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

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. http://www.film-philosophy.com/index.php/f-p


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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