Hans Jonas’ Ethics of Technology and Stanley Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove is quite possibly the blackest of black comedies. After all, what could possibly provide a less comic situation than the threat of nuclear war and the destruction of the planet? But somehow, Stanley Kubrick manages to wring hilarity from the absurdity of almost every scene in the film. This makes providing a philosophical commentary for such a comedy somewhat questionable, as nothing is more likely to kill laughter than a serious discussion of ethics. But then again, Kubrick’s film trades on the aforementioned absurd flippancy with which nuclear arms are treated – and it seems to me as though this black setting for the comedy in fact brings some interesting philosophical themes to the fore.

The philosopher who I wish to discuss in this regard is Hans Jonas, a hugely under-read German-Jewish thinker. Jonas lived an extraordinary life in extraordinary times – born in 1903 in Mönchengladbach, North-West Germany, Jonas studied at Marburg University under Martin Heidegger in the 1920s. However, Jonas soon found himself faced with a life of persecution, and worse, under Nazism following Hitler’s rise to the Chancellery in 1933. Sensibly Jonas fled Germany for Israel, reportedly vowing to himself ‘never to return except as a soldier in a conquering army’. (1) The chance to fulfil this pledge came when the Allies went to war against Nazi Germany. Jonas consequently left Israel for England in 1940, joining the Jewish Infantry Brigade – a division of the British Army set up specifically for Jewish soldiers – a real-life Inglorious Basterds. As a well-educated man he was offered a role in military intelligence, which he refused, preferring to play his part on the front line when the Nazi regime fell. By the end of the war Jonas had seen combat in Italy and Germany, and he subsequently attempted to get back in contact with his mother, only to tragically discover that she had been murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Jonas felt that he could not forgive Germany, and emigrated for good. He spent the rest of his long life firstly as a Zionist, fighting in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and then in New York, where he became a professor at the New School for Social Research and died in 1993, aged 89. (2)

Jonas’ work was deeply influenced by his dramatic biography – his philosophy owes equal debt to Heidegger (whom he publically denounced for Nazi complicity) and Jewish theology, but also to the warring ideologies of capitalism and Soviet-communism which had after the war torn Germany in two. The influence of the Cold War – the war of economic and technological competition depicted in Dr. Strangelove – is felt in Jonas’ great book The Imperative of Responsibility. In this work Jonas puts forth the hypothesis that no previous Western morality, secular or religious, could now provide a comprehensive guide for ethical action in the age of nuclear warfare and environmental crises. He says: ‘my contention [is] that with certain developments of our powers the nature of human action has changed, and, since ethics is concerned with action, it should follow that the changed nature of human action calls for a change in ethics as well’. (3) We can see here the combined influences of Germanic philosophical scope with analytic clarity which marks Jonas’ philosophy as distinctive. Certainly, the aim of his work is not a modest one, so the focus here will be on one or two points which may illuminate some of the situations and events portrayed in Dr. Strangelove.

Firstly is the issue of what Jonas means by the ‘changed nature of human action’. The new capacities which Jonas has in mind are, of course, technological. Modern humanity has a degree of unprecedented power which our forebears, even of one hundred years ago, could never have imagined. Following from this, Jonas argues that all previous ethical systems were based primarily on a more modest picture of relations between humans – the world-as-a-whole was something which figured into ethical considerations only as an afterthought, simply because it was so vast that humanity could scarcely affect it. However, the Second World War signified a fundamental shift – whereas World War I was still fought traditionally by men against men, World War II concluded with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ethical relation between humanity and the earth had by then essentially altered, as we acquired the power – and demonstrated the will – to destroy both it and ourselves en masse. In light of this, Jonas argues that the common basis of traditional ethical systems is too limited in scope, too anthropocentric, to deal with this new power, and the net of ethical consideration must therefore be cast far wider to cover this moral gap left by weapons of mass destruction. Jonas calls for the imperative of ethical responsibility – not just to humanity, but to all life on earth – which he delivers most powerfully in ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’. He says: ‘[i]t was once religion which threatened us with a last judgement at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day […]. The latest revelation […] is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation’. (4)

The obvious moral force of this imperative for the technological age is precisely what the characters in Dr. Strangelove flagrantly disregard. In fact, Kubrick’s film highlights Jonas’ central point in comic style – humans are portrayed as simply too irresponsible to be allowed to wield such enormous power, and the technology supporting the chain of command as too unreliable to deliver such catastrophic orders. The only characters who seem to fully grasp the gravity of the situation are the repressed ex-Nazi and Presidential adviser Dr. Strangelove, née Merkwürdigliebe (played with relish by Peter Sellers), and the hapless Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers, again). By contrast, those who wield actual power are shown to be either gung-ho imbeciles like General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), paranoiacs such as Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), or simply the bickering married-couple of U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers, once more) and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov. Perhaps the best example of the film’s nightmarish situation heightened by black humour is the iconic climactic scene in which Major Kong jumps on the nuclear bomb to facilitate its drop from the plane – falling with it down to earth, Kong rides the shell rodeo-style to the earth’s imminent destruction. Little did Kubrick know, in forty years the scene would perfectly capture the worrying predicament of real-life cowboy George W. Bush sat in the White House with the nuclear codes in one hand, and in the other a foreign policy not entirely unlike that of Kubrick’s military buffoons.

Dr. Strangelove presents us with another a situation which flies in the face of one more of Jonas’ maxims: ‘[a]ct so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of genuine human life’. (5) In the film, once it becomes apparent that the nuclear holocaust is nigh – thanks to the real-life M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) deterrent – Strangelove, Muffley, and Turgidson gather in the War Room to discuss the possibility of the preservation of life. Strangelove muses that several hundred thousand Americans might be able to survive in an underground colony, subsisting quite happily on nuclear power. The great irony, of course, is that the nuclear power which would sustain this hypothetical quasi-civilisation would be the very same which had necessitated its creation. This is precisely the kind of human life which Jonas might have envisaged as the worst possible outcome of our current predicament – cut off from the natural world, cut off even from the surface of the earth, living a sub-human existence. However, the subterranean civilisation which presents the only chance for survival at the end of Dr. Strangelove is the simply the Cold War threat taken to its logical extreme. From nature we have created wonderful technologies able to give us an easier life, but we have also cultivated the potential to destroy both that nature and that life, hence Jonas’ call for a new ethic based on deliberation and consideration. The alternative, as depicted in Dr. Strangelove, is a degradation of what Jonas regarded as ‘genuine’ human life – people allotted food, water, and procreation according to quotas which would increase the possibility of humanity re-emerging from the underground bunkers when the nuclear radiation had diminished to safe levels. In short, a humanity degrading itself in the quantified-mechanistic manner in which we are – wrongly – used to regarding animals and nature.

Both Dr. Strangelove and Jonas’ thinking appear ever more prescient in light of the current ecological crisis – but how, for Jonas, do we avoid a fate similar to that which Kubrick’s film depicts? To begin with, we have to look again at natural things like forests or fish and learn to see them not simply as resources waiting for our consumption, or at best, as objects of aesthetic value. We have to fundamentally alter our understanding of the ethical remit to regard these entities as having an inherent moral value which is not simply relative to human needs – for Jonas, in striving to be at all, the natural world has a kind of primitive ethical existence which humanity ultimately makes explicit and must take responsibility for. In his other masterpiece, The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas writes: ‘through the continuity of mind with organism and of organism with nature, ethics becomes part of the philosophy of nature’. (6) The view Jonas advocates is that nature – the sum total of what-is – is not only in the sense of physically existing, but also inextricably is in an ethical form, as the ontological source of value. Again, he says: ‘ethics must be based on ontology, which is to say that the law of human behaviour must be derived from the nature of the whole’. (7) In this way, Jonas’ thought can be understood as taking up the ethical question which Heidegger was so temperamentally unsuited to tackle – as mentioned in my biographical introduction to Jonas, the two philosophers’ reactions to Nazism could not be more different. Thus what motivated Jonas’ philosophy was rising to the challenge of the relation between ‘Being and the ought’ which Heidegger notoriously failed to address. (8)

Jonas’ insightful philosophy raises several problems, however. Firstly is the issue that even if we accept his bold hypothesis – that both Western and Abrahamic ethics require a fundamental expansion in light of our current global predicaments – how do we put this new ethic into practice? In The Imperative of Responsibility Jonas considers the pros and cons of the two opposing systems depicted in Dr. Strangelove: capitalism and Soviet-communism. (9) In the film, Kubrick shows us that neither capitalism nor Soviet-communism is at all able to rise to the challenge of global responsibility – the conversations between President Muffley and his Russian counterpart show both sides to be petty, vain, and partisan. Again, the parallels between our own governments’ failure to deal with the present ecological crisis are only too obvious. Jonas likewise regards both capitalism and Soviet-communism as following from traditional Western ethics and thus incapable of dealing with the threat of nuclear warfare. He rejects capitalism out of hand as inherently incapable of realising our suppressed ethical relation to the earth, and the reasons for his doing so are only too obvious. Jonas then criticises Soviet-communism for similar reasons – that it is fundamentally anthropocentric and motivated by industrial and technological domination – but he notes that in aiming to improve the conditions of humanity at least Marxism actually has an ethical basis, unlike free-market capitalism. In the end, however, for Jonas neither mode of production is able to rise to contemporary ethical challenges without changing beyond recognition, and it seems that in this sense he might have appreciated Kubrick’s satirical take on the arms race.

The second major problem with Jonas’ project, following on from the first, is that it is so utterly pessimistic. Jonas’ constant doom-laden refrains about the impending destruction of the earth make Adorno and Heidegger look positively upbeat regarding the modern condition. For example, in response to Ernst Bloch’s unashamed advocacy of utopian Marxism in The Principle of Hope, Jonas cultivated his own typically uplifting alternative: ‘The Heuristics of Fear’. (10) The reason for this, I believe, harks back to Jonas’ own biography and the troubled times he lived in – after all, as a German-Jew born at the turn of the century he witnessed the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and finally the mounting ecological crisis. Given these experiences it is understandable that his thinking took on the fears of the age, but there is also the serious threat of a reactionary philosophical response. For example, in his theological work in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz, Jonas claims that in contrast to all previous anti-Semitic persecution which is justified as a part of God’s testing his chosen people, the Holocaust was so utterly incomprehensible that one can no longer seriously entertain the belief in an omnipotent deity. (11) While this seems reasonable, from the point of view of a previously practicing Jew it is a major decision to make, and such an absolutist response to events is characteristic of Jonas. As we have seen, the drastic nature of Jonas’ philosophy bears a similar hopelessness, and one cannot help but feel that when Jonas lost his faith in God he also abandoned faith in humanity. It seems to me that Jonas does not give humanity its due when, for example, he entertains the possibility of drastic measures to limit global population growth if all democratic incentives fail and the risk to the earth is too great to do nothing. (12) One still feels that to envisage such an extreme situation is premature, as the necessary work to halt population growth has hardly even begun.

We have seen that what motivated and troubled Jonas above all was the safeguarding of the possibility of a future for life and humankind – do we even have one, and if so, what does it look like? One certainly hopes that Dr. Strangelove – which offers similar warning, if in a different guise – will remain a great black comedy, rather than resemble that future. But what Jonas and Kubrick’s film both ultimately lack is precisely that: hope – not of the immature, delusional kind, but of the robust and principled. If Jonas is right about the serious predicament of the modern world – as I believe he is – then something more must be offered; we must prevent a firm diagnosis from becoming a cold prognosis. Perhaps then, there is as much to be said about Bloch’s principle of hope as there is about Jonas’ heuristic of fear.

Lewis Coyne


(1) Hans Jonas, Erkenntnis und Verantwortung, quoted in: Vittorio Hösle, ‘Hans Jonas’ Position in the History of German Philosophy’, in The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008), pp.19-37 (p.23).

(2) Further biographical information found in: Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston, ed. Christian Weise (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 2008).

(3) Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. David Herr and Hans Jonas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p.1.

(4) Hans Jonas, ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.198-202 (p.201-202).

(5) Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, p.11.

(6)] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p.282.

(7) Jonas quoted in: Albrecht Wellmer, ‘The Myth of the God Who Suffers and Becomes: Questions Addressed to Hans Jonas’, in Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity (Massachusetts.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998), pp.263-268 (p.265).

(8) Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p.98.

(9) See pp.142-157. In the text Jonas fails to properly distinguish between ‘real-world’ Marxist-Leninism – the real target of his criticisms – and original philosophical Marxism, and thus does not do justice to the latter.

(10) In: Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology, ed. Melvin Kranzberg (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1980), pp.213-221

(11) See: ‘The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.131-143.

(12) Harvey Scodel, ‘An Interview with Professor Hans Jonas’, Social Research, 70:2 (Summer 2003), 339-368.


BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky, 2010

Dionysus’s dance with Apollo.

“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, v.

Upon seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and having particularly enjoyed the Nietzschean interpretations of There Will be Blood (Issue 74) and The Departed (Issue 65) in Philosophy Now film columns, I felt compelled to produce a Nietzsche-inspired piece myself.

Aronofsky’s haunting creation captivated me not only because of its spectacle as an aesthetically-powerful movie, but also for the resonance that it had with my own area of study – Nietzsche’s belief that language fails to render the cosmic symbolism of music. That said, I’m not so much interested here in Tchaikovsky’s powerful composition for the ballet Swan Lake (around which the story of Black Swan revolves), as in what I consider to be the clashing of two world-views. These are what Nietzsche coined the Dionysian and the Apollonian. ‘Dionysian’ is from Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god representative of intoxication and frenzy (known as ‘Bacchus’ to the Romans), while ‘Apollonian’ is from Apollo, the Greek god of a variety of things, including light, the sun, and medicine; but for the purpose of Nietzsche’s argument, he is mainly representative of reason. To Nietzsche, these two divine aspects form the distinct sides of artistic expression: the ‘Dionysian’ being the passionate, emotional element, and the ‘Apollonian’ being the visionary, intellectual element (see for example, his The Birth of Tragedy, 1872).

Nina: The Consummate ‘Apollonian’

Black Swan depicts the protagonist, Nina – played by Natalie Portman – on a frenzied journey in pursuit of the perfect performance in the lead double role in the ballet Swan Lake as both Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan. Overseen by her neurotic mother, Nina has become the consummate performer, and as the hottest prospect in her ballet company, is awarded the mantle of the lead role for the coming season’s shows. Through fastidious practice, complimented with intense discipline, she embodies the precise nature of the Apollonian White Swan. However, in the eyes of her domineering director Thomas – played by the excellent Vincent Cassel – she fails to capture the primordial essence of the Dionysian Black Swan for which he yearns. The visceral portrayal of Nina’s tumultuous journey in pursuit of embodying the Black Swan in order to deliver the perfect performance is provided not through a particularly complex script or dialogue, but predominantly through Aronofsky’s uniquely dark direction, which in turn is wonderfully accompanied by the cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the enthralling score by Clint Mansell (inspired in no small part of course by the work of Tchaikovsky). Through its highly stylised approach, the film builds relentlessly to an overture of epic proportions in its rendering of what embodying the Dionysian spirit of art entails.

The film culminates with Nina delivering a mesmerizing performance as the Black Swan. In the preceding hour and a half, viewers have witnessed her practice indefatigably in pursuit of perfection. However, we have also seen her go down a path of self-destruction due to her obsession: she has habitually scratched herself feverishly, to the point of bleeding; suffered torrid hallucinations; and, as a bulimic, also frequently induced herself to vomit. A final hallucination depicts her stabbing and killing a fellow dancer whom she perceives as a competitive threat. What is revealed, after she has delivered the performance of her life as the Black Swan, is that in the course of this hallucination she has actually stabbed herself. As the film nears its end, we see Nina bleeding, in all probability, to her death. Lying with tears in her eyes and an ever-so-slight smile, she appears a shattered figure, but at the same time enormously satisfied. She proceeds to utter a bittersweet reflection on all that she has suffered: “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” The film then fades to white as the roar of the crowd chanting her name echoes on.

The fellow dancer whom she perceives as a threat is her hedonistic, sensual understudy Lily, played by the aptly cast Mila Kunis. On the face of it, Lily is the Black Swan incarnate. She even has a large tattoo of the wings of a black swan adorning her back – alluring, but also menacing. However, while Lily can deliver a more than capable performance as the Black Swan, Nina is an outstanding White Swan, and would attain perfection if only she could display an unbridled frenzy and passion in the role of the Black Swan to the same degree that her steely dedication masters her portrayal of the White. This perfection is something Lily cannot attain, for she is not as exceptional as the Black as Nina is as the White. As we’ll see, for Nietzsche, it would not be possible for anybody to excel as the Black Swan without crushing the White Swan part of themselves.

Welcome to The Well of Dionysus

For Nietzsche, the Dionysian spirit is more than just a way of thinking. Rather, it is a state of ecstasy and a ‘frenzy of becoming’, through which the Apollonian ‘veil of reason’ is torn asunder. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche exclaims that “what are wanted are blindness and intoxication, and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.” This dramatic proclamation summarises the purpose of his life’s work – and in particular, his endeavour to propagate the Dionysian way of thinking over that of the Apollonian. The outcome of this Dionysian outlook is displayed in all its intensity in Black Swan – that is to say, in the primal transformation of Nina into the Black Swan as she reaches her breaking point, having just, to her mind, stabbed and killed her understudy. She then enters the stage for the viewer to see her literally sprouting magnificent black wings, as we see her give herself over to the Dionysian frenzy which results in the primal, perfect performance of a lifetime: she has embodied Nietzsche’s cry for Dionysian passion.

The perfection for which Nina strives is analogous to what Nietzsche ascertains to be the supreme goal of art. This for Nietzsche can only be reached through immersing oneself in the unadulterated primordial passion of Dionysus. Accordingly, this passion is then able to unshackle one from the confines of the Apollonian realm of reason. But this paradigmatic shift in being, much like its messenger Nietzsche, is not for everyone. Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian is only for those strong enough, who have reached the limits of reason enmeshed in the Apollonian spirit. Hence, the Dionysian is only accessible by way of the Apollonian – the two are inextricably linked. Nina’s journey of suffering, and the manner in which she pushes Apollonian art to its limits, is a necessary pre-requisite for her to be able to enter Dionysus’s awe-inspiring well of the primordial. Furthermore, the Dionysian mentality is not something superficial, or something which can be dipped into on a whim. Rather, it requires unmediated passion – something of which Nina is actually capable, but Lily is not.

Not unlike the notion of Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’, in which (crudely put) one falsely believes a shadow of an object to be the actual thing itself, Nietzsche argues that those who believe that the Apollonian is the truth of human perfection invariably perpetuate the relegation of the truly liberating Dionysian spirit, exclusively favouring works of reason as the ultimate expression of artistic freedom. As a result, unlike many reviewers, I do not consider Nina’s suffering in the film to be about mental illness per se, nor about the supernatural. Rather, I read Nina’s experience as the pain associated with transcending the confines of Apollonian reason, i.e., the pain of reaching for the Dionysian light outside the Apollonian cave.

Perfection Beyond Reason

Black Swan vividly depicts the struggle to transcend the limits that one has established and reach perfection. This is a painful process, and it may crush one to death. But as the pioneering martial artist Bruce Lee once said: “There are no limits. There are plateaux; but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” Aronofsky increases the intensity continuously from the very first scene. This enables the viewers to immerse themselves in Nina’s surging to overcome her limits, and to feel the process of her embodiment of Dionysian frenzy. In a similar vein, Nietzsche’s provocative discourse in his books is emblematic of his Dionysian artistic purpose as a gadfly to provoke what he saw as a stagnated fin-de-siècle European society into striving onwards and upwards to greatness.

Nina’s striving towards, and ultimate attainment of, a form of perfection, illustrates the terrifying power of the Dionysian spirit in liberating its practitioners from the constraints of Apollonian ‘reasonableness’. In Black Swan, Aronofsky remarkably captures the clashing of two Nietzschean worldviews, and what results is an intense, dark and memorable audio-visual experience.

Dharmender Dhillon


Around four or so years ago, I was standing in my kitchen holding a copy of Hagakure, having a chat with my Mum. Having recently just bought the book from the wonderful, but now deceased book store Borders, I was stood by the fridge eagerly reading from a foreign, exciting and magical text. I’ve always been interested in Japan since I was a bambino, my fascination germinating from my interest in video games and then flourishing in my teens where I became a true Otaku. My interest was initially superficial, obsessed with Japanese comics (Manga), Anime and Japan’s answer to Disney, Studio Ghibli. However I soon became more interested in Japanese Culture and its history and I soaked up any insight into what was until very recently an isolated country.

So anyway, that’s why I was reading Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai, a 17th Century text written by Yamamoto Tsunemoto. It’s presumed that Tsunemoto wrote (or rather, dictated) the text following the death of his Master. He was refused the privilege of Junshi, (a ritual suicide performed by a Samurai following his master’s death) partly due to the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate that forbade such rituals and also because Tsunemoto’s master didn’t want him to take his own life. Tsunemoto was writing in a period of relative peace and the text comes across as almost nostalgic for the days of war and battle. Tsunemoto relieves his eagerness to perform seppuku by writing about death..a lot. This book is about death.

So anyway, back to the story, I was in my kitchen, reading out the passage that’s probably most well-known, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.” It then goes on to say, “To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.” My Mum didn’t seem best pleased by this and quickly declared such thinking as morbid, “one should focus on life”, she responded.

I’d like to argue that such meditation and contemplation on one’s inevitable demise, doom, and destruction grants one an intense awareness of one’s current existence. Not to say that this is always a comfortable thing. Constant thought on death has, at times, caused anxiety and sadness when faced with the intensity of my existence and its inevitable end. But this intense awareness allows a perspective in which we can hold a deep appreciation for existence and for living things. The character of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, is my prime candidate for such an upbeat view. The irony in Jim Jarmusch’s film is that Ghost Dog is an assassin, a killer who has the highest and deepest respect for life. In Ghost Dog, we see an individual who has fashioned himself into something that destroys and ends life, yet to call him a murderer or even a killer feels intuitively wrong. Ghost Dog presents something we can aspire to. His valuing of life is exhibited throughout the film like at the beginning where he makes a thoughtful and respectful gesture to a cemetery and in the scene with the bear hunters (my favourite scene in the entire film). (1)

Ghost Dog’s respect for the living is juxtaposed with his enemy, the mafia. New Jersey’s local mob brings to mind the comical and domestic representation of the mafia as seen in The Sopranos. In one sense, the mob kills, just like Ghost Dog does, but with an attitude that has no respect for life – the term ‘waste management’ comes to mind. Indeed, the film seems to be making a broader point regarding the Caucasian’s role in history, that of a destroyer of life. One of the mobsters is called a ‘stupid white man’ by a Native American following the brutal shooting of a carrier pigeon. The kind of respect for life shown by the Native American and Ghost Dog has a broader significance in that it seems to be drawing attention to a history of colonization and violence carried out predominantly by imperial white men. (It’s worth noting that a respect for life, as Ghost Dog shows, does not necessitate passivity or refusal to kill living creatures. There is simply a level of respect and compassion for the life that’s come to an end).

So why would constant focus on death create such a respect for life? One of Heidegger’s claims is that we are beings-toward-death.  Although we cannot experience our own deaths or the deaths of others, we are nevertheless going to die and we are constantly faced by the possibility of our own death. The intense and constant awareness that all of our relations with the world disappear upon dying is an uncomfortable thought, but it is one of the defining characteristics of Dasein. The opposite of Dasein (which can be translated as ‘being there’) is not being there anymore. Reflection on one’s own ‘not-Being’ brings one’s own ‘being-able-to-Be’ into view and ‘there is a sense in which the possibility of my not existing encompasses the whole of my existence (Hinman 1978, 201), and my awareness of that possibility illuminates me, qua Dasein, in my totality.’ (2)

Ghost Dog’s existence is consciously structured by such an awareness and it’s the affirmation of his not-Being that allows him to actively forge an intense mindfulness of life. Ghost Dog is a typical Übermensch in that he creates his own code. Even though he frequently looks to the Hagakure for guidance, the text stands outside of the conventional American oeuvre of self-help literature. The Hagakure is, in part, an existential text that offers guidance on how to deal with suffering and the burdens that accompany existence. Ghost Dog’s code or Way is his own. The Hagakure itself talks much about the Way and Ghost Dog lives in accordance with the Daoist conception of the Way-farer who is ‘always unseen’ and abstruse, leaving no trace of their passing. Ghost Dog is untouched by his modern day surroundings and in this sense is like ‘a wooden lump’ or ‘muddy pool’, obscure and mysterious to those around him. (3)

The most comforting thing about Ghost Dog is his attitude to death. It’s not a passive acceptance but an active affirmation, and it is perhaps due to this affirmation that he makes such a good assassin. One commentator puts it that ‘”By considering himself already dead” [Ghost Dog]… maintains his composure.’ (4) This can be seen in a number of scenes where Ghost Dog shows no fear or hesitation when under fire or in danger.

The Hagakure, too, presents us with a view that positively affirms death and the failure to achieve one’s goals; a view far removed from Western liberal society. Today, we are encouraged to generate goals, to acquire things and, perhaps more philosophically, to create a neat and complete narrative in which we see the generic unfolding of some kind of ‘good life’. When we mourn, we mourn what could have been achieved and realised by that person. The loss of life in itself is not the problem, it is the loss of our relations and future potential. The Hagakure criticises such a desire for achievement: ‘The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time.’ Applying this melodramatic maxim to ordinary western life helps draw attention to our zealous praise of success, victory and achievement. It may be obvious but people can die before achieving their goals. Even less drastically people sometimes don’t get what they desire because they’re not particularly competent, or because they are just plain unlucky. A climate that sells success stories of meteoric rises to fame and then bullshits us into believing that anyone can achieve this, leads to disappointment when our desires aren’t realised. Conversely, the Hagakure says, when facing an army of thousands, it’s enough just to be determined to cut them down, even though loss is inevitable. It never says you’ll win. Nietzsche says that ‘Buddhism makes no promises but keeps them, Christianity” or in this case Western ideas like the American dream ‘makes a thousand promises but keeps none.(5) In this sense Ghost Dog and the Hagakure offers a view that I personally find comforting.

The film, coupled with the text encourages us to disperse with any kind of ultimate, metaphysical meaning in our existence. The general Eastern view offered in the film embraces Daoist and Buddhist thinking whereby existence is fashioned through a discipline and commanding of the drives and passions. The intense awareness of one’s own life and the lives of others, including non-human animals, is improved by contemplation of death and one’s own eventual non-being.

I’d like to end with a quote from the Hagakure that I hope stays with you, ‘A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly toward an irrational death.’

Simon Booth


1) This second scene could however be seen as a flagrant disregard for life. One commentator sees Ghost Dog’s actions as barbaric and ruthless yet I cannot help but feel Ghost Dog’s intense feeling and thought for life.

2) Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

3) Daodejing, 15

4) http://facultyfiles.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/GhostDog.htm

5) The Anti-Christ, Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. H.L.Mencken, p.42)

BIGGER THAN LIFE, Nicholas Ray, 1956

Nicholas Ray was the son of a lumber magnate and grew up in rural Wisconsin. He enjoyed a middle-class upbringing, coming from a wealthy and ostentatiously, at least, strictly religious family. However Ray’s father was excommunicated from the local diocese for his many affairs and his heavy drinking. Despite performing well at school, Ray had an unconventional childhood: he began drinking at the age of ten, becoming involved in the seedy underworld of a seemingly idyllic village and even tried to seduce one of his father’s lovers at the age of thirteen. Ray was arrested at seventeen for allegedly trying to run over Doc Rhodes, the physician who had attended his dying father, and the person he blamed for administering medication which caused his death. Ray’s main biographer Bernard Eisenschitz claims that this event sowed the seeds for his later scepticism towards medicine and the medical establishment as whole, which is expressed in Bigger Than Life. Also, this chaotic family upbringing can be interpreted as being the reason behind Ray’s scathing attacks on middle-class American lifestyle and morality, something which is also present in Bigger Than Life.

Ray became interested in theatre at an early age, and moved to Chicago to study it there. Here he met the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the writer Thornton Wilder. The former invited him to his artistic and intellectual project the Taliesin Fellowship.  Named after the Welsh bard (Lloyd-Wright identified himself as Welsh-American, and aimed to forge this into a stable ethnic and cultural identity), its aim was to propose a new way of thinking about the world and a new approach to learning, one which (in the words he used in a self published circular) would ‘develop a well-correlated human being: since correlation between hand and the mind’s eye in action is most lacking in modern education.’

The fellowship was based on an isolated farm in the same Wisconsin countryside Ray knew well from his childhood. Spending nearly a year there, he was asked to leave thanks to his heavy drinking and drug taking. According to his ex partner Jean Evans, a ‘vindictive and moralistic’ Wright also took issue with Ray’s bisexuality and they severed contact when Ray left for Mexico in 1934. Thorton Wilder’s existentialism was something which attracted Ray, who himself kept books by writers like Dostyevski, Camus, and Satre, alongside works by modernist writers like Joyce and Thomas Mann, and the theatre of Brecht. However, the confines of university education also proved too much for the rebellious young director, and he lasted six months at the University of Chicago before moving to New York to work in radio and begin his professional involvement with drama.

In the ‘Big Apple’ Ray made the acquaintance of Turkish director Elia Kazan, who at this point was striking success with his own theatre company, and ‘Gadge, as he was known to friends, introduced Ray to the NY theatre scene. This period of his life, spent in the heart of Greenwich Village, was a raucous one. Through his work in broadcasting and his involvement with theatre groups inspired by the works of Marxist writers like Brecht and Shaw, Ray met figures like the folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie, the self styled founder of jazz Jelly Roll Morton, as well as the musician Duke Ellington with whom he worked on what was to be Ray’s only Broadway production.

The cosmopolitan New York, with theatres and nightclubs which were beginning to defy segregation norms and allow entry to non white people, saw the emergence of African-American voices in popular culture and also the establishment of a working-class identity in the mainstream. This captured Ray’s imagination, and led to a social consciousness and political awareness which was to determine his next career move: Ray became involved with government art projects ushered in by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ray was placed in charge of an unprecedented and never repeated move by the federal government: to support and fund theatre, painting, independent film, and even the plastic arts. This task led him to travel the country and experience firsthand the effects of the depression, and the anger felt by many towards the government’s failure to deal with the problems incurred by the economic slump seen in the wake of the 1929 crash.

This also led to a brief spell as a member of the communist party, something that would later threaten his career as a filmmaker during the ‘Red Scare’ of the fifties. Ray himself claims that it was only thanks to the efforts of the eccentric millionaire media mogul and celebrated aviator Howard Hughes, who was at that time owner of RKO Pictures, the production house that Ray was contracted to during the fifties, that he was able to avoid being called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities and risk being blacklisted as a Hollywood director. Even so, a brutal decade of producing nearly a film a year took its toll on Ray and he collapsed on set of the Charlton Heston vehicle 55 Days in Peking, and this ended his career as a commercial filmmaker.

Nicholas Ray’s life was full of paradoxes, like the America in which he lived. A brawler, heavy drinker and playboy, he seemed to epitomise on the one hand a certain ideal of American masculinity. However, on the other hand, his drug taking and bisexuality defied his becoming an all American caricature. And his socialist ideals, held even whilst he worked in an aggressively conservative and rampantly capitalist film industry led to these paradoxes being weaved and spun into the films he made. Ray was able, alongside filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, to adhere to the rules of the conservative motion picture production code, otherwise known as the Breen or Hayes Office, yet at the same time subtly subvert these same rules which sought to promote a Christian and conservative view of the nuclear family and of an American society strongly committed to consumerism. Bigger Than Life is a great example of how a director is able to, with clever use of the medium, tell two stories at once, and is able to celebrate and criticise his subject matter simultaneously.

Shortly before his death on 15th June 1978, Nicholas Ray was quoted, after a screening of his last film, a collaborative project with the German New Wave director Wim Wenders, as saying that he had ‘dreams of being able to tell all of Dickens in one film, all of Dostoevsky in one film. I wondered if it was possible for one film to contain all of the aspects of human personality: needs, desires, expressions, wants…’ Does Ray achieve this ambitious project in his in his films? Perhaps one can think about this as one watches Bigger Than Life. Like his contemporaries Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, and Howard Hawks, Ray, working in the Hollywood studio system’s Indian summer, was able to exercise an incredible amount of control over the content of his films. Also, given his background in theatre, Ray is clearly aware of the potential that cinematic techniques hold in producing meaning.

What is interesting about Nicholas Ray, and in particular this film is how it attracted the attention of a school of French critics writing for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Founded in 1951 by theatre critics André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, the journal wanted the relatively new medium of film to be recognized as an art, rather than simply filmed theatre. This became Cahiers du Cinema’s mission. Those who wrote for it tried to define new ways to discuss, criticize, and write about film, often analyzing films from big directors like Hitchcock, Capra, Welles, and Huston in terms of their technical qualities. Famously, this led to many of the Cahiers critics becoming filmmakers themselves, utilizing the concepts which they had created in their critical endeavours, and famously spearheading the 60s film movement the French New Wave: Francios Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol all wrote for Cahiers and are only three names amongst many who successfully made the transition from film criticism to film production. Indeed, after the war, the embargo on Anglo-American culture in Paris was lifted, often leading to whole evenings showing works by one director. This perhaps can serve as an explanation for the rise of theorists who successfully identified signature touches by certain director’s, like Welles’ deep focus, or Max Ophul’s distinctive use of lighting.

Two things are important to note here. One, that in trying to gain respect for the new medium of film, these early film theorists gave the director the bulk of the credit for the production of meaning in a motion picture. Two, the director was viewed, rightly or wrongly, as having complete control over the set, the casting, the cinematography and all the other factors within the text which help to produce meaning. As earlier mentioned, this is perhaps not an incorrect assumption, because the studio system was created and structured in such a manner that allowed the director to have a large amount of creative control over the content of the film. Whether we can make the simple comparison between a director and the writer of a novel or a philosophic treatise is not easy to answer, but I have followed the lead of these auteur theorists in assuming that the director is responsible of the lion’s share of meaning within a film, especially within a film produced in the controlled environment of a Hollywood studio.

Furthermore, the Hollywood melodramas of Nicholas Ray attracted the attention of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. His work on film is split into two volumes: one dealing with the movement image and one which deals with the time image. For our purposes, we are concerned with the movement image and with two specific types of movement image: ones which express thoughts and feelings, and ones which are mimetic, that is to say, ones which attempt to be objectively, or purely representational. It is easiest to understand Deleuze’s distinction as the difference between the close-up and the mid shot: the close-up is deployed by a film maker to stir up feeling in an audience, whilst the mid shot depicts action, distances the audience from the image and enables a viewer to take in action with more of God’s eye view. They are no longer immersed in the feelings of the characters they perceive, but are more concerned with the distances between bodies which enables actions like those seen in fight scenes or shootouts to be understood in spatial terms.

According to Deleuze, Ray’s development as a filmmaker can be understood as a progression from the representational to the expressive, from a form of cinema which attempts to be mimetic to one which is lyrical. This is why he claims that Ray’s films shift from the naturalist tradition seen in theatre, which is constantly viewed by an audience in a static mid shot, and utilised by directors like Sirk and Kazan who began treading the boards before becoming directors, towards lyrical abstraction which comes with Ray’s later work, of which Bigger Than Life is a prime example. Thus, Bigger Than Life can be viewed as a film which attempts to break from naturalist representationalism towards a more complex use of the visual image, one which is aware of itself as medium and furthermore, one which is able to, like the lyric, express extremely complex meaning.

Deleuze’s two volumes on the ontology of cinema are heavily influenced by auteur theory, and thus on the assumption that the director, in this case Nicholas Ray, is the locus for the production of meaning in a film. We can draw a conclusion from this: film is a controlled world, like that an author creates in a novel, and reading it as simply being mimetic is a perhaps a naïve mistake.  Rather, the film, like the written text of a fiction writer, addresses certain concerns that the director has, and even though the director may be constricted by a production environment, a screenplay which he hasn’t written, and even a hostile political landscape, he is, through the clever use of the medium, able to work these concerns into the work he is in charge of producing – even if those concerns are unpalatable to the audience it addresses. I think Bigger Than Life is an excellent example of this.

I’d like to say a few things about the iconography ­and one major issue which seems to have divided critics about the film, and couch this in terms of the existential philosophy that Nicholas Ray was aware of and which remained a major influence upon him throughout his career. A synopsis of the film will help us here: Ed Avery is a schoolteacher who moonlights in the evenings as an operator at a taxi firm in order to support the suburban lifestyle that his family enjoys. His life seems to be the realisation of the fifties American dream. One evening he collapses, is whisked to hospital and quickly diagnosed with a terminal condition whose only cure is a new drug which is still in its experimental stage, the painkiller cortisone. Avery and his family are warned that this drug has side-effects, one being a risk that it could lead to erratic behaviour. Faced with the choice between certain death and cortisone, Avery takes the drug and so begins his change.

The film’s script is based on an article by New Yorker staff writer Berton Roueche, warning about the dangers of cortisone. His story was adapted into a script, and Bigger Than Life was released almost a year to the day after the story’s publication.

So to begin with, if we look at Fig. 1 from the film, we see a broken mirror, a favourite icon deployed by directors of this era to depict derangement, a fractured personality, and mental instability.


Another famous example of this can be seen in Orson Welles’s The Lady of Shanghai (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

In Bigger Than Life, this is given an extra twist when we consider that it is the mirror to the medicine cabinet which is shattered by his wife, exasperated by the demands of her husband. The cortisone is affecting him, bending his personality and he has changed from the aloof, yet cheerful and seemingly content figure we see at the beginning of the film, to something much more sinister. Indeed, Bigger Than Life was released in France, Italy, and Spain as Behind the Mirror, which is in direct reference to this scene. The implication here is that it is the cortisone which is behind the mirror, and it is this which is shifting his personality, a la Jekyll and Hyde.

The aloof figure who is presented at the beginning of the film, before he has taken the cortisone, as being dissatisfied with suburban life, socializing with bourgeois middle-class colleagues and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, to quote the film, is unleashed as a menacing tyrant who terrorizes his family and local community with paranoid hectoring and eventually a blood-lust which sees him come close to committing filicide. The question which divides critics then is this: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, or has it unleashed some part of his personality, a drive perhaps, which has lain dormant, suppressed by the social glare and the pressures of the American culture in which he lives?

Discussion of another pair of images can also help answer this question.

Fig. 3

In Fig. 3 we see Ed with his son Richie and his wife Lou in a gloomy scene in Ed’s study. After missing lunch as a punishment for not catching an American football pass, Avery’s son Richie struggles to complete a maths problem. His father tells him not to get flummoxed, and implores him to ‘use his reason’ to work out the calculations. He will not allow the child to eat his evening meal until he has completed the work set for him. We see Barbara Rush, as Ed’s already beleaguered wife Lou, pleading with her husband to let the child go. What is interesting here is Ray’s use of the low key light which creates the long and menacing shadow behind the actor playing Ed, James Mason. It casts a long shadow on the door behind. Ed’s shadow is big and looming, dwarfing that of his wife. We see the child, Richie, right at the front of the screen, making him seem disproportionately small.

Indeed, size is often used during the film, both in terms of image and text: note the scenes in the garden in which the father and son play American football, and in particular the shot in which Avery, in what the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch describes as being a ‘disgusting’ shot, towers over the school, taking up the whole of the screen. In the lead up to this shot, Avery tells Lou, who drives him to work on his first day back at school after being hospitalised, that the first sight of her and his son after he regained consciousness at the hospital made him feel ‘ten feet tall’. Apart from the obvious name drop of the Berton Roueche article that the script to this film is based on, this scene is significant because it seems to suggest that the sense of superiority which comes to manifest itself later on in the film is already a deeply rooted feature of Avery’s personality. It also seems to come with his status as the male patriarch in the nuclear family. In the poster in Fig. 4 below we see the corny tagline by the face of the medical practitioner saying “I prescribed it…He misused it!’ This could easily lend anyone to think that they were watching a moral panic tale like Reefer Madness (see Fig 5), however Ray’s clever insertion of this shot before Avery starts to overdose on the cortisone poses the question: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, and if not, why does he become what he does become as the film progresses?

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

This has split critics, and which way one goes will affect how one sees the film: if one thinks that Bigger Than Life presents us with a melodrama, one which tries to warn us that even the most honourable pillars of society can be warped into hideous monsters thanks to taking drugs, then so be it, I will not disagree with this, on one level at least. On the other hand, the change in Avery’s behaviour can be seen as something which is always there, the sickness he feels is a malaise brought on by a culture which celebrates mediocrity and is paranoid of the other, one which does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the sort of consumerism which characterized this decade. The cortisone has simply served to amplify this frustration and unfettered it from his emotional ties to his family and to the economic ties to his profession.

Finally if we look at Fig. 6 we see Ed Avery in a state of delirious happiness after cheating death thanks to the ‘miracle drug’ cortisone. He takes the family shopping, and splashes out more than the family can afford, spoiling his wife and child in a frenzy of consumer spending.

Fig. 6

We have previously seen Ed worry about the family’s finances to such an extent that he has taken up a second job moonlighting as a telephone operator, yet here we see him spending money on expensive clothes by Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. This is after he has forced Lou to parade up and down in dresses he has selected. Visibly uneasy with this false display of wealth and expressing reservations about the purchases, Ed exercises economic power over her by asking her to ‘remember who is paying for all this’, and we see a blatant exertion of his economic and social power as the patriarchal figure in the family. However, in this instance, and in much the same way as in the scene described in Fig. 3 above, we see Lou challenge Ed. I think that this is interesting because it shows that the previous power which Ed inevitably had as the patriarch in the family is only challenged when it is exerted to despotic measure. In the daily life of the family this power goes unchecked and unchallenged, allowing Ed to be the dominant economic force out of him and Lou. It also allows him to make the major decisions for the family. It is only with the taking of cortisone, and the emergence of a socially unacceptable form of power that this is flagged up.  Therefore the drug acts as a catalyst which warps his behaviour beyond socially accepted norms of power.

The results of the drug upon Avery’s behaviour are interesting to think about, and perhaps can serve to show us, as viewers, how we are trapped, or to be more optimistic, kept sane, kept from performing monstrous actions on the ones we love, our contemporaries and our colleagues, by our ties to the community in which we live, be they emotional and/or economic ones. Perhaps  the jargon of authenticity that blights some existential works can lead to a belief in a chimerical realm of genuine existence which in fact merely brings suffering and wreaks a path of destruction, a rejection of all that fails to shape to a, by necessity, nebulous and ill-defined realm of the authentic, genuine, or true way to live.

However, here’s the sting in the tail: is the drugged Avery completely wrong? Are his criticisms of the church, the education system, and his society the ravings of a cortisone addled mind? I’m not sure. While his character becomes an arrogant tyrant, he is at the same time charming and even charismatic, an anti-hero whose ridicule of the church is comparable to Marlowe’s Faustus. He is an ambitious intellect, dissatisfied with those around him who seem to be content bumbling through life with no aim other than to work and gain pleasure in their spare time. Should we vilify him for taking a drug which enables him to think he is a king amongst men, and gives him escape from his dreary existence as an underpaid schoolteacher? This is one of the many questions that this film poses, questions which have no simple answer and questions which make Bigger Than Life a rewarding film, a film which stands up to repeat viewing more so than much of the cinema produced in the sunset of the Golden era.

Kevin Jones


Andrew, Geoff. The Films of Nicholas Ray, Charles Letts and Co, London: 1991

Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, The Athlone Press, London: 1997

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber and Faber, New York: 1992

THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others tells the story of an agent for the East German secret police – the Stasi – Cpt Gerd Wiesler, who is tasked with spying on a playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. Over the course of the film, Wiesler comes to question his beliefs about the nature of the East German state and his role in upholding it. This expresses itself in Wiesler’s surveillance activities, which move from a detached, cold professionalism – early in the mission Wiesler notes that Dreyman and Sieland ‘unwrap presents, and then presumably have intercourse’ – to an ever-closer involvement in the lives of his subjects.

Much of the power of the film comes from its unremittingly unsentimental look at the brutality and repression of the East German state. The DDR – the Deutsche Demokratische Republik –was founded after the Second World War and, owing to its position on the frontiers of Soviet Europe and as half of a divided country, soon developed a particularly comprehensive surveillance apparatus. By the mid-1980s, in a country of 17 million people, there were over 175,000 Stasi informants – a rate of penetration almost unmatched in modern history. The Stasi were the ‘shield and sword of the Party’ and took that role very seriously. The bugging and surveillance tactics shown in the film seem extreme but were a real risk if you were a DDR citizen deemed to be subversive. Of course, there were other tactics as well – when the 1960s arrived and some East Germans experimented with hippydom, they were rounded up and their hair shaved off. In fact – as an aside, and as something which is alluded to in the film – cultural surveillance was a big part of the Stasi’s role. Not only because artists are notoriously difficult to control and are very often politically dangerous to authoritarian regimes, but because the DDR was very open to Western cultural influences. Virtually the entire country could receive West German radio and TV signals, and there were import shops where one could buy Western music, even if books and the press remained tightly censored. But if one were unwise enough to listen to Western radio or watch Western TV too loudly or openly, and if one showed an unusual interest in Western culture, then you could expect a visit from the Stasi… or at least to attract their attention.

One distinguishing feature about the film is its interesting critique of the Marxist-Leninist system of the DDR. This critique is rooted in the theme of moral goodness, which runs through the plot of the film. Each character represents not only a different way of coping with the repressive political system but a different answer to the question of what it means to be good. Wiesler, for example, begins the film as a true believer; an idealist who really thinks that the people need to be helped along the road to socialism, and that it is the job of the Party and its agents to get them there. Wiesler’s ‘good’ therefore involves the maximisation of future ends, even if it requires one to get dirty hands in the meantime. But these ends are frustrated: the utopia Wiesler hopes to bring about will never be reached by the DDR. In order to understand why this is, we need to adopt a broadly virtue ethical approach. The good person to a virtue ethicist is one who possesses and expresses the right set of virtues – such as kindness, honesty, courage etc – rather than one who acts according to a certain prescribed manner or maxim. In the Aristotelian milieu in which we find the earliest full-fledged account of virtue ethics, the development of virtue is a necessary condition for the attainment of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. A society in which the development of virtue is made difficult or impossible, therefore, is one in which it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia.

The film therefore charges the DDR with frustrating human potential by punishing virtue and rewarding vice. This is most clear in the film’s treatment of honesty and integrity. The higher-ups in the system are portrayed as uniquely dishonest hypocrites. Wiesler’s superior, Anton Grubitz, is a flat-out careerist, interested only in his own personal advancement within the system; the Minister Hempf, for whom the investigation into Dreyman is taking place, is a decadent bureaucrat who pursues Dreyman in order to get a love rival out of the way. Grubitz sees nothing wrong with this corruption, reminding Wiesler on many occasions to ‘think of their careers!’ Success in the DDR seems to require this sort of careerism, hypocrisy or cynicism: Wiesler really means it when he tells a prisoner that the ‘humanistic system’ of East Germany is incapable of arresting people arbitrarily, and that’s why he’s only a captain; Hempf, on the other hand, quotes Stalin mischievously and is under no illusions about what the system is capable of and he is the Minister for Culture.

So much for honesty and integrity, then. This is confirmed towards the start of the film. Dreyman complains to Hempf about his friend’s blacklisting. Hempf’s response is a masterpiece in Eastern Bloc doublethink – paraphrasing, it is ‘blacklisting? We don’t do that here. You should choose your words more carefully.’ The reality of the situation is covered up by a creative use of language and a not-exactly-veiled threat. No wonder that in such a situation it is the liars and hypocrites who rise to the top. But the film does not only criticise the DDR because it had bad leadership. Its effects on public morality are also questioned.

This is epitomised by the case of Georg Dreyman, the writer who is spied upon throughout the film. Dreyman is an intelligent and well-meaning man with liberal sympathies, although he is also (like Wiesler) a believer in the Communist ideal. Unlike most of his fellow writers, however, Dreyman remains loyal to the regime: though he takes Western newspapers and lives a broadly middle-class lifestyle, his work is politically acceptable and he keeps a low profile in his personal life. Dreyman, in short, has traded the courage of his convictions for the comfort of remaining unconvicted. But this personal dishonesty comes at a price: Dreyman is torn between his desire for an easy life and the urge to tell the truth about the regime. In the end, Dreyman chooses honesty, after a series of events which shatter any residual faith in the system and confirm to him its brutality.  But this is an agonising decision for anyone to take, and others are not so courageous. Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria, shows this other side of the coin. Chased after by libidinous Minister Hempf, she surrenders to his advances in order to retain her career as an actress and, disgusted by this prostitution of herself, she becomes addicted to prescription painkillers which she obtains illegally but with the tacit blessing of Hempf. Christa-Maria reasons that, if this is the price to pay, then she has to pay it: when Dreyman confronts her about the affair, her response is simply to say that, well, Dreyman’s in bed with the regime as well, and there’s no real difference between his intellectual prostitution and her actual prostitution. And there is something to this claim – both of them, after all, end up fucked and feeling dirty.

So this is a society in which virtues like honesty, personal integrity, and courage are valued less than keeping your head down and doing what you’re told. Even Wiesler, the idealist, recognises this from the get-go, telling a prisoner that he may as well comply: ‘senseless heroics’ will only land him in prison and the Stasi will get what they need anyway. And Dreyman and Christa-Maria show us that such a society does not lead to human flourishing. In fact, the East German state is a kind of anti-eudaimonia. When one attempts to be good, you’re punished.

I haven’t touched yet on the main development in the plot, which is Wiesler’s attempt to redeem himself. His experience spying on the rich lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria, and his learning that his mission came about not from genuine national security concerns but for the sexual advancement of a powerful man, humanise him and make him realise that the regime does not fulfil the ideals he thought it did. Wiesler comes to realise that true human flourishing – the sort which he hopes Marxism-Leninism is leading towards – cannot be achieved in the repressive society which he has attempted to uphold. It requires love, care, and above all openness and honesty, all of which can be brought about by free artistic expression. This expresses itself – because Wiesler is no natural dissident – in his increasing attempts to protect those he is meant to be intruding upon. But this requires him to step outside and beyond the system. Virtue and repression are incompatible. And this is the main message of the film. If you like, it is the liberal critique of tyranny: you cannot flourish when you are downtrodden. A state which is itself paranoid and hypocritical produces paranoid and hypocritical citizens. And this is wrong.

Jack Price



BLADE RUNNER, Ridley Scott, 1982

Blade Runner and the Problem of Consciousness

This cult-classic film centres on the main character Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who makes his living as a bounty-hunter in a futuristic Los Angeles. His job is to hunt down and kill (retire) ‘replicants’. Replicants are essentially robots designed to look and act like humans. They are purpose built to work in dangerous conditions on off-world colonies. The film picks up with Deckard being given the assignment to pursue four replicants that have escaped their colony and have returned to earth, for reasons that are initially unknown.

The character Rick Deckard is loosely based on Raymond Chandler’s wisecracking, hard-drinking character Philip Marlowe. Philip Marlowe is your archetypal hard-boiled crime fiction novel character. He’s the guy in a darkly lit office that we gaze down at through a spinning fan. He stares through his blinds with a whisky in one hand and cigar in the other. Now this is pretty much Deckard, the character played by Harrison Ford. This is what led the producers of Blade Runner to think that it would be a huge success. Harrison Ford, fresh from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, essentially acting like a futuristic Humphrey Bogart. But it didn’t really pan out that way. The characters are not as black and white as their film noir counterparts. They are complex and unpredictable, almost unsatisfying. The villains are not necessarily bad; they have motives which we are naturally sympathetic towards. Deckard doesn’t really come across as good per se. The reason he tracks down the replicants is because he has no choice. Combine all this with an ending that asks more questions than it answers and your left with what was inevitably a financial flop. The producers did try to change this.

At the time of production Warner Bros had a legal right to cut whatever they chose out of a film if it ran over two hours. The original rough cut of Blade Runner had a running time of four hours. It was an unrefined piece of Ridley Scott’s vision of the script but it was a mess. It was a mess of a masterpiece. (1) Now unsurprisingly the powers that be took over in an attempt to simplify the film. They took out a vital dream sequence involving a unicorn and added a clunky voice-over to explain the processes going on in Deckard’s head. The ending was changed to a shot of Deckard and Rachael driving off into the horizon – which is actually stock footage from Stanley Kubrick’s film, The Shining. All the subtleties were taken out. Since its release in 1982 pressure for Ridley Scott’s original vision of Blade Runner to be made available grew until in 2006 The Director’s Cut was released. This is the version we will be focusing on in this paper.

It is possible to talk about anything and then relate it to some aspect of Blade Runner but there are undoubtedly some overwhelming themes that jump straight out. One of which is the issue of what makes us human. This is a question which has no definitive answer, however progress can be made if we address a more specific issue; the problem of consciousness.

Consciousness, as defined by David Chalmers is the “The subjective quality of experience” (Chalmers: 1996). It is not the experience itself, but the feeling of having that experience. To elaborate, If we were, to say, have an experience of pain it seems possible, at least theoretically, that we could remove all the physical goings on in the brain (the neurons firing, the behavioural responses etc.) and still be left with an unaccounted for remainder; the feeling of pain. To borrow a term from Nagel, the what it’s like-ness of the experience. It is this phenomenon, this first person subjective experience that defines who we are yet it remains a complete mystery. This is what makes it such an engaging problem. Where does it come from?

For Chalmers this is a question that cannot be answered by science in its current form. This is essentially because science is a third person discipline; it looks from the outside in. It can solve the so called ‘easy’ problems of consciousness. It can look at the brain and explain how we talk, how we walk and how we are sometimes awake and then asleep, and so on. But it can not explain where our first person subjective experience comes from. How can we recover consciousness, a first person phenomenon, from the third person perspective of science? Chalmers infamously labeled this, the hard problem. To bridge the gap between the 3rd person and the first, physics at its most fundamental level needs to adapt. Chalmers mysteriously says “physics need something extra” (Chalmers: 1996). It’s an odd idea but not unfounded. Total overhauls of fundamental theories of nature have happened. For example, to explain electro magnetic phenomena Maxwell had to go beyond the fundamental entities that were all ready accounted for – space, mass and time – and introduce the new fundamental property of electro charge and the new fundamental principles of electro magnetism. Maxwell didn’t so much add a new piece to the game but added a new part of the board itself. In this sense science is a language which we use to explain the universe. What Chalmers is saying is that we need to expand science’s vocabulary so that we can account for consciousness. Until this happens science is speechless when addressing the hard problem.

It is important to note that this is not to say that science could not build a conscious being. Rather if such a being were to be built it would not naturally follow that we would then understand consciousness. As Chalmers claims, correlation is not explanation. The problem lies in identifying consciousness. And this brings us right back to Blade Runner. Are the replicants conscious? It is clear that the replicants are designed to be physically identical to humans. They are certainly intelligent, in many ways they are more intelligent than the humans we encounter in the film. But does this make them conscious?

They seem to have subjective experience. There is one scene in which the replicant Leon, played by Brion James, dips his hand into some extremely cold and scientific looking goo. He leaves it submerged in the sub zero liquid and then he slowly removes it. You could say that this is an act of intimidation – aimed at the human who is in the room with him. But if you look closely at this replicant’s expression as he stares at his goo covered arm, there seems to be a gaze there; a subjective spotlight. He seems to genuinely experience the feeling of what it is like to feel cold. (2) With this in mind we could claim that the replicant, at least at this stage, is conscious. But we cannot know – this is precisely the hard problem. How can we look at a face and say with a hundred percent certainty that the being behind it is conscious. If we define consciousness as Chalmers does, then we cannot.

Yet it is Deckard’s job to do this. He looks at faces and infers what is going on in the subjects’ minds. He does this with the aid of a device called the Voight-Kampf machine, which we are introduced to early on in the film. It is a device which closely monitors the reactions of the subject as they are asked seemingly irrelevant and surreal questions. It is defined in the original script as:

A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body. The bellows were designed for the latter function and give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect. The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements. (Bukatman: 1997)

What is key here is that what distinguishes a replicant from a human is an emotional capacity. So it is this something else, this emotional capacity that cannot, or perhaps was chosen not to, be built into a replicant. This is an important distinction. If science, in the Blade Runner universe has the ability to create a fully conscious replicant then why have they not done so? We could guess that such a restriction would be maintained in order to keep the distinction between the replicant and the humans as clear cut as possible. However there is a lot of evidence in this film to suggest that this is not the case. At the start of the film we are introduced to a replicant called Rachael who has been made with false memories installed in her brain, so as to add substance to her sense of identity. The fascinating thing about Rachael is that she thinks she is human. I’ll cover this idea later but for now it is important to note that Rachael’s existence suggests that there is no curbing of scientific advancements in place. Rather it seems that man is slowly building increasingly advanced replicants until a tipping point is reached, a boundary is broken and a conscious being is created. It is my view that Blade Runner is set during this tipping point of humanity – a stage at which man has created a neural correlate of consciousness but is unable to explain it. The Voight-Kampf machine, during the timeline of the film, becomes outdated. In the beginning we are told that it takes twenty questions to identify a replicant and then later on we find it takes over a hundred to identify a newer model. How many questions would it take to recognize the next model of replicant? It is therefore not unfounded to claim that two generations on from the replicant Rachael that there would be no way of telling who is human and who is not. In such a circumstance the hard problem would still remain because as we have seen correlation does not mean explanation.

So we are left perhaps in a place where we no longer have to define what makes a replicant and instead have to focus on what makes a human. This is a question addressed throughout the film by Deckard. At the start the distinctions are clear; we are told, as Deckard is, that there are them and us. There are four of them and they all need to be killed because they are not us. The Voight-Kampf machine weans out the non-human by identifying a sub-human amount of emotion within the subject. There are us, them, and a machine to tell the difference. Yet the strict distinction between these identities is brought into question by the creeping doubt that Deckard is perhaps not human. We are not aware of this idea until Deckard meets Rachael; a replicant who thinks she is human. During this encounter the head of the Tyrell Corporation mockingly asks Deckard if he has used the Voight-Kampf machine on himself. From this point on we become increasingly aware of just how little we know about Deckard. We have no idea of where he comes from or what led him to become a Blade Runner. All we have to go on are his actions in the film and as we have seen this is not very much at all. Our supposed stable sample of what makes a human is no longer grounded. The attempt to decide whether Deckard is a human or not on the basis of his actions becomes an impossible task because it is clear that our criteria for what makes us human is no longer suitable. What we gather to be human acts are done by replicants and what we regard as non-human acts are carried out by humans.

For the philosopher Daniel Dennett this problem is a lot more clear cut then I have so far made out. We have pretty much spot on criteria for what makes a human because we are defined by our biology. We are the neurological activity of our brain, nothing more. The problem of consciousness for Dennett is a result of mistaking a “failure of imagination with an insight into necessity” (Dennett: 1995). It is the classic God of the gaps theory that Dawkins puts forward – anything which science has not yet explained is seen as proof of the existence of God, or in this case consciousness. And this, for Dennett, springs from a natural tendency to mystify that which we don’t understand. Such a tendency is apparent in our experience of watching a magic trick. We want there to be something more but in reality there is just a serious of movements some of which are concealed from view. This may not be a very satisfying answer but it is for better or worse, the answer. The same applies for consciousness – we may claim that there is this unique what it’s like-ness, the subjective experience which is only available to you, but in reality once science has accounted for a brain state we have no need for anything else.

Dennett makes this explicit in his paper, What Robo Mary Knows, in which he picks apart a thought experiment made famous by Jackson. To briefly summarize: a woman called Mary is kept in a black and white room and taught everything there is to know about the science of colour without actually experiencing it. Mary is then released into the world full of colour. Our intuition tells us that when Mary looks at, for example, her first red tomato that she has learned something new, something which she could not have learnt without experiencing the phenomenon first hand. Dennett’s claim is that in this case, as in most cases, our intuition is just plain wrong. Mary knows everything she needs to know in order to fully understand what it is like to see the red tomato. She knows what red is going to look like before she has seen it. So for Dennett there is no privileging of the first person subjective aspect, it cannot grasp things which are ungraspable by science.

This leaves us with a concept of consciousness stripped down to its bear minimum. In our brain at one time we have multiple drafts of sensory experience whirling round. There is no Cartesian theatre which this sensory data arrives at to be viewed; rather there are numerous unconscious parts of the brain which process these electro impulses. Some of the events that happen in the brain become “famous”. Fame, for Dennett, is a phenomenon in which various events in the nervous system compete for influence. When an event becomes influential they do not acquire any weight or particular significance, they simply hold more sway. As Dennett states, “the stream of consciousness is the succession of differentially influential or famous contents in a particular brain” (Dennett: 1991). In this way there is no necessary unity to the self. We are, by our nature, fragmented. We see the world through our stream of consciousness. Now this stream of consciousness is not innate but rather it is a product of our culture. We have to be taught how to see the world in this way. Human consciousness does not depend on a particular organ within the brain, a so called conscious organ. Rather our brains are adjusted by social interactions as children to the point where a system, made up of micro habits of thoughts, is formed. These ways of reflecting on things, which build upon the original framework of the brain, are likened to software which has been installed on the hardware that is our brain. This software, which Dennett labels the Joycean machine, takes the capabilities of our brain into a specific direction from out of which we view the world as a stream of consciousness.

So to bring us back to Blade Runner. For Dennett it is possible to make a sophisticated replicant and know with a hundred percent certainty that it sees the world in the same way that a human does. We could even know that it feels an experience the same way as we do, providing their sensory organs were wired up the same way as ours. This is possible because unlike Chalmers, Dennett claims to know what makes a human and so it naturally follows that we know how to make one. However in order to make a replicant which is human in every way, a cultural element would have to be introduced. The stream of consciousness cannot be wired into the brain – it must be learned. So while the replicants may have the same hardware as humans they do not have the same software. They were not eased into the world by other humans and taught gradually over an organic life span how to deal with it. They arrived fully made; they really were thrown into existence fully formed yet deficient. They see the world with the same sensory organs as a human would but interpret what they see in a different way. Perhaps with their increasing interactions with humans their way of experiencing the world alters and the Joycean machine starts to take hold of their outlook. But their four year life span is not enough to grant a full transition. The replicants have all the capabilities for being human but they don’t have the time. Perhaps with Rachel and the introduction of memories within the Replicant, the learning process is given a head start. These human memories would be necessarily structured by the human stream of consciousness. Perhaps a memory in a replicant is the seed that is needed to create human consciousness. So it is possible to make the claim, from a Dennettian point of view, that Rachael is human.

My conclusion to this introduction is very brief because there is so much going on within this subject that any concrete conclusions I make will inevitably fall short. What I will say is that I think knowledge of the philosophy of consciousness does enrich the experience of watching this film.  With Chalmers, we could claim that Blade Runner is the story of the hard problem. How any attempt to understand the mind of other people, be they human or replicant, will eventually run itself into the ground. While with Dennett’s we could claim that Blade Runner is the story of how human-identical replicants can be made providing they are taught how to see the world the way we do; through a stream of consciousness. The four renegade replicants seem to therefore fall short of this goal because of the ‘throwness’ of their existence. Although the replicant Batty in the final scene does put forward a strong case to suggest that he is conscious in the way that we are. (3) Rachael, and perhaps Deckard (depending on whether he is a replicant or not) seem to match the bill as conscious beings. The first two conscious beings made by man. If this is how we choose to see the film then extra weight is added to the relationship that forms between the two; a relationship which has all the hallmarks of love.

These are obviously just two interpretations which I have possibly, for some of you, crow-barred into this film. But I think there is some substance in the idea that the problem of consciousness is an integral part of the story of Blade Runner.

Tim Pullham

(1) It was a “messterpiece”.

(2) Or perhaps an awareness of the lack of such a feeling.

(3)The last line in particular suggests this


Chalmers D, (1996) The Conscious Mind. London, Oxford University Press

Bukatman S, (1997) Blade Runner. Michigan, British Film Institute

Dennett D C, (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London, Penguin Books

Dennet D C, (1991) Consciousness Explained. London, Little, Brown & Company.



of Forgotten Dreams: Hegelian Aesthetics and the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave Paintings

The following is a brief Hegelian analysis of the paintings which were etched onto the walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave by our ancestors some thirty thousand years ago. Offering a philosophical analysis of the cave paintings is actually an easy option, as some of the work has already been done. Firstly, because Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is already somewhat philosophical in tone: Herzog, like all the great German artists before him – Hӧlderlin, Goethe, etc. – has an awareness of the magnificent philosophy produced in his country, and this comes across in the film. The second reason that a philosophical analysis of the Chauvet cave is relatively easy is that Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, has already performed such a reading in Logics of Worlds. It seems to me no coincidence that thinkers would be attracted to these paintings, and I wanted to present the film in this way to highlight the cultural and historical significance which the cave paintings hold for the Western world.

The philosophy which lends the greatest insight into the cave paintings, and to Herzog’s film about the paintings, is Hegel’s. Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics contain a profound analysis of what he calls ‘symbolic art’, which is exemplified by stone carvings, ivory totems, or indeed cave paintings. For Hegel, the development of symbolic art represents the historical moment when humanity emerges from the animal kingdom, and becomes truly human. At this point in our development humankind is struggling to come to terms with our place in the cosmos, and our situation in the natural world, and this first, difficult attempt at understanding the human situation is expressed in symbolic art. Humanity sees itself in the chain of natural beings, and attempts to conceive of itself and other natural beings through artworks. A quote from the Hegel commentator Michael Inwood might clarify this notion: ‘Suppose, for example, that [an early human] carves a piece of wood into the shape of a bison. […] He thus distances himself from sensuous desires and becomes capable of disinterested contemplation of the world […] As an artist, he is not concerned with this or that particular bison, but with the bison in general or the bison as a “universal”’. (1) This is the Idea of what the bison is. For a striking example from Chauvet, consider the painting which is referred to as the ‘panel of horses’. (See Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 – The Panel of Horses, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Ardèche, France

The humans who daubed these wonderful images onto the cave’s walls were not simply doing what we moderns think of as ‘art’ – for Hegel, they were articulating their most basic understanding of the world in pictorial form. So according to Hegel, the first act of what we recognise as humankind is to look at the world around and attempt to materially conceptualise the things it sees in carvings and paintings. In the film, Herzog raises the issue when he straightforwardly asks: ‘[w]ere the paintings in the Chauvet cave somehow the beginning of the modern human soul?’ (2) If the Chauvet cave had been discovered two centuries earlier, Hegel surely would have answered: ‘yes’. As symbolic art is the very first stage of human development, and the Chauvet cave is the oldest and most magnificent known example of symbolic art, we can be fairly certain that somewhere in Southern France, in a cool, dark cave there lies the birth of Western man. It is for this reason that the cave – or at least Herzog’s film about it, which is the closest any of us will get – must be experienced.

So now we see why these paintings are so important in the history of our species. However, there is a problem with Hegel’s account. Whilst his historical analysis helps us to understand the anthropological significance of the Chauvet atalier, it does little to account for the cave’s artistic and aesthetic importance. The reason for this is that Hegel sees human development as a progression of three distinct stages, beginning with art, but then advancing to two more complex degrees of humanity. Humans are defined by our ability to think, and the first way in which humanity articulates ideas, and forms concepts, is with art – as stated, Hegel sees art as quite literally thinking with our hands. In this initial stage of human development, we have no notion of the next two stages of development which are the religious and then the philosophical. These subsequent stages are more complex, better at articulating Ideas about the universe, and on Hegel’s account, that makes philosophy in particular more essentially human than art. He says: ‘in so far as symbolic art just struggles towards true meanings and their corresponding mode of configuration, it is in general a battle between the content which still resists true art and the form which is not homogenous with that content either’. (3) The meaning of this claim is that humanity strives towards thinking, the mental concept, the Idea – and art as a discipline is not cut out for conceptualising the Ideas that humans have. Rather, we have to wait until religion, and finally philosophy, before we can fully articulate Ideas, and fully come to understand our existence. For Hegel, the Chauvet cave is just one step towards full philosophical self-consciousness and self-awareness.

To me this is a magnificent but ultimately inadequate analysis of the Cave, and art as a whole. It seems as though Hegel was correct in the notion of the historical development of humanity from symbolic artists to philosophers, but he was wrong to suggest this was necessarily a linear progression. There seems to me no reason to suggest that philosophy does the same thing as art, and does it better. Art is surely its own entity. Perhaps in the great works of art like the Chauvet cave, which is surely the first masterpiece in European history, humanity is asking those fundamental questions about ourselves and our existence – but this is not to say that it does so in a manner inferior to philosophy. Rather, I would claim it simply does it in a different manner. So now I wish to turn to Badiou, who affords art its rightful place as an autonomous discipline which produces its own truths. As such, it is he who counters Hegel’s theory to afford the cave its true historical and artistic significance.

Like Hegel, Badiou sees in art the ability to articulate concepts. And like Hegel, Badiou sees in art the realisation of the universal Ideas which humanity brings into material existence through its practices. However, there is a crucial departure from Hegel – of the Chauvet cave Badiou says: ‘I contend that it is indeed an invariant theme, an eternal truth, which is at work […]. Far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible, it is the sensible creation of the Idea. “This is a horse” – that is what the Master of the Chauvet cave says. And since he says it at a remove from any visibility of a living horse, he avers the horse as what exists eternally for thought’. (4) This is a remarkably similar line to Hegel, but with one crucial alteration – he says: ‘far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible [which is Hegel’s argument], it is the sensible creation of the Idea’. Badiou therefore sees the symbolic artist not as just the first step in our march towards philosophical enlightenment, but as the creator of the concepts which reappear throughout history in manifold forms and guises. They, first of all humanity, create the Ideas which we continue to think today. In painting a horse, the Master of the Chauvet cave was not just faintly grasping the Idea which would fully emerge when we became philosophical. Rather, Badiou claims: ‘[w]e can thus confidently say that what the Master of the Chauvet cave initiated, thirty thousand years ago, […] is indeed Horseness’. When we think of a horse today, here and now, thirty millennia separate us from the person who painted the panel of horses – fifteen times the number of years separating us from the birth of Jesus; and ten times the number separating us from the battle of Troy. And yet, it is the very same concept of horseness, as if it were painted yesterday. The artwork indeed set down an ‘eternal truth’.

This would give the impression that the Chauvet cave creates for us only the concept of horseness. However, in the cave there are also paintings of bison, reindeer, and rhinos, as well as extinct species such as the woolly mammoth and the sabre-tooth tiger, and even a bison with the legs and genitals of a female human. Thus complex ideas were born in the cave. Consider the painting of the two rhinos – is the top of the two figures painted with echo lines as if to try and visualise the movement and charge of the rhino? Does this painting set to work the concept of animation? (See Fig. 2)

Rhino1 Fig. 2 – Two Rhinoceros, ibid

Also look again at the panel of horses – does the brilliantly proportioned row of heads give a hint, just a hint, of pictorial perspective? Of course, it could just be that this is Romantic speculation, and that no such things as perspective or animation are actually present in the paintings. But I think not. In a remarkable sequence from Herzog’s film, an archaeologist plays some tunes on a replica of a flute which comes from the same time period as the Chauvet paintings. On the archaeologist’s replica of this thirty-thousand year old carved piece of bone, the man plays for us the Star Spangled Banner which is composed in the pentatonic scale – the most ‘natural’ and widely used scale in modern music. To me, the fact that a piece of music written in the Eighteenth Century could be played on one of the very first instruments we know of, confirms the eternal truth of the Ideas encapsulated in the Chauvet cave. Our complex concepts, like our musical scales, were born in this era.

Thus it seems to me that Badiou’s notion of the eternal truths created in works of art is perfectly exemplified by the Chauvet cave. Hegel was right in claiming that humanity does its first thinking with sensuous materials, but he was wrong to think that these thoughts and the artistic method which expresses them are surpassed in time by more ‘complex’ activities. So with Badiou’s modification of Hegel’s theory we can come to understand the Chauvet cave not just as an anthropological artefact, but also a site of eternal artistic truths. As Badiou shows us, these Ideas continue down through history from our Ice-Age ancestors daubing with their hands onto the walls of a cave in the south of France, to ourselves considering what it is to be human.

Lewis Coyne

(1) ‘Suppose, for example, that [an early human] carves a piece of wood into the shape of a bison. […] He thus distances himself from sensuous desires and becomes capable of disinterested contemplation of the world […] As an artist, he is not concerned with this or that particular bison, but with the bison in general or the bison as a “universal”’. (Michael Inwood, Introduction to Hegel’s Aesthetics).

(2) ‘Were the paintings in the Chauvet cave somehow the beginning of the modern human soul?’ (Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams).

(3) ‘[I]n so far as symbolic art just struggles towards true meanings and their corresponding mode of configuration, it is in general a battle between the content which still resists true art and the form which is not homogenous with that content either’. (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics).

(4) ‘I contend that it is indeed an invariant theme, an eternal truth, which is at work […]. Far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible, it is the sensible creation of the Idea. “This is a horse” – that is what the Master of the Chauvet cave says. And since he says it at a remove from any visibility of a living horse, he avers the horse as what exists eternally for thought’. (Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds).

‘We can thus confidently say that what the Master of the Chauvet cave initiated, thirty thousand years ago, […] is indeed Horseness’. (Ibid).