Apollo, Dionysus, dialectical reason and critical cinema


Abstract
The contemporary era is dominated by an Apollonian visual language, i.e. the visual language of mainstream cinema and the mass media, and this study concerns the role that critical cinema, as Dionysian subverter, plays under such conditions. I argue that critical cinema should not be viewed as something completely ‘new’ but rather as a new, or at least the latest, manifestation of an older subversive ‘Dionysian’ voice that has made its presence felt since the dawn of the hegemony of an Apollonian disposition in Homeric epic. (I maintain that the history of western culture can be understood in terms of the persistent tension between Apollonian and Dionysian dispositions, and I use the distinction Derrida makes in Différance, between restricted and general economies, to distinguish between them, respectively.) I begin by considering the Dionysian echoes within Homer’s Iliad and then consider the way in which they became a ‘roar’ in the tragedies of Aeschylus. After Aeschylus a predominantly Apollonian voice asserted itself once again (to various degrees) through the work of Sophocles and Euripides. This was in keeping with the trend towards a more (Apollonian) restricted economy that is reflected in the writings of Homer’s literary successors, and which reached a crucial stage in Plato’s valorisation of ‘dialectics’, or what I term ‘dialecticis m’, which saw the birth of ‘dialectical language’. Through Plato dialecticism, or dialectical language, became instantiated as the ‘language’ of western philosophy and this predisposed western culture to develop along predominantly Apollonian lines. This continued from Plato, through the Middle Ages, until in the 17th century this Apollonian trend became manifest in the concept of the stable, integral, autonomous and self -transparent Cartesian ego, which is inextricably linked to dialectical language that promises certainty of ‘truth’ and maintains the possibility of representing the world in its entirety (as a system). In the contemporary ‘age of a world picture’, the hegemonic (Apollonian) visual language of mainstream cinema and the mass media propagates and perpetuates the belief in the possibility of representing the world in its entirety through the image, and insofar as it caters to audiences’ needs for stability and certainty (of ‘truth’) through providing such ‘complete’ representations, shapes their subjectivity along the lines of the Cartesian ego. According to Baudrillard, in contemporary society and culture the hyperreal realm of visual language has become far more significant for individuals than their immediate, empirical experiences, and that, as a result, they are far less predisposed to discussion and reflection and far more prone to passive ‘watching’. Also, Adorno maintains that it is impossible to have a form of critical cinema because of the way in which features inherent to cinema predispose it towards being an ideological apparatus. However, if both Baudrillard and Adorno are correct then the future appears increasingly bleak as it involves nothing other than the continuation and propagation of the hegemony of the visual language of mainstream cinema and the mass media, with no possibility for critical resistance. I argue instead that critical cinema is possible because the move towards a more restricted economy, motivated by an Apollonian disposition, did not develop from Homer to the contemporary era without meeting Dionysian resistance. I trace the presence of a subversive Dionysian voice through Homer’s Iliad, through Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, and through Plato’s Dialogues, where it echoes in the sentiments of some of Plato’s interlocutors, such as Callicles. In addition, I maintain that a ‘Dionysian’ voice resonates through both Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s respective criticisms of ‘dialectical language’ and the ‘validity’ of the Cartesian ego. I argue that critical cinema, particularly Aronofsky’s postmodern critical cinema, parallels their similar epistemological and ontological perspectives in the way in which it engages with the (Apollonian) visual language of mainstream cinema and the mass media, and thereby, potentially, facilitates a more porous and protean subjectivity. t.
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