Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation
by Paul W. Kahn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 256 pp. Hardcover: $50.00.
Reviewed by Melina Gills
Paul W. Kahn, a doctor of both law and philosophy, has written a bold, thought-provoking book on a subject in which he has seemingly no training: film. In Finding Ourselves at the Movies, Kahn uses cinema, which he privileges as the site of “a common imagining” and the “singular art form that we share as a community,” to resurrect the Socratic practice of creating a collective space in which to temporarily interrupt the daily routine to engage in critical self-examination. Countering the “flattening out of discourse” pervasive in public forums and political liberalism, he writes, “Where is love and sacrifice? Where is history and destiny? Where is the revolutionary violence that has been so tied to our political history? These may not appear in political theory, but they are just what we find when we examine the way in which political order is imagined in film.” Kahn presents a philosophical discussion of contemporary cinematic tropes as a vital democratic exercise that seeks to break free of causal chains to discover reasons rooted in love.
The book is primarily dedicated to philosophical interrogations on a range of politically motivated topics, with brief film analyses intermittently serving as reinforcement. Claiming that a philosopher does not judge, Kahn withholds assessing cinematic quality and instead assumes, unpersuasively, that Oscar winners and box-office successes possess inherent value; a clear line therefore separates him from the critic who attempts to champion films in spite of market value. Wishing to steer clear of theoretical abstraction, Kahn focuses on “narrative,” which to him largely amounts to plot and character arcs. Aesthetic form is ignored in an effort to neatly streamline the conversation so as to avoid didactic and academic detours. Traditional philosophy, a field much more within his comfort zone, is in evidence yet invoked indirectly; thus, while academic staples Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Plato’s dialogues, and Immanuel Kant’s canonical works are key sources, readers will find few direct citations. In this way, Kahn aims to “disrupt” convention by escaping the “ivory tower,” disregarding “disciplinary lines and conventional boundaries,” and disowning the professional as his target audience.
Further distancing himself from formal film studies to invite a broader set of readers, Kahn forgoes “classic” and “experimental” for “ordinary” cinema, meanwhile limiting his selection to English-language films (with the exception of Michael Haneke’s Caché, which is also anything but ordinary). Failing, however, to make any significant distinctions among films reduces them in a way that undermines his overall project of discerning inquiry. Despite stating that he is “focusing on exactly what it was that we experienced,” he oversimplifies the complexity of that experience, particularly by adopting a confounding, ubiquitous “we” in an effort to unify author and reader in a collective identity of a single moviegoer who seeks out and shares an identical film experience.
Kahn resorts to reductive statements on what have historically been seminally complex film topics in order to more directly address freedom, democracy, social institutions, religion, and morality. His lack of filmic theory prowess, while at times limiting the potential power of his arguments, does not pose a serious obstacle to the forceful deployment of his vast knowledge of Western traditions of law and contemporary national politics. His views on sacrifice (in the Judeo-Christian vein of Abraham and Christ) are especially intriguing when brought in dialogue with questions of representation, identity, and violence. A richer film selection will likely have been more effective, yet his limited framework sheds light on how popular narratives embody and disseminate collective myths, particularly those indispensible to the founding of a State.
The most astute chapter tackles political representation in relation to violence, alluding to the treatment of Guantánamo prisoners, CIA torture, and disappearances under dictatorship. Devoid of narratives that would give their sacrifice reason, these silenced bodies stand for a meaningless violence that threatens identity. The absence of adequate representation—such as a sacrifice narrative for the dead—leads to political failure. Such is the case with the war on terror, where the unanswerable question surprisingly becomes: for what, exactly, have the victims and not perpetrators of the attacks on the Twin Towers given their lives? In one of his shrewder film readings, Kahn discusses Inglourious Basterds as a cinematic portrayal of this failure, citing the swastikas carved into the Nazi victims’ foreheads as the destructive overlapping of representation and identity: “the word become flesh.” He opposes this to the founding of the nation, which he recounts as the progressive movement from revolution to constitution, sovereignty to law, and identity to representation—a trajectory propelled by the unifying power of love and faith. Kahn insists these subjects are missing from traditional political forums yet are right at the heart of popular films, the newest, most vital playing ground for philosophical study.
Stating in his introduction, “To be alone is to be nothing at all,” Kahn insists on familial love—and the faith it engenders—as the condition for any potential meaning in life. All political practice must flow from this as the connecting force binding identity to representation. Love is the source of social democracy, the basis for law and justice, and creates the foundation for the faith that gives way to the sacrifice that periodically reimagines the social sphere. “Love is not a private feeling but a way of being in a world”; it makes us capable of “overcoming our finite condition.” He powerfully argues for freedom as necessitating collective significance beyond the mere individual. Nevertheless, the sound logic of this position is regrettably undercut by his subsequent appeal to the puritanical belief in the separation of body and soul and in the sanctity of the former and violence of the latter. “The materiality of sex threatens love,” writes Kahn, seemingly blind to the potential of the body as a site for political resistance and not only futile suffering (discussed prior) or alienated pleasure. While he is correct to address pornography’s regressive privatization and de-socialization of the human, he would have done well to acknowledge cinema studies’ explorations of how alternative bodily (and sexual) representations can effectively challenge oppressive political structures.
Kahn’s idealizing of the body makes way for his venerating of procreation. Sacrifice for the sake of rebirth, particularly through the emergence of the child, becomes the crux of his discussion. While he convincingly shows popular cinema’s concern for “saving the children,” he rather naively identifies the child as a site of innocence, the sacred, and pure identity. The prioritizing of the child, he claims, is threatened by non-reproductive pornography—a problematic point that restricts the vast possibilities of (productive) sex. Homicidal horror also threatens the sanctity of life with the anxiety “that the body cannot support any meaning beyond itself,” yet Kahn finds that its self-reflexive irony can usefully bring that fear to light.
Hinging on the socially conservative, Kahn insists that “we” share a Judeo-Christian imagination that has been underserved by political theory while sustained by popular cinema. This begs the question of how inclusive his audience truly is and if “academics” are not the only group being marginalized by his approach. Following this religious line, Kahn concludes by connecting film to religion and declaring the movie the new sermon. They are united by the suspension of disbelief: “faith in the power of an author to script a narrative that is whole and complete.” The mediocre global moneymaker Avatar is extolled for its biblical resurrection narrative of rebirth via love and faith. The completeness created by the “two become one” myth of Adam and Eve is found in the narrative arc and closure of cinema, which must, to his mind, always signal a rebirth that transcends the repetition of static life. (His case would have been stronger if he had discussed film structure, where it has been arguably at its most powerful against narrative teleology.) In a bid for the political necessity of a comprehensive yet unbound philosophy, Kahn reduces film to a “series of scenes that we must hold in our imagination” and out of which we construct a whole that is essentially an identity akin to that of a divine design.
Finding Ourselves at the Movies follows the interdisciplinary trend of adopting film as a means to engage the public in other fields, utilizing a popular medium to draw more readers. One concern, however, lingers: has the need to widen the reach of philosophy been at the cost of the vast potential of cinematic study? Despite shortcomings in method, Kahn’s aim to “defend philosophy by engaging the reader in philosophy” is a worthy endeavor, and he succeeds in entreating readers to converse on a variety of subjects we rarely have the opportunity to seriously consider. The text convincingly argues that films create indispensable social forums in which to address politically weighty and relevant philosophical questions, such as the little-discussed but significant notion of self-sacrifice. Those more interested in the formal complexities of film should thus consider setting aside theoretical demands to engage with Kahn’s impassioned philosophical musings. Meanwhile, readers should continue to demand—and look elsewhere for—film-oriented texts that aspire to be theoretically rigorous in addition to accessible.
Melina Gills is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University and has written on film for IndieWire.
To purchase Finding Ourselves at the Movies, click here.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 1