Plato at the Multiplex

By Martin WoessnerOctober 18, 2014

Shadow Philosophy by Nathan Andersen
Finding Ourselves at the Movies by Paul W. Kahn

PLATO’S WELL-KNOWN ALLEGORY of the cave serves, in The Republic, mostly as a cautionary tale. A society that confuses mere shadows for substance, myth for reality, is, Plato seems to say, a society in danger of succumbing to tyranny. Those with the power to manipulate images will inevitably lord over those without it. But philosophers should know better. They should be able to differentiate between illusion and truth, to recognize that shadows are mere reflections of some other reality, generated by some light source behind or above us. All we need to do is turn away from the shadows, look into the light directly, and make our way back out of the cave. The truth is out there.

The cave allegory makes the path to philosophical knowledge — the path, literally, to enlightenment — seem easy to follow. But what might we take from thinkers who imagine the path differently? Why, for instance, might the artist Mike Kelley, as part of his 1985 installation and performance piece “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile” force viewers to crawl back into the cave? A painting from that work, which was on view recently at the astounding MOCA retrospective of Kelley’s career, depicts a darkened cave, full of the requisite stalactites and stalagmites, with the larger than life motto: “When spelunking, sometimes you have to stoop … Sometimes you have to go on all fours … Sometimes even crawl.… Crawl worm!!” Originally, the canvas hung just high enough over a small opening that led to another cave-like room, forcing viewers literally to worm their way into the work. If Plato imagined philosophers walking proudly on two legs out of the cave and into the bright and airy light of wisdom (even if, initially, they had to be dragged against their will), Kelley turned them instead into spelunkers, brave souls willing to crawl through the dark, dank muck to discover something new, something different, back in the cave — all to a noisy Sonic Youth soundtrack, of course. Like so much of his voluminous artistic output, Kelley’s version of Plato’s cave upended received opinion. Some of its iconoclastic spirit might be useful today as we grapple with a new reign of shadows.

Two new books remind us that the allegory of the cave is still alive and kicking, and that it speaks directly to the current cultural moment. The contemporary equivalent of the cave — that dark space in which shadowy images flicker and dance before our eyes, entrancing and perhaps even enslaving us — is naturally the cinema, as so many film theorists, commentators, and yes, even philosophers have pointed out previously. There have even been films, such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 historical drama The Conformist, which have discussed the allegory of the cave explicitly (in this instance, with an anti-fascist philosopher lecturing a former-pupil-turned-fascist — the “conformist” of the title — about how Mussolini’s regime was nothing more than a tyranny of shadows and false idols). Given all this, it is no surprise to find Plato invoked in two books that seek to put philosophy in dialogue with film. But if the cinema is our contemporary cave, its allegorical meaning is still up for debate, as Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation and Nathan Andersen’s Shadow Philosophy: Plato’s Cave and Cinema demonstrate.

Both Kahn and Andersen advocate a kind of spelunking approach to the cinema, though neither one seems all that comfortable with going down on all fours. Each author celebrates the philosophical potential and relevance of film, but for different — and very telling — reasons. Their books represent two distinct reimaginings of Plato’s cave and recommend two different approaches to the philosophical study of film as a result.

In popular cinema, Kahn, the Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and Humanities at Yale, finds source material for his larger project to democratize philosophy. “Until and unless philosophy gets out of the ivory towers and back into the streets,” he warns, “it will continue its slow death from lack of care and, even worse, lack of respect.” Philosophy needs film, in other words, to bring it back in touch with the world, with all of the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that animate our popular imagination as well as, Kahn stresses, our public, political life. “We know ourselves through our films,” he writes, which is why they make such useful starting points for the true task of philosophizing.

As the philosopher Bernard Williams always liked to point out, the Ancient Greeks usually turned to drama for insight into the human condition, not philosophy. Something similar can be said about cinema today. Films reflect the cultural narratives that underpin almost all of our legal, religious, and political beliefs. As a philosopher, Kahn is interested in exploring this terrain, and he does so with gusto. In an explicit critique of rationalist legal and political theory — “Philosophy can no longer hope to convince by drawing on reason alone, as if there were an abstract, normative science to be applied to our community and individual lives.” — Kahn turns to the movies to find traces of the things that really motivate us. Far from being mere illusions, or fanciful distractions, Kahn takes movies to be accurate reflections of our deeper attachments to each other, whether those take the form of love, fear, hatred, sacrifice, or faith. To be sure, it is these deeper attachments, these archetypes and narrative structures, in which Kahn is really interested. The films themselves, important as they are, remain secondary to the “common store of meanings” that they draw from and mobilize, providing us with a “social imaginary” that legitimizes — for good or for bad — our most cherished legal and political convictions. As reflections of this social imaginary, films are useful barometers of “the world that we find ourselves within and that we share with others.” Movies demonstrate why, for example, sacrifice remains such a significant part of our political imagery (see Saving Private Ryan or Gran Torino); why familial love rather than civic duty often proves to be the most powerful motivator for our actions (see The Road or Everybody’s Fine); or why faith persists in our seemingly secular and scientific culture (see Avatar).

Kahn argues that we are discursive and interpretative creatures before we are rational or scientific ones. It is our imaginative, narrative capabilities — capabilities highlighted, of course, by film — that make rational decision-making and strategic planning possible, not the other way around. We learn more about what it means to be human at the movies than at the biology lecture because we live in a world of reasons and stories, not simply one of cause and effect. If the philosopher’s chief role in this post-analytic age is to point all this out, then Kahn has done it well. And like other post-analytic philosophers, such as the late Richard Rorty, he seems happy to have philosophy transform itself into a kind of cultural politics, though he stresses that his book is not itself a “work of popular culture.” Nor is it a film studies book. It is, in essence, a work of political theology — a subject about which Kahn has written previously — that sees in popular films ample evidence of our continuing reliance on religious tropes and themes in this supposedly secular age. For Kahn, it is all too obvious that “the normative center of civil society is no longer church but film.”

Although the philosophical study of film in the United States can be traced back at least to the publication of Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell’s book The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film in 1971, the truth is that film studies — which encompasses everything from the history, sociology, and aesthetics of cinema to the craft and techniques of filmmaking, as well as so much more besides — has become its own distinct discipline, or family of disciplines at least. And it isn’t always clear that film studies needs or wants the company of Plato. There’s more to the cinema than shadows dancing on the screen in front of us, rehearsing familiar narratives in anticipated genres. There is also sound, and acting, and editing, and lighting, and … the list goes on. To dismiss all this and focus solely on the narrative of a film is to miss not just the trees for the forest, but also the earth, the sky, the flowers, grasses, birds, and even the marmots darting through the meadow.

If Finding Ourselves at the Movies is too dismissive of the film studies approach to cinema, Andersen’s book Shadow Philosophy might be too enamored of it. Offering a close reading of Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange alongside a similarly close reading of Plato’s Republic, Andersen, a professor of philosophy and film at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, works towards a theory of “critical witnessing,” in which spectators become active interpreters of cinematic images. A great amount of detail goes into his descriptions of A Clockwork Orange’s shots and sequences, but Kubrick’s stunning and still-shocking film invites it. The hope, for Andersen, is that a thorough training in visual literacy will foster tools necessary for critical interpretation that can be utilized not just in the movie theater, but also in the world at large. The better we are at reading shadows, in other words, the better we might be at understanding the light that illuminates them. He hopes to “catch sight of the beginnings of real thinking” that will “illuminate the shadows, transform them into thought — to pursue a shadow philosophy.”

Andersen is clearly more comfortable with the film studies approach, which is why he seems happier than Kahn to stay in the cinematic cave for longer stretches of time. Shadow Philosophy keeps us in the theater, strapped to our seats if need be. In fact, the book takes as its central image the famous scene in A Clockwork Orange in which its sociopathic protagonist, Alex, is confined to a chair and made to watch a montage of senseless violence, as a kind of somatic cure (he had been injected with a serum that would induce adverse bodily and psychic reactions to such images). If Kahn sees through the images of film to the underlying narrative structures that support them, Andersen suggests that, to the contrary, it is the images themselves to which we need to be further exposed. His narrower focus on just one film and one well-known work of philosophy may not be as suggestive — or as hermeneutically inventive and interesting — as Kahn’s sweep through contemporary theory and film, but it does seem to be in line with Mike Kelley’s hunch that exploring deeper into the cave may be just as revelatory as exiting from it.

For Andersen, the shadows are interesting in and of themselves, not just as reflections of some other reality. Indeed, one of his primary aims, which Andersen shares with other practitioners of what now gets called “film-philosophy,” is to prove that philosophical inquiry happens in the cave as much as it does out of it. “The philosophy born from investigating cinema,” he writes, “does not develop as a result of turning away from the shadows, but of learning to see them differently.” His pairing of Plato and Kubrick makes sense, in this regard, since both are interested in the power and effect of images, the nature of justice, and the proper form of education. Andersen teases out some of these overlapping interests well, in a style that, like Kahn’s but with a little less polish, aims for the eyes and ears — if not the hearts — of popular readers. For Andersen, it is not just the narrative of A Clockwork Orange that is worthy of further inquiry, but also its specific style, its use of sound and music, even its framing and editing — all things that, for the most part, Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies overlooks in its cinematic exegeses.

For all those who seek to link film, or even film studies, with philosophy, these two books might themselves serve as cautionary tales. To see the flickering images of cinema as little more than the shadows of larger realities, whether those derive from a preexisting socio-political imaginary or simply from the profit motives of Hollywood investors, is to flee from the shadow-realm of the cave too hastily. But to remain in the cave too long, to become too engrossed in the shadow-play, is to forgo the right to critical reflection. Even cave dwellers need a dose of vitamin D every once and awhile.

Kahn and Andersen both demonstrate, sometimes despite themselves, that the relationship of film to the real world remains an enigma. Just what is it that produces the shadows in the first place, and what, in the end, are they shadows of? In a foreword to the enlarged edition of A World Viewed, which appeared in 1979, the already mentioned Stanley Cavell suggested that one of most remarkable aspects of cinema was how it invited objects in the world to “participate in the re-creation of themselves on film.” The world viewed on screen, in other words, really was the world — at least to an extent. In this sense, film has the magical ability not just to capture images or shadows of reality, but to grab hold of reality itself. It also has the ability, as Siegfried Kracauer claimed in his massive Theory of Film, to redeem reality, to rescue it from the relentless march of time (as if to reinforce the point, Kracauer subtitled his tome, The Redemption of Physical Reality). If it is true, as Kahn claims in the conclusion to Finding Ourselves at the Movies, that the cinema is “the modern counterpart to the sermon,” then perhaps this question of redemption needs more attention — both within the cave and beyond it.

What is most in need of redemption today is, as Kahn stresses, philosophy itself. By all accounts, film is doing okay. Movies, despite competition from television and the internet, have made their way into every corner of our lives, even onto small screens such as laptops and smart phones. But philosophy, especially in the current climate, has fallen on hard times, and has hunkered down in the cloistered confines of the academy. Like most of the beleaguered disciplines that comprise the humanities, philosophy has been forced to justify its continued existence to an increasingly neoliberalized academic regime, in which results are more important than conversations, and quantification is heralded over sustained reflection. The result is a discipline turned in on itself, a discipline stymied by technical abstraction and turgid — if not to say incomprehensible — forms of expression. Both Kahn and Andersen are desperate to avoid these pitfalls, and hope to keep philosophy alive as something other than a specialized academic field. In turning to film they may have found the one place where philosophy lives on as a public phenomenon. But it means that philosophy will have to continue to worm its way ever deeper into the cinematic cave if it wants to survive. Crawl worm!!


Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.

LARB Contributor

Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Terrence Malick and the Examined Life (forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press) and Heidegger in America (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!