Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief

jhp51ca920cedc20Darren Ambrose begins Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief with a recollection of his first viewing of Star Wars at age ten. He describes the transformative effect that the film had on him, “stretching his imagination” and changing him forever. It is clear that Star Wars was more than just a movie for him; to his young mind it was akin to a religious event, revealing something new and magical about the world. It was an experience that showed him, in his own words, “the reality of a world filled with transformative potential” (p. 3). It is just this sort of experience, Ambrose argues, that demonstrates the capacity of cinema at its best to overcome modern nihilism and to reenchant human life.

I empathize with Ambrose’s experience, as I also recall, at approximately the same age,  seeing Star Wars for the first time and feeling absolutely astounded by the spectacle. I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t want the movie to end, that I wanted the action and the space battles to go on forever. I had never seen anything quite like it before, and sitting there in the darkened movie theater I imagined that I had been transported to a new dimension of reality; one from which I did not want to return.

The thing is, the movie did end, and though I went back to see it again and again on repeated occasions, I always knew that the illusion of Star Wars was just that: an imaginary fantasy that bore little resemblance to the world in which I actually did live. So, while I share Ambrose’s fond memories of this movie, I don’t share his faith in the long-term transformative potential that it possesses. No film has the power to overcome nihilism. In fact, I believe that film, as a medium, is nihilistic to its core. However, I also believe that this is not such a bad thing.

The main line of argument that Ambrose pursues in Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief starts with the premise that film is a “material form of thought” (p. 6). Drawing on theorists such as Andre Bazin, Stanley Cavell, Noël Caroll, David Bordwell and Gilles Deleuze, Ambrose characterizes the elements that are a part of cinema – such as photography and editing –  as reflections of the human thinking process itself. Just as humans look a their world, attribute cause and effect relationships to the things they see and draw inferences from the evidence, so too in movies we find the construction of narratives that reflect the modes of thinking, the assumptions and the expectations of film makers. Movies that exemplify conventional, orthodox narratives, Ambrose claims, serve to reinforce our entrenchment in modern nihilism by repeating the same old “common sense” assumptions about the world that audiences find comfortable. However, there are filmmakers like Michael Haneke, David Lynch and Werner Herzog who, according to Ambrose, successfully resist conventional thought, producing films that instruct us in new and unanticipated ways of conceptualizing reality. By viewing these materialized exemplars of “counter-sense” thinking, audiences can participate in something profound and new, giving them the opportunity to break free from the stultifying and shallow world of nihilism. This opens the path toward a renewed optimism about the existence of “hidden truths” and the possibility for a “re-enchantment” of our world. Ambrose’s main conclusion is that this sort of cinema reinvigorates faith, giving audiences hope that the future does not necessarily have to be a rehash of past forms and patterns. Contrary to what Nietzsche claims, Ambrose believes that we are not doomed to an eternal return of the same.

Just as I share Ambrose’s fond memories about seeing Star Wars for the first time, I also share his impatience with conventional movie-making and story lines. I am in complete agreement that film makers like the ones he admires should be applauded and appreciated for their bold and creative willingness to break with conventionality, to try something new and to offer unusual and interesting visions of our world. My own favorite film makers – George Romero, David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier, Darren Aronofsky – likewise have created films that defy convention, that criticize standard patterns of thought and that offer new ways of being for our consideration. These are precisely the sorts of movies that I like to watch, and the older I get, the less time I have for boring, mainstream films that simply reiterate what has already been said. I, like Ambrose, want something new, exciting and challenging from the films I watch.

However, unlike Ambrose, I’m not an optimist when it comes to the power of film to overcome nihilism. Nihilism, as I see it, is a permanent part of the human experience. It describes the situation that all humans find themselves in as they struggle and strive toward superlative goals. It is the condition of separation from our highest ideals. Perfection is lacking in our world, and though we wish things were different, it will never be so.  But while nihilism creates a gap between the real and the ideal, this is a situation that is not unequivocally negative. It is both frustrating and hopeful, since it entails that while we must constantly fail to achieve our highest aspirations, we also always have more to do and work toward. This is the point that Nietzsche was getting at when he made the distinction between passive and active nihilism. The passive nihilist simply retreats from life and despairs. The active nihilist, on the contrary, vigorously – but vainly – struggles to fill the gap separating him from perfection. I see my favorite film makers as nihilists in the best sense: active nihilists who enrich our world with their creations. None of them have solved the problems of human existence, but they have nonetheless done something positive by engaging in the creation of art.

The biggest flaw in Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief  is the author’s inadequate treatment of the key concept of nihilism itself. Ambrose never gives a satisfactory account of just what nihilism is, other than hastily equating it with “pessimism,” “despair,” “hopelessness,” and “scepticism.” In fact, nihilism is not simply the same as these negative, psychological responses. It is a much more complicated, multi-layered phenomenon involving human alienation and separation from superlative ideals.  At points, Ambrose acknowledges that there is more than simply a psychological level to nihilism. But he never fully clarifies, defines or wrestles with the phenomenon. Consequently he falls into a pattern that is common to much of the literature on the subject, arguing that nihilism is self evidently bad, and that therefore it obviously needs to be overcome. This is a bit ironic in a book whose main message is that we need to open up of new ways of thinking.

By giving such scant attention to the concept of nihilism, Ambrose passes over a number of potentially interesting ways that his own argument could be expanded and deepened. For instance, I found myself becoming quite intrigued by the ideas put forth in “Chapter One: Cinema, Realism and Naturalism.” It is here that the author discusses some influential theories of cinema, emphasizing the optimistic hope that film has the power to bring us into close contact with the objective world. This would be a perfect place to discuss the problem of nihilistic separation, going back to Immanuel Kant’s distinction between noumenal and the phenomenal realities; a distinction which provoked the very first accusations of nihilism from authors such as Heinrich von Kleist. Kant’s philosophy of Transcendental Idealism held that we never know the world as it is “in-itself,” but only through the mediation of interpretive categories of the mind. Because the mind always intervenes, we can only experience a world of subjective phenomena, while the objective world – the noumena – is forever outside of our grasp. If film was conceived as a way to bridge the gap between the objective and subjective worlds, then it may very well be a potential solution to Kant’s ontological nihilism. And yet, the question still remains as to how film could possibly accomplish this task. Doesn’t the camera itself (or perhaps the images produced by the camera) still intervene between our minds and the objective world, once again creating a nihilistic separation between the perceiver and the perceived?

It seems to me that filmic representations must always stand apart from the “thing-in-itself” and are thus, by their very nature, unable to overcome the gap of nothingness that separates us from objective reality. Film is not powerful enough to overcome nihilistic separation, although it is powerful enough to offer interesting and creative interpretations of reality. And it can offer an infinite variety of these interpretations. I think that Ambrose appreciates this power, but he does not recognize that this is, in fact, an expression of nihilism itself. Film is nihilistic; but this is not necessarily a bad thing. If Ambrose devoted more attention to exploring the nature of nihilism, I have a feeling he might have come to the same conclusion.

Despite an inadequate treatment of the central concept of nihilism, there is much that is useful in Ambrose’s book. His clear, concise discussion of film theory offers a nice overview of the field, and his analysis of the works of David Lynch and Werner Herzog is quite well done, offering some unique and thought provoking insights into the relationship between reality and representation. Additionally, I admire Ambrose’s clear writing and his ability to summarize and explain some very complicated theories. His book is worth reading for these features alone.

Ambrose, in the opening pages of Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, offers his childhood experience watching Star Wars as evidence that film is capable of producing a lasting transformation in a person’s being. My own experience tells me that such transformations are neither final nor that long lasting. What I do think films can offer is an ongoing and endless stream of interpretations and visions of reality, none of which are perfect or true, but all of which add to our understanding of what it means to be human in a world that constantly slips from our grasp.

Pacific APA 2013

402238_159649527482086_84650288_nThis year’s Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association was held right here in the Bay Area, at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I chaired a session in which Scott Jenkins, from the University of Kansas, presented his paper “What Does Recurrence Weigh On?” Commenting on Scott’s paper was Babette Babich from Fordam University, a world-renowned Nietzsche scholar who I was particularly excited to meet. The session was quite well attended, and the interaction between Scott and Babette gave everyone who was present a dramatic and spirited taste of the differing ways that analytic and continental thinkers approach the interpretation of  Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.

Professor Jenkin’s paper came from an analytic perspective and focused on trying to clarify the meaning of the “recurrence question,” (RQ) which is posed by Nietzsche in his book The Gay Science. The recurrence question, in a nutshell, asks us to consider whether or not we are able to bear the “heaviest weight” of thinking that the entirety of our lives might be lived again and again into eternity. The text upon which Jenkins focused his analysis comes from section 341:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your most solitary solitude and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

The passage goes on to ask if you would greet this possibility with joy or with horror. Would it be a comfort or a burden to you to think that every single event in your life – both wonderful and terrible – was destined to be repeated infinitely into the future?

To may contemporary Westerners, the idea of experiencing any sort of afterlife is commonly thought of as a comfort, and yet in Eastern philosophy, reincarnation is treated as a kind of punishment. Buddhists, for instance, think of reincarnation as a sign of spiritual failure. Consciousness is recycled for repeated rounds only because of residual karma that has not been worked through in one’s present life. The reward for spiritual success, on the other hand, is final extinction or nirvana. It is interesting that in Nietzsche’s works, the idea of repeating life again and again is characterized, following the Eastern example, as something potentially negative; hence the title of the particular section of Nietzsche’s book that Scott focused on: das grösste Schwergewicht (the heaviest weight). The thought that you may come back again and again, reliving life exactly as it has been lived in the past, is the “heaviest weight” precisely because, according to Nietzsche, it is difficult to bear.

The question is, why? Why is this thought such a heavy and burdensome weight?

One possible answer is suggested by those who think that RQ acts as a guide to decision-making and deliberation. In this view, asking yourself the recurrence question becomes a way to decide if you are capable of willing your very next action into eternity. Cast in this way, the recurrence question resembles something like the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative in the writings of Kant. It is a device for deciding how enthusiastic you are in embracing some proposed course of action. If you are joyful about the possible repetition of an action into eternity, then that is a sign the action is good or valuable. If, on the other hand, you are distressed about such a potential repetition, then that is a sign the action is bad or to be avoided. In this view, the “weight” of RQ is the result of how it guides and constrains our efforts of deliberation.

The problem with this interpretation, Jenkins argued, is that Nietzsche clearly states that we must consider every single one of our past actions – “everything unspeakably small or great” – when entertaining the thought of recurrence, and this would certainly not aid in decision-making, but would more likely undermine our ability to act. Considering every single event in our lives, both the important as well as the insignificant ones, is not only a practical impossibility,  it would also reduce us to indecision and inaction. Therefore, Jenkins claimed, this can’t be the “weight” of RQ.

So what is the weight of RQ? Jenkins’ conclusion was that Nietzsche provides no adequate answer and that it remains unclear what purpose asking this question is supposed to serve.

Babette Babich replied to Jenkin’s analytical exegesis with an impressive response that called into question his entire approach to reading Nietzsche. Drawing on a wide and varied set of references (everything from Nietzsche’s other works to the Torah), Babich stressed the importance of thinking the question of recurrence within context, demanding that we avoid isolating RQ from the very thing that it is supposed to highlight: the issue of human finitude and the struggle with nihilism. “The point is the paradox!” she insisted, suggesting that it is not the answer that matters, but the vigor with which we confront the idea. RQ, in this way of thinking, forces us to face the reality of a life rooted in the here-and-now and which promises nothing more than what we make of it. For Nietzsche, since heaven and God have become untenable crutches in modern life, we modern humans must learn to live in this world as if this is all there is. In considering that all our actions will be repeated into eternity, we free ourselves from the thought that some force outside of ourselves can intervene to save or rescue us from our own decisions. How we react to the thought of eternal recurrence is an indication as to how well or how poorly we have come to terms with this reality. It is not a question that has or needs any particular answer.

Nietzsche bustBoth presenters were fascinating to me in their own ways. I was impressed by Scott Jenkin’s clarity and his analytical rigor in trying to clarify the meaning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return while I was also impressed by Babette Babich’s wide-ranging scholarly erudition. Ultimately the difference between the two boiled down to the difference between analysis and synthesis. For Scott, the meaning of RQ needed to be sought in the analytical dissection of the idea while for Babette, its meaning was to be found by synthesizing an understanding of its place within Nietzsche’s entire body of work, his overarching philosophy and his worldview.

It was a pleasure to meet these philosophers. It was also a pleasure to see that the APA these days seems much more open to the inclusion of presenters advocating a continental perspective. Doing so makes for a much more lively, rich and intellectually stimulating environment.

Nihilism, The Specials and The Eternal Return of the Same

220px-OuroborosThe last two weeks of March will be packed with all sorts of fun.

On Friday March 22nd, I will give a presentation to the San Francisco Regional Mensa group on the topic of nihilism in Scottish film. The talk will take place at Fort Mason Center at 7:30 pm.

The Specials, still one of my favorite bands, will be playing in San Francisco at the Warfield Theater the following evening, Saturday the 23rd.

The following week, beginning on Wednesday, March 27th and running through Sunday the 31st, The Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association will take place in San Francisco at the Westin St. Francis Hotel. I will chair a session on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same on Saturday the 30th from 1 to 2pm. Scott Jenkins from the University of Kansas will present his paper titled “What does Eternal Recurrence Weigh On?” and Babette Babich from Fordham University will comment.

Hasn’t all of this happened before?