Archive for the ‘marxism’ tag
First, a confession. Although I’ve expressed skepticism about whether films can do philosophy, I have used films while teaching philosophy to help students connect to ideas. In one case, I used the example from this week’s chapter, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, to help students find ways into Marx’s thought. Wartenberg makes many of the same connections to Marx that I drew out in class. However, I intentionally avoided making any implications about whether Chaplain intended his film to be understood this way, or whether the film was itself Marxist, or whether the film makes any arguments. Instead, I tried to show that there were parallels between how Chaplain presented the life of the factory worker and Marx’s critique of how capitalist systems dehumanize and alienate workers and left it at that.
Wartenberg sets out to convince me and other readers that we should not be so down on the illustrative aspects of films. Put simply, when a film illustrates a philosophical idea or argument, it counts as doing philosophy. Oddly, this argument is directed at some of his allies, those who say that films do philosophy, but who deny that illustrating an idea or argument counts as philosophy (which includes Christopher Falzon and Stephen Mulhall). This makes the chapter a bit unwieldy, since he takes on opponents on two fronts: both those who deny that films can do philosophy and those who assert that films can do philosophy, but all of whom deny that illustrating a philosophical theory would count as doing philosophy. In Wartenberg’s words, “I shall argue that films that illustrate previously articulated philosophical positions can, despite their status as illustrations, make a contribution to our understanding of the philosophical position that they illustrate” (32).
This leads to my favorite section of the book so far. To understand better what it means to illustrate a philosophical position and why this could itself be philosophy, Wartenberg attempts to do what no one, perhaps, has done before: provide an philosophical analysis of illustration. Although admittedly sketchy and underdeveloped, it’s exciting to see a philosopher wrangle an idea a previously untouched idea. Here’s a sketch of his sketch, leaving out all the juicy bits:
- Illustrations “are always illustrations of something else.” So “intentionality” is “a mark of illustrations” (39). E.g., an illustration of the fence-painting scene from Tom Sawyer.
- Some illustrations become “iconic representations” and are thus as essential to the book as the text (40). “This suggests that we should be wary of assuming that illustrations are less important or significant than the texts they are designed to illustrate” (41). E.g., John Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He also suggests Winnie-the-Pooh and Harry Potter as other possible examples. I think Quentin Blake’s illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books would be another fitting example. Importantly, this claim is used to support Wartenberg’s thesis that “The fictional world of the book is constituted by both the written text and its illustrations” (41). This is a key step in his argument for the possibility of imagistic arguments.
- More exciting still, Wartenberg turns to birding books, where “the illustrations are integral to the books’ purpose, for they convey a great deal of information that is not ascertainable from the written text alone” (42). This is a pretty fantastic example, as it shows how illustrations can be integral to a book’s purpose. In my notes, I wrote that an example from fiction might be James Thurber, whose illustrations are not only integral to the feel of his books, but (if I remember) occasionally are necessary to understand the short stories.
- A final category of illustration are those that are eventually treated “as independent works of art” (43). E.g., Marc Chagall’s illustrations for Daphne and Chloe.
All of this discussion of illustration is not intended to show that films are philosophy because they fall into one of the categories of illustration of philosophical ideas; rather, Wartenberg’s aim is to show that being an illustration does not mean that the illustration is “subordinate to that which it illustrates” or should be denigrated for being an illustration (44). In other words, if films are illustrations of philosophical ideas, that does not disqualify from being being philosophy.
Wartenberg then turns to Modern Times as an illustration of “Marx’s theory of the exploitation and alienation or estrangement (Entfremdung) of the worker in a capitalist economic system, a view that forms the core of his philosophical critique of capitalism” (44). After a brief lesson from Eisenstein about symbolic montage, Wartenberg proceeds to relate key scenes from the film along with how these scenes illustrate specific Marxist critiques. The conveyor belt sequence shows that the objects control the workers. The lunch sequence shows workers becoming commodified. And so on.
Wartenberg’s point is that visualizing a metaphor (or, presumably, an idea or an argument) “makes it more concrete” (50). And this can be an instance of philosophy, since its specificity is not objectionable (argued for in the last chapter) and its illustrative nature is not objectionable (argued for in this chapter). He also suggests that there might be two original contributions to Marxist philosophy contained in the film: “To the more obvious idea of a body becoming mechanical, Modern Times adds the notion of a mind so rigidified by routine that it also becomes a mere mechanism, seeing only evidence of patters it has been required to search for and recognize” (51). (This is a reference to the bolt-tightening movements being extended to non-bolts.) But even if there is nothing philosophically original in Modern Times, it still counts as doing philosophy. Just as philosophers are doing philosophy when the explain some philosophical theory (in, for instance, a published journal article), “cinematic illustrations of philosophical theories play an important role in transmitting the ideas developed by philosophical theories to a wide audience” (53).
Am I persuaded yet that films do philosophy? Not quite. I concede (as Wartenberg expects) that films illustrate philosophy. He anticipates the objection that illustrations qua illustrations are subordinate to the texts they illustrate and handles it quite nicely. But his treatment of what philosophy is extends to treating much of what philosophers do as non-original contributions to philosophy (which allows him to say that film’s non-original, illustrative contributions to philosophy also count as philosophy). He claims that ”…most philosophers philosophize without making original contributions to the discipline,” and that “…it is generally agreed that historians of philosophy are doing philosophy, even though their work is rarely taken to make an original contribution to philosophy itself rather than a contribution to our understanding of its history” (44). Wartenberg and I have very different views of our (shared) field of philosophy (and our shared sub-field of the history of philosophy). I think that my work in the history of philosophy is itself philosophy and is an original contribution to philosophy. In fact, if it weren’t original, it wouldn’t be philosophy. (Original here, doesn’t mean “never been said before” but “makes moves that originate with the author.”)
In other words, it seems to me that Wartenberg lowers the bar of what counts as philosophy in a way that allows in film.
- Wartenberg continually refers to Chaplin’s character as “Charlie.” This isn’t in the film, is it? I thought the film left him unnamed (which would be more fitting of Wartenberg’s general reading of the film).
- From page 32: “Charlie Chaplin’s 1935 masterpiece, Modern Times.” From page 44: “Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece, Modern Times.”