy and philosophical practice under which cinema can be said not merely to contribute to philosophy but to do it. For all that, film-philosophy can be understood to advance what Sorfa (2016: 3) calls “the strong argument that cinema can do philosophy in a way that is unique to the medium,” which entails as he notes that “film is not only capable of presenting extended thought experiments or illustrating philosophical concepts, but is philosophy itself:”

Finding ourselves in agreement with Sorfa in this regard, we aim to press the current boundaries of this discourse in two ways. First, with respect to “the how question,” we join recent thinkers who call into question the ways in many participants in debates about film and philosophy subsume film’s capacity to philosophize under a prior understanding of what it means to do philosophy. For those who adhere to this sort of view, the question “how does film philosophize?” tends to be come understood as: how does film (or how do films, or how does a certain film) help to make, exemplify, clarify, or illustrate some argument, which argument can and must be fully dissociable from the cinematic context in order to count as the “philosophic content” at stake. Against such a view, Sinnerbrink (2011a: 136) argues: “The idea of film as philosophy thus raises the question of what counts as ‘philosophy”‘ and “prompts us to consider the ways in which the encounter between film and philosophy might help us overturn the traditional Platonic prejudice against art.” We agree that it is high time to reconsider what counts as philosophy, and in particular to resist the reduction of philosophy to argument and of philosophical means to abstract language. Precisely for this reason, though, we hope in this volume to call into question the idea that the “skeptics” who would deny film’s capacity to philosophize in its own right have their source in Plato.

Plato himself, in his philosophical and artistic practice, did not (we shall show) reduce philosophy to argument and did not reduce its means to abstract language. Indeed, as Badiou (2000: 101) responding to Deleuze’s reception of Plato, which has been so influential in film-philosophy – is at pains to show, there must “first of all” be a “deconstruction of Platonism” such that we recognize that while there may be a so-called Platonic prejudice against art of the sort Sinnerbrink cites, Plato himself does not share this prejudice. Specifically, once we possess a deeper understanding of the means as well as the ends of Plato’s representation of images in the dialogues than one usually finds in both modern and postmodern interpreters of Plato, we will see that, as Ling (2010) describes it, what we most require now in thinking Plato and cinema together is a response to “the properly Platonic need to reconfigure the place of truth in cinema.”

When we attempt such a reconfiguration, we first of all challenge the status quo in debates about film’s philosophical potential. At present, we can characterize a “moderate” position, such as that of Wartenberg (2007), who believes that film philosophizes through its contributions to argument, positioned between two other positions: the skeptic and the extremist. In this layout, the skeptics agree with the moderates that argument is the medium of philosophy but do not accept that film makes the contributions to argument the moderates claim; while extremists deny that argument is the sole basis of philosophical insight. If we succeed in this volume, then the field is dramatically recast. At present, Plato is often seen to fall among the skeptics who would deny any philosophical character for cinematic works of art, based primarily on the thoroughgoing critique of mimetic art in the early moments of the Republic. We hope to show that, at least with respect to his own artistic practice not just as an author of dialogues but also as a composer and arranger of myths that highlight images, Plato ought actually to be counted among the putative extremists.

This excerpt from Plato and the Moving Image is published with permission from, and gratitude to, Brill. It is available to purchase on the Brill website here, and on Amazon here.

Shai Biderman teaches film and television studies at Tel Aviv University and Beit Berl College. He is the co-editor of Mediamorphosis: Kafka and the Moving Image and The Philosophy of David Lynch.

Michael Weinman is a professor of philosophy at Bard College, Berlin. Michael’s faculty website can be accessed here .

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Shai Biderman

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