The philosophy of film remains to be formulated.
Jean Epstein, “The Senses 1 b)” (1921)
With the demise of ‘grand theory’ in the 1990s, film studies in recent decades has taken a notably ‘historicist turn’. At the same time, there has been renewed interest in the relationship between film and philosophy, leading to the emergence of ‘film-philosophy’ as a distinctive strand of contemporary film theory. Surprisingly, these two intellectual currents have not crossed or merged as much as they might: the historical engagement with the study of early cinema rarely ventures into philosophical speculation; and philosophy of film – particularly from analytic or cognitivist perspectives – typically avoids historical contextualisation. As a consequence, two parallel discourses have emerged, both with the potential to rejuvenate the study of cinema, yet both remaining relatively independent paths with little exploration of the relationship between them. The recent ‘philosophical turn’ in film theory, for example, is often described as commencing during the 2000s, thanks to the growing reception of works by Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze. Thomas Elsaesser, for example, credits Deleuze’s Cinema books as having inaugurated the current wave of interest in the intersection between film and philosophy. It is true that Cavell and Deleuze are key sources of the philosophical turn, and that both evince a keen concern with history (of film as well as of philosophy); but what we might call ‘film-philosophy’ – the philosophically-inspired engagement with film that takes seriously the idea that films can ‘philosophise’ or contribute to philosophical understanding by cinematic means – has a much longer history, elements of which can be traced back to the early years of film theory. One can go further and say that some of the ideas first explored by these early film theorists eventually find their full expression in the works of later film-philosophers such as Cavell and Deleuze. Given that we find ourselves in a moment of transition – for some a ‘crisis’ concerning the future of film theory, for others an occasion to reinvent what theorizing on this mutating medium might mean – the time is propitious to reconsider some of these more speculative strands in the history of film-philosophy before Cavell and Deleuze, and to suggest that they might provide insights and ideas that resonate strongly with the contemporary interest in the transformative relationship between cinema and philosophy.
Drawing on pioneering work by Francesco Casetti, in what follows I make some observations and conjectures about the conceptual ‘logic’ linking the ideas of some of the key thinkers – such as Giovanni Papini, Ricciotto Canudo, and Jean Epstein – included within the history of early film theory (1907-1930). This is a remarkable period, spanning the consolidation of early cinema, emergence of avant-garde film, and the transition to narrative and talkies. As Casetti remarks, many of the essential motifs, tropes, and concepts that we can identify in current debates in philosophically-oriented film theory were already well articulated in early years of theorising on film. These include the idea of cinema as mind, cinema as writing, cinema as brain, cinema as thinking, cinema as philosophy, and cinema as overcoming traditional (film) theory in favour of an ‘anti-philosophy’ – many of which have returned or reappeared in the work of contemporary theorists, inspired by thinkers such as Deleuze, concerned to explore the complex relationship between cinema and philosophy.
Indeed, the story of early attempts to explore the relationship between film and philosophy (film-philosophy) reveals a fascinating conceptual trajectory, which we might describe as a dialectical fable with important theoretical resonances. Far from being a ‘primitive’ discourse that was superseded by the development of academic film theory proper – commencing, according to Casetti, with Arnheim’s Film as Art (1932/33) – we can discern a movement in this theoretical discourse, I suggest, from traditional aesthetics, conventional philosophy of film, experimental film-philosophy, to a putative ‘overcoming’ of philosophical discourse through the cinema itself (‘cinematic thinking’). I focus on three figures who can be taken as representing distinctive moments in the philosophical discourse of early film theory – Papini, Canudo, and Epstein – and will draw out particular themes or ideas that resonate with contemporary philosophical film theory inspired, in various ways, by the work of Cavell and Deleuze. Such work, which aims to move beyond textual exegeses of master thinkers or the application of a given theory to a cinematic work, is concerned with exploring not only how philosophy responds to cinema but how cinema might alter how we understand philosophy. It is a strand of what we might call philosophical film theory, which comprises different ways of theorising on film that are concerned with the philosophical aspects of cinema, which focus on philosophical topics like the ontology or aesthetics, or that draw on philosophical theories in order to respond to problems in film theory. Philosophical film theory therefore overlaps with the philosophy of film, though the latter tends to mark itself as ‘independent’ of film theory, whereas the former is more openly interdisciplinary in character. Not all film theory is philosophical (for example, historical film studies), and not all philosophy of film deals with film theory (for example, within analytic aesthetics). Philosophical film theory, in short, is inherently interdisciplinary.
To speak schematically, the earliest attempts to claim cinema as the ‘seventh art’, to use Canudo’s phrase, sought to establish its aesthetic credentials in relation to theatre, painting, and poetry, and sought to incorporate film into traditional aesthetic theories (cinema as the sixth, then seventh art). Cinema’s resistance to this incorporation, however, paved the way for theorists such as Papini and Canudo to argue for an independent philosophy of film, one concerned with understanding the nature of the new medium, but also one more adequate to cinema’s challenge to traditional aesthetic theories, notably its capacity to capture the ephemeral, distracted experiences of modernity. The appearance of both avant-garde cinema and cinematic artist-auteurs during the 1920s saw a more speculative film-philosophy emerging, brilliantly articulated by Jean Epstein, one in which it was no longer philosophical speculation or aesthetic theory but cinema itself that was expressing the ‘thinking’. Indeed, certain authors (and filmmakers) in the 1920s (like Epstein) explored the idea of a ‘cinematic thinking’, a way of approaching cinema that challenged traditional philosophical discourse and called for a new style of writing – a call that has reappeared recently in the work of some film-philosophers, the cinephilia movement, and the return to aestheticist styles of film criticism. Finally, this radical film philosophy mutates (with Epstein’s later work) into an ‘anti-philosophy’: one that gestured, in utopian fashion, towards the overcoming of traditional philosophical discourse, thanks to the distinctive revelatory powers of cinema to extend ‘natural’ consciousness, to capture the dynamism of modern experience, and to reveal what remains ‘invisible’ in everyday life.
My conjecture is that reflecting on what we might call the dialectical history of this discourse yields theoretical insights that should prove revealing for contemporary film theory. This is particularly the case for philosophical ideas in Papini, Canudo, and Epstein that not only find resonance today but further theoretical development in Cavell and Deleuze. Indeed, much of what Epstein describes as a ‘machinic thinking’ or ‘antiphilosophy’ provoked by the transformative capacities of cinema can be found in elements of Deleuze’s cinematic philosophy, the idea that films ‘think’ in the sense of both expressing and eliciting thought through the ‘shock’ encounter between brain/mind/body and image. Given the growing engagement with philosophical film theory inspired by Cavell’s and Deleuze’s film-philosophy, it is timely to retrieve and recollect some of the genealogies of creative and critical thought of early film thinkers such as Papini, Canudo, and Epstein. For we once again find ourselves in a period of dynamic transition – the technological transition to digital media, the ideological transformation of humanistic studies, and the cultural advent of a ‘post-humanist’ epoch – that might enable us to rethink how the experience of cinema prompts a need for new kinds of philosophical discourse.
Film or Philosophy (Giovanni Papini)
Hugo Münsterberg is often credited with being the author of the first proper work of film theory, The Photoplay of 1916. Philosophical speculation on cinema, however, precedes Münsterberg by some years, albeit in a more essayistic, fragmented, and impressionistic form than his celebrated study of the psychology and aesthetics of the movies. Much like the contemporary interest in the early ‘cinema of attractions’, recent work on the early film theory reveals a fascinating array of idiosyncratic texts and distinctive voices that philosophised on film avant la lettre, and which even emulate, in their style and substance, the shock and fascination that cinema both expressed and elicited from early audiences.
One of the most remarkable early texts, discussed lucidly by Francesco Casetti, is a short piece published by the young Italian writer and critic Giovanni Papini. “La filosofia del cinematografo” [translated as “Philosophical Reflections on the Motion Picture”]. It appeared in the Turin newspaper/journal La Stampa in May 1907, and is arguably, Casetti notes, the first philosophical text on the new artform of the cinema. What is remarkable about Papini’s text is how it articulates, within a very brief compass, many of the themes that will define film theory over the coming century. At the same time, Papini offers his own prescient philosophical ruminations on the cultural significance, aesthetic potentials, and existential import of the new invention called the ‘cinematograph’.
He commences with the cultural-historical observation that motion picture theatres are “invading” every major town in Italy, a cultural and technological innovation that represents both a sign of modernity and a threat to the unity of tradition. The cinema theatres represent a technological transformation in modern culture that “are even threatening to expel the live theatres, just as the tramways have replaced public carriages, newspapers have replaced books, and bars have taken the place of our cafés”. The addressee of his text, however, is neither the enthusiastic cinemagoer nor the anxious curator of culture. It is, rather, the philosopher. The explosive popularity of the cinema is a phenomenon demanding reflection: once the philosopher uncovers the reasons behind this cultural enthusiasm for movies s/he may be inspired to think anew, not only about cinema’s cultural import but its philosophical significance. As Papini remarks:
it is possible that in the motion picture, the philosopher could uncover new concepts for reflection, and who knows? He may even find new moral emotions and new metaphysical suggestions to offer.
Anticipating Deleuze, philosophy stands to benefit from its engagement with film, Papini claims, because the new artform promises to yield new concepts for reflection. More radically, film affords an ethical and philosophical experience capable of provoking thought. Cinema both expresses and elicits philosophical reflection, even if this may not be apparent to the contemporary philosopher, who does not yet see its philosophical significance. Papini thus addresses the film-philosophers of the future; those who can see the aesthetic potential of this new art, even though it remains in a state of infancy:
To the true philosopher – not the type who limits his contemplation to pouring over books, and whom we could define as a mere retailer of philosophy – there is no aspect anywhere, no matter how small, humble, unimportant, or ridiculous it may seem, that does not contain some serious matter for reflection, and those who philosophize only and exclusively when speaking of the external world or synthetic judgement, a priori bear a closer resemblance to an anatomist, who is incapable of discussing anything other than monstrous creatures and cases of teratology.
Anticipating Cavell, Papini distinguishes the “true philosopher” from the mere “retailer of philosophy”, the experimental thinker from the utilitarian academic, we might say. The true philosopher finds his or her source of reflection in the everyday and the ordinary as much as in the esoteric and the extraordinary. The more ‘analytical’ philosopher, by contrast, concerned mainly with theoretical abstraction, is likened to an anatomist, finding only pathology and monstrosity where the more sympathetic philosopher finds food for thought. Papini thus invites the philosopher to consider the reasons for meditating on film: asking why it is so popular with the public and what this reflects about modern culture; examining cinema as a rival to the theatre, which it intends, in part, to replace; and reflecting on the economic motivations and advantages of cinema as a popular, accessible form of entertainment that is also inexpensive (opening culture to the ‘masses’).
A string of prescient observations then follow, listing a variety of reasons why film should matter to philosophers. There are dramatic and aesthetic reasons, for example, that make film important: cinema’s capacity to present complex historical and fictional scenarios in a manner that is both realistic and spectacular, providing the spectator with a mirror or window on an array of events unfolding in time and across disparate locations that would be impossible to reproduce on a theatre stage. Cinematic presentation, far from being abstract or distanced, gives the vivid impression of reality. These luminous silent images transcend theatrical representation by immersing the viewer in a lifelike cinematic world, “as if we were watching through a mirror following the action hurtling through space”. The impression of reality afforded by cinema leads to another advantage: the capacity to represent events shortly after they occur. For Papini, this satisfies the modern appetite for conveying news and ‘current affairs’ via moving images, combining the features of the “newspaper and the illustrated magazine”: the birth of audiovisual media out of the spirit of art. The conjunction of art and news, drama and spectacle, entertainment and information, are part of the philosophical speculation on film.
On the other hand, Papini is keenly aware of the role of the imagination: the cinema, thanks to its novel use of visual special effects, can show imaginative and arresting images that defy ordinary experience or even the laws of nature. It can create an imaginary world that is realistic and fantastic at once, satisfying an imaginative engagement with the fantastic and a hallucinatory fascination with images that cannot be matched by the other arts:
In this respect, motion pictures help develop the imagination, a little like opium without the negative effects; the visual realisation of the most incredible illusions. Thanks to photographic subterfuge we are able to enter a world with two dimensions which is far more imaginary than our own.
The intoxicating sensuous and imaginative effects of the cinema can serve as a Dionysian-Apollonian spur to thinking. Again, this aspect will appeal to the more daring thinker rather than the pedestrian academic, though Papini suggests that the latter might become closer to the former provided s/he is open to the experience of cinema. Accordingly, the rhetorical register of the address to philosophers shifts subtly towards the end of Papini’s text. To be sure, philosophers can gain theoretical inspiration from this new cultural artform; but Papini suggests that they ponder how this novel art seems better attuned than philosophy to the accelerated and fragmented experience of modern life. Philosophers should heed the advice to move beyond the marketplace (Socrates), the tombstones (Hamlet), or the mountaintop (Nietzsche), and enter the cinema theatre if they wish to understand modern life. Indeed, by developing a philosophical interest in cinema, they can make philosophy itself more ‘relevant’ to our image-captivated world, what Cavell, following Heidegger, will call the “world-viewed”. Cinema not only serves as an object of philosophical rumination; it can stimulate philosophy in ways that attune it better, opening its eyes to the ambiguous experiences of modernity, a line of thought anticipating theorists like Balázs and Kracauer.
Again anticipating Cavell and Deleuze, a genuine philosopher, for Papini, cannot help but be struck by cinema’s extraordinary fusion of unreality and reality, illusion and verisimilitude, fantasy and reality. Moving beyond merely instrumental reasons for concerning oneself with film, Papini explores its more intrinsically philosophical features. It projects a world composed of nothing but light and shadows; yet this world, “reduced to a wisp”, can seem realistic, captivating, and meaningful in a manner that invites philosophical reflection. As Papini observes, cinema is composed of:
small two dimensional images, and yet in spite of that, they give us an impression of movement and life. This is the idealised world reduced to a minimum, produced from the most ethereal and celestial of substances, with no depth, no solidity, dream-like, immediate, imaginary, unreal. This is how the existence of mankind can be reduced to a wisp without removing any of its reality!
A remarkable anticipation of Cavell’s thought on the relationship between film and scepticism, Papini articulates elegantly what Cavell describes as the profound kinship between film and philosophy. For Cavell, film can be defined as a “moving image of scepticism”, an audiovisual medium with the capacity to express the metaphysical play between presence and absence; cinema projects a rich and complex image-world from which we are absent, but which remains nonetheless replete with meaning. It has the power to render experience meaningful, even though it is nothing but an “automatic succession of world-projections”. Questions of ontology, meaning, and scepticism are inherent within the art of moving images.
Film does not only raise cultural, ontological, and metaphysical issues; Papini concludes with a poignant reflection on the existential dimension of movies. Recalling Nietzsche’s remark that our human drama is like an aesthetic spectacle staged for the gods, Papini offers a comparable analogy: that we too are perhaps no more than projections of light and shadow, luminous visions giving the vivid impression of life, phantasms contemplated by some higher intelligence. Indeed, the universe itself is like a ‘metacinema’ that synthesises light and energy, movement and time; a shadow play in which we too play our little role, unknown to ourselves, stumbling and awkward, projecting images of our human, all-too-human experience as we hurtle towards the void:
As we watch those gossamer light images of ourselves, we almost feel like the gods contemplating their own creations, made in their own image and likeness. Spontaneously the thought occurs to us that somewhere there is somebody watching us, in just the same way we are watching the figures in the motion picture and to whom we, who are flesh and blood, real, eternal – may simply seem to be coloured images speeding towards our death merely for his entertainment. Could the universe be simply a vast spectacular motion picture with a few changes in the program now and then, for the leisurely entertainment of a host of unknown supernatural powers? And thanks to photography, we discover how much our movements lack grace, how certain mechanical gestures seem ridiculous, the vanity in our absurd expressions, and how the divine spectators must smile as they observe us bustling about on this tiny planet, scurrying hurriedly in all directions, distressed, stupid, avaricious, absurd, until our role is finished and one by one we leave the screen for the silent darkness of death.
In this brief lapidary text from 1907, we find in nuce many of the themes of philosophical reflection on film that would flourish over the next century. There are reflections on the ontology of the image, on film as art, on its relationship with theatre, and reflections on the spectator’s experience. There are ruminations on the cultural reasons for and economic dimensions of cinema’s popularity, its role in cultivating the imaginary, and inaugurating an age of media. Finally, there are speculations on cinema’s capacity to capture photographically the accelerated experience of modernity, and an existential questioning of consciousness and reality, of images and imagination, of time and human finitude.
Philosophy of Film: (Ricciotto Canudo)
Papini’s invitation to philosophers to contemplate the cinema was followed by more an integrative and inventive perspective in the 1910s and 20s: on the one hand, more rigorous attempts to argue for cinema’s inclusion in the traditional aesthetic schema of the beaux arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, poetry); and on the other, arguments that cinema also represents a unique art, specific to modernity, that promises to transform the very nature of aesthetic experience. These two impulses remain more or less unreconciled in much early film philosophy, which veers between arguing for the inclusion of cinema within traditional aesthetic theories of the arts, and more radical claims for cinema’s aesthetic and cultural uniqueness, claims that threaten to explode traditional aesthetic theories. This tension is strikingly evident in the work of Ricciotto Canudo, hailed as one of the first film theorists of the early twentieth century.
An important influence on Jean Epstein and Abel Gance, Canudo was praised by Epstein for his prescient insight into the art of cinema: “Canudo understood that cinematography could and should be a marvellous instrument of lyricism,” Epstein wrote, yet he also “foresaw almost immediately ‘the limits and the infinities’ of the seventh art”. Canudo’s famous essay, “The Birth of a Sixth Art” (1911), reprinted as “L’Esthetique d’un sixieme art” in his book, L’Usine aux images (1926), argued that the distinctiveness of cinema lay in its promise to combine the rhythmic arts of music and poetry with the plastic arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting – a version of Nietzsche’s famous distinction between the dynamic ‘Dionysian’ arts of music and the plastic ‘Apollonian’ arts of the image. As is typical of early film theory, Canudo inherits and applies the schema of the five beaux arts, to which cinema will be added as the sixth (later baptised by Canudo as ‘the seventh art’ after dance was awarded sixth spot). More interesting is Canudo’s situating of cinema as an art emerging in a period of historical transition between the old world and the new. It is into this cultural ‘twilight zone’ of nascent urban modernity that cinema appears as a “superb conciliation of the Rhythms of Space (the Plastic Arts) and the Rhythms of Time (Music and Poetry).” Despite the obligatory comparison with the theatre, Canudo goes on to define cinema – well before Tarkovsky – as a hybrid artform that is akin to “a Painting and a Sculpture developing in Time”. In keeping with the Nietzschean, future-oriented tenor of his text, Canudo addresses in anticipation the future geniuses of cinema who will create the great works promised by the new medium. Thanks to “the unknown individual who tomorrow will induce the powerful current of a new aesthetic function, … the Plastic Art in Motion will arise”.
Like other early theorists, Canudo devotes considerable attention to defining this remarkable new medium. Unlike recent critics of so-called ‘medium essentialism’ (Noël Carroll), Canudo does not restrict the medium to one defining material or functional element. He opts instead for a hybrid account of the defining features of movies, combining historical and technological aspects with aesthetic and psychological elements. In a prescient analysis, though more historical and phenomenological than psychoanalytical, Canudo refers to cinema’s two paradigmatically significant dimensions: the symbolic and the real, which are, as he tells us, “both absolutely modern”.
Cinema’s symbolic aspect is that of “velocity”; the speed with which elements can combine and interconnect in order to create a complex ensemble of images that has an organic unity,“similar to a living organism”. Indeed, the technological capabilities of film, along with its “physical” or “chemical” affinities with light and life, are far superior to theatre in respect of what it can convey. For Canudo, cinema is the symbolic art most attuned to the speed and fragmentation of modern life, the acceleration of human perception and dispersal of action in modern social and cultural experience. The 19th century bourgeois “love of restfulness” has been replaced by the mobile attentiveness afforded by technology; speed, noise, mobility, distraction, and the desire to conquer spaces, are now satisfied by the cinema rather than the theatre. The modern collapse of distances, exposure to anonymous crowds, bringing together of disparate cultures, and technological transformation of experience, are all well captured and amplified by the “extreme rapidity of the representation” afforded by moving images. For these reasons, Canudo avers, the cinema can be taken as a “second symbol of modern life”; an aesthetic and visual correlate to the revolutionary impact of the railway, those “monsters of steel” immortalised in Abel Gance’s monumental La Roue (1923).
Cinema’s real aspect, on the other hand, appeals to the modern audience’s fascination with seeking “its own show, the most meaningful representation of its self”, coupled with our recognition of the increasing “mechanisation” of gestures, actions, and experience in modernity – a claim recently revived by Giorgio Agamben. Responsive to the effects of the technology on modern subjectivity, the cinematograph sums up, Canudo claims, “all the values of a still eminently scientific age, entrusted to Calculus rather than to the operations of Fantasy (Fantasia)”. Cinema is thus akin to a “scientific theatre” with a “mechanical mode of expression” that brings pleasure to a distracted and restless crowd. Canudo’s rich synthesis of cultural criticism and philosophical film theory marks the appearance of a dynamic and creative strand of thought that continues today in reflections on the relationship between new digital media and accelerated and distracted forms of cognitive experience.
Anticipating Heidegger’s meditations on the danger and promise of modern technics, but more attuned, like Walter Benjamin, to the critical and creative possibilities in the new medium, Canudo describes cinema as a plastic art in motion that is at once modern and archaic. It expresses the distracted engagement and accelerated perception of modern subjects, while at the same time reviving the splendour and revelatory potential of the ancient Festival, now in a scientific, rather than aesthetic, mode. In strikingly Heideggerian or Nietzschean terms, Canudo describes the cinema as taking over the world-disclosing role of the ancient temple, the musical bacchanal, and the poetic tragedy in a world on the threshold of profound technological, cultural, and social transformation.
Cinema confronts, however, its own aesthetic problem, which becomes acute given its still ‘immature’ status: how to move from the traditional artistic stylisation of life into stillness, and towards the modern desire for “the greatest mobility in the representation of life”? As yet, Canudo remarks, cinema is an artform in progress, awaiting the artists and works that will do justice to the aesthetic potential of the medium most attuned to this historical sensibility. As Bazin too would argue, this desire to capture our experience of movement and life in images is not peculiar to modernity. Rather, it reflects a deep anthropological need that one can trace back to the prehistory of art. Anticipations of this desire for capturing movement and life can be found, as both Canudo and Bazin remark, in the “ancient painters and engravers of prehistoric caves”, who sought to suggest the movement of animals’ limbs in their pictures (beautifully captured in Werner Herzog’s extraordinary documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), not to mention in the sculpted Cavalcades on the Parthenon friezes). In a manner anticipating Bazin’s famous ‘myth of total cinema’, cinema makes possible, Canudo remarks, the idealist dream of capturing the totality of experience in images; for it is an artform that can present the whole of life in action, capturing events and expressing movement “with as much speed as possible”.
Cinema thus reflects the modern Western psychic condition of dynamism oriented towards action rather than the ancient ethic of tranquillity oriented towards contemplation. It invents a sublime spectacle or festival of movement that is one of the most remarkable results of the marriage between technology and business. A utopian rapprochement beckons between human nature and technology, a romanticist reconciliation of mechanical automatism and imaginative spontaneity. Cinematic images pass before us, Canudo observes, as “electrical vibrations of light” that also express “all the external manifestations of its inner life”. At once an expression of light or energy and of human feeling or reflection, thus bridging the gap between materiality and ideality, moving images promise to reconcile subjectivity and modernity through technological mediation. Cinema thus becomes the theatre of a new pantomime, of “consecrated Painting in motion”, what Canudo calls a new “dance of manifestations”.
Nonetheless, there is a profound ambivalence at its heart. On the one hand, cinema harks back to art’s prehistory; on the other, it resists integration into traditional conceptions of art. Canudo’s text thus vacillates between presenting cinema as a synthesis of the traditional arts, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, and cinema as transcending traditional aesthetics in favour of a new art that does not yet exist. Interestingly, Canudo acknowledges that cinema, in its current form, is not yet an art as such. Based on the mechanical automatisms of photography, cinema, in its current form, lacks the element of “plastic interpretation” (expression of artistic intention) that is characteristic of painting. Yet it opens up the possibility of an artform that transcends these categories, combining the automatism of the camera with the intentionality of the film-author (or ecraniste). This idea too has been rediscovered in recent film theory, notably in Jacques Rancière’s remarks on cinema as combining the unconscious automatism of the camera with the conscious intentionality of the artist-director. For Rancière, cinema brings to life the romanticist intuition that art is the synthesis of conscious and unconscious experience, a transcending of the dualism of ‘nature and spirit’ that has been the holy grail of romantic aesthetics since the late eighteenth century.
At a deeper level, however, the tension between Canudo’s reflections on cinema’s modernity and his attempts to integrate it into traditional aesthetics becomes most evident in his recourse to theological language to describe cinema’s resacralization of experience. The promise of cinema is to re-enchant modern subjectivity. It will usher in a new theatre, Canudo predicts, representing “real life, momentarily fixed by the photographic lens”, with the power to evoke an aesthetic experience of “sacred” emotion, a “religious” communion of the spectacle for a disenchanted modernity. The clash here between modernist futurism and archaic festival is striking. In its evocation of a ‘new aesthetic mythology’ to be realised by the movies, Canudo echoes Nietzsche’s call for a rebirth of tragic art in modernity; a communal, modernised Dionysian festival that would transfigure our fragmented experience of the everyday through feeling, rhythm, imagination and bodily experience. Through this technological re-enchantment of the everyday, the cinema promises to reveal the world anew, to transform our jaded or shocked sensibilities, reinventing, again, the Bazinian myth of ‘total cinema’: “the cinematograph brings, in the midst of even the smallest human settlement, the spectacle of distant, enjoyable, moving or instructive things: it spreads culture and stimulates everywhere the eternal desire for the representation of life in its totality”.
For all the brilliance of Canudo’s writing, his work remains tethered to traditional aesthetic theories of the fine arts. At the same time, Canudo’s work pushes against this inherited framework by insisting on cinema’s novelty as an artform, its unique transcendence of these traditional arts and its announcement of a new communal, technological, spectacular entertainment. Nonetheless, the tension between Canudo’s attempts to integrate film into traditional aesthetic theory, and to forge a new philosophical discourse more adequate to the new medium, remains unresolved, thus pointing to an underlying fissure in philosophical theories of cinema that persists to the present day.
Cinematographic Thought (Jean Epstein)
Papini invited the philosopher to reflect upon cinema, situating philosophy and cinema in a relationship of external reflection; Canudo attempted to bring film and philosophy together by integrating cinema into philosophy’s ‘system of the arts’, even though cinema is a technological and aesthetic medium that resists such integration. Jean Epstein’s work of the 1920s moves a step beyond both positions, making the more radical claim that film itself can be philosophical: that it can express a ‘cinematographic thinking’ which resists being integrated into traditional aesthetic theory, and that even gestures towards the transformation of philosophical discourse. One can therefore identify a ‘logic’ or progression in the discourse of these early film theorists concerning the relationship between cinema and philosophy: 1) film being recommended as a worthwhile object for philosophical reflection, while remaining separate and distinct from philosophy itself; 2) the attempt to integrate film into traditional aesthetic discourse, which nonetheless proves inadequate for comprehending the unique aesthetic and cultural possibilities of the medium; and 3) film as itself philosophical, as capable of its own distinctive kind of thinking, thus transforming the film and philosophy relationship such that cinema becomes philosophical just as philosophy becomes cinematic. This third stage represents a radical break with the previous two stages: it marks the emergence of a ‘negative dialectic’ (unresolved movement or aporetic dynamic) that alters the very basis of the film-philosophy relationship, and thereby raises the question of the language we should use in practising film-philosophy – a question that presents itself with renewed vigour and urgency today.
Epstein follows this logic to its extreme point, positing a cinematic thinking that is the expression of a nonhuman, technological, ‘cinematic brain’. Once again, this is a remarkable anticipation of recent philosophical thinking on the relationship between cinema and the brain, from Deleuze’s cinematic philosophy (his reflections on the relationship between cinema and the brain and remarks on the brain as a screen) to neuroaesthetic strands of cognitivism. This kind of cinematic thinking, for Epstein, so transforms the parameters of ordinary consciousness, and thus of traditional philosophical discourse, that it is better described as an “antiphilosophy”. What begins, then, as an invitation for philosophy to contemplate film, to integrate it into aesthetic theory, concludes with the overcoming of philosophy of film by ‘cinematographic thinking’. As I discuss below, the implications of this radical version of cinematic thinking – one being rehearsed today in a number of projects – are important and illuminating for contemporary film theory.
As Daniel Frampton remarks, the first author to use the term ‘cinematic thought’ was probably the French filmmaker, theorist and critic Germaine Dulac, in 1925, though she used it “without particular explanation, and only in relation to avant-garde or pure cinema”. But Epstein is the author who developed the most radical version of the idea that it is cinema that ‘thinks’; that it expresses a distinctive kind of thought – sensuous, intuitive, expressive, and aesthetic – demanding a novel form of theoretical and poetic expression. It is no surprise that critics of the idea of film as philosophy today – the ‘bold version’ of the film as philosophy thesis, as Paisley Livingston would have it – cite Epstein as the thinker who holds the most radical vision of film-philosophy, namely film as the expression of cinematographic thought. Epstein’s idea that cinema does not simply ‘reflect’ ideas, or illustrate them visually, but articulates a sensuous, aesthetic mode of thinking in visual form still remains a radical challenge to contemporary theorists.
One of the most striking features of Epstein’s texts is their extraordinary style, which we might call ‘performative’: a writing that strives to ‘mimic’ elements of its object, enacting, through its syntax and prosody, what it seeks to communicate. In keeping with the radical modernism of the age, cinema was regarded as a revolutionary medium with the capacity to transform not only the cultural traditions of the arts but the sensory, perceptual, and cognitive horizons of consciousness. The new medium could no longer be described using the hoary 19th century discourse of the ‘system of the arts’. It also challenged the neat theoretical separation between the philosopher’s disinterested discourse and its passive or inert object of theoretical analysis. The enthusiasm attending the development of cinema during the 1920s was reflected in the enthusiasm for inventing an idiom that would adequately express the transformative aesthetic experience it could evoke. Here is Epstein on ‘American close-ups’:
Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theatre curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis. Crack. The mouth gives way, like a ripe fruit splitting open. As if slit by a scalpel, a keyboard-like smile cuts laterally into the corner of the lips.
Why does Epstein begin his essay “Magnification” (1921) in this manner? To show, rather than state, his central thesis: “The close-up is the soul of the cinema.” His evocative prose aims to limn or mirror its object (the “American close-up”). To use a distinction that André Gaudreault applies to early cinema, Epstein’s prose attempts to show (monstration) rather than describe (via narration) what a close-up is; a monstration or showing characteristic, as Gaudreault argues, of early or ‘pre-narrative’ cinema itself. In this manner, Epstein’s texts attempt to show the photogénie distinctive to cinema; that elusive, revelatory aesthetic quality of luminous movement that endows objects depicted on screen with a morally significant, expressive life (so that we find a new care for appearances, perhaps for the world itself).
Epstein, however, does not remain fixed at the level of poetic monstration. Rather, he attempts to combine, in hybrid fashion, a variety of theoretical discourses, including philosophical argumentation, poetic evocation, lyrical description, manifesto-like proclamation, historical reflection, psychological insight, scientific conjecture, and aesthetic criticism. This remarkable exploration of a plurality of genres, what Nietzsche called the most ‘multifarious art of style’, makes Epstein’s writings on cinema a remarkable model for the kind of expressive or poetic film-philosophy that some theorists are calling for again today. Indeed, for Epstein, it was cinema’s radical novelty that demanded a “new poetry and philosophy”, despite the already evident (and still enduring) struggle between an anodyne, clichéd commercial cinema and an experimental, transformative art cinema.
This performative style is evident in Epstein’s essay, ‘The senses 1 b)’ (1921). Cinema, for Epstein, is a machinic expression of energy, a photochemical transduction; one that reveals a luminous life of things that usually remains invisible to the habituated human eye. This machine aesthetic, far from ‘deadening’ our perception of reality, reanimates it by revealing hitherto obscured, unconscious, or forgotten dimensions of experience: “The click of a shutter,” Epstein observes, “produces a photogénie which was previously unknown”. The artist becomes an element within the audiovisual system, operating the mechanical ‘eye’ that surpasses and supplements our own vision and “sees waves invisible to us”. As Epstein remarks, in a famous phrase, “the screen’s creative passion contains what no other has ever had before: its proper share of ultraviolet”. Cinema synthesises technology and humanity, consciousness and camera, transducing the energy that manifests as light, life, and movement. It does not simply serve as a visual prosthesis, extending the capacities of unaided human vision; it provides a means of artistic experimentation and visual exploration that promises to broaden our ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
Epstein thus reverses the film and philosophy relationship: instead of philosophy enlightening cinema as to what it is in its essence or what it can or should do as a medium, it is now film that shows philosophy how the mind works, what consciousness can or cannot do, and what it misses or ignores in ordinary experience. Consciousness itself, to anticipate Bergson (and Stiegler), is cinematographic: “To see is to idealize, abstract and extract, read and select, transform”. The human brain and cinema screen form a co-operative circuit, anticipating what some cognitivist theorists today call an ‘extended mind’ that encompasses ‘external’ technological memory supports like moving images. Contra standard accounts of cinematic spectatorship, on this view we should not regard the cinematic apparatus as completely separate from the subjectivity of the viewing subject. Rather, we can consider the technological supports and aesthetic devices of the medium as forming a circuit with the subjectivity of the embodied viewer. Taken together, these elements compose a more complex, technologically mediated, mind/body or cinematic brain/subject that also incorporates the cinematic archive of images circulating throughout the culture. Cinema thereby transfigures the potential of consciousness, transforming the possibilities of visual aesthetic experience via the mechanical automatism of the camera eye. One could view Epstein’s remarkable art-horror’ classic, La Chute de la maison Usher [The Fall of the House of Usher] (1928), as an attempt to express these ideas visually through film, a ‘revelatory’ cinema that renders visible dimensions of our experience of reality that ordinarily remain invisible, hidden or obscured from view.
Epstein even anticipates the idea of a post-humanist transformation of art and consciousness, thanks to the cinematic apparatus, but not without adding a critical note alluding to the commodification of aesthetic experience in cultural modernity:
The Bell and Howell is a metal brain, standardized, manufactured, marketed in thousands of copies, which transforms the world outside it into art. The Bell and Howell is an artist, and only behind it are there other artists: director and cameraman. A sensibility can at last be bought, available commercially and subject to import duties like coffee or Oriental carpets.
Epstein’s radical transformation of the film-philosophy relationship posits cinema, rather than philosophy, as doing the thinking: capturing and conveying an anonymous thought process via the “metal brain” of the camera, one that forms a complex circuit with our own embodied consciousness, extended and enhanced thanks to the medium of moving images. The philosophical discourse of early film-philosophy now reaches a point of self-negation, a transformation or mutation into a post-philosophical form of thinking. Cinema as a post-humanist ‘thinking subject’ can no longer be conceptualised within the parameters of traditional aesthetics, but requires a ‘post-humanist’ discourse that can no longer be called ‘philosophy’ in the traditional sense. The aesthetic ‘essence’ of cinema as a medium expressing photogénie gives way, after the historical, cultural, and technological shocks of WWII, to what Epstein famously called the “intelligence of the machine” – a phrase that captures provocatively the nexus between mind and image, consciousness and technology, articulated in the idea of ‘cinematographic thought’. As Epstein writes in a section entitled “The philosophy of the cinematograph”, from his book L’intelligence d’une machine (1946):
Cinema is one of these intellectual robots, still partial, that fleshes out representations – that is to say, a thought – through photo-electrical mechanics and a photo-chemical inscription. One can here recognize the primordial frameworks of reason, the three Kantian categories of space, duration, and causality. This result would already be remarkable if cinematographic thought only did what the calculating machine does, to constitute itself in the servile imitation of human ideation. But we know that the cinematograph, on the contrary, marks its representation of the universe with its own qualities, with an originality that makes this representation not a reflection or a simple copy with conceptions, of an organic mentality-mother, but rather a system that is individualized differently, partly independently, which contains the incitements for a philosophy so far from common opinions, the doxa, that one should perhaps call it an anti-philosophy.
Epstein breaks here with the idea that film invites philosophical reflection, or that it serves as a means of expressing ideas that find their proper expression in philosophy. Rather, cinema, now understood as an ‘extended mind’ or cognitive prosthesis incorporating consciousness and technology, is an “intellectual robot” that “fleshes out” thought -expressing space, duration, and causality – by means of a camera capturing images to be cut, combined, and projected between screens and minds. It is no longer a “servile imitation of human ideation” but a projection of thought that cannot be reduced to familiar forms of representation (referring these back, rather, to the Kantian transcendental conditions of possible experience). Cinema does not simply represent reality mimetically; it transforms how reality is experienced and incorporates our consciousness of reality into its own manner of disclosing new aspects of the world in a transformative manner. Cinema is no mere recording device but a thinking machine with a ‘post-human’ or machinic intelligence that requires a new kind of poetry and philosophy in order to be experienced in all its transformative potential. The radicality of this “cinematographic thought” is such that Epstein calls it an “antiphilosophy”, even as he attempts to comprehend it philosophically.
This radical possibility of film-philosophy as a ‘machinic thinking’, an ‘antiphilosophy’ of cinematographic thought, remains a fascinating path that has only been partially explored. It anticipates important impulses in Deleuze’s cinematic philosophy, which explicitly articulates the idea of ‘nonhuman’ forms of cinematic perception, affection, and thought with the power to transform our representational frameworks, alter our experience of the world, and open up philosophy to what it cannot yet think. For all its speculative daring, which no doubt led to its neglect in the decades that followed, Epstein’s experimental approach to cinema – focused on the experiential possibilities of cinema as a medium – presents a remarkably rich way of thinking about the transformative potential of the film-philosophy relationship: the manner in which cinema, as a technology intimately related to our minds/brains/bodies, not only reflects cultural conditions and ideas but has the potential to open up and transform what we understand by philosophical (and cultural) theory. That philosophy of film has avoided this kind of challenge for so long is itself a significant question that bears further reflection, not least on the assumptions brought to bear on what kind of discourse is suitable to theorizing our experience of film.
This brief glance at the trajectory of the philosophical discourse of early film theory shows an intriguing progression: from film and philosophy as externally related opposites; philosophy as attempting, yet failing, to integrate cinema into traditional aesthetic theories; to a transformation of the film-philosophy relationship such that film now can be said to philosophise, while philosophy, for its part, has the potential to become cinematic. This dialectical film-fable, between what can be shown and what can be thought, culminates, finally, in a radical ‘cinematic thinking’ as the self-negation of film-philosophy (giving rise to an “antiphilosophy”) that points to a different way of thinking, a visual thinking or ‘intelligence of the machine’ beyond the standard opposition between image and concept. As Casetti rightly remarks, there are intriguing parallels here with our situation today: a return to the notion of cinema as experience, for example, especially with the advent of new digital media, which reopens the ‘classical’ philosophical problems that defined early speculation on film, and that link up with cultural concerns about the impact of these new audiovisual technologies on our subjectivity within a highly mediatised global culture.
A profound observation to which one could add the following: that the ‘end’ of radical film-philosophy around 1930 – when Arnheim’s Film as Art, according to Casetti, set film theory on the path towards ‘academic’ respectability – is also marked by the rise of fascism and the trauma of WWII. It is this historical, cultural and political experience that profoundly shook the utopian impulses and experimental spirit of 1920s speculative film theory. As Deleuze, Cavell, and others have pointed out, WWII marks a caesura in the cultural history of cinema with a ‘crisis’ in traditional genres and styles of narration along with the emergence of a different, more time-image oriented cinema. The technological, cultural, economic, and political circumstances of the production and reception of cinema have changed profoundly since that time, most recently due to the advent of digital media. We too exist on the cusp of a technological and cultural revolution, one that promises to be as radical and transformative as those experienced by early film-thinkers. The challenges raised by the technological transformation of everyday life, and by the increasing social and cultural dynamism of globalisation, are profound and thought-provoking. Inheritors of early film-philosophy would thus do well to retrieve both the aesthetic experimentation and the ethico-political dimensions of this neglected tradition, which appears today like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the medium that first inspired Papini, Canudo, and Epstein.
 Adrian Martin talks of a “philosophic turn” in film theory inspired by the work of Deleuze and Cavell: “Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image” (book review), Cineaste, Winter (2006): 75-76. Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film theory: an introduction through the senses (New York: Routledge, 2010), 185-187. See also John Mullarkey, Refractions of reality: philosophy and the moving image (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 1-11 and Robert Sinnerbrink, New philosophies of film: thinking images (London/New York: Continuum, 2011), 14-15.
 Where philosophers have engaged critically with ‘classical’ film theory, they have been criticised for treating film theory as a ‘timeless’ inquiry into philosophical problems best grasped independently of any cultural, historical, or technological context. For an example of this analytic approach, see Noël Carroll, Mystifying movies: fads and fallacies in contemporary film theory (New York: Columbia University press, 1988).
 See Stanley Cavell, The world viewed: reflections on the ontology of film, enlarged edition (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University press, 1978) and Pursuits of happiness: The Hollywood comedy of remarriage (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1981); Gilles Deleuze Cinema 1: the movement-image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1986) and Cinema 2: the time-image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Hugh Galatea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1989).
 Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film theory: An Introduction through the Senses, 187.
 See my entry ‘Film-Philosophy’ in Edward Branigan and Warren Buckland (eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), 207-213.
 See Richard Abel (ed.), French film theory and criticism: A history/anthology, Volume 1: 1907-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1993) and Volume 2: 1929-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1993).