Philosophy’s Film: On Alain Badiou’s “Cinema”

By Nico BaumbachSeptember 22, 2013

Philosophy’s Film: On Alain Badiou’s “Cinema”

Cinema by Alain Badiou

IN THE 1980S the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote two strange and fascinating books: Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, which offered a provocative way of thinking the relation between philosophy and cinema. Deleuze insisted that he was writing a philosophy neither of nor about cinema. Like any form of creative expression, he argued, films should not be read or interpreted through the lens of philosophical systems or used to illustrate philosophical concepts or themes. Philosophy confronts cinema because films in their own fashion produce new ways of thinking that are generative for philosophy.

When Deleuze’s books were published, they were at odds with most of what counted as serious writing about cinema at the time. They were not criticism in the conventional sense: films were not ranked or compared; there was no attempt to make the case for or against certain films. There was cinema that mattered, that had a claim on philosophy, and then there was everything else.

At the same time, Deleuze was not offering a film theory. Film theory typically means one of two things. It is either descriptive and offers generalizations that seek to explain specific aspects of film that can be isolated as objects of investigation, whether codes, genres, techniques, viewing practices and so on; or, as was the case with much of the most interesting theoretical writing that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, it is prescriptive and reads films as signifying practices rooted in, and bearing the traces of, the larger economic and historical context within which they are produced. Theory explains what films do or reveals what films hide, but at no point is there an encounter between film and theory in which cinema might make us rethink our ideas about conceptual thought itself.

For Deleuze, on the other hand, film was neither an object for knowledge nor an example of ideological expression. He did not situate films in their cultural or institutional contexts or discuss them in terms of their genres, themes, or plots. Instead, he proposed that cinema was a relatively new practice of images composed of movement and time that was neither a reflection of the world nor an object to be thought in relationship to the consciousness or psychology of the spectator. It was, in short, a new form of thinking, because it created images that made no distinction between mental reality and material reality. But what does it mean for cinema to think or have ideas?

Alain Badiou has emerged as one of the most significant French philosophers since Deleuze, and his more recent writings on cinema might be read as a kind of dialogue with Deleuze, a sometime enemy who has deeply marked his thought. Cinema, a collection of interviews and occasional pieces spanning more than half a century, offers not a systematic work of philosophy so much as a philosopher’s engagements with an art form over a period of time. Through the link of cinema we receive a backdoor entry into Badiou’s intellectual trajectory and interventions into his times. From the Sartrean existentialist to the militant Maoist to the Platonic communist he is today, there is a remarkable sense of consistency that can be felt in Badiou’s continued attempt to reinvent the terms of philosophy to coincide with the exigencies of the historical moment. However, the guiding, Deleuzian thread may be the question of cinema’s relation to thought. How does one understand the novelty of particular films, and of cinema in general, as both a resource for thought and a specific way of thinking? Or as Badiou poses this question in an interview with Cahiers du cinema in 1998, “What does cinema think that nothing but it can think?”

It’s a question that the influential French journal would have found hopelessly idealist 30 years earlier, in the wake of May 1968, when an idea of a scientific film criticism emerged, which sought to read film as a necessarily ideological and symptomatic means of meaning-making within a capitalist society. In the 1970s, not only in France but in Britain and the US as well, a desire for a more rigorous film theory, whether politically oriented or not, sought to purge itself of any romantic conception of art as well the more poetic or metaphysical trappings that had often accompanied early attempts to think the uncanny power of moving images.

Today, by contrast, we are told that films not only think but also feel; they have bodies and minds. Badiou’s book arrives at a moment when the idea of tying cinema to philosophy has become increasingly in vogue. New philosophical inquiries have produced a renewed interest in writings on cinema by a range of different historical figures from Hugo Munsterberg, Jean Epstein, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty up through Stanley Cavell. But if there is a single person who has been most frequently used to give authority to many of the most interesting new forms of film-philosophy (as well as some of the worst) it is Deleuze.

In Cinema, Badiou pays homage to Deleuze for drawing the connection between philosophy and cinema, but ultimately he has a different conception of philosophy and correspondingly different ways of thinking about what might constitute an idea in cinema. For Badiou, philosophy exists when or because things are not functioning smoothly or don’t add up. Philosophy is not seen as a creative practice, as it is for Deleuze. Rather, it offers a new relation like a radical form of montage linking irreconcilable elements, not for a vague pluralism but to arrive at a point of affirmation. Nor is philosophy explanatory; it does not produce knowledge or understanding but tries to think the points at which they fail to explain events in the world. He proceeds axiomatically, seeking to articulate the stakes of a philosophical problem and clarify a choice to be made, one that falls on the side of what he calls “truth.” Truth is an exception, something that emerges from an event that, if acknowledged, creates a new situation or world that cannot persist simultaneously with the old one.

According to Badiou, to say that there are truths also means that there is something other than just “languages and bodies.” Even though, in one sense, Badiou accepts what he calls “democratic materialism,” which insists, contrary to any notion of religious transcendence, that all that exists are individual singularities (bodies) and cultural constructions (languages), he also admits exceptions. These exceptions, while materially composed of languages and bodies, cannot be deduced from them or reduced to them. They come in four forms that Badiou calls “truth procedures”: science, art, politics, and love. These are philosophy’s “conditions,” and the original ideas or events emerging from these four realms transform philosophy and make it what it is: a servant to these semi-autonomous practices, which make life worth living. Philosophy, like life itself, only has purpose because of these realms beyond “languages and bodies.” Without science, art, politics, and love, according to Badiou, the human being is no more than “a featherless biped whose charms are not obvious.”

What does all this have to do with cinema? In art, the corollaries of “languages and bodies,” would be formalism and romanticism. Cinema must avoid the tendency of artistic practices to seek their truth in either the gesture of some formal or technical innovation or, on the other hand, in sex, death, and the exhibition of the erotic or suffering body. Film theory and criticism too should no longer anchor their own operations in seeking the truth of films in languages or bodies. From structural linguistics and semiotics to neo-formalism, film theory has long sought legitimacy through versions of formal analysis. In recent decades this tendency has been countered by an emphasis on the sensorial — the bodily or affective, the haptic or tactile — prompting German media theorist Friedrich Kittler to observe in 1999 that “there seem to be entire branches of scholarship today that believe that they have not said anything at all if they have not said the word ‘body’ a hundred times.” Thus a brief history of the last half-century of film theory: from discourse to figure, from language to mind and body. Badiou cuts through this simple binary to propose that we must think instead the singular effects for thought found in specific films.

Badiou is sometimes accused of elitism or snobbery, but despite his unfortunate insensitivity to certain vital forms of popular or folk expression (he rarely acknowledges any music of significance after serialism and refers derisively to “the droning of youth music”), it is a misreading that confuses his insistence on the rarity of truth with its address. Each truth procedure, in his conception, is by definition in opposition to the power maintained by elites and addressed to what he calls “generic humanity.” The truth of an artwork cannot be gauged by either its level of virtuosity or its influence on cultural trends. Politics, for Badiou, emerges from an axiomatic equality always in conflict with the state.

But perhaps it is love as one of Badiou’s four truth procedures that provides the best example of an event that is both rare and violent, yet also universal. Love, as we know from certain great novels and films (if not personal experience), is destructive to the routines of daily life, including norms and familial responsibilities, and yet may seize anyone at any time in any place. In this emphatic sense, love is not equivalent to sexual desire, nor is it a romantic conception of love that thrives on distance and obstacles. Rather, love is an event in the present tense, which, to those outside it is indistinguishable from a kind of madness. For Badiou, cinema has a strong affinity with love — it both calls for love and provides images of it. One example he offers to illustrate this is the final scene of Mizoguchi’s great film Crucified Lovers (1954), and the hint of a smile on the faces of the lovers being led away on horseback to their death.

Like love, cinema shows how something extraordinary can emerge out of ordinary everyday life. No one would mistake Badiou for a populist, but for him, a central aspect of cinema is the cultural phenomenon of the newly released film immediately loved by millions of people, regardless of background or education. He celebrates a certain simplicity and universalizing tendency of Hollywood cinema in particular, praising it as “an art grounded in the fondness of all classes, ages and peoples for an important man being doused with liquid manure by a tramp.”

Cinema, therefore, has a unique place within the broader “truth procedure” of art. For, according to Badiou, art in general, has nothing to do with communication or entertainment; rather, it must be like a UFO — a sighting of something both distant and obscure, and not fully locatable in any predetermined schema. Yet, in this respect, cinema is anomalous among the arts, characterized by contemporaneity; it is part in our daily conversation, our orientation in, and education about the world. For Badiou, cinema is distinguished among the arts for its democratic egalitarian potential, which is due to what he calls its “impurity.”

The impurity of cinema, for Badiou, has two distinct meanings. Cinema is impure in its relation to the other arts and in its relation to non-art. Non-art is literally all that falls outside the realm of art. It encompasses not simply the banal chaos of everyday life, but also all that we call art and entertainment that offers no new gesture or idea. Cinema is impure in relation to non-art in three ways:

1) How it is experienced: on a Friday night date or a lazy Sunday afternoon, not as an event but as an escape and as a source for gossip and the exchange of opinions;

2) How it is produced: as a collaborative medium within an industry dependent on capital and never the sole product of a single author;

3) In terms of its content: The moving indexical image always contains an excess or infinity of information and the genre clichés that comprise cinema’s stories are a necessary part of it as a mass art. Cinema starts not from the void of Mallarmé’s blank page, but from the chaos “of the non-art of its times” that it seeks to purify.

Cinema is also impure in relation to the other arts. In 1952, André Bazin wrote an essay entitled “Pour un cinéma impur: Défense de l’adaptation” (given the unfortunate title “In Defense of Mixed Cinema” in Hugh Gray’s standard English translation), which claimed that cinema was not opposed to theater or literature and could be more faithful to its own potential when it sought to serve the other arts rather than making them “cinematic.” This opposed a certain modernist notion, associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg, that any given art finds its destiny in the specific material of the medium. In a twist on this concept of “medium specificity,” for Badiou impurity is in some sense the specificity of cinema, although it is a paradoxical specificity. He calls cinema not the seventh art, but “the plus-one” of the arts. Cinema is a supplement to the division of arts: contaminated by them, it subjects them to its impure operations finding in them what is most accessible or universal.

As an impure mass art, cinema is also connected to another truth procedure: politics. Philosophy, according to Badiou, is a “theory of ruptures.” One could tie this back not only to Badiou’s engagement with French Maoism following May ’68 but also to his Sartrean youth and the existentialist conception of freedom. He is one of the last French philosophers of his generation to uphold a radical legacy untempered by retrospective softening. His The Meaning of Sarkozy published in 2007 shortly after Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory was a brutal denunciation of not only the then French president but also of the sad legacy of French politics and public intellectual discourse. Refreshingly free of nostalgia, Badiou’s insistence on the continuing significance of ’68 was not merely a lament about reactionary French politics but a plea to reignite political thought. The book was a surprise bestseller and put its author on the French talk show circuit. Today it reads as an anticipation of the waves of world protests that have broken out in recent years.

The final chapter helped kick-start a series of international conferences and debates on communism today. Slavoj Žižek has become perhaps the most visible spokesperson for a modified version of Badiou’s line, but it is Badiou’s own writings on what he calls “the communist hypothesis” that remain the most incisive attempt to rethink the C-word as an egalitarian axiom in contrast to its disastrous appropriation as a form of state power or party politics in the 20th century.

French theory and its influence on Anglo-American academic discourse have long been accused of inventing a radical political stakes where there are none, not least in film studies itself. While the language of rupture and resistance will always have an allure for certain young readers seeking a vocabulary for their desire for authenticity, Badiou’s unfashionable militancy is sure to continue to generate a degree of mock not-this-again head-scratching from the guardians of sober academic scholarship in the humanities, as well as from whoever might be assigned to review Badiou in say, The New York Review of Books.

On the other hand, in a moment when film studies tends to be more cautious about its revolutionary aspirations, Badiou may help us rethink what it means to speak of a film’s politics. In particular, he can be seen as providing a link between the new post-Deleuzean interest in the idea of film as thought (too often taken in vague metaphysical directions) with the politicized film theory developed in the 1970s. Though he doesn’t use the language of ideological critique as it is typically formulated, Badiou often seeks to isolate the dominant tendencies that serve to block genuinely new cinematic forms, but which might themselves be possible sites of intervention since they comprise the raw materials that make a film contemporary.

In an essay from 1999 entitled “Considerations on the Current State of Cinema and on the Ways of Thinking This State Without Having to Conclude That Cinema is Dead or Dying,” Badiou introduces certain “ideological indicators of the epoch” awaiting purification through new cinematic ideas: “pornographic nudity, the cataclysmic special effect, the intimacy of the couple, social melodrama, and pathological cruelty.” According to Badiou, a goal of contemporary cinema should be to perform work on these tropes that are part of our common language. A work of art, like any truth, is composed of languages and bodies of our world, but it introduces a bit of resistance such that it is available to another world. This is one way of thinking about what a cinematic idea consists of for Badiou. It is also what makes a film political, for to create a new idea in cinema is to affirm that another world is possible.

In contrast, ostensibly well-meaning left-wing films that seek to expose the world’s suffering are worse than useless. As he puts it in a review of Circle of Deceit (1981), “The oppressed peoples of the earth are not objects for the exquisite inner turmoil of European consciences.” Similarly, he has no patience for films that settle for diagnosing forms of contemporary nihilism. In an essay on “revisionist films” from his most dogmatic Maoist period, he laments: “All we get now are faces of anxiety, games of death, obscure forces of desire, and mysteries of madness.” Written in the ’70s, it would not be hard to see it as a description of certain art house fare today.

Ultimately, however, Badiou never explicitly confronts what appears to be a tension between two ideas that he insists the art and politics of cinema are capable of, which we might call cinema’s modernism and its classicism. In his reading, cinema both creates new forms through purifying dominant forms and dividing its viewers, and offers the potential for the immediate engagement of an anonymous collective. On the one hand, there are figures like Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and Manoel de Oliveira, who are the subjects of some of his finest writings on film. On the other hand, we have the indisputable evidence of Chaplin and Murnau as well as the — to my mind less persuasive — signs of the promise of what Badiou calls “neoclassicism” in certain more recent films by Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson, or James Cameron. Since these pieces were written over a long period of time, there is no reason to expect absolute consistency, but we might also see this tension as constitutive to the philosophical problem produced by cinema as Badiou sees it. Badiou’s claim that “mass art” is itself a paradoxical idea may suggest that cinema’s “impurity” allows for a dialectic between its potential as a popular art and as a critical art that intervenes into our common regimes of the image.

He has consistently highlighted two additional philosophical arenas within which cinema operates: as an ontological art and as an art of time. Cinema is ontological due to another paradox that is straight out of Bazin: it seems to offer total reality, the transparent reproduction of the world as it is, and at the same time to offer total artifice, a world of pure fantasy. Badiou sees this as an arena for cinematic play, for example, admiring The Matrix as a platonic fable for the digital age. The question of time is derived from Deleuze for whom cinema, like no other art, can offer a “time-image,” a chance to experience time as such as a perception. Unlike Deleuze, Badiou suggests that the image need not be the central category in understanding cinema but he sees cinema as always in time, its ideas always in the form of visitation, conveyed in movement or passage and infected by the vagaries of memory. And while Deleuze sees cinema as offering an image of time in a pure state not as a representation but a qualitative time understood in the manner of Bergson’s conception of duration, Badiou emphasizes instead cinema’s capacity to combine a sense of both continuous and discontinuous time and allow for the emerging of an event. If philosophy is a theory of ruptures, cinema shows how ruptures take place.

Though some of the finest philosophical pieces in the volume are from the last two decades, Badiou’s direct engagement with recent films remains somewhat disappointing. In the 1998 interview with Cahiers, he admits to no longer going to films as often. Badiou may not have quite the voracious appetite for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, cinema as Deleuze, nor the subtle sensitivity to cinephilic pleasures and tendencies in contemporary art found in his contemporary Jacques Rancière. But this matters less when we consider that the central gesture of Badiou’s work is that the love of cinema always extends outward to the world at large linking up to politics, love, and philosophy itself.

Godard’s 2010 Film socialisme contains a brief sequence of Badiou giving a lecture on Husserl and geometry to an empty auditorium on a cruise ship. Godard appears to have less interest in the lecture itself than in showing, in long shot, the absence of the audience and the persistence of the aging solitary philosopher — later shown writing by hand hunched over his desk — in the face of indifference. It is perhaps also an image of the distance between cinema and philosophy, one that like Godard in his own way, Badiou eventually hopes to breach. As he puts it, “After the philosophy of cinema must come — is already coming — philosophy as cinema, which consequently has a chance of being a philosophy of the masses.”

Who alive can create a film capable of being a philosophy of the masses? Perhaps Badiou himself. The French edition of Vanity Fair recently reported that Badiou’s long-standing plans to make a Hollywood film on the life of Plato starring Brad Pitt may finally be coming to fruition. It is easy to make light of what may seem like the perversity of some of Badiou’s more immodest gestures. (In a related project, he recently wrote what he calls a “translation” of Plato’s Republic in which he only translated the “truth” of the book, which means, among other things, that Socrates faces a female interlocutor, references Freud, and proposes communism for all, not only the guardian class.) But one of the great strengths of Badiou’s philosophy is his complete lack of cynicism and willingness to risk folly in the pursuit of truth. It means that his analysis of the present is always injected with an untimely classicism and grandeur.

Will the masses show up for Badiou’s film, or will he face another empty auditorium?

Either way, as an “impure art,” cinema has not only the capacity to provide immediate pleasure to “generic humanity” but also to show, as Deleuze once put it, that “the people are missing.”


Nico Baumbach is currently working on a book on the writings on cinema by contemporary Continental philosophers Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek.

LARB Contributor

Nico Baumbach holds a BA from Brown University and a PhD in Literature from Duke University. His research and teaching focus on critical theory, film theory, documentary, and the intersection of aesthetic and political philosophy. He is currently working on two projects: a book on the writings on cinema by contemporary Continental philosophers Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek; and a study of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.


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