Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Colin McGinn Explains Movies and Minds.


Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), $24.00.
Wyatt Mason, "Alone in the Dark," in The New York Times, Book Review, January 22, 2006, at p. 6.



This Sunday's Times featured a review of a new work by Rutgers University philosopher Colin McGinn. Professor McGinn is an expert on the mystery of consciousness, who examines the psychic power of cinematic images and the life of the mind in a book entitled, The Power of Movies.

I have not yet read Professor McGinn's book, though I plan to do so. The price of the hardcover is a little steep for me. It is worth the sacrifice of a few luxuries, like food, to get it and read it. So I will probably do so, eventually, and write about it too.

"Take care of the luxuries," Oscar Wilde suggests, "and the necessities will take care of themselves."

My reason for writing twice in the same day -- something I almost never do -- is that I found the review of this book which appeared in The New York Times, though well-written, shockingly ill-informed and non-comprehending of the author's intentions, which I gleaned from a few quotes. The review angered me. Mr. Mason had no clue of what, I surmise, Professor McGinn was driving at in this work. Mr. Mason states the issue at the heart of McGinn's essay in these terms:

"The very useful question that McGinn poses in the The Power of Movies (and that I imagine I am not alone in hoping to see resolved), is precisely what it is about film that allows its products to insinuate themselves so swiftly and deeply into our all-too vulnerable beings."

At this point, Mr. Mason goes off the rails:

"One might try to arrive at an answer by making a comprehensive study of famous movies, or conducting a series of conversations with famous filmmakers or undertaking a neurological profile of the brain while reading a book [as compared with] viewing a movie. [Notice that these are all "empirical approaches."] But McGinn has nothing so practical [?!] in mind. Rather, his approach is elevatedly philosophical." (emphasis added.)

A reviewer is asked to comment on a book written by a noted philosopher, dealing with abstract issues surrounding the metaphysics and aesthetics of cinematic "shaping" of psychic space for all of us -- notice the use of the first person plural in my sentence -- and he begins his review by objecting that this is not a scientific study of how people "react to movies." Also, he complains that this relentlessly abstract and general study is not "practical."

Yet it is theoretical insight in philosophical works that can shape a field of scientific research for decades. He objects that the book is "elevatedly philosophical." Nothing is more practical than philosophy or theory, when it is done well, and given Professor McGinn's track record (which this reviewer clearly does not know), it is difficult to imagine that it would not be done well by him.

What do you expect from a work of speculative philosophical psychology? Empirical research? Are you surprised that an Oxford-trained philosopher writes a book that is "elevatedly philosophical"? Mr. Mason complains that Professor McGinn should have been more specific:

"... rather than providing the meticulous examination of the process of looking it might suggest, we are treated to rhetorical flights that provide little perspective of any useful kind."

Mr. Mason goes on to describe this book, which (I believe) he does not understand, as "twaddle." Well, I hate to say it, Mr. Mason, but it is your review that is, in fact, "twaddle." However, it is "useful" twaddle, because it allows me to explain the errors of the empirical mind struggling with abstract philosophical issues. I suggest to Mr. Mason that he may find the phenomenological tradition interesting and mind-expanding.

Philosophers would be equally unwise to contemplate abstract principles and then propose a solution to a scientific problem concerning the microscopic world. We need both abstract thought, especially phenomenological speculation, together with detailed empirical inquiries to understand human beings and their creations. News flash: We are complicated beings. By the way, theory is just as vital in "pure" science as it is in any other area of human inquiry:

The tiny scales of length involved in quantum gravity demonstrate why this is a field for theorists rather than experimentalists. No device has yet been built capable of forcing particles into a region equivalent to the Planck length or less. Attempts to figure out what happens when quantum physics and gravity go together have to involve regions where gravity is so strong that its quantum nature reveals itself. It is at this interface that Stephen Hawking's work is situated.

Professor McGinn is hoping to be less specific (if very precise) and more general (or inclusive) in the scope of his theoretical vision. So is Stephen Hawking in his theoretical work. Such intellectual work is not -- as Mr. Mason mistakenly believes -- "specious philosophizing," but necessary theorizing. I will now do my best to explain to this reviewer for The New York Times (?!) what McGinn's book is about:

"I had been working with the idea that our immersion in our dreams, " writes McGinn, "is analogous to the immersion we experience in fictional works, especially films ... But then it occurred to me that perhaps ... our experience of films is conditioned by our prior experience with dreams. Could it be that the allure of films is explained by the fact that films evoke the dreaming mind of the viewer?"

McGinn's suggestion is that the cinematic landscape that we inhabit as viewers of a film -- along with the artists making it -- is a "shared dream." Useful analogies exist to Jungian theory and to the archetypes, which offer an immediate entry into the most powerful and darkest corners of the psyche, through images. In a way, religious rituals and "mysteries," such as the rites of the Mithraic cult in the early Christian era, conveyed a similar power of descent into the primal forest of psychic images and "meaning-systems."

One might also refer to Eliade and Ricoeur on the power of "symbols." To see a good film, is to enter into a kind of aesthetic community. Religion is another kind of community. Lacan on the "play" of symbols is trendier than my usual sources. Use Lacan's work when visiting the East Village. Our successful artistic encounters are always a kind of dreaming together. In a less dramatic way, viewing great paintings can produce similar effects. I have written about such experiences in applying Arthur Schopenhauer's aesthetics to an encounter with Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." (See "Arthur Schopenhauer's Metaphysics of Art.")

Ernst Cassirer's philosophy of "symbolic forms" may be mentioned also. Cassirer suggests that great artists, like the best scientists, speak a language of shapes that involves a new kind of "seeing" of what exists in terms of meaningful psychological patterns. Like great artists, the best scientists (Einstein, Hawkins, Greene) are at play when doing their work. I have discussed Cassirer's work in my analysis of Iris Murdoch's and Martha Nussbaum's dialogue concerning Murdoch's novel, The Black Prince.

For McGinn, the movie screen is a kind of "mirror and window" into the collective subconscious, telling us something important about who we are in a language of visual images. In the same way that the night sky served as a blank "screen" for our ancestors, in which they saw the dramas of gods and heros written in the stars, so films provide archetypes of possible lives or adventures for all of us. Our ancestors discovered themselves and images of their life's journeys in stars emerging only at night. Similarly, we dream about what might be through our shared cinematic experiences. Consciousness or mind is individual and social, linguistic and "image-based." Consciousness or mind is increasingly unfolding for us as a kind of movie.

"As an extra piece of evidence for this analogy between sky and screen, consider what may not be a coincidence of nomenclature -- the use of the word star in both connections. There are the stars of the blackened night sky, arrayed and twinkling, aloof, distant, not shrinking from our awestruck gaze -- the celebrities of the heavens; and there are those effects of light in human form, flitting across the capacious screen, remote yet intimate, shinning, perfect -- the film stars that equally populate our imagination. I venture to suggest that the use of the word star in application to film actors derives from its use to name the denizens of the night sky, and NOT vice versa. Then whoever it was who first employed that astronomical term in application to human beings must have been thinking of the stars of the sky, and hence, analogizing sky and screen."

Mr. Mason fails to understand that Professor McGinn is well aware of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and he knows that humans mythologized the stars long before the existence of cinema. Professor McGinn is pointing out that the motivation for doing so and for naming film actors "stars" is the same wish to read our destinies and meanings in that magnificent sky, which both shelters and frightens us, as does the equally mysterious and magical power of great art -- which we humans create but which also creates us. Hey, that's what movies do. "How about that," says McGinn. Another source at this point is Marina Warner's discussion of the possible uses of "shadow puppets" in Shakespeare's theater.

Mr. Mason makes a number of other mistakes, which I will not bother to detail. Mostly they result from a failure to understand this book, as I say, and from a surprising lack of philosophical sophistication (mentioning Socrates and Descartes, as an afterthought, doesn't help) in a reviewer who seems to be very intelligent and a fine writer, but who was given the wrong book to review in light of his obvious interests.

I am disappointed that the Book Review has come to this. I believe that not long ago, an editor or other reviewer would have detected this sort of dismal misreading of a popular book by a well-known scholar. Part of the problem may be a sort of club-like atmosphere in New York journalism (and this is less true of the Times than other publications) and publishing, which prevents good writers from breaking into print, unless they have the right political connections, I guess. Those with the right "contacts" are often not the best writers or thinkers.

Please remember that there are others who may deserve a chance to be read, but who are without influential friends.

Read this book by McGinn and come to your own conclusions.

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