Archive for February, 2011

Talk for the Rendering The Visible “Book Bloc Against Aesthetics” (Georgia State)

Digital aesthetics, particularly those grounded in a theory of medium specificity or on variations of Stanley Cavell’s vague notion of “automatisms” exemplify a deeply atavistic development in contemporary thought. The precarious state of contemporary universities and the even more precarious position of the humanities among the faculties have lead to a conservative theoretical mode that seeks to maintain institutional positions in what appears to be an analysis of art. In film studies, a supposed discipline that, as Dudley Andrew pointed out in the PMLA, has been moving from standalone departments to programs integrated with other departments, institutional players have for the past decade and a half, invoked philosophy and philosophical aesthetics in hopes of re-legitimating themselves and their positions. Their appeals to the most conservative theoretical modes clearly attempts to align film studies with other disciplines thought to be more firmly established. Ironically, aesthetics and philosophy were long ago outstripped by developments within and beyond the field. The exhaustion and political limits of philosophy were elucidated by Jacques Derrida’s oft stated interest in ‘thought” rather than philosophy and the same can be read in Gilles Deleuze’s work, despite his retention of the term. Semiotic approaches to film, Foucault’s famous chapter from The Order Of Things on Las Meninas and the very same apparatus theory cited by those who have taken up Cavell’s “automatisms” move away from art and aesthetics towards a treatment of their objects as social acts. One can say the same for psychoanalytic film theory. Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” does not once mention art or aesthetics. Such writings were produced during and just after the high point of capitalist expansion, which ended in 1973 (Brenner,) and so could afford to let go of such legitimating references. Claims that the digital offers a fundamentally new aesthetic find themselves outstripped by an earlier text by André Bazin, “The Ontology of The Photographic Image.” Though the dominant tradition misreads this essay as arguing for an indexical notion of photography and film, the word “index” does not appear in it, nor according to Yale’s Ouvire Bazin database does the word appear anywhere in Bazin’s writing. As I have tried to show in my chapter of Andrew and  Herve Joubert-Laurencin’s Opening Bazin. Make no mistake, the leading edges of theory and cultural production still concern themselves with interventions in our life-world, whatever Jacques Rancier may say. Despite the growing interest in genealogies of life and the currency of the term biopolitics, cultural production or “art,” if you insist, as attempted intervention in the lebensraum has yet to be fully thought.  Our consciousness of it’s potential remains where Pier Palo Passolini and The younger Jean-Luc Godard left it, if not behind them since many cover over the cineastes’ efforts with aesthetic analysis of their films. Any movement away from intervention in the lebensraum and towards a restoration of notions of art as a set of works, or toward representation, or aesthetic theory, especially aesthetic theory that posits an autonomy of media or automatisms, or worse that posits a right to beauty, has a regressive character and depoliticizes you in a way that subjects you to deans and today’s real dominant power — namely, capital. In order to show how this is so, as a condensed example I wish to analyze the reception of a series of events digitally disseminated but involving wood, foam, plexiglass, paint and violence: the colorful shields of Book Bloc. I justify the use of this example whose relation to rendering seems more a matter of convenience than anything like essence, because in the larger project of which this forms a part, I argue that the digital aesthetics or an aesthetics of electronic rendering are an effect of a general regressive movement towards aesthetics, philosophy and worst of all “ethics” all of which do nothing but return us to the systems of judgment so hated by Deleuze.

The reception afforded  the  digital images of book bloc by the professionals of theory, art and even activist art provides a paradigm for contemporary aesthetics, revealing their regressive bourgeois character.  As Hegel knew, aesthetics theory has marked the irrelevance of art as an independent sphere since its invention by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. In our times, digital aesthetics function as the latest in a long series of rescue operation for aesthetic theory in general, just as the effort in the first half of the twentieth century by Anglophone film theorists to establish film as an art functioned to fortify an outstripped, fading concept of art.  Paradoxically, contemporary aesthetics attempts to sell us on autonomizing views of    practices that have lost all autonomy. Aesthetics and art refer us to a dead sphere of activity in the name of academic legitimacy at a time when history finds itself infected by life.

In the autumn and winter of 2010 the internet brought us photographs and videos of actions against the privatization of European higher education featuring activists using shields decorated with monochromatic fields baring the titles of well known books. The shields looked like elegant editions and they had a tactical function. They protected the activists from the blows of police batons and allowed them to form phalanxes.

Photographs of book shields started circulating on the web in November of 2010 (Wu Ming Blog.) On November 25, a row of book shields pushed up a street in Rome, protecting the crowd behind them from assaulting police. Titles included The Italian Constitution, Plato’s Rebublic, Q by Luther Blissett, and perhaps most charmingly Don Quixote. As the winter wore on, blocks of books appeared at actions all over Italy and in London on December 9.

In The Huffington Post Sarah Amsler described the London book bloc thus:

By visualizing immaterial value, students restore to the figure of the book a gravitas that years of digitization and commodification have depleted. They do not shield themselves behind knowledge, but hold before them the symbolic promise of all the radical traditions of oppositional knowledge and politics signified through these works. The resulting spectacle of oppression is profound: students communicate symbolically the intellectual and cultural violence of the state’s abdication of education, and the authorities, ridiculously, actually interpellate themselves.

Amsler’s account exemplifies the limited coverage of the book shields, almost all of  which turned attention away from the tactical function of the shields and towards the symbolic functions of the books. Here I do not mean tactical in Michel De Certeau’s expanded and diluted sense, I mean it in the military sense. To situate the books only on the plane of symbolic violence is to ignore the physically violence of the struggle depicted in the images. Surely, Amsler’s points have a certain validity, but a partial one. Something like a tradition of opposition guides the choice of books whose titles the shields bear. On other days titles appeared such as The Coming Insurection (Glen beck;s favorite book,) Das Kapital, and Specters Of Marx. However, dwelling on the virtual aspects of the books articulates the ideology of contemporary liberalism and interpellates the blog reader within it. Perceived by those under the influence of liberalism, the events in London in November and December appear as largely virtual and symbolic, meant to focus media attention in hopes of influencing a parliamentary vote to raise student fees. Liberal ideology makes certain social facts seem natural and obvious. In this case, public opinion as the primary object of struggle, electoral politics and the all encompassing state appear as unquestioned assumptions. Jacques Rancier, the inverted messenger of liberalism would no doubt try to assert that the monochromatic fields function as a variation of the blank page that he claims figures the space of democracy. In short, liberal ideology turns the actions in London into what Guy Debord used to call spectacle in the sense that they disguise living action as a dead commodity.

To some of those who participated, those events appeared otherwise. On December 10th Nina Power’s Facebook status update read “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.” Liberal ideology was one of the primary mechanisms keeping certain people from saying “there is a war.” For the liberal, the obviousness of the state, of electoral politics, of public opinion makes it equally obvious that only the virtual, symbolic and aesthetic aspects deserve serious consideration, foreclosing any possibility of acknowledging the war. Commentators interpellated by liberal ideology greet what they see as the aesthetic aspects of the events with a certain unrestrained joy, as if surprised by the creativity of activists.

A historical analysis supports the creativity of the book shields, but in a way that does not divorce their tactical function from their adornment. In 1968 in Paris, the lids of metal trash cans functioned as shields. Images of youths holding the lids while throwing the paving stones that covered the beach before being liberated illustrated the spontaneous creativity of rebellion.

During four decades between that May and the events in London, European urban waste management underwent massive changes. As part of these changes, what the British call the “wheelie bin” was patented 1975 by the German company Schneider ( and replaced metal trash cans in cities all over Europe over the following years. Trash bins were completely redesigned to work with semi-automated rubbish collection trucks. Unlike the older round cans, wheelie bins are usually made of rubber or plastic and more importantly, feature lids attached to the bin by hinges.  While the older, metal, trash can lids had an easily graspable handle in the middle of their circular form, the rectangular top of wheelie bins tend only have a sold ridge in the middle, sometimes with handles on the edges. In 1968, rebels found themselves surrounded everyday elements of the urban fabric, trash can lids, that could be instantly used as shields. The rebels of last winter had to make their own and the fact that they did so cannot be separated from the way in which they decorated what they made. More recently, in Cairo, activists appropriated pelxiglass riot shields from the police attacking them.

Digital photography and video immediately disseminated rendered images of the book shields around the globe via the equally digital means of the world wide web, yet even the deep market penetration of these media could not prevent the automated spectacularization of the images by liberal ideology, despite the images of the shields taking baton hits. Such rendered images render the visible as part of the current processes by which liberal ideology neutralizes any potential threat of social antagonism bourn by images and sounds. The current mode of spectacularization takes digital and digitally distributed images and sounds as one of its main materials and renders them, in the sense of giving them up to, privileged interpreters who render them, in the culinary sense of reducing, to ensure that they cannot escape the current diffuse spectacle.

Contemporary rendering, in this special sense, depends conceptually on the disavowed persistence of Lessing in contemporary aesthetic theory. As I have tried to show elsewhere, attempts to once again develop a new theory of media, or automatisms, their dematerialized functional equivalent, lead to a confinement of artistic practice to a historical field determined by the media or automatisms themselves (art history, film theory) stranding us in a symbolic economy or a virtual field and blinding us to the actual functions of cultural practice. David Rodowick’s book on the after life of cinema in the digital age performs exactly that operation whileattempting to defend a particular institutional position (in the case the centrality of Film Studies in contemporary higher education. The metaphysics of such works substitutes a weak or even false materialism for a worthwhile one. Just like older arguments about medium specificity, Rodwick, Cavellians and their ilk treat media or their equivalents as if they were actual and virtual materials that determined an aesthetics. Liberal ideology implies a simple material essentialism when we need a dialectical or historical materialism in order make cultural products appear as parts of larger historical assemblages.

As a result, it becomes difficult to perceive the war as a war. Amsler treats books as the composite actual and virtual material proper to the book shields. According to her analysis, the book shields represent the actual aspect of books (their covers and printed titles) while deploying their symbolic or virtual aspects (the thought or knowledge they contain.) Thus she virtualizes the entire book shield, as if it were all book and no shield. As with all essentialist-materialist analyses, the operation of the product can only be understood as taking place on the same plane on which she has posited the materials as existing. She writes, “Students communicate symbolically the intellectual and cultural violence of the state’s abdication of education.” Perhaps they do, but they do so while walking in a city, holding shields, confronted by police violence. Perhaps they do, but the state’s abdication of education must be understood as part of immiseration’s physical violence. Like any good liberal ideology, Amsler’s analysis cannot consider the possibility that the violence on the streets of London might not merely express “intellectual and cultural violence” and that the engagement sought by the activists might take a form other than “interpellation.” What if the shields function as a tool for occupying space within which to build new social relations? What if the protests did not merely seek to influence public opinion and the parliamentary vote on fees but sought another politics entirely? What if, as one of the major signs promoting the action said, the goal was to “shut down London” and use it for something else? What if the book sheilds were part of a physical struggle to establish a temporary autonomous zone?

We have seeming arrived at an impasse, how can we understand the tactical function of the book shields without reducing them to shields and forgetting their reference to books, and specific books at that? How can we include the image on the shield in the historical assemblage of which they are apart? Here we might appeal to developments in film aesthetics more recent than Rodowick’s The Virtual Life Of Film. Rosalind Galt’s forthcoming Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image articulates a genealogy of certain aesthetically devalued concepts such as “pretty” and “decorative” and profoundly transvalues them. In the course of her work Galt shows that one of the major differences between the decorative and the beautiful or the sublime is that the decorative defeats attempts to develop it into an autonomous sphere or activity or experience. The dependence of the decorative on a support that functions historically and not merely as an essence makes it inconceivable otherwise than as part of an assemblage. In the case of our example, book images decorate the shields. In light of Galt’s work, perhaps one can say so without dismissing the book images. Perhaps the decorative book images function as virtual prompts to new social relations and new modes of life to be actualized in the space cleared and occupied by the tactical use of the shields. In other fields one could perform a similar reading of the “cute” in Sianne Ngia’s Ugly Feelings. Finally, I want to acknowledge another book of theory that refused to treat film as art, Akira Lippit’s Atomic Light (Shadow Optics,) a book so complex that it remains to be read and has mostly been understood in the most reductive terms, for example by Rosalyn Deutsche in her recent Hiroshima After Iraq: Three Studies in Art and War. For me the books crowning achievement is its development of the theme of avisuality not just as a way of thinking about the impossibility of seeing the flash of the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as a link between seeing and subjectification — a conduit between images and the lebenswelt or the lebens-todvelt. A conduit that opens most  completely at the level of film analysis in Lippit’s readings of certain shots in the “Hoichi The Earless” episode of Kobayashi Masaki’s Kwaidan; and at the level of the books poetics in Lippit’s insistant use of the second person singular. You will find in Atomic Light a way of continuing film theory that shines directly into your life without regressing into aesthetic theory. You will find that all three books make your shields pretty.

My favorit Italian movie since Salo

Andrew, Dudley. The ‘Three Ages’ of Cinema Studies and the Age to Come,” PMLA 115.3 (May 2000): 341.

Amsler, Sarah. Creative Militancy, Militant Creativity and the New British Student Movement.  Huffington Post December 10, 2010.

Brener, Robert. The Economics Of Global Turbulence. London. Verso. 2006

Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. New York. Viking Press. New York.1971

Deutsche, Rosalyn. Hiroshima After Iraq: 3 Studies in Art and War

Galt, Rosalind. Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. New York. Columbia University Press. Forthcoming, 2011.

Lippit, Akira. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 2005.

Ngia, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 2007.

Ouvrire Bazin: A Database Of His Articles

Rodowick, D.N. The Virtual Life Of Film. Cambridge University Press. 2007.


Notes on the “larger project” for a talk at Rendering The Visible (Georgia State 2/11/2011) Aesthetic Zombies (To be revised and developed)

If the current fascination with aesthetics and philosophy in the contemporary humanities were analyzed, you might find a zombie reaction formation at their origin. Zombies of the old school want nothing more than to finally die. Unable to accept that desire act out in the most atavistic ways, devouring everything around them like the primal hoard subl-eating their father. As zombies evolve from pseudo-cannibals to infectious agents, they increasingly justify their project as a réleve attempting to renew culture in their own image. Having seen the previous results of such efforts, you would be forgiven for wondering if the self-description of their project were anything but a denegation.


1996, saw the publication of David Bordwell and Noel Caroll’s collection Post Theory as well as the first issues of the online journal Film Philosphy. Both projects seek to legitimate academic study of film by centralizing its position in contemporaneous humanities and reforming film studies methodologies, attempting to ground them in knowledge production. The projects approach the task differently, and to a certain extent each can be read as a polemic against the other, but both react to increasing privatization of universities around the globe and threats against the survival.


The emergence of philosophical film studies in the mid 1990s functioned similarly to the invocation of “Art” by early 20th century U.S. film theorists. Film studies had not yet been established as a university discipline and these theorists wrote as if the gatekeepers of high culture considered nascent practice of cinema unworthy of serious thought or an place in the university. “Art” had only recently established itself in the US with the spread of museums and symphony orchestras in the late 19th and early twentieth century. In his The Art Of The Moving Picture, Vachel Lindsey, for example devotes several passages to the importance of including film in museum collections. He even imagines a scene, set in his hometown of Springfield Illinois, in which the muse of cinema descends from on high accompanied by her sisters. Such rhetoric obviously seeks to legitimate the movies by establishing them as an art, but more subtly, seeks to convince that the Arts as traditionally conceived still constituted and independent and important sphere of human activity. In the same way, contemporary interest in film and philosophy seeks to maintain the importance of cinema to the humanities in a time of university funding crises while trying to convince you that philosophy remains an important endeavor after the movement of post-structuralist theory away from philosophy and towards “thought.” The contemporary version of this double rhetorical effort has an undead character insofar as it attempts to save a specific discipline rather than treat the problem of the university by addressing capitalism, which has hollowed out its educational institutions. Another of its zombie aspects consists in tricking you into conceiving of 20th century philosophy as the universal regulator of knowledge, rather than its self-outstripping and re-figuration as a particular discourse originating in ancient Greece.


The zombie philosophy invoked in order to give film studies an afterlife elaborated an undead aesthetics is perhaps most clearly exemplified David N Rodowick’s 2007 The Virtual Life Of Film. Giving voice to an automatism of disavowal that has infected almost the entire field, Rodowick attempts to save cinema studies from death by the digital rather than from the actual cause of its health problems: lack of funding. Instead, he lobbies for film studies as the source of  “key” concepts for understanding “New ‘Media’” and in doing so presents his aesthetics as a break from the tradition indebted to Emmanuel Kant’s Critique Of Judgment and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon.


In order to grasp the fact that, despite the author’s claims, you will find a continuity between Kant, Lessing and Rodowick, you must start with a footnote in The Virtual Life Of Film. In the section where Rodowick introduces Stanley Cavell’s notion of ‘automatism” as an alternative to the conception of artistic “media” derived from Lessing, you will find a footnote citing a short text by Rosalind Krauss: “A Voyage On The North Sea” Art in the Age of the Post Medium Condition (85.) According to Krauss, the advent of installation art calls for a reassessment of what one means by a “medium.” She particularly wants to distance her analysis from Clement Greenberg’s use of the term, a use heavily indebted to Lessing. Marcel Broodthaers’ work serves as Krauss’s paradigm for installation art and in the introduction she says that she had considered using Stanley Cavell’s notion of “automatism” (5) in her analysis of his ouvre. She lauds “automatism” for calling forth images of artistic “improvisation” and the “internal plurality” of the various media (6,) yet she ultimately rejects it. Krauss decides to retain the word “medium” in hopes that she can re-inflect it so that “media” can be understood as sets of recursive structures containing elements that generate the rules for producing the structures themselves. You will understand Krauss’s narrative, in which she rehearses Cavell’s automatism and then returns to a reformed usage of “medium,” as indicating the quite minimal difference between the terms. You will also see that Krauss’s reform of “medium” fails as a genealogy because it does not trouble the value attending to both “automatism” and ”medium,” namely “art.” Like the English historians of moralis in Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy Of Morality, Krauss traces a (short) history of a term with one hand, her other hand, behind her back, preserves the value which ensures her institutional position.


Working from a cover Broodthaers prepared for the arts magazine Studio International, Krauss mounts an argument that the advent of site specific installation marks a culmination in the process of the dissolution of individual arts into art as a generalized medium and the becoming theoretical of that singular Art. Krauss illustrates the dissolution of particular arts and particular media via short and biased histories of structuralist film and Portapack video art production. She loads her histories, for example by confining her examples of early video art to those works that appeared in galleries. Furthermore, she articulates the aggregate character of the media involved without ever raising the question of whether actual structuralist films and early gallery video ought to be called “art” all. You may assume that Krauss takes an ordinary language approach to the problem, assuming that art is whatever that word is used to describe. Such an approach would have the disadvantage of missing the leading edge of the practices and products she discusses. For example, Krauss treats Michael Snow’s Wavelegnth (1967) as a work of art about how the viewer “is intentionally connected to his or her world.” While Krauss might be forgiven for such a view since it exemplifies the film’s reception as does as her invocation of Maurice Merlau-Ponty’s Phenomenology Of Perception, she nonetheless ignores the Snow’s most valuable exegetes. In a 1969 issue of Art Forum, a magazine that Krauss worked for, Many Farber called the film “a straightforward document of a room in which a dozen businesses have lived and gone bankrupt” and  “a deadly realistic way to film three walls, a ceiling and a floor” (250,) connecting the film with the economic forces that produce the life of the city it was shot in.


Snow himself described the film as a continuous zoom the in its original, anonymous, program note. Commentators, especially those with a phenomenological bent have often repeated this false description. Krauss’s notes, “almost uninterrupted” better describes the film. Despite her accurate ekphrasis, by omitting the note Krauss traps herself in a phenomenological approach to the film and, oddly enough in an argument about structuralist film as “aggregate medium,” omits a key part of the “film.” Bracketing this note from what you see and hear at a projection of Wavelength strikes you as artificial.  By undermining the viewer’s perception of the film with a written text, Snow undermines aesthetic contemplation and phenomenologies of perception in favor of a limited intervention in audiences’ life-worlds. The ephemeral character of program notes protects Snow’s cheap trick from interpretations claiming that the written text merely adds another element to the aggregate film medium and becomes unified by the spectatorial subject’s intentionality. If such a claim can be made at all, it can only be made for audiences who read the note.


In Krauss’s passage about Wavelength and her forgetting of Snow’s program note (a note that Annette Michelson wrote about in October, another publication Krauss has been associated with) you will hear the ghost of Lessing’s plaintive moan, “Even in the post-media age, even in the age of aggregate media, a medium has its limits to be respected and a work has an inside and an outside.” Krauss’s non-treatment of the note turns it into an undeconstructed parergon, a mere framing device, a supplement, and allows her to miss Wavelegnth’s leading edge.


Although Krauss takes care to talk about “theory about art” (10) instead of aesthetics, you will see through this disguise when you remember that she has already called the general and singular Art that emerges after the arts a “higher aesthetic unity.” Though Krauss gestures toward the “social field” (56) as the outside of aesthetics, the examples she gives and their auto-theorization never reach the socious as such. They merely mediate on Art’s efforts to do so. Although it consciously thinks itself as advertising, Broodthaer’s work never intervenes at the level of production and you will wonder whether he really sought to have an effect on social reproduction at all. A dialectical analysis would show that if the “higher aesthetic unity” sublating the individual arts has become “theory about art,” the unity itself has withered away. Art, friends, no longer exists. You must not say so, After all people still yearn for and produce non-functional objects. Ever to confess that art no longer exists would make professional art historians insecure.


Rodowick footnotes Krauss, paying homage to her elaboration of Cavell’s concept of “automatism.” He insists on taking Cavell’s subtitle “Reflections On An Ontology of Film” seriously because being grounds “automatisms,” giving them substance and justifying their regulatory force. Cavell’s title plays on but finds itself already outstripped by the title of Andre Bazin’s 1945 essay  “The Ontology Of The Photographic Image.” Bazin’s title refers not to a transcendental or pre-constituted ontology capable of accounting for the photographic image, but to a concept of being revised in light of the photographic image. In the essay, Bazin creates a concept of being with an original relationship to presence, which now gives evidence of variation rather than of the real. He sees the photographic image as the force capable of identifying the being of the copy with the being of the model. Cavell merely elaborates a pragmatic concept of being capable of accounting for all that exists including film’s convoluted mode of existence. Cavell’s ontology remains classical and transcendental — a regression from Bazin’s nontology.


Rodwick presents Cavell’s automatisms as if they constituted variable “limits to subjectivity and creative agency” that function as “potentialities for thought” (42-43.) Here, Rodwick merely minimizes the material aspect of the traditional concept of medium, the same as that implicit in Lessing’s argument about the specific capacities of the arts, adding to it dimensions of conceptualization and practice. As you will have read in Cavell’s subtitle, the ontology from which he derives “automatism” repeats Lessing’s founding gesture of an illegitimately differential definition of each art. Cavell names “film” as the object whose mode of being he analyzes, but he means aestheticized photography and cinema rather than, say, surveillance footage. Even his definition of the physical parameters of “film” assumes and is derived from its aesthetic use.


Lessing sought to distinguish the arts in order to combat “false taste” and “groundless judgments” (5;) Cavell’s distinction between automatisms serves the same functions as does Rodowick’s, although both present the concept as a descriptive one. The Virtual Life Of Film dedicates it’s effort to establishing the continued importance of film as cinema and of cinema as the key to “understanding” other forms of the moving image. Understanding here means distinguishing esthetically valid examples from those undeserving of attention.


You might even read “automatisms” as a return to a formulation closer to Lessing’s “method of imitation” than “medium.” Lessing divides the arts into the “poetry” (comprehending all aesthetic practices of “progressive” imitation) and painting (comprehending all the “plastic arts”) according to their two general “methods of imitation” (6.) Both “automatism” and ‘method of imitation” strongly connote a mode of making absent from the concept of  “medium,” which denotes the brut fact of a potentially expressive substance.


Obviously, Rodowick’s the exclusion of Mothlight and Arnulf Rainer form “film” involves the  use of “automatisms” to separate forms of art and establish relevant criteria for their evaluation. Any serious attempt to think moving images without aesthetics indebted to Lessing would consider Arnulf Rainer and Mothlight as modernist interventions on the conceptualization of media. Rodowick’s system of judgment evaluates works based on their relationship to their automatisms in the same way as Lessing evaluates works based on their relationship to their mode of imitation. If concepts from film studies inform our analysis of post-film moving images, haven’t “media” and “automatisms” withered? Lessing’s system of aesthetic judgment relied on a historical falsification. In order to allow Laocoon to function as a paradigmatic work, Lessing had to ignore the possibility that it might have been painted.


According to Lessing each art expresses mental states proper to its capacities. In Lessing the capacities of the art’s means of imitation ground his system of judgement. On page 5 Lessing claims that he has written from his reading rather than systematically, but the text establishes a system of judgment nonetheless, as Rodwick’s and Cavell’s do. Rodowick writes that he does not want to “legislate” what artists can and can’t do, he does not want to give up systematic aesthetic judgment of their works. Although his system of judgment does not proscribe certain subjects to certain automatisms, it does make the worth of a work dependant on what it’s subject can reveal about an automatism, or what an automatism can reveal about a specific subject. Such a system necessarily devalues works that suggest no good answer for the question of why it deployed certain automatisms.


An alternative might be to treat works in terms of the attraction or repulsion they inspire in him and others — to account for taste. Such an accounting would allow him to pass beyond the closed sphere of aesthetics in order to see under what conditions particular examples serve particular lives, without establishing general principals or a system of judgment. In The Virtual Life Of Film, accounting for attraction-repulsion or articulating attraction-repulsion within a field of forces takes a back seat to a transcendental model of what makes good art in the “post-media” environment. His judgment on Éloge de l’amour (Godard, 2001) takes a very simple form. Rodowick values it because the video sections take on a unique look when projected which, one day, will be lost forever, when the film is no longer screened. Rodowick stages the drama of aura’s restoration on the scene of cinephilia’s apocalyptic sentimentality.


The persistence of the aesthetic and of Lessing’s ghost makes The World Viewed completely miss-evaluate Godard. The logic of Cavell’s systemic devaluation of Godard finds its possibility in Cavell’s taking art as the ground for his ontology of film, rather than art’s other: “life” Precisely because Cavell assumes personhood and character to be the proper subject for cinematic automatisms, he hold’s Godard responsible for creating a personage worthy of returning the camera’s gaze, the character must be self aware enough to justify the undoing of cinema’s fourth wall automatism. You will recognize the humanist ideology at work here.


Rodowick links film’s transcription automatism to a supposed ethics, according to which it is morally objectionable to question “the prior existence of the physical reality” (55) of the situations in Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady’s civil war photographs, although one might decently question the particular arrangements of bodies (60.) You will not necessarily want to cede the vague terrain of ethics to Rodowick, but leave that for another project. Here all we need to note is that if there are moral objections to questioning the prior existence of physical reality in any photograph this would only be possible because of historical sources outside the photograph itself. Capturing physical reality remains a potential of photography, not something that happens in every photograph, just as it remains a potential of digital images, not something that happens in every digital picture.


In the end, both Cavell and Rodowick value film insofar as they construct it as promoting a liberal humanism in the form of a commodity. Their systems of aesthetic judgment sort good films from bad and true taste from false taste, gestures that provides a basis for Rodowick’s attempt to prove the value of film studies in the context of a failing educational system through a return to connoisseurship and provenance studies.  Despite his title, Rodowick ignores the possibility that film might open onto life. He posits philosophy as the other of art and as that which art opens onto in order to be judged ignoring the real potential of film, an outflowing from the closed sphere of aesthetics onto the world as lived making possible attempts to intervene in the lebensraum by creating militant modes of subjectification. Indeed, acknowledging such a potential would risk hisown position as a professor, for fundamental changes in lived social relations would entail a systematic derangement of the faculties. Instead of taking such a risk, Rodowick lumbers along, following the dead edge of cultural production and infecting everything he encounters so that it can be judged in an aesthetic frame.



Bazin, Andre. What Is Cinema? V 1. Hugh Gray, Trans. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1968.


Bordwell, David, and Noel Caroll, eds. Post Theory: Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison. University of Wisconsin Press. 1996.


Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. New York. Viking Press. New York.1971


Farber, Manny. Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, London. Studio Vista, 1971.


Film Philosophy.


Krauss, Rosalind. “A Voyage On The North Sea” Art in the Age of the Post Medium Condition. London. Thames & Hudson. 2000.


Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoon and How The Ancients Represented Death. C.E Beasley and Hellen Zimmern, Trans. London. G. Bell and Sons. 1914.

Linsay, Vachel. The Art Of The Moving Picture. New York. Modern Library. 2000.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy Of Morality and Other Writings. Carol Diethe, Trans. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press. 2006.

Rodowick, D.N. The Virtual Life Of Film. Cambridge University Press. 2007.





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