Academic journal article Style

Reading in the Dark: Cognitivism, Film Theory, and Radical Interpretation

Academic journal article Style

Reading in the Dark: Cognitivism, Film Theory, and Radical Interpretation

Article excerpt

The growing cachet of film studies has been accompanied, as in all emerging disciplines, by a certain amount of institutional anxiety. As Noel Carroll points out in his book Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory (1988), among the discipline's earliest efforts to allay this anxiety was the attempt to legitimize film's status as an art form. "Moreover," Carroll writes, "such a mission brought film theory in contact with philosophy almost immediately, since proving that film is an art requires making philosophical assumptions about such things as the nature of art and the conditions a medium must meet in order to be regarded as an autonomous art form" (4). These forays into philosophy led film theory directly into the philosophical problems Carroll astutely diagnoses in his book, most notably essentialist arguments for the specificity of the film medium.

But quite often, as a corollary of these medium-specificity arguments, film theorists have been concerned to establish the autonomy of film in relation to other narrative art forms, including literature, and the attempt to distinguish film from the latter has often led theorists to insist on a philosophical distinction between the medium of film and the medium of language. For George Bluestone, whose 1957 book Novels Into Film takes its inspiration from the work of classical theorist Rudolph Arnheim, the difference between watching a film and reading a novel is the difference between what he calls "perceptual knowledge" and "conceptual knowledge." The philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose views are derived from those of Andre Bazin, maintains that because films are direct "re-presentations" of reality, unlike literature they offer up "a world of immediate conviction;[. . .] a world of immediate intelligibility" (150). For all his anti-essentialism, Carroll himself has recently taken up a similar position, claimin g that films differ from language in that they can be understood at some level "just by looking--sans any process of decoding, inference, or reading" (Philosophical 132). Along with David Bordwell and others, Carroll has dubbed the stance on which this view is based "cognitivism," and the lucid, philosophically aware works in which this stance is increasingly finding a home make a much better case for the distinction between film and literature than earlier theorists had made. Furthermore, Carroll and Bordwell have provided generally convincing critiques of the currently dominant modes of film theory, modes adapted from literary theory, and these critiques make cognitivism a genuine rival to existing approaches.

As powerful as their criticisms of contemporary theory are, however, and as subtle and nuanced as their own theories can be, the cognitivists' philosophical distinction between watching a film and reading a literary text remains problematic. The difficulties with this position can best be seen by contrasting it with those of a philosophical tradition extending from the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein to the works of the contemporary philosophers Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty. In particular, I will argue that Davidson's conception of "radical interpretation" provides a better model for understanding the interpretation of both film and literature than the models the cognitivists provide. Not only does radical interpretation call into question the distinctions between film and language the cognitivists want to draw, but it also recommends a different direction for the future of film studies than the cognitivists propose. But before we can see the value of radical interpretation for film theory, we must fir st examine the sources of its philosophical differences with cognitivism, and for that we must turn to the philosophical context from which it emerged.

1. Film Interpretation as Radical Interpretation

What exactly are perceptions, beliefs, desires, and other "intentional states"? This is a question philosophers began to confront in new ways after the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). …

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