Monday, April 25, 2016

What is Medium? A sketch about a possible debate between Collingwood, Dewey and Heidegger, where Heidegger wins, but only by a nose

We constantly talk about competing philosophical traditions but often hesitate to actually have them come to terms with each other.  For instance Collingwood, Dewey and Heidegger, all writing roughly at the same time, all had a theory about the medium of fine art, one that was pretty central to their theories of art, and yet we see no accounts of the implicit debate between these philosophers (they probably never actually read each other.).  Both Dewey and Heidegger could, for example, be seen as both arguing in a profound way against Collingwood's concept of medium.  For Coillingood, medium is just related to the craft aspect of art, and really has nothing to do with art properly so called, which is to be found in the ideal realm of the mind.   Collingwood is deeply a dualist, although he has some interestingly anti-dualist ways of talking about the creative process in the studio:  he can be deconstructed in this way. For Dewey, by contrast, the relationship between medium and message is much more dynamic, much more difficult to tease apart.  Heidegger would join Dewey in rejecting Collingwood's idea of medium.  He would say that Collingwood's idea is a perfect example of the kind of dualistic way of thinking we find in the tradition of Western metaphysics, where the artwork is something above and beyond the medium, just a matter of applying form to matter.  (Heidegger would have a similar objection to Danto, whose dualism is much like that of Collingwood.)  He would also, I think, argue that Collingwood is too individualistic in his perspective, giving too much emphasis to the artist and too little to the way that Being can come into unconcealment in great art:  "the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work."  But Heidegger would also have a problem with Dewey's conception of medium.  Here the dialogue would probably be more subtle and complex.  Dewey and Heidegger would certainly agree that "there is something stony in a work of architecture."  But Heidegger goes far beyond that, particularly when he talks about the temple.  He says: "The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night."  There is a way in which the medium does not just exemplify itself but also does something to the surrounding environment in terms of the way it is experienced.  When Heidegger asks us to listen to Being he is calling on us to get back to the point where we can experience architecture in precisely this way.  So the material has a quality by which it is inter-animated by its relation to what Heidegger calls "the earth."  As Heidegger puts it "the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear [as it would in Collingwood], but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work's world," where "world" refers to the cultural world context of the work.  Dewey escapes the Collingwoodian trap to the extent that he brings in the notion that the universe serves as a kind of background to our experience of medium:  he is no dualist and usually deconstructs all forms of dualism.  And yet he doesn't go as far as Heidegger in the direction of a kind of religious atheism where the idea of medium becomes totally understood in terms of the earth/world dynamic in which earth is informed by its relationship to world and vice versa.  Today I feel that Heidegger gives us a richer and fuller view of medium than even Dewey.    

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Plato's Analogies of the Sun and the Line Deconstructed

Although deconstructionism is currently unfashionable I continue to find it inspiring as an interpretive methodology that allows for more creativity and depth of reading than one gets in a typical encyclopedia-style or strictly academic understanding.  One of my current projects is to read the great classics of philosophy with the eye of an aesthetician, this including works that do not have clear or obvious aesthetic or art-related passages.  This is related to my larger project of showing that aesthetics should not be considered peripheral to philosophy but rather as absolutely central.  So, to sum up, although Derrida is not fashionable within current aesthetic theory or in philosophy generally, and neither is aesthetics in English-speaking philosophy, I do not think that being fashionable is required.  It is ironic that one of main complaints about Derrida when he was fashionable was that the fashionable seemed to trump the true.  Now that he is not, perhaps we can just use his ideas about interpretation to focus on the true.  

The analogies of "the sun" and "the line," which appear in the Republic, are absolutely central to our understanding of Plato. In this post I will assume that the reader has recently read this material.  I will be mainly using the Reed translation as my point of reference.  The analogies are frequently taught, usually in conjunction with the "allegory of the cave," which itself was intended by Plato to explain "the sun" and "the line."

On the face of it, the metaphysics and epistemology set forth in these analogies is anti-aesthetic if aesthetics is seen as closely associated with perceptual experience, which would make sense given that the Greek word "aesthesis," which inspired Baumgarten in his coining of the term "aesthetics" in the 18th century, is associated with perception. "The line" gives us a hierarchy of being in which perceptual experience falls in the visible realm and in the realm of belief, below the intelligible realm, which is the realm of the Forms.  Using the allegory of the cave, we can see the business of the philosopher-king to be escape from a world of aesthetics into the intelligible realm.  This thought is intensified when we think of the arts, which are also usually associated with aesthetics.  Most of what Plato says about what we consider the fine arts falls under what he calls the "imitative arts," and these clearly would be classified in the lowest portion of the line, that is the realm of images and imagination. (The allegory of the cave tells a somewhat different story in that the arts, along with rhetoric and any other opinion-generating mechanism, are portrayed not as shadows on the walls of cave but as the activity of the puppeteers who project the shadows.)  Even the practical arts, which might for example include architecture, would not rise above the realm of belief, plants, animals and artifacts, which, although not as low in the hierarchy as the realm of images, is still beneath the intelligible realm.  So, strictly speaking, Plato is anti-aesthetic on most definitions of that term.  True understanding comes, according to Plato, from dialectic, and operates only at the level of the Forms.  

Of course there are a number of things that undercut this picture at least to some extent.  First, as has often been observed, although Plato downgrades images, it is obvious that analogies and allegories of the sort that he himself (or Socrates) is using here are images.  The allegory of the cave can itself be seen as a kind of story and it is hard not to see it as an example of imitative art.  How can Plato put any trust into something that he has just rejected? 

There are perhaps even more significant ways in which the standard interpretation, as valid as it is on one level, might be undercut, i.e. in a way to bring out a deeper more authentic truth. Take, as a starting point, the more complex role that images play in "the line" than it seems at first.  Images seem not to be able to stay in their place:  they seem to wander up the line.  Let me explain. We find that the mathematicians, who are concerned with the sub-realm of "thought" in the intelligible realm, use images in the dirt (or in my youth on blackboards) to make points about things that are not themselves visible.  These things that are used as images are called "hypotheses."  As Socrates puts it, "the soul using as images the things that were imitated before, is forced to base its inquiry on hypotheses..."  Moreover, the mathematicians "use visible forms and make their arguments about them, although they are not thinking about them, but about those other things that they are like.." (510d) [i.e. the mathematical Forms, such as the Circle] and, further, "the soul [of the mathematician] is forced to use hypotheses in the investigation of [the intelligible realm], not traveling up to a first principle, since it cannot escape or get above its hypotheses, but using as images those very things of which images were made by the things below them..." (511a)  The last quote clearly shows the kind of upsurging of images to which I have been referring.  

Plato himself seems to have been well aware that the images and imagination are not by any means stably down below. Of course it could be argued that images do not infect the uppermost realm since, at that level, dialectic moves without images. As Socrates puts it, reason grasps the upper realm "by the power of dialectical discussion treating its hypotheses, not as first principles, but as genuine hypotheses (that is, stepping stones and links in a chain), in order to arrive at what is unhypothetical and the first principle of everything." (511b)  It then "reverses itself" and deduces downwards to a conclusion.  In both processes, it makes "no use of anything visible at all, but only of the forms themselves."

Fine, but note again the two functions of hypotheses.  In both cases they are remarkably like analogies and hence like images.  Indeed, they operate as a kind of image even though in the intelligible realm. This happens fairly obviously for mathematicians at the first level: the mathematicians "make their arguments with a view to the square itself...The very things they make and draw, of which shadows and reflections in water are images, they now in turn use as images..." When something is used as an image that seems very similar to it actually being an image.  Now in dialectical (i.e. philosophical) discussion at the highest level the hypotheses are "treated not as first principles, but as genuine hypotheses (that is as stepping stones and links in a chain)...." (511b)  "Treating as" seems to be key here.  They are being used as images or in an imaginative way too.

So now, let us consider the unhypothetical, i.e. the first principle. The idea of dialectic is presumably that the philosopher engages in something like the Socratic dialogue in which he sets forth various definitions of the matter at hand, say "justice," each one of which is refuted, until he or she grasps the form of Justice itself, which is unhypothetical. Now we understand the unhypothetical in terms of the previous analogy of the sun.    

The analogy of the sun also contains a kind of infection or, to put it more positively, an upsurge of the aesthetic, although this time not in terms of images but in terms of two elements: a creative process similar to that of artistic creation and an intensification of experience similar to that produced by art. First, we already know that there is a close association between the Good and Beauty itself as discussed in the Symposium, although admittedly Plato makes clear that these are distinct in the Republic.  Nonetheless the Beautiful is at the top of the ladder of love in the same way as the Good is at the top of the realm of Forms.  

More important, the Good itself has some interesting features that relate it in some ways to aesthetics.  It is "beyond being" which means that it is strangely similar to anything that is fictional, for example unicorns.  Moreover, it seems to be understood mainly in terms of its effects. This is, of course, by way of analogy to the sun.  So the sun is understood in terms of its ability to generate light, which is seen as a necessary medium between the eyes and the visible world. Similarly the Good radiates truth and thus makes the intelligible realm intelligible.  It also sustains the intelligible realm in much the way that the sun sustains life by way of its rays.  This generative function makes the Good something creative, as though it itself were an artist.  One could even say, borrowing from Schopenhauer, that the world is the image of the Good, or perhaps the world is an image in relation to it as shadows are in relation to us.  It turns out, for Plato, that the Good even begot the visible realm as its analogue. (508c)   It is a creator God, but God not so much as maker but as father.  

In describing the analogy between the sun and the good colors play an important role:  the light of the sun "makes our sight see best and visible things best seen" and "when our eyes no longer turn to things whose colors are illuminated by the light of day, but by the light of night, they are dimmed and seem nearly blind.."  (508d) So, it is through the intensity and vividness of colors, when seen in their most appropriate light, that we draw the analogy.  Yet the intensity and vividness of colors is an important feature of painting as a fine art.  (Dewey observes that they gain this feature partly from the way they capture the other sense modalities, and he thinks another feature of this intensity, almost religious in nature, is the way in which the presence of the surrounding universe and its deeper nature is contained in the experience.  I will discuss this in another post).  Now it is grasping the form of the Good that also gives philosopher-kings their appropriate power, their ability to perceive the good in things and act appropriately.  As Socrates puts it,  "what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good" (508e)  

Again, the good is known mainly through its effects, through what it generates.  Thus the good is very unlike, and this is an important point, the Parmenidean One.  Rather than being distant from the world of change, the Good is its generator.  It is the source of creativity both in the world of the Forms and in the visible world. Moreover, although the Good is not Beauty, it is the most beautiful: As Socrates puts it, "Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things.  But if you are to think correctly, you must think of the good as other and more beautiful than they."  

Finally, just as the sun provides visible things with their power to be seen it also provides "for their coming-to-be, growth, and nourishment..."  and similarly the Good provides for the "existence and being" of the Forms.  Although Plato does not go into this I suspect (or can imagine a story that says that) the relationship between the Good, the Forms, the Sun and the visible things is dynamic and interactive, i.e. that the Good cannot work its magic without the Forms or even without the visible world.  

My reading has been deconstructive but not in the sense of destructive or skeptical.  Instead I have used the deconstructive method in a hermeneutical way, trying to uncover hidden meaning which I believe is really there.  In the last paragraph above I attempted a subtle transition to "what Plato should have thought...or would have thought if he thought his thoughts all of the way through."  What Plato should have thought would have been a lot closer to what Dewey thought.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Aesthetics and the two Cities of Republic Book II

Socrates describes two cities in Republic Book II, a healthy one and a feverish one.  It is interesting that he quickly dismisses the healthy one and spends most of his time investigating the sick one, although once he has devised an ideal Republic what we have what we will have in the end will be much closer to the healthy city.  In particular it will be missing many of the things that seem to make life aesthetically enjoyable not only for Glaucon and his friends but also for us. 

It is not clear that aesthetics is entirely absent from the healthy city even though the key concept is satisfaction of need, for example in clothing, food and housing.  There are craftsmen in this city, for example weavers and shoemakers, and Socrates does mention of the quality of their goods.  The quality would moreover tend to be increased by the provision that each craftsman focus on what he does best. He would, for example, "of necessity, pay close attention to what has to be done and not leave it for his idle moments."  (370c) resulting in "plentiful and better-quality goods."   (I am using the Reeve translation.)

An idea of the aesthetic situation of these people is made more clear when their lifestyle is described.  It is spare but pleasant.  For example, "for nourishment, they will provide themselves with barleymeal and wheat flour, which they will knead and bake into noble cakes and loaves..."  The idea that the cakes and loaves are "noble" might be an aesthetic judgment.  Nor do they go without desert, although desert will consist merely of figs, chickpeas and beans (what kind of desert is that?)  Parties happen too:  the citizens will "crowned with wreaths, hymn the gods," and the enjoyment of sex is also mentioned, although not in the Shorey translation. They will even have relishes, for example salt, olives, cheese, although again, this class strangely includes boiled vegetables. 

The "luxurious/feverish society" is something else again.  It is introduced when Glaucon replies that the healthy society is a society of pigs, not humans.  The fevered city will be much more like the city he lives in and the one we live in.  Some might find aesthetic experience entirely associated with the second city, but as I have argued, the first seems to have its own, spare, aesthetic. The luxurious society includes many crafts that Plato disapproves of in various of his dialogues.  Here, Socrates introduces it to see how justice and injustice "grow up" there as well as in the healthy one.   The new society is brought up since the healthy one will not satisfy some people.  They will now get furniture, more elaborate relishes, incense, perfumes, prostitutes, pastries, as well as painting, embroidery, gold and ivory (both presumably as parts of jewelry or decoration).  This requires that the city be larger and presumably more powerful.  In addition to increased everyday luxuries, the new city will require the imitative arts, many of which "work with shapes and colors; many with music - poets and their assistants, rhapsodes, actors, choral dancers, theatrical producers" as well as producers of adornments for women.  There will also be beauticians and barbers as well as fine cooks and, strangely, pig farmers.  Doctors will be needed, presumably to cure the citizens of all of the illnesses caused by overindulgence.  This greater level of luxury would require more land and hence the land of neighbors since what is needed for all of this is "endless acquisition of money," which then leads to war.  Socrates then goes on talk about war as yet another craft in which one can specialize.  

So, let's say that, following Rawls, one goes behind the veil of ignorance, and chooses between these two societies, between these two lifestyles that involve two very different aesthetic standards. This is, by the way, the kind of choice Rousseau later encouraged, that is encouraging us to choose the less luxurious one.  The "healthy" society is also chosen by many religious communities. The question is, do we pay too much of a price for our luxuries, luxuries understood to include a very large part of the things we consider good today, for example fine food?  If the cost of what Socrates calls "luxuries" (which are different in some respects from what we would call luxuries, of course) is war, perhaps they aren't worth it.  I just don't know:   I like my fine food, wine, art museums, fashion design, nice furniture.  I wouldn't want to have all of these at the cost of war.  Socrates does forget to mention, or is maybe unaware, that the healthy society also needs an army, not to protect its luxuries but to protect itself from enslavement.  So if we have to have the army, and hence the possibility of war, why not the luxuries too.        























Did the Ancient Greeks Scour their Sculptures for Contests?

Here's a puzzle.  We have always heard that ancient Greek sculptures were painted and that the current look of such sculptures in museums is wrong since the painting is gone.  However, and I am not sure anyone else has ever mentioned this, Plato indicates that statues were scoured for competitions.  Wouldn't that mean to take off the paint?  Could it be that the Greek aesthetic ideal was without paint?  Here is the passage, where the scouring is used as an analogy:  "My dear Glaucon, how vigorously you have scoured each of the mend in our competition, just as you would a pair of statues for an art competition."  Reeve translation, 361d. Admittedly, the scouring could just be a thorough cleansing.  The Shorey translation uses "polish" instead:  "how strenuously you polish off each of your two men for the competition for the prize as if it were a statue":  Shorey's translation does not imply that there were art competitions.  A polishing might just bring out the colors instead of scouring them off.

Monday, April 11, 2016

An Aesthetician looks at Book 1 of Plato's Republic, the argument with Thrasymachus

At first sight it looks like there is little room for aesthetics in the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus.  However I have a somewhat broader, one might even say expansive, notion of aesthetics than most.  We have to consider first that the concept of craft and craftsmanship is central to this debate over the nature of justice.  The ancient Greeks did not have a word that translates well to our word "art," but it is commonly believed that techne comes closest, and this is the word that is commonly translated as "craft."  After Thrasymachus gives his definition of justice as whatever is in the interests of the stronger, and understands the stronger in terms of those who are in power in a particular society, whether it be a tyrant or "the many," he is confronted by Socrates with the problem that the ruler may not know what his own interests are and thus that the ruler might unintentionally order what is bad for himself.  Thrasymachus, in a surprisingly sophisticated and momentous move, insists that someone who is in error is not stronger at the very moment he makes a mistake.  The subtle point is that a doctor is not, strictly speaking, a doctor when he makes a mistake in doctoring:  when someone makes an error in the treatment he is not called a doctor "in virtue of the fact that he made that very error."  To the extent that the craftsman in that craft is a doctor or a horse-trainer, etc., he never makes errors.  

Now, strictly speaking, this is false, and there is no immediately obvious reason why Socrates should have gone along with Thrasymachus on this point.  We continue to call doctors doctors even when they make mistakes!  Why should we abandon that custom?  Obviously someone can make a mistake as a doctor.  The only way to save this would be to say that he is not an ideal doctor.  Yet to say that someone is not a doctor if that person is not an ideal doctor seems the worst form of Procrustean idealism, a kind of naive form of Platonism, perhaps based on the mathematical analogy that something is not a circle if it is not an ideal circle (and that everything called a circle in the world of appearance is not really a circle simply because nothing in our world can have all of its points equidistant from the center). 

But there is a deeper point involved here (so maybe I was wrong that there is only one way to save it.)  Socrates goes along with this innovation because it fits nicely with his preconceptions about the crafts and it allows him to insist that a doctor is a doctor in the strict sense not when he is a moneymaker, for example, but when he is someone who treats the sick.  Similarly, a ship's captain is such not because he is someone who sails but because he rules over sailors in such a way as to effectively sail.  Thus, in general, (and this would apply to what we call the craft arts and the fine arts as well) "the natural aim of the craft is to consider and provide what is advantageous" for the craft in question.  Moreover, Socrates argues, what is advantageous is to "be as perfect as possible."  Socrates explains that a craft like medicine does not need some further virtue nor does it need some further craft to determine what is advantageous to it.  It considers "by itself" what is advantageous for it.  In short, it is "without fault ...so long as it is wholly and precisely the craft that it is." And so, because of this, "medicine does not consider what is advantageous for medicine, but for the body."

Similarly, one could say that painting, as a craft, does not consider what is advantageous for painting but for its object, whatever it is that is the function of painting, i.e. "that with which it deals."  (It is hard to specify what this is!)  So, the crafts "rule over" their objects and yet not for their own advantage, thus refuting Thrasymachus' theory of justice using his own idea of perfection in a craft.  Similarly a knowledge which attaches to a craft is not concerned with what is advantageous to itself but to what is subject to it.  Qua doctor, the doctor is going to be concerned with the advantage of the patient.  The question now then, for the fine arts, would be what the patient is.  This would also all go against the idea that painting should only be about the success of the painter or about the success of painting itself, or even about painting itself. 

So from Plato's perspective the arts, including the fine arts, would be aiming for the advantage of their subjects just as does any other craft, and that painting, for example, is not at fault as long it is wholly the craft that it is, and as long as it satisfies its function, whatever that is.  Of course Plato later rejects the imitative arts from the ideal society, but at least we have an idea of such arts here as each having its own virtue and function, each being in a certain sense autonomous, each involved with self-perfection, each concerned with improving its subject, whatever that is.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Malick's Badlands as an example for Philosophy and Film

Comments on "Earth and World: Malick’s Badlands" by Jason M. Wirth (Seattle University)
Transcendence and Film Panel, Jaspers Society, American Philosophical Association Meetings,
March 31, 2016

(As Wirth's paper has not been published, I have deleted quotes from these notes.  I should also stress that the paper Wirth gave at the conference was really quite different from the one I received earlier, and also that my own comments there were extemporaneous and only roughly based on these notes.) 

The classic problem in the new and growing field of Philosophy and Film (or, as it is sometimes called, Philosophy through Film) concerns how film can be philosophical.  Of course this has to do with the broader question of the definition of philosophy itself.   One easy way to find philosophy in film is to find philosophical dialogue within the film or perhaps some thesis presented which could be described as philosophical.  Jason Wirth follows a somewhat different approach in his study of Malick’s Badlands. (This might be considered an example of strong Philosophy through Film.)  As he puts it, the movie is philosophical in that it thinking itself as it emerges in a context between the thoughtless world of the main characters and the earth.  Thus we have a Heideggerian approach to a film being philosophical, one that draws on such notions as “world” and  “earth.”  The task is made somewhat easier by background knowledge we have about Malick himself, that he was a philosopher already before taking up the job of film director, and that he even has written along Heideggerian lines.

I often teach the “The Origins of the Work of Art” and am always looking for illumination of Heidegger's confusing idea of the relationship between earth and world.  So I thought that this movie and Wirth’s analysis could help me in this direction.  Before I go on I must confess that I find it very difficult to watch films that involve serial murder.  So, although I did watch Badlands as preparation for giving this paper, I did not see it when it was first released.  Moreover, I eased my way into viewing it by seeing video clips on-line and by learning the plot first.  Even before seeing the film and in just looking at these clips one of the things that struck me was that the combination of the haunting background music, the amazing clueless girl-next-door rendering of Holly by Sissy Spacek, the James Deanish feel of Martin Sheen, and the often sublime scenes of nature, make this movie memorable.  It is a good movie.  But is it philosophical?  This depends on how we see the earth/world dialectic.  Wirth argues that the landscape is more than mere background, more than just scenery.   There is a contest between foreground and background in the film in which the background, as the earth, intrudes on the foreground.  He further says that he wants to stress that the earth both limits and resists worldhood.  The externality in this case is the earth which presumably resists the way in which the worldhood of a world seeks to achieve totality.  Hence there is contestation between foreground and background, the foreground being world and the background being earth.

Recently I have been writing in the aesthetics of nature. Many aestheticians, for example Allen Carlson and Glenn Parsons, see the aesthetics of nature, as entirely a matter of getting one’s scientific facts straight and then appreciating nature in terms of those facts.  However a much-maligned approach which I have defended elsewhere is to appreciate nature by way of the arts. I agree with Wirth that Badlands features a tension between world and earth in which earth is represented not as mere scenery or even as mere background but as a character, a force, that dynamically interacts with the story.  Making and watching this film could be, I want to suggest, a way of appreciating nature. 

I often have my students apply the ideas of Aristotle as developed in his Poetics to a movie.  This is possible with Badlands, as it is with practically any movie, most of which have some of the elements of a tragic play.  The trouble is that by doing so one would focus on what Aristotle calls plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle, without taking into account the earth/world dynamic Wirth describes.  This is interesting in light of the fact that Heidegger often saw himself as in a tensional dialogue with Aristotle.  Natural scenery, and the environment generally, plays a role here not simply as spectacle, although Aristotle would see it in this way, i.e. as staging, but as something more like the chorus in relation to characters on the Greek stage.  I am thinking now of the scene in which Holly and Kit are living Robinson Crusoe like in the woods, in a tree house, preparing for intrusion of the bounty hunters.  We see shots of flowers and birds that might normally seem like a cheap add-ons, but somehow, with the music, increase the wondrous nature of the movie.  Let’s say then that one of the things a movie can do, and does in this case, I entirely agree with Wirth, is to bring out the tension between earth and world.  It does this perhaps by implicating us, the viewers, in a world that we find abhorrent but with which we are continuous (whether or not Wirth sees us as continuous with this world is open to question). The earth/world relationship in tension is going to be, phenomenologically, something quite different from the natural world as something that can be appreciated as we understand it scientifically.  Those who hold to the scientific cognitivist model of nature appreciation allow no room for exploring this tension, and I think this a major failing in their model. We necessarily explore nature from our own standpoint, from our world, and if our world is out of joint, then the relationship is going to be not only tensional but deeply so.  I should also mention here the concept of the sublime.  Here I am just thinking in terms of Burke’s version of the sublime in which sublime experience of nature is a function of both pain and delight, and which is summed up in the notion of astonishment.   Sublimity in this movie is not just a function of what we see, the vast spaces and big skies, for example, but also of the truly big questions it asks in terms of our relation to the earth.

The philosophical point of the movie according to Wirth is roughly that we live in a world of environmental degradation in which our thoughtless world does not recognize its distinction from earth. (He did not mention this view when he gave the paper in San Francisco.)  Now if we are going to take the idea of film as philosophy seriously we should focus not only on the interconnections between a film and a philosophy or on that plus description of the film in terms of the philosophy.  We should also focus on the truth, insightfulness and/or wisdom of the philosophical claims implicitly made.  In an era of human-caused environmental disaster it is hard not to look for the source of the problem in human ideology, and the confusion of world with earth is a fair starting part.  As philosophy, Badlands may have the advantage of being on-the-mark.  But also, care needs to be taken in not going beyond the available evidence.  My one criticism of Wirth's paper is that he may do this in his talk of the purity of the earth.  This can only make sense within the context of a romanticist mythology in which earth has pure being and we and our world or worlds do not.   Also questionable is talk of the earth absolutely exterior to world.  Wirth combines this talk with reference to the original sin by which we lost Eden, a place presumably where there was only earth and no world.  This may make sense as interpretation of Malick’s movie or of Heidegger’s writing, but not, in my view, in terms of what is true or insightful or real about our own condition.  It can’t be true since we just are the result of natural activity of evolution.  And if the idea of Eden, of the absolute and the pure is intended to be metaphorical, what is it a metaphor for?  I cannot make sense of absolute exteriority or the idea of original sin in any non-religious way, and if we are to understand this in a religious way then we seem to have left the realm of philosophy.   

Still, I like Wirth's idea that the world we live in operates tacitly, not recognizing its own contingency and often determined by the overly simplified cultural ideology fed us by Hollywood.  I even can agree with his idea that the problem goes much deeper than the influence of Hollywood and has to do with perception itself.   As I understand it, for Wirth, and probably for Malick, there is a friction between earth and world which is also between being and meaning and which comes out in our seeing the world around us as though it were a bad movie, thus through the lens of Hollywood etc. in an interestingly negative way. (One could also see the world around us as if a good movie, and ironically seeing the world around us under the imagery of Badlands it is seeing it as or in terms of or under the guidance of a good movie.)   As is suggested by Wirth, the bad movie that is the world depicted in Badlands is in tension with a the film’s own transcendence based on the earth.  

But what is meant by earth-based transcendence? Transcendence is usually associated with the heavens, not the earth, although one finds roots of the notion in Kant’s idea of the transcendental as a grounding that replaces traditional metaphysical transcendence, and also of course in Nietzsche’s idea of being true to the earth (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 1), and Heidegger’s development of that.   The idea of earthy transcendence is associated with that of two kinds of myth, myth which opens the world to the earth (Being of beings) and myth that closes up a world as ideology, totalizing because with no outside, the closed world being the one of Kit and Holly in the movie.  Wirth speaks of meaning circulating in a Platonic Cave.   Non-thoughts in this closed world pose as thinking. But isn’t portrayal of the closed world of Kit and Holly in the context of the earth world dialectic that which allows a kind of transcendence?  In this case, don’t we go down into earthy transcendence through the art of film?

I would like to raise the question here of whether acceptance of a Platonic conception, based on the imagery of the cave, doesn’t go against a truer, more Nietzschean, perspective.  Nietzsche in the first two chapters of The Birth of Tragedy calls on us, implicitly, to “dream on” and urges that there is something redemptive in the dream (life is only worth living as an aesthetic phenomenon):  he re-validates the world of the cave while rejecting simplistic forms of transcendence he associates with Plato and Christianity.  The dreamworld is not just Apollonian but is also Dionysian since it is in the moment in which the Dionysian reveler in his ecstasy sees the gods of the dreamworld as on a stage that the Dionysian and the Apollonian are combined in Tragic art, the highest form of art.  The idea of an earthy transcendence may more happily cohabit with the notion of a dreamworld itself revealing, with the idea that we somehow need to go deeper into the world of illusion before we get to Being itself.  This is perhaps what Malick is trying to do.  (This would be truer to art’s autonomy from philosophy, and would keep Film through Philosophy from becoming Film as illustration of Philosophy.  Film as art is constantly in tension with Philosophy, as Plato well knew.)  We can read this as a mythology of the extreme which is also dis-continuous with our world in the sense that we simply reject it as monstrous.

Wirth insists that we should not see the main characters as exceptions in their world but as continuous with it.  And yet perhaps it is equally a mistake from another perspective to see it as continuous with our world and as separate from us only in degree, as though we are in some sense guilty of their crimes or their ideology.  (Wirth could reply that he is not saying it is continuous with our world, but then why all this talk of “bad movie” and “Hollywood.”) True, our world is not generally thoughtful enough, has not yet begun to think in any deep way, or is at least resistant to that, and yet our world hardly condones, and is in fact repelled by, the extreme thoughtlessness of these two characters, as we also see exemplified today in the activities of Isis.

It should not be surprising then that I have a lot of trouble when Wirth says, that Badlands is less about failings of characters than about how to re-imagine original sin, which he understands as the way that worlds hide themselves from the absolute external nature of earth.  Nietzsche might look at this and say that it turns the earth into something other than the earth, something more like the transcendent realm, and it turns life, that is, living in the world, into something that needs to be denied.  To say yes to life is to refuse all re-imagining of original sin and all talk of absolutes of any sort.  Whether it is Malick’s film that makes these kinds of points I cannot say.

Afterward.

Something seems to have been left out of this discussion.  Going further with the Nietzschean perspective I developed above I would say that Malick presents us with a world1 that contains two aspects which can be called the world2 and the earth aspect.  World1 represents our world and the tension between world2 and earth can also be found to some degree in our world.  In reply to my comments Wirth said that there are no symbols in Malick.  That is both right and wrong:  I doubt that there are one-to-one symbols in which one could clearly say "this symbolizes that."  But, at the same time, everything in the world of the work is presented to us as a symbol for our world.  One of the scary things in our world is the way in which people can sink into thoughtlessness.  Badlands as a movie was inspired by a true-life story of a mass murderer who saw himself as a James Dean like figure, a rebel without a cause.  The Dionysian truth reveals to us underlying horrors of existence.   But the Dionysian in conjunction with the Apollonian is a Dionysian that is tamed, transformed.  In a sense we can better handle the horror of existence through this transformation.  The happens in Greek Tragedy and also in Malick's film.  Moreover, this symbol is a kind of cypher in the sense of Jaspers.  As a cipher it refers to transcendence, not to a transcendent realm but to a way in which we can be transcend ourselves.  Another way to put it is that it reveals Being itself.    

I would also like to suggest that the Philosophy of Film and Philosophy through Film are closely allied.   To understand what film is and how it can be art we need to understand how it can stand as a symbol for our world.  We need to recognize that art and philosophy both attempt to give us wisdom, but in very different ways.  Both are autonomous and neither can be subordinated to the other.  This not not just a matter of form but also of content.  A film will not, qua film (and qua art) make statements or develop arguments.  The environmental background of the Badlands cannot and does not gain priority over the world of Kit and Holly.  No character in a play or movie has the final word.  In short, a movie is not a treatise.  But more important, it is common today for philosophers to say that we cannot escape our worlds.  This is not true, and we know it because such a view cannot be held by an artist.  Art presents us with a world that is other than our world, and we do escape from our world into that world, a world that is a symbol for our world.  The escape of course is never total:  it is as if we were in another world.  It is also an escape, ironically, that, in the best art, makes our world more clear, more understandable, and more infused with spirit.  Digging deeper into the world of illusion gives us whatever redemption we can have.  It is a matter of digging into our own unconscious, whether individual or collective. To escape into the worlds presented by art is also to escape from the mundane fantasy worlds and from the simplistic categorizations that trap our thinking.  Ironically this escape digs deeper into the meaning of our world.  


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It is a dream, dream on! Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy Chapters One and Two

(This is an experiment in poetic interpretation of Nietzsche which intends to be philosohical in a somewhat deeper way than is conventional.  If you want a more conventional explanation of Nietzsche on art in The Birth of Tragedy, see this earlier post)


It is a dream, dream on.  The deep difference between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer was that the former had a zest for life, one that would not go for resignation or be attracted to the Buddhistic version of negation of the self.  This is a world of illusion, for sure, but do dream on, maybe even dream the same dream for several nights.  And dream like a Greek.  There is an interesting relationship between the experience of the poet in looking at his dreams and the philosopher in looking at the world of ordinary everyday experience.  It is not an exact parallel.  The philosopher sees things differently when seeing life as a dream, or as like a dream.  The poet sees things differently when seeing dreams as life, treating them as life.  Dream on in both cases.   For dreams, and, more importantly, art, make life worth living.  Apollo is a dreamer himself.  He is like the human on that frail bark in the stormy sea, protected by an illusion.  He is calm, he looks over the seas, he brings light, he is an enlightenment thinker, and yet his conviction that everything is what it is and not something else, the principium individuationis, will fall to an exception, a violation that amounts to confusion of categories, as also will the principle that everything has an explanation, i.e. a scientific explanation.  Some things seem not to have an explanation.  It is in recognition of this that the Dionysian arises, i.e. as response to a need based on anxiety in face of the absurd.  But the Dionysian, as with the Apollonian, comes out of the anxiety of "the primordial one" itself.  The primordial one is the deepest common root of experience.  In Nietzsche's early system replaces not only God, but also the striving irrational Will of Schopenhauer.  Unlike both, it needs redemption.  It is divided from itself through the eruption of the world of experience.  Its redemption comes with wrenching away the veil of Maya, which is destruction of the separation between world of representation and underlying reality,  This destruction comes with a sense of oneness that comes with ecstatic experience.  But it also comes, in part, from the creation of another world of illusion, the world of dreams, which is like a worm hole in a black hole:  you enter into the Apollonian to come out on the Dionysian.  When Nietzsche tells us to dream on he is calling for us to move further into the cave, further away from the Platonic illusion of a world of enlightenment, the world of Forms, into the unconscious.  Life is justified by the dream and by the work of art. 

The key moment in the history of “the Greek cult,” i.e. the creation of truly great art, tragic art, is the result of a process.  First, the Greek poet creates in his dreams images of the gods.  Second, he engages in the Dionysian rites, is intoxicated, is redeemed by ecstatic experience.  Third he falls onto the ground and has a vision of the dreamed gods as on stage.  But wait, this must happen by way of music and, perhaps more importantly, a combination of music and dance.  It is a dance in which all of the powers of symbolism are involved.  It is a polymorphic dance that uses every part of the body.  It is here that the artist becomes a work of art, something shaped by the primordial one as artist god.  He is one not just in his soul or just in his head but in his entire body.  He has been imitating not action or character, as Aristotle or Plato would suggest, but the twin art deities, Apollo and Dionysus.  Now he is one with them.  He becomes a god by losing the principle of sufficient reason, by becoming an exception to it.  The world becomes enchanted around him as it does in Plato’s Ion to the poet:  its streams are transformed into milk and honey.  The dream images are now something else, not just incredibly vivid and immediate, but symbolic.  If the dreaming Greek is a dreaming Homer, dreaming in bright colors and clear patterns, then the seeing Greek, to our shame, sees yet more sharply.  (How sharply do we see today?)  To imagine really seeing we need to imagine seeing like a Greek poet or a Greek artist.   

But if we are called on to dream on both in the Apollonian and in the Dionysian modes, and if we evoke mass experiences of the multitude as well as cries of horror, problem of sado-masochism, the "witches' brew" raises its ugly head.  This is an extreme version of what Burke had referred to as the sublime, of a pleasure (or rather, delight) that comes with terror, with pain, although only when there is some distance.  Here, however, it is not simply that a certain delight is associated with pain or fear:  the distance Burke required is overcome, and the horror of existence becomes more prominent, and yet at the same time there is an ecstatic form of pleasure, s form that could just be called "delight."  The primitive pre-Greek Dionysian, at first held back by the Apollo wielding the Gorgon’s head, and then later by the Doric order of columns, now is incorporated into the Apollonian, now is synthesized with it in a way that makes it safer but still worrisome.  The Greek hero as sunk into the depths, has gone through the dream world to the disturbing side of it, the Inferno, has found that the principles of science and the Doric order cannot protect him, has found redemption in these dreams, has called out to "dream on," has imagined gods on his own stage set, has imitated the Dionysian and the Apollonian, has opened up the essence of nature, has overcome alienation of the primordial one, has experienced ecstasy, has created medicine out of poison, joy out of pain, has created music with emotional power, has awoken and exhausted all of his symbolic faculties, has forced all members of the body into rhythmic movement, overcoming the Apollonian world of illusion in favor of the Dionysian vision.  That is the first two chapters of The Birth of Tragedy.