In the interview that opens the volume of Alain Badiou’s contributions to the philosophical exploration of cinema, the philosopher says “the cinema has always been the subject of everyday conversations and that reinforces its role as a form of ongoing, informal education” (3). The cinema is for Badiou a school, one that is open to everyone, one that invites common words as much as subtle insights. If it is true that, as Badiou puts it, ‘philosophy doesn’t have to produce the thinking of the work of art, because art thinks by itself’ (18), then what is the place of the philosopher in this school for everyone? Is he a master or a disciple? Does he lecture or listen? What space does the discourse of philosophy claim for itself upon entering the school?
Commenting on André Bazin, Badiou formulates an ambiguous answer by claiming that there are good and bad reasons for philosophy’s recent interest in film. While both reasons suggest to the idea of the philosopher as teacher, they do not rule out the possibility of a philosophical apprenticeship through film. The bad reason points to philosophy’s need for mediation. Cinema is part of a shared experience and therefore offers itself precisely as a site of negotiation. In other words, cinema helps by translating the concepts philosophers create and work with. Cinema is therefore instrumental to philosophy. The good one expresses on the other hand, a certain lack at the heart of cinema. Philosophy intervenes precisely because cinema is in the process of re-defining its own space; cinema lacks its own questions (123). In other words, the philosopher either uses cinema as a site for illustrations or produces the thinking that cinema cannot do. In both cases the philosopher tutors cinema as to its own possibilities, as if films were unconsciously providing answers to questions they do not understand.
However the problem is not quite resolved. In the essay ‘Can a film be spoken about?’, Badiou describes his discourse as axiomatic (opposed to the indistinct judgment of everyday conversations, but also from the diacritical one of the film reviewer), which aims to speak about a film qua film, in order to organize one’s discourse around “cinema’s subtractive (or defective) relation to one or several among the other arts” (97). In this passage the relation between cinema and philosophy seems to undergo an inversion: in order to speak about a film, one must understand it qua film, one must let the singularity of a film reveal itself, through takes and cuts, in order to “maintain the movement of defection, rather than the plenitude of its support” (97). It is through the attentive scrutiny of cinema’s takes and cuts that cinema’s defective relation to painting, music and theatre is revealed. Therefore from the “discourse of the master” (151) we have moved to the discourse of the pupil. The philosopher’s place in this school for everyone seems rather uncertain, a movement between the teacher’s desk and the student’s chair. This collection is an illuminating example of how this movement informs the ongoing encounter between cinema and philosophy.
In order to understand this encounter one must therefore be attentive on the one hand to the course of a constellation and on the other to a series of visions. In the chapter ‘Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation’, Badiou describes cinema as having a privileged relationship to philosophy. However this relationship undergoes from the onset a process of duplication and produces two questions and two approaches: “how does philosophy regard cinema?” and “how does cinema transform philosophy?” (202).
One should always keep in mind that the philosopher asks the question ‘how to regard cinema’ from a specific conceptual constellation, a highly elaborated frame. This moment – which could be said to relate to Badiou’s ‘bad reason’ – can never be completely suppressed inasmuch as the philosophical trajectory inevitably insists on (a) philosophical identity expressed from within philosophy through philosophical lexicon. In other words, the constellation must be clearly defined every time philosophy passes through cinema, whether this constellation is affirmed, deferred or challenged by cinema. The constellation delimits the parameters of the encounter.
In Badiou’s constellation cinema is presented as a ‘defective art’. Cinema therefore falls within one of the four conditions (art, science, love, politics) that Badiou understands as producing truths. The philosophical task – always structured around the category of truth – is therefore that of deploying a movement between the progression of arguments and the declaration of limits. This movement then seizes truths, scientific, political, artistic and amorous ones. Philosophy, as the realization of this movement is therefore, “the site of thought at which (non philosophical) truths seize us and are seized as such” (1) and can only dispose an “objectless subject, a subject open only to the truths that transit in its seizing and by which it is seized” (2). As art cinema is therefore at once philosophy’s condition and offence, since, as Badiou writes, “philosophy is always gnawed at, wounded, indented by the evental and singular character of its conditions” (3). The opaque brilliance of art traverses philosophy and seizes it, but art does not become an object for philosophy. With the term inaesthetics Badiou clarified precisely this idea: the philosopher does not turn art into an object for philosophy, but describes the intraphilosophical effects of art as “the thinking of the thought that it itself is” (4).
It is from within the constellation very superficially outlined here then that Badiou can remark that “the relationship between philosophy and cinema is not one of knowledge, but one of transformation” (202). It remains to be seen how, from within Badiou’s constellation, cinema transforms philosophy. A first, hasty answer, can be attempted: cinema never transforms philosophy, but always only a philosophical constellation; the transformation exercised by cinema on philosophy can only be seen from within a singular philosophical gesture, that is from within the specificity of a constellation. This is for two reasons: it is always through the mediation of a particular constellation (or genre, or sequence, or concept) that the encounter between the two happens. The constellation is not necessarily a proper name, it could rather be defined as a singular configuration of concepts and their presentation or better as the mediation between these two moments. This arrangement produces a singularity that bestows meaning on to the encounter by determining the whys and hows of a philosophical look on cinema. Cinema can therefore transform the singular constellation, the possibility of a specific mode of thinking. To say, for instance, that cinema brings philosophy to an end, would mean to reduce once again cinema to philosophy, as if cinema could be completely absorbed by philosophy; it means furthermore that on the one hand cinema fulfills its task by bringing philosophy to one more end, while philosophy can then begin anew, once again. The second reason is perhaps more informing: to say that cinema as such transforms philosophy as such, would always reduce the discussion to the essentiality of both, in turn one or the other would be transformed into an absolute that cancels another absolute and its own singularity. In other words this would mean on the one hand to ask of cinema to identify what is essential about philosophy and then transform this essence, and on the other hand to ask philosophy to identify what is essential about cinema and submit itself to the transformation this essence is able to produce. The question therefore is to be put in these terms: what can be opened by and in cinema from within a singular constellation that challenges this particular arrangement? What elements and works of cinema, as identified by a specific constellation, produce on this constellation an obfuscation, a deafness, a blind spot, the moment where ultimately this very constellation that has produced this very insight cannot be directly observed anymore.
Badiou provides an example by saying that cinema generates new syntheses: “if we are able to create philosophical concepts from cinema it is by changing the old philosophical syntheses by bringing them into contact with the new cinematic synthesis” (219). In this case cinema transforms philosophy by collapsing the opposition between constructed time and pure duration, between continuity and discontinuity. Cinema therefore produces new temporal syntheses. It is therefore as a philosophical situation that cinema can transform philosophy, by seizing the syntheses philosophy has created and accepted.
Badiou then advances a second argument. Cinema transforms philosophy because it exposes it to an impossibility, it demonstrates this impossibility by presenting it. The impossibility relates to the mastery of sensible infinity. Cinema engages a struggle with the infinite and successful films succeed in purifying the infinite, by producing simplicity out of everything there is. Out of this infinity cinema emerges with something new, something which may seize philosophy in a way that philosophy cannot yet recognize, something which is both a condition and an offence. As Badiou writes “while philosophy involves inventing new synthesis, I think that it hasn’t completely understood cinema yet” (218). Perhaps here resides the thinking of cinema: a resistance to be understood, therefore a schooling and a future; atruth for everyone that philosophy cannot yet teach. At least this is what Badiou seems to tell us.
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Alain Badiou, Cinema, transl. Susan Spitzer, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).