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Posts Tagged ‘Descartes’

My rating: ****
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I have no doubt that Inception will prove a bonanza for all those analytic philosophers churning out edited collections on analytic philosophy and popular culture over at Open Court. Let me propose a workable alternative title for the film to start them off: Descartes and Freud. The Final Showdown. Or, for those of a Foucauldian persuasion working with other publishers, I might suggest Dream and Existence: The Movie, or even My Body, This Paper, This Fire, Redux. But before anybody gets too enthusiastic, we are talking strictly Freud and Descartes 101 here, for beginners. Thus we have Descartes’ famous meditation on dreaming, madness and doubt and some rather unsophisticated references to repression, guilt and the unconscious id – with a nod to Jung thrown in.

But for all that, Inception is a highly watchable action film with an intellectual edge in the same vein as The Matrix. The premise is that a vaguely defined technology allows people to visit the dreams of others in order to discover their secrets. A much more difficult process allows dream visitors to plant a new idea in the head of the dreamer. The technology and those who use it are deliberately left rather vague which allows the focus to be placed firmly on the more interesting end result of the process rather than in the techniques of getting there.

It is quite a novel experience watching a mainstream Hollywood action thriller that requires concentration to focus on all the simultaneous levels of action taking place – dreams within dreams within dreams. But it is the sort of intellectual concentration that one brings to solving puzzles – puzzles such as labyrinths which feature quite heavily in the film. And of course the character in the film who designs the labyrinths is named Ariadne. But we are not talking Borgesian complexities here. If it is a welcome change to have something to think about in an action thriller it is not the sort of intellectual focus that is associated with altering one’s experience of the world.

If in The Matrix, the question is how we distinguish between ‘reality’ and the illusion of ‘virtual reality’ (Plato’s cave), Inception gets back to classic Cartesian roots. How do I know that I am not dreaming? Just for the record here is Descartes’ classic passage on dreaming from his Meditations 1

How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

As he notes, there is actually no way of distinguishing between the waking and sleeping states when one is experiencing them, yet the premise in Inception is that it is possible to carry around a small physical object of one’s choice which allows one somehow to distinguish between dream and wakefulness. It is hard to see how this can work as one can dream anything at all – there are no external guarantees (apart from God, according to Descartes at least). The other problem in the film is that the dreams in the film, even if they are designed to some extent for the dreamer by the visitors, unfurl in a fairly logical fashion, which as most people know is not how dreams work. There are also various other plot difficulties – but perhaps these have been planted deliberately to provoke the viewer – I certainly hope so.

Attempts are made to give the film an emotional core along lines that evoke The Forbidden Planet and even Solaris. There are also some resonances with Vincent Ward’s 1998 film What Dreams May Come which I won’t reveal in the interests of not including spoilers. But unfortunately the film is badly let down by the casting and performance of Leonardo diCaprio as the central character. Where the writing indicates a complex, intelligent, grief stricken individual struggling with his own demons, what we get instead is bland and self assured. The right casting and direction (intense closeups) would have made the difference between a spectacular action film which poses interesting intellectual puzzles, and a film which went to the next level with a real emotional punch. An opportunity sadly missed.

But quibbles aside, the set action pieces in this film are impeccable with some fabulous special effects and good acting from the supporting cast. The soundscapes and music – particularly in a dream which takes place around a snowy fortress – are very effective as well.

In any case I will look forward to seeing an Open Court publication appearing some time in the near future…

Not much later… (15th August).

It has come to my notice (thanks Stuart!) that Blackwell has already put out a call for abstracts on Inception and Philosophy to be edited by David Kyle Johnson in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. If you are interested, Dr. Johnson’s contact details are on his webpage.

There is already some interesting reflection around the film. For a Deleuzian interpretation of Inception see the Cineosis blog. There is also a most interesting article by Ian Alan Paul in Senses of Cinema on the indetermincy of both subject and object in Inception. This article also makes passing reference to Deleuze.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

It seems to me that the philosophical choice confronting us today is the following. We have to opt either for a critical philosophy which appears as an analytical philosophy of truth in general, or for a critical thought which takes the form of an ontology of ourselves, of present reality. It is this latter form of philosophy which from Hegel to the Frankfurt School, passing through Nietzsche, Max Weber and so on, which has founded a form of reflection to which, of course, I link myself insofar as I can.

Michel Foucault, (2010) [2008]. The Government of Self and Others. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982- 1983. Tr. Graham Burchell. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 21

Random thoughts in response

This links in with my discussion of last month’s quote. Here Foucault is advocating a form of philosophy which has firm links with history and social existence. He is not interested in abstract sets of quasi mathematical problems or conceptual ordering in a vacuum as we see in analytic philosophy or systems of metaphysics. What is happening in time and human existence is what forms the primary fodder for the philosophical lineage in which Foucault situates himself.

It is less about establishing a rigid set of rules about how to conduct an ‘inquiry’, than about actively seeking to change our relation with ourselves and others in order to improve social existence as well as to have a particular ‘experience’ of the world.

I have just received The Government of Self and Others and have not as yet read it, but note there are extended discussions in it about various historical definitions (mainly from Classical Antiquity and the early Christian era) of philosophy. I will look forward to seeing what Foucault has to say on this question.

I would like to add some further – admittedly highly partisan – comments about ‘analytic philosophy’. A cursory look around the net for definitions of this movement offered the following findings. First of all a couple of American dictionary definitions:

A 20th-cent. philosophic movement characterized by its method of analyzing concepts and statements in the light of common experience and ordinary language so as to eliminate confusions of thought and resolve many traditional philosophical problems.
(Webster’s New World College Dictionary Cleveland, Ohio: Wiley, 2010 )

1. A cluster of philosophical traditions holding that argumentation and clarity are vital to productive philosophical inquiry.
2. A philosophical school of the 20th century whose central methodology is the analysis of concepts or language. Leading practitioners have included Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
3. Philosophy as professionally practiced in the United States and Great Britain in the 20th century.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

There are a number of interesting things about these definitions. First of all, there is the clear connection to the Cartesian notion of ‘clear and distinct ideas’, a notion which is one of the foundational principles of the scientific and rationalist movement. Arguably analytic philosophy is, and remains, essentially an application of these principles to the discipline of philosophy – seeking to render the ancient discipline of philosophy ‘scientific’. Similar makeovers were applied to other fields of knowledge and disciplines in the 19th and 20th centuries – such as history and of course there has been the creation of that whole area of disciplinary knowledge described as the social sciences which include, of course, sociology and psychology.

In the last twenty to thirty years, most of these disciplines at an institutional level have grudgingly had to accommodate the post war critiques emerging from Europe of the rational modernist model – but analytic philosophy in the English language world has somehow managed to maintain its power in terms of the practice of the discipline of philosophy within institutions. It would be interesting to speculate as to how this has happened meaning that divergent forms of philosophical practice have been forced to set up shop under other names in other disciplines.

Another interesting point is the overwhelmingly technical focus of analytic philosophy – the idea that a certain methodology (that ghastly term ‘philosophical inquiry’) can solve all problems – which again is an assumption which lies at the basis of scientific thought and practice and other modernist thought (including the social sciences). If one could just find the right method one can solve previously intractable problems.

Also of interest is the characterisation of this form of philosophy as a ‘method of analyzing concepts and statements in the light of common experience and ordinary language’. One is led to ask whose experience and whose ordinary language? Many of the writings in the field of analytical philosophy are highly technical to the point of being impenetrable to outsiders but the examples that are used are extraordinarily banal and often reflective of a ‘common experience’ and ‘ordinary language’ which are perhaps more familiar to particular sorts of middle class academic males of a particular ethnicity, rather than other sectors of the community.

I am reminded here of a comment Foucault made about the dominance of phenomenology as a philosophy in universities in France in the 1950s:

[It was] a style of analysis that claimed to analyze concrete things as one of its fundamental tasks. It is quite certain that from this point of view, one could have remained a bit dissatisfied in that the kind of concrete phenomenology referred to was a bit academic and university-oriented. You had privileged objects of phenomenological analysis, lived experiences or the perception of a tree through an office window. I am a little harsh but the object field that phenomenology explored was somewhat predetermined by an academic philosophical tradition…

Michel Foucault. (1996) [1988]. ‘What our present is’. In Sylvère Lotringer (ed.) Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984). Tr. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston. 2nd edition. New York: Semiotext(e), p.408.

Aaron Preston in an article on Analytic Philosophy on the (peer reviewed) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also makes the following telling remark:

Even in its earlier phases, analytic philosophy was difficult to define in terms of its intrinsic features or fundamental philosophical commitments. Consequently, it has always relied on contrasts with other approaches to philosophy—especially approaches to which it found itself fundamentally opposed—to help clarify its own nature. Initially, it was opposed to British Idealism, and then to “traditional philosophy” at large. Later, it found itself opposed both to classical Phenomenology (for example, Husserl) and its offspring, such as Existentialism (Sartre, Camus, and so forth) and also “Continental”’ or “Postmodern” philosophy (Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida).

This instructive statement would certainly bear further analysis and I will add to these notes as I come up with further ideas down the track. Analytic philosophy certainly has a very particular flavour, and as an outsider, my own perception is one of a highly gendered form of scientific modernism. Even the attempts to apply this stream of philosophy to popular culture and film fail to discard these elements and it offers a highly technical and dry reading experience no matter how exciting the original material to which this style of analysis is being applied (eg The Matrix, Buffy The Vampire Slayer).

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