Feature image: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

In the final pages of Cinema 2: The Time-Image, published in 1985, Gilles Deleuze concludes by saying, “The [philosophical] theory of cinema does not bear on the cinema, but on the concepts of the cinema, which are no less practical, effective or existent than cinema itself. […] Cinema’s concepts are not given in cinema. And yet they are cinema’s concepts, not [philosophical] theories about cinema. So that there is always a time, midday-midnight, when we must no longer ask ourselves, ‘What is cinema?’ but ‘What is philosophy?’ (1) After 700 pages of sui generis analysis on the history and nature of cinema, and what cinema says about bodies and world, Deleuze unexpectedly alights at precisely the point at which his final work What is Philosophy? (written with Félix Guattari in 1991) picks up. How is it that questioning the nature of cinema necessarily leads to questioning the nature of philosophy?

As he did through movement and time in Cinema 1 and Cinema 2, Deleuze’s “concept” is the working out of the recovery of a belief in bodies and the world eroded by the nihilistic culmination of modern skepticism whose origins are in the philosophy of Descartes. Philosophy, like cinema (and other works of art, but less so), is the work of creating concepts, writes Deleuze. Concepts are not ready made ideas or ideal forms that the philosopher can lay claim to or possess, but are immanent and close to life and are always ever being pursued – they must come about by a creative act. In hindsight, the relationship between the two reveals Deleuze’s own mise-en-scène of philosophy, and a prescient way forward for the study of film and philosophy caught up at the time in debates about the nature of theory and cultural ideologies.

There has perhaps been no one over the last 20 years more dedicated to Deleuze’s film philosophy project more than philosopher and visual artist David Rodowick. Since his first book The Crisis Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Criticism (1988) whose archeological approach owes much to Foucault, and most recently the publication of The Virtual Life of Film in 2007, Rodowick has been dedicated to sketching out the relationship between film, theory, and philosophy. Now, with the publication of Elegy for Theory (2014) and Philosophy’s Artful Conversations (2015) Rodowick’s post-film triptych is complete. This is an expansive landmark project that will no doubt serve not only as a milestone in cinema, media, and visual studies, but also as a milestone for the humanities more broadly. These books are not about film per se but about how we have and should speak about film and more than that how speaking about film is the future of philosophy and even more broadly the humanities. Rodowick is both extending and rearticulating the philosophical project begun by Gilles Deleuze, and at the same time, by including the equally sui generis work of Stanley Cavell beginning with The World Viewed (1971), he is also making something wholly new.

The three volumes work together in concert and should be considered both one coherent engagement with the nature and future of what we have called film theory and cinema studies, and also the working out of a film philosophy and its central role in the future of the humanities. Beginning with The Virtual Life of Film, Rodowick contemplated the relevance of film in light of the disappearance of the photographic process in the creation of movies and the meteoric emergence of radical new forms of experience (and new modes of existence) made possible by new media. The conclusion was that film may ultimately disappear but cinema and cinema studies will live on, and indeed does continue to live on as its photographic and cinematographic principles are applied to the creation of new media and adopted by the visual culture of the 21st century. As the medium of film gives way to virtuality, film theory takes on new importance in understanding and critically analysing a visual age. But what exactly is film theory?

The Virtual Life of Film

This question goes back to 2002 for Rodowick, who notes that he still did not have an adequate answer when he was confronted by precisely this question at a conference in London. In the final pages of The Virtual Life of Film he alludes to the need for addressing this vacuum in the debate saying, “cinema studies suddenly asserts its central role in any humanities curriculum, once we relinquish an outmoded aesthetic argument and value figural media for the new thought they produce.” (2) It is the history of this outmoded aesthetic argument that Rodowick will spend all of Elegy for Theory tracing back in its various lines of descent.


Elegy for Theory

With Elegy for Theory Rodowick excavates the palimpsestic and multivalent history of theory, its relationship to modern philosophical scepticism, and its coming of age in parallel with the emergence of film in the 20th century. The reader will immediately sense that there is a departure from The Virtual Life of Film in both form and substance. And here one of the great gifts of this work should be noted. Rodowick’s investigation is dense and erudite but is made palatable by a light and effortless prose, in a way that only few academic writers could only hope to achieve. We would also be remiss to note here that Rodowick desires the reader to bear in mind that in French Éloge could mean both a eulogy and an elegy (and sometimes a legal judgment in someone’s favour) presumably because – despite his holding up the importance of film theory at the end of The Virtual Life of Film – what follows is a significant dismantling of theory’s philosophical presuppositions like no one before him has been able to accomplish.

The reason, then, for this upending of theory is that one of the aims of Rodowick’s project is to decentre the role of the modern epistemological vantage point that is essential for the distinction between the Cartesian Subject and external world, and so prevalent in the development of theory well into the 20th century. For Rodowick, this line runs from Descartes, and in various rhizomatic patterns, through Kant, Hegel, the positivists, structuralists and post-structuralists, Lacan, and ultimately via the work of Althusser, where it spills over into the work of Christian Metz and the writings of Tel Quel, Cahiers du Cinema, and Screen in the 1970s. It is in fact sixty-six pages into Elegy for Theory before we encounter a substantive mention of film theory, and at that the full implications of what is meant by theory are not fully understood until it is suddenly upon us towards the end of the book in the chapter “Suddenly, an Age of Theory”.

And so, Elegy for Theory returns to the Greek roots of theory (theoria) and traces the various lines of its eventual co-option in the late 18th and 19th centuries prompted by scientific and epistemological concerns. Quite simply, since Descartes the question of how we can know anything has dominated Western philosophy. As soon as the problem of knowing was just beginning to be addressed in ways that began to satisfy the Western mind, however, the emergence of Art as an object of contemplation began to pose unique problems for modern philosophical scepticism which dragged the idea of aesthetics into the fray. How can we reconcile the sensual and rational world? With Hegel, and the vast shadow cast by the enormity of Hegel’s influence on European philosophy – which includes his influence on Marx – “theory” (as a now scientifically oriented endeavour) became a totalising substitute for the 19th century idea of aesthetics.

The emergence of cinema in the 20th century, then, radically problematized art theory – especially where it variously intersected with epistemological concerns. “Film and aesthetic writing on film”, says Rodowick, “have a special place in this account as the emergence of not only a new and perplexing expressive mode – for many writers the very expression of modernity – but also one that was in historical tension with the transformation of aesthetic by the commodity form and capitalistic exploitation of culture and aesthetic experience.” (p. 66) Early on the debate centred on whether or not film could be considered art or whether film transformed the very nature of art?

Through these pages the reader often feels as through they are finding a way through uneven and often terraced landscapes periodically peering out to get a sense of the terrain previously surveyed, but this is by design. Highlighting the non-academic, non-systematic, and thoroughly non-theory focussed nature of pre-1950s writing on film, Rodowick believes that “attention to discursive discontinuities is as important as to continuities.” He continues:

What can be learned from the variety and contentiousness of writing on film, especially in the silent and early sound periods, is that here theory is less a form of unifying and systematising a body of knowledge about an object than a mode of activity or of conceptual engagement, a manner of interrogating one’s self and debating with others about the nature of what counts as a (new) medium and how to describe its subjective effects and cultural significance. (pp. 76-77)

Here, Rodowick highlights the critical writings of Ricciotto Canudo, whose ontological concerns anticipate in many ways the type of film philosophy Rodowick wishes to forward, and is a highlight for anyone interested in early 20th century writing about film.

Theory, as a positivistic science, began with Russian Formalism after World War Two and Boris Eikhenbaum’s essay “We Need a Theory of Cinematographic Art” (1946) and was taken up by the filmology movement in France, as well as the structuralist writings of Christian Metz. On the heels of the structuralists came the enormous influence of Louis Althusser in the 1960s, who associates philosophy with scientific ends and “forges a special concept of Theory to distinguish dialectical materialism as a practice distinct from philosophy and in fact displacing it.” (p. 234) Althusser’s influence, and specifically his special concept of Theory, is vast and pervasive and often goes unrecognised. From 1968–1975 his work alters the course of film theory via his influence on the work of journals such as Tel Quel, Cahiers du Cinema, and Screen.


Philosophy's Artful Conversation

Mired in culture wars and Media Studies, film theory came under attack in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in David Bordwell and Noëll Carroll’s landmark work Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996). “Bordwell”, Rodowick reminds us elsewhere, “was among the first to exhibit fascination with the history of film study itself, and to focus attention on problems of methodology with respect to questions of historical research and the critical analysis of film form and style.” (3) On the one hand, Rodowick sees in Bordwell’s project an attempt to navigate between empirical historical research and theory. On the other hand, however, Rodowick believes that Bordwell’s work on neoformalism and historical poetics subsequently succumbs to the same scientifically oriented and positivistic tendencies it hopes to critique and creates yet another line of descent requiring excavation.

Remember that at the time of Post-Theory’s publication Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), populated with ILM’s game changing digital special effects work, was only three years old. Pixar’s ground-breaking Toy Story (1995) had just been released and George Lucas had begun to rework the special edition versions of his Star Wars trilogy with enhanced special effects and controversial new scenes. And within three years of Post-Theory’s publication Lucas would be the first to digitally release a film – the digitally “filmed” Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999). Not only was the nature of film theory in flux, but the very nature of photographic film was coming to an end.

And so we return to the final pages of The Virtual Life of Film (2007). Remember this is where Rodowick asserted that, even though film may be coming to an end, cinema lives on and the study of cinema becomes all the more relevant: “Cinema studies suddenly asserts its central role in any humanities curriculum, once we relinquish an outmoded aesthetic argument and value figural media for the new thought they produce.” (4) Now that (the problem of) theory has been addressed, Rodowick will spend much of Philosophy’s Artful Conversations articulating and assessing the framework of an ontologically concerned and ethically oriented film philosophy – and more broadly a philosophy of the humanities grounded in cinema studies.

It was ultimately film theory’s pursuit of a secure, subjective vantage point from where a more scientific critique of film could be made that distanced it from theory’s original philosophical connections—connections where ethical and ontological considerations were once relevant. Rodowick wants to retreat from epistemological obsessions and instead focus on the ethical implications of new modes of existence made possible in film. Navigating this tension between knowing and living is Rodowick’s ultimate concern, and he believes that we will all be better off moving forward if the correct balance is restored. Principally, Rodowick relies on the philosophical frameworks provided by Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze, which, he says, seem to have appeared from another dimension at the time of their publication. Remember The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film was published in 1971 at the height of the theoretical turn in Tel Quel, Cahiers du Cinema and Screen, and Cinema 1: The Movement-Image in (1983) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985) arrived in the midst of a radical re-evaluation of Theory by more historical and scientific methods and film study’s disappearance in culture and media studies. (p. 107)

Cavell and Deleuze both see the connection between cinema, the modern philosophical problem of scepticism, and the possibilities of restoring belief in bodies and the world. Without offering answers, and even resisting them, both philosophers uniquely “comprehend cinema as expressing ways of being in the world and of relating to the world such that cinema is already philosophy, and a philosophy intimately connected to our everyday life.” (p. 179) In Philosophy’s Artful Conversations Rodowick grounds much of his work in Deleuze’s film philosophy, but then uniquely deploys Cavell as a corrective to Deleuze’s European pessimism.

The philosophy of Stanley Cavell, whose most famous student might be director Terrence Malick, is of particular interest to Rodowick because, like Deleuze, Cavell confronts scepticism as an ethical problem rather than getting caught up in its epistemological concerns. Cavell believes in the common goals of philosophy and art – namely world, self, and community. Specifically, the world viewed in cinema is our own and opens up possibilities for us to return to ourselves and contemplate our condition. Like Deleuze, Cavell seeks to restore belief in and life to the world and our bodies through an examination of film as an artful philosophical expression that then provokes further examination and evaluation of our forms of life. Philosophy’s artful conversation, then, is a creative and discursive pursuit ever striving for meaning in “concept” and “image” as Deleuze and Guattari lay out in What is Philosophy?. In order to combat the nihilism of modern scepticism and resist the desire to possess knowledge we must acknowledge with Cavell (and Deleuze) that restoring life to the world is about accepting the limitations of knowledge and acknowledging that they are not necessarily failures of knowledge.

Towards the end of The Claim of Reason (1979), Cavell writes: “I said that one’s experience of others puts a seam in experience. Why not consider that experience is endlessly, continuously seamed? Every thing, and every experience of every different thing, is what it is.” (5) For Rodowick this seam is the language of relationship; the seam both separates and unites. We might also add that the screen is a seam and, in an age of screens, the screen and the world are slowly becoming one. Commenting on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven in the introduction of the expanded edition of The World Viewed, we get a sense of this screen seam, “I think one feels that one has never quite seen the scene of human existence –call it the arena between earth (or days) and heaven– quite realized this way on film before.” (6)

Rodowick is correct when, in The Virtual Life of Film, he writes: film is dead, long live cinema!His triptych is not about film, but about how we have and should speak about cinema and the various forms of visual media in a new age of the screen. Even more than that: the ontologically oriented nature of film philosophy grounded in cinema studies, and its framework for considerations of ethics, interpretation, and evaluation, is the future of the humanities and even a philosophy of art. I originally and safely intended to title this piece What is (Film) Philosophy?. However, The Sinuous Line of World and Screen now seems more apropos for obvious reasons. Rodowick’s project and his proposition to anyone concerned with the relationship between cinema and human living is that in an age of the screen philosophy’s artful conversations help us make sense of the relationship between the seam in experience and the seam in the screen.

D.N. Rodowick, Elegy for Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

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


  1. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 268–269.
  2. D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 187. Emphasis added.
  3. D. N. Rodowick, “An Elegy for Theory”, October 122 (2007): 95.
  4. Rodowick, Virtual Life, p. 187. Emphasis added.
  5. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 442.
  6. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. xiv-xv.