SEEING AND THE SEEN: POST-PHENOMENOLOGICAL ETHICS AND THE CINEMA
Bergen-Aurand, Brian Keith
Wang, Orrin N.C.
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What is the relationship between cinema and ethics, especially an elusive ethics more concerned with responding to alterity than with establishing moral order? Seeing and the Seen addresses this question by demonstrating how three seemingly unambiguous cinematic moments (from nations with totalitarian histories) are structured by ambiguity and aporia. These uncertain structures evoke non-assimilative, non-totalizing ethical responses that counter monolithic interpretations of cinema. Previously, skeptical approaches to cinema have not focused on ethics. They have relied upon hermeneutic techniques to "interpret" elements and then discuss their relevance. Their concerns have been ontological and epistemological. Using the post-phenomenological thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, I argue, however, that skepticism connects cinema to an ethics of response. Chapter One introduces the ideas of post-phenomenological ethics, skepticism, and cinema, to show how their interrelationship actually challenges traditional views, such as Levinas's that see art as unethical. Chapter Two analyzes narrative absence and the ethics of alienation in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura. I compare ontological and ethical readings of this film to argue against interpreting it as tragic. The final caress between the film's protagonists is a metaphor for cinematic representations of ethical response. Chapter Three discusses the ethics of pornography in films by Pedro Almodóvar, who shows how pornography and non-pornography remain interdependent. Focusing on cinematic iterability, I demonstrate how pornographic and non-pornographic tropes oscillate between the two genres, rendering their borders uncertain. This uncertainty makes pornography more related to skepticism and ethics than previously imagined. Chapter Four outlines the "total criticism" of the ethics of law in Oshima Nagisa's cinema. Specifically, I examine how the freeze frame at the end of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence evokes an ethics of the cinema that exposes the gaps of total criticism. The freeze frame is the least discussed cinematic device; however, it provides the most concrete example of the elusive relation between skepticism, ethics, and cinema. The Conclusion argues that these examples are only starting points toward further investigations of how filmic uncertainty highlights the relation between cinema and ethics. In the end, I emphasize this point by responding to instances from contemporary documentary filmmaking.