Feb 212017

D.N. Rodowick, Philosophy’s Artful Conversation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015; 320 pages. ISBN: 9780674416673.

Reviewed by Anders Bergstrom, Wilfrid Laurier University

D.N. Rodowick’s Philosophy’s Artful Conversation (2015) brings to a close a three-volume project by the author that began with The Virtual Life of Film (2007) and continued in Elegy for Theory (2014). Over the course of these three volumes, Rodowick examines the role that theory plays in humanistic discourses today, using film studies to exemplify the challenges “theory” faces in contemporary academic discourses. The various forms of “theory” (semiotic, post-structural, psychoanalytic, etc.) that dominated film studies during the 1970s and 1980s have for some time been critiqued, from both inside and outside film studies, as lacking, particularly in terms of methodological commitments. This critique forms the core of the “post-” or “anti-theory” reaction, which in film studies was most forcefully put forward by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. In the 1996 collection, Post-Theory, Bordwell and Carroll called for film studies to return to practices anchored in empirical inquiry and for an alliance with the discourses of the natural sciences, especially cognitivist sciences, and a commitment to historical poetics.

Rodowick, in his own words, “takes the fate of theory in cinema studies as exemplary of the more general contestation of theory in the humanities.” (ix) The book is the result of a probing of the relationship between theory and philosophy, in what Rodowick acknowledges as a general turning from theory to philosophy (it is precisely in Continental philosophy that the two most often meet and are entangled). However, the force of his study is not to displace theory wholesale, but rather to explore the role played by art and philosophy, each in conjunction with the other. After an introduction to the context of his study, Rodowick lays out the two goals of this volume in relation to the overarching project of his three books. The first is to determine “whether the conceptual investigation and evaluation of theory in all its historical varieties and differences can be preserved within the framework of philosophy as Wittgenstein conceived it.” (46) The second is to make the case for the autonomy of humanistic understanding, as distinct from scientific, empirical knowledge. One soon identifies an underlying thread of the book is a critique of what might be called “scientism,” asking what it is that art and philosophy offer in terms of a way of seeing the world apart from empirical inquiry.

It is this last point—on what this understanding might look like—that is explored in the bulk of the book, through an illuminating look at several philosophers and thinkers, with special focus on  Wittgenstein (a figure experiencing a resurgence in film-philosophy circles at the moment), Gilles Deleuze, and Stanley Cavell, but also mention of Richard Rorty, P.M.S. Hacker, and Charles Taylor, among others. What Rodowick makes the case for, especially with reference to Wittgenstein, is a balancing of epistemological inquiry with ethical evaluations. However, Rodowick gives special attention to Deleuze and Cavell, whom, in his account, did much to explore the idea of how cinema can contribute to philosophy, not as a mere illustration of philosophical concepts, but rather as expressions of philosophical thought itself. Just how these thinkers do this is traced out over a number of chapters, exploring Deleuze and Cavell’s individual contributions to the understanding of cinema and philosophy, through the turn to film as “an important site of ethical interrogation.” (163) Rodowick here relates ethical interrogation to the way that thought, and cinema as a mode of thought, shapes our choices and the process of our transformation by them. Ethical inquiry is that which sets film philosophy (or a philosophy of art more generally) apart from the focus on logic and empirical epistemologies at the core of most Anglo-American analytic philosophical traditions.

Part of the appeal of the book is in how Rodowick makes a connection between Cavell and Deleuze, in what Rodowick calls a “missed philosophical friendship,” through a reading of their concern with ethical questions. Cavell’s work is more obviously about the problem of ethics in cinema, through his engagement with moral perfectionism. Rodowick notes, however, Deleuze’s concern with becoming and transformation in an immanent plane of being places his philosophy firmly within the realm of ethical thinking. One further point of contact between Cavell’s and Deleuze’s work in cinema is their understanding of Being in the context of time. As Rodowick astutely notes, “This is not the being or identity of film or what identifies film as art [ontology as identity], but rather the ways of being that art provokes in us—or more deeply, how film and other forms of art express for us or return to us our past, current and future states of being.” (163) Thus, it is one’s relationship to art and its ethical concern with the other (even if it is the interior other that divides us in time) that shapes one’s orientation to the question of thought and possibility.

It is possible to read Rodowick’s explication and come away with merely a deeper understanding of the contributions of Deleuze and Cavell to cinema and philosophy—in particular, Philosophy’s Artful Conversation operates as a further expansion of the work that Rodowick has done in making Deleuze’s film-philosophy more accessible, here making many connections between Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? (1994) and Deleuze’s two cinema books. Yet, one of the strengths of the book is how it manages to articulate what is especially exciting about contemporary film-philosophy through Deleuze’s notion that films inform our concepts and not the other way around. The conversation between philosophy and art illuminates how philosophy can give expression to the possibility of the new through creating concepts, a mode which Rodowick identifies as an “alternative to what Cavell calls the moralizing morality of academic moral philosophy” and the related “tendency in the association of theory with a politics of identity.” (262) Art asks us to risk changing ourselves by opening us up to the other. I am reminded upon the occasion of the recent death of the great art critic John Berger of his assessment of looking at a work of art in his essay “The Historical Function of the Museum” (1966). Berger notes that though we may no longer use art for its original purpose (such as worship, etc.),

By means of our aesthetic response as well as by imaginative intelligence, we become able to recognise the choices which reality allowed an artist four thousand, four hundred, or forty years ago…It is as though we can benefit from our sensations and responses to the form and content of his work, being interpreted by his mind, conditioned by his period, as well as by our own mind. (Berger, 1966, 40)

Likewise, Rodowick notes “that for both [Cavell and Deleuze] the potential for meaning is fully immanent in works of art. Texts already convey all they can possibly convey.” (262) What Rodowick does here is create “a place for film philosophy other than that of ideological criticism,” opening the capacities for thought. (264) Such an opening up of thought means that film scholarship is not limited to a binary opposition of empirical, scientific study or ideologically inflected theory, but can explore the function of cinematic expression upon a range of human activities including meaning making and ethical reasoning.

Ultimately, for Rodowick, what this overarching project points to is not the rejection of theory as a contextually-oriented act of thought, but rather a rejection of the notion that theory can provide a unified or totalizing concept. For Deleuze and Cavell, cinema opens the possibilities of becoming and of understanding one’s relationship to the Other and the world. It is a call to take up the ethical dimension of philosophical thought through our engagement with art. As Rodowick notes in his concluding chapter, “How can one make knowledge claims without commitment to an ethical perspective that would give them value and provide criteria for what makes them reasonable or not? What my vision of philosophy teaches us is that adherence to a domain of reason is marked by an existential choice.” (299) In terms of the discourses in cinema studies more generally, no claims to knowledge, including methodological commitments such as the privileging of empiricism, are neutral, but presuppose a way of looking at the world.

Rodowick’s book reminds us each of our own particular ethical stances toward the world, something I have identified through my own work in those filmmakers concerned with the construction of the self and of memory. This is a risky undertaking—to engage with this kind of film-philosophy—because one never knows where one will end up. Rodowick’s book offers an opportunity to reflect on the way that films, and works of art in general, inform our own concepts. What it leaves us with is a kind of encouragement rather than a sense of a finality, reminding us that the work of philosophy, as with great works of art, opens us up to the possibilities of human experience and helps us find our way, rather than declaring that we have finally arrived.


Additional Works Cited

Berger, John (1969), “The Historical Function of the Museum” in The Moment of Cubism: and Other Essays (New York: Pantheon).