NDPR Review of Refractions of Reality

A review of John Mullarkey’s interesting new book, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) by Joseph Mai (from the NDPR):

Since the invention of the cinématographe at the end of the 19th century, a striking number of thinkers have taken a serious philosophical interest (sometimes exhibited as anxiety) in the ability to create and project moving photographic images. Over the years important authors such as Henri Bergson, Siegfried Kracauer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, André Bazin, Gilles Deleuze, Stanley Cavell and others have returned to film over and over in their writings. Their investigations implicitly posed a curious set of questions that have come up more explicitly and insistently in recent film philosophy: Can films think? If so, how does film think? What are the implications of a film “mind” for philosophy? In his very original book, Refractions of Reality, John Mullarkey tackles these questions, but first approaches them through a diagnosis of the source of philosophical interest in them. For Mullarkey the persistence of such questions is symptomatic of a certain anxiety among philosophers. What he calls “film-envy” follows from the fact that both philosophy and film are concerned to describe reality (ix). The idea that film might think about reality, and in a different way than philosophy does, resounds with all the potential benefits and possible fears of the democratization of thought.
Mai continues:

A philosopher and editor of Film-Philosophy, Mullarkey brings an informed, critical view to a number of theories from both the Continental tradition (his specialization) and the Anglo-American tradition (slightly less represented here). To make his critique, he develops a Bergson-inflected theory of film viewing as an event. He alludes to this position throughout the book, but does not explicitly hash it out until the second part. It first appears within a general discussion of the relation between what we know and what exists, and Mullarkey twice quotes a substantial passage from Ian Jarvies on the seemingly insurmountable difficulties involved in making a clear demarcation between the two. To extract himself from this problem, Mullarkey asserts that film has an élan cinématique (not the most beautiful expression in the book) on the model of Bergson’s élan vital. Film should be thought of as a multiplicity of social, mental, and biological processes through which viewer and film are co-created. Film for Mullarkey involves qualitative change and becoming rather than definable essences. Since Mullarkey saves much of his position for the end, my review will first provide a roadmap of how that position leads to a critique of other theories.

Here’s the evaluative conclusion to the review:

My questions regarding Mullarkey’s book concern this relativism. Though I generally agree with its open spirit, I have a few doubts. First, I don’t think this is going to sufficiently assuage the anxieties that it so perceptively diagnoses, or certainly not all of them. A dyed-in-the-wool Bordwellian, for example, when confronted with what she considers to be rampant theorizing on one hand and “pluri-knowing” on the other, is likely to stick to the rich but limited province of cognitivism. Secondly, it is not clear to me that “undoing thought” is thinking in more than a metaphorical way. Film viewing is wrapped up in my thresholds, and the only way to get out of these is through affect and intuition (a Bergsonian concept underrepresented here). We seem to move away from thinking toward feeling and emotion, as if the film event does not have a mind at all, but a heart. This is not unsatisfactory to me, but it leaves the term film “mind” (and some related terms, admittedly not invented by Mullarkey) somewhat bloated and overly impressionistic.

These hesitations aside, Refractions of Reality is an original and valuable contribution to the field of film philosophy. It is original in that it gives an account of film that is open to many theories, some diametrically opposed, without choosing any single one. It is perhaps most valuable in its highly successful dislocation of the rigid, myopic perspective of so many contemporary theories — many of which start with an observation about film that is then inflated into something resembling the bad, static “religion” criticized by Bergson when he discusses fabulation in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.

Full review here

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