Cinempathy: Doing Ethics on Screen

By Joseph G. KickasolaAugust 27, 2017

Cinempathy: Doing Ethics on Screen

Cinematic Ethics by Robert Sinnerbrink

DURING A RECENT STINT in rehab, the famous Generation X author Douglas Coupland penned the following words:

Everyone here ends up saying, at some point, “How the f*** did I end up here?”

There’s always that angel-on-one-shoulder, devil-on-the-other back and forth dialogue that goes on inside the heads of users. Do it! / Don’t do it! But what are those voices — who are they and where are they coming from? […] Is it one part of the brain speaking to another? Is it the brain’s “crave” centre speaking with the brain’s “bourgeois self-control centre”? If you’re an individual human being, shouldn’t you have one single voice inside your head? How did your “self” get split into two opposing factions?

[…] [S]houldn’t we all be investigating these voices?

The philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink doesn’t mention Coupland in his illuminating book Cinematic Ethics: Exploring the Ethical Experience through Film, but he does help us “investigate the voices” Coupland describes.

Given the book’s title, one might expect a comprehensive theory of ethics in cinematic experience, but Sinnerbrink’s target is narrower. He articulates and defends a single assertion: film doesn’t just “illustrate” but actually does ethics on an experiential level. In the “doing” of ethics cinematically, he argues, we can approach the larger ethical questions with a more robust understanding.

The film-philosophy approach, which Sinnerbrink has helped develop, suggests that philosophy should not limit its purview to words, propositions, abstract concepts, and argument. Profound levels of meaning and knowledge exist in nonverbal, nonpropositional forms, and so — through gesture, emotion, sensory experience, and interpersonal dynamics — the cinema is uniquely equipped to “philosophize.” These dimensions not only complement the more traditional forms of knowledge but also “dance” with them, sustaining, refining, and actualizing them. So, when Sinnerbrink asserts that film can “do” ethics, he means this quite literally. Those who have followed his previous work will find this an interesting step forward in his thinking, and others will likely find this to be a new and illuminating approach to cinematic ethics.

This delights the art lovers among us, providing more evidence for how aesthetic experience remains crucial to being human, and how it shapes our understanding of everything else. In this case, films offer a kind of ethical “space,” or “zone,” in which viewers can have ethical experiences, where the abstract principles meet flesh, bone, and concrete. Of course, there is an assumption (not quite clearly stated in this book) that the cinema can serve as a meaningful, adequate, and transformational “simulation” of human situations. Indeed, we might align him with the “embodied simulation” theory, which has a growing and esteemed group of adherents in film scholarship. Sinnerbrink could have stated his theoretical foundation more clearly here, but he has extensively addressed those issues in his previous work, including New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (2011).

The first two parts of the book under review wrestle through the theoretical issues surrounding cinema as ethics. The third part analyzes cinematic ethics in a well-chosen list of films: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002), Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010), The Promise (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1996), and The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012).

Sinnerbrink’s first engagement with an established theory points up the strengths and weaknesses of his approach, and so it requires some extended consideration. Stanley Cavell broached “cinematic ethics” through Emersonian “moral perfectionism” theory, a “post-foundational, non-teleological conception of ethics” that essentially sees the ethical as a pursuit of “self-knowledge or experience of creative self-transformation.” Interesting. But if morality is the nature of right and wrong, and ethics is what we do (or don’t) in its light, the latter is not merely “investigating the voices” (à la Coupland) but deciding which voices are right and wrong. In his engagement with Cavell, and throughout the book, there is a nagging sense that the efficiency of Sinnerbrink’s argument has, perhaps, come at the expense of avoiding or simplifying the “morality” equation from which ethical theory flows: cinema sets the ethical table, for sure, but what, exactly, are we being served?

Cavell, in his eagerness to avoid pesky “foundational” or “metaphysical” commitments, calls moral perfectionism a “register of moral life” rather than moral theory per se. Within this register, he suggests that self-understanding, making oneself “intelligible to others,” and empathy are not merely products of ethical life but could be called “ethics” themselves. This broadening of what is called “ethics” could be useful, but it also requires more articulation as to how this relates to more traditional conceptions of moral action.

We may wonder if “self-understanding,” “intelligibility to others,” and “empathy” make us sufficiently ethical people. The contemporary challenges of pure evil (Hitler or ISIS) cannot be easily addressed by Cavellian or Deleuzian ethics as they are articulated here. Likewise, there are many situations in which empathy seems the wrong approach (ask the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, or anyone dealing with an addict).

Sinnerbrink’s book primarily attends to philosophy of the post-Nietzschean variety, where it is assumed that transcendental, universal values are considered difficult, if not impossible. Aware of the dangers in this stream of thought, Sinnerbrink asserts that “a response to nihilism” is required. He thinks that Gilles Deleuze provides an answer through his “reanimation of existential-vitalist belief in the link between human beings and the world, in the immanence of thought and life.” The scope of Sinnerbrink’s project becomes clearer here:

Philosophy can join with cinema as cultural media with the power to invent forms of life and provide reasons to maintain fidelity with the world. More specifically, this means rethinking what it means to be human, beyond the body/mind dualism that, through its opposition between a corrupted material-sensuous realm and an unattainable ideal-metaphysical realm, leads to scepticism.

Sinnerbrink seems to agree with Deleuze that a sufficient response to skepticism is “believing in the body” as the ground of our existence, and “creating art that enables us to reconnect with the world in an embodied manner.” This appears to be the foundation for cinematic ethics in the book. Sinnerbrink never outright says bodily experience trumps principle, and he suggests otherwise here and there, but his accommodation of this sort of thinking raises questions he doesn’t fully answer. One can imagine Charles Taylor’s gentle queries: “What are the horizons of significance here? How do we know when we have understood something true about ourselves?”

To Sinnerbrink’s credit, he does suggest that “universal” ethics really shouldn’t be outright dismissed, and he calls out Deleuze for failing to explain how ethics is possible without foundations or ends, but these are occasional phrases scattered throughout. He doesn’t clearly put forth an alternative foundation for morality in this book; instead, he argues from something like postsecularism, which, at the moment, is less a paradigm and more a general cultural and philosophical impulse; it generally welcomes religious and spiritual impulses, yet maintains a suspicion of dogmatism and power (secular and religious), acknowledges the limits of reason, embraces a humanist ethos, leans toward meaning in immanence (as opposed to transcendence), and, in Levinasian fashion, sees obligation to “the Other” as the starting point for ethics.

So, the questions more “traditional” ethical theories pose still linger here. In fairness, however, more “traditional” ethical theories have neglected embodiment. Sinnerbrink offers us something so essential that what is “missing” here ends up appearing like exciting future research, where his ideas could be profitably joined with other ethical theories. Indeed, once this hurdle is passed, the book begins to soar.

We should not underestimate the gifts Sinnerbrink gives us. There are large, embodied, emotional, and sensual dimensions to ethical experience that traditional theories minimize or overlook, and he shows how the cinema is uniquely equipped to illuminate them. Sinnerbrink is also one of the few to capably synthesize neophenomenology and cognitive film theory into a compelling embodied theory of ethical engagement through cinematic means.

In a shining moment, Sinnerbrink states:

Cognitivist theorists reject the long-standing Platonic prejudice that reason and emotion are opposed, agreeing with Aristotle that they are complementary modes of human cognition that enable us to understand and respond to the world through practical action.

Indeed. It’s gratifying to read someone who actually understands what cognitive film theory is today. Cognitivists see perception itself — the very how of it — to be extraordinarily important for understanding our emotional responses, and emotions are taken seriously in the overall evaluation of the film experience. Given its grounding in the sciences, rather than the humanities, cognitivism has been accused of reductivism when it comes to rich, nuanced subjects like human meaning. Sinnerbrink argues that this characterization is often unfair, but where its approach is too “clinical” or “thin,” cognitivism can be profitably complemented with the “thick,” nuanced description that phenomenology affords. Likewise, the “subjectivism” weakness often plaguing phenomenological accounts can be shored up with explanatory models from cognitivism.

Sinnerbrink’s most critical idea is that cinematic engagement opens us up to the complexity and nuances of ethics in ways that are more faithful to the reality of experience. Cinema reestablishes meaning in the most immediate, immanent frame of reference and presents it at its most intense ethical pitch between human beings. He calls this process “cinempathy,” as film generates and reveals the workings of both empathy and sympathy. The idea of feeling for someone or something (sympathy) as well as feeling with someone or thing (empathy) generates a kind of dialectic of spectator engagement. Through both “central” and “peripheral imagining” (concepts advanced by cognitive film theorist Murray Smith), the experientially “rich” nature of this dynamic enables spectators “to both inhabit and observe, emotionally engage with and ethically evaluate, the fictional characters with whom we align ourselves within a cinematic world.”

Farhadi’s A Separation provides the central example for how the cinempathic dynamic works, namely by shifting alignments and allegiances via aesthetic and narrational means. The film is Rashomon-like in its approach, hiding the “truth” of various tragic events and disclosing all conflicting perspectives as morally and emotionally credible. Here, the cinema helps to reveal the true complexities of ethical situations, as well as the confounding depths of human nature. The spectator must confront true dilemmas, where there is no clear antagonist and no easy judgment. This, in turn, reveals complexities within the spectator as an ethical “judge” and participant (of sorts) in the unfolding ethical equation.

In the remainder of the book, Sinnerbrink gives nuanced discussions of films that round out his portrait of the cinempathy process. For instance, he seriously engages the “spiritual” aesthetic (dreams, visions, et cetera) and religious references in González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, which are uniquely mixed with hard social critique. The film works through profoundly embodied, sensual, and emotional means to pull off the difficult combination of both moral-spiritual and political ethical experience. It exhibits a “magic social realism” and so functions as a keystone “postsecular” film, demanding something more of both institutional religion as well as secular political paradigms.

By contrast, Sinnerbrink shows that cinempathy also functions in a more straightforward “realist” social problem film. The Dardenne brothers’ The Promise makes fewer “demands,” but their less accentuated, more reserved artistic choices foster a maximally open ethical posture:

The film offers less a case of cinematic empathy than one of ethical proximity: a sense of responsiveness to the Other, acknowledging their alterity, without seeking to “judge” those who reveal themselves, however opaquely, through their gestures and actions, and without affording the viewer an unambiguous sense of moral allegiance that would risk subsuming the singularity of the Other under one’s own conception of morality.

But one must still critically evaluate the other, no? Even though it is fashionable to think of a “post-metaphysical” ethics, one must still ask: “Empathy of what sort and for what?” Or: “Does empathy inform rather than cloud condemnation?” What of films that deliberately create interest in morally questionable characters?

Almodóvar’s Talk to Her self-consciously does this, emotionally aligning us with characters who are then, suddenly, revealed to be morally compromised. This rupture drives the audience to wonder: to what degree should our morality be emotionally grounded? That cinematic example comes from Sinnerbrink himself, so he is not ignorant of the limits to empathy’s role in cinematic ethics. He suggests that such films are less about finding moral certainty than exercising our ethical faculties within a complex moral landscape.

Sinnerbrink also recognizes that cinema’s powers may be abused by evil people. He tackles this head-on in his final example, a discussion of the remarkable documentary The Act of Killing. In Oppenheimer’s film, the main characters, despite their humor and charm, have perpetrated heinous acts of violence and engaged in massive levels of disassociation and rationalization to justify themselves to themselves. What’s more, the cinema itself has facilitated this strategy of ethical avoidance: they admit to having used films to elevate mood and adrenaline right before murdering dozens of people and, now, choose to creatively “reenact” distorted versions of their stories through bizarre, cinematically inspired genre conventions. This grotesque portrait of moral obfuscation reflexively implicates the very medium that seeks to reveal it.

Sinnerbrink’s answer to this dilemma is that this very documentary can call the killers back into the clear light of moral reality. Cinema corrects cinema. It’s a credible idea on the surface, as the documentary does signal some progress on this front in at least one character. However, one is also left with the feeling that much more than cinempathy will be required to fully account for the ethical tangle here.

All these chapters show the difficulty of doing ethics amid many different — sometimes conflicting — layers of moral, emotional, and bodily response. Cinema can be the experiential means by which the audience realizes how difficult and layered ethical issues truly are, and those experiences can be crucial to us as we sift through the ultimate ethical judgment of a situation. Sinnerbrink is not content with cinema “as illustration” or “reflection,” but he sees even prereflective experiences in the movie theater as ethics-in-action. Perhaps we should not say “It’s only a movie” ever again.

Douglas Coupland’s “rehab” musings emerge from bewildering, but powerful, experiential ground: “Everyone here ends up saying, at some point, ‘How the f*** did I end up here?’” We can all relate, at some level. Ethics is not merely a clinical matter of principles, logic, and decisions but also embodied, emotional experience: reason crashing against desire, intuitions, temptation, and an array of sensual phenomena as we feel our way through each moment of our lives. Perhaps the experience of cinema can help us begin to answer how we — ethically or unethically — got here.


Joseph G. Kickasola is professor of Film and Digital Media at Baylor University.

LARB Contributor

Joseph G. Kickasola is professor of Film and Digital Media at Baylor University and the author of The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Liminal Image. He lives in New York City, where he is director of the Baylor in New York program.


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