Friday, January 4, 2008

Epistemology of the Reel -- Part One

"Movies cannot be dismissed as mere entertainment and diversion. Rather, they are life stories that both interpret us and are being interpreted by us."

- Robert K. Johnston.(1)

What is Epistemology?

In the quest for knowledge, humanity has developed several approaches to the question: “What can we know?” This field of study in philosophy is know as epistemology, and focuses on understanding how we think and know. As such, philosophers have long presented various theories of knowledge. The mind is ever searching, seeking what it might be able to latch on to as a solid foundation for the reality we deal with day after day. In these philosophical views of knowledge and beliefs, most of the dialogue centers on the cognitive activity of the mind. Laws of logic are used in the discussion of knowledge. Rightfully so, I argue. I am one who holds to the Law of Noncontradiction as a self-evident truth. In other words, once I have recognized and understood what the Law of Noncontradiction states, I cannot help but to know it is true.(2) Knowledge is very commonly looked at as a matter of the mind, and with good reason. We know with our minds, we reflect on the world we live in with our thoughts, and we recall past events with our memory. All of these are phenomena that take place in the mind. It is issues as these that are usual topics of epistemology (an awful lot of thinking about thinking).

However, what is to be said of another significant aspect of human existence: emotions. Unlike most of the purely cognitive aspects of epistemological discussion, emotions are grounded in both our character and our experiences. Some run deep; others are nearer to the surface. One particular medium of great emotional power is film. Emotionally moving people is a primary objective of cinema. But how do cognitive knowledge, emotions, and experience interact as we view a film?(3)

Literature has been a significant part of human history for several centuries. With the introduction of the printing press, books began to be published at new rates. The experience of art in the literary sense is one that can (and should) be examined for the epistemic effects it may have on the reader, the one experiencing the art. For more than a century now, however, a whole new phenomenon has been unleashed on the human race. Motion pictures have brought forth a whole new set of experiential values and abilities. However, so very much of literature and film have not been dealt with in the metaphysical and epistemological (or more generally philosophical) realms. For the purposes of this blog, I will concentrate more specifically on cinema. However, I feel it is important to draw comparisons between literature and cinema. Both of these media are foundationally about storytelling. Thus, their connection cannot be denied.

Plato’s Cave, the Mind, and the Theater.

In Book VII of the Republic, Plato presents his "Allegory of the Cave." He tells the story of men and women are chained in place in a cave, where they face a wall. Behind them there is a fire and path on which other people not in shackles pass by freely, often holding objects. These free people pass between the fire and those who are in chains. Shadows are cast on the wall and the noise the free people make is reflected off the cave walls and then bounces to the ears of the captives who perceive these sounds to have come from the shadows on the wall before them. Having never been able to look back due to their shackles, these poor slaves know of no other reality than the shadows. Plato goes on to speak of how one is freed from the cave and introduced to the world outside of the cave. The task then for this freed slave is to return and rescue others and help them know the truth.(4)

Plato’s purpose in writing down this interesting allegory had more to do with the philosophical freeing of people’s minds, helping them not be deceived by the “shadows” of our experiential reality. There are plenty of wonderful commentaries on this allegory, and I would persuade the reader to search for one of those if he or she wishes for a more strictly philosophical analysis of "Plato’s Cave." What I wish to do is to compare the allegory that Plato has given his students to our experiences of the cinema.

I find eerie similarities between the allegory of the cave and our modern experience at the movie theater. And I’m not alone. Other philosophers have noted this too. We enter into cave-like environment and take a seat facing a wall with a screen. The lights dim and a projector, which is high above our heads and behind us, casts light on the screen. The images we see are made of colors, which are basically shadows placed in front of the light source in the projector. These images simulate motion by the rapid succession of still photos (24 of them per second, to be precise). The surround sound is sure to cast at us the sound waves to make us believe that the voices are coming from the people speaking on the screen, that cars are driving by, explosions are encompassing us, and so forth. Unlike the "Cave Allegory," film does not have as its intention to completely fool the viewer into believing that what is before him or her is reality. Plato writes, “Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”(5) This is an important observation when discussing any similarities between "Plato’s Cave" and cinema.

When watching a film, for two hours or so, we are taken into another reality, so to speak. Of course, I am able to look about and see the theater I am in, the seat I sit in, the people next to me. I can even turn around and stare at the little window at the back to the projection room through which the project casts its image on the screen. Thus, I am not constrained as the characters in "Plato’s Cave." Yet, my mind buys into the reality on the screen such that I open myself to being moved by the film being presented. In this sense, I am entering into a subjective reality that my mind is accepting. I am not the only person who has suggested this connection between film and "Plato’s Cave." David Parkinson writes “Some historians trace the origins of light-projected images back to the Cave of Shadows described in Book VII of Plato’s Republic or the shadow puppets of China, India, and Java.”(6)

Colin McGinn makes this observation, “It is sometimes been suggested, indeed, that Plato’s allegory of the Cave, in which spectators are condemned to look at the shadows of objects and not the objects themselves, is not so far from a description of a modern movie audience: both are worlds of two-dimensional images, capable of enacting (without being) the behavior of real things, and perhaps equally seductive in substituting for reality itself.”(7)

We should also be careful to look at literature in a similar light. Of course, there is no experientially similar aspect of entering into a “cave-like” environment when we read a novel. However, the words on the page are mere shadows of what we are to experience in our minds. It is important to understand the literature is primarily a cognitive art, where as cinema is primarily an experiential art. Given our education in language, we are able to pick up a novel and read it, and thus experience in our minds the adventure the author has set before us in words. Thus, the experience of literature is much different than that of cinema, in that the mind is the primary focal point of the experience. We must experience the story through our cognitive interpretation of the words and their connotations, metaphors, and other such linguistic devices as well as construct what most people today refer to as “the movie in our minds.” It should be noted, however, that such language is only present today because of the familiarity people have with movies. Such talk would not make sense to a person discussing literature in the early 1800s.

The distinction seems rather clear that literature relies on a very active involvement of the reader’s mind in the interpretation of the symbols on the paper through the very act of reading, as well as the interpretation of literary language, plot, and characterization, which “bring the story to life” in his or her mind. It is easy to see why children should be encouraged to read, for such activity in highly beneficial to the development of the mind. Film seems to contrast literature in that it is primarily experiential. An illiterate person could easily enter a theater or pop in a movie at home and watch and enjoy a film with out the need for understanding written language (unless they try to watch a subtitled movie). I am sure that many illiterate people do enjoy films. Beyond that, the non-literary person does this to great extent.(8)

The "Allegory of the Cave" can apply to both of literature and film in similar ways. The literary experience is completely mental, however. The reader must actively engage his mind in the act of reading. Film is directly experiential in its storytelling. The whole medium of film is possible only through the stimulation of the senses, thus why it is a mixing of visual and audio elements. Yet, the suspension of disbelief in reading a book is similar to the suspension of disbelief in watching a film. There is an epistemic acceptance of the reality of the story being told. We know the story is fictional, but we set this notion aside and allow ourselves to become involved in the story, care about the characters, and invest emotionally in the outcome. Within the “world of the story” certain things are accepted as possible, as long as the rules have been clearly dictated by the story itself. For example, some films are fantastic in nature and we accept that events that take place within the film even though such things are not possible in real life. I think of Being John Malkovich,(9) a film in which characters are able to enter into the mind of the real life actor John Malkovich. This is granted because the film is not supposed to be a literal interpretation of real life as might a historical film like Schindler’s List(10) or a fictional drama attempting to simulate real life in art such as In the Bedroom.(11) We suspend disbelief, thus entering into a certain susceptible epistemic state of mind where we can experience the film without having to constantly be reminded that it is not real.

The argument has often been made that film is of rather low value when compared to literature. I find this complaint sophomoric in nature. At a glance, sure, much of the films made in a given year are fairly lowbrow and uninspired junk. However, much of the books published each year are lowbrow and uninspired junk too. More on that later. This argument also misses completely the language of cinema. When film was first introduced to the public, people had no conceptual scheme for understanding how editing of film works. Editing shapes a film, and can potentially change the entire meaning of a movie if not done with the same vision in mind that the director has set forth to accomplish. It took time to establish simple rules such as: When we see a person on film looking off screen at something and then we cut to a shot of an object or another person, this implies that the first person is looking at this object or second person. We take this for granted now.

Another such example is what has been cited as the “birth of cinema.” The Lumière brothers (important pioneers in the use and development of motion picture) showed some of their new moving pictures on December 28, 1895 to a paying audience in Paris. One of the films was of a train pulling to a train station. Film historian Mark Cousins describes it and what happened next when it was shown: “The camera was placed near the track so the train gradually increased in size as it pulled in, until it seemed it would crash through the screen into the room itself. Audiences ducked, screamed or got up to leave. They were thrilled, as if on a roller-coaster ride.”(12) This initial reaction to moving pictures demonstrates a need to understand what is taking place on the screen and how to interpret it.

The language of cinema is a mix of the idioms of images and sound. There have been attempts in the past to stretch film beyond vision and sound. Scratch-and-sniff cards were given to audiences for some films. When a certain color appeared in the corner of the screen, they were to scratch that color on their card and sniff it. This was a short-lived phase. The real power of cinema seems to remain in the audio-visual realm, which keeps the comparison between cinema and "Plato’s Cave" at its purest. It becomes apparent then that there must be a certain amount of training the mind has first to endure before being able to piece together the story being told through motion picture. This is probably not an obvious point in today’s cinema and television prevalent culture, for so many children grow up watching television. They are trained to understand the basics of audio-visual communication long before they can read. I also want to point out that Colin McGinn dedicates an entire book (The Power of Movies, cited in the end notes) to discussing the similarities between film and dreams, and argues that we are able to connect so well with film because of this similarity. I agree with him. Keep in mind, however, that good filmmaking requires an understanding of the medium and its rules. One doesn’t just make a film that flow perfectly without some serious learning first. As for children and learning, an argument could be made that children should not be allowed to view films or television before they learn to read. I welcome such an argument, and might even be inclined to agree with it. However, that is not what I am treating here.

In comparing the experience of cinema with "Plato’s Cave,
it should be remembered that Plato was not a big fan of art. He saw our normal experiential reality as the cave we are all in. True reality is outside of that, found in the Forms. Our reality is an imitation of the Forms. To him art was nothing more than an imitation of our reality, and thus an imitation of an imitation. Of what worth is such a thing?(13) I, on the other hand, do not hold to a platonic view of reality. In my view, art has the power to communicate truth through the experience of art.

Looking at film with the understanding that it has its own rules and language, I believe that we should be more cautious in claims that films are purely mind-numbing junk. Again, such claims can easily be made of many of the novels currently on the New York Times Best Seller’s List. Much of recent literature is engrossed in the pure satisfying of the reader's most base expectations and gratifications for some action and sexuality through short and snappy chapters that keep the audience turning the pages quickly. Little, if any, real depth of thought, social commentary, spiritual discussion, or philosophical dialogue takes place in these books. This, however, does not mean that the medium itself is of no value. To make such a claim would be ludicrous. Just because some have misused a medium, should we do away with that medium? This might be like suggesting that we should ban photography because it has been used as a medium for pornography (or magazines and the Internet, for that mater). Also keep in mind that my discussion of film is not a defense of every movie ever made.

What is important to analyze is the experiential aspect of film, and what affect it has on its audience members. After all, is knowledge of our world, our reality, our humanity acquired only through the strictest of definitions of education, such as lectures and big-wordy-books (or big-wordy-blogs like this one)? Obviously not. We learn through all of life’s experiences. This is a basic understanding in the concept of socialization. The question then is: where does the art of cinema fit into this experiential learning? That’s where we’ll go next.

"The kind of seeing we experience in cinema is emotional seeing—the seeing of emotions with emotions. Eye and heart are locked inextricably together, just as they are in dreams. This is not disinterested, clinical seeing, but seeing charged with feeling."
- Colin McGinn.(14)

End Notes:

(1) Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000) 24.

(2) The Law of Noncontradiction (
expressed as , or A cannot equal non-A) states that in a given situation at a given time, either it is true that something is the case or is not the case, but it cannot be both if being both involves a contradiction. In other words, I cannot be in London and Los Angeles at the very same moment. For a more detailed explanation of the Law of Noncontradiction, please read Chad Meister’s book Building Belief.

(3) It should be noted, however, that this paper will most likely raise more questions than it answers. In that sense, it is not all that different from much of philosophy. I am sure there is much more that can be explored on this topic, but this will serve as an introduction to the issue.

(4) Plato, Republic (Translated by G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1992) 514a-517c.

(5) Plato, Republic (Translated by G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1992) 515c.

(6) David Parkinson, History of Film (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1995), pg. 8.

(7) Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2005) pg. 63.

(8) For a good discussion on what it means to be a literary or non-literary person see: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism. (New York, NY. Cambridge University press, 1961).

(9) Spike Jonze, 1999.

(10) Steven Spielberg, 1993.

(11) Todd Field, 2001.

(12) Mark Cousins, The Story of Film (Thuder’s Mouth Press, New York, NY. 2004) pg. 23.

(13) See the video The Examined Life Vol. 25 “What is Art?”

(14) Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2005) pg. 105.

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