D.N. Rodowick, What Philosophy Wants from Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018; 224 pages. ISBN: 978-0226513195.

Reviewed by Patrick Marshall, University of Toronto.

Much of what D.N. Rodowick has offered to film studies has been history in the form of genealogy. A number of his studies weave the history of this discipline into other, perhaps more established, disciplines and discourses: art history, aesthetic philosophy, and critical theory are all called in to untangle the conceptual knots that have formed the discipline of film studies. His latest offering – What Philosophy Wants from Images – marks a radical break from this earlier work. Much less historicist in its orientation, What Philosophy Wants from Images opens with a very robust articulation of Rodowick’s motivation for turning his attention to contemporary digital moving image art (the privileged objects of the book) and the remaining chapters present case studies in which Rodowick demonstrates what this work might offer to thought. When writing The Virtual Life of Film, Rodowick indicates, he felt that the process of digital capture and synthesis would not be capable of expressing and exploring duration “with the same phenomenological intensity as analog film.” (PAC, x) However, his own return to creative practice (Rodowick is himself an experimental filmmaker) and a few encounters with contemporary digital art forced him to acknowledge the existence of what he calls the “digital time-image” (x): a type of image, made possible by digital technology, in which past, present, and future are heaped together. This acknowledgment is perhaps the book’s first thesis.

A second and importantly related claim is that digital moving image art has given way to a “naming crisis”. This is Rodowick’s term for the way in which concepts like movement, image, time, and history, which were operable in the period of analog and theatrical film, lose some of their ground as production and aesthetics are re-shaped by digital technology. Rather than examine the new modes of capture made possible by digital technology (of which, I might add, there are many), Rodowick turns his attention to how art made under these conditions might generate new concepts. Already then, one can see the way in which in Rodowick’s exercise echoes a notion from Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 2 that, “a theory of the cinema is not about cinema, but about the concepts that cinema gives rise to and which are themselves related to other concepts corresponding to other practices” (C2, 280). This phrase, often put forward as a program for the subdiscipline of film and philosophy, indicates that its vocation is to elucidate the ways that the cinema will dislocate existing concepts for the sake of producing new ones –  enacting what Rodowick calls a “conceptual reciprocity” between film and philosophy. (xi) The spirit of radical receptivity at stake in this, as I will come to show, is central to Rodowick’s new study.

Rodowick begins by examining two works: Meteor by Christoph Girardet and Mathias Müller, and Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor. His reading of Meteor exposes the stakes of his project with exceptional clarity. This film functions as what Rodowick calls “a remembered film”, a term borrowed from Victor Burgin, which seems to function as a loose synonym for Rodowick’s aforementioned “digital time-image.” Fittingly, Meteor is composed of images taken from the history of film: science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s and “images of boyhood from other American and European films” (8) from this time are both featured prominently. Rodowick interweaves a dense ekphrastic rendering of Meteor around a tightly controlled reading of the film, which foregrounds the film’s exploration of a domain of mental life located “between sleeping and awakening where imagination and perception have not yet fully released themselves to consciousness or yielded themselves to reality testing in the external world.” (8) Making sense of the film with reference to Freud’s concept of the uncanny (which he rejects just as quickly as he invokes it), Henri Bergson’s extension of Frued’s insights, and Deleuze’s “out-of-field” allow Rodowick to look beyond the tendency in film studies and beyond to depend on the concept of the unconscious as a way of describing what appears against what does not; that is, as a way of moving beyond a depth hermeneutic which would “cloak, veil, and repress” what is seen. (12)

It is ultimately Benjamin’s concept of the mimetic faculty which most clearly and justly characterizes the work of Meteor for Rodowick. The mimetic faculty, as Rodowick glosses it, is Benjamin’s concept for the capacity to see the relations of diverse phenomena as relations when they are not explicitly presented as such and to do so without the structuring force of language. In this way, the concept has a close relation to play, and it is for this reason that the faculty can be clarified with reference to children and their imaginative capacities. The mimetic faculty makes possible new understandings of new relations, and it names a style of thought more capable of taking on constellation-like patterns. If Benjamin’s concept was given as a way to conceptualize thought beyond the dictates and constrictions of capitalist modernity and instrumental rationality, then Rodowick’s placing of Meteor in this tradition suggests that digital works of art stand as a new training ground for this fundamentally interruptive form of thought devoted to establishing “new orders of sense.” (16)

Rodowick’s reading of Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor draws out the senses in which Jacobs’s use of a technique called “eternalism” further functions to call into question the concepts of time, movement, and the frame. But it is the book’s second chapter which will be of interest to Rodowick’s regular readers. Here, Rodowick stages an encounter between Christian Metz and Stanley Cavell, two thinkers who have had a profound influence on Rodowick. Rodowick demonstrates that for all their differences, Metz and Cavell share robust theorizations of the queer structure of photographic belief. Whereas for Metz, this is articulated by the interplay of disavowal and avowal also operative in the fetish relation, for Cavell, it is the remarkable fact that even though we know the photograph is a representation, we want to say that it offers us the object itself. (27) For Rodowick, a captivating point of agreement between these thinkers is the way in which they both locate photographic belief as occupying a liminal space between reality and unreality, knowledge and belief. (29) This is Rodowick’s way of indicating that photographic ontology rests on a series of necessarily unresolvable contradictions. The form of belief that the photographic image provokes is itself a form of knowledge, one not bolstered by the absolute certainty to which it is often reduced. (34, 40) For Rodowick, this form of knowledge is, significantly, a condition of possibility for “human capacity for inventiveness and improvisation in seeking out newly imagined alternatives.” (38) The chapter is fascinating, but it leaves the relation between belief and the digital unresolved.

What comes forward in the third chapter is a detailing of the ways that some of Victor Burgin’s recent works call into question not only the various media that Burgin deploys, but also the concept of a medium as such. Rodowick turns to Deleuze’s book Foucault to demonstrate that just as Deleuze displaces visuality and discourse with “the expressible” (52), so too does Burgin’s recent work enact this displacement. The most striking moment of the chapter, however, is its further elaboration of Rodowick’s concept of the remembered film (which is, again, a term borrowed from Burgin himself). It is not so much that the digital re-combination of previously existing moments from cinema points us back to past existences, but rather, that this process of re-ordering gives rise to a new form of indexicality that lingers between subjective and objective experience. (70) It seems, then, that the queer structure of photographic belief outlined by Metz and Cavell alike is intensified by the remembered film and, hence, by the digital.

While much of Rodowick’s recent work has bracketed questions of politics and power, the fourth chapter of this book (“Harun Farocki’s Liberated Consciousness”) engages directly with debates in aesthetics and politics by foregrounding problems that emerge from Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory. Rodowick indicates that Adorno had initially seen the material basis of cinema and its reproduction of the capitalist present as inseparable. However, in “Transparencies on Film”, Rodowick indicates that Adorno began to see how the fracturing and recombinative processes of montage practice might make collective re-organization thinkable. Farocki’s work, according to Rodowick, realizes this concept by exceeding it. Rodowick emphasizes that for Adorno, aesthetic autonomy is achieved not by exiting the social but by passing directly through it. Films like Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Inextinguishable Fire, and Serious Games are in harmony with Adorno’s vision of aesthetic autonomy by way of their inclusion of manifestly social content and their use of dissociative montage, but they also resist complete formal autonomy: “at any moment one completed construction can be disassembled and its parts reconfigured into a new construction.” (97) The work, in other words, is ongoing and open-ended.

This claim rhymes with a larger theme both explored and strikingly performed throughout the book by way of its commitment to the autobiographical (the book begins with a personal anecdote) and to self-revision. Throughout What Philosophy Wants from Images, we witness Rodowick returning to and revising claims that he had made earlier in his career. Likewise, he makes evident the senses in which the artists whose work he examines demonstrate a shared commitment to transformation. This ethic, as Rodowick puts it in Philosophy’s Artful Conversation, consists in avowed and ongoing commitment to allow one’s regrets, doubts, and reservations guide change: a style of thought with which we might remain open to “future states of self and society.” (xiii) As Farocki’s work makes clear, this ethic of receptivity makes the “human capacity for improvisation and inventiveness” (38) more available to us as a political project and, in this way, we can begin to see how the concern with the naming crisis that Rodowick returns to throughout the book functions according to a style of thought devoted to imagining the reconfiguration of human community as such. The book tells us not only what philosophy wants from images, but it describes and performs the senses in which the practice of philosophy is fueled in the first place – by a desire for something that it does not yet have.


Additional Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles (1989) Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trs.. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rodowick, D.N. (2015) Philosophy’s Artful Conversation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.