Ontology of Movement: Painting and Cinema According to Merleau-Ponty 1

By Rodrigo, Pierre | Philosophy Today, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Ontology of Movement: Painting and Cinema According to Merleau-Ponty 1


Rodrigo, Pierre, Philosophy Today


Merleau-Ponty's last ontology is an ontology of movement, namely a theory of Being as movement. In addressing the fundamental issues of such an ontology, for which Being is an expressive movement, my starting point will be Merleau-Ponty's reflections on painting, sculpture and, mainly, cinema. Two reasons can justify such a choice. The first one is that Merleau-Ponty's reflections on films as artistic objects are starting to become better known, while an exclusive privilege has been too long given to his texts about painting, sculpture and literature. An enrichment of our reading of his aesthetics and ontology is thus made possible. The second reason is that, although it is true that Merleau-Ponty's general aesthetic doctrine introduces us to the question of movement, of its meaning and its ontological status, it is even more true, I think, that, in the framework of this general aesthetic doctrine, his analyses of the mode of expression of cinematographic images become especially significant.

In the first part of my paper, I will put forward the nature and causes of the ambiguity that characterizes Merleau-Ponty's stance regarding cinema during the forties and the fifties. As we know, it is during these years that he gave his famous lecture about cinema: the one that was delivered at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques of Paris (IDHEC) in 1945. However we will see that this lecture is far from being Merleau-Ponty's last word about cinema and, furthermore that it even displays too narrow of a conception regarding the possibilities offered by the movements of images.

Secondly I will point out the slight modification of Merleau-Ponty's doctrine which is brought about by his first course at the Collège de France in 1953. The working notes linked with this course, entitled Le monde sensible et le monde de l'expression (The Sensible World and the World of Expression), were published in 2011. They are of the highest importance, for they demonstrate the turn of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy toward an ontology of movement that has been largely renewed in comparison with the ideas which stemmed from the former influence of Gestalt theory on his thought. And such a renewal is precisely due to the results of his analyses of painting and cinema.

I will address this ontology of movement in the last part of my paper, in order to clarify the meaning of ultimate ontological notions such as the ones of "flesh," "pregnancy" (prégnance) and "wild Wesen."

I.

Let us consider first Merleau-Ponty's ambiguity with regard to cinema. This is his most apparent stance, even if it is not the most instructive. In the last chapter of Eye and Mind, one can read:

Cinema portrays movement, but how? Is it, as we are inclined to believe, by copying more closely the changes of place? We may presume not, since slowmotion shows a body floating among objects like an alga, but not moving itself.2

This is the only allusion to cinema in Eye and Mind. Obviously it is very little, to such an extent that cinema is not even mentioned for itself but only in comparison with painting. Indeed, when Merleau-Ponty wonders whether it is true that, "as we are inclined to believe," cinema copies "more closely" the change of location, he continues the analysis that he has just developed about Étienne-Jules Marey's photographs and Marcel Duchamp's paintings-photographs and paintings that, in spite of the artists' intention to render the unfolding of a movement, only present "a rigid body as if it were a piece of armor going through its motions."3 This mechanical aspect of the representation of movement in painting and photography is precisely what makes "us" think that cinema is less static and presents images that are more faithful to movement. But, from a phenomenological point of view, such an assertion is only an opinion of which Husserl might have said that it pertains to the natural attitude of consciousness and that it does not enable us to understand the logic of the cinematographic phenomenon. …

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