Imagine a reality where Terrence Malick, possibly one of the brightest philosophical minds of his generation, completes a doctoral dissertation on the concept of “World” in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. In the preface to his translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen Des Grundes, Malick hints at what this project may have looked like. He writes, “the ‘world’, in [Heidegger’s] definition, is not the ‘totality of things’ but that in terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes. … [T]he ‘world’ is meant to be that which can keep us from seeing, or force us to see, that what we have is one. Heidegger’s concept is quite like Kierkegaard’s ‘sphere of existence’ and Wittgenstein’s ‘form of life’.”1 What made these characterisations of spheres, world, and forms of life worthy of investigation were that they were not beholden to the idealist, cognitivist or structuralist approaches to things, language, and life.
It was at this time that Gilles Deleuze began to take up his own radical approaches to world (Proust and Signs , Nietzsche , Bergsonism ) – albeit with much appropriation, redaction, and modification. By the early 1980s, Deleuze’s newly articulated film philosophy wandered across and through a gallery of cinema that does not “just present images” but “surrounds them with a world.” 2 Deleuze’s exploration of the nature of cinema and world ultimately led him to the question: what is philosophy? For Deleuze, ultimately the very nature of philosophy, as a creative thinking (to which filmmaking is akin), and world were bound together. This is not, however, the kind of “world” Daniel Yacavone describes nor pursues in Film Worlds (2015).
* * *
Film Worlds is a marvellous, thought-provoking, and philosophically original work; it is a wonderfully complicated investigation of what might more broadly be described as the aesthetic experience of screens. Indeed, the book could be more appropriately retitled Screen Worlds. Rather than a great contribution to film studies and film-philosophy, however, where considerations of how film-philosophy is moving forward beyond its film theory phase and considering its own post-filmness, it always seems like Yacavone just happens to incorporate the experience of film into his considerations. Reading Film Worlds proves to be a difficult experience precisely because the way in is always in question.
Every page begs a question that is consistently assumed: “what is film?” To be fair, Yacavone’s intention to deal with the artefact of film is offered in the first words of his introduction: “Taking the multifaceted concept of the world of an artwork as its starting point and principal focus throughout, this book explores the nature of cinematic art from both filmmaking and film-viewing perspectives.” (p. xiii) To be fair, then, the contemplation of film qua world – as an external object to be rummaged and known – is central to Yacavone’s reconsideration of aesthetic experience of the Art object, and that is the problem.
To yield to the temptation to consider Film Worlds as an articulation of how film functions as philosophy would give up precious ground to film theory as a positivistic science, and its cognitivist and epistemologically oriented modes of inquiry. But these are not Yacavone’s concerns. More intent on creating a third way between analytical and continental philosophy, Yacavone holds out that there is something unique and valuable in the aesthetic experience of film that must be tended. Indeed, the aesthetic experience of film offers a way to articulate world making in art in wholly new ways and extend wholly new possibilities. What Yacavone requires to take this experience seriously is to stake out a philosophical territory to clearly speak of film as Art. This is both the great contribution of Film Worlds and its problematic seed.
* * *
While his third way is most certainly an academic novelty that demands attention, Yacavone’s work as a contribution to film-philosophy is utterly debilitated from both linking his investigation of filmmaking and world-making to aesthetic arguments of art-making. At its heart, Yacavone offers a wonderful introduction to film theory pioneer Jean Mitry – to whom Yacavone’s work is significantly indebted – and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Mitry is relatively unknown outside of film academia, while Pasolini’s offering of a poetic semiology as a solution to the semiological debates between Umberto Eco and Christian Metz is a welcome refresher to those who may only know him from his films. Although Yacavone’s manifold sources and his weaving together of disparate ideas are admirable, Film Worlds is undermined by a lethal combination of characters and the critical flaw of attempting to make a clearing for new possibilities in film studies via symbolic expressive and expressionist approaches to film.
From the first sentence of Chapter 1 – entitled Fictions, Narrative, and Aesthetic Enclosures – Yacavone condemns film to a trajectory of aesthetic arguments rooted in philosophical idealism and, later, positivistic dreams of knowing that so much defined film theory for much of the 20th century. Most notably, Yacavone builds up most of his work on the relatively forgotten neo-Kantian proto-structuralism of Ernst Cassirer (who believed that the world is culturally constructed by human symbols and signs) and then projects out into “new” territory with Hans-Georg Gadamer. However, in rooting his work in language, signs, and symbol, Yacavone manages to not only drag Gadamer further into the positivistic tendencies of hermeneutical questioning, but also grounds his characterisations of film and world in mind and language.
Film, then, is a part of world making in that it joins other art forms in its use of a system of symbols to construct how we understand human experience. Further, Yacavone attempts to situate his novel use of Cassirer’s complex aesthetic symbol to Deleuze (via Pasolini and Mitry) arguing that they “all reflect a general conception of cinema and of cinematic art […] as prototypically occupying an intermediate position between language and ‘myth,’ subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, feeling and thought.” (p. 67) However, regardless of his hopes for a third way, one must nevertheless suspect otherwise when Yacavone suggest that activity of the reader of a text and the viewer of a film are interchangeable (p. 238). By the final chapter, then, Yacavone is boxed into offering a rather convoluted litmus:
The filmmaker borrows his or her materials form our worlds of experience in order to fashion a new world apart. Yet (a) in order to recognize this as (also) a creative version, and artistic interpretation, of experience and its objects, and (b) for the purpose of grasping the extent and nature of the transformations in question, and the possible purposes and meanings of them (in relation to the cinematic and artistic whole), the viewer must – at least initially – parse out and mentally return these realities-cum-world-making materials to the “places” from which they came. Such knowledge-based recognition, comparison, and comprehension is a major aspect of judging a film’s artistic success and interest. (p. 254-255)
Rather than using the possibilities of “film worlds” as an elegant way forward—using film-philosophy to further articulate the complicated notions of life-worlds and forms of life and what they might imply vis-à-vis time, memory, and philosophical skepticism—Yacavone instead truncates the possibilities of the film form by ultimately subjugating it to both a system of linguistic representation and Hegelian characterizations of the modern frame.
* * *
It will take several more readings of Yacavone’s Film Worlds before the problems and possibilities of the text are fully grasped, and for that reason alone it is an important contribution. In the dawning age of virtual and augmented reality, the question of world has never been more relevant. Yet, like the philosophical questions surrounding artificial intelligence (which may be a propos here) the originating questions have a radical influence on both our way in and the possibilities of what can be said. There may have never been a moment in history that film’s influence on the conversation of humanity has been more indelible.
Daniel Yacavone, Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
- Terrence Malick, “Translator’s Introduction”, in Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Reason, trans. Terrence Malick (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. xv. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Caleta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 68 ↩