The Tragic Screen: Cinema at the Limits of Philosophy

Dissertation, The University of Rochester (2003)

In the aftermath of a century that witnessed vast technological development alongside unprecedented disaster, contemplation of the relation between reason and representation has never been more necessary. The atrocities of the 20th century led to a rethinking of western Enlightenment thought and instrumental reason, and by the close of the century, all political and ethical claims had been destabilized by postmodern theories. This dissertation argues that the concept of tragedy is an important critical tool for thinking beyond the stalemates and failures of reason. I argue that it is the film screen rather than the theatrical stage that now poses the challenge of tragedy. ;I argue that philosophy from Plato to Derrida is defined through its encounter with the problem of tragedy---whether as the effort to overcome its aporias or to affirm them. As such it enacts tragedy's repeating drama of loss and renewal. I describe tragedy through a series of oppositions, or aporias, within thought and art---subject and object, rise and fall, freedom and necessity, finite and infinite, and law and justice. The agent of tragedy is the human figure and its drama is the contest between chance and fate. Despite the centrality of tragedy to the dramatic, film is one of the few disciplines to have failed to produce a substantial contribution to the discourse on tragedy. Film scholarship has more often understood cinema in terms of melodrama and genre, and its predominant conceptual framework has been born of Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian Psychoanalysis. ;This dissertation takes a different approach, charting the parallels between cinema and the structures of thought and asking how this popular form reveals philosophy's limits and presents a tragic alternative. I do this through an analysis of singular films as well as the deep structures of modern cinema---music, stardom, action, love, and justice. This dissertation takes a new approach towards the screen that escapes the limitations of both traditional aesthetics and current approaches to arts and media
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